Hip Hop History with Jeff Chang
Music Journalist/Hip-Hop Activist
Bay Area, California
Jeff Chang’s enlightening book, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, discusses hip-hop as a culture while skillfully tracing the sociology that created the movement throughout its history thus far. Jeff has been a music journalist since the early 90’s, launched a successful independent record label, and is a hip-hop activist. His life has been positively touched by hip-hop and he strives to give back to the community that means so much to him. He is a shining example that you can find purpose and joy in work while following what you love, even if your route is off the beaten path.
CCB: At twelve when you first heard hip-hop on the radio and started seeing
films like Wild Style, could you ever have imagined that the culture
would become your life?
JC: Nope! Hip-hop was just something for us to do, like surfing or
basketball or anything else. I think I was in my mid-20s before I
realized that hip-hop had really grown up with me.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work as a music journalist? Was
this to fulfill a longtime love for hip-hop, stay connected to the music, and
tell the stories of the “unheard” that you speak about in your book?
JC: I was always going back and forth between being an activist and wanting
to be more involved with hip-hop and music. When I graduated from
college, I went to work in the California State Legislature in
Sacramento. It was draining, depressing work, so I went back to DJing
at night at the UC Davis campus and found myself writing about hip-hop
and politics. I had done a little column in an Asian American newspaper
during college, but this was where I think I truly began to find my
voice. The artists and stories I was drawn to usually had some sort of
political component to them. I felt--and still do--that hip-hop was
telling the untold stories, and over time, I began to think it was my
responsibility to help some of these stories be told to larger
CCB: Did your studies at Berkley and UCLA help you better understand the
complex sociology that you uncovered in writing your book?
JC: Yes, especially my graduate study in Asian American Studies at UCLA. I
think I learned a lot at Berkeley, mostly outside of the classroom, but
at UCLA, I went into the program ready for school and so maybe a lot of
the stuff I picked up at Berkeley finally stuck. Also, I was part of the
first cohort of students to enter after the 1992 riots, so it was an
intellectually and socially engaging, even intense, period.
CCB: You mentioned how your career path has been a bunch of different
routes from the magazine writing, independent label, legislature, and
now your book. I’d like to hear more about this. It’s important for
young people to understand that they can stay off the beaten path,
make detours while experiencing new things, and still find meaning in
work as well as success.
JC: I never went down the path that led to a job. I went down the path that
led to satisfying my curiosity, and created my work. I have been very
lucky to have a supportive partner--she's always let me do what I want
to do. I think its key for young people entering today's economy to be
open-minded, resourceful, and, above everything, curious. No job is
promised you, and the best way to survive is to have the confidence and
the interest to be able to go where your nose takes you. I can't say
it's always been easy, but some paths are not laid out for you, they're
meant to be created. I have no regrets.
CCB: How did you learn about writing and find your writing voice?
JC: There is only one way--to write and write, and then write some more.
It's not something that you automatically receive when you say, "I'm a
writer". Its work, it demands discipline, and it's not like riding a
bike. All that said, it's individually rewarding, and it's made me a
better person--more observant, more in-the-world.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a journalist?
JC: You need to be able to listen, and always be open to losing your
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming journalists?
JC: Interview your loved ones first. You'd be surprised what you don't
know. That's more humbling, and better training than most assignments.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career? If so can you explain the
benefits of having guidance when finding your way as a professional?
JC: There's so much I don't know all the time that I actively recruit
mentors in everything I do. There are many ways to do this. Buying
lunch is a very good one.
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as a journalist? Were there routines
when putting together Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop?
JC: I entered my home office every morning at 9:15 to write as if I was
punching a clock. Some days I would labor all day to get two good
paragraphs, other days I would work all day and all night and turn out
5-10 pages as if it was nothing. But every day I was at the end of my
skills, I had no idea how I'd do what I had in my mind that I had to do
that day. Still, you just gotta do it. A book, or story, won't write
CCB: Looking back do you think you could have written a whole book on your
personal experiences with Ice Cube’s Death Certificate album?
JC: Yes. Whether anyone would have read it is another question!
CCB: How did you know who you were going to talk to for the book? Or once
you found your focus and the book developed, did it become clear?
JC: Some of the people you know you have to get just to start. A lot of
these people become your mentors. Mentors leave you clues, point you in
the right direction, lead you into a different path. You can't know
everyone to speak to at the beginning because you don't even know what
the map looks like yet. But most roads--often even the divergent
ones--lead you where you need to go.
CCB: What was the editing process like for this book, deciding what stays
and what goes?
JC: Editing is integral to writing. It's really part of the writing. I
handed in a 700 page first draft. My editor told me very politely that
no one was going to read a 700-page book on hip-hop! So I got it down
to its current door-stopping size. Clever editing, though, means not
having to lose much. That's a trick no one tells you.
CCB: You cover a lot of issues, but don’t discuss B.I.G. or Tupac. Would
addressing that have taken the book in a different direction?
JC: Yes. I thought a lot of people, like Cheo Hodari Coker, Kevin Powell,
Toure, and Danyel Smith, had covered that period much better than I
ever could. But I also was paralyzed by that particular moment. I was
doing SoleSides at the time, and all of it was so much to process. I
don't think I could sit down and write about that period now.
CCB: When talking about Bambaataa (A hip-hop pioneer) in your book
you discuss the idea of hip-hop as way of life and community:
“Music made ideologies shed their armature, move together,
find a common point of release, a powerful unity.” This seems to be the
driving force behind the beginning of the movement and perhaps what
keeps it alive. Do you feel as though hip-hop has lost some of that joy
that helped those survive upon the difficult times of its inception?
JC: No. I think hip-hop still renews itself, even if many of my peers have
outgrown it or are nostalgic about their particular experiences with
CCB: Was the goal of SoleSides (The independent label he co-founded)
to champion independent music, to put out the music you thought was important? How did this come together originally? Are you involved in any way with Quannum (A label with some of the same folks from SoleSides)?
JC: Yes, SoleSides was our project to get great music into the world. It
came out of a bunch of friends at KDVS ( A radio station in California)
thinking we could change the world through our art, and putting some
effort into trying to make it happen, just like all our heroes in hip-hop
and punk had done. I'm proud of what we did, and I'm really proud of
what the crew continues to do with Quannum. Although I don't work with
them on a daily basis, we still try to find work to do with each other.
Right now, we're planning to work on an audiobook for Can't Stop Won't Stop,
CCB: Did you establish ColorLines, (The magazine he co-founded), to begin
a dialogue on race?
JC: I was part of a collective that wanted to see more discussion of race,
culture, and community organizing in the media, and that's what
ColorLines came out of. The progressive media, in particular, had been
back-pedaling on issues like affirmative action, criminalization, and
immigration in the late 90s. Race was seen as "identity politics",
rather than a central issue in the neoconservative strategy. I'm happy
that ColorLines has helped force those issues back to the forefront.
CCB: Can you talk about your hip-hop activism and what you hope to
accomplish through it? You speak of how it works on a local level and
how you are trying to teach new generations about important issues.
JC: I think hip-hop activism is exciting because it finds a way to engage
young people who are disaffected by Politics (with a capital P), but
are anxious to change the world. As a journalist, my job is simply to
be able to amplify and contextualize the brilliant and brave things
they do on a daily basis to the larger world.
CCB: You did graffiti as a kid and DJ’d at college. Where did your DJ Zen
name come from? Do you still keep up with these and do you practice
any of the other four elements such as MCing?
JC: DJ Zen was just a cool name to have. I'm retired from the four elements
CCB: How do you feel about the upcoming hip-hop exhibition at the
Smithsonian Museum? Also they just announced Hip-Hop Week in New
York City, a celebration of the culture, to coincide with the 3rd VH1
Hip-Hop Honors show. Is it strange to you that the music is now
accepted by the same people that initially contested it?
JC: Well, it's a recognition of how much hip-hop has impacted the world.
I'm hopeful that the Smithsonian and VH1 will get it right and be
respectful of the pioneers and trailblazers who are responsible for
making this culture what it is.
CCB: Do you feel as though your early experiences with hip-hop were
different as an Asian American or also as a result of growing up in
Hawaii so far away from where the movement began? I’ve found that the
hip-hop community is wholly embracing to those who respect it.
JC: Me too. Interviewers tend to think that because I am Asian/Pacific
Islander and from Hawaii, I was probably mistreated or something in
hip-hop. I don't understand that assumption at all. Millions of kids
now in hip-hop didn't grow up in the Bronx, but have the same kind of
affection I do for the place.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job? What has been the most
rewarding thing about the job so far?
The most difficult? Convincing people that there are lots of people who
want books like this. The most rewarding thing? Meeting my childhood
heroes and many heroes I didn't know would be my heroes.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job? What surprised
you the most?
JC: People need shelter, food, and medicine. But they also need stories.
Sometimes you can even get paid (a little) for them!
CCB: What do you having coming up career-wise? You are working on the
anthology with hip-hop and how it transformed into other arts. What
does that encompass?
JC: I am editing Total Chaos: The Art & Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. The book
tracks the movement of hip-hop into other genres beyond rap
music--theater, poetry, literature, visual arts, on and on--to make the
case that hip-hop is one of the most powerful arts movements we know
now, and, for a change, to center artists' discussions about their
work, rather than critics or academics. It will be published on Basic
Civitas in late 2006/early 2007, and features an amazing group of
people including Greg Tate, Eisa Davis, DOZE, Rennie Harris, Adam
Mansbach, Suheir Hammad, Raquel Cepeda, Danny Hoch, and Amde Hamilton
of the Watts Prophets.
CCB: Where is hip-hop headed?
JC: Wherever we're going!
CCB: You’ve mentioned that you feel the new thing will be the international
musicians, crossing over stateside perhaps. What are you listening to
JC: This is the toughest question. I love the E-40, checking the new
Juvenile, and have a stack of stuff here from Brazil, Cuba, and
soldiers in Iraq. There's a ton of new reggaeton coming this year, as
well as Katrina-inspired music, so I think it's going to be a very
interesting year in hip-hop.
* Keep up with Jeff at https://jeffchang.net/