“Once Upon a Time Not Long Ago”

Note: This post was updated/corrected on January 20, 2014.  See the final paragraph for addendum.

On Friday I drove up to Ithaca, NY to attend Hip Hop: Unbound from the Underground, a conference sponsored by the Cornell University Hip Hop Collection – the largest national archive on hip hop culture.  It included several panels and events involving the luminaries of early hip hop.


The first panel I attended included Afrika Bambaataa, Raheim and MC Sha-Rock (both of Funky Four +1 fame, the former also a member of the Furious Five) and Timothy C. Brown Sr. (who shot the earliest known footage of a Hip Hop performance in 1977).  There were also other hip hop pioneers in the audience, like Queen Lisa Lee and Lil Rodney C. (both of which are probably most famous from their appearances in Wild Style).

While being in the presence of these early hip-hoppers was an honor, I was disappointed that the discussion was not as detailed as I would have liked it to be.  All the panelists spoke in generalities and there was a little too much grumbling about the current state of hip-hop music that came off in some instances as old folks talking about how good the old days used to be.  Afrika Bambaataa, however, was on point when in the discussion of contemporary female MCs introduced us to Sa-Roc, and the moderator quickly searched You Tube and played us a bit of one of her videos.  This was a welcome difference from discussion that reeked to me of gender conformity and referencing women as “queens” as a term of respect, which I fear is just another way to objectify them.

The discussion on female MCs came up because MC Sha-Rock is considered by many to be the first female MC, a position she embraces and was very adamant about establishing. The footage provided by Timothy Brown was presented as further evidence of this because of her presence in that early film of a party at a place called The Eastwood in 1977.  Now, I am not trying to take anything away from her and I think it is really important to show that women were part of the culture from the earliest days (she, herself, said she went from b-girl to rapper) – but the importance of being “the first” is a little lost on me.  But she wants to make sure she has her place in history and I guess history is concerned with firsts.  The thing is, no one worries so much about the first male MC, and in those early days the very idea of what an MC was or could be was still being developed – so she is among the first and among those first was a woman, because of course there was. . . how could there not be?

As Bam points out in a short video I caught, the earliest “rappers” (of a kind) were actually DJs, but the role of talking to the crowd and transitioning them between jams moved from the DJ to the MC (a master of ceremonies) meant to “move the crowd” and “control the mic,” changing and expanding what it meant to rap, until MCs as we think of them now became their own thing.

I love that Afrika Bambaataa mentions Cousin Brucie, of all people, as a DJ whose voice influenced the idea of rapping – just goes to show that what hip hop does best is integrating a wide range of voices, sounds and styles.  Another example of that integration came up when Bam talked about playing Babatunde Olatunji’s “Jingo Ba” and introducing the crowd to Fela Kuti’s work at the parties he DJed.

Speaking of early MCs, Lil Rodney C also spoke about how he was inspired to take part in what would come to be known as hip-hop.

Rodney is referencing DJ Hollywood, one of the most famous club DJs of that era who brought hip hop elements into that disco scene, which was different from the crowds drawn at the parties held on the block.  The stoop scene involving Double Trouble is my favorite in Wild Style (Rodney is the one on the right).

Speaking of Wild Style, I went the 30th Anniversary screening of the film, which began with a panel discussion involving the director, Charlie Ahearn and several of the people who appear in the film: Crazy Legs (of the Rock Steady Crew), Queen Lisa Lee, DJ Tony Tone, JDL and Grand Master Caz (the last three of the legendary Cold Crush Bros).  This panel was great fun. It was like a bickering but loving family, talking a little smack about each other. The best part was a back and forth between Crazy Legs and Charlie Ahearn about the origins of the term hip hop, and the distinction between “hip hop” as a form of call-and-response present in early raps and its use a  term for the culture.  I wish I had been able to grab some video of this, but I couldn’t. In the words of Crazy Legs, “Back then we didn’t say we were doing hip hop, we just said we were gonna jam – calling it hip hop came later.”

Graf Writers Black Book. I love the reference to Black Sabbath's War Pigs on the bottom

Graf Writers Black Book. I love the reference to Black Sabbath’s War Pigs on the bottom. You can see the reflection of the credits for a video of a break-dancer’s circle playing on a loop above itin the glass case where this book is on display.

The next day (after a meeting with my diss advisor), I went to go see the exhibit itself (called “Now Scream!“) and saw a variety of amazing artifacts and got to talk briefly with both Charlie Ahearn and DJ Tony Tone.  I am really interested in these artifacts of early hip hop culture as part of my own academic work.  I am hoping to get a chance to do more research with the archive for evidence for how these artifacts incorporate and remix elements of other forms of popular  culture and notions of ethnic identity in order to represent belonging within hip hop culture. And more importantly to the chapter focusing on hip hop culture, how the institutionalization of the collection shapes the way identity is constructed for those who identify with the cultural movement/community it seeks to represent (and explore).  Does the academy delimit the notions of origins and belonging? Does it artificially establish a criteria for authenticity?  I don’t know, but I will admit however earnest the organizers of the collection may be and the dedication of all those involved, who have donated collected materials, there is something about an Ivy League school holding and shaping this collection that makes me skeptical – but that might just be my own thing.


An exhibit photo of the bombed out South Bronx

Still, it struck me that there was only  one explicit references to early hip hop as an African-American and Puerto Rican urban cultural form [see update below]. or its economic underpinnings.  It seems like an odd choice.  While there was a photograph or two of the bombed out South Bronx in the “Early Influences” section, there was nothing really contextualizing it.

That said, this collection is very important. It is important that people like MC Sha-Rock get the recognition they deserve – and it is crucial that this kind of history is explored and documented while the primary actors are still among the living to give testimonial to their experiences.  Furthermore, while I was looking through the exhibit, a group of middle-school aged kids came on some kind of trip and they were clearly blown away by what they saw.  Teaching kids about the origins and early days of hip hop and how it differs from the corporate engine that runs hip hop today is crucial, especially since more than ever fans have the ability to put those tools and resources to work in creating their own resistant forms of art.  Just as the early sounds of hip hop had to come from records that could not by definition be hip hop, music that is meant to capitalize on hip hop and shape hip hop into a product instead of a culture can be used to make something new and at odds with those values.

As I have said before, hip hop is a discourse, so more than anything I like to see these discussions have an opportunity to be taken seriously.  There is a lot more in the collection than what was put on display in this temporary exhibit that is open to the public, so hopefully the ability for academics to access all of it will bring out a variety of possibilities from what has been gathered there.

You can see all the photos I took of the exhibit here.  The exhibit it open to the public until February of 2014, so if you are going to be in the area you should check it out.

Update: An earlier version of this post included a claim that “here was no explicit references to early hip hop as an African-American and Puerto Rican urban cultural form.” Upon a return trip to Cornell for more research and an interview with the assistant curator, I brought up the oversight and was pointed towards the explanatory text right at the entrance to the exhibit that I somehow missed.  It explains (among other things) that hip hop has “deep roots throughout many, but particularly Afro-diasporic cultures.”  While I think the exhibit would be better served with deeper and more frequent references to this and to the economic underpinning of the time/place, I was wrong to mislead readers by stating there were no explicit references to race through my own careless oversight.   Furthermore,  the reference I missed is more accurate and inclusive than my own articulation. A photo of the placard is below (click on it for a larger more legible version):


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