Marci Cohen, Head of Research Services for Instruction and Consultation, Boston University
Not every musical genre can pinpoint the date and location of its start, but hip hop is distinctive in that way. Hip hop was born in the Bronx on August 11, 1973 when graffiti artist and b-girl Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party and had her brother Clive, who performed under the name DJ Kool Herc, play music in the recreation room of an apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. Celebrations and other events are marking the 50th anniversary, and libraries are playing a part in ways that would have been unimaginable decades ago. What was once a fringe genre slowly gained commercial dominance and cultural legitimacy. Although “rap” and “hip hop” are sometimes used interchangeably, the former refers just to the vocal style while the latter incorporates the whole culture, which also includes DJing, break dancing, and graffiti art.
It took time for hip hop to reach a widespread audience. Although the genre is rooted in black culture, it took an all-white rock band, Blondie, to first top the charts with it. They certainly didn’t invent the rap but were connected with the street sounds in their native New York. Their 1980 single “Rapture” was the first No. 1 single to include rap vocals. Television gatekeepers were slow to embrace the genre. Don Cornelius, host and producer of the hugely influential TV show Soul Train, was reluctant to include hip hop on the dance show. At the peak of his Let’s Dance popularity in 1983, David Bowie challenged MTV on why they didn’t play more videos by black artists of any genre. Run-DMC’s 1986 collaboration with Aerosmith on a new version of “Walk This Way” broke the band and the genre to a wider, whiter audience, especially via MTV. 1988 marked the premier of Yo! MTV Raps, with artist interviews and music videos that exposed hip hop to every corner of America. Fab 5 Freddy, the rapper and visual artist who got a shout-out from Blondie in “Rapture,” was the first host of the show.
Beyond hip hop’s commercial success, it also grew in cultural validity in ways that paralleled rock two decades earlier. Early hip hop singles were typically party anthems, with a sharp pivot in 1982 with “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a track that provided social commentary. By the late 1980s, Public Enemy’s Chuck D frequently referred to rap as the Black CNN. It was during this period that hip hop evolved from a singles-oriented to an album-oriented genre. As Bob Gendron described in Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), that similar switch in rock music marked an accompanying shift in how the music was perceived, that it was viewed as art and not just disposal music for kids. It is no coincidence that this transformation to an album-oriented genre also marked the emergence of what is now known as the Golden Age of Hip Hop, with landmark releases such as Illmatic by Nas (Columbia, 1994) and Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Loud/RCA Records, 1993).
Hip hop also gained legitimacy in the larger cultural realm and entered academic library collections. Tricia Rose’s 1994 book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1994) was the first scholarly book on the subject. In 2017, A.D. Carson’s album Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics Of Rhymes & Revolutions was the first hip hop album doctoral dissertation (Clemson University). Carson followed this feat with i used to love to dream (University of Michigan Press, 2020), the first rap album peer-reviewed for publication with an academic press. (Wrap your head around that, scholarly communications folks!) Both Cornell and Harvard have hip hop collections that host events and support research. As with punk, hip hop is the subject of serious scholarship because it is more than just a music genre. It is often a form of protest music. It reflects changes in technology and how copyright law is applied, and it is a subculture unto itself. This American artform has taken hold in countries throughout the world. The 2007 documentary I Love Hip-Hop in Morocco (Asen Josh Jennifer Needleman and Rizz Productions dirs., Rizz Productions) showed how it has become a tool for cultural diplomacy in ways that are similar to how the State Department showcased jazz during the Cold War.
But this is not strictly academic. Laban Carrick Hill and Theodore Taylor’s 2013 picture book When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop (New York: Roaring Brook Press) won the Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Chance the Rapper credits YOUmedia, the youth center at Chicago Public Library’s Harold Washington Library, with helping to launch his career. Some public libraries engaged in hand-wringing over whether to include hip hop CDs in their collections, concerned that the CDs would just be stolen, an argument I never heard about collecting popular books. Now that such controversies have been settled and hip hop can be easily found in libraries’ music collections, libraries have moved on to whether they should include any CDs in their collections regardless of genre. As a measure of how central hip hop is to our popular culture, LL Cool J, Missy Elliott, and Ice Cube have all appeared on American Library Association READ posters.
This year, libraries are embracing the anniversary. As with the birth of hip hop, it is centered in New York. Brooklyn Public Library is honoring its native son with the exhibit “The Book of HOV: A celebration of the life and work of Shawn ‘JAY-Z’ Carter.” They have even wrapped their facade in Jay-Z lyrics. Even grander in scope are the efforts headed by Queens Public Library (QPL). Funded by an IMLS $267,760 grant, they are leading exhibits and events marking the anniversary at more than 30 libraries, museums, colleges, universities, and archives. The key person working on this probably has the coolest job title in all of librarianship, QPL Hip Hop Coordinator Ralph McDaniels. Events continue through the end of August, and the QPL 50 Years of Hip Hop website has the schedule and recording of past events.