A Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Q+A with Oliver Wang

In 2004, Oliver Wang sat down to talk with Jeff Chang on Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Here’s what it sounded like…

Note: for a complete bio of Jeff, click to the Self page.

Q: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is subtitled “A History of the Hip-Hop Generation”, which seems to me to be rather distinct from calling it “A History of Hip-Hop”. Is there a distinction between the two?

A: I’m not interested in writing about hip-hop just in terms of rap music—which is what most people might think when they hear the word “hip-hop”—or even as a cultural force encompassing the “four elements”. Hip-hop is all that and—to kind of flip dead prez’s epigram—it’s also bigger than all that. Hip-hop offers a generational worldview that encompasses the shoes you choose to whether you’re inclined to vote or not to how you understand the issue of race. So I use this worldview to look at the last three decades of the American century.

Q: In 2004, there was a celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Rapper’s Delight”, which many people see as the beginning of hip-hop. Your history starts in 1968, which is more than a decade prior to that. Why?

A: The hip-hop generation has come up in the shadow of the baby-boomer/civil rights generation. 1968 is a mythical moment, the year in which students around the world are protesting—from Columbia University and San Francisco State to Paris to Mexico City—the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy are assassinated, the year that Tommy Smith and John Carlos raise the black fist at the Olympics, the year that riots break out in Chicago, Washington D.C., Cincinnati. The anti-war movement and the black power movement are at their peak. 1968 is when the baby boomer/civil rights generation come of age.

But something very different is happening in the Bronx that will profoundly shape the following generation. The seeds of what will happen politically, socially, and culturally over the next three decades are being planted. 1968 is when heroin floods the streets, the gangs come back and the fires begin. What follows leads to the emergence of hip-hop culture.

Interestingly, the political abandonment of the Bronx—the wholesale municipal withdrawal and massive white flight which lead to racial resegregation, increased poverty concentration, and a space extremely vulnerable to global and local violence—is replicated in many other inner cities over the next two decades. It’s poetic that a culture emerging from that environment should be able to take root in other similar spaces. What happens in the Bronx is what happens in Los Angeles, Miami, Oakland, Houston, Chicago, New Orleans, and around the world.

Q: There have been other books that have dealt with some of the same topics, to the point, I would argue, that there is now a canon of hip-hop studies books. In what ways does your book follow that canon and in what ways does it diverge from it?

A: My book definitely draws upon the foundational works of hip-hop journalism and hip-hop scholarship like Steven Hager’s Adventures In The Counterculture and David Toop’s Rap Attack, movies like Wild Style and Style Wars, the two crucial theoretical works of the mid-90s—Tricia Rose’s Black Noise and Brian Cross’s It’s Not About A Salary: Rap, Race + Resistance in Los Angeles—and Bakari Kitwana’s important book, The Hip-Hop Generation (read more about Bakari here), as well as many, many other sources I give props to at the back of my book.

What I’m trying to do is also talk about how the hip-hop generation impacts America at the end of the 20th century, what some have called “The American Century”. So just as much as I drew upon what folks now call hip-hop studies, I pulled from a shelf of stuff like Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, James Miller’s Democracy Is In The Streets, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States, Don Delillo’s Underworld, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, Michael Thelwell’s The Harder the Come, Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost, and Naomi Klein’s No Logo. It’s a weird list, yes, because I’m basically undisciplined and not very linear.

Q: Lots of books have a top-down approach to hip-hop. You look at the big names, the big movements, the big changes. But what strikes me is that you have also done many oral histories with people whom we may have not heard from before, and whose stories are seminal but have gone largely untapped. Is this a reflection of your own background as a scholar and journalist?

A: What formal training I have is in ethnic studies, which has always been about recovering voices outside of the mainstream. But more to the point, hip-hop is the voice of the unheard. Hip-hop looks at the world from the street corner up. You could call it the “Straight Outta Compton” approach—to go right back down to the street corner, to the neighborhood, and to understand, say, how urban style develops and evolves on a block. In a global era, what we need to recover is The Local.

Q: You’ve been writing on hip-hop for over 10 years. What surprised you the most?

A: One was this idea that there are loops of history. In the Bronx and then two decades later in Los Angeles, the politics of abandonment leads to street violence, then against all odds, the gangs forge peace, and an unimaginable explosion of creativity happens. It’s possible hip-hop never would have started were it not for the 1971 Bronx gang truce, that hip-hop never would have gone mainstream in the way it did were it not for the 1992 Watts peace treaty.

Over the years, I did hundreds of interviews: speaking to the late great activists Richie Perez and Rita Fecher and former gang leaders Benjamin Melendez, Carlos Suarez and Felipe Mercado about the Bronx in the late 60s and early 70s, talking with Kool Herc and his sister, Cindy Campbell, about their immigration experience, meeting and learning from pioneers and peacemakers like Afrika Bambaataa, BOM 5, Crazy Legs, Jorge “FABEL” Pabon, LADY PINK, Alex Sanchez, and the Sherrills brothers in Watts, the list is endless. Everyone was so generous. Every single day there was something to learn, to be awed by.

Q: To what extent have the last three decades in American history shaped hip-hop and to what extent has hip-hop shaped American history?

A: Hip-hop shows how deeply the last thirty years of American history have been affected by the politics of abandonment. These inner cities where hip-hop took root were abandoned by government, business, and frankly, the white middle class. What comes out of that is this intense mass longing to create history, to paraphrase Don Delillo, a deep desire to crush invisibility, to make culture that impacts the world and says “we’re here”. That’s hip-hop.

In the mid-80s, there are little municipal and shopping mall bans on breaking and boomboxes. Kind of a joke, really, but then they start adding on curfews, anti-cruising ordinances, and sweep laws against young people who have literally taken over public space with hip-hop. A decade later, there are vast gang databases that might include the names of two-thirds of a city’s black youth males, and unconstitutional anti-loitering ordinances that go back in spirit to slavery and Jim Crow. After the politics of abandonment have turned inner cities into places where all the rot and horror of American Cold War militarism comes home to roost, a politics of containment takes shape. One way to understand the hip-hop movement and the hip-hop generation is to put it back into the space and time of the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment.

Q: I was watching an MTV clip where P-Diddy was rolling through town in a Bentley encouraging people to vote, and Trick Daddy was registering voters in Florida. To what extent do you think hip-hop is a force for political change?

A: Without question, hip-hop is a political force. The question is: what kind of political movement are we looking at? Media will focus on celebrities. They’ll say that when you stand Russell Simmons and P-Diddy and Trick Daddy against Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. there’s no comparison. There isn’t. It’s comparing apples to oranges.

In my book, I focus on the grass-roots movements. Hip-hop activists and organizers have elected and deposed politicians, stopped multimillion-dollar juvenile jails from being built, convinced taxpayers to vote for millions in youth services, and much more. They’re just not marching on Washington. Hip-hop activists and organizers fight below the radar, at the local level, and the mainstream media never talks about it. So there’s a false perception that the only political actors in this generation are the visible millionaires. How progressive politics is being remade day-to-day, block by block, city by city, is another great untold story of the hip-hop generation.

Q: What was the most rewarding thing about doing this book?

Doing a book like this is incredibly humbling. You don’t create a world, you’re trying to recapture it. At every turn, there’s a debt you owe to the people and the subject that you have to respect, that inspires you to get above the limits of your talent and lingers with you permanently. My Acknowledgments section, in true hip-hop fashion, is as long as any chapter. I probably missed a lot of folks, and I’m gonna feel bad about that forever. But here’s the thing: there are a million ways to tell this story. This book is just one. I want to hear all those stories. All of us need to hear those stories.

Q: The last questions are personal. You talk about transformative moments in the hip-hop generation’s history. What was your first transformative encounter with hip-hop?

A: I grew up in Hawai’i during the 70s with AM radio and FM free-form: the Spinners and Little River Band, Gabby Pahinui and Bob Marley. I was 12 when “Rappers Delight” hit the islands. Folks were locking, then popping. A little later, I started seeing music videos on cable from the Clash and Malcolm McLaren, of all people. To see “This Is Radio Clash” and “Buffalo Gals”, with all these kids like me doing graffiti and b-boying and just having fun, got me and my friends really excited. Hip-hop was something that we could do, too. So we just went out and did it.

Q: What was your most recent transformative moment with hip-hop?

A: The National Hip-Hop Political Convention. There were thousands of people coming together to set a generational political agenda with no other bond than this hip-hop worldview. The most exciting and humbling thing to me was the fact that many of the folks were half my age, and had been touched by hip-hop in the same way that I had been when I was 15. So the loop kind of turns again, and continues.

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