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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 11, 2005

Hip-hop history

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i-born author Jeff Chang has been writing about the hip-hop world for 15 years and is out with a new book, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop."

Photo by B+/Brian Cross | Advertiser photo illustration


"Can't Stop, Won't Stop" book release party with Jeff Chang and appearance by Chief XCel of Blackalicious

  • 8 p.m. tomorrow
  • Next Door, 43 N. Hotel St.
  • $10
Despite all the praise Hawai'i-born author Jeff Chang has earned for his breakthrough book, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation," there exists a lingering uneasiness that mainstream America still doesn't quite get it.

The book has been hailed as arguably the best book ever written about hip-hop culture and the forces that shaped its development. So how come so many of those reviews were written by music critics?

"I'm glad that the book has been recognized by people that I work with, but I'm a little disappointed that it's not seen for what it is," Chang said. As you might guess from the title, the author, who has been writing about the hip-hop world for nearly 15 years, has written a book about a vibrant, influential generation.

"Hip-hop is not just rap or graffiti or b-boy, it's a way of looking at the world," he said. "I wanted to take this holistic view of it, but the mainstream media hasn't gotten it. This book is about rap the way 'Star Wars' is about aliens. There's so much more to it."

Chang, 38, offers up the big picture tomorrow night at his homecoming book release party. The event, at Chinatown club Next Door, includes a multimedia presentation by Chang and a DJ appearance by Chief XCel of Blackalicious.

Some in the audience will surely wonder how a Chinese-Hawaiian private-school kid (Iolani, 1985) from Hawai'i Kai became such a respected and insightful examiner of the largely urban, largely black hip-hop world. The question has been asked a thousand different ways over the course of Chang's career.

"It's interesting to me that the questions assume that because I'm Asian-American and Pacific islander that I'm an outsider," Chang said. "But I'm not an outsider to the culture. In hip-hop, you either have something or you make way for someone who does. If you don't have it, step out and learn. I feel I've had to earn my stripes."

"Can't Stop, Won't Stop," a 2005 American Book Award winner, reaches back more than 35 years to trace the rise of hip-hop as a creative cultural movement that germinated in politically abandoned, economically devastated neighborhoods like the Bronx and Compton, and found political maturity during the 2000 presidential elections.

Along the way, the book analyzes the movement's political, cultural and artistic implications.

Chang was in the seventh grade when the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" hit the local airwaves. In the ensuing years, Chang, like thousands of his Hawai'i peers, absorbed as much as he could of the so-called four elements of hip-hop — DJ, MC, graffiti and b-boy.

They watched films like "Breakin' " and "Beat Street" at the local theaters, tuned in to AM DJs making their first tenuous stabs at mixing, watched break-dancing exhibitions at Ala Moana Center, traded fifth-generation copies of the graffiti documentary "Style Wars."

"I remember when (graffiti film) 'Wild Style' came to the (Honolulu) Academy of Arts. We loaded up the family in the station wagon," Chang said. "At the theater it was us and a couple of hippies from UH."

Chang's fascination with graffiti art was encouraged by art teacher Dicksie Tamanaha, who helped him organize what is believed to be the state's first graffiti art show. That, in turn, helped to galvanize a growing number of graffiti crews.

"My mother worked for the police department and she'd look at the newspaper and say, 'Look at what your friends are doing,' " he recalled. "I think she was half-appalled and half-proud."

By the time Chang left Hawai'i to attend the University of California-Berkeley, where he would earn a bachelor's degree in economics, hip-hop was entering a new era of political consciousness and activism.

Moved to action by the anti-apartheid and anti-racism movements of the late 1980s, Chang worked as a community, labor and student organizer during the day and as a DJ at night. The call-to-consciousness music of Public Enemy, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte would serve as a soundtrack for his political coming of age.

After graduation, Chang moved to Sacramento, Calif., and got a job working at the Legislature. He continued to work as a DJ at night, and soon parlayed his access to up and coming rap acts like Cypress Hill into print work with URB and the Bomb.

His articles and columns in turn helped Chang get into UCLA's master's program in Asian-American studies.

"I entered at an interesting time, after the L.A. riots, when the field was in crisis," Chang said. "A lot of the movement was down with solidarity with other races, but the riots were a shock. The focus became interracial relations, and they wanted to know what I thought. It gave me a weird credibility in the field. A lot of us got published in academic journals right away."

In 1993, Chang co-founded the influential indie label SoleSides (now Quannum). When the partnership dissolved a few years later, Chang's career as a writer began in earnest.

Chang had wanted to do a book about Ice Cube's controversial 1991 album "Death Certificate," which contained derogatory lyrics about Koreans, but the project found a larger purpose during the year Chang spent in New York working for Russell Simmons' 360hiphop.com.

"There is so much about hip-hop culture that is peculiar to New York, and I got to understand it from that point of view," Chang said.

In particular, he got a deeper understanding of the lifestyles and social conditions in the Bronx during the late 1960s and early 1970s that gave rise to hip-hop. Counterbalanced with the hip-hop protests during the 2000 presidential elections, Chang's book had found its shape.

"At that point I had a real 30-year narrative to sink my teeth into," Chang said.

The result, after four intensive years of writing, is "Can't Stop, Won't Stop."

At the official release party at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Chang found himself surrounded by seminal hip-hop figures like DJ Kool Herc, Jazzy Jay, and Benjamin Melendez of the Ghetto Brothers, one of the driving forces behind the Bronx peace treaty of 1971.

"It was just one of those nights," Chang said, still incredulous. "It was an out-of-body experience."

Also present was Chang's boyhood hero, the subway graffiti artist Zephyr.

"I remember cutting out any article I could find about the guy," Chang said. "At the party, he gave me a piece of something he had done. I cried, dude."

Correction: The street and the admission price for the book-release event with Jeff Chang was incorrect in a previous version of this story.