I’m good, man. I’m really good. I’m just getting ready to go out on tour and I’m wrapping up a big article. I’m trying to wrap that up. I’m just grinding.
Your new book, Total Chaos, focuses on aspects of hip-hop outside of rap. What made you want to compile Total Chaos?
It was through conversations I’ve been having since 2002, 2003. That’s when the people started coming together for it. A lot of the artists were starting to figure out that we should link up and look at what each other is doing and talk about what we’re trying to get done. What was interesting was that a lot of people involved in hip-hop theater were involved. Part of the conversation was how people think of hip-hop strictly in terms of rap music.
Anybody paying attention in the last fifteen years would know that hip-hop’s gone on to other things. People are bringing hip-hop into painting, performance art, dance and dance theater, graphic design, photography and all these other types of fields as well as hip-hop theater. There was this discussion about how we start to talk about it and what we really had going on here. The more we talked about it, the more people realized that this is the biggest arts movement in the last few decades. It’s something that’s global and something that’s affected a whole bunch of different genres.
The main thing I saw out of that is that the way we’re conditioned to think about hip-hop is the stuff that’s distributed by the big media monopolies. Stuff like hip-hop videos and big blockbuster movies are the stuff we recognize as hip-hop, but when you remove that kind of way at looking, you start seeing hip-hop in a million different ways, and in a lot of ways, the ways true hip-hoppers wanted us to see it. It puts the artist back in the picture and gives them a voice to talk about what they’re doing as opposed to the pundits, critics and scholars. When you do that, a whole bunch of different questions, styles and ways of looking at the culture emerge and that’s why it’s called Total Chaos. It’s huge and it’s chaotic.
If you look at hip-hop through the lens of big money and hip-hop as a commodity, then that’s one discussion and one story you can have about hip-hop. It begins with the folks moving it from the parks into the nightclubs in the mid-70s. Then in 1979, there is this big moment when “Rapper’s Delight” comes out and millions of people around the world are picking up on rap and hip-hop. From that point, there’s this history of how a three hour live performance gets distilled into a fifteen minute record gets distilled into a four minute pop song with a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, kick your verse and be out to something that’s an mp3 and downloadable. You can flip on your TV with your remote and never engage in hip-hop in a live setting. Even if you go to a concert, it’s not necessarily something that’s taking you out of your zone. It’s become so fixed and streamlined that’s it’s not necessarily that raw hip-hop experience that kids 25, 30 years ago were feeling and experiencing.
That’s one way you can look at hip-hop, but if you take that frame of understanding hip-hop away, then the shit looks too big to comprehend and understand. It’s an expanding universe. Everyone that’s influenced by hip-hop is pushing hip-hop in a different direction. Look at Kid Twist taking hip-hop to the galleries or Popmaster Fabel taking dance and movement into completely new forms of understanding theater and American dance, period. Then look at Cey Adams who is visually exploding all these kinds of things that people have been trying to do in graphic design for years and putting a hip-hop twist on it. People look at it like, “That’s hip-hop? I didn’t know it was hip-hop.”
It looks crazy. It looks like total chaos, but there’s a logic to it just like there’s a logic in hip-hop. We’re trying to understand it and at times it’s contradictory. Some people think hip-hop is something you do as a kid and you don’t do it anymore. Then you might have other cats who say what hip-hop is and they’re going to give you a manifesto on what is hip-hop and what isn’t hip-hop. You can have people talking about hip-hop in terms of the communities that they come from, in terms of women, in terms of gays, in terms of indigenous people from New Zealand or Chile…There are all different points of view that hip-hop represents. That’s why I say that if you don’t have the marketplace or capitalism to structure your understanding of hip-hop for you, then it looks crazy, but there is a logic for it and that’s what the book is trying to do.
Was it a challenge trying to show everything in one book?
Absolutely. The thing is, just like with Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, there is no one person that can cover everything. Even if you get fifty people together, like we did for this, there is even more than that, but anyway, if you get fifty, sixty people talking about hip-hop, you’re still not going to get the whole picture. I use the analogy of an expanding universe. Every day you wake up and there’s a new solar system being formed. It’s that big. In the end, I just have to say there is no way I can be definitive in this, but at the very least, let’s try to get people to ask different questions in hip-hop and get people to look at and think about things in a different way.
Is capitalism to blame for the imbalance of rap being in the forefront and other elements being pushed to the back?
Absolutely. I think what’s happened is rap music has become what they call a “mature industry” in the exact same way that Ford Motors is considered a mature company. When people say “mature,” they mean to say it’s hit a point where it may be at or past its peak. Ford Motors just laid off thousands and thousands of workers and hip-hop had its worst year, sales-wise. In a way, capitalism has killed its golden goose.
The arrest of DJ Drama and Don Cannon is the latest way major labels are killing rap music and trying to destroy any form of creativity and freedom. Instead, they’re trying to make money out of that thing. The whole arrest of Drama and Cannon has to do with the fact that they can’t make any money off of those mixtapes. This is an independent industry and if they can’t make any money off it, then they want to shut it down. But that’s where hip-hop’s source of vitality comes from. It comes from innovating and moving things forward. I think what’s happened in the last 20 or 30 years is people have taken these impulses and moved them into different fields.
In the long run, I’m more optimistic than pessimistic, but again, it’s because I don’t see hip-hop as the sum of what’s being released by Sony, BMG, EMI, Warner Brothers and the rest of the labels. It’s a lot bigger than just that. It’s a global movement that touches almost every aspect of art and creation that you can imagine.
If it weren’t for people like yourself who document the history and the evolution of the pioneers, could important parts of hip-hop fade away as time goes on?
Yeah. I think that a lot of people have kind of recognized that. One of the things you notice in the least commercialized forms of hip-hop is that it’s the kind of thing where a lot of the old school dancers tutor and mentor, one-on-one, the new school dancers. Rennie Harris has the Illadelph Legends Festival every year where he brings all of the innovators of the form going back to the 60s and the 70s. We’re talking about Don Campbell and Skeeter Rabbit before he passed on and Popmaster Fabel, all these people who innovated these forms, and they’re teaching the kids how to do this and how to do that.
There’s a craft to it. It’s not like you go out on the floor and just start shaking your body. There’s a code and laws that govern what looks right and what doesn’t look right. The art form is getting passed on one-by-one but it never gets captured by the media. You’ll never see that process in the media because people in the media don’t care about that because they can’t make money off of that. Those are the things that give me hope though.
Some people might say hip-hop is dead, but to that kid or to that 50 year-old, it’s a very much alive thing. I think the debate itself about if hip-hop is dead proves that it’s alive. It’s going to stay that way as long as there are people that are having that one-to-one type of interaction along with being able to make a living out of it. That’s sort of another story and another issue. I see that happening all over the world. Stuff like that is really going down.
Some artists are commissioned for pieces and are featured in museums today when 20 years ago they were considered criminals. How do you see graffiti and breakdancing continuing to evolve?
It’s respected and it’s going to transform all these different things. Now you can look at painters bringing this Italian Renaissance form to paint portraits of young, black men. That’s hip-hop. Critics might call that “urban outsider art,” but it’s hip-hop! It’s transformed all these genres but people don’t want to recognize it. Maybe they don’t have the language. I don’t know. Sometimes it’s an issue of not wanting to connect it to the larger movement or it’s ignorance to establish it to other art forms created by young folks of color. People come up with crazy names to describe this stuff and there are a lot of mislabels for what is hip-hop. It’s like that for everything that’s not in the “four elements” of hip-hop.
There’s a great chapter in the book by Bill Adler about whether or not photography is an element. A lot of mainline critics look at that and try to come up with all these analyses and analogies for what they’re doing with their camera. It’s one of those things where over time, people will begin to see how all of this stuff is connected. They’ll see how Brian Cross’ photography is connected to a DJ Shadow video to Can’t Stop Won’t Stop to graphic design…There’s all these different linkages that we’re trying to show in Total Chaos.
When I interviewed Joe Conzo, I asked him about photography being an element of hip-hop, and he said, “Of course it is.” Is writing an element as well?
I don’t even think of it in terms of elements anymore. When Bambaataa and the pioneers defined the elements, that was to define the foundation. We’re now 34 years beyond that right now. It would be like trying to describe a 34 year-old by saying he’s in the 350th percentile of a growth chart for a 2 year-old. You’re measuring their size by terms that you would have used to describe somebody when they were a child. I don’t necessarily feel like it’s a useful debate to start talking about how many elements there are in hip-hop. Are there four, five or 9,562?
As an analytical tool, it’s much better to say, “Yo, here’s an entire generation that was influenced by the pioneers and those four elements and look how they applied the aesthetics of these elements to everything that they did.” Adam Mansbach might be writing about a Jewish family in the twentieth century, but the way he writes the story could be something he observed from mixology from Kool Herc or Bam. We’re dealing with the situation in which the genealogies have gone down for many generations and that’s where we’re at.
And for Joe, Joe is somebody who didn’t begin as somebody down with Bambaataa asking for photography to be made a fifth element. He just started taking pictures. In the process of doing that, he created some of the most beautiful stuff we’ve seen in the past three or four decades and he provided a whole new language for people to understand hip-hop.
I was at this art class the other day over here in San Francisco and I asked them why they took a class on hip-hop instead of taking one on Italian futurism. They said they understood hip-hop and weren’t familiar with Italian futurism. I told them that was cool, but the reason I understand Italian futurism is because of hip-hop, because I found out graffiti writers were influenced by Italian futurism.
Hip-hop has shaped our views and we see everything through those eyes. In order to talk about the art form, we discuss it in relation to hip-hop. That’s what the pioneers left us beyond the fixed box of the four elements. What they left us is this whole entire way of viewing the world that affects how we understand politics to how we understand art. That’s what we have to give thanks to them for.
Do you think a banker or busdriver can take a hip-hop approach to their job?
Yeah, that’s exactly it. When it’s become so ingrained within people’s minds, then yeah, as long as those people are alive, then hip-hop is alive. The thing that’s amazing is how much it continues to influence younger and younger people. I don’t have any doubt that our time is passing and at some point, those of us who are aging and are in our mid to late-30s or older, that we’re not going to necessarily relate anymore to what the kids are doing.
There are all these debates in the Bay Area if hyphy and thizz is really hip-hop or if it’s something that’s entirely new. It’s an interesting debate to have, but as long as we’re around, there’s always going to be a sense of vitality to it and there’s always going to be something coming out of it. On the other hand, I can’t wait for the next thing to come along. I think at some point, we’ll outlive our relevance to describing what’s happening in society and shaping society just like the generation before us did, and I don’t want to be in the position of holding back the next generation to doing their thing.
You have a line in your introduction where you write, “Everything is classified by critics trained to classify trees when lost in the forest.” How much of that is hurting hip-hop today?
Hip-hop doesn’t need critics. Hip-hop is going to grow regardless. If you look to the earliest days, even before people recognized hip-hop, hip-hop was already strong. People didn’t start writing about hip-hop until the mid-70s and the real impetus for writing about hip-hop came in the early-80s. That’s when you see the first wave of journalists from the older generation interested in what’s going on in the black and brown neighborhoods of New York City.
A lot of times, people really get down on each other or the outside world for not recognizing what we do, but with hip-hop, we’ve always done it anyway. When we forget that, then we’re in trouble. I certainly think it’s a problem. I want people to see it for what it is and not try and call it something else. The artists want that as well.
They want their audiences and their target folks that are coming to these things to be able to experience it in the way that they’ve intended it to be experienced. At the same time, if the New York Times didn’t write about a hip-hop theater festival, that wouldn’t mean that the hip-hop theater festival would shrivel up and die away. It’s not something where we really need to have that recognition in order to be able to do what it is we’re able to do. But having that kind of recognition certainly helps in terms of advancing the culture and the aesthetics of it all because the larger audiences you’re able to bring in and the more people you’re able to mobilize, the more this thing can grow and have an impact. I had also said in the introduction that we know hip-hop doesn’t need this book, but at the same time, we’d like it to be out there. That’s what it is. That’s where we’re at.
Looking at that, is it a good thing that more colleges are adding classes teaching about hip-hop?
I was actually talking with a friend of mine who works at the Hip-Hop Archive at Stanford University and they make it a point to track all the classes being taught throughout the US on hip-hop. They’ve said that in the past three or four years, the amount of classes has actually tripled to where you have 3 or 400 classes teaching about hip-hop. Each class is around 50 to 200 students, and some will only have 10 or 20 students, but overall, you have thousands of folks who are seriously studying hip-hop every year. I think it’s great and I think it’s a fantastic thing.
What we can’t have is for the hip-hop scholarship to start mortifying the actual art itself or the politics or the culture in a large sense. You can’t have scholarship wagging the dog, so to speak. And at the same time, there are a lot of openings within the scholarship for folks to do things that haven’t been done but really should be.
One of the things that’s not studied in hip-hop scholarship is what’s happened to folks in certain neighborhoods where hip-hop was created. There is a lot more room for oral histories in hip-hop as well as the study of dance, graphic design, photography or fashion. Even film, I think there are three or four books about hip-hop film despite the fact there’s been an explosion in hip-hop film. What I think is best about it in the end is that it helps reaffirm the necessity of folks understanding the importance of race in the US and how people have been able to create resistance and to define new creative boundaries in reaction to the way that racism gets played out in the US. Over the long run, I think it’s a very, very significant field to support and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
Were you able to get everything you needed for Total Chaos?
Yeah, I think so. One book can never be incredibly definitive. I never finish a book saying that I got everybody I wanted to interview and I got everybody I wanted to participate in the book. The list I don’t get is usually much, much, much longer than the people I did get to help me with the book. But I also see Total Chaos as an entry point for folks looking at the study of things and maybe this will set off some bombs in people’s heads where they may understand something and try something they wanted to do but never thought they could. Hopefully there will be a couple of pieces in Total Chaos that will be able to do that for folks.
As you started putting everything together, did your vision for Total Chaos change?
What happens is that, in any project, you start doing it and you have a picture of what you’d like it to be, and then as you’re going through it, things happen and suddenly there’s a whole new direction that you can head into and that opens up new ways of picturing it.
Total Chaos began with conversations with people that were primarily doing hip-hop theater or dance theater work. But as we expanded it, at some point, it was like, “Wow, there’s all this other stuff that hasn’t been covered at all.” For instance, I was looking into the visual arts and then of course, when that happens, it evolves into photography and video and all that. It evolved into what it is today.
I’m sure if we waited another year and built up the size of the book, there would have been more areas that opened up. I was on tour with Stacyann Chin and I was like, “Stacyann, you should really be in this. Let’s figure out a way to do that” and her piece ended up being about globalization, sexism and sexuality and how that plays out in Jamaica and Brooklyn and all these other kinds of issues. It’s something that I don’t even think was on the drawing board in the first discussions of what the book could look like.
Between this and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, it’s obvious you do a lot of work and research to pull these projects off. How much research do you put into your projects?
It’s funny because research makes it seem like work. It makes it seem like I get up and start reading from page 1 to page 1001 and I take copious notes and then go into a cave to write. It’s actually the opposite of that. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop came from all the work I’ve done as a hip-hop journalist dating back to 1991 and being a journalist concerned with race issues. That sort of evolved and things began to pile up.
At some point, it was like, “Oh, wow, there’s this narrative that’s clear going from the late-60’s to the present that can be put together. Maybe there’s a project here.” With the support of hundreds of people, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop came into being. I think Total Chaos is the same type of thing.
If you go to a hip-hop theater festival, you’ll see some pieces that you’re really moved by or you’ll see Rennie Harris doing dances that he did in Philadelphia before popping came along and you’re inspired to find out how all these dances fit together in space and time. Philadelphia did stepping, which is a cross between tap-dancing and pop-locking. Then when popping came in via Soul Train and TV shows and people moving to Philadelphia from California, he really got into popping and from there, he goes to work with the Magnificent Four, which is one of the first groups to present the dance in theater spaces and then there’s this whole evolution of dance theater.
You go and you find this kind of stuff out and you’re like, “Wow.” It’s not work at all. It’s really just a joyful process, to quote Funkadelic. It’s the kind of thing where all these things sort of lead into one another. I guess what I’m trying to say is I didn’t have a linear kind of process saying, “This is where it’s going to go and this is how it has to be and here is my thesis and let me go out to prove it or disprove it.” It’s the kind of thing where you end up with a pile and you have to describe the pile.
How have you grown as a writer and how has your perspective on hip-hop changed from when you started in 1991 to now?
It was really a fan-type of thing when I started. I was DJ’ing at this radio station at UC-Davis and I was hanging out with folks like DJ Shadow and Chief Xcel, Lyrics Born and Lateef. I was learning all types of stuff about the breaks and the different aspects of the music and the culture that I thought I knew but maybe I didn’t really know as well as I thought I did. And so when I started writing, it was from that point of view where I was somebody that was really wide-eyed and taking everything in.
I think over the years, one of the things that I wanted to do was develop a sense of how the culture fit into a context and big events happened during that time like the LA Riots or the Million Man March. These different kinds of events ended up being crucial to vast amounts of people and the deeper you get into it, the more you appreciate exactly how much of it goes back to the African Diaspora, whether you’re talking about the rhythms or the words that are used. You begin to learn all about that. I think the development of that over time is how I grew. It was never linear. It was more like a spiral.
I had done a record with the Lost Prophets, who were the contemporaries of the Lost Poets. That was in 1994 or 1995. We linked up again and we were talking and I told them, “You guys taught me stuff in 1995 that’s taken me 12 years to understand.” That’s how the process goes. You’re taught a lot of stuff, but sometimes it takes time to really get it. Plus the different kinds of places that I wrote for and I edited for really improved my craft of writing.
When I started Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, I tell people this all the time, every time I sat down at the keyboard, I was in over my head because I didn’t know how to get what was in my head out. I had written a Master’s Thesis, but I had never written a 700-page book, which is what the first draft of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop ended up being.
I’m going to get started on a third book pretty soon, I think. It’s the same kind of thing. It’s going to be a process of figuring it out. I don’t know how to go there with this and I don’t know how to write this particular story. I guess I’ll have to fake my way through it until it either works or it doesn’t. I guess that’s the story of my writing career.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming writers?
Two things. One is read a lot. It’s like this thing, for whatever reason, because a lot of hip-hop writers come from not being trained, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s a perfect example of how hip-hop gives voice to the voiceless. It’s not like you have to go to J-School or go work at a newspaper or do fiction writing in an intensive writing workshop and do seminars with top novelists to be able to go out and write a piece. But having said all that, it helps to do what those folks do, and that’s read and read and read. I’m not the type to say, “You need to read this and read that.” I just say read, because what you find after awhile, just like how some music hits you, there’s going to be some writing that hits you and after awhile, you’ll be able to observe those rhythms and pick them out and find out where you want to go.
Ultimately, where you want to go is to find your voice where you’re writing to the point where you’re writing and when you’re reading yourself, you can hear yourself talking back to yourself. Does that make any sense? It’s the kind of thing where once you get in there, you recognize that it’s your true voice and all kinds of beautiful things can start happening in your writing. But nobody can become a king without learning from the masters first. You kind of have to go through that too, and part of that is biting at first and then at some point, you arrive at the point where it’s you and you can feel it. It’ll give you all kinds of confidence to be able to move your work forward.
In terms of the business level of it, there’s sort of a good and bad to it. The good is that there is more outlets than ever for somebody to get published in. The bad is that the pay is worse than ever. It’s probably harder now to make a career as a writer than it was ten years ago. With that being said, there’s no lack of audiences for what’s being written. You have to do it the hip-hop way and just go out and do it and not necessarily worry about the things that a lot of folks have holding them back. You have to just go and do it and get in there and get your arms dirty. In doing that, you’ll find yourself becoming something.
What are your ultimate goals for Total Chaos?
There are three things. One is, as we talked about so much earlier, is basically to show people the impact the hip-hop arts have had on the world over the last two or three decades. Secondly, it’s to be able to get people to move away from having the object of study or fascination just be the stuff that gets distributed by these vast media monopolies. The third, and I think equivalent to the other two, is to center the artists’ voices in these discussions because I think we’ve lacked that a lot. We don’t listen to the artists a lot of times. We, as writers, will just kind of get in their way and reinterpret what they’re saying for other people and twist it. There aren’t enough books that are primary documents that are the sources telling the stories in their own words. That’s what Total Chaos is trying to be.
What do you want to say to everybody?
I think you can’t ever fail if you’re doing the thing that you love. You can’t fail.