When black and brown teenagers experimenting with turntables invented hip-hop at house parties in the Bronx, they no idea they were creating the foundation for what would become the single biggest cultural phenomenon 30 years later. They were simply having fun.
In 2018, of course, hip-hop is a billion-dollar industry, but its underground is still very much alive at parties, after-school centers, parks, and protests. It gives voice to struggle and celebrates resilience; it empowers people of all walks of life to speak their truth and be at their best.
So it’s an interesting proposition that the Oakland Museum of California has decided to enshrine hip-hop within its white walls. Once a movement enters museums, the concern goes, its progression is stifled. Nonetheless, the new show Respect: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom, opening March 24 and running through Aug. 12, treats hip-hop in a fun, engaging way, not as a relic of the past but as a living, breathing art form that’s still evolving.
The sprawling exhibit gives insight into how hip-hop culture came to be through its four elements — graffiti, DJing, b-boying, and rapping. It brings that early growth to life through photos by Martha Cooper, one of the first outsiders to document New York’s nascent graffiti scene; early party flyers featuring DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash; Soul Train videos; custom jackets; Grandmaster Flash’s original Technics turntables. Beyond mere artifacts, the show does an admirable job contextualizing this birth of hip-hop in U.S. history, citing the Black Power movement, the social chaos of the Reagan administration, and Afrofuturism.
But in attempting to be comprehensive, Respect: Hip-hop Style & Wisdom leaves some crucial details overlooked.
The show spends quite a bit of time on New York’s old school and California’s underground hip-hop culture, but it does little to track hip-hop’s evolution from youth counterculture to massive commercial phenomenon. Surprisingly, there’s no mention of figures like Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Dr. Dre, Kanye West, or Pharrell — the ones who helped shape it into a mega-industry. (In its place, the exhibition highlights the many ways hip-hop culture has extended beyond the music — a tapestry by Kehinde Wiley, Obama's portrait artist, and stylish pieces by Moschino attest to the ways hip-hop as permeated high fashion and fine art.)
One would probably need an entire hip-hop museum to do justice to the genres’s distinctive regional movements, but the lack of individual attention to influential scenes like Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, and Memphis flatten the genre to California and New York — a very 1990s view of rap music. Even within California, the show hardly makes mention of the hyphy movement, other than videos by E-40 and Lil B playing in the interactive activity room, filled with turntables and sample pads. Nor does it delve into mob music, g-funk, or the Bay Area’s conscious hip-hop movement. Instead, elements of each are presented like a melting pot, and for a major exhibition in Oakland, the one-size-fits-all presentation of such a varied scene left nuance to be desired.
Nonetheless, a room dedicated to the Bay Area contains unexpected, special homages, such as graffiti writer Mike "Dream" Francisco’s last work: an altar in homage to two departed friends. A short film by Yak, a mainstay of the turf battle scene, goes behind the scenes of “RIP Rich D,” the gorgeous YouTube video of four turf dancers in the rain on International Blvd. that went viral and put the Bay Area street dance on the global map. The ways they speak about dancing as a way to communicate their stories is incredibly moving.
The exhibition also contains priceless relics, like graffiti writer Refa One’s personal photo albums of tags from the '80s, including Dream's TDK Crew. Traci Bartlow’s collages, created around 2000, feature her original backstage photos from the '90s of underground icons and all-time greats alike, including Hieroglyphics’ Tajai, E-40, Boots Riley, Pam the Funkstress, Lauryn Hill, Aaliyah, and Quincy Jones. And Eric Arnold’s Bay Area hip-hop atlas offers invaluable insights into key underground spots that shaped the regional scene over the years: the studio where Too Short recorded Born to Mack, the Eastmont Mall where the sideshow was born, MC Hammer's childhood home, and many others.
Bringing this history into the present day is a wall of photos by young photographer Amanda Sade of hip-hop culture in Oakland. Sade features emerging artists like Siri and Bruh From Last Night, and several others regularly seen on today's scene, making the show feel personal to those acquainted with the culture's youthful vanguard.
Respect: Hip-hop Style & Wisdom is visually engaging, too. A pearly white lowrider anchors the main exhibition hall; its owner came to the press preview and hit the switches, making it bounce. Several people mistook Barry McGee’s animatronic graffiti writer for a real person tagging the museum wall; he's perched atop a mock stack of giant speakers. Colorful photos of artists, graffiti murals, and flashy pieces of hip-hop fashion make the exhibit pop.
The chief curator of Respect: Hip-hop Style & Wisdom, René de Guzman, characterizes the show as a large team effort, and indeed, the Oakland Museum has done an admirable job of collaborating with the local community instead of speaking for them. Its upcoming roster of events associated with the exhibit include DJ nights, cyphers, panels, and more, inviting in the real-life hip-hop culture already flowing outside of the museum doors.
Hip-hop getting a museum show doesn't mean that the genre is old and on the outs; more so, it pays homage to its wide-ranging cultural impact — which shows no signs of slowing down.
'Respect: Hip-hop Style & Wisdom' is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through Aug. 12. More info here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.