I finally got around to reading Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang. When it came out everyone hailed it as the greatest hip-hop history book ever, but I had read so many different hip-hop histories by that point, I felt like, what can be in here that I haven’t already read dozens of times?
A lot, I now know.
The important words to consider on the cover of the book are A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Note that it doesn’t say a history of hip-hop music, or a history of hip-hop. This is Chang’s attempt to write the story of the hip-hop GENERATION. There is only a brief period in the book where the narrative is following hip-hop parties, and DJs, and record releases. The book is far more concerned with what historical, economic and cultural currents led to the formation of what we now call hip-hop, and what has happened to our nation since this culture has gone from a South Bronx phenomenon, to a world-wide phenomenon.
Every other hip-hop history book I have read begins something like, “The South Bronx was a bombed-out shell, taken over by gangs, then Kool Herc started DJing breaks records, and hip-hop was born.” Even though Kool Herc wrote the introduction to the book, his story doesn’t appear in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop until page 67. Preceding that is the story of how the Bronx became the bombed-out shell the other hip-hop histories describe, the story of the Bronx gangs that the other books only mention briefly, and the Jamaican roots of hip-hop. The only other hip-hop book that sticks out in my memory as extensively exploring hip-hop’s Jamaican roots is The New Beats by S. H. Fernando.
Even though it took me several years after its release to get around to reading it, I am getting in line (late and definitely not last) to sing the praises of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop just like everybody else.