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September 22, 2000

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An Art Made of Quicksilver


Brooklyn Museum
Jamel Shabazz's "Sisters" (1982.)

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Hip-hop wasn't meant to stand still, not even for a museum show. In a little more than two decades it has transformed itself from block-party entertainment in the South Bronx to an international sonic and visual language. It mutates faster than any other cultural form, going through a generation within months; it has sent tendrils into film, fashion, television and advertising while transforming the English language. Hip- hop defines a generation gap in popular culture and creates entertainingly contentious misunderstandings from all quarters. And it eludes any attempts at prediction or control.

Now museums are trying to get a handle on it. Both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland and its new rival, the Experience Music Project in Seattle, have mounted exhibitions on hip-hop. New York, where hip-hop was born, deserves a hip-hop survey, and the Brooklyn Museum has remounted and slightly expanded the Hall of Fame's exhibition, "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage." It's a necessarily incomplete introduction to hip-hop, depending for its visual impact on memorabilia: posters, magazines, album covers, documents, lyric sheets and, most of all, clothing, from sneakers and gold jewelry to spangled jumpsuits. Tied to artifacts, the show illuminates some parts of the story and misses others. Like other Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shows, it tends to let the costumes overwhelm the music. Yet the sheer familiarity of all the baggy silhouettes underscores how hip- hop's visual style has triumphed.

Although "Hip-Hop Nation" is now in a museum with an extensive collection of African art, it doesn't establish any connections with the music's unmistakable ancestry. Yet hip- hop didn't invent flashy gold jewelry, ceremonial hair styles or oral history in musical form, all of which have ancient West African antecedents. The hip-hop exhibition also shares one of the overall challenges of exhibiting African art: many of the objects were meant to be seen in motion during a celebration, not in a vitrine. A few video setups only partly relieve the static nature of the exhibition.

From the start the exhibition wisely establishes that rap is not the totality of hip-hop; it's just the most easily commercialized commodity. Hip-hop began as a way for poor and disenfranchised youth to make public spaces their own: visually with graffiti, kinetically with break-dancing, aurally with D.J.-ing and verbally with M.C.-ing, which put a personal message into the instrumental spaces of well-known songs. M.C.'s party chants rapidly evolved into rappers' boasts, stories and free- form rhymes, while D.J.'s became quick-cutting turntable virtuosos. The rest is a musical revolution.

The exhibition races through hip- hop's tangled chronology, touching on some salient topics including the block-party origins of hip-hop and in a very gingerly way, with few examples controversies over inflammatory lyrics. Trying to cover broad issues in limited space, however, it grows sketchy. For instance, a section on regionalism, which notes the expansion of hip-hop beyond the coasts, could have used a map or a timeline and looked at places outside the United States. The show is also at the mercy of its lenders, leading to odd emphases; Vanilla Ice, the white rapper who is now a punch line, stakes out territory with three spangled outfits.

The main sponsor of the show is Def Jam Records, which, luckily, has been an important hip-hop label since the mid-1980's. So a plethora of Def Jam memorabilia, especially from Public Enemy, is more or less defensible, and Def Jam doesn't shut out its competition. Tommy Boy Records is also well-represented, and there are shrines with stage wear and lyrics from the homicide victims Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, two million-selling homicide victims of 1990's rock. N.W.A., the Southern California group that put gangsta rap into million-selling circulation, also gets some wall space, though one of the most influential 1990's acts, the Wu-Tang Clan, is represented only by its Wu Wear spinoff.

Meanwhile, the computer monitor that greets visitors with the web page the site run by Def Jam's owner, Russell Simmons has animated photographs of graffitied subway trains as its saving grace.

For those who associate graffiti only with marker-pen vandalism, the show's introductory room is a corrective. It's a memorial to the short- lived era when graffiti artists risked arrest and injury to turn subway cars into giant rolling murals, earning nothing beyond a citywide ego trip. While most of the work was scrubbed off or painted over, surviving only in photographs, the show's subway-car door by Michael Tracy, with abstract multicolored dots bubbling up, offers a close-up glimpse of an artist's elaborate effort.

Except for its video presentations, the exhibition is short on context. It traces rappers' verbal gymnastics to the be-bop jive talk of Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, which is true as far as it goes. But it skips other obvious roots of hip-hop's verbal dexterity: gospel preaching, ribald party-record comedy, the rhyming insults called "the dozens," the pimp and gangster stereotypes of blaxploitation movies and the Jamaican tradition of dance hall D.J.'s toasting, or rhyming, over records. (The pioneering hip-hop artist Kool D.J. Herc was born in Jamaica.)

Similarly, a case full of the New York City Breakers' memorabilia misses the chance to link breakdancing to African-diaspora styles from the Lindy Hop to capoeira, the Brazilian martial art.

Still, many artifacts carry their own stories. A wall of 80 handbills many of them handdrawn and handlettered fondly evokes the late- 1970's moment when hip-hop was just a neighborhood event, long before corporate logos and computer graphics took over the iconography. The D.J. Grandmaster Flash's worn- out copies of a Bob James album, tucked away near the floor of one case, and the Notorious B.I.G.'s collection of 45-r.p.m. singles demonstrate that scratching, the D.J.s' percussive innovation, definitely made scratches.

Yet from there the music of hip- hop is almost taken for granted. There are lyrics from Public Enemy, Ice-T and Arrested Development, but there's no hint of the relentless one-upmanship of hip-hop producers devising sounds to leap out of boom- boxes: no production logs, no beat-up drum machines. Hip-hop's use of sampled parts from older songs an aesthetic and legal battleground for ideas about pastiche, originality and fair use has shaken up artistic thinking worldwide, but doesn't reach the exhibition. There's also no mention of the way hip-hop transformed rhythm and blues, rock and even teenypop in the 1990's.

But there's plenty of fashion. The latter part of the exhibition is long on logos and, again, limited in context. While a video mentions that expensive designer brands became inner- city status symbols, there's little examination of what the flashy, oversize clothes are trying to convey. Hip-hop grew up in the music-video era and image is essential to hip-hop glory; it's defined by a synergy of boastful rhymes, sonic impact, wardrobe and often video-clip fantasies. A museum could build a fascinating full-scale exhibition around changing notions of realism, power and pleasure in hip-hop.

Trying to touch all bases, "Hip- Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage" spreads itself thin. But it does hold hip-hop still long enough to present at least a glimpse of where it's been. It's a first step for a museum examination of hip-hop, and by no means the last word.

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