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Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage

DATES September 22, 2000 through December 31, 2000
  • Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage
    Hip-hop has always been about making something out of little or nothing: two turntables, a microphone, a piece of cardboard, and a can of spray paint. Few knew that these simple items would produce the greatest American cultural innovation of the past thirty years. Recognizing that this art form, which has grown from an attitude to a culture, is now the chief way young people communicate all over the globe, the Brooklyn Museum of Art presents Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage.

    Hip-hop was born in New York City in the early 1970s as a vehicle for innercity youth (mainly black and Latino) to throw parties, and to make money as DJs, dancers, and promoters. From the very beginning, hip-hop has consisted of four major elements: DJing, MCing, breakdancing (or b-boying), and graffiti writing (graffiti art). These four were joined by a fifth important feature: an urban look and sensibility that has greatly influenced American fashion.

    Now a billion-dollar industry, hip-hop has become the voice of young people on the planet—crossing racial, ethnic, gender, class, language, and regional barriers. And hip-hop is manifest everywhere, pushing the sales of products as diverse as clothing and soft drinks, and turning rappers like LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and Will Smith into multimedia stars. Featuring vintage clothing, early audio equipment, handbills, classic photos and magazine covers, videos, and interactive stations, Hip-Hop Nation offers visitors the opportunity to explore the history and evolution of this global culture.

    Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage
    was made possible at the BMA through the generous support of Def Jam Recording. Additional support was provided by the BMA Restricted Exhibitions Fund and the National Endowment for the Arts. Rolling Stone,, and Hot 97 are media sponsors of Hip-Hop Nation.

    The exhibition was organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and made possible, in part, by a generous contribution from Levi’s. Design concept and original installation by Alternative Design, Inc. The exhibition was guest curated by Kevin Powell
  • Accessories
    The accessories that dress up an outfit have always been a major part of its effect. Jewelry and sneakers are two essential hip-hop accessories. Jewelry has been a status symbol in almost every society. Hiphop jewelry puts an American spin on the style of gold jewelry within certain traditional African cultures and shares the same aesthetic: if gold is good, more is better.

    Sneakers, on the other hand, represent the introduction of a thoroughly modern commodity. The pursuit of the perfect sneaker—as quickly changing as any fashion fad—reflects the importance of labels in hiphop fashion. Many of the items on display here were once worn by celebrities. But as with all hip-hop fashion, there has been a constant exchange between the stage and the street.
  • Pop Goes the Culture
    Hip-hop was once a music made and supported by the inner city, but by the early 1990s white youths, particularly males, were fast becoming the largest consumers of rap records. The huge multi-platinum success of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice made hip-hop a legitimate cultural force.

    The 1990s have witnessed hip-hop’s strongest commercial success to date. Platinum artists exist in every part of the country, be it Cleveland (Bones Thugs-N-Harmony), Atlanta (Outkast), or New Orleans (Master P). And platinum artists now include black rappers, like Puff Daddy, as well as white rappers like Eminem and Latino rappers like the late Big Pun. Hip-hop has become the great cultural unifier, bridging racial, ethnic, class, and regional gaps as no music has since the infant years of rock and roll. It is no coincidence that many of today’s leading rock bands, like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Rage Against the Machine, are heavily influenced by hip-hop.

    And because of its urgent and accessible language, hip-hop is used by Madison Avenue ad execs to sell everything from soft drinks and blue jeans to fast food and feature films. One of Hollywood’s biggest box-office attractions, Will Smith, owes his career to his start in Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.

    Other rappers, most notably Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, and Ice Cube, have also turned hit rap careers into star turns on TV and in film. And hip-hop has stretched its reach to comedy, heavily influencing the in-your-face comedy of Brooklyn native Chris Rock.

    Twenty years after “Rapper’s Delight,” and nearly thirty years after this music and culture were born, hip-hop remains vibrant and—as evidenced by hip-hop’s popularity in places as different as Japan, Germany, and South Africa—is currently the most significant youth art form on earth.
  • Hip-Hop Style Becomes Fashion Rage
    By the late 1990s, hip-hop had fully infiltrated the fashion industry. A movement that had begun on the street, where young people transformed whatever was available into a personal style, was now for sale, ready-to-wear, in the department stores and malls of America. This explosion of a new look, and its spread from the urban streets to the youth population across the country, provided fertile ground for hip-hop entrepreneurs. Alongside the fashion name brands that had been co-opted by the “old school” of hip-hop fashion, new labels arose that were specifically designed for a young population infused with the hip-hop spirit. Companies such as Phat Farm, Triple Five Soul, Wu-Wear, and FUBU (whose very name—For Us, By Us—underscores this transition) now designed and manufactured clothing that brought hip-hop into the mainstream of American fashion.
  • Controversy Outrage and the Rise of Gangsta Rap
    The 1980s were a difficult time for urban America. Crack cocaine hit the streets mid-decade; guns and gang violence proliferated; homicide and imprisonment rates skyrocketed; and a general sense of hopelessness pervaded America’s ghettoes.

    Hip-hop had always documented this dark side, and it seemed that an entire sub-genre would crop up around these urban blues. If hip-hop is black America’s CNN, then Compton, California’s N.W.A was its primetime reporter. In 1989 N.W.A—Niggaz With Attitude—released Straight Outta Compton, in the midst of the Golden Era’s “positive” black messages. Considered one of hip-hop’s finest albums, it also became the music’s most controversial because of its blunt depiction of West Coast street life, particularly its infamous “F––– tha Police” track. Officers refused to provide security at N.W.A concerts, and the F.B.I. launched an investigation.

    More controversy followed. In 1990, Miami-based rap group 2 Live Crew was tried on obscenity charges for their graphically sexual lyrics. The Crew’s trial became a watershed case for artists’ First Amendment rights. In 1992, Ice-T (and his Warner Brothers label) was attacked for releasing “Cop Killer.” Then in 1994, civil-rights veteran C. Delores Tucker spearheaded Congressional hearings on the negative impact of gangsta rap. Hip-hop’s basic worthiness was now being called into question.

    When two former friends, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., became the chief protagonists in a media-driven West Coast versus East Coast rivalry, the end result was death: Tupac Shakur was the victim of a drive-by shooting in September 1996 in Las Vegas; in March 1997 The Notorious B.I.G. was similarly murdered in Los Angeles. Both cases remain unsolved.

    These high-profile murders tainted hip-hop, just as the drug-related deaths of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix had tainted rock music a generation before. Nevertheless, gangsta rap came to dominate the pop charts by the mid-1990s, and controversy seemed only to fuel hip-hop’s popularity.
  • North, South, East, and West Regionalism in Hip-Hop
    Hip-hop was born and developed in the Bronx in the early to mid-1970s. With the commercial breakthrough of New Jersey–based rap crew The Sugar Hill Gang in 1979, hip-hop began its steady push from its New York roots into a national phenomenon. Cross-country hip-hop tours, early hip-hop films like Beat Street, Breakin’, And Wild Style, and music videos all helped to popularize the culture. And while New York City is still universally hailed as the birthplace of hip-hop, there is no denying that the South (Master P, Lil Wayne, Jermaine Dupri, Luther Campbell, Trick Daddy, Outkast, and the Geto Boys), the Midwest (Bones Thugs-N-Harmony, Twista, Common, Eminem, and MC Chill), and the West Coast (Ice-T, N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, E-40, Digital Underground, The Coup, and Too Short) have all developed their own brand of hip-hop complete with local dialects, styles of clothing, and regional tales and references, much as the blues did generations before.
  • What Role for Women? Gender Issues in Hip-Hop
    Hip-hop is and has always been a male-centered art form, founded by working-class black and Latino young men. Inner-city males have used hip-hop to express and empower themselves in the face of racism and classism, substandard school systems, and a lack of meaningful job opportunities. But because hip-hop is a subculture of the larger American society, it is little wonder that the same patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny that permeate all levels of mainstream America are also omnipresent in hip-hop.

    This oppressive and derogatory behavior notwithstanding, some women have managed to use hip-hop as their personal platform. Through the feminist anthems of Queen Latifah, the gritty street tales of MC Lyte, Lauryn Hill’s spiritual manifestos, and the sexual shock raps of Lil’ Kim, hip-hop women have offered alternative perspectives to the often one-dimensional depictions presented by men.
  • Hip-Hop New York
    New York City is the undisputed birthplace of hip-hop culture. What began as a party music has transformed itself into global youth declarations, with New York City remaining the hub and heart of hip-hop. While the Bronx and Harlem were the initiators of hip-hop in the early 1970s, the remainder of the New York metropolitan area (Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, as well as Long Island, Westchester County, and northern New Jersey) would eventually contribute to the development and evolution of the culture. Indeed, legendary “battles” have occurred between boroughs (for example, The Juice Crew from Queens versus Boogie Down Productions from the Bronx in the mid-1980s), adding to the city’s aura as an incubator of creativity and unabashed competitiveness. If hip-hop is an urban-based culture that has entered the commercial mainstream, then what better and more fertile ground could there be than New York City, the essential urban place and the center of American commerce? It is little surprise, then, that New York City’s hip-hop scene continues to dictate the music, the fashion, the language, and the attitudes of so many young people over twenty-five years after hip-hop’s creation.
  • Hip-Hop Fashion 2000
    Much of the fashion seen in this exhibition was worn by the celebrities of hip-hop. Other fashion components were put together by the exhibition’s curators from material lent by well-known clothing manufacturers. But the real fashion of hip-hop comes from young people on the street. In order to capture the authenticity of hip-hop fashion as it exists late in the year 2000, we asked students from the New York City Museum School to dress these mannequins with their own clothing just as they would dress themselves. Here are the results, along with their thoughts about hip-hop.
  • Hip-Hop Fashion 2000
    Much of the fashion seen in this exhibition was worn by the celebrities of hip-hop. Other fashion components were put together by the exhibition’s curators from material lent by well-known clothing manufacturers. But the real fashion of hip-hop comes from young people on the street. In order to capture the authenticity of hip-hop fashion as it exists late in the year 2000, we asked students from the New York City Museum School to dress these mannequins with their own clothing just as they would dress themselves. Here are the results, along with their thoughts about hip-hop.
  • May 1, 2000 Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage will present the explosion of hip-hop—the most influential American cultural phenomenon of the past twenty-five years. On view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from September 22 through December 31, 2000, this multimedia exhibition will feature over 400 items from the 1970s to the present, among them hip-hop fashions, videos, and artifacts.

    Hip-Hop Nation will showcase clothing and accessories worn by artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Run-DMC, The Beastie Boys, Salt N’ Pepa, Tupac Shakur, Puff Daddy, Eminem, and Missy Elliot. Other items include manuscripts of lyrics by artists Public Enemy, Ice-T, and Arrested Development; a letter from the F.B.I. to Priority Records, expressing concern over the group N.W.A.; and audio components used by Grandmaster Flash.

    The exhibition will also include artifacts of Brooklyn-bred hip-hop artists, such as The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, as well as interactive D.J. stations, notable photographs and magazine covers, and music-video displays detailing hip-hop’s history and its four elements - DJing, MCing, graffiti writing, and breakdancing. Video installations created by YO-TV (Youth Organizers Television) will provide current teenage and young-adult perspectives on hip-hop.

    Organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Hip-Hop Nation is the first major exhibition of this scope and depth. The exhibition is guest curated by Kevin Powell, former senior writer for Vibe, frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, noted college lecturer, and a widely recognized authority on hip-hop culture.

    Hip-Hop Nation will be organized into five sections tracing the development of hip-hop. The first, “The Block Party,” introduces the different components of hip-hop. It also includes live demonstrations and computerized interactive terminals.

    The second section, “The Roots,” is a look at the beginnings of hip-hop and features vintage clothing, audio equipment from the 1970s and early 1980s, a video installation, and [an] array of original party and club handbills. It also includes costumes and other items related to such hip-hop pioneers as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kurtis Blow.

    “The Golden Era,” section three of the exhibition covers the mid-eighties through 1990, hip-hop’s most creative and influential period. The era produced the remarkable rhyme skills of Rakim and Slick Rick, the feminist flavor of Salt N’ Pepa, MC Lyte, Monie Love, and Queen Latifah, the agitprop poetry of Public Enemy, and the gangsta soundtrack of N.W.A. Highlights include classic photos and original album cover art; clothing from P.E.’s Chuck D, Salt N’ Pepa, Run-DMC, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, and others, as well as original notes for De La Soul’s landmark record 3 Feet High and Rising. A video installation accompanies this section.

    Section four is “Controversy: Outrage and the Rise of Gangsta Rap.” It documents the period when the subculture of gangsta rap came to dominate radio airwaves and the media’s attention. Such events as 2 Live Crew’s infamous obscenity trial and the intense criticism of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” record (actually a rock song performed by his band, Body Count) marked hip-hop’s arrival in mainstream America. By the mid-1990s, hip-hop would lose two of its major icons to tragedy: first Tupac Shakur, then the Notorious B.I.G. were the victims of still-unsolved drive-by shootings. This section also features numerous court documents and newspaper articles, as well as artifacts from the collections of Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, N.W.A., and the Geto Boys. The last section, “Pop Goes the Culture,” acknowledges that hip-hop has now become the dominant American young culture. Since MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice in the early 1990s, hip-hop has reigned over the pop charts, along the way influencing R&B performers (TLC, R. Kelly, Mary J. Blige), rock (Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock), and pop (Backstreet Boyz, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera). Hip-hop’s mainstream invasion has also transformed fashion, language, and the way that Madison Avenue markets to youth in America and worldwide. “Pop Goes the Culture” includes costumes worn by such artists as Puff Daddy, Missy Elliott, Eminem, Will Smith, The Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, and others. It also contains personal items from the estates of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.

    A Brief History of Hip Hop
    Hip-hop was born in New York City in the early 1970s as a creative outlet for inner-city young people. As a fiscal crisis ripped through the city eliminating many social programs, these young people - mainly African American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian - threw parties on their blocks and at area clubs, used the city subways and walls as a canvas, and replaced some of New York’s gang activity with local crews like the Afrika Bambaataa-led Zulu Nation. While the Bronx is commonly credited as the actual birthplace of hip-hop, uptown Manhattan (especially Harlem), Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, and northern New Jersey would all be quickly influence by this burgeoning scene.

    Although there are debates about how the term “hip-hop” developed (the late Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five is often cited as the originator of the term), the culture has almost from the beginning consisted of four major elements: DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. Early hip-hop was largely a “throw-your-hands-in-the-air” music, taking its cues from the funk of James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic, among other sources. The very first rap record, “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” was performed by the funk band Fatback, featuring Harlem-bred King Tim III and released in August 1979.

    In the fall of 1979, Sugar Hill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight.” This song became a national and international success, and soon hip-hop pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and Kurtis Blow were recording. In the 1980s, hip-hop grew in popularity as mainstream acts like the rock band Blondie and jazz legend Herbie Hancock brought the genre to new and broader audiences. Additionally, early hip-hop films like Wild Style helped to popularize hip-hop culture. And hip-hop’s first supergroup, Run-DMC, almost single-handedly made the b-boy lifestyle a permanent part of the American pop arena.

    Now a billion-dollar industry, hip-hop has transformed itself into a global youth culture, crossing racial, ethnic, gender, class, language, and geographical boundaries. Hip-hop is manifested everywhere, pushing the sales of products and turning rappers like Queen Latifah, Will Smith, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim, and LL Cool J into cultural icons.

    Hip-Hop Nation presents this culture with all its complexities and diverse trends, including current activities, such as the “Hip-Hop For Respect” project, the hip-hop community’s response to police brutality, as led by Brooklyn’s own Mos Def.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1995 - 2003. 2000, 048-51.
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