The culture of hip-hop grew up around four elements: DJs, rappers, breakdancers, and graffiti artists. But in Jeff Chang's view, the story owes just as much to the way "the politics of abandonment would turn toward the politics of containment." The dizzy dance between opposing forces—oppression and sovereignty, style and workmanship, mythological figures, and rank policy-makers—informs the bulk of Can't Stop Won't Stop, a rich sociological history of hip-hop as both a cloak and an umbrella.
The story starts in the Bronx, a borough that literally burned beneath the idea of "benign neglect" in the 1970s. Fires blazed everywhere, the work of arsonists hired by slumlords who had more incentive to collect insurance checks than to soldier on in a ghetto decomposing by the day. Chang focuses an empathetic eye on the people living amid the devastation, but he's just as interested in the policies that governed their backdrop: combative policing, budget cuts by a city nearing bankruptcy, track-marks left by urban planner Robert Moses, and so on. From there, Can't Stop offers a brief overview of Jamaica, where the rise of reggae as empowered protest music "made it hard to tell where the politics ended and the music began." That blur drifted toward the Bronx in implicit and explicit ways, as Jamaican DJ Kool Herc starting throwing block parties where neighborhood locals and warring gangs bowed down before cut-up funk records and disco stomps distilled down to their breaks.
On the surface, Can't Stop charts a smart history of the hip-hop movement as it's come to be understood; Chang devotes a lot of attention to breakdancing and graffiti, as well as the music. Can't Stop's real strength, however, derives from its big-picture vantage. Chang is a formidable reporter who follows individual actions to their collective vanishing point, such that principal figures like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Rakim, Public Enemy, and Ice Cube all wade in the lapping tides of black consciousness and political unrest. Chang's approach to history seems to stem from a question he poses in regard to dub, the remixed reggae sound whose focus on shadows helped set the stage for hip-hop: "What kind of mirror is it that reflects everything but the person looking into it?"