Inside the Hip-Hop Museum—Look, But Don't Touch

Dust off those Air Forces. Unpack the SL-1200s.

Before long, freestyle neophytes curious about hip-hop history will be able to take their “ass to the museum”—in the characteristically bombastic words of “Cop Killer” rapper Ice-T—to have some knowledge dropped on their inquiring domes. Grandmaster Flash, the Smithsonian needs you.

The Smithsonian’s recent request for rap artifacts to be featured in their upcoming exhibit, “Hip Hop Won’t Stop: The Beats, the Rhymes, the Life,” has been perceived both as a threat to the legitimacy of a once-underground movement, and as a victory for African-American culture.

Those skeptical of the street cred of an organization that also manages the National Museum of American History should note the exhibit’s coy subtitle riff on the title of A Tribe Called Quest’s second-worst album.

Despite this dubious pedigree—was there no room on exhibit posters for “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”?—this project affirms the long-overdue recognition of hip-hop’s historical relevance, especially given the involvement of the canonical American museum.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most enterprising attempts to intellectualize hip-hop have been made by its own practitioners, not by tenured professors. KRS-One, the prototypical hip-hop teacher, brought political ideals more complex than “Fight the Power” into rap discourse; poet/rapper Saul Williams and DJ Spooky offer their own (somewhat ponderous) philosophies of sampling and breakbeats.

Most hip-hop scholars in the academy have focused more on hip-hop’s intersection with reconstituted discourses of race and gender, and less on the form itself. Witness the inclusion of Tupac in a Harvard course on protest literature, or the schizophrenia of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Hip Hop” course, whose syllabus is fraught with jarring references to “commodity fetishization”, “hedz”, and “dookie chains.”

Though the course flirts with under-explored theoretical issues of space and performance, the pedagogy plays into existing paradigms of hip-hop scholarship: only the music of the Beastie Boys and Eminem is featured in a lecture on “whiteness” in the genre.

This atomistic treatment does a disservice to rap elders like the white MC Serch of old-school group 3rd Bass—who helped break the careers of Nas and MF Doom (both black)—and to the multiracial breakdancing crews seen in 1982’s “Wild Style.” Neither example conforms to the neat classification of rap as a purely “black” form.

Still, to deny the tumultuous interplay of racial politics in hip-hop history would be irresponsible, especially now that the Cold Crush Brothers’ Grandmaster Caz leads bus tours of the South Bronx for flabby middle-class fans.

But beyond the obvious danger of fetishization suggested by the recent invasion of many of rap’s holy sites by camera-toting amateur anthropologists lurk more subtle methodological problems.

As tennis shoes and ghettoblasters fill gallery walls, hip-hop curators will inevitably encounter many of the same issues of performance and ephemerality that plague today’s Dada chroniclers at the National Gallery of Art.

But while both art forms emphasize live improvisation and countercultural rhetoric, hip-hop is better poised to survive its museumification, just as it has outlived its earlier commercialization.

Founded on the sequential exchange of lyrics over prerecorded beats, rap is already the most explicitly historical form of popular music; enough intertextuality to make Barthes blush—whether in quoted rhymes, posse shout-outs or P-Funk samples—is a constitutive element of the rapper’s craft.

The tension between lyrical innovation and “respect for the culture” allows Nas to decry “a rhymebiter’s rthyme” on his debut album Illmatic, while still drawing lyrical nourishment from idols like Rakim. Whether Vanilla Ice or Black Eyed Peas, pop outsiders who appropriate rap forms without a nod to their numerous predecessors are ostracized.

Though these sequential links are vital, slicing the intricate mesh of hip-hop’s connections into easy “lineages” of progressive influence and success, as a conventional exhibition format is likely to do, is antithetical to the genre’s amorphous structure.

Underground pioneers the Wu-Tang Clan hint at this dilemma when they ask nostalgically, “Can It Be All So Simple”, eventually breaking down “fly clichés” and easy street/smart dichotomies in favor of an epic, all-American mythos that draws on everything from pulp comic books and cheap kung-fu movies.

Any static visual display of artifacts and commentary will be hard-pressed to uncover the symbolic web of even one Wu-Tang album, let alone the genre as a whole. While it may display some truly fly chains, “Hip Hop Won’t Stop” will be hard-pressed to assume a form that approximates the boundless dynamism of rap culture.