Why Hip Hop Conquered the World: The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip Hop and Rap DropsBreaking News
tags: Smithsonian, African American history, music, urban history, popular culture, hip hop
The new Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap—a nine-disc collection of 129 songs accompanied by a 300-page book—is an imposing object. Yet hip-hop itself is a pretty imposing subject, because it’s not just a musical approach or a radio format, it’s a lifestyle that could never be completely captured by anything that comes in a box. When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the institution’s Folkways label got together to plan the project in the early 2010s, they knew they had taken on a daunting task. How do you tell the stories of generations of Black Americans in a single narrative?
According to Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, the museum’s curator of music and performing arts and one of the contributors to the project, the Smithsonian proceeded very carefully. First, they asked an advisory committee to narrow the breadth of the genre down to 900 songs, Reece explained in a recent video call, before convening an executive committee of “artists, industry folks, scholars, as well as staff from Folkways and the museum” that met in person in November 2014. Reece recalled that “fateful morning” when even iconic rapper Chuck D was struggling to cut it any further. “When I look at the transcript, there are all kinds of comments where Chuck D was saying, ‘I just can’t do this! I don’t know how. I’m just gonna sit out, I’ll let you do it,’” she said with a laugh.
The track list ultimately ranges from hip-hop’s origins as house party music to the stars who continue to reign today, like Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, and Drake, featuring a handful of Billboard number ones as well as songs that didn’t even hit the Hot 100. It finally began to solidify when the committee realized that they weren’t just telling the story of one industry or group of people but instead were telling the story of how hip-hop turned aspects of Black American culture into mainstays of world culture.
“There was one pivotal moment when MC Lyte just asked the question, ‘Does the song help advance the story of hip-hop?’” Reece said. “The track may not stand up over critical analysis for decades, but if it was a pivotal moment and created dialogue or energy or something around it, it’s part of the overall story.”
As a personality-driven and decentralized popular art form, it’s nearly impossible to get hip-hop fans to agree about too much, from who counts as the most impressive MCs to which eras are exalted and which are derided. But in his essay for the collection, historian Jeff Chang observes that the ability of the hip-hop community to tolerate so much internal dissent and tension might explain why the genre has been able to adapt and evolve. (It’s hard to imagine another genre coming up with the idea of Verzuz battles, where similar artists are pitted directly against each other with good-spirited humor.)
So the committee leaned into that tension, and didn’t turn the anthology into an ode to the so-called golden age of hip-hop or a didactic tool for understanding what makes the music work. Instead, the Smithsonian settled on a collection of songs that mimic the excitement and fractious debates that came along with being a hip-hop fan at the time.
In turn, it tells the story of American history from 1979 to 2013 through the eyes of the young Black Americans who changed it profoundly. “In this project, we didn’t want the Smithsonian coming in on high and telling people what hip-hop is. We wanted people who are part of it, who’ve experienced it, and who’ve lifted it, helping to frame a story,” she said. “It’s like anything that I talk about. What I say in museums is we don’t see this as the greatest hits, we do storytelling. We do storytelling with objects, and with this anthology we do storytelling with the images, and with the tracks, and with anything that’s a part of the box set.”
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