It is next year that hip-hop will celebrate its 50th anniversary. It was August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc hosted a back-to-school jam in the Bronx to help his little sister raise money for school clothes and set it off.
But the celebration continues now, via films, podcasts, museums – including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, whose current exhibition, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse “, offers a glimpse into southern-style hip-hop (Democrat-Gazette Sunday Style, April 10).
Then there’s “And the Beat Don’t Stop: 50 Years of Hip-Hop,” currently showing at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock. Kool Herc would have kicked off the opening of the exhibition on April 7: DJ duels, a 360-degree photo booth, graffiti artists in the parking lot, poets from Philander Smith College and break dancing.
Flash back two days before this opening. The artifacts — most of which are part of a traveling exhibit from the National Hip-Hop Museum’s Pop Up Experience — are nearly in place. Especially the sneakers…positioned to be the first things visitors notice.
Sneakers – of all sizes, shapes, colors and designs, bearing brands such as Adidas and Patrick Ewing, and personalized and signed by artists – are not only already locked away in glass displays; they are all neatly wrapped in plastic.
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Ready to hang on the walls: shadow-box plates showing records, albums (in their previous formats: LP, CD, audio cassette), images of artists, Billboard charts showing the heights reached by artists; awards/honours. Depicted: Jay-Z. Outkast. Bobby Brown. Ice Cube. Snoop Dogg. Dr.Dre. And, of course, Tupac Shakur. Alongside their accomplishments, the legendary record labels that shot them to stardom are immortalized, perhaps the most recognizable being Death Row Records (now owned by Snoop).
Standing against the north wall of the showroom are two models dressed in Adidas tracksuits, Kangol hats and gold chains, as members of the rap group Run DMC were in their heyday. On the west wall, graffiti bearing the word “Hip-Hop” peeks out from behind a tall chain-link fence, indicating the urban environmental womb that carried a genre so enduring and ubiquitous, even a company like Sofi Technologies – a personal finance company company—a type of entity that might normally be considered posed—would feature people dancing to Compton Av’s infectious “Money Dance” in its commercials.
A second visit on April 8 reveals the finished exhibit. A model is deejaying; the other standing by a chair, relaxing, in a home party setting. The chain-link fence is now covered with a pair of tied shoes; a basketball goal stands just south of the graffiti. All the plates are in place, neatly aligned on the walls. A soundtrack of hip-hop music is sure to get some visitors dancing.
This exhibit, locally sponsored by The Design Group, is the brainchild of curator Courtney Bradford, who on April 5 gave a visitor a glimpse of what would be.
“Around this time last year, I was trying to think about what was going to be the next big thing,” Bradford said. “I saw that the 50th anniversary of hip-hop was coming up; it’s actually 2023. But I kind of wanted to give it a head start. And it’s funny how it all turned out with me who wanted to do this exhibition.
TRIBUTE TO A MOVEMENT
“Then you see the emergence of National Hip-Hop Day, which happens in August. Then you see [National Hip Hop History Month]; it happened in November and it was the official month. And then you see the Super Bowl [whose halftime show performers were Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J. Blige]. And I said, ‘Well, look at this.'”
Bradford decided to contact the National Hip-Hop Museum in Washington, saying she wanted to do a hip-hop exhibit and “kind of wanted to cover hip-hop culture, like everyone else.
“And so [with] this exhibit you will see…gold, diamond and platinum RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] rewards, you will see these personalized sneakers. But the theme of this exhibition is a bit like… a celebration of hip-hop. Not just music, but fashion, animation, graffiti. So the elements, bringing out the elements.
“Some people grew up in a hip-hop culture,” Bradford continues. “I kinda grew up in it, but people [for whom] it’s for real…what they live, eat and breathe – it’s almost like a tribute to them, and to celebrate the culture, the hip-hop culture. I’m really excited about it.”
It shows where there will be a live DJ booth and a selfie area on opening night.
“It’s supposed to be reminiscent of New York basketball courts, graffiti and fences. So we have a [basketball] goal that will go up. “The graffiti brick wall needs to be perfected.” And then, of course, put on the rest of those plaques.
“When you enter this gallery, it’s a bit directional. So once you enter, we’re like on the east side. It’s the east side of our gallery, so we’re on the east side” – where it all started.
On the south wall are plaques for Southern artists such as the Houston Geto Boys and Atlanta-based rap duo Outkast. There are also nods to the Arkansans who helped hip-hop, like AD Washington, who was an executive at MCA Records. And on the north wall are flyers for hip-hop concerts at local venues.
Then Bradford points to the shoes…those which, instead of being in the big boxes, are in boxes on their own under the plaques of the artists they represent. Customized Biz Markie shoes, bearing the likeness of the late rapper, accompany the Biz Markie album. In one of the biggest cases, another pair of sneakers bears a version of the Burger King logo, featuring those notorious bawdy lyrics by the late Shock G in Digital Underground’s 1990 hit “The Humpty Dance.” died in 2021.)
“And I really like it. These are 20th anniversary shoes from The Notorious BIG’s ‘Ready to Die’ album,” Bradford said. There is a pair of white Adidas shoes signed Run DMC.
This is not a timeline of hip-hop history. It’s a celebration of the genre.
“We try to cover all elements of hip-hop and cover all areas of the United States” where it flourished, Bradford says. “We’re going to celebrate hip-hop that way. Celebrate fashion, celebrate culture, celebrate music and how people feel.”
WELL SHOED HIP-HOPPERS
Back to the shoes. There’s a pair signed by filmmaker Spike Lee — “He loves Jordans,” says Bradford. There’s a pair signed by recent Oscar- and Grammy-winning musician and filmmaker Questlove.
“A lot of these shoe companies were designing shoes just for different rap artists, like Ludacris… these shoes here, and [they come] in this cute little bag.” The bag resembles the well-known purple Crown Royal whiskey bag.
Of course, the exhibit wouldn’t be complete without hip-hop’s primary vehicle…the boom box, typically carried over one shoulder at the time. Three of them, of different sizes, brands and models, take pride of place in the exhibition. One carries a television screen.
Bradford, 32, says “learning more about hip-hop culture” was the big lesson for her in curating the exhibit.
“I think people assume that because I’m African American, I would know more about it. I know a little bit and I wasn’t… really allowed to listen to it a lot” when I was child.
“But it’s [good] to be able to see how much people love him, how people’s lives are.”
The shoe wrappers surprised her, she said.
“I actually had no idea that they packaged the shoes, and that’s how they preserved them…Even in my training, we never talked about preserving the shoes. But then, in looking at that, I had to go back and do some more research. And I said, ‘Well, yeah, that’s right; that’s the way it’s supposed to be.’ So… I think that’s really neat. I didn’t know they made shoes specifically for hip-hop artists. I had no idea… I love shoes too, but I don’t I didn’t know. I said, “Actually, they have their own shoes. Oh, like these “Fight the Power”, named after Public Enemy’s hit song.
“I would rock this shoe.”
HERE TO STAY
Again, hip-hop permeates American culture.
“It’s so, so American,” Bradford says. “You see it in kids’ fashion, you see it in language, everywhere. In the arts.”
Mandy Shoptaw, deputy chief of communications for the state division of Arkansas Heritage, which oversees the museum, notes that hip-hop tends to be known for its negatives – “bad words, sex and violence . But it really is an exhibition for all ages.”
A number of related activities are organized for all ages. These include lectures, a sneaker design class for adults and older children, and a poetry workshop “because poetry fits so well into hip-hop and carries it to the next generation,” says Shoptaw.
Like Bradford, Shoptaw wasn’t allowed to listen to music growing up.
But now, “I find it, like today as an adult, if I’m in a bad mood, I turn on my hip-hop station on my radio, and there’s just something about it. is very – I think it’s just the pace and the energy, and it’s always uplifting.”
“It’s inspiring,” adds Bradford. “I know it sounds a little weird. But it’s inspiring. And motivating.”
“And the Beat Doesn’t Stop: 50 Years of Hip-Hop”