Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, Edited by Jeff Chang, Basic Civitas, 382 pp., illustrated,, paperback, $18.95
With hip-hop approaching 30 years of age, the effort to document its history has entered its second stage. Following an initial wave of mainstream histories like "The Vibe History of Hip-Hop," the intellectuals are casing the scene, looking to explain, quantify, and categorize the tidal wave that hit popular culture in the late 1970s and has yet to recede.
Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang, editor and guiding light behind "Total Chaos," began the effort with 2005's superb "Can't Stop Won't Stop," an impressively researched history of the form that began with the internecine gang wars of the late 1960s Bronx and ended with hip-hop ascendant in the early '90s. It was no accident that Chang chose to end his work there, a good 10 years before the present day; his central thesis, which regarded hip-hop as a mobilizing force for social protest and progressivism through the angry, politically astute music of Ice Cube and Public Enemy, would have a hard time remaining relevant when exposed to the light of "In da Club" and Young Jeezy .
Chang's elision of the present in "Can't Stop Won't Stop" makes more sense as a take on hip-hop when assessed in tandem with "Total Chaos," a collection of essays, poems, and scribbles on contemporary hip-hop culture written by a motley crew of journalists, activists, spoken-word performers, and academics. Chang is diametrically opposed to hip-hop's current status as lifestyle music, and its concomitant fascination with loose women, crack sales, and the virtues of Desert Eagle semi-automatics . Instead of the lyrically agile but intellectually and morally dead-end wave of contemporary MCs, he celebrates a hip-hop that is roots-oriented, organic, and unabashedly political.
As a result, Chang and his contributors choose to look beyond the music, finding inspiration in the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks , the spoken word of "Def Poetry Jam," and the documentary films of Rachel Raimist and Michael Wanguhu . Chang argues insightfully that this, too, is hip-hop: "Hip-hop is one of the big ideas of this generation, a grand expression of our collective creative powers. But when recognized at all, the hip-hop arts have often been divided into subcategorical themes -- 'spoken word poetry,' 'street literature,' 'postmulticultural theatre,' 'post-Black art,' 'urban outsider art' -- by critics trained to classify trees while lost in the forest." This is an eye-opening statement, intended to transform the way we think about hip-hop culture, but Chang's essay sets the bar for "Total Chaos" very high: so high that most of its contributors fall with a thud, either too pedantic, too pessimistic, or too hip-hop patriotic to soar.
If there is an elephant in the room -- an enormous, mostly unspoken presence shunted out of the way for smaller, nimbler creatures -- it is hip-hop as a musical form. Hip-hop music is almost entirely absent from "Total Chaos," replaced with extended discussions of hip-hop journalism, dance, theater, and activism. One can sympathize with Chang's desire to remake hip-hop in his own image (progressive, urbane, hyperarticulate, and polite) while acknowledging that it does not quite add up to a full portrait.
There is a reason that practically every contributor to this volume feels compelled to make mention of 50 Cent; Fiddy 's muscle-bound machismo and tales of gunplay and impersonal sex are the quintessence of what these lovers of hip-hop hate about the form in its current embodiment, but he also is hip-hop, circa 2006. Love him or hate him ; just don't ignore him.
Even in its angrier moments, hip-hop has always been shot through with joy -- the joy of finding one's voice, of speaking the truth in a world of lies. "Total Chaos" is strangely humorless, marred by obtuse academic jargon and a caustic brand of political pessimism entirely out of touch with the spirit of hip-hop. Without the music, "Total Chaos" loses the beat and never finds it again. Its absence creates a vacuum in which pedantry (and weak, overly college-professorial writing) thrives. "Total Chaos" wants to embrace the totality of hip-hop, but a little music would have gone a long way. A few music writers would have helped, too; Greg Tate is here , which is welcome, but where are Touré, Sasha Frere-Jones, Nelson George, or Jon Caramanica ?
All of which raises the implicit question: Just what defines hip-hop writing? It seems clear that it is not to be found in aping the MC's wordplay; too many contributors to "Total Chaos" prove the folly of even attempting such a trick. Neither is it to be found in swinging to the other extreme and imitating the bloodless intellectual chatter of the academy. Hip-hop demands smarts and savvy, but it also demands a kind of love for its history, for its highways and byways. Not many writers can pull it off.
Playwright Danny Hoch contributes an impassioned manifesto on hip-hop theater, and Danyel Smith wittily breaks down the wall between African-American literary fiction and the raucous world of street literature, but the bulk of "Total Chaos" turns the keys over to mediocre writers more intent on airing their complaints than crafting an adequate essay. Chang would have been better off writing this volume himself, investigating the less-traveled roads of hip-hop on his own. It would have made for a better book.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of "Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video From the Beatles to the White Stripes."