Exhibiting Interest

The hip-hop world is cheering _ but also questioning _ the Smithsonian's plans to document its culture

March 02, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Alittle over 30 years old, hip-hop culture is still shifting, turning and redefining itself.

It's a complex and nuanced culture that seems to change drastically every three years or so.

Which is why the announcement on Tuesday that the Smithsonian Institution was organizing a hip-hop exhibit at its National Museum of American History in Washington raised questions along with cheers.

"It's not a static culture," says Finnie Coleman, director of African-American studies at the University of New Mexico, who has taught courses about hip-hop. "I wonder how one captures the mobility of hip-hop.

In a press conference in New York, attended by such hip-hop legends as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, the Smithsonian unveiled its plans for an exhibition called Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, the Rhymes, the Life.

It will gather artifacts - stage gear, mixing equipment, diaries and videos - from rappers, dancers, DJs and record executives to trace hip-hop from its 1970s origins as a gritty, highly improvisational folk art to its status today as a billion-dollar machine.

Initial funding from Universal Music and support from hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has allowed the museum to start the project.

Officials from the museum predict that it will take up to five years to gather enough artifacts for a full-scale exhibit.

Easy Mo Bee, the veteran New York rap producer who oversaw tracks on classic albums by 2Pac (1995's Me Against the World) and Biggie Smalls (1994's Ready 2 Die), says it's about time the Smithsonian recognized hip-hop as a significant part of modern American culture.

"My first thought when I heard about this initiative was, `For real?'" he says. "On the educational side, it could show how far we've traveled in this culture, from turntables to digital."

He added, though, that the exhibit needs to look forward as well as backward. "It shouldn't be just looking at turntables or some artifact. So what?" he said. "Something's got to be created where people can talk about the origin of this culture and how it evolved. This exhibit, if it wants to mean anything, got to open up those conversations about where hip-hop is going."

The Smithsonian isn't the first to show an interest in hip-hop. In the fall of 2000, the Brooklyn Museum of Art put on Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes & Rage.

The results, at best, were mixed: The exhibit had a thrown-together quality, giving virtually no context to the various artifacts on display: album covers, vintage party handbills and Biggie Smalls' collection of 45s.

Perhaps the Smithsonian's initiative will be more in-depth, more cohesive, some say.

"We have to consider the source," says Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California and author of Young, Black, Rich and Famous: The Rise of the NBA, the Hip-Hop Invasion and the Transformation of American Culture.

"The Smithsonian didn't achieve its lofty reputation by being hip. It gets its praise from being comprehensive and thorough. So considering those things, it makes sense that it takes some time to recognize the business."

Already being studied

Hip-hop's evolution, global impact and pervasiveness have been chronicled in numerous books, documentaries and TV specials and discussed in university classrooms across the country.

Now, the Smithsonian will take its turn, essentially trying to do for hip-hop what it has done for jazz: translate the complex culture into an exhaustive exhibition that reveals something about American life.

Hip-hop certainly warrants such a serious archival effort. The culture encompasses much more than music.

It melds elements from the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s, be-bop of the '40s, Beat poetry of the '50s and the black arts movement of the '60s.

It extends to literature, dance, speech, philosophies, attitudes - and fashion.

"Hip-hop clothing must be part of the hip-hop exhibit," says David Canton, professor of history at Connecticut College and a specialist in hip-hop music and black culture in post-industrial America.

"The early New York hip-hop acts such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's wardrobe was influenced by George Clinton's Parliament. ... Hip-hop clothing emerged as a unique urban style, image and attitude that is now a billion-dollar industry."

Old-school artifacts

In fact, among the first donations to the Smithsonian exhibit include Grandmaster Flash's black and white customized Kangol hat and a wooden advertisement for Russell Simmons' Phat Farm clothing line.

In addition to collecting various artifacts, the museum plans to reach out to the hip-hop community for oral histories. An advisory panel, made up of artists, producers, scholars and others, will assist in shaping the project.

The museum should have no shortage of input from those in the hip-hop world who already know what they'd like to see in the exhibit.

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