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Jeff Chang Can’t Stop and He Won’t Stop

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Millennials will never know a world without hip hop, and frankly, we’re all better for it. Author, journalist, scholar, and all-around visionary Jeff Chang joins Amy and Rebecca to share about his first introduction to hip hop, how its music serves to liberate listeners, and where non-Black appreciators fit in. He also weighs in on which album is better: The Low End Theory or Midnight Marauders?

The other part of it that’s inherent in hip hop and all Black music, African American music are the seeds of our freedom, our liberation of thought, writ large, we can talk about that.But literally, like, hip hop gave me a voice. Hip hop made me want to write actually, hip hop made me want to take a spray paint can and spray my name on the wall, or spray a name on the wall of an identity that I was assuming. And so that, you know, is liberating and because of the way that we understand where it comes from, and the history of all of that, it has massive social ramifications. So it’s not just personal kinds of implications, but it has social ramifications as well.

Jeff Chang

Make sure to check out Jeff Chang’s Top 6 Hip Hop Must-Listens.

An Edited Transcript of Our Convo:

Rebecca Lehrer: You are listening to The Mash-Up Americans.

Amy S. Choi: Hey, I’m Amy Choi.

Rebecca Lehrer: And I’m Rebecca Lehrer and we are The Mash-Up Americans. Today, we are celebrating one of the most important aspects of our souls, hip-hop.

Amy S. Choi: Beats, rhymes and life, Rebecca. Beats, rhymes and life.

Rebecca Lehrer: We’re going to get into my tribe obsession later. We’re talking about hip-hop and how music and culture shape us and give us really access to ourselves.

Amy S. Choi: That’s so good.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s so good.

Amy S. Choi: It’s so good.

Rebecca Lehrer: And we’re doing it with one of our favorite people, Jeff Chang. He’s the award-winning author of several books on hip-hop culture, race, segregation, all the things. His book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation was selected as one of the most important books of the past 25 years.

Amy S. Choi: Jeff has also started a record label, helped launch the careers of a few people you may know, like DJ Shadow and Blackalicious, and he’s just an all-around A plus human who we are so lucky to have in our orbit.

And next year, he’s coming out with a book on Bruce Lee and the formation of Asian American Identity, which is something of interest to us, and we are very excited to read.

Rebecca Lehrer: Very. So, there’s so much. Every time we talk to him, we leave inspired about the potential of music and community and liberation and humans and ourselves. We’re going to be all right. Right, Amy?

Amy S. Choi: We are. We’re going to be all right. Here’s Jeff.

Rebecca Lehrer: Okay. Well, let’s start with this. Happy birthday to hip-hop.

Amy S. Choi: Happy birthday.

Jeff Chang: Happy birthday.

Rebecca Lehrer: One of our closest companions and friends that fills much of our souls, our souls full of mischief. Just a pun, for our Northern California hip-hop lovers.

Jeff Chang: I approve.

Rebecca Lehrer: You approve.

Jeff Chang: Yes.

Rebecca Lehrer: There’s a lot of till infinity that I make jokes of in my house that fall flat with the children. So, we’re under 50. Let’s say we’re averaging circa 50s in-

Amy S. Choi: If you want to talk about appearances, Jeff Chang is sitting squarely at 28.

Rebecca Lehrer: 28, oh.

Amy S. Choi: You’re just going to live there.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, my God, a salt and pepper 28.

Jeff Chang: Thank you.

Amy S. Choi: That’s just like my husband.

Rebecca Lehrer: Ten out of 10. This is harassment. Sorry.

Jeff Chang: No, flattery will get you all everywhere. Yes, indeed. I’m buying lunch.

Rebecca Lehrer: Okay, done. So, we were just talking about this before we got started, but there’s never been a world for me and Amy, at the very least, that has been without hip-hop. This pop culture phenomenon, that’s the context that we exist in. We don’t know anything different.

Thank God. I can’t imagine the loss to my life and soul. It’s pretty extraordinary to think about, especially as we’ve grown up with it being at its nascent and then becoming just absolutely standard part of pop culture.

But for you, do you have a sense of when its newness for you and when you were young and how you first understood like, “Oh, this is something I’m interested in engaging with.” or that the world was starting to engage with?

Jeff Chang: Yeah, absolutely. So, I probably was hitting teenage? No, not that old. I was coming out-

Rebecca Lehrer: By the end of this, in the math, you’re going to be like… people are going to try to do the math. They’re like, “Is he 100? Is he 107?”

Amy S. Choi: No, he’s 19 with silver hair. It’s great.

Jeff Chang: I’m not that old. Yes, thank you. So, yeah. No, I definitely remember that period where Rapper’s Delight hits school and everybody’s trying to learn all the lyrics. And we’re there and people are doing two or three lines, and then they forget and the other person will pick it up and eventually everybody knew all the lines.

And it was like that on the basketball team or at lunch or after school or that stuff. It was like, “Wow, what’s this?” Then, a little bit later on, you start finding out about, there’s a whole visual culture attached to this. People are taking spray paint and they’re going up to subway cars and they’re doing these murals on whole cars for free, for the benefit of New York City.

And you’re like, “These are kids doing that?” The rebellion in that and the beauty of it and all that stuff just sparked all kinds of things. And of course, the dance and the music and the whole nine and trying to go out and buy the records or wait until, oh, here’s something that’ll date me.

Like waiting to listen on the AM station until they are going to play the 15-minute version of Rapper’s Delight. So, you have your finger on the record button waiting to record it, right?

Amy S. Choi: Love.

Jeff Chang: To make your little pause tape or whatever. Yeah, that was my era.

Rebecca Lehrer: Did you ever listen to the box?

Jeff Chang: Absolutely. And sitting there with your VCR and doing all that, yeah, totally.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, my God.

Amy S. Choi: But I also love that you were doing this six hours earlier. I’m visualizing these Chinese Hapa local kids on the Punahou campus being like, “Oh, Rappers Delight.”

Jeff Chang: I don’t know what was happening on Punahou because I didn’t go to that school, but it’s okay.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, I thought you were at Punahou?

Rebecca Lehrer: No, he went to the other one.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, you went ‘lolani.

Jeff Chang: I went to ‘lolani, which again, yeah, is like-

Rebecca Lehrer: Competitive private schools.

Jeff Chang: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: I know this is very relevant to so many people.

Jeff Chang: That’s Stanford, Cal, USC, UCLA-

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. Two competitors.

Jeff Chang: … all of those, the Michigan, Ohio State. You just stepped in it, Amy. Sorry. But yeah, no. Whatever they were doing at Punahou was probably okay. But at ‘lolani, I can tell you, we were killing it in the lunchroom.

Rebecca Lehrer: So, whatever year, we are amorphous right now, but-

Jeff Chang: ’79, ’80, yeah, around that, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. So, we’ve got AM Station late at night or whenever, maybe it’s actually the middle of the day because it’s coming and you’re in Hawaii. But what are the places you’re learning about it? Was there a cool old pal? Or where are you learning that there’s this-

Jeff Chang: No. Yeah, that was a beautiful thing is you had to go out and find it, right? So, I actually remember the time that Wild Style Charlie Ahearn and Fab Five Freddy’s amazing movie, which also celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. I remember when it came to the, what was called the Academy of Art, it was a museum.

And somehow, I found out, I was reading the newspaper or maybe I was listening to KTUH, which is the left of the Dial College radio station at University of Hawaii. And they said, “This is happening.” And I got super excited.

And I got all my brother and my little graffiti pals and stuff, and we all went down to watch this movie in the Academy of Art Theater, and there were like four hippies there. This is no disrespect, because obviously I’m much older than them now.

But there were older hippies from the 60s wearing tie-dye shirts, but there was four of them there. And then, there was this posse of us just soaking it up. And in that movie, you have Lee coming down and he’s got this mural and he’s coming down and he’s repelling himself down a rope down a wall, and you’re just like… and then, they’re in the train yard.

And then, they’re running from the cops and then the music, and then showing the clubs and the Bronx. And then, we’re just all about it. We’re like, “What is this? How do we do this?” And just this period of copying that happens where everybody is searching for that one picture of a Futura 2000 mural in a magazine and cutting that out, and anything that you could find and books that are coming out.

And then, PBS aired Style Wars. And one copy got made and that got passed around the entire island. And you come back and it’s like somebody’s showing you Style Wars and it’s like this pixelated whatever grainy type of thing. And you’re like, “Oh, that’s the copy of the copy of the copy of the copy that my friend originally taped.”

And so, that’s how we did it. And it was a total underground scene. There was maybe, I don’t know, under 1,000 kids in all the islands that were really into all of this stuff. And it was just a thing that we could speak our language to each other.

But then, of course, a little bit later, it spreads and it spreads and it spreads and it becomes… everybody in the islands is about this. I’d say that’s probably by about the 1990s, like the early 1990s, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: But can I say something about Rapper’s Delight though, which is just our maybe 10-to-12-year age difference is that by the time I was in fifth grade, shout out to another great Asian American lady, Charlene Miyagishima, my teacher. We did our learning science to the tune of Rapper’s Delight.

Jeff Chang: Did you really?

Rebecca Lehrer: The nucleus controls the cell. So, in terms of-

Jeff Chang: Wait, this is a podcast, so you all couldn’t see Rebecca’s hands-

Rebecca Lehrer: Movements.

Amy S. Choi: Where our hands-

Jeff Chang: Amazing.

Rebecca Lehrer: I have to find the full lyrics. But there was something how much that had already permeated that our teachers were now using it to teach us something else in that rhythm that meant it was just… it was our vernacular already.

And this is in elementary school in Los Angeles. So, I don’t know. It’s amazing to think about the ways that it’s… as you’re describing that literally going across the island. And we’ll get into these ideas of identity and who gets to do what.

But there’s something so beautiful here about just being something that resonates so deeply that you’re just like, “This is for me.” These kids, and there so many were kids in the South Bronx or whatever. There’s this line that’s connecting us across AM radio.

Jeff Chang: Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: Jeff, you just gave us this beautiful description of how music can become part of our identity and how hip-hop became part of yours, and just that full immersion and craving or desire to be in this and to want to be a part of something that you can see as a movement of all different forms and all different mediums.

And I wonder, does hip-hop have a deeper power to bring people to make it part of their identity, really? Like part of who we are more so than any other form of music? We think like, “Oh, there’s punk kids, there’s goth folks.”

Is there something or what is different or unique about hip-hop that people embrace it and can dive completely into it maybe in a way that other forms of music or other genres do or don’t do?

Jeff Chang: Well, I think music at that particular age, when you’re 10, 11, 12, 13, music becomes a core part of your identity. It helps you to try to distinguish yourself. You’re starting to be able to decide who you are and how you want to present yourself and what you’re about, and what are the values and that thing that you’re trying to represent.

I mean, you’re not thinking about it in that deep way, right? If you’re goth, then you’re thinking about, “Oh, here’s what I need to wear to show that I’m this a person.” Hip-hop was definitely that for us at that age, for sure.

Rebecca Lehrer: I’m reading your friend Hua Hsu, is that-

Jeff Chang: Hua, yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. I’m reading Stay True right now.

Jeff Chang: Stay true, absolutely.

Rebecca Lehrer: And so, much of it is about, this is his memoir, Pulitzer Prize winning, I believe about, it’s a memoir, but there’s so much about music and also about this idea of especially when you’re growing or trying to figure out how much you want your identity to be wrapped up in what your taste is-

Jeff Chang: Yeah, exactly.

Rebecca Lehrer: … in some ways too.

Jeff Chang: Yeah. Hua just captures it in Stay True where it’s literally about here are the zines that I read. Here are the zines that I make. Here are the bands that I listen to. Here are the bands that I definitely don’t listen to, and how that sets me apart from you.

It’s that distinguishing type of peace that you’re going, that process that you’re going through where you’re trying to distinguish yourself from other folks. But the other part of it that’s inherent in hip hop and all Black music, African-American music are the seeds of our freedom, of our liberation, of thought writ large. We can talk about that. I have all kinds of opinions about that.

But literally, hip hop gave me a voice. Hip-hop made me want to write, actually. Hip-hop made me want to take a spray paint can and spray my name on the wall or spray any name on the wall of an identity that I was assuming. And so, that is liberating.

And because of the way that we understand where it comes from and the history of all of that, it has massive social ramifications. So, it’s not just personal kinds of implications, but it has social ramifications as well. And I don’t know, we could get into all of that later.

But I think that that’s the thing is hip-hop started me on a path. But I often tell people, I’ve written a book now about the arts and contemporary art and the art world and that thing. And I’ve written about all kinds of music that’s not hip-hop, music from all around the world.

And it all came through that process of openness and inquiry that hip hop gave to me. So, that it wasn’t just about finding a voice and then scurrying off and doing that little writing in my little hole and stuff, and just being inside my head. Hip-hop literally opened the doors to the world for me. And so, everything that I do and understand, I say, that was the entry point for me. It was hip-hop.

Amy S. Choi: That’s so beautiful.

Rebecca Lehrer: I already cried.

Amy S. Choi: I know.

Rebecca Lehrer: So rude.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, just wait, Jeff.

Rebecca Lehrer: Get out of here, Jeff. This was-

Jeff Chang: I’m sorry. Wait, I have to pick up the mic here, you guys. I just dropped it. I’m sorry.

Rebecca Lehrer: Okay, already was sorry. I was about to do another quote. Some more quotes.

Jeff Chang: Dad jokes. Dad jokes.

Rebecca Lehrer: We can’t help it. It’s who we are.

Jeff Chang: It’s who we are. It’s my age.

Amy S. Choi: You’re 19.

Jeff Chang: I’m 19, yeah.

Amy S. Choi: I think the anniversary or this birthday of hip-hop has also surfaced a lot of angst about what hip-hop has become. And it is the commitment to that openness and artistry and real community building and participation and what you describe in Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop of just, you call it polyculturalism, we’d call it mushiness.

Does that still exist now? Do you see, when you’re out in the world that our kids are 10- and 11-year-olds still finding that same entry point, their lens and their opening into the world through this music?

Jeff Chang: First of all, polyculturalism, big shout out to Robin DG Kelley and Vijay Prashad. That’s just me quoting them. And hip-hop being this quote machine, right? I don’t know how 10-year-olds are coming to hip-hop now, right? I don’t know how you all came to hip-hop, actually.

I know how I did. And I know how you did now because explaining it to me, but I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. We’ve had these discussions before too, right? Is it the style or the genre or the category of music? Or is it the technology that is giving young folks the feeling of freedom? Or is it-

Amy S. Choi: The rebelliousness or the content?

Jeff Chang: Yeah. I can speak for my generation and say that we were rebelling against a lot of stuff, and that hip-hop gave us a natural way to be able to express it. So, for me, this is really weird, but the founders of hip-hop are young Black kids and Brown kids who grew up in these abandoned neighborhoods in New York City.

They’re walking through neighborhoods that have been completely bombed out, completely abandoned in which buildings are burned to the ground, schools are closing, social services are drying up, and that thing. That’s not what my experience was in Hawaii, in Honolulu, growing up in Honolulu at that time.

But at the same time, it was hip-hop that gave me a way to be able to comment and understand and process all the change that was happening to us going from the 70s into the 1980s and the 1990s in Honolulu, which is a massive amount of offshore investment and development and all these buildings going up.

So, I’ve told people in the past, I was mad at concrete. And so, if I see these kids who are making these beautiful things on subway trains, I’m thinking… I don’t even have to think that deeply. It’s like visceral. It’s like, “Oh, man, you just put that new building up? I’m going to go tag it.”

It was an impulse. It wasn’t even the thing where you had to process it in a conscious mind. I wasn’t reasoning or justifying myself. I was just like, “Oh, I can do that now.” I have the agency to be able to do that now?

Rebecca Lehrer: What was your tag?

Jeff Chang: I started with Slim. And then, when I redid the tag, then I went to SL2. Yeah, so that was my tag.

Rebecca Lehrer: Okay, just confirming.

Jeff Chang: Confirming.

Amy S. Choi: Have any of your children ever gotten arrested for tagging anything?

Jeff Chang: No, they have-

Amy S. Choi: Have you ever had to pick them up? No?

Jeff Chang: They have not. They’ve not. Yeah, they’ve not. Not for tagging. No, this is where actually the public and the private where I’m erecting a wall here between us in the middle of this podcast.

Rebecca Lehrer: No, of course.

Amy S. Choi: I didn’t think-

Jeff Chang: Next question.

Amy S. Choi: I think we’ve all had many, many times the conversation about, and it’s getting to be a stale one, about appropriation versus appreciation or just where in particular, I think, Asian folks fit into hip-hop, and it’s a Black art form. It is the ultimate American art form in the way that I think all of us are looking at it.

And there is still, I think, a question for a lot of people about how do I fit into this? Or can I claim this as part of me or my own? And I wonder just what your take is on that.

And you’ve had so many deep and profound conversations about this over the years that are available for everybody to read. But one thing that really stuck out to both Rebecca and I is in a documentary series, a short series that you did based on We’re Going to Be All Right.

It’s available on YouTube. Everybody should go watch it. You featured an artist, Randy McPhly, talking about music and gentrification and community all along. And he says the line, “Hip-hop is an authenticity of self.”

And does that ring true to you? And does that authenticity of self feel a mantra for anybody that is a lover of this art form and a lover of all the expressions of this art form that aren’t Black?

Jeff Chang: Mm-hmm, yeah. It’s interesting. Yes, we’ve been talking about this like a nauseum. But there’s also ways in which we haven’t talked about it deeply. So, let’s start with this idea of culture as property. I’m not down for that. So, I’m not into this thing of my house is my house. And I’m putting a fence around my house, and you can’t step into my house unless I invite you in.

That’s not how culture works. Artists make and they’re influenced by who they’re influenced by. And then, they put it out into the world and they want to move people with that, right? They want to move people with the art that they make.

And if you are able to relate to that particular piece that actually brings us closer together, it doesn’t separate us. It doesn’t fence us off from each other, it brings us closer together. And that’s what I’m really interested.

That’s the conversation I’m really interested in. Having said that, we know that we’ve had to live in a society in which culture has become property. People have been made into property, right?

Amy S. Choi: Commodities.

Jeff Chang: People have been made into commodities. We have to deal with that. We have to deal with the legacy of slavery. We have to deal with the legacy of genocide and colonialism. We have to deal with all those things. And how do we do that?

I don’t think that we do it by replicating the conditions that brought us to that, which is, again, fencing things off, saying, “This is my property.” That would limit me to only being able to talk about my little block on the island like 10 feet from the fish pond. You know what I mean? Not 10 feet, about 100 yards from the fish pond, but I’m not interested in that.

Rebecca Lehrer: I like that precision. Thank you.

Amy S. Choi: Yes.

Jeff Chang: Yeah. But that’s what I’m saying-

Rebecca Lehrer: Just in case, you guys go to Martin Chang’s house and you got to do the measurement.

Jeff Chang: To celebrate. Yes, that’s exactly it. It’s 100 yards. But just to say that, right, it sounds crazy, right? It doesn’t sound right. How far inside do we have to go to define what is ours and what we can then create? That’s not how any artist thinks. Why should we close off what the experience is that you want to have and where you want to go?

Why should we foreclose that? Especially if it’s going to be something that’ll bring us closer together or allow us to unpack or understand a little bit more about what the human condition is and to reveal that to other people.

I think that that’s the revolution, right? That’s the revolution. And we keep on coming back to Toni Cade Bambara’s thing that the job of an artist is to make the revolution irresistible. Well, the revolution is about bringing us closer together, eliminating the boundaries between us.

Eliminating the inequities between us, and trying to move away from the injustices of the past, I think, which includes all the things that we enumerated before. So, if that’s the case, then, the artists should be able to be allowed to move where they need to move.

But having said that, what we know is, is that everybody inhabits a body that’s in a space that’s definitely going to be gendered, racialized, and is going to be born into a particular class. And so, having that as a starting point for trying to build an authenticity of yourself is crucial. You have to know what that’s about.

And doing that should take you into inquiring about where it is that you’re going when you’re presenting yourself, right? Because all of those things, in terms of even the presentation of yourself, that’s how other people are perceiving you based on all of these other things that society is putting on you as well as what you’ve revealed from your internal type of self.

You’ve got to deal with that. You’ve got to be able to deal with that. So, I am more forgiving than some of my peers and my students and friends are sometimes around some of these questions of appropriation, because people are able to change and grow as long as they’re alive, right?

Amy S. Choi: Yeah. Oh, no, now, I’ll cry.

Rebecca Lehrer: Can I just go to Professor Chang’s class all day? Best class.

Jeff Chang: I don’t think it absolves us of criticism though.

Rebecca Lehrer: No.

Jeff Chang: And that’s the other part of it. So, I’m not trying to say this to shut down the arguments or that thing, or be the professor at the front of the class who’s like, take notes and then go home and ponder this and then-

Amy S. Choi: Then, I will. I am-

Jeff Chang: … repeat it back to me.

Amy S. Choi: … I’m literally doing that right now.

Jeff Chang: No. If it fits you, then it’s good. But if it doesn’t, then we can have a discussion and then maybe I need to change my mind. And that’s the good thing about it. But that’s what it is, right?

Rebecca Lehrer: Yes.

Jeff Chang: It’s a conversation, right? It’s a discussion. That’s what art should be doing.

Rebecca Lehrer: It also feels like an interrogation over time. I think even the things that, let’s say you learn these lyrics at some point, or you are into it in a more performative way, let’s just say. Oh, everyone around me is doing this. Or something moves me in it, I like the beats.

I like the showmanship of this particular performance. Just thinking about Biggie or something, a big jacket. You’re into the thing. But over time, as your eyes open and you revisit those same lyrics or that same music as you’re learning more over time and growing, and I can speak to myself stuff that I somehow hit my soul.

Then later, I could understand intellectually. And I’m like, “Oh, this person was describing exactly all the inequities that now I’m coming to become more aware of, be awakened to, that I didn’t totally understand from my small corner of the world, but I’ve known them through music for 30 years or 40 years, right?

But it’s like the revisiting and the growing you’re doing yourself allowing for that, like, “Oh, okay, someone was telling me this. I didn’t hear.” It’s the same thing with listening to Tracy Chapman. I’m like, “This song could literally be written today.”

It’s the same story written. Or you listen to Hurricane by Bob Dylan and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, this is anti-police, anti-racist anthem.” That’s a storytelling. It feels like it could have evolved into a hip-hop song later if you’re familiar with it, but it’s like the same great art. You can keep meeting it over and over again in your life.

Amy S. Choi: I do also love that idea, Rebecca, that you’re saying, of meeting it over and over and how that relates to this incredibly beautiful concept that you laid out, Jeff, that that interrogation of self actually leads to real intimacy with other people. That is actually how you are going to do the thing that builds community, that breaks down walls.

That allows us to build something new and fresh and break a boundary and move forward in a beautiful way. You can only do that if you have a way, and that music can be that entry point into yourself.

It’s not necessarily something extractive like an entry point into another culture, but into you. And it’s just such a big and profound idea that if we get to know ourselves, we can create a whole new world.

And I think if I look at the broad strokes of your work and your writing and thinking about art and music and race and identity, it always comes down to what it means to be in community or what a community is and how to build one, and what are the pressures on a community. Could you define for us what community is for you? What different forms does that take?

Jeff Chang: Wow, that’s a beautiful and difficult question. Well, it’s just the self and the other, right? And closing that gap. That’s what it’s about, really. And so, I claim a lot of different communities. And we could talk about them in terms of this is my East Bay community.

This is my community of writers. This is my community of folks and the Chinese American community. This is my native Hawaiian community. This is the Filipino American community. You could be very numerical and just list those out. But I think it really just has to do with how do we think of ourselves when we walk out the door.

Who are we when we walk out the door? And what are our responsibilities to each other and what are the roles that we need to be able to play for the greater good for what’s happening outside of our doors? And I think so much of American, and I use American to talk about specifically the US here.

But American life is, so much of it has an undercurrent of retreat, like retreat behind your doors, behind your fence, behind your surveillance camera, behind your gun, behind… that peace. And I feel like I understand where that comes from, right?

I understand that to walk out the doors to invite yourself to be vulnerable and to suffer, to experience pain and suffering or to see it in others and to be overwhelmed by that. But that’s, I think, also the part that makes us human. Thanks for saying that, Amy.

I’m not sure. It’s certainly an aspiration. When you write, you’re in a room by yourself, or actually, now that I’m in this co-writing space in Berkeley, shout out Page Street, I might be writing in a room with other writers and stuff. But we’re all very quiet and we’re focused on what it is that we need to do.

But you’re inside your head. And yet, what I hope for is that people will pick up something that I write and they’ll look at it, and we’ll be able to begin a conversation that way. So, it’s the process of making the work and then the joy of seeing it get out into the world.

And then, the compounding joys of being able to engage in people, I agree with you, or I disagree with you, or you got this wrong, or you got this really right, or this made me think of this, right? Which is Hua’s book. Hua’s book is doing this for millions of people right now.

And people can see in this very personalized, very specific, very Asian American story at UC Berkeley during this particular period in the 90s, like themselves, and have these amazing-

Rebecca Lehrer: I can smell those-

Jeff Chang: … [inaudible 00:33:45] conversations on the-

Rebecca Lehrer: … vintage sweaters that he’s describing. I’m like, mm, mm, smells-

Jeff Chang: Musky, teen spirit. Smells like teen spirit.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, so smells like teen spirit, like Caribbean Cool, the flavor. But I want to say, I feel, I think I just have a mash-up revelation, so thank you 10 years into this. We talk about what you just described as your communities is really what we think of as our mash-ups, our hyphens of our identity.

And that looks different for everyone. Or when we ask, “How do you mash-up?” People might say, “I’m Chinese American, born in Hawaii.” or people, that’s somebody you might fall into that. Or, “I’m a writer Chinese born in Hawaii.” The layers of however you identify, what does that look like for you?

And we always talk about the hierarchy. Those move around sometimes depending on the circumstance, the stage of life, it’s all connected, but you just described it in the form of community. And we always describe it in the form of identity.

And I think even though that’s what we often are talking about, we’ve never really named it that way, Amy, this idea like, “No, these are my communities. That’s part of my identity. That’s my hyphen.” Those are my mash-ups, is my communities, which they are.

When I say I’m a Salvador and Jewish Angeleno woman, you’re like, “Those are my communities.” And they’re also ways I see myself or am seen or feel connected in. And I love this shift to the community piece of that. So, thank you for that.

Jeff Chang: Oh, thank you. Thank you all for that. Yes, identity and community, they go together, right? They’re in relationship with each other.

Amy S. Choi: There’s a way in making the shift from identity to community that makes it very blissfully less American. It’s less about your single identification or how I put myself into the world and more about my relationship and the beauty of, what is it, reciprocity or just that connection soul beaming quality of being in community.

That also I think leads to another obsession of ours, which is connected, but an idea of home. And I think that what you define community as can sometimes be a proxy for where’s home for you. Where’s your spiritual home? Where’s your creative home? Where’s your artistic home?

And I don’t know that our culture gives us very much space to ask that question. I don’t think it does, because we are handed these things in the American worldview that’s like, well, you’re a mid-westerner or you’re an elite coastal person, or you are Black, or you are Asian, or you’re rich or you’re poor.

But does that define the usness? It’s starting to feel more and more limiting in a way that I think even 10 years ago or in a lot of different identity movements, it’s about claiming that identity and taking it back and making it all of who we are. And now, I feel like more of not a retreat, not a backing into the corners the way we were talking about before, but more of like a, oh, but we can also break this open.

Jeff Chang: Yeah. I like this notion that Kwame Anthony Appiah has put out. He calls it The Ethics of Identity. And I maybe think about it maybe just a little bit differently than he does. But I think about it in a way of… so, a lot of times identity movements come out of… they’re generated by a condition of lack or of a less thinness.

So, that people feel like identity movements are restorative in that way. But when do we cross the line from the restorativeness of the movement into an aggressiveness of it? And that’s where ethics come in. So, the way I’ve been trying to think about it, I’m doing this Bruce Lee book and stuff, and I’ve been thinking about it in terms of-

Amy S. Choi: Well, wait, hold on. Please, real cash. He’s like, “I’m just doing this Bruce Lee book.” So, I’m going to set the table for our listeners, which is that you are the preeminent Bruce Lee scholar also?

Jeff Chang: I’m not. I’m really not.

Amy S. Choi: You are-

Jeff Chang: I do not want to claim that. No.

Amy S. Choi: Okay.

Jeff Chang: I do not.

Amy S. Choi: You’re a Bruce Lee scholar.

Jeff Chang: Yeah, I guess so.

Amy S. Choi: Jeff’s new book that is coming out in 2024?

Jeff Chang: Hopefully, yes. If I can finish it. I need to finish it. I need to go back and write it right after I get off with you guys.

Amy S. Choi: When he goes back to his silent room filled-

Jeff Chang: My desk.

Amy S. Choi: … with other writers that-

Jeff Chang: Yes.

Amy S. Choi: … it’s about the relationship of this iconic figure, Bruce Lee, and the development of Asian American politics and identity. So, I just want people to know that as you go into whatever you were going to say.

Rebecca Lehrer: Go on.

Amy S. Choi: Go on, Jeff.

Jeff Chang: So, the way I’ve been thinking about it is martial arts, right? Martial arts, martial war. These are war arts. These are arts of war. And it’s really mind blowing in this moment to try to be thinking about martial arts in the context of rising violence against those of us who have been racialized by other folks as being Asians.

So, we get looked at a certain way, and then people attack us. And then, that makes us come together even more because we need to protect ourselves. It’s a lack of safety, it’s a lack. So, in that regard, identity becomes even more important to us.

But then, as we assert that Asian Americanness, then how far does that go? And then, that brings in a whole bunch of other issues that we can talk about that weren’t on the scheduled program. But everything, we can talk about all kinds of things with relationship to that, but I’ll just stop it right there.

So, anyway, it’s led me to think about, okay, so, when you go to a martial arts school, a lot of times, the first thing they’ll talk to you about is you’ll never raise a fist in anger or aggression. You raise this in self-defense only if you really, really have to.

Most martial arts schools will say that, right? They have to establish a set of ethics around the use of these arts of war. And in the same way, we have to be able to think about if we are asserting a particular identity at one point, does our making of community begin to impact other communities in potentially negative ways?

So, the question becomes for the martial artists, when does martial arts cross the line from self-defense into unjustifiable aggression? And I think in the same way, we have to establish an ethics around identity to say, okay, we need to be able to protect ourselves, yes. We are underrepresented in leadership in institutions in this country, so we need to be able to advocate for that, yes.

But at some point, when does it become this thing of they’re discriminating against because of whatever reason? And it’s no longer a lack of that you’re coming from, but you’re coming from a position of we’re Asian American, therefore we deserve this no matter who else is out there.

So, you have to establish an ethics around that in order for it to feel right. You’re not crossing the line from self-defense into aggression. You’re not crossing the line from a lack into an imposition of yourself on somebody else.

Amy S. Choi: It’s like what you were saying earlier, it’s a liberation. It’s like a stepping into yourself and stepping into a community.

Jeff Chang: But the liberation piece, when do you actually say we’ve been liberated and our job now is to liberate others. And because of the position that we have as being in between in this racial hierarchy-

Amy S. Choi: The racial bourgeois?

Jeff Chang: Well, the racial hierarchy as it’s structured in the US. Since we’re in between, how do we think of ourselves and what our roles and responsibilities are to other communities? So, that’s where identity meets community is at that point, and where we have to be able to negotiate that. And out of that, I think an ethics needs to be determined for us in order to be able to move forward in a way that feels right. That feels pono. So, that’s just-

Rebecca Lehrer: That feels what?

Jeff Chang: Puno which is the Hawaiian word for so many things, it’s justice, what’s righteous, what’s balanced, what’s correct. There’s a lot of different concepts in that word.

Amy S. Choi: I always think of, and I will say that I came to this piece of thinking and writing embarrassingly late in my life. But what you’re saying here, the Mari Matsuda essay or her speech about we will not be the racial bourgeoisie.

Jeff Chang: We will not be used, yeah.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah. Specifically, because of who we are, we have this role and a responsibility to play in the shaping and the formation of what it means to be American. It’s just, I’m thinking now, I know we have to wrap up. But I actually can’t remember, I don’t remember the moment the way either of you do of how hip-hop entered my life.

It was just like the water that we were in and that we slam in. But I was thinking this summer at the Brooklyn Public Library, the main library has been a huge hip-hop exhibit. And the whole beautiful front of the library is covered in Jay-Z lyrics. And the center display thing that usually has like, oh, this author is coming to do a talk, or here’s this community event.

It has this huge image that says the Book of HOV and my kids, my nerdy little Brooklyn kids, Asian Hapa kids, they went to library camp, like culture camp right there. So, I would drop them off for two weeks and they would just be walking past the library at 7:45 and just reading Jay-Z lyrics. And I was like, “Oh, this is just…” they literally have no idea that this was something that would just happened.

Jeff Chang: Beautiful.

Amy S. Choi: They go in and it’s a museum where they’re getting water in a pee break, and it’s all about hip-hop. And there’s something that I would like to know. Two last questions. One is Wu-Tang is for the children. What do you hope that the kids are going to get? And what, this was a big question of ours, is what are your five essential albums that all the kids need to know? What do the children-

Jeff Chang: That’s so hard.

Amy S. Choi: It’s not your five essential, but what are the five that the kids need to know that we can leave with our people so that they’re properly… they’re bringing up the next generatio right.

Jeff Chang: Like time capsule type stuff, huh?

Rebecca Lehrer: Or just you’re like, “This is the best. This is the shit.”

Amy S. Choi: This is what your kids need to know. This is what the children need to know.

Jeff Chang: Let’s go the first question because that’s easier. What was the question again? Remind me.

Amy S. Choi: What are we hoping for hip-hop for the next generation?

Jeff Chang: That they’re able to find with hip-hop, they’re able to take it and make it their own to be able to find their voices, to talk about what their struggles are and where they want to be able to go together.

And that’s been the beauty of it, right? 50 years ago, from Herk and Cindy doing the party and their rec center at the bottom of their building and 100 kids in there, and they’re just there for a party and for hot dogs, right?

From that to thinking about now how it’s been able to allow young folks to vocalize the entirety of their lives, the joy, the pleasures of a white tea or a lip gloss or whatever. Now, of course, I’m even dating myself with those references, you know what I mean?

Just to be able to talk about all of that to what just happened down the block with the police that was really effed up. That’s so powerful. And I just hope that they’re able to see and host lyrics or in anybody’s lyrics, Cardi B’s lyrics, Megan Thee Stallion’s lyrics, right?

Lyrics that allow them to be able to find the words to describe their time and their moment and where they want to go with things. That would be the beautiful thing of it. And God, the other one, it’s so hard to answer. It’s it changes from day to day.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, it’s obviously the Low End theory, just like why are we even… that feels like-

Jeff Chang: I love that. I’m a fan of Low End over Midnight Marauders, but it could be just my age. I think Midnight Marauders is more accomplished, but Low End theory was the breakthrough. It was just like, “Yo, we figured this out.” And it’s just the joy of figuring it out. It’s so beautiful.

Rebecca Lehrer: That’s my start to finish no matter what album, at least three times a week. I’m just like, “Yeah, just does it for me.”

Jeff Chang: So, mine is like Buhloone Mindstate, I think. De La Soul’s Buhloone, which is turning 30 this year. And it’s probably their most slept on album or one of the most slept on albums, I think. But it’s just affirmation of life.

Rebecca Lehrer: Now, they’re streaming.

Jeff Chang: Yeah.

Rebecca Lehrer: Very exciting.

Jeff Chang: Thank God, right? It’s beautiful thing.

Rebecca Lehrer: Very liberation.

Jeff Chang: It’s huge. For that to happen in the 50th year of hip-hop and for them to get the love that they actually have maybe not gotten as much as they deserved. With that particular album-

Rebecca Lehrer: Ego Trippin’.

Jeff Chang: Yes, Ego Trippin’, I Am I Be, right? When I heard I Am I Be, I was like, “Oh, actually, I can get old in this. I can grow with this.” I could still listen to this when I’m in my rocking chair with my man Davey D, and we’re still talking about the days when the As were beating the Yankees.

Me and my homies will still be talking about that record when we’re doing that out here in the Bay over hotdogs and 40 water. So, it’s just basically that album for me is the everything. But there’s so many, right? There’s so many Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, Death Certificate.

It takes a nation of millions. Man, Light as a Rock, all of these records profoundly transformed me. But that thing of what you were saying earlier of like, “Oh, I can listen to this now.” and just be nodding my head, and then 10 years later, 20 years later, 30 years later, “Wait a minute, was that what that song was about?”

“Was that what that line was about? Or was that what that sample was about? Oh, wow.” Yeah. It’s such a beautiful thing to have it continually revealing itself like that.

Rebecca Lehrer: In some ways as we wrap this, again, you’re giving me so many beautiful revelations in this time of anniversary, and we’re recording this in the days of awe as a Jew thinking about reflecting and atonement and all these things.

But this idea of the mixtape as the ultimate way of connecting into people and actually dispelling with this entire idea of identity being totally separated or aloneness. The mixtape is like, “I made this thing with these elements. And now, you’re going to take it and you’re going to do some other things with it.”

And then, the next person’s going to mash. Obviously, there’s the other concept in DJing of the mash-up, which has always been funny when we’re always trying to get URLs and things. It’s either something weird and inappropriate and sexual or some DJ situation.

But the mixtape feels like the movement, the continued re-engaging with something and giving it openly to someone else to engage with. And maybe in some ways, that’s our hope for these next 10 years of mushiness or just like, and in the hip-hop vernacular.

And even for me as a person who’s stuck between 1991 and 1995 in terms of the music that they take it, I keep finding the Spotify best of ’94 playlist. I’m like, “Was every good song written this year?” Of course. Because that was my formative period.

But I want to find more mix tapes. Or I want to be able to be the recipient of that beautiful making of culture that’s so shared and just literally evolving each time it goes to a new place.

Jeff Chang: I love that metaphor too because… so, I have a group of friends that I went to school with, and we had a little DJ crew and stuff back then. And we’re all dispersed across the US but we’ll still make mixes and send it to each other. And it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s just something that I’m so happy that here we are. I couldn’t have predicted when we were in our 20s and stuff that we’d be doing this however many decades later and stuff still sending-

Amy S. Choi: No decades later-

Jeff Chang: sending other music-

Amy S. Choi: You’re still 20.

Jeff Chang: No decades later. Negative decades later that we go back in time. But anyway, the other part of the mixtape piece is that it’s a journey. It’s a journey. It’s like you start somewhere. And by the end of it, you’ve gotten somewhere else. And I think that that’s the other part of it that we could just use a little bit more of in thinking about identity and community and stuff.

It’s a journey, man. It’s like, I’m not going to end this journey. My journey will end, but I’m not going to be able to do it all. And when you’re young, when you’re in your 20s, you feel like, “This mixtape that I make is going to be the last one. Or this protest that I have.”

It’s like, we have to do it because if we don’t change this, the whole world’s going to fall apart. And there’s that urgency that you have when you’re in your 20s. And now, that I’m 19 again, it’s this thing of thinking about, okay, what is it that… how far can you leave this? You know what I mean?

And then, the next person will pick it up. They’ll be inspired by your journey, and they’ll pick it up and they’ll add that to their journey. And then, that’s the process of influences that we all can have on each other. And that’s also the process of building community.

Amy S. Choi: Oh, I love that so much, Jeff. And we are going to, from the middle, not from the end, pick up your journey and give it to the children. And now, I’m just thinking about your songs that you could grow old with. And I’m like, “Well, think about the songs that my kids have right now.” And I’m like, “Will my 7-year-old daughter be listening and reminiscing to Bodak Yellow?” I don’t know. She’ll be like-

Jeff Chang: I bet. I hope she does.

Amy S. Choi: … “What was that song about?”

Jeff Chang: I hope she does.

Amy S. Choi: I hope she is too.

Jeff Chang: I would love to see what Bodak Yellow looks like 50 years from now. That would be amazing.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, my God.

Amy S. Choi: It’s going to be amazing. Cardi still going to be there. Her butt’s going to be in all different directions by then. It’s going to be fucking great. I love her.

Jeff Chang: Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Amy S. Choi: Jeff, thank you so much. This has just been an absolute joy.

Jeff Chang: Likewise.

Rebecca Lehrer: I want to say it was a predictable delight. We knew-

Jeff Chang: It’s true.

Rebecca Lehrer: … we were going to have a great time. So, in that way, you really deliver.

Jeff Chang: Me too. I knew I was going to have a great time too. Love mashing it up with you all.

Rebecca Lehrer: Thank you so much.

Jeff Chang: Yes.

Amy S. Choi: Bye, Jeff.

Jeff Chang: Bye.

Amy S. Choi: Music as a portal to ourselves. Are you kidding me, Jeff Chang? I love him so much.

Rebecca Lehrer: Oh, I mean, we kept the harassment light on that one. He is really a dream.

Amy S. Choi: A dream, a dream.

Rebecca Lehrer: I love him so much. Thank you, Jeff, for being such an incredible thought partner and picking up the mic whenever you dropped it, which was a lot.

Amy S. Choi: Really a lot. Oh, what a treat. And next week on the pod, we’re taking a little break from our regularly scheduled programming for some Thanksgiving treats. We have some old faves and a little advice from me and Rebecca. Keep an ear out and we’ll be back to our regular episodes after the holiday break.

Rebecca Lehrer: So, stay tuned to catch the rest of the ultimate guide to a mash-up life. We’ll have episodes every week, all fall. And like and follow The Mash-up Americans wherever you get your pods, and tell your friends. Love you.

Amy S. Choi: Bye.

Rebecca Lehrer: Bye.


This podcast is a production of The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Senior editor and producer is Sara Pellegrini. Production manager is Shelby Sandlin. Thanks to DJ Rob Swift for our theme song, Salsa Scratch. Additional engineering support by Pedro Rafael Rosado. Please make sure to follow and share this show with your friends. Bye.

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Team Mash-Up is the brain trust of smart minds and savvy creators, that builds all the cool stuff you see here.

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