Jeff Chang is the executive director for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. He has written two books on hip-hop in America, Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. I spoke with Chang about Apple's acquisition of Beats Music, and what it means for hip-hop. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kelsey McKinney: When we talk about the commercialization of hip-hop, how do these purchases like Apple with Beats headphones change or not change society at large?
Jeff Chang: What we have now is marketing in which black cool reigns. So, if Lebron, and Dre, and Jay and Bey and everybody else say, "this is cool," then that's what white kids want as well, what chicano kids want, what Native American kids want. That's what all the kids want, and that's what's important today.
On the one hand, there's obviously opportunities there for there to be cultural exchange. We can't ignore that there's something happening there that could be potentially positive. If you and I have no other way of connecting with each other than for the fact that we both have Beats by Dre headphones, and we both happen to be listening to Kendrick Lamar, then maybe there's a connection that we're having that could be potentially transformative of us both.
On the other hand, we also can't ignore that just because you purchase something, doesn't mean that a cultural exchange is happening. Just because I buy these headphones because all of these black artists are saying I should, doesn't make me any more knowledgeable about black struggle or anti-blackness. On the one hand it's an opening, and on the other hand, it's a foreclosing. You open the door to a potential discussion here, but you foreclose the opportunity because it all becomes transactional. There's no exchange except for a transactional exchange. This cultural desegregation we see in our images is often mistaken for "well, we're all good now. We're out in space beyond race." It's something that we have to be really, really careful about.
KM: How do we reconcile this issue of rappers and hip-hop artists who are fighting for this equal society, but making millions and millions of dollars?
JC: What you have to understand is that hip-hop is literally the hinge upon which the global pop culture economy turned from largely serving middle class, suburban American households, to serving the world. Consumer goods companies had to make a switch from creating the lowest common denominator product for middle class American suburbia to serving the world, which is largely young and not white. Hip-hop was the perfect vehicle to do that.
To create millionaires and billionaires within hip-hop is part of the evolution of that particular trend. It's about companies realizing in the mid-90s that if they were going to move to the world, then they needed to find people who could engage them in buying into this particular capitalist ideal of "more goods, more happy." The desegregation occurs in order to able to facilitate this notion that "if you're sad, you buy; if you're happy, you buy." In that particular context, it makes perfect sense to have these spokespeople for these particular brands being faces of color. It's just how you sell things now in a world where no market is to be left alone; in which all markets need to be incorporated into the main one. It leads to these crazy types of images like Jay-Z making Occupy Wall Street type shirts. This is the central contradiction of right now.
KM: Let's go back a bit. Can you tell me about what you call "the hip hop generation"?
JC: I can look back at it through the lens of middle age and say that at that particular time, I think that we threw around that term "hip hop generation." It was something that a lot of us were using to distinguish ourselves from folks who called themselves the Civil Rights Generation. And what I find now is that my students don't really have too much investment in the term "hip hop generation" like those of us who came of age during the 80s, 90s, maybe 2000s maybe did. If generations are fictions, maybe somebody might be drawing a fictional line for the "hip hop generation" somewhere around 2005. I used to say that a cycle of style in hip hop lasted 3 to 4 years, so that's two full cycles. From print jackets to skinny jeans, to whatever the fuck now. I definitely feel like 20-somethings now, don't feel invested in the term hip-hop generation at all.
KM: So what would you say the Millennial generation's association with hip-hop is?
JC: What is interesting to me is the continuation of the notion of hip-hop as a culture and a movement that gives voice to people, and that allows people to feel connected all around the world. At the same time, there's a really strong sense that if you wanted to treat hip-hop as a movement, then maybe its best days are past it. A lot of my students, I find, shockingly seem to feel nostalgic for the hip-hop of eras before they were born.
What I'm trying to say is that there's a tension now between the sense of hip-hop being something that can transform the world on one hand, and it being also the language of globalized consumer culture around the world. I see that as a huge tension that hasn't been resolved in favor of those who believe in social justice and transformation. And yet, it's what is there for people to grab on to if they want to express a desire for change. I suppose in that instance, we are possibly in a transitional phase, and somethings going to come along and knock us over the head and we're going to be like "this is what we've been waiting for."
KM: Can you talk about the importance of the sense of urgency that pervaded — and maybe still pervades — hip-hop?
JC: I think that when you look at hip hop's emergence into sort of becoming the lingua franca of youth, of global youth, it's happening in a period between the mid-80s and the mid-90s when young people of color are finding their voice and at the same time, sort of creating this powerful, artistic movement. The thing about it is there are just moments in everybody's life when you feel like you're apart of something that's bigger than you. You find it, and you're in the moment, and everything is there. And I think that's what hip hop captured for us during that period.
So artists from MC Lyte all the way up to Ice Cube and artists like Lauryn Hill, and Erykah Badu, and Outkast and The Roots and DJ Shadow. All of these folks were capturing sort of a moment for us. I feel like those were the years in which everything was just tactile. You woke up in the morning and you knew what you were doing and you did it. And that's maybe how a lot of young people are feeling now, about something else that I don't even know, and that perhaps people can't put their fingers on just yet.
KM: It's a common refrain that history repeats itself. What kind of loops are you seeing between hip hop today and this so-called golden age of hip hop in the mid 80s and 90s?
JC: There are two main things that I try to draw people's attention to. One is that what we are experiencing now is the return of the culture wars. What we began to see with Obama's election was that on the one hand there was this narrative that we were about to hit escape velocity and vault out of American racial history and enter into this new era in which race is no longer a thing. But moments after that, you have the tea party backlash, which is all about race. I think that the movement around class inequality got reignited out of that particular set of the return of the culture wars. If you kind of go back to the summer of 2009 when the opposition against Obama is beginning to adhere. A lot of the rhetoric is not that implicitly racist, it's pretty explicitly racist. And I think that ushers in the return of the culture wars, which we've kind of been living in ever since.
The loop we are seeing now is the kind of culture wars that began during the late 80s when all of a sudden people are starting to say "look at all these college campuses, look at all these schools, it's never going to be a country where there are going to be sort of a stable white minded majority." That's what I think initiated the culture wars in the 1980s was the shock of the elites at the changing demographics. And then hip hop accompanied the change of the culture. Because most of the world is young and not white, what you have is hip-hop as a movement fighting through all of those years in the midst of the culture wars. When there was a fight that broke out at a hip-hop concert immediately it because the stuff culture wars. It became all people of color who are young, they are violent. There are all these different kinds of things that are coming back in a huge way. The question now is: are we better prepared to deal with the culture wars than we were then? And I'm not sure that the answer is all positive at this point?
The other refrain I'm seeing is the really interesting way in which young people are able to forge for themselves openings into the popular culture despite the continual push toward global media monopolies. Most of the rappers who were big in, say, 2005, were in their 30s and heading into their 40s pretty quickly. At that particular time there was a lot of worry about the impact of monopolization and the plunge on the record companies on the other. The markets that took it on the chin the most were always going to be the hip hop and urban markets. Pretty much the entire decade of the 2000s is the story of the disappearance of an entire structure that allowed for all of these new voices to be able to be heard, and the dissolution of that into the monopolies.
People would ask all the time, where are all of the political rappers? On the one hand, they're all out there, but on the other hand, there's no distribution for them, and y'all are downloading this stuff for free. What we find is after a good 6 or 7 years of this, people just start putting their stuff on the internet for free. And that's why we have all of these opportunities for artists. It starts with Drake, it starts with Kid Cudi, it starts with [Wiz] Khalifa. Suddenly you have a new sort of flowering of artists that are coming into this. What that tells me is that hip hop is still vital because people are still finding ways to reach their audiences. And as long as that's there, as an artistic movement hip hop won't ever die.
KM: Do you feel like productive conversations about race are happening in hip-hop right now?
JC: I do. I'm very optimistic about that. The biggest controversies and some of the biggest discussions this year have been about people's relationship to identity and how to understand them. Last year, there was a big conversation around Kendrick Lamar's album and how he was able in many respects to illustrate the continuities from the so-called "gangsta rap" of the 80s and 90s to now: the sort of continuation of impoverishment of entire neighborhoods, and really illustrate the personal stakes that are raised for people who are growing up in abandoned neighborhoods and surrounded by gang violence.
That was a real conversation. Anyone who was really listening to that album had to think about it. And then the next conversation that people had was sort of a meta conversation that Macklemore won a grammy and he was saying that Kendrick Lamar should have won it. The progression of the debate from an interesting discussion to something cringeworthy was so rapid. But even within that, there were a lot of really interesting issues that were raised about race, about how literally rewards in American society are racialized. About the question of who gets credit for raising certain kinds of issues in debates. So that Macklemore, a straight white guy, gets credit for raising an argument that Sissy Bounce and "homo hop" had raised so much longer before that.
There you have in that sort of a perfect example for these openings for discussions to be had around the complexity of these different types of issues and then media and the marketplace and the immediate foreclosing of those arguments and it becomes about how much did you sell. It gets personalized and minimized and rushed off the stage.