By Bruce Britt
Is it just me, or is hip-hop grabbing its share of interesting headlines lately? Just Tuesday, Palestinian-American composer/producer Sami Matar announced the release of "#Jan25," a hip-hop tribute song in support of the historic uprising in Egypt. Meanwhile, rap pioneer Clive "Kool Herc" Campbell has used personal health issues to express his outspoken support for U.S. health care reform. Last Sunday, rap populists the Black Eyed Peas provided delectably over-the-top halftime entertainment at Super Bowl XLV — the most watched program in TV history.
Yes, Virginia, hip-hop is still relevant….
And more popular than ever, which made GRAMMY Week's opening event so timely. Tuesday night marked the premiere of Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, the GRAMMY Museum's interactive multimedia exhibit celebrating the gestation, birth, survival, and legacy of post-soul urban culture. Dubbed "the definitive literary and photographic celebration of a groundbreaking culture," the exhibit — which runs through May 4 at the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles — tells the story of a music-based culture incubated in New York's South Bronx, raised in various regions such as Southern California and the South, and embraced everywhere.
Anyone with an appreciation for contemporary music history will be slack-jawed over the artifacts displayed at this exhibit, including framed original copies of Tupac Shakur's lyrics, Public Enemy's classic militia-style stage uniforms and the C.F. Martin & Co. guitar Wyclef Jean used to compose many of the Fugees' hits. Other displays chronicle the evolution of boom boxes, sneakers, turntables, and the music itself. Sensory overload never looked or sounded so good.
Tuesday's event was tied to the official publication of a luxury hardcover book, which shares the title Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey. Featuring 420 pages and weighing in at nearly 16 pounds, the book is heavy enough to clobber your rival during those heated "best hip-hop album ever" debates.
Judging from the scenes at the premiere, the Museum has a winning exhibition on its hands. A few hundred guests clamored to have their pictures taken in front of various displays, including a wall-length mural by illustrator Mike Thompson, a Volkswagen-sized beat box and five glass kiosks teeming with historic paraphernalia.
Personally speaking, the event made for a good night of gawking, as I routinely craned my neck for glimpses of celebrity guests, including hip-hop pioneer DJ Afrika Bambaataa, iconic producer DJ Quik, comedian Tommy Davidson, and GRAMMY-winning producer and Recording Academy Chair Emeritus Jimmy Jam. I gingerly approached boxing legend Mike Tyson and asked what hip-hop meant to him. The former champ initially waved me off. Against my better judgment, I risked bodily harm by continuing to needle the celebrated prizefighter for a quote.
Lo and behold, the champ — who seems shier and gentler in real life than anyone could possibly imagine — actually relented. "It was just a way of life," Tyson said of the old school rap jams he grew up with. "It was the way people wanted to live, [people who were] isolated from a society that shunned them. That's what hip-hop is. It was rebelling against society."
Renowned art director Cey Adams, who oversaw creative for artists such as LL Cool J, the Beasties Boys and Jay-Z while at Island Def Jam Music Group, gave the Museum high marks for consulting hip-hop innovators like himself to design the exhibit. "The good thing is that they're not just recognizing the musicians," Adams said. "The visual artists are getting love, too. Because if you know anything about hip-hop, you know it isn't just about music. It's art, it's dance. It's a whole culture."
Barely an hour into the event, a party erupted on the Museum's terrace as DJ Bambaataa fueled a dance frenzy. Hours later as the crowd finally began to thin, I returned to the exhibit to try my hand at scratching using the virtual turntables on display. After about 5 minutes of putzing around, I could only manage what could best be described as "digital flatulence."
Think I'll stick to writing….
(To view more photos from the premiere of Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey and additional GRAMMY Week events, click here.)