Jeff Chang, Back to Beat Street

Forget what you’ve heard or seen, if that’s possible. Because though it may seem from the hyperreal videos reliably rotating on MTV and BET that hip hop is reveling in the diamond life of Cristal, Hummers and ten-carat arm charms, that is only half the story – one that the kings of capitalism have carefully created for you. Manufacturing illusion and consent has been the job of mainstream media since its inception, after all, and Gil-Scott Heron’s activist adage that the revolution will not be televised still holds true, no matter what they are telling you on CNN or Fox. Which is another way of saying that the globally mediated and consumed hip hop beamed into basic cable households across the world may be a consensual fantasy, but it is still a fantasy nonetheless.

For hip-hop scholar Jeff Chang, the musical movement that has exploded into a full-fledged lifestyle still functions best at its lived, local level, where it can be used to raise consciousness and fists alike to rail against the still-entrenched systems of oppression and racism that all those champagne-soaked videos would you rather forget as they encourage you to have another sip and grab some ass. What gets lost in that curious translation is the roots of hip hop itself, which painfully snake back to an abandoned Bronx leveled by years of Carter’s apathy and Reagan’s cruelty, to social programs and fire houses left for dead and a borough’s population left to sift through the aftermath.

Or, as the first chapter of Chang’s brilliant new book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin’s Press), puts it: “Here was the new math: the South Bronx had lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs; 40 percent of the sector had disappeared. By the mid-seventies, average per capita income dropped to $2,430, just half of the New York City average and 40 percent of the nationwide average. The official youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent. Youth advocates said that in some neighborhoods the true number was closer to 80 percent. If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work.”

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