115 pages 3 hours read

Jeff Chang

Can't Stop Won't Stop (Young Adult Edition): A Hip-Hop History

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (Young Adult Edition) is an abridged version of the original 2005 non-fiction historical account of the origin and evolution of hip-hop culture written by Jeff Chang and David “Davey D” Cook. Jeff Chang is an American journalist, music critic, and historian who, in 1993, co-founded the hip-hop label Solesides, which aided in the launching of artists like DJ Shadow and Blackalicious. Jeff Chang earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of California, Berkeley where he was influenced heavily by the political movements happening at the time. Anti-racist and anti-apartheid in South Africa protests and the music they inspired led Jeff Chang to become interested in the connection between music and politics and write his book on the history of hip-hop. David Cook is a pioneer of hip-hop, who grew up in the Bronx and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and worked with many important DJs over the years. He now works as a hip-hop historian and media activist. The book was the recipient of the American Book Award in 2005.F

The Young Adult Edition of the book is presented to a younger audience, which means some content has been removed from the original, especially that which includes offensive language and extreme descriptions of violence.

This guide utilizes the 2021 e-book version.

Plot Summary

Jeff Chang organizes the history of hip-hop into four loops based on when he considers the biggest changes in its evolution to have taken place. The first loop, from 1969-1982, showcases the emergence of hip-hop as a musical genre, dance style, art form, and culture. Jeff Chang explains that there are four main elements to hip-hop, including DJing, MCing, b-boying/b-girling, and graffiti. Hip-hop originally emerged in the Bronx in New York City during a time of mass displacement and unemployment. Gang activity rose to unprecedented levels, and the youth needed a way to express and enjoy themselves without violence. Original pioneers of hip-hop, including DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, were some of the first to DJ and hire MCs, organizing block parties in which they would mix and repeat music, focusing heavily on breaks, to create songs that were full of energy and strong beats. This music was mixed with MCing, in which a person would rap, call out to the crowd, and introduce other acts. The youth who would attend these parties invented a new and competitive form of dance called breakdancing, which became a pivotal aspect of the culture. Graffiti was used to spread awareness of one’s existence as a hip-hop artist and build a reputation. When Afrika Bambaataa released his album Planet Rock, he united white electronica music and Black hip-hop music, launching hip-hop into the mainstream for the first time. In the early 1980s, MTV launched onto the air. While it originally refused to play Black music, hip-hop soon took over and became the top-viewed genre on the station. As the 1970s came to a close, hip-hop began to evolve and spread across the world. Crews started touring far and wide, inspiring youth everywhere to take up the craft and put their own unique spin on it. MCing remained in the underground as hip-hop moved onto records and into clubs. More and more artists were signed, and hip-hop artists also began creating their own labels. When Reagan was elected president, he visited the Bronx and witnessed its destruction. Yet, Reagan economics took hold and unemployment skyrocketed to new heights as the divide between the rich and the poor grew wider. This affected Black and Latinx communities disproportionately, leaving many communities in shambles and at the mercy of police brutality and gang violence.

Loop 2, which spans 1983-1990, includes the growth of hip-hop into a worldwide phenomenon, the introduction of countless new and important artists, and the emergence of hip-hop on the West Coast, particularly in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Police presence and brutality increased, especially in Los Angeles. Hip-hop movies, such as Do the Right Thing and Breakin’, produced and directed by hip-hop artists also had a major impact on the growth of hip-hop as a nationwide culture. Def Jam Recordings sought to not only desegregate music, but also to aid in the desegregation of the country itself by giving artists of all races a chance. Run-DMC released their collaboration with Aerosmith, “Walk This Way,” in 1986, uniting Black hip-hop and white rock music and bringing hip-hop to the mainstream in a way it never had been before. The club scene exploded during the 1980s, and Dr. Dre found his roots as a hip-hop artist and producer. He would go on to produce such pivotal acts as Tupac, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, and 50 Cent, among others. NWA made their album Straight Outta Compton, which spoke out directly against Reaganism. Much of the hip-hop music written during this era was inspired by the failed policies of Reagan economics and apartheid in South Africa. When Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990 and elected South Africa’s first Black president, support erupted around the world in the form of music and celebration.

Loop 3, which extends from 1991-1997, illustrates the full establishment of hip-hop as the most popular musical genre and a worldwide youth culture, framed by major events in the history of Black civil rights. In 1991, Rodney King was brutally beaten in Los Angeles by police. The event was filmed and aired across the country within hours, sparking mass outrage and protest. A few days later, Latasha Harlins was shot by a Korean shopkeeper at just 15 years old. Meanwhile, the Crips and Bloods signed a peace treaty, intending to move forward with unity rather than against one another. When the verdict acquitted the police in Rodney King’s case of all charges, violence erupted in the streets of Los Angeles, as people in the area had grown tired of the blatant disregard for the lives of Black people. Much like Michael Stewart decades prior, Black people saw themselves in Rodney King and could stand it no longer. Korean businesses were overtly targeted, with almost half the damages experienced by them alone. Rodney King called for an end to the violence and asked for everyone to get along. The result was that police brutality escalated even further in the city in the coming years.

In the years following what would come to be known as the LA Riots, a new generation of hip-hop artists, the sons and daughters of the 60s Civil Rights Movement, emerged. This included a surge of female hip-hop artists that heavily dominated the scene, including Missy Elliott and Salt-N-Pepa. Debates raged around their honest and often sexual lyrics. Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. also developed their careers, and either intentionally or unintentionally began a feud between the East and West Coast rappers. This feud culminated in both their deaths and led the media to question why hip-hop and violence seem to be so intertwined. In truth, the deaths of these two rappers inspired a countrywide conference between major hip-hop artists, who agreed to end their feud and be more conscientious of their rap lyrics moving forward.

The fourth loop in the evolution of hip-hop spans 1998-2020. It sees the rise of the internet and a new form of music distribution; the emergence of Eminem, hip-hop’s all-time bestselling artist; the complete expansion of hip-hop around the world; and the creation of Black Lives Matter, the 21st century’s Black civil rights movement. In the late 1990s, Lauryn Hill emerged as a new type of female rapper, who sang about the issues Black women specifically faced. Her lyrics and bold attitude would inspire many more after her. Around the same time, Dr. Dre was producing Eminem, a white hip-hop artist who grew to fame with his catchy songs and multisyllabic rhymes, along with the help of his producer. Eminem’s success brought hip-hop into the mainstream on an entirely new level and brought hip-hop to white audiences in a new way. His success sparked controversy as people questioned whether he was culturally appropriating hip-hop. Eminem grew more self-aware as the years passed, eventually singing about this reality in his own lyrics. Just a few years later, Kanye West would emerge from the suburbs with Graduation. His lack of experience in the projects and ghettos most hip-hop artists were from led to criticism, but he proved himself when he spoke out against George Bush on live television. When George Floyd was killed by police in 2020, protests not unlike those in Los Angeles in 1991 or Watts in 1965 erupted across the country. Particularly in Los Angeles, many businesses were burned, and many lives were lost. Once again, hip-hop artists came together and called for an end to the violence. Jeff Chang concludes his book with a reminder about the purpose of hip-hop and the messages it sends. Hip-hop is a tool for expression, empowerment, creativity, and unity.