Dubbed “hip-hop’s Howard Zinn” by Salon.com, Jeff Chang is a cultural historian best known for chronicling the first rumblings of what in 1968 was yet to become hip-hop in the book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. His followup, Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, looks at how this culture influenced artforms beyond the big four of graffiti, DJ-ing, b-boying/b-girling, and MC-ing, from poetry and dance to fiction, visual arts, and design.
A co-founder of SoleSides, the record label (now Quannum Projects) that launched the careers of DJ Shadow, Blackalicious, and others), Chang is heading to the Twin Cities for a free panel discussion on “hip-hop aesthetics” Thursday night, June 14. He’ll be joined by graphic artist/designer Cey Adams, Roger Cummings of Juxtaposition Arts, and filmmaker Rachel Ramist. But before packing his bags, he took time for an email volley on topics big and small, from hip-hop’s social potential to the Walker performing arts project his book inspired to his son’s Halloween costume.
In Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, you wrote about the cultural, econonic, and political conditions in the Bronx in the late 60s that gave rise to hip-hop culture (you called it the “politics of abandonment”). Here in Minneapolis, like elsewhere, we’re seeing record-breaking home foreclosures, inner-city school closings, and a spike in violent crime in our urban neighborhoods. How is today like that seminal period in the Bronx? Is there a creative counterpoint to all this bad news?
Well, I would never want to suggest that we need to have social upheaval in order to create beautiful art. In fact, often societal turmoil does not lend itself to progressive work, but to xenophobic, constricted cultural production. What I can say is that it’s deeply human of us to want to make beauty and truth in the face of despair. Hip-hop, in its most vital forms, lives close to these stories, and can tell them more truthfully than most of what we are confronted with in this ether of globalized, corporatized images and narratives.
In an an interview about Total Chaos, you said, “Name your genre, and I can probably tell you how hip-hop has changed it.” Ok: Crocheting. Kidding. But what about, say, mainstream media? Or country music? Is there a far-flung genre you can name that I’d be surprised has changed because of hip hop?
Mainstream media–er, Don Imus? OK, very bad example. Country music–Big & Rich?! How about modern dance? I’m still surprised at how choreographers like Rennie Harris have transformed the ways in which elite dance critics now discuss Black social dance.
You’ve been praised for highlighting the non-celebrities of hip-hop, local organizers who are pushing for small-scale change in their own neighborhoods. Can you name one in the Twin Cities?
How can I stop at just one? I think the work of folks at Intermedia Arts and Juxtaposition Arts is amazing–they actually are creating global models. And although I haven’t been to the B-Girl-Be events, believe me I’m feeling the repercussions of their work everywhere I go on tour and the topic of gender and hip-hop cultural production comes up. I think the B-Girl-Be folks are creating a wave of inspiration all around the world, not just among girls and women, who finally get to be centered in the discussions and the cultural production, but among boys and men who now have a space to really express more of themselves.
What do you do when you’re not engrossed in all things hip-hop?
I love the Oakland A’s. I respect the Minnesota Twins. I very much enjoy seeing the Yankees and the Red Sox lose to the Twins or the A’s.
What was your favorite Halloween costume as a kid?
I wasn’t very good at dressing up, although if I did now I might dig a pirate costume. Last year both my sons dressed up as Frank Thomas.
What contemporary artists do you currently follow? What about non-rock/hip hop music?
I really dig Mark Bradford’s work. Just got to see a show with him, Robin Rhode, and William Cordova at the Nasher and it was great. Musically, I’m omnivorous, so I’m always munching on other stuff as much as I am hip-hop or rock. Right now, I’m digging lots of dubstep, the new Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Chuck Brown albums, a new reggae album by Natural Black, and this old school house track by Joe Smooth called Promised Land.
What’s on your bedside table right now?
Theme, Dwell, ColorLines, and the New York Times Magazines, Brian Coleman’s ridiculously great Check The Technique, Tezuka’s Buddha series, Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals paperbacks (Kid Power! and Rainbow Power!)
Next April, we’re bringing Marc Bamuthi Joseph‘s The Breaks to the Walker. It’s inspired, in part, by your work. What’s your involvement been and how does it feel to have your social history and cultural theory brought to life by dancers and artists?
Bamuthi and I are good friends, which to me is a major bonus, because I think he is one of the most exciting people working in theatre right now. In fact, I have told him this, a lot of what Bamuthi does with the word in his pieces–the density and depth, the multiple levels of references, the sheer joy of saying and hearing it all tumble out–gave me the courage to cut loose on my writing in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. It’s a loop of inspiration! While we have had lots of conversations about the piece, and I’ve seen portions of it so far, I really can’t claim to have any hand in his brilliance. The Breaks is going to amaze people.
And: can you dance?
Yes, but as my wife and kids often remind me, not well! Stick to the writing, they say, so I will!
Photo by Rachel Perry for Red Bull Music Academy