Not so long ago, the only books on hip-hop I had bothered to read were David Toop‘s Rap Attack 2 and the Book of Rap Lists. This can primarily be attributed to the fact that many tomes covering rap don’t amount to much more than a chapter on Public Enemy, a chapter on NWA, the rise and fall of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice and thirty pages of Grandmaster Flash telling us how great he is.
Although Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is guilty of the first two (admittedly necessary) clichés, the incredibly well-researched early chapters covering the Bronx gangs and Jamaican sound systems make for essential reading. Where David Toop got bogged-down in his often overly-academic dissections of the development of “rapping” preceding hip-hop’s emergence, Can’t Stop… wisely cuts to the chase, and as a result offers the best account of Kool Herc‘s experiences that I’ve yet seen committed to print. When the well-worn histories of PE and the Ruthless crew are inevitably discussed, author Jeff Chang wisely directs his focus on their position in the evolving cultural landscape rather than just the musical advancements/regression.
Now before I start throwing around words like “gentrification” and “subtext”, let me assure you that I have no intention of launching into some kind of half-assed attempt at a high-brow literary critique. However, I found the earlier chapters so captivating that I’d like to suggest that Jeff might pen an entire volume dedicated to the gangs of the Bronx. Not to say that the latter portions of the book are any less essential, but the fact that this captivating era of New York’s history has received such limited coverage by way of the written word is surprising, considering the thousands of untold stories that are yet to be documented.
The fact that Jeff chose to tackle the bigger issues beyond just the music was a bold and challenging move, but the near-flawless execution of the topic elevates Can’t Stop Won’t Stop far above the over-crowded pack of contenders. This book wins for the simple fact that it neither underestimates nor patronizes the reader, and proves to be accessible to everyone from veteran rap fiends to those with only a passing interest in hip-hop.
Check out Jeff Chang’s site for details on how to get your hands on a copy.
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