Hip-hop gives voice to urban culture

When hip-hop music first hit the streets of New York City in the late-'70s, it was joyful party noise, a much-needed means of self-expression for ghetto kids who didn't have many options. It quickly became an underground form of communication, an outlet for disenfranchised blacks to express anger at society, and, through careers in music, a way out.

Now hip-hop has become the stuff of academic studies and museums. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland has undertaken the first large-scale examination of the origins, growth, and cultural impact of this phenomenon in a new exhibition, "Roots, Rhymes and Rage: The Hip-Hop Story."

One installment, entitled "Pop Goes the Culture," shows how pervasive hip-hop's influence has become, from the early radio crossover success of MC Hammer to today's dance moves of Britney Spears and the metal rap of Limp Bizkit. It notes how hip-hop references now permeate our language ("yo"), fashion, and the marketing of products from soft drinks to cars.

The multimedia exhibit, on display through August, documents the rise of hip-hop as an art form, a political forum, and a lifestyle. "You can't do contemporary music without addressing urban culture," says Howard Kramer, the museum's associate curator. "They're inexorably tied.... Hip-hop is the most dominant pop-culture form now, and we would be remiss in not paying attention to it....

"Hip-hop's parallels to early rock 'n' roll are eerie," he adds. In both genres, popularity and controversy have danced together every step of the way.

"Roots, Rhymes and Rage" doesn't shy away from the uglier aspects of hip-hop, also known as rap, but it does explain the social conditions that created gangsta rap and its violence. Before viewers step into a room displaying the words to three songs deemed to be among rap music's most offensive, they see this warning: "The lyrics in this room represent hip-hop's darker moments. They are harsh, angry, sexist, and not for the squeamish.... But to understand hip-hop, and, by extension, understand the complexities of urban America, then it is important to hear and see these words."

That portion of the story is contained in the segment "Controversy, Outrage and the Rise of Gangsta Rap." But before addressing rap's distasteful side, the exhibit, housed on the upper three floors of the six-floor structure, looks at how that evolution occurred. "The Block Party" is an interactive explanation of hip-hop's four main components: DJ-ing, MC-ing, graffiti writing, and dancing. It introduces hip-hop's early manifestations, when DJs would pull out their turntables and vinyl records at spontaneous street gatherings, and kids would experiment with break-dancing moves and aerosol art.

"The Roots" looks at how those activities began, crediting pioneers DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kurtis Blow with turning 1930s be-bop style and spoken-word expression into a sound that took wing in 1979 with the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" and went mainstream in 1981 with Blondie's "Rapture."

The installation is heavy on artifacts: clothing, jewelry, posters, a collection of party handbills, and early singles and album covers. It also contains original lyrics, court documents, even Will Smith's 1988 Grammy Award for "Parents Just Don't Understand," the first ever awarded for a hip-hop song, and items worn by shooting victims Biggie "The Notorious B.I.G." Smalls and Tupac Shakur. The graffiti-covered fourth floor has listening stations; video screens playing interviews are found on the fifth and sixth floors.

Historian Kevin Powell, a consultant for the exhibit, says hip-hop is now a billion-dollar industry that crosses racial, social, and economic boundaries. He calls it "the great cultural unifier."

Adds Courtney Sloane, the exhibit's head designer, "[Hip-hop] has really pushed the envelope in terms of diversity in this country. It really is a part of America, and it's not a black thing, it's not a yellow thing.... That's the reality."

*After Cleveland, the exhibit moves to Brooklyn, N.Y.; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco. Click on www.rockhall.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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