Total Chaos - The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop


Asia One in motion. Photo still from Rachel Raimist's movie, "Nobody Knows My Name".


Excerpt from the Introduction

Hip-hop is one of the most important global arts movements of the past two decades, moving beyond rap music to transform theater, dance, performance, poetry, literature, fashion, design, photography, painting, and film. Through essays, interviews, roundtable discussions, and more, Total Chaos provides a deep, incisive look at the hip-hop arts movement in the voices of its pioneers, innovators, and mavericks.

Total Chaos is Jeff Chang at his best: fierce and unwavering in his commitment to document the hip-hop explosion. In beginning to define a hip-hop aesthetic, this gathering of artists, pioneers, and thinkers illuminates the special truth that hip-hop speaks to youth around the globe."
—Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture and Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, And the New Reality of Race in America

"Jeff Chang, whose Can't Stop Won't Stop is nothing less than the finest rap history extant, envisions a future in which the four hip-hop 'elements'-MC'ing, DJ'ing, B-Boying, graffiti-generate a polycultural, transnational, sampled-and-bricolaged vanguard in theater, dance, poetry, fiction, painting, and design. Uncommonly inspired anthology...readable and provocative."
-Robert Christgau, Rolling Stone

"There are people out there who are as expert on the subject of Hip-Hop as Bubba, Forrest Gump's homie, is on shrimp. Jeff Chang is one of them...the book dispels any doubt that Hip-Hop has enough substance to be an academic subject with 363 pages of poignant commentary on the future of a genre in a hectic tug-of-war between the mainstream businesses and the purists. 4 Stars!"
-Sidik Fofana,

"A thinking man's take on hip-hop culture...This is a collection whose interest in hip-hop goes deeper than the latest 50 Cent beef. Edited by Jeff Chang, author of the acclaimed Can't Stop, Won't Stop, it includes essays, interviews and text experiments that feature some of the genre's most stimulating thinkers, journalist Greg Tate and DJ Spooky included...debates such as the one on hip-hop design raise intriguing issues unlikely to be aired anywhere else. 3 of 4 stars."
-Q Magazine

"A lively anthology of essays from the frontline of hip-hop, reflecting the staggering impact of the genre on art, dance, literature, film and virtually every artistic medium. No doubt it's already on Kim Howells' Christmas list!"
-Metro London

-"Perfect for hip-hop enthusiasts, academics, or anyone interested in one of the most powerful cultural movements of the 20th century, Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop is a must buy in 2007."
-Format Magazine

"Total Chaos traces the genre's impact on visual art, literature, film, theater, and dance. But, more compellingly, it looks at the music through underrepresented and sometimes oppressed groups within the culture...While Chang is a more-than-qualified cross-cultural theorist to discuss these topics, the book's authenticity is cemented by the participation of a few dozen writers, artists, and activists lending their voices as authors and panelists in written's worth wading through Chaos to discover underlying concepts on how hip hop threads together so many different people and artistic disciplines."
-San Francisco Weekly

"2005 American Book Award-winner Jeff Chang presents hip-hop's past, present and future as seen by some of its founding figures, guiding lights, journalists and scholars… Part manifesto, part apologia, the collection takes on such topics as the aesthetics behind hip-hop photography and graffiti, offers an informative history of hip-hop dance and assesses hip-hop's effects on literature and theater, while pursuing debates about identity, sexuality and homophobia.”
-Publishers Weekly

"Total Chaos presents a worldwide collection of material dug deep from a diverse, creative hip-hop well...Total Chaos speaks to both academics and fans of the vastly beloved but equally maligned art form."
-Metro US

"(An) engrossing read!"
-Cleveland Scene

Introductory Essay by Jeff Chang


1 Harry Allen Dreams Of A Final Theory
2 Anthony "Amde" Hamilton of the Watts Prophets Nommo
3 Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Yet Another) Letter To A Young Poet
4 Jorge POPMASTER FABEL Pabon Physical Graffiti: A History Of Hip-Hop Dance
5 Joe Schloss The Art of Battling: An Interview With Alien Ness
6 Greg Tate, Vijay Prashad, Mark Anthony Neal, Brian Cross Got Next: A Roundtable on Identity and Aesthetics after Multiculturalism Roundtable

7 The Pure Movement and the Crooked Line: An Interview with Rennie Harris
8 Eisa Davis Found In Translation: The Emergence of Hip-Hop Theatre
9 Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Kamilah Forbes, Traci Bartlow, and Javier Reyes From The Dope Spot To Broadway: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop Theatre, Dance, and Performance
10 Adam Mansbach On Lit Hop
11 Bill Adler Who Shot Ya: A History of Hip-Hop Photography
12 Cey Adams, Brent Rollins, and Sacha Jenkins Words And Images: A Roundtable on Graphic Design
13 Lydia Yee, with Nadine Robinson, Sanford Biggers, Luis Gispert, and Jackie Salloum Between the Studio and the Street: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop Visual Arts
14 Paul D. Miller The City In Public Vs. Private: Through a Scanner Darkly

15 Oliver Wang It Was Written: The Aesthetics of Hip-Hop Journalism
16 Kevin Coval "L-vis Is A Pioneer" or Legacy, the VH1 Special
17 Dave Tompkins Burn Rubber on Plastic Bubbles: The Art of Dave Funkenklein
18 Danyel Smith Black Talk and Hot Sex: Why Street Lit is Literature
19 Juba Kalamka and Tim'm West It's All One: A Conversation
20 Joel Tan Homothugdragsterism
21 robert karimi how I found my inner DJ
22 Joan Morgan and Mark Anthony Neal A Brand New Feminism: A Conversation

23 Suheir Hammad Brooklyn
24 Staceyann Chin Falling For Bob Marley
25 Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi Inventos Hip-Hop: An Interview
26 Shaheen Ariefdien and Nazli Abrahams Cape Flats Alchemy
27 Raquel Cepeda Afro-Blue: Incanting Yoruba Gods in Hip-Hop's Isms
28 Cristina Verán with Darryl DLT Thompson, Litefoot, Grant Leigh Saunders, Mohammed Yunus Rafiq, and JAAS Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop's Global Indigenous Movement

29 Walidah Imarisha Untitled Poem
30 Roberta Uno Theatres Crossing The Divide: A Baby Boomer's Defense of Hip-Hop Aesthetics
31 Eric Arnold, with Rachel Raimist, Kevin Epps, and Michael Wanguhu Put Your Camera Where My Eyes Can See: A Hip-Hop Film Roundtable
32 Codes And The B-Boy's Stigmata: An Interview with Jeffrey DOZE Green
33 Revolution: An Interview with Brett Cook-Dizney
34 Rha Goddess Scarcity & Exploitation: The Myth & Reality of the Struggling Hip-Hop Artist
35 Danny Hoch Towards A Hip-Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip-Hop Arts Movement

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", "post-multicultural theatre", "post-black art", "urban outsider art"—by critics trained to classify trees while lost in the forest. Perhaps this is simply because the hip-hop arts movement did not undertake to formally announce itself in such circles, as in Antonin Artaud's 1938 manifesto The Theater And Its Double or the 1971 Black Arts Movement anthology, The Black Aesthetic. Perhaps this is simply because, despite all the interest in the talking, the hip-hop arts movement has been chiefly concerned with doing, which is just what it has done, organically, for over three decades now.

Harry Allen, the pioneering hip-hop critic and the first self-proclaimed "hip-hop activist", likens the movement's development to the Big Bang. Its vanishing point is in the Bronx, somewhere around '68. Its "epoch of inflation" is the six-year period before recorded rap. Sometime between the middle and the end of that epoch, Afrika Bambaataa famously articulated the outlines of the hip-hop aesthetic by defining four primary "elements", its founding genres: DJing, MCing, graffiti writing, and b-boying/b-girling. In Allen's formulation, before 1979, together these constituted "one, never-to-reappear 'superforce,'" After that, anything could happen.

Sure enough, upon its Athena-like downtown appearance at the turn of the 80s, hip-hop seemed to have already outrun the avant-garde. Graffiti art was celebrated as a reaction to minimalism and conceptualism, an "outsider" art that correlated to postindustrial dislocation, confronted “drop-dead” government with kids-eye creativity, and encapsulated all that was transgressive and progressive in the moment. B-boying’s radically democratic reclamation of public space and its aggressive athleticism reinvigorated modern dance. DJing brought the noise for the postmodernists’ interest in rupture, repetition, and bricolage, and MCing seemed perfectly tailored for the poststructuralists’ obsession with textuality.

Hip-hop's internal creative force does not rest. In the time that it takes for a group of kids in the neighborhood to go from wide-eyed young'n's to confident teen arbiters of style, slang, swing, and swagger to grown-folk moving on and out (and then declaring the next set of kids to be the murderers of their natural-born hip-hop, which, of course, is completely true), the culture has turned over again, leaving the universe with a whole lot of new matter to deal with. So from kids battling in roller rinks, shopping malls, and city centers to teens showcasing in cultural centers and nightclubs, we have adults taking over the performance space, the theater stage, and the soundstage. From kids painting graffiti on trains to teens customizing canvases, we have adults rethinking painting, sculpture, graphic design, installation art, and architecture.

Why not? The alternative to an outsourcing, McJob world is to get busy. Maybe the new hip-hop universe must expand to fill the vacuum left by the old. If the hip-hop generation was the first to enjoy the freedoms of a post-civil rights world, they were also the first to see the repeal of many of those same freedoms. In the word of the Cuban rappers, we adopt the spirit of inventos, not merely building on the advantages afforded by the ever-shrinking revolution, but recognizing the necessity of starting fresh, making the something that we want to grow the nearly nothing that we got from the other thing that we were promised.

Enter the hip-hop artists. They share a desire to continue to break down boundaries between so-called high- and low-art, to bring the street into the art-space and the art-space into the street, to make urgent, truth-telling work that reflects the lives, loves, histories, hopes, and fears of their generation, the hip-hop generation. Heir to the Black Arts, the postmodernist and multiculturalist movements, head high amidst all of the terms batted about to try to frame the imperatives and urgencies of Now—such as post-Blackness, polyculturalism, globalism, and transnationalism—hip-hop is where flux, identity, revolution, and the masses mix, and keep on expanding.


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