For an artistic movement that is now well over twenty years old, there is a shortage of books on hip-hop. Many of the books written are either cheezy celebrity bios on the star of the moment, and there is a sizable number of academic books written debating subjects like the intertexuality identity of the Other. But for a good popular history book-a book written to be both informative and easy to read-there are very few candidates.
Can't Stop Won't Stop, subtitled "A History of the Hip-Hop Generation", by Jeff Chang, is probably the best candidate so far for a popular history of Hip-Hop culture. Published in 2005, it manages to put thirty two years of history into 465 pages of text, and 27 pages of footnotes. And while Jeff Chang is very ambitious, even he can't squeeze even all the major players and movements into this book. However, that speaks more to what three decades of cultural history could be made into than lack of skill on Mr. Chang's part.
This book has two very good strengths, one point that may be a strength or weakness, and one inevitable weakness.
First off, this book is written well. It has an engaging delivery, and is broken up into small sections that make a coherent, continuing narrative. It can be read in small pieces, but it could also be read in one sitting.
Second of all, this book has the most comprehensive coverage of rap pre-history than any other book I have ever read. Most books devote perhaps a chapter or two to Jamaican sound systems and the Bronx DJ eras, and will usually get to Run-DMC by the third chapter. This book dedicates the first few chapters to the first half of the 1970s, and doesn't even get to "the golden age of hip-hop" until almost halfway into its length. This pre-history makes the attitudes and events of the the 1980s more clear both for people who are reading this book as their first hip-hop book and for people who have already studied the conventional hip-hop history. Chang connects the poverty and cultural decay and rebirth in both Jamaica and New York City until they meet in a cultural fusion in the South Bronx.
The third point that may be either a strength or a weakness is the fact that he has written not a history of hip-hop music or even culture, but of the "hip-hop generation", which could perhaps be seen as a rather amorphous label. Chang seems to take it for granted that "the hip-hop generation" is politically and economically disadvantaged black and latino youths, and that there generation is defined as a political struggle against the policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations. Not an unlikely claim, but hardly a given, either. Hip-hop was not purely a movement in response to the politics of the 1980s, and for that matter hip-hop is not confined to America. The second half of the book becomes more and more dedicated to political events-such as the Los Angeles riots, that while deeply connected to hip-hop, were not hip-hop itself.
The weak point that may be an inevitability is the fact that even in a fairly long book such as this, many important acts and movements in hip-hop were ignored. Public Enemy, NWA and Ice Cube are covered extensively, but many other important acts are not: little or no mention is made of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul or the Native Tongue collective; nor of Nas, Tupac, The Notorious BIG, Wu-Tang Clan or of any of the post-gangsta New York rappers, Foreign acts and even groups that don't come from the New York or Los Angeles areas are hardly mentioned. Some important old school rappers, like Kool Moe Dee, are not mentioned. And, even though he is hip-hop, KRS-One is mentioned only in passing. Partly this is unavoidable: to give each group or MC that deserved it even five or ten pages would have added another one hundred pages to the book, at least. It could be asked, however, whether Ice Cube and Chuck D are the most pivotal figures in hip-hop history (they are both very pivotal, but to assume them as most pivotal is somewhat premature), or whether they are just speaking to the political concerns that Jeff Chang finds the most important in hip-hop.
This last concern shouldn't distract that this is this a great concise history, and would be perhaps the one single book that I would give to someone who was either actively or passively ignorant about what hip-hop means.