Traci Bartlow, Untitled (Method Man), 1994.
RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom opens in March, casting a broad look at 50 years of hip-hop.
Curating the exhibition in Oakland Museum of California’s Great Hall, RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom, was likely the easiest — and hardest — job René de Guzman has ever undertaken.
As the downtown museum’s director of exhibition strategy and senior curator, de Guzman was tasked with selecting unique representations of rap, dance, fashion, pop culture, and visual art from an enormous wealth of archival and current hip-hop materials. Inevitable in culling a treasure trove, tough choices were involved. Fortunately, a mandate to zoom in on the Bay Area and Oakland’s influence on the art form streamlined the explorations.
“Hip-hop is more than commercial rap. This is American history for everyone,” said de Guzman. “It’s American storytelling. It’s local history with the Bay Area continuing to be a vital hip-hop community.”
The vast body of evidence proving the Bay Area’s impact reaches back to funk music origins and stretches to include human bodies DJing and MCing at iconic locations, turf dancing on street corners, creating large-scale, self-expressionist graffiti, or forming activist organizations to promote education, civil rights, social justice, and youth development. The creative art form’s extensions include street art, fashion design, sound innovation, and entrepreneurialism.
“Hip-hop’s positive and meaningful,” said de Guzman. “It’s a great party, really good people who want to change the world together. There’s a common misconception that hip-hop is only violent, misogyny, criminality. It has that element, but rock ’n’ roll has it, too. Our contribution is to fill out the story.”
Specific to the Bay Area, de Guzman highlighted organizations like Youth Speaks and seminal artists MC Hammer and Too $hort, among others. “Youth Speaks is world-renowned, comes out of community, empowers teens. Certainly, the conscious, politically minded hip-hop comes out of here because entrepreneurism is definitely Bay Area. Look at
Too $hort. He sold his mixtapes out of the trunk of his car and thereby created his own business without being beholden to a record label.”
The exhibition includes photographs, posters, objects, and artifacts illustrating hip-hop’s all-encompassing 50-year reign, along with distinctive works like a tapestry by New York-based portraitist Kehinde Wiley, who was recently commissioned to paint Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait. There are special events and spaces dedicated to reading and reflection, beat- and graffiti-making, video production, or learning and performing hip-hop dance skills.
Writer Eric Arnold is the former managing editor of now-defunct 4080, a 1990s rap magazine. A Rap Atlas/Timeline he is creating for the exhibition features key moments and locations in Oakland’s hip-hop history. The five-decade period is divided into categories and sections that originate in the Black Arts and Black Power movements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, television bursting on the media scene, pre-hip-hop funk music, culture, and politics. “You have to look at what led up to hip-hop,” Arnold said, about understanding the genre’s complete architecture. Precursors are foundational, he insisted. “The era before hip-hop is the touchstone replicated through the rest of the history.” When Latin music and dance craze boogaloo met West Coast funk and was picked up and performed by James Brown on television, white teenagers were enraptured. “That televised picture was worth a million words,” Arnold said.
Incremental moments in the 1990s — Dan Quayle in 1992 accusing Tupac Shakur of inciting violence, is one example — led to a climate of censorship. The Fugees’ The Score album rocketed on Lauryn Hill’s vocals and the group’s instrumentation to six platinum records in its first year. Mainstream acceptance came swiftly, but at a price. Rap music “became its own monster,” said Arnold. “It became attractive to mainstream America, meaning white America. Rap was marketable and overshadowed other elements. You had Broadway shows with rap; DJing created space for rappers. It was the original culture hero, resulting in double-spinning before there was digital sampling.”
As hip-hop grew to mean rap, other traditions faded, according to Arnold. But throughout, Oakland’s influence remained undiminished. It was powered by strong labor unions, Black Panthers on campus handing out The Little Red Book by Chairman Mao, and more than anything, an underground, inner-city culture driven by youth. If New York City hip-hop was influenced by subways and placed emphasis on in-your-face graffiti and Los Angeles hip-hop was marked by street gangs, Oakland hip-hop was impacted by car and radio culture. “Rap in the car isn’t going to be up-tempo,” said Arnold. “It’s slow-roving. When it broke out in the ’80s, we had five radio stations playing hip-hop. Artists would come out, do the circuits, get exposure. The Bay Area was instrumental in artists getting added to the scene in New York and LA.” The Telecommunications Act of 1996 consolidated independent radio. Instead of hundreds of stations playing individual lists and local artists, the law meant to promote competition killed it, creating 1,200 stations with the same, single playlist. Star culture ruled.
Amid that climate, Oakland-based Mandolyn Ludlum, known as Mystic, toured with Digital Underground, then burst solo upon the scene with her 2001 debut album Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom. She is the Bay Area coordinator for national youth-focused organization Hip-Hop Caucus. Featured in the exhibit and asked to contribute ideas during the show’s development, Ludlum emphasized hip-hop’s inclusive traditions. “Coast to coast, we’re interested in hip-hop as a vehicle to engage youths civically. We use different approaches, but we share topics like mass incarceration, police brutality, lack of investment in education, and issues that disproportionately impact Black, Brown, indigenous, LGBTQ, and impoverished communities. We’re happy to see each other succeed.”
The corporatization of hip-hop had a downside but also spread it worldwide to young people of all races, cultures, and identities, she said, highlighting the art form’s power to bring people together. But with artists still poorly compensated despite record companies’ success, she suggested that unequal monetization means commodification has “taken away something artists can’t get back.”
Even so, Ludlum is optimistic. “I foresee young people will continue to use it to express themselves. Race alone won’t dictate whether or not we think it’s dope or not. More of us will work across cultures, borders, and languages. We’ll have elders like me” — she’s not old at age 42 — “to continue the conversations. Hopefully, the young folks will listen. We know the beauty of being young and how hard it is. We’ve grown into adulthood and won’t turn our backs on young people and communities engaged in hip-hop’s beautiful resistance.”