Author speaks on interplay of music, culture

Near the end of Jeff Chang’s lecture, “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” he opened the auditorium up to questions.

Several seconds went by with no response.

“Well lets go sign books,” said Chang, trying to relieve everyone of the awkward silence.  It spurred something different though, as one audience member after another asked questions and shared their thoughts with the contemporary arts and hip hop aficionado.

TNL sat down with Chang before the author’s to talk about his background and insights into hip hop culture.


TNL: How long have you been passionate about hip hop?

I heard “Rappers Delight” when I was 12 and got into it back then.  When I found out there was whole culture to it- there was like a whole music thing, there was whole visual art to it, there was a whole dance to it, there was a swagger- I was all about it.

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When you tell people you’re an author and you write about hip hop, do you find people have a lot of misconceptions about hip hop culture?

Yeah I think so, I try to tell folks it is not just what they see commercially; that it is a youth culture, that it is a worldwide global culture, and that it is local.  And the stuff that I am really interested in is what people are doing with hip hop at the local levels… One of the things we are doing at Stanford is … researching how folks are using hip hop in education, in high schools, after school programs, for middle school kids… It gives students voice you know to talk about the kind of issues they are facing.  That is the kind of thing hip hop has always done, and in that regard, we are just continuing to do the work hip hop kind of inspired us to do all those years ago.

So did you have much of a sociological background?

I studied economics in college which was kind of a waste of time.  I’m just sort of a life long-learner man, I got a masters degree in Asian American studies in graduate school and I write history… I’ve been interested in the ways that folks who are creating art bust open all kinds of new possibilities for us in terms of how society can be organized…  These pieces of art aren’t just the kind of stuff that are about escapism or fun or joy- they should be about a lot of those things, they can be about a lot of those things, they can be about darker emotions as well.  But at certain points in time… they become catalysts for people to be able to build new structures of thinking about society, of governing themselves, of offering alternatives to the current political system.

(Hip hop critic) Rembert Brown said sometimes hip hop …is a form of communication…that’s very unfiltered and raw… that’s why it gets issues out there that people don’t talk about…

Yeah… like Chuck D called hip hop it the “Black CNN” famously; he called it that back in the early ’80s.  For him, he was thinking rap being an alternative news network for folks, ways to find out what was really happening in “Young Black America” …  MoTown used to call itself the “sound of young America,”and so I think what Chuck was doing was saying, “yeah, it’s also the news network of young black America in the 80’s.”   … Back then you wouldn’t necessarily go to CNN to find out what was happening if you lived in New York City (or) in Oakland; or if you lived in Oakland, what was happening in Houston; or if you lived in Houston what was happening in Miami.  But you could do that just by passing around mixtapes, people would be telling  their stories; so in that way it was kind of an alternative news network… It’s less about the particularity about the news but more the visceral feeling of the news.

Do you have some favorite artists that you want to throw out?

I’m really loving the new Kendrick album, really loving the D’Angelo record.  Musically, I’m a huge fan of what they are doing in (Los Angeles), like the whole kind of Flying Lotus and Thundercat, Erykah Badu, Low End Theory – everything that comes of there I want to hear.