If you have to ask whether or not hip-hop merits the curatorial attentions of a major metropolitan museum, you're obviously not attuned to the truly significant forces that shape American culture.
Y'know, like "Nightline." In September, with correspondent Robert Krulwich mustering an air of only slightly feigned guilelessness on the mic, MC Ted Koppel's show conducted a painstaking three-night investigation of hip-hop culture, eventually concluding that it makes some very nice bank for a great many people, and (thus) is definitely important, if a little scary and irresponsible.
Then there's Newsweek, which got out the extra-extra-broad brush for the recent cover package, "Battle for the Soul of Hip-Hop," about how today's rap is so violent, misogynistic and materialistic that even some rappers find it troubling. The "Battle" was a celebrity death match pitting Mos Def -- fast becoming hip-hop's most vocal neoconservative -- against Eminem, enemy of all that is good, and Cash Money's iced-down Millionaires. The subtext, roughly, was that because the music reaches a wide, eager and young audience that rock can only dream about, hip-hop's problems are everybody's problems. Also, "booty videos" are bad. Oh, so bad.
The Brooklyn Museum, which stared down both the Catholic archdiocese and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani last fall when both attacked its controversy-courting "Sensation" art show, probably doesn't care what a few media naysayers have to say about hip-hop. Besides, the museum's new hip-hop exhibit, "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage," crams over 400 rap artifacts into four rather cramped ground-floor galleries, which leaves little room for dung paintings. A roughly chronological survey of rap's journey from Bronx block parties to cold-lampin'-in-the-Hamptons, "Hip-Hop Nation" was originally staged in November 1999 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
For its Brooklyn debut, the museum's Kevin Stayton and guest curator Kevin Powell (former Vibe scribe and "Real World" cast member, and card-carrying Gen Rap pundit) have beefed up the show with supplementary East Coast content. They've also solicited the input of a large and varied advisory committee, which includes both old-school faculty members (graffiti artist Lady Pink, early rap impresario Fab 5 Freddy) and industry machers (Russell Simmons, Jann Wenner.) All this effort puts the exhibit in sort of a weird position. It's a frustrating failure, but it's a painstakingly researched, authoritative failure. Ultimately, the worst thing about it is how close to good it comes.
Hip-hop's prehistory offers a team of curators any number of potential entry points: African griots and other oral poetic traditions, the Beats, talking blues, Muhammad Ali trash-talk, C.W. McCall's "Convoy." But "Hip-Hop Nation" begins with the basics, and in the relatively recent past. A yellow Cab Calloway zoot suit is displayed front and center, signifying the visual pomp and verbal hi-de-ho hip-hop picked up from jazz. Vinyl LPs -- Vicki Sue Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie, the Last Poets -- highlight the genre's debt to the soul and funk in Mom and Dad's record collection, the main factor that kept rap from making generational division a priority to the extent that rock always did (at least until Bob Dylan's kid started making Tom Petty records).
From there, it's on to the break of hip-hop's dawn: With its roots established, hip-hop bloomed across the poverty-scarred South Bronx in the late '70s and early '80s. The exhibit illustrates this phase, the music's teen years, with a collection of vintage rap-show flyers that's almost worth the suggested donation on its own. The T-Connection club's groovy art-deco handbills (one Afrika Bambaataa/Jazzy Jay/Treacherous 3 triple bill is "dedicated to disillusioned folks") share space with posters for community events that just happened to include hip-hop (the Cold Crush Brothers playing a graduation ball at Throgs Neck Community Center in the Bronx in 1982, and something called the "1979 Tennis & Terry Cloth Affair," presented by the P.A.L. Teen Council) and party invites that approximate the design sensibility of garage-sale announcements. By pointing out hip-hop's unassuming beginnings, this stuff testifies, succinctly, to the form's extraordinary, who-woulda-thunk-it growth. Puffy sells out Madison Square Garden now, but there was a time when the phrase "hip-hop show" meant Kurtis Blow doing a playground-renovation benefit at the skating rink around the corner. ("Parents relax downstairs in lounge, while your child skates upstairs.")
When it left the outer boroughs en route to the world stage, though, hip-hop got complicated real fast. In 1982, when Charlie Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy shot the lo-fi quasi-documentary "Wild Style" on the streets of the Bronx, they assumed they were catching a fad on its way out; four years later, Rick Rubin-produced, Russell Simmons-masterminded juggernauts like Run-D.M.C.'s "Raising Hell" and (especially) the Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" were sounding like rock and selling like pop. There's a shift in tone here, and the museum kinda turns into the Hard Rap Cafe, as hip-hop stars -- and their significant-by-association hip-hop stuff -- take over the conversation. Which is, in its own way, perfectly fine -- for any self-respecting rap geek, the chance to view Afrika Bambaataa's space-shaman cloak and Boogaloo Shrimp's dance pants, Slick Rick's eye patch and Rakim's Dapper Dan Gucci jacket (as seen on the cover of the Eric B and Rakim classic, "Follow the Leader"), Flavor Flav's timepiece and (icon of icons) Run D.M.C.'s Adidas, is akin to gaining admission to the Batcave trophy room where Bruce Wayne kept the giant penny.
For an exhibit originated by the Clapton-is-god Rock Hall (and one that outsources most of its multimedia content to MTV), "Hip-Hop Nation" is extremely sensitive -- hypersensitive, maybe -- about the way white cultural gatekeepers have traditionally read and misread hip-hop. This makes for some of the show's sharpest moments. Cringe at a 1984 cover story from Newsweek that chuckles about that nutty breakdancing fad. Cheer the December '86 appearance of Run D.M.C. on the cover of Rolling Stone! Groan to TV Guide's "'def' glossary" of hip-hop slang, pegged to the fall 1990 debuts of ambiguously rap-related programming like "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and, uh, "Cop Rock"!
Inevitably, though, when you try to sum up this much history in a finite space, somebody's going to get dissed. Seemingly vital stories -- like hip-hop's late-'80s "Afrocentric" phase and the influence of Islam on outfits like Brand Nubian and the Wu-Tang Clan -- don't get told at all, while other cultural mainstays, like female MCs and beat-digging DJs, get quick glosses. It's also a painfully New York/Los Angeles-focused affair -- the contributions of rappers from the flyover states are addressed on a single placard, under the heading "Regionalism in Hip-Hop," positioned beneath a looming, billboard-size image of L.A.'s own Snoop Dogg. This might have been excusable a few years ago, when Southerners-without-portfolio like Master P, Mystikal and the Cash Money contingent were just beginning their chart assault. But these days, it seems like major myopia -- rappers from Atlanta, Louisiana and the Midwest are only "regional" if you live at Kevin Powell's house.
Really, though, the exhibit's main problem is depth, not breadth. The Grammy award DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince won for "Parents Just Don't Understand" is displayed, with a card identifying it as the first rap Grammy ever awarded by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. But there's no mention of the fact that Jeff and the Prince boycotted the Grammies that year, along with most of the other nominees in the category, because NARAS wouldn't include the presentation of the rap trophy in that year's live telecast. And a letter Ice-T manager Jorge Hinojosa sent to Warner Music brass at the height of the flap over T's song "Cop Killer" -- asking Warner to either defend Ice's work more vigorously or release him from his contract -- makes for interesting reading. But it doesn't begin to suggest the way "Cop Killer," which Ice-T recorded with his speed-metal side project Body Count, raised the possibility of black rage walking into the suburbs through the front door, or the mix of hyperbole, hucksterism, irony and dead-seriousness that infuses Ice-T's oeuvre even in its most ostensibly "confrontational" moments.
"Hip-Hop Nation" isn't interested in that stuff, anyway, and the fact that even the supposedly morally-bankrupt gangsta era produced a lot of thrilling pop art doesn't really matter here. Instead, we're supposed to see the gangsta vogue of the late '80s and early '90s as a pivotal coming-of-age moment for hip-hop, the times that tried the genre's soul. Powell's favorite gangsta is the late Tupac Shakur -- his image appears on the poster for "Hip-Hop Nation," and a moody painting (by graffiti legend and "Wild Style" star Lee Quinones) that imagines "Pac" as James Dean on the boulevard of broken dreams establishes him as the show's patron saint/martyr.
For writers looking to draw vast conclusions about black American life from gangsta rap, Shakur was too-too-perfect, from his archetypal, hellafied background as the son of a Black Panther-turned-crackhead, to the "Thug Life" tattoo across his abdomen. After Shakur was shot dead in a still-unsolved Las Vegas drive-by, when it seemed like every media outlet in the country was calling Powell up for some insight, he repeatedly called Shakur the black Kurt Cobain. The problem is, holding up Shakur -- and all the "contradictions" he supposedly signified -- as an exemplar of hip-hop is as dumb as letting Cobain represent all of rock. It seriously circumscribes what the show can say about the culture and about black life in general. Scores of hip-hop artists -- from KRS-1 to Ice Cube to Outkast -- have wrestled more intelligently and productively with the pressure and responsibilities of being a black artist and a black adult in an America that eats its young. Shakur, by comparison, was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and his absurd demise only reinforced everything hip-hop's clueless detractors already believed about it anyway.
In the exhibit's final act, subtitled "The Culture Goes Pop," the curators advance their most specious thesis: Having lost two heroes (Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.) to gun culture, hip-hop kicked its addiction to gangsta shit and set about becoming a productive member of society. So the weird curios of hip-hop culture's formative years are replaced by big-baller successories (Puff Daddy's shiny silver suit, a talking Master P doll) and earlier emblems of the mainstream's cash-in (Vanilla Ice's sparkly stagewear, cels from the "Hammerman" Saturday-morning cartoon) are reclaimed as notable milestones on the road to popular acceptance. Any implied critique of the media's slant on hip-hop goes out the window -- Sean Combs flosses on the cover of Forbes with Jerry Seinfeld, Lauryn Hill fronts Harper's Bazaar, Will Smith smiles for Rolling Stone, People and Vanity Fair, and the overall effect is like a blast of paparazzi flashbulbs, obliterating thought.
In a move that says a lot about their agenda, the museum (according to the Village Voice) rejected a multimedia installation about police brutality produced by the editors of Russell Simmons' urban-culture Web portal 360hiphop.com -- one of the exhibit's sponsors -- on the grounds that it wasn't hip-hop enough. The countless rappers who've spoken out about the killings of Amadou Diallo and Patrick Dorismond by trigger-happy police would probably beg to differ. The police-brutality issue helped catalyze a major renaissance of activist rap this year, giving "conscious" rappers from Mos Def to Dead Prez something to be conscious about, but acknowledging that groundswell might have screwed up the show's mo'-money/less-problems happy ending. As is, the exhibit retroactively rewrites hip-hop's history as a "Jeffersons"-esque triumph of assimilation: The Fresh Prince can open a blockbuster, so send over another bottle of Cristal 'cause we're a winner, yo!
Don't get me wrong -- the most interesting thing about art, and about music, and especially about hip-hop is the way it mutates when exposed to commerce, to the desires and agendas of the marketplace. Modern music would be incalculably poorer without pop-rap, deprived of Puff Daddy's sacrilegious hot-wirings of the pop-music memory bank and Jay-Z masticating cadence and hard-nosing playa narrative like a black-mack Ed McBain. And any exhibit about popular culture that ignores the manifestations of that culture's popularity risks denying the reasons for its own existence.
But there's been a lot of compromisin' on the road to this horizon, and presenting a Top 40 hegemony as an unqualified win for the entire culture is as wacky as holding up John Stamos' Emmy nomination as proof of the significance of Elvis. Hip-hop arrived in the pop penthouse with a multitude of conflicting self-images and just as many ideological rifts. That's a good thing; hip-hop's plurality is what makes it a nation. But to hear this show tell it, democracy's dead and we're all getting jiggy in the sparkle and fade.