where is everyone?

i moved my blog and everyone disappeared! i’m really missing the three people who used to read this blog. where you at? if you come back, i’ll get you on the list. (bring a friend, and i’ll put you down +1).

in my previous post i wrote about how hip hop culture offered the first really racially desegregated lifestyle choice, and while in the primordial culture ooze of hip hop nightlife this hybridity was the result of a sort of fortunate accident, in the world of hip hop industry this was a very deliberate strategy. wrought, perhaps most famously, by the combined pioneering forces of russell simmons and rick rubin–you may have heard of this little record label the two started together called def jam if you haven’t been deaf for the past two and a half decades.

from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation:

Russell was a Black executive able to bridge Black and white tastes like no one since Berry Gordy. He hired Adler. Rick was a Jewish music producer who understood how profoundly Herc, Bam, and Flahs’s insights could reshape all of pop music. He hired Bill Stephney. The staff for Def Jam was uniquely suited and highly motivated to pull off a racial crossover of historic proportions.

Stephney convinced his friends at rock radio to stay on Run DMC’s cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” even when the call-out research showed racist, “get the niggers off the air” feedback. He then succeeded in propelling the Beastie Boys onto rap radio, a feat no less difficult. By the end of 1986, their strategy had been perfectly executed. The Black group crossed over to white audiences with Raising Hell, then the white group crossed over to Black audiences with Licensed to Ill.

Forget busing, Adler thought. Hip-hop was offering a much more radical, much more successful voluntary integration plan. It was bleeding-edge music with vast social implications. “Rap reintegrated American culture,” Adler declared. Not only was hip-hop not a passing novelty, [he] told journalists, it was culturally monumental.

once upon a time, hiphop represented the next-stage in the evolution of a modern identity (consider that even madonna emerged from the hiphop scene incubated at the roxy), yet the promise of hiphop’s diversity was instead crushed under the genre’s globalization of, essentially, third-world values. hiphop became not the messenger of the polycultural future, but the harbinger of the blinged-out apocalypse.

you know… when MTV first launched, with it slate of rock and new wave programming, black artist were so systematically excluded that it was only after columbia university reportedly threatened to boycott the station that MTV finally relented and started playing michael jackson videos in 1983. at the time, michael jackson was considered the mainstream symbol of what was “black, urban, and dangerous.” 20 years later, michael jackson (the michael jackson of 20 years ago, i mean) is STILL the cross-genre, cross-race, cross-cultural ambassador to “everybody let’s dance.”

what the hell happened?! this was supposed to be hiphop’s birthright!

from the very beginning there were two ways this cultural expression could have gone. one direction was a bridge–like exactly what you’d expect from the first-generation american progeny of bob marley’s music being raised by kool herc and afrika bambaataa; as innate as the drive that propelled grafitti, as human as the beat that compelled people to dance. the other direction was as a flag. the loud proclamation of the marginalized and oppressed experience which had up till then been treated politically and culturally with a policy of “benign neglect,” and it was mad as hell and it wasn’t going to take it anymore. a voice that could speak for all who had had theirs stolen, with the sharpness of chuck d’s tongue or rakim’s rhyme. for both of these directions of hiphop the undercurrent of unification was an inherent component all along.

and then somewhere along the way hiphop exited too fast off the freeway and got itself twisted on a roundabout that sent it hurtling back into the complete opposite direction.

i’m not interested in discussing the polarizations that have gripped hiphop since, the violence, sexism, materialism, the east coast, the west coast, the gangsta rap, the conscious hiphop, the whatever, who cares. there’s a lot of talk about this already, and the bottom line is that the industry of culture is selling people what they want–whether it be kanye or lil john, or lil kim or lauryn hill, akon or talib. to deny consumers of something they’d pay money for would be bad business.

the real mystery at the intersection of culture and commerce is now this: in the age of the long tail of both demand and supply can we ever again expect an emergence of any kind of real, integrated culture? or is our destiny really just an endless assortment of choices that will turn our histories and mythologies into an ever more niche experience? will the accessibility of greater diversity lead to greater desegregation, or will it simply turn us into connoisseurs? content with the second-string substitute of globalization as a consolation prize for the cultural integration that never really arrived?

the spark that lit hiphop’s beginnings has been turned into hi-def dvd of a gas-powered fireplace crackling on a plasma-screen display.

but will the glimmer of hybridity that inspired it, ever be reincarnated in any other form?

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the art of miscegenation

it’s hard to comprehend this now, but before hiphop there was no such thing as a racially integrated culture. when hiphop came down from the bronx and created the roxy in downtown NYC it brought with it not just a fad, but a complete cultural shift that was ushering with it a racially integrated lifestyle. and the first culture that brought white kids and black kids hanging out together started less than thirty years ago!

if you can fucking believe THAT!

from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation:

FAB 5 FREDDY recalls the turning point as a July night…. “And everybody kinda bugged out looking at each other. You had these ill b-boys with the poses and shit, checking out these [punk & new wave] kids with the crazy haircuts and that whole vibe. And everybody kinda got into each other, so to speak. That’s when it really kinda took off as the first really major downtown club that had like a legitimately mixed scene.”

David Hershkovits, a music journalist who would go on to publish PAPER magazine: “The crowds were very diverse. That was why I was so excited to be there. Suddenly this racially mixed group was having a good time partying in a room together, which was a very rare thing. On the level of music and art, people were able to bridge all these boundaries.”

Dante Ross, who would become a key hip-hop A&R exec during the late ’80s, remembers: “The word ‘alternative’ didn’t exist. It was this great moment man, the ‘Grafffiti Rock’ moment. Everything was all mixed up, it was cool to be eclectic.”

this was not just some studio-54 remix, however. in 1982 afrika bambaataa had released “planet rock.” arguably just as influential as “rapper’s delight“–whose lasting testimony is as the first hip-hop shout that was hear round the world–planet rock defined a “grand statement” for what afrika was calling the hip-hop movement.

Planet Rock was hip hop’s universal invitation, a hypnotic vision of one world under a groove, beyond race, poverty, sociology and geography. [The lyrics] shouted, “No work or play, our world is free. Be what you be, just be!”

Bambaataa says, “I really made it for the Blacks, Latinos, and the punk rockers, but I didn’t know the next day that everybody was all into it and dancing. I said, ‘Whoa! This is interesting.'”

That was the move that proclaimed that this wasn’t just an “urban” thing, it made it inclusive, it took hiphop global.

which is making me wonder: what’s next?

all throughout history the art of miscegenation has been the art of creating cultural change itself. it seems like it’s an essential component for the achievement of a significant cultural shift that it empower inclusivity and integration. on a much smaller scale, i’ve already touched upon the ways in which i see the inclusivity trend playing out in the world of social network app sites, but really, in the grand scheme of large-scale global culture shifts… what’s next?

what sort of social divisions still apply so universally that the act of demolishing them becomes universal?

culture is like the water temperature of a pool: you don’t even notice it once you’re really acclimated. bursting a ubiquitous cultural taboo is like saying, ‘hey, i want a pool with a totally different temperature,’ climbing out, going to get a hose, and pumping new water in. so who’s going to climb out of the pool and usher in the next great cultural revolution?

and what’s the water going to be like once they do?

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attention deficit distorter

according to Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, afrika bambaataa defined the four elements of hip hop as djing, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti. of the four, only graffiti makes a case that its conception was a little more immaculate. in truth, it’s the only element that can actually even pursue any kind of truth with such a claim, as the origin of modern graffiti can be traced back not to the bronx, but to philly, as far back as 1965.

from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:

Aerosolist and activist Steve “Espo” Powers says that the Black teenager, CORNBREAD, who is credited with popularizing the tagging of the Philly subways was only trying to attract the attention of a beauty named Cynthia. by 1968 the movement had spread to New York City.

but destiny is forged not of details, but from convergences:

….When a Greek American named TAKI 183 told the New York Times in the summer of 1971 why he tagged his name on ice cream trucks and subway cars–“I don’t feel like a celebrity normally, but the guys make me feel like one when they introduce me to someone”–thousands of New York youngsters picked up fat markers and spray paint to make their own name.

….Writing your name was like locating the edge of civil society and planting a flag there. In Greg Tate’s words, it was “reverse colonization.”

…. But these writers weren’t like the revolutionaries, or even the philosopher-activist wall-writers in Lima, Mexico City, Paris, and Algiers. Theirs were not political statements. They were just what they were, a strike against their generation’s invisibility…

They held no illusions about power. No graffiti writer ever hoped to run for mayor. And unlike the gang bangers, none would submerge his of her name to the collective. They were doing it to be known amongst their peers, to be recognized….

Normal Mailer, one of the first to write seriously about graffiti, got it instantly: the writers were composing advertisements for themselves.

graffiti was the megaphone that amplified the identities of those who knew they could never expect any other kind of recognition. a kleptomania of attention by those suffering from the original sort of attention deficit. by the time graffiti evolved from simply tagging, to “piecing” train-big creations, it was like stealing “rolling billboards for the self.”

but this kind of exposure came at a price. first of all, it was illegal. then after that it was time-consuming, a huge health hazard, incredibly dangerous, and of course, fiercely competitive. that was how much it cost to earn that moment of recognition. these kids were not raised on any illusion that they would ever be famous, be recognized, even be noticed. graffiti thus became a weapon with which to fend off the extreme alienation experienced by a generation of neglect victims.

thirty years later, here we are:

the most well known graffiti artists have either become corporate brands (obey, ecko) or are icons of anonymity (banksy). and everyone else has become, as the colloquialism goes, an attention whore.

to the invisible, writes jeff chang, fame itself was wealth.

funny that the same currency should be the lucre for those indulged with access to the fastest and easier methods for widespread expression ever developed. myspace and facebook and twitter and flickr and on and on, all mean that there’s no longer need to risk running from the police, inhaling noxious aerosol fumes, or life and limb to get your name out. “tagging” has literally never been easier. thirty years ago tagging was an illicit activity, branding one an outlaw for branding their name upon the gaze of others. now all of social media has become a “tagging-approved” zone. like a giant graffiti skate-park: a designated safe area where anyone can perform what was once a struggle to express.

modern society’s indulgence of its youngest children has led us to more craving, as shows like american idol inflict an even more profound deficit between the attention we want and the attention we get. the tools and opportunities we seem to seek are no longer an offense against society’s neglect, but a defense against our own narcissism’s resentment.

the old way at least made the commute more colofrul.


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the history of modern culture on the back of a butterfly’s wings

i find the synchronicity of elements that shape the development of culture as fascinating as its effects. like the random mutations of evolution that become brilliant adaptive advantages, there’s almost a kind of magic to these whimsical convergences of what retrospect makes appear like fate. a butterfly flaps its wings in the concrete jungle, and eventually the world world shifts on its axis.

i’m about a third of the way through Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. we’re circa 1979 now, when rapper’s delight gets released. the first hiphop 12-inch single ever pressed, the best-selling 12-inch single pressed–EVER.

but it’s not the bith of the hiphop industry that’s the exciting part. hiphop, the music meme of global dominating proportions, was incubated within the confines of a seven mile stretch of the bronx ghetto, and you best believe there wadn’t no tentalce of the recording industry naturally springing up in that desolate radius.

by the time rapper’s delight was recorded it was just a natural progression of the amplification of this butterfly’s roar that had already been underway. what’s really fascinating is what happened JUST before that step, what facilitated that next step, the first moves that hiphop rocked to break out of the gangland dance floor.

the fortunate cultural phenomenon that happened to have ended up at the right place at the right time, hiphop came of age parallel to the casette tape.

before that there was simply no way to record, redistribute, and replay recorded music as easily and cheaply ( waaait a second… that… sounds familiar for some reason?)

the first way that anyone outside of the bronx EVER discovered hiphop was, according to jeff chang, through:

“The live bootleg caseette tapes of Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Flash, etc….. [that] were the sound of the OJ Cabs that took folks accross the city. The tapes passed hand-to-hand in the Black and Latino neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Queens and Long Island’s Black Belt. Kids in the boroughs were building sound systems and holding rap battles with the same fervor the Bronx one possessed all to itself.”

makes you wonder how many other musical and cultural styles must have come and gone, disappearing forever into the dust of disintegrating, discontinued vinyl, the momentum to expand them never able to get fulfilled, held back by the constraints of antiquated music technology, don’t it?

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the first, the last, the ONLY hip hop

i just read the preface to Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, by jeff chang, and it has put me in a much less sarcastic mood than i am usually in when i sit down to write here.

i joke that “circus is the next hip hop,” i joke that there’s anything could be the next hip hop, but let me make one thing clear: it’s a joke.

it’s referring to the kind of “hip hop” that’s a trend. the kind of “hip hop” that’s a marketing buzzword that’s been abused since vanity fair, in all seriousness, labeled paris and nicky hilton, the hip hop debutantes.

that “hip hop” is a farce.

but there is another kind of hip hop. a hip hop that cannot be replicated, cannot be commodified, and cannot ever be rebranded, and it is hiphop as a force.

a force concieved in a mess of poverty, devastation, neglect, and chaos. a force that grew out of racism, plagiarism, jimcrowism, indifference, censorship, white kids burning black records proudly declaring that “disco sucks,” denial, globalization and in the end, appropriation. it grew where nothing else would grow. like the rose that grew from concrete, hip hop grew.

and this force became big. this force just would not get along. it refused to fit in, refused to be discounted, refused to be ignored. hiphop refused to sit in the back of the bus, and left its mark as big as metro train bombs, because it would not go unseen.

hiphop was mad! it roared with anger! it was angry of envy, angry of hunger, angry of despair, degredation, angry of all the other voices that got to sing. hiphop raged until it could not be ignored! destroyed itself over and over with the madness of the surf, and spread as far accross the world as the oceans. there is no “next” for a force like that.

if you grew up in the projects, went to a public, urban high school in the 90’s, and liked to dance, it didn’t matter what color your skin was, hiphop would be the music you listened to. hip hop would be the frequency you vibrated to. hip hop would be the history that spoke to your present, and if you started to develop a curiosity about this history, then you’d hope that one day, a hip hop journalist like jeff chang would write a book like “can’t stop won’t stop,” and it would start like this:

“Generations are fictions.

The act of determining a group of people by placing a beginning and ending date around them is a way to impose a narrative. They are interesting and necessary fictions because they allow claims to be staked around ideas. But generations are fictions nonetheless, often created simply to suit the needs of demographers, journalists, futurists, and marketers.

In 1990, Neil Howe and William Strauss–both baby boomers and self-described social forecasters–set forth a neatly parsed theory of American generations in their book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 22069. They named their own generation “Prophets,” idealists who came of age during a period of “Awakening,” and their children’s generation “Heroes, who, nurtured by their spiritually attuned parents, would restore America to a “High” era. In between were “Nomads” inhabiting a present they described as an “Unraveling.” What Howe and Strauss’s self-flattering theory lacked in explanatory power, it made up for with the luck of good timing. The release of Generations intersected with the media’s discovery of “Generation X,” a name taken from the title of a book by Douglas Coupland that seemed to sum up for boomers the mystery of the emerging cohort.

Howe and Strauss’s book was pitched as a peek into the future. Cycles of history, they argued, proceed from generational cycles, giving them the power to prophesize the future. Certainly history loops. But generations are fictions used in larger struggles over power.

There is nothing more ancient than telling stories about generational difference. A generation is usually named and framed first by the one immediately preceding it. The story is written in the words of shock and outrage that accompany two revelations: “Whoa, I’m getting old,” and “Damn, who are these kids?”

Boomers seem to have great difficulty imagining what could come after themselves. It was a boomer who invented the unfortunate formulation: “the end of history.” By comparison, everything that came after would appear as a decline, a simplification, a corruption.

Up until recently, our generation has mainly been defined by the prefix “post-.” We have been post-civil rights, postmodern, poststructural, postfeminist, post-Black, post-soul. We’re the poster children of “post-,” the leftovers in the dirty kitchen of yesterday’s feast. We have been the Baby Boom Echo. (Is Baby Boom Narcissus in the house?) We have been Generation X. Now they even talk about Generation Y. And why? Probably because Y comes after X.

And so, by the mid-1990’s, many young writers–sick of what Howe and Strauss and their peers had wrought–took to calling themselves “the Hip-Hop Generation.” In 2002, in an important book, The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, Bakari Kitwana forged a narrow definition–African Americans born between 1965 and 1984–a period bracketed by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the assasination of Malcolm X on one end and hip-hop’s global takeover during the peak of the Reagan/Bush era at the other.

Kitwana grappled with the implications of the gap between Blacks who came of age during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and those who came of age with hip-hop. His point was simple: a community cannot have a useful discussion about racial progress without first taking account of the facts of change.

Folks got bogged down once again in the details. How could one accept a definition of a Hip-Hop Generation which excluded the culture’s pioneers, like Kool Herc, and Afrika Banbaataa, for being born too early? Or one that excluded those who had come to claim and transform hip-hop culture, but were not Black of born in America? Exactly when a Hip-Hop Generation began and whom it includes remains, quite appropriately, a contested question.

My own feeling is that the idea of the Hip-Hop generation brings together time and race, place and polyculturalism, hot beats and hybridity. It describes the turn from politics to culture, the process of entropy and reconstruction. It captures the collective hopes and nightmares, ambitions and failures of those who would otherwise be described as “post-this” or “post-that.”

So, you ask, when does the Hip-Hop generation begin? After DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa. Whom does it include? Anyone who is down. When does it end? When the next generation tells us it’s over.

This is a nonfiction history of a fiction–a history, some mystery, and certainly no prophecy. It’s but one version, this dub history–a gift from those who have illuminated and inspired, all defects of which are my own.

There are many more versions to be heard. May they all be.

Jeff Chang
Brooklyn and Berkeley
January 1998 to March 2004

i’m sure i’ll be writing more about this book as i tackle everything that comes after these first 3 pages…


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