Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Can't Stop Won't Stop

Back once again...

I read the most incredible book while I was on holiday last week – Jeff Chang’s ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’, a comprehensive history of the hip-hop generation. If you are a regular reader of these pages, it won’t have escaped your attention that I am something of an obsessive when it comes to all things old school hip-hop, so I devoured this book like a starving lion tearing into a gazelle. This feels like a life’s work. Chang has spent years researching his subject and it pays off. He is one serious dude – co-founder of the influential SoleSides label (now Quannum Projects) and an acclaimed journalist; a founding editor of ColorLines magazine, and a Senior Editor/Director at Russell Simmons’ 360hiphop.com.

The key thing Chang’s book did for me was to give me a context for the scene I love so much. As a teenager I fully immersed myself in all aspects of what are known as the ‘four elements of hip-hop’ – DJ’ing, MC’ing, graffiti and b-boying (breakdancing). I say immersed but it was always as a listener and observer, very rarely did I participate - give or take the odd crazy legs here or there, a tag on a lamppost or a lame attempt at rapping or beatbox. To me, it was all about the music (me and my friends collected obsessively – you can read about that here) and the fashion (Lacoste tracksuits, Nike windjammers, Sergio Tacchini sweatbands, Adidas trainers). I had a very basic understanding of the origins of the music from the occasional magazine article or radio interview, but this was the early 1980s and there was no internet. I was a white middle-class kid growing up in a small market town in the South of England, and information was almost impossible to come by. I couldn’t have been further removed from the scene, so my only real connection was through the music.

Chang’s book provides a definitive history of that scene, divided into four sections or ‘Loops’ – 1968-1977, 1975-1986, 1984-1992 and 1992-2001 – beginning with its origins in the Bronx during the 1970s, and detailing the pioneering influence of dub reggae and Jamaican culture through the 1960s. It comprehensively documents the gang culture of the Bronx and LA, and explores how the political machinations of the era affected the development of the nascent cultural movement. It’s an epic story and Chang tells it with a meticulous attention-to-detail, but with an energy and evocative use of language that makes it an exhilarating read. There are interviews with all the key players, including the originators Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, graffiti artists like Futura 2000, scenesters including Fab Five Freddy and original members of the Rock Steady Crew – every single base is covered. It’s an awesome achievement and the sort of book that makes you hungry for more.

Chang provides detailed notes in the back of the book, quoting all his sources and providing a breakdown of all the Word, Sounds and Images that helped him tell the story. Consequently, there is an absolute mountain of additional material that I want to try to track down. For starters, I found ’80 Blocks from Tiffany’s’, Gary Weis’s 1979 documentary following two of the Bronx gangs (the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads), on You Tube. I ordered the 25th Anniversary edition of ‘Wild Style’, Charlie Ahearn’s 1982 hip-hop film that as Chang says, “…remains the only film that adequately conveys the timeless communal thrill” of that period. I had already picked up the ‘Style Wars’ DVD reissue (Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant’s documentary with an emphasis on the graffiti scene) earlier this year. But there is still so much more to discover. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface, but there’s a real excitement in having finally found my Bible. I wish they did a degree in this shit – my thirst for knowledge in this area is insane. If you consider yourself a fan of hip-hop, especially if you are a recent convert who thinks it’s all about Kanye West, you absolutely have to read this book. It’s a masterpiece.

I’ve put together an ill old school mixtape of 10 songs that provides the perfect audio companion to the book. Hope you enjoy it – I’ve zipped them all up into one file again as lots of you downloaded the last compilation I put up in this format. I’ve called it ‘Volume 1’ as I’m planning on compiling and uploading a few more mixtapes, featuring classic and rare tracks, before the year is out. Download it here:

Can't Stop Won't Stop Volume 1

1. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock (1982, 21 Records)

Jazzy Jay: “Bam used to say, ‘Hey, they throwing a party in Bronxdale,’ and he has his box and a bagful of tapes with all the music. He grabs the box and when he starts walking to Bronxdale, he’d have like forty people walking behind him. Bam was the leader… wherever Bam was going, that’s where some shit was gon’ be.”

2. Schoolly D – Gucci Time (1985 Schoolly D Records)

Chang: ‘Schoolly D was a North Philly rapper who used a cheap drum machine, his partner DJ Code Money’s scratch and a reverb knob to create menacing tracks like ‘Gucci Time’.’

Many see him as the original gangsta rapper, spitting his thug nursery rhymes over heavy beats designed for maximum impact. This is hip-hop at its least sophisticated but it packs a mighty punch.

3. Eric B & Rakim – My Melody (1986 Zakia Records)

Chang: ‘Eric B. cut Rakim’s debut in Marley Marl’s studio. MC Shan sat in on the session. Shan and Marl weren’t sure they understood this guy. “Me and Marley would look at each other like, ‘What kind of rap style is that? That shit is wack!’” Shan recalled. “More energy, man!” he yelled at Rakim.’

4. MC Shan – Beat Biter (Extended Version) (1986 Bridge Records)

A classic ‘dis’ track produced by Marley Marl, in which Shan takes umbrage with LL Cool J, who he believes has stolen his beat. The story unfolds in Shan’s excitable high-pitched style over an exemplary Marl backing track, utilising a sampler to repeat vocal snippets and cartoon dialogue.

5. Boogie Down Productions – South Bronx (1986 B-Boy Records)

I was slightly disappointed there wasn’t more about BDP in the book. Their rap battles with Shan and Marl through the mid-80s fascinated me as a teenager. The murder of Scott La Rock is only granted one line, which surprised me as I saw it as a pivotal moment in the history of hip-hop. It’s a minor complaint really, Chang covers so much ground that I guess he can’t give priority to every single incident. Here is BDP’s tribute to the South Bronx in which they set out their stall for why they believe hip-hop started out there, and not Queens as Shan claimed. Chang’s book would seem to back up their argument.

6. Public Enemy – You’re Gonna Get Yours (1987 Def Jam)

A great portion of the book is dedicated to Public Enemy. Despite Chang’s obvious love of the crew, he doesn’t shy away from documenting some of their more dodgy beliefs, which lead to them being labelled as anti-Semitic by the press and many influential political leaders.

Chang: ‘Public Enemy’s second single, ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours’ was Chuck D’s ode to his 98 Olds, “the ultimate homeboy car!” - a theme as American as The Beach Boys’ ‘Little Deuce Coupe’. Yet the song was also about facing down racial profiling with Black posse power, an act of defiance set within the historical context of Robert Moses’s expressway-fuelled segregation and Levitown’s racial covenants.’

7. Big Daddy Kane – Raw (1987 Prism Records)

Big Daddy Kane doesn’t get a mention in the book, but to me, this is hip-hop in its purest form. Over Marley Marl’s simple drum loop, Kane reels off verse after verse of phenomenal brag raps. The chorus features Marl’s incisive scratches over a high-pitched siren. I don’t much care for what hip-hop has become. I think the majority of the current crop of producers and MCs are massively overrated and could learn a lot from the simple brilliance of this classic old school cut.

8. Ice-T – 6 In The Mornin’ (1986 Techno Hop Records)

In the later stages of the book, Chang switches his focus from New York to Los Angeles and documents the rise of gangsta rap, focusing on the effect of crack on the LA gang scene and chronicling the build-up to the LA riots in 1992. I’m concluding this mixtape with three classic tracks from the LA scene, starting with Ice-T’s ‘6 In The Mornin’’

Chang: ‘The tale of a “self-made monster of the streets, remotely controlled by hip-hop beats”, ‘6 in the Mornin’’ was a revisionist rap history told from the hard streets of Los Angeles.’

9. Toddy Tee – Batterram (1985 Epic)

Chang: ‘By the summer of 1985, 19-year-old rapper Toddy Tee’s ‘Batterram’ tape was the most popular tape on the streets. Telling the story of a working class-family man whose life is interrupted by crackheads and the Batterram (a V-100 armoured military vehicle equipped with a massive battering ram that police used to barge in suspected crack houses), the tape was one of the first to describe the changing streets.’

10. Eazy-E – Boys-N-The Hood (Remix) (1987 Ruthless Records)

With lyrics penned by O’Shea Jackson aka Ice Cube, ‘Boyz-N-The Hood’ was an extremely violent take on life in LA, reluctantly fronted by Eric ‘Eazy-E’ Wright and produced by Dr Dre. It was the first recorded collaboration between the trio who, along with MC Ren and Yella, would go on to become N.W.A. This is the remix of the original song, which took control of the streets of LA throughout 1987. At one point it was selling thousands of copies every week.

Chang: ‘Eazy-E delivered the rap in a deadpan sing-song… Dre mirrored Eazy’s ambivalence in the jumpy robotic tics of the tiny drum machine bell… and added a pounding set of bass drum kicks to help drive home the chorus.’

Buy 'Can't Stop Won't Stop' from Amazon
Can't Stop Won't Stop website, featuring Jeff Chang's constantly updated blog
Buy 'Wild Style: 25th Anniversary Special Edition' DVD from Amazon
Buy 'Style Wars' DVD from Amazon
'80 Blocks from Tiffany's', divided into 8 segments on You Tube