Great Stories From Hip-Hop

I recently finished Can’t Stop Won’t Stop , Jeff Chang‘s history of hip-hop music. The writing is of variable quality, but the book’s a phenomenal read because the stories are just so damn strong.

I’m not going to review the book here (Amazon does a great job) – and hey, you should read it yourself – rather, I thought I’d share two of the many great anecdotes from the book.

The first regards The Clash and their NYC tour of 1981 (NYC was good to them; the legendary cover of London Calling came from the ’79 tour). The Clash always sought influences outside of rock ‘n roll (half their hits are reggae covers) and here’s what they did on that tour:

[The Clash] were set to play eight nights in June 1981 at an aging Times Square disco, the Bonds International, and they announced their stand with a dramatic unfurling of a magnificent banner painted by FUTURA. But on the eve of their opening, the fire department threatened to shut down the club for overselling the shows, and the fans finally had their white riot when mounted police stormed down Broadway to meet the punks in the street.

The Clash compromised by agreeing to perform eleven additional gigs, and hurried to find opening acts. In yet another naive act of solidarity, they booked Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But, as Michael Hill wrote in The Village Voice, “Rather than achieve a cultural crossover, it threatened to widen the gap.”

When Flash and the Furious Five stepped onstage on The Clash’s opening night, the white punks stood bewildered as Flash began his “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” routine on three turntables. Then the Furious Five, dressed in fly leather suits, jumped onstage and started rapping and dancing. Some in the crowd began shouting in disgust. They hadn’t come to see no disco. When Flash paused so that the Five could try to regain the crowd, the crew found themselves ducking a hail of beer cups and spit. The next night, dressed down this time in street clothes, they suffered the same reception. They left the stage angrily with Melle Mel admonishing, “Some of you-not all of you, but some of you-are stupid”, never to return.

Most music fans I know would give their eye teeth to see The Clash and Grandmaster Flash on the same bill, but the world wasn’t ready for it in ’81. Some things are just ahead of their time.

The other great story regards why hip-hop was able to become an unstoppable cultural force. It started out as a NYC local sound and was actually competing against other regional sounds – notably Washington D.C.’s go-go. Go-go is basically party music and so was a lot of early hip-hop (Rapper’s Delight and The Breaks anyone?) so why was hip-hop able to pop while you’ve never heard of go-go?

Despite the best efforts of Chuck [Brown], E.U., Trouble Funk and Rare Essence, go-go never crossed over. When the ’90s came, New York execs rushed to sign hip-hop acts and stopped returning D.C. artists’ phone calls. Go-go survived as one of the last independent, indigenous Black youth cultures.

It was an industrial-era music for a postindustrial era. Just as it was when Chuck Brown walked out of Lorton, bands’ fierce competition to remain atop the club scene remained the primary engine of go-go music. Making records with three-minute hit singles, the thing the music industry was most concerned with, was an afterthought. Economics partly explains why, after the 1980s, hip-hop went global and go-go remained local.

But there was also something else, something which Reo Edwards put like this: “I was talking to a go-go songwriter one time. I said, ‘Man, you need a verse here.’ The guy said, ‘The rototom‘s talking! Hear the rototom?’ there, the rototom telling the story.’ Okay. Alright. You know what the rototom is saying. Maybe the people in the audience know what the rototom saying. But the people in Baltimore don’t know what the hell that dang rototom is saying!”

He shakes his head. “Go-go’s got the same problem today as it did back then. You don’t have no good storylines. Hip-hop,” he pauses for emphasis, “tells stories.”

I’ve always loved the stories told by great hip-hop song (I’m thinking The Message, C.R.E.A.M., One Love, Hate It or Love It) and think they’re some of the most powerful narratives ever in song. Hip-hop’s domination is, in part, due to the power of storytelling.