"Hip hop's Howard Zinn": An interview with Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang -- co-founder of the record label that's now Quannum, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop, and about the most accessible cultural historian I've met -- is coming to Minneapolis tomorrow night for a panel discussion on hip-hop aesthetics [Walker Art Center, 7:00, Free]. In anticipation, I interviewed him for the Walker's Education blog.

An excerpt:

In Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, you wrote about the cultural, econonic, and political conditions in the Bronx in the late '60s that gave rise to hip-hop culture (you called it the “politics of abandonment”). Here in Minneapolis, like elsewhere, we're seeing record-breaking home foreclosures, inner-city school closings, and a spike in violent crime in our urban neighborhoods. How is today like that seminal period in the Bronx? Is there a creative counterpoint to all this bad news?

Well, I would never want to suggest that we need to have social upheaval in order to create beautiful art. In fact, often societal turmoil does not lend itself to progressive work, but to xenophobic, constricted cultural production. What I can say is that it’s deeply human of us to want to make beauty and truth in the face of despair. Hip-hop, in its most vital forms, lives close to these stories, and can tell them more truthfully than most of what we are confronted with in this ether of globalized, corporatized images and narratives.

In an an interview about Total Chaos, you said, “Name your genre, and I can probably tell you how hip-hop has changed it.” Ok: Crocheting. Kidding. But what about, say, mainstream media? Or country music? Is there a far-flung genre you can name that I'd be surprised has changed because of hip hop?

Mainstream media–er, Don Imus? OK, very bad example. Country music–Big & Rich?! How about modern dance? I’m still surprised at how choreographers like Rennie Harris have transformed the ways in which elite dance critics now discuss Black social dance.

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