“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” is a pretty spectacular undertaking, a book that attempts to chart the birth, coming-of-age, and growing pains of a so-called “hip-hop generation.” It’s always readable, always interesting, and surprisingly inspiring, but it isn’t without its issues.
First, I can’t help but think of the idea (and subtitle) of the “hip-hop generation” as a bit of a gimmick. This book follows the growth of hip-hop over 35-40 years, and while Chang attempts to debunk the very notion of “generational theory” in his introduction, I just kept thinking that his arguments against easy generational classification were simply self-serving. In other words, he writes an introduction in which he states that “generational theory” is an inexact science, and that because of the sweeping generalizations of categorizing and organizing generational data, we can be loose when we define the nature of a single generation (i.e. when it starts, when it ends, who it includes, etc.). With this argument made, he lumps 40 years of hip-hop musicians and fans into a single “generation,” a problematic premise. 40 years is half a lifetime, not a generation. Of course, the subtitle “A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” is likely to sell quite a few copies, as generational theory–inexact though it may be–lines the nonfiction shelves of the average Barnes & Noble.
So, from the start, it felt to me that Chang was a little dishonest in his approach, that he had created a flawed angle from which to tell the story he wanted to tell. There are at least two generations of hip-hop culture-makers depicted in this book, and the birth of a third generation. But Chang seems to surrender to marketing, choosing a title and an angle that pretends that this entire movement brings together hundreds of millions of people (between ages 5 and 75) into a single generation.
That flaw aside, though, Chang is indeed a magnificent writer, and the story is uniquely compelling. Above, I mentioned that the book is “inspiring,” and this is why I think so: Chang captures the spirit of the movement, the many different elements that came together to give life to a culture, the (as cliche as it may sound) blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of different types of artists. To read about the passion of so many individuals, most of whom had no idea how this “hip-hop” thing would pan out, is incredible. They believed that something needed to be said, that a new art form needed to be created in order to give voice to the youth, and they worked tirelessly to make it happen. It’s the sort of story that makes you want to be part of a movement, and makes you wonder if/when it will ever happen again.
There are other issues with the book overall, of course, from the sometimes-over-the-top sympathy Chang shows for criminals and violent aggressors (as if their actions are excused by their circumstances) and the disdain he heaps upon all systems, institutions, and governmental agencies (as if all law enforcement officers are thugs and cowards, and all criminals are victims), and in the paperback edition, the font choice (a sans serif) seems better suited for internet reading than for printed text…but overall, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” is quite the achievement. It’s a must-read for every youth who thinks that there is no culture to represent him/her, and it’s a must-read for every aspiring rapper or DJ who does not yet understand the decades of tradition that came before him/her.
Here’s a quick link to Jeff Chang speaking at the University of Arkansas: