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'Hip-Hop Nation' Examines the Rise of a Musical Movement

Pop Music * The Brooklyn Museum of Art puts on the first major show devoted to the genre.


NEW YORK — Born three decades ago on the streets of the Bronx, condemned by the establishment for its encouragement of violence and misogyny, hip-hop has survived to become a major component of American and world culture and a billion-dollar industry.

And now it is art.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art is holding the first major art museum exhibition ever devoted to hip-hop, exploring its history as a multifaceted art form involving music, dance, poetry and visual art in the form of costume and graffiti.

"We had wanted to do something about the street culture in the local community," said museum co-curator Kevin Stayton. "Then along came the idea of doing this show, a concept we found perfectly appropriate. Hip-hop has proved an expressive art form that goes far beyond its musical impact."

A long subway ride off the beaten track for New York museums, the Brooklyn Museum of Art has won a reputation of late for staging flashy, controversial exhibitions as a means of drawing attention and crowds to itself--witness its recent "Sensation" show featuring an elephant dung Madonna and dissected farm animals floating in formaldehyde.

But in the case of "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage," it has succeeded in winning an audience with a minimum of controversy.

"It's one of our most popular shows," Stayton said. "And it's drawing people not only from Brooklyn but from the rest of New York and a lot of visiting tourists as well."

Tipper Gore and others who feel offended and threatened by hip-hop lyrics and attitudes might not agree, but experts in urban culture think it only right that the work of the Beastie Boys and Ice-T is being enshrined in an institution where one also finds Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keeffe and Richard Diebenkorn.

"It is curious to find it curated, so to speak, but quite appropriate," said DePaul University professor Michael Eric Dyson, one of the nation's leading hip-hop scholars. "Hip-hop is a phonic archive and a verbal museum of urban black and Latino culture. It has become so dominant because it so brilliantly addresses the dominant themes of black youth and Latino youth in America--and increasingly now white youth and beyond."

Organized by Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and sponsored by Levi's and the National Endowment for the Arts, "Hip-Hop Nation" is a chronologically arranged encyclopedic exhibition, following the development of the phenomenon from its origins on the stoops and sidewalks of the South Bronx and Harlem to the big time.

It also explores the cultural roots of hip-hop, going back to the pre-World War II uptown music of Cab Calloway, including his not exactly feminist musical lamentation "Minnie the Moocher." Today's hip-hop street wear, if wildly different, is no more outlandish than the zoot suit outfits Calloway and his contemporaries wore, for the same nonconformist, self-expressive reasons as modern-day rappers.

Exhibition Resembles a Hip-Hop Hall of Fame

Rich in artifacts, with more than 400 objects and videos on view, the show embraces hip-hop in the same way Cooperstown embraces baseball.

In displays about as subtle as pinball machines, you'll find Beastie Boys promotional posters, a Kool DJ Herc Stetson hat, a Slick Rick hat and eye patch, a Jazzy Jeff three-finger ring and Notorious B.I.G. sunglasses.

But the show illustrates rather than explains hip-hop's development into what the museum calls "the most influential American cultural phenomenon of the past 25 years."

On view are mementos of Queen Latifah's rise as an oddly feminist hip-hop diva (as in the number "Ladies First" on her debut "All Hail the Queen"; certainly a riposte to many rapper lyrics). But we're not told how she was able to translate her street music success into a film career and a continuing role as a fixture of mainstream American daytime television.

The dazzling visual record of hip-hop history displayed in the show includes some spectacularly lively images, including a photo of the group Stetsasonic with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and some of the wildest posters in the history of the medium.

But graffiti art, the most visual expression of hip-hop culture, seems to take a back seat here to all the studded stars' jackets and floppy caps.

It would have been interesting to explore the connection of rap graffiti to that of 1960s Pop art icon Jean-Michel Basquiat.

"That kind of powerful, chaotic color and very staccato imagistic world he summons was a definite precursor to graffiti art," Dyson said.

And there's another connection to the oral-literary phenomenon of slam poetry. Dyson believes the latter's success has grown out of that of hip-hop.

"Slam poetry has found a very powerful emphasis within bohemian cafe life and black artistic subcultures and white subcultures because of the popularity of hip-hop," he said.

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