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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Hip Hop Historians Who Are Racing to Preserve Its Story

Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins rode his bike to Kmart after school. It was 2000 and he was 13 years old, but he wanted Ludacris’ debut album, Back for the First Time. When he got there, he had to convince the clerk to sell him the explicit version of the CD. He got it; he’s still got it, one of dozens of rap albums in his collection. As an adult, Jenkins would become a writer and TV host and tell Ludacris the story on the Mogul Mixtapes podcast. But he’s telling the story now as a way of explaining the importance of preserving hip hop’s history.

Effort, the work put into archiving, is changing, Jenkins says, often in ways that are generational. Now in his mid-thirties, he remembers his dad teaching him how to make mixtapes, but also sees the ease with which young people can now pull nearly anything up on Spotify or YouTube—repositories that seem infinite and everlasting, but also could disappear instantly if a business fails. Not everyone archives the way vinyl collectors or DJs do, but, Jenkins adds, those who do are being much more intentional about it.

“Hip hop is still young. Most of the elders are still here, but a lot of the participants have passed away,” Jenkins says. “I think we’re realizing, especially in the past three years of life, this whole thing’s pretty temporary, so we might as well keep what we can keep.”

Holding hip hop’s history is a varied and complicated thing. Some of its guardians are personal collectors, people like Jenkins who still have all of their CDs, even though the “data is flaking off.” Or the folks like Andrew Barber, the founder of Chicago hip hop blog Fake Shore Drive, who have hard drives full of the MP3s posted to music sites during their boom in the aughts and early 2010s, even if the sites themselves, like the long-beloved Nah Right, didn’t make it. (Barber’s did, and he says people still come up to him hoping he has songs they thought were lost. “Sometimes I will, sometimes I won’t,” he says.)

There are also those fans, like Jenkins and Barber, who have kept old issues of The Source or Vibe. “I discovered hip hop and my baseball card collection went to shit,” jokes Evan Auerbach, founder of the Instagram account Up North Trips, which posts old images and videos from rap’s bygone days.

But hip hop is also kept by academics, museums. The Cornell University Library’s collection contains more than 250,000 items. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has some 300 hip-hop-specific artifacts, including a Technics turntable used by Grandmaster Flash and the boom box carried by Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The Universal Hip Hop Museum, a new massive facility in the Bronx—the New York borough where hip hop was born 50 years ago this week—is scheduled to open in 2025. Earlier this summer, the Brooklyn Library opened The Book of Hov, a collection of hundreds of Jay-Z’s awards, magazine covers, master recordings, and other artifacts.

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But in the middle of all of these collections is a desire to chronicle a genre of music as it happens. Within this, there is an awareness of what can and cannot be saved. As music, and the cultures that evolve around it, move from vinyl and turntables to tapes and boomboxes to SoundCloud and smartphones, there seems to be infinite capacity to archive—what can’t the cloud hold?—and also an ephemerality to everything. Whole scenes are happening on TikTok; Vine is already gone. Back in March, rumors began swirling that mixtape hub Datpiff might shut down. The site’s creators later posted that they were “working away on the next iteration” and that its library would be available on Archive.org in the meantime.

Most of the music sites so popular a few years ago don’t update nearly as often as they used to, and their comment sections, the focal points of lively debates and discussion (and trash talk), are hard to find. “The music doesn’t exist because links have disappeared and those websites are no longer in business,” says Eric Rosenthal, cocreator of The Blog Era, a 10-part podcast released this summer about what he calls “the most consequential time” in the genre’s history. “Had we not done an oral history with the people involved, they might never have been on the record.”

Hip hop is, of course, its own oral history. But as Eric’s brother and fellow Blog Era creator, Jeff, notes, the current generation has gone through the “Snapchatification” of culture. Eric disagrees with him on this point, but the fact remains that the generation of music fans who grew up online seem much more comfortable with things being of-the-moment, rather than lasting forever.

“This is me paraphrasing someone whose name is escaping me right now, but hip hop is great at innovation. It’s terrible at documentation,” says writer and podcaster (and collector) Timmhotep Aku. It’s pushed forward technology, culture, commerce—but also always been focused on the future, on what’s next.

Hip hop, Aku reminds me, is an art form based on improvisation. Its heroes may dominate the Billboard Hot 100, but it’s always been an outsider’s game, rendering many of its pillars nearly obsolete. There are unofficial song leaks that eventually disappear. Many early mixtapes and DJ mixes used unauthorized samples; they may still float around on YouTube or SoundCloud, but they’ll never make it to Spotify. Fans have to save them, somehow. Even major releases, like De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, can get caught in the copyright weeds. The group’s catalog finally got cleared for a streaming release in March of this year. Before that, if you wanted to hear it, you had to find an illicit stream or have hung onto your record collection.

To that end, not everything can be saved. Dwandalyn Reece thinks about this often. The associate director for the humanities at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, she’s one of the people charged with maintaining the organization’s hip hop archive. As culture, specifically music culture, has moved online, the things that used to be curatorial mainstays—handwritten song lyrics, letters, business records—are no longer physical objects. Everything now is on phones, in email, on social media. “How do you tackle that?” Reece says. “How do you decide what to collect and how to collect it and how much of it to collect? The sheer volume is daunting. These are definitely serious questions that all [curators] are wrestling with.”

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Reece also notes that the legalities for collecting items like mixtapes and TikToks are tough, especially for an institution like the Smithsonian. There’s due diligence, licensing, and all manner of other procedures that must be done. But, she stresses, the museum is looking to digitize as much of its archive as it can. “We do cataloging, we do research, we do conservation, and once that’s all processed we digitize it to make it accessible,” she says.

Some of these efforts have already borne out. As we’re ending our call, Reece points me to the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, a 129-song collection and 300-page book that came out in 2021. It is, she notes, a collaboration between, writers, b-boys, graffiti artists, scholars, and community members that is “not the definitive story of hip hop, but [it is] a story about hip hop.” The whole movement is too much for any collection, but the collection, Reece says, illustrates its cultural, political, and historical importance.

Amid all of this discussion about how to archive hip hop’s history loom larger questions about where those collections should exist.

Nearly everyone I spoke with for this piece spoke about the importance of keeping their own stash of CDs, tapes, party fliers, and MP3s in the face of disappearing digital archives. But what about the physical stuff? Much of Cornell’s archive, and a similar one at Harvard University, are available to the public, but often require appointments to view. (Much of Cornell’s has been digitized, though.) Some of the Smithsonian’s collection is on view, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture is free.

But so many of the physical artifacts of hip hop’s history are in private collections. Last year, DJ Kool Herc, the man whose Bronx block party is credited as the birth of hip hop, auctioned off much of his gear through Christie’s. The Radio Raheem boom box in the Smithsonian’s collection used to be owned by Gene Siskel. It was gifted to him by Spike Lee himself; the museum acquired it at auction after his passing in 1999. The Smithsonian gets most of its archive through donations, but it will acquire things this way if it can. The Kool Herc auction was “competitive,” Reece says, but the organization did acquire a few items.

A space like the Universal Hip Hop Museum shows promise—a place, in the Bronx, that will be accessible to the community. But with any museum exhibit or academic archive come questions. Jenkins compares it to African art that’s ended up in the collections of US museums. “Did you guys get this gifted? Or did you take it? Who wrote the placard? Where is it situated in the museum?” he says. “All of those things have an immense effect on us, and it’s crazy because hip hop is often challenging those same institutions and individuals and ideas.”

Putting hip hop behind glass also runs the risk of taking something evolving and interactive and turning it into a one-way conversation, notes Aku. “I think, sometimes, academia being the repository for a bunch of stuff creates an invisible gate,” he adds. It’s antithetical to a culture that began with block parties open to everyone.

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Ultimately, questions about archiving often boil down to capitalism. The mediums used to store things often dictate what gets saved, and from vinyl spinning at clubs to CDs to TikTok, what’s available will most often be what’s most profitable. That’s why file-sharing site Megaupload got shut down and some bootlegs will never be on Apple Music. It’s why many of the best collections are the ones held by fans. It’s why Aku believes those fans should work with people who can catalog those collections, add context, and turn them into something accessible and searchable. “I want to see more archives for the people,” he says. So does Reece. “Accessibility is why we are here,” she says.

Aku brings this up toward the end of our conversation. He also mentions that he finds the 50th anniversary of hip hop mile-marker a bit disingenuous. The birth of an entire movement can’t be attributed to one act. “I’m definitely not a person to shit on hip hop’s anniversary, or its founders,” he says. “These influential figures are extremely important. They changed the world and they deserve recognition and they deserve compensation. One hundred percent, underlined, big cap, bold letters. Capitalism, industry, commerce require neat stories. But we also have to be like, is this the whole story, or is this a convenient story?” Likely the latter, and it’s incomplete.

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