Rappers and writers discuss hip-hop culture at 826CHI

Hip-hop writers, poets, performers and fans came together Tuesday night at 826CHI in Wicker Park for "A Night of Hip-Hop Poetry and Conversation."

Journalist Jeff Chang read from his American Book Award-winning history of hip-hop, Can't Stop Won't Stop and poet and performer Kevin Coval read from his new collection of poems, Slingshots: A Hip-Hop Poetica. Also present were rapper and poet Idris Goodwin, who performed several pieces, and Village Voice journalist Harry Allen, who read one of his published essays.

The first selection from Can't Stop Won't Stop that Chang read described the block parties of rap pioneer DJ Kool Herc in New York City in the 1970s. Chang traced the links Herc's parties had to sound system music in his native Jamaica. Chang's book has been called the most definitive rap history yet written, and his stories of rap's origins were vivid and engrossing.

Coval performed spoken word poetry with a rap cadence for the silent, head-nodding audience. A self-described "Jewish kid from the suburbs who kicks raps," the themes that Coval takes on in his new collection of poems, Slingshots: A Hip-Hop Poetica, include personal reflections on Judaism, hip-hop, Israel and Palestine. His performance of "The Day Jam Master Jay Died," his poem after Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died," included the memorable line, "My path back to Judaism was paved with breakbeats." Coval is also the co-founder of The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, where he teaches workshops on poetry and organizes a youth poetry slam tournament.

Coval also performed a call-and-response piece with Goodwin, who is a rapper and a teacher who has recently returned to Chicago after a teaching residency in New Mexico. Goodwin was positive and enthusiastic, emphasizing rap's ability to create community and to further personal expression.

Goodwin's views were counterpointed by the distinctly pessimistic Allen, who read from a March 2000 essay called "Dreams of a Final Theory," a reflection on rap's origins and its future. He wondered whether rap might be "destined to expand forever, until it is cold, dark, and dead."

The theme of hip-hop's origins was recurrent in the evening's discussions. For many rap fans, the origin of rap in New York City in the 1970s has taken on mythic proportions. Allen asserted that before the release of "Rapper's Delight" in 1979, "hip-hop's four fundamental forces--m.c.-ing, d.j.-ing, [breakdancing] and [graffiti] writing--were united in a way that, after that time, they would never be again."

Chang also read from what he called "the most difficult section of the [Can't Stop Won't Stop] to write." His discussion of Ice Cube's Death Certificate, in particular the song "Black Korea," is an unflinching look at the anti-Asian sentiments that were a part of much hip-hop in the early 90s. The song spews bile at the Asian shop-owners in inner city neighborhoods, and Ice Cube uses racial slurs and threatens to burn down their stores. Chang, who is of Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry, did not excuse Ice Cube's lines, but did attempt to understand their causes. He included interviews with black store-owners from South Central Los Angeles who had sold their stores to recent immigrants in the early 90s, leading to the perception that the neighborhoods were being "taken over" by Asians. For Ice Cube, Chang read, anger at Asian immigrants grew out of "fear of being overrun by change."

A Q-&-A session followed the performances and readings, as Chang and the others discussed race, class and hip-hop culture. Asked about the divergence of underground and mainstream rap cultures, Chang noted that underground hip-hop has gravitated toward a more privileged audience. "Underground rappers make a living from touring," Chang said. "They tend to go to places in Wicker Park as opposed to the South Side, for instance, because those are the venues that will put down that guarantee for them."

Chang, also the co-founder of the multicultural, liberally inclined Bay-area record label Solesides (now Quannum), also spoke about the industry's current structure. "It's galling," Chang said, "because when we started out, we were the norm."

Allen reflected that in the future, hip-hop would likely come to resemble jazz and blues: institutionalized, accepted, no longer dangerous. This led to much tedious discussion of racial appropriation, corporate homogenization, and plenty of doomsaying about hip-hop's future. As the conversation threatened to turn into a graduate seminar, Chang spoke up. "I want to take this in another direction," he said. "We're talking about it as if hip-hop is already dead. One of the great things about rap is that you can't put a cup over it and contain it. I know that my kids will one day say to me, 'Your stuff is old,' or whatever their word for old is. That's what makes hip-hop great: it's always changing and evolving."