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10 Must-See Exhibitions And Activations Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop
A gallery wall inside Fotografiska's "Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious" exhibit in New York City

Photo courtesy of Fotografiska 

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10 Must-See Exhibitions And Activations Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop

In honor of hip-hop’s golden anniversary, check out 10 must-see exhibits, activations and programs that celebrate the history and enduring legacy of the boundary-pushing genre.

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2023 - 01:04 pm

On Aug. 11, 1973, Clive Campbell, an 18-year-old performer known by the stage name DJ Kool Herc, and his sister Cindy co-organized a school fundraiser that became widely credited as the birthplace of hip-hop. From that Bronx apartment building community room emerged a wide-reaching movement that not only changed the lives of the artists who helped the genre evolve, but the lives of fans who summarily immersed themselves in the sound and culture of hip-hop.

Fifty years later, hip-hop has weaved itself into the cultural fabric of the world. Elements of the genre can be found throughout fashion, film, photography, dance, technology, language and art. Beyond its cultural impact, hip-hop serves as a platform for artists to highlight social concerns, such as discrimination, mental health issues, police brutality, and the inequalities that marginalized communities face. And by speaking truth to power, countless emcees and music makers have given a voice to the voiceless through their art. 

Celebrations surrounding the golden anniversary of hip-hop have been going on throughout 2023, though many will ramp up this summer to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Kool Herc and Cindy's original Bronx jam. Here are 10 exhibitions, events and activations that celebrate the artistry, history, impact and evolution of the cultural movement.

"Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious" 

Through May 20

Nas’ Mass Appeal Records has partnered with Fotografiska New York for a hip-hop photography exhibition that explores four of the genre’s core elements: rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti.   

Featuring 200 portraits, "Conscious, Unconscious" takes visitors through five decades of hip-hop (1972–2022), highlighting little-known connections between different artists and offering a closer look at pioneering women emcees, the various subcultures that arose across the country, and the gender disparities that exist within the male-dominated industry.  

"We made a thoughtful effort to have the presence of women accurately represented, not overtly singling them out in any way," exhibit Co-Curator Sacha Jenkins said in a statement. "You’ll turn a corner and there will be a stunning portrait of Eve or a rare and intimate shot of Lil’ Kim that most visitors won’t have seen before."

40th Anniversary Screening Of Wild Style 

June 11

From Breaking to Belly and Eight Mile, hip-hop cinema has helped extend the genre’s global reach by fusing sound with entertaining narratives that allow viewers to immerse themselves in the culture. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Wild Style — the first hip-hop motion picture — the National Hip-Hop Museum will  hold a screening at Zero Space NYC on June 11 in conjunction with Five Points Fest. 

Director Charlie Ahearn and cast members will attend the event, which will also feature DJ sets and live graffiti painting.

"The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century"

Through July 16

Mobile technology and the emergence of social media in the aughts helped bring hip-hop to the world, further cementing it as a major cultural influence. The Baltimore Museum of Art's "The Culture" exhibit explores the intersection between art, fashion, technology, and music over the past 20 years. 

The exhibit features paintings, sculptures, fashion, music videos and memorabilia, including the Vivienne Westwood buffalo hat Pharrell donned for the 2014 GRAMMYs and one of Virgil Abloh’s last collaborations with Louis Vuitton. 

"Rhythm, Bass and Place: Through the Lens" 

Through June 24

This five-month-long series curated by Lynnée Denise explores the connectivity of Black music, tracking the African diaspora through performances, screenings, and curated conversations on themes like kinship, sacred traditions, Afrofuturism, literature and liberation. 

At Harlem's Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, visitors can take a walk down memory lane at the "Through the Lens" exhibition, which explores different elements of Black music. Black-and-white photos captured by documentarians Joe Conzo Jr. showcase hip-hop and Latin music in New York in the 1970s and '80s, while Malik Yusef Cumbo's portraits feature the likes of Snoop Dogg and reggae singer Dawn Penn.​​

"[R]Evolution of Hip Hop"

Through June 30

At a pop-up in the Bronx for the forthcoming Universal Hip-Hop Museum, visitors can take an interactive trip through hip-hop’s golden era — 1986–1990 — in an exhibit focusing on the five pillars of the cultural movement: MCng, DJing, breakdancing, aerosol art, and knowledge. The exhibition includes original artwork, a giant interactive boombox, platinum plaques, sneakers, all-access passes, fliers, posters, recording equipment, Adidas sweatsuits worn by Run DMC, and a notepad with original lyrics from beatboxing pioneer Biz Markie and more.

"We’re providing visitors with a sneak preview of what we’re doing with the museum that opens in 2024," Rocky Bucano, president of the UHMM, told Billboard. "And for me personally, the responsibility of making sure that we have a space to amplify and magnify and inform people all around the world about what hip-hop actually is, is so important."

KRS-One’s "Birthplace of Hip-Hop" Initiative 

Aug. 11 - TBD

Prolific emcee and preservationist KRS-One is marking the golden anniversary by hosting a series of events at the birthplace of hip-hop: the community center at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, where DJ Kool Herc held the fundraiser that would spawn one of the most impactful cultural movements of the last century. 

"The 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop is a global movement that speaks to the grit, voice, and power of how it came to be in the first place — we used our voices when they tried to silence us. We used our creativity when they tried to stifle us. We created the culture because we wanted to stand out and stand up for our artistry," the rapper said in a statement. "Hip Hop is the people’s movement. I am excited to showcase this to the world in the space where it all began at 1520 Sedgwick in the Community Center. It feels right to be here, where it all began."

Upcoming events include educational and historical programs, photo exhibits, a logo-making competition and a series of Hip-Hop Kultural Specialist courses taught by KRS-One. 

Second-Annual Hip-Hop Block Party

Aug. 12

In homage to the school fundraiser-turned-neighborhood block party that birthed the movement, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. will host its second-annual hip-hop block party this summer. 

"The origins of hip-hop and rap rest in community where people gathered together in basements, on street corners, neighborhood dance parties and community shows to tell the stories of the people and places that brought it to life in a language all its own," Dwandalyn Reece, associate director for curatorial affairs at NMAAHC, said in a statement about the 2022 event.

Attendees can enjoy live musical performances, immersive art, interactive graffiti and breakdancing activities, and an outdoor exhibition of hip-hop artifacts. And it wouldn’t be an epic summer party without good eats: The museum’s Club Café will be cooking up a hip-hop-inspired menu to mark the occasion. 

Last year’s inaugural celebration featured dance workshops, a panel discussion with hip-hop trailblazers Bun B, Roxanne Shanté, and Chuck D, performances from J.Period, D Smoke, DJ Heat and The Halluci Nation and a late-night dance party with a live set from Salt-n-Pepa’s DJ Spinderella.  

"Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop"

Through Jan. 7, 2024

Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture’s "Contact High" exhibit highlights hip-hop’s vibrant aesthetic, showcasing more than 170 images from the genre’s 50-year history. 

With photos dating back to the ‘70s, there’s a little something for everyone to enjoy, but ‘90s hip-hop and R&B fans in particular, will love this collection. Among the exhibit's images are never-before-seen contact sheets and photos of the genre’s biggest stars like Aaliyah, Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G., Diddy, Tupac Shakur, Beastie Boys and more.

"From the Feet Up: 50 Years of Sneaks & Beats" 

Ongoing

Run-DMC helped bring street style to the mainstream with their 1986 ode to Adidas, and sneakers have since become interlinked with the genre and its artists — from Eazy E’s love for Nike Cortez to Nelly’s "Air Forces Ones." This immersive exhibition at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, New Jersey chronicles hip-hop’s long-running relationship with sneakers and how notable emcees helped propel different brands to commercial success.  

Curated by avid sneaker collector Sean Williams, "From the Feet Up" features 50 sneakers designed and worn by various artists, including Public Enemy’s "Fear of a Black Planet" Pumas, De La Soul’s collab with Nike, as well as kicks worn by Beyoncé, Tupac and more. Visitors can also view the 2015 sneaker-culture documentary Laced Up in the backroom gallery after checking out the exhibit.

"The Message: The Revolutionary Power of Hip-Hop"

Ongoing

Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music will celebrate the culture all year long with an interactive exhibit that examines the origins of hip-hop, how music makers used technology, like sampling, to evolve the sound as well as the socio-political messages that many artists incorporated into their lyrics. 

Visitors also get the chance to create their own custom beats inside the exhibit as they learn about the genre's pioneers. 

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The Unending Evolution Of The Mixtape: "Without Mixtapes, There Would Be No Hip-Hop"

Photo: Oscar Sánchez Photography

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The Unending Evolution Of The Mixtape: "Without Mixtapes, There Would Be No Hip-Hop"

Today, the mixtape holds a variety of meanings — from a curated playlist to a non-label hip-hop release. From the dawn of the cassette to the internet-based culture of mixtape-making, musicians in hip-hop have developed their style via this format.

GRAMMYs/Oct 30, 2023 - 01:12 pm

"Living in the Bronx, we got to hear all the latest music. If a party was on a Friday or a Saturday, by Monday the mixtapes would already be in my neighborhood," Paradise Gray says, beaming.

Now the chief curator and advisor for the soon-to-open Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx — not to mention the co-host of the A&E TV show "Hip-Hop Relics," which follows the quest for genre relics alongside the likes of LL Cool J and Ice T — Gray grew up consuming countless mixtapes from the likes of the L Brothers, Grandmaster Flash, and the Cold Crush Brothers. 

"The amount of music and the way it was curated was incredible, and having it on tape was way more valuable than hearing it on the radio because the radio didn’t have a rewind button," he says with a laugh. While the general public may have moved onto other formats, those cassettes are making a comeback and mixtapes continue to pervade every aspect of pop culture — both in their musical impact and nostalgic glory.

Today, the mixtape holds a whole swath of meanings — from a curated playlist to a non-label hip-hop release. But back in the early ‘70s, kids like Gray raised on everything from Motown to Thelonious Monk, George Clinton to James Brown were blending their influences. 

"The first tapes were used to record people at places like a park jam, a party, a community gathering," explains Regan Sommer McCoy, founder of the Mixtape Museum, a repository of physical tape collections, nostalgic storytelling, and more. "They were called party tapes then, and people would make copies to give out to friends that couldn’t be there, so they could hear if the DJ was hot or not." 

As the form became more popular, DJs like Kid Capri or Brucie B would start recording their club sets as well. "The recordings would sometimes include the DJ shouting out people who were in the room — and if you were in Harlem, maybe there were a few drug dealers in the room who even paid for a shoutout," she adds with a laugh.

McCoy is a longtime devotee of the form and a music industry professional (including a stint as manager of hip-hop legends Clipse). And the more she explored, the more she affirmed that these early tapes are an unparalleled document of a moment in music history. 

Gray remembers making his own tapes as a young man in the late ‘70s, discovering the creativity that the new cassette technology could offer. 

"We had two recorders, and we would keep the breaks extended even before we were conscious of what we were doing, sampling from cassette to cassette," he says. "We couldn’t afford turntables, but me and my childhood DJ partner, DJ Bob Rock, would make hip-hop practice tapes with the breakbeats and then put them on 8-track. We took over our neighborhood with those tapes because that’s what everybody had in their cars."

Zack Taylor, director of Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, suggests that the freedom and control Gray felt were a driving force in the ubiquity of mixtapes during hip-hop's early days. 

"By all accounts, the music industry in those days was doing everything it could to stifle hip-hop, to hold it back, label it as low-class output," he says. "But the mixtape represented creativity on a personal level. DJ Hollywood, Kool Herc, DJ Clue, these were people who didn’t have the support of a label or an infrastructure, but if they had $100 they could go buy a whole bunch of blank tapes, stay up late on Friday, and have the tapes ready on 125th Street in Harlem on Saturday morning with their blends.

And while some were relishing the individual creativity that cassettes could offer, others were enthused by the ability to listen to music in a more portable way, or merely thrilled by the opportunity to record their favorite songs off the radio. Within this space, talented musicians were finding their footing in a new landscape and developing signature styles.

"There was no such thing as hip-hop at the time — it was really the microcosm of the worldwide Afro-indigenous culture," Gray says. "It’s a sample of everything, not just the breakbeats." Artists were as free to indulge in snippets of Brahms as they were the Delfonics, stringing together their own mixes or making unique blends that would soundtrack an experience that was specific  to their own.

Gray also notes that obsessives like the Bronx-based Tape Master would hit up various parties and clubs to document the moment and share the music, in turn allowing this self-defined movement to spread.

A big element of the tapes’ spread was a service called the OJs — a sort of proto-Uber where New Yorkers who owned expensive cars would offer them as a cab service. "If you were going to the club, at least once or twice you would want to show up in the OJ, a Cadillac or an Oldsmobile, and have them playing the hot new hip-hop tapes while they drove you around so everyone could see you and hear you," Gray says.

Listening to those mixtapes as a child, McCoy began to piece together the larger movement, the tapes acting as a sort of encyclopedia with something for everyone. "If I was interested in more R&B blends, I knew that someone like DJ Finesse from Queens would have R&B Blends volume 1 through a million," she explains. "And then I would go to camp every summer, and we would all bring our tapes and mix and swap them. There was a boy from California at camp and I’d get an entirely new sound."

"You couldn't get too hot…because then the RIAA is going to come in"

After first acting as a proving ground for talented DJs, mixtapes became intertwined with lyricists. Many prominent rappers — from Too Short to MC Hammer — started out by selling mixtapes of their work from the trunk of their car, showing up wherever they might find demand. DJs also started recording their sets in professional studios, toeing the line between commercial release and self-distribution — often based on whether there was enough demand to draw the industry’s attention. "You couldn’t get too hot, like DJ Drama, because then the RIAA is going to come in," McCoy says.

Eventually, these DJs would be hired on for entire projects with lyricists or even labels, uniting their voices in their unique blending style. "People like 50 Cent or Diddy would make tapes for their label," McCoy adds. Those artists would hire someone like  DJ Whoo Kid to put together an entire tape with the label’s artists featured. "And then the big labels came in, and it got real messy."

Jehnie Burns, author of Mixtape Nostalgia: Culture, Memory, and Representation, argues that this move towards more structured recording processes ties back to the way hip-hop’s origins were separate from the mainstream — both by exclusion and intention.

“Mainstream releases would have to be worried about getting samples approved, making sure it was something that would sell, but hip-hop was often being made by people with something interesting to say that didn’t fit into that mold," Burns says. "It had a lot of similarities to the early days of punk — where local culture was so important, local community, local issues. Mixtapes are able to speak to that community in a way that they understand it and care about."

And when enough of a groundswell happens in a relatively new genre, some artists will work out ways to fit its ethos into the corporate music structure while others will continue to push in the indie world.

McCoy had first hand experience with that thin line while working with Clipse — an experience that proved foundational to the Mixtape Museum. At the time, the duo of Pusha T and No Malice had their contract transferred from Arista to Jive. When their work on Hell Hath No Fury began getting pushback, the duo attempted to get out of their obligation with their new label. "They were going to court with Jive and not able to drop their album, so they were like, ‘F— you, we’ll put out a mixtape,’" McCoy recalls. While label structures might mean trying to force Clipse into a certain box, the freedom of a mixtape meant they would be able to experiment and use their own musical language.

But when someone from the group’s camp dropped 10,000 copies of We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 1 (hosted by DJ Clinton Sparks) at McCoy’s Stuyvesant Town apartment, the realities of distributing a mixtape came to bear. Luckily, she had a helping hand in the form of Justo Faison — her then-boyfriend and the founder of the Annual Mixtape Awards. The annual awards honored innovative musicians pushing boundaries in the mixtape form, and Faison had fittingly amassed quite the collection of tapes, vinyl, and other early hip-hop memorabilia.

"I couldn't make a song, but because of the cassette, I could make an album"

After Faison passed in 2005, McCoy and a friend looked around his apartment, wondering what they could do to honor him. "I didn’t know what it meant yet, but I looked around the room and just said ‘Mixtape Museum,’" she remembers. And when she started working in academia, she continued pushing and researching, focused on adding emphasis to the artform that Faison had championed as well.

As the years have passed, countless people have felt that same endless nostalgic draw to the mixtape — as evidenced by the countless memoirs, novels, and films centered on the form. Everyone that made their own mixtape had a unique perspective, a unique purpose, and a yearning to make a document of it, something that would live on longer than a simple playlist.

"Making a mixtape was super empowering," Taylor says. "I couldn’t make a song, but because of the cassette, I could make an album."

Half a century on, the term "mixtape" remains relevant and meaningful. Even kids growing up today, post-8-track, post-cassette, post-CD, post-mp3 know what a mixtape is and the importance it can hold.

"Mixtape has become shorthand for this personal, eclectic collection," Burns says. "There’s a nostalgia factor because Gen X is coming to a certain age, a connection to a slower life less reliant on technology."

In hip-hop specifically, where the term continues to refer to a non-label or non-LP project, it continues to hold the meaning of a testing ground for experimentation and a connection to a niche community.

When Taylor set out in 2011 to make his documentary as an obituary to the mixtape, the Oxford English Dictionary had announced that they’d be removing the word cassette from their printed pages.

"To most people it was dead, but it was starting to have a real revival," he says. "If it were ever going to die, it would’ve happened already. But the portability and personalization will never be replaced." To this day, when shooting commercials, Taylor brings his tape deck (made by new French manufacturer We Are Rewind) and his pleather case of cassettes rather than sticking with a Spotify playlist.

"People are so much more excited to come up and talk about tapes, even from other sets," he says with a laugh. Burns similarly continues to see the advantages mixtapes hold over streaming — especially when it comes to the inability to skip around and the endless ability to rewind and start again. "You’re not skipping tracks or shuffling. You have to listen in the order that someone intentionally put it together," she says.

Perhaps it's that intentionality and experimentation that have allowed the mixtape to constantly evolve and stay relevant. Gray certainly sees it that way.

"Mixtapes are like time machines, musical magic," he says. "And every generation’s youth has the right to make it what they want it to be. Without mixtapes, there would be no hip-hop."

And while some older aficionados may be especially protective of the golden age of hip-hop, Gray sees the mixtape’s place as a living, breathing entity as essential to the genre’s development.

"The mixtape is one of the most invaluable tools that we have available because the internet is a cesspool and needs a filter," he says with a laugh. "Mixtape DJs are filters of culture and vibration. Back in the day, you knew to expect a certain level of quality with a tape from K Slay, Kid Capri, Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, Marley Marl. Today, you know that you’ve got some serious sounds coming out your speakers if it’s that kind of artist curating it."

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6 Must-Watch Hip-Hop Documentaries: 'Hip-Hop x Siempre,' 'My Mic Sounds Nice' & More...
Nas performs at a screening of his documentary 'Nas: Time is ILLMatic' in 2014

Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images for Hennessy

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6 Must-Watch Hip-Hop Documentaries: 'Hip-Hop x Siempre,' 'My Mic Sounds Nice' & More...

Myriad documentaries have followed the journeys of hip-hop artists and unpacked the impact of hip-hop culture. In celebration of the genre's 50th anniversary, que up docs that shine a light on some of the biggest names and events in hip-hop history.

GRAMMYs/Jul 18, 2023 - 03:58 pm

Given its social and cultural impact on our lives, it’s hard to believe that hip-hop is only celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. From its beginnings at a party in the Bronx, the culture of hip-hop bloomed and has spread to every corner of the globe. 

Filmmakers have been commemorating hip-hop — from its MCs and DJs, to b-boys and girls and fashion icons  — in all its glory for decades. Myriad documentaries follow the lives, journeys, successes and downfalls of hip-hop artists from across the U.S. and beyond. As we celebrate hip-hop’s birthday this August, here are five essential hip-hop documentaries to reflect on the magnitude of 50 years of groundbreaking culture.

Wild Style

Also considered the first ever hip-hop motion picture, Wild Style is so close to the truth that it’s more of a documentary. Offering a glimpse into 1981 New York, it stars real-life graffiti artists, musicians, rappers and dancers, portraying hip-hop as a cultural phenomenon alongside genres like punk and new wave.

Featuring some iconic names including Fab Five Freddy, Lady Pink, the Rock Steady Crew and the Cold Crush Brothers, the film’s vague plot doesn’t matter. Instead, Wild Style captures the essence and grit of New York City when hip-hop was on the precipice. It’s a hugely influential and inspirational part of the canon and a crucial historical document. 

Hip-Hop Evolution

This four-part docuseries provides an overview of how hip-hop works and, as its name suggests, plots its evolution from emergence to global recognition. In making the film, MC Shad Kabango intended to explore how hip-hop made a name for itself in the music industry. Through the memories of stars like DJ Kool Herc himself, the Sugarhill Gang, Russell Simmons and Public Enemy, he discovers that the real legacy of hip-hop is how it allowed those without a voice to have their say. 

Now four seasons in, this series covers every decade, style and corner of American hip-hop, highlighting the contributions of women like Queen Latifah and Monie Love. Charting key events from Kool Herc's first block party to the early 2020s, this multi-award-winning series is the perfect place to start if you want an overview of hip-hop's development from the perspective of the people who’ve led the way.  

Nas: Time is ILLMatic

This 2014 documentary unpacks the events that led to Nas’ 1994 debut album ILLMatic. Through interviews with his father, brother and East Coast hip-hop legends like Pharrell, Alicia Keys and Busta Rhymes, it not only delves into the process of making the album, but of the social context in which he made it. 

The artist said he made ILLMatic with the intention of showing people that hip-hop was changing and becoming something more real. "I tried to capture it like no one else could," he says

The documentary’s producers came to make the film from a similar perspective. Co-Producer Erik Parker was writing for Vibe Magazine at the time of the album’s 10th anniversary and realized he couldn’t fit everything he wanted to say about it into a written article. He contacted One9 and together they decided to make this film.

Together, they ended up delving much deeper into the culture and wanted to reflect the feel of the streets that infuses the album itself. The result is a timeless and absorbing documentary that captures the real essence of the hip-hop scene. 

My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women And Hip-Hop

Women are often left out of the conversation around hip-hop, despite their huge successes and significant contributions to the genre. This documentary by renowned filmmaker Ava DuVernay seeks to redress this by focusing on the careers of legends like Missy Elliot, Salt-N-Pepa, Eve, and MC Lyte.  

Through interviews with these artists and and more, My Mic Sounds Nice offers a unique and insightful angle to the discourse around the issues women face in the industry — from sexual objectification to lower pay. With commentary from those who have dominated the rap and hip-hop world for decades but often haven't received the same accolades as their male counterparts, My Mic Sounds Nice is a must-see film.

The Art of Organized Noize

Focusing on a label rather than the artist, The Art of Organized Noize explores the pioneering producers behind the Dirty South sound. Organized Noize producers Rico Wade, Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown detail how Atlanta shaped the hip-hop world. 

Record label Organized Noize was responsible for supporting the careers of Diddy, Outkast and L.A Reid amongst others — which it famously did from the confines of a dungeon. In a basement room, the Dungeon Family (OutKast, Goodie Mob, Organized Noize and a bunch of local artists) holed up, smoking weed and creating music that would define the region and popular hip-hop. 

Organized Noize built an extraordinary sense of community and comradeship, which comes in interviews with some of its famed roster, as well as from admirers from further afield.

Hip-Hop x Siempre

Although historically left out of conversations about the genre, “Latinos have been an inherent part of hip-hop from its start," Rocio Guerrero, Head of Global Latin at Amazon Music, said in a statement. To wit, Amazon's documentary Hip-Hop x Siempre details the contributions of Latinx artists throughout the culture's 50-year run. 

The Amazon Original includes interviews with Fat Joe, Cypress Hill's B-Real, N.O.R.E., and Residente, and up-and-coming acts such as Eladio Carrión, Villano Antillano, Myke Towers and Snow Tha Product. 

"Latino artists take inspiration from Hip Hop beats and lyrics, infusing them with traditional Latin rhythms to make the genre our own, ultimately aiding in its global reach and relevance,” Guerrero continued, adding that the documentary honors "this shared history and its impact on our culture by highlighting the diverse and intergenerational voices that are part of the movement."

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Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice On How LSD, Pigs & Non-Indulgent Hedonism Led To 'I Got Heaven'
(L to R:) Mannequin Pussy band members Maxine Steen, Kaleen Reading, Colins "Bear" Regisford, and Marisa Dabice.

Photo: CJ Harvey

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Mannequin Pussy’s Marisa Dabice On How LSD, Pigs & Non-Indulgent Hedonism Led To 'I Got Heaven'

On their new album, 'I Got Heaven,' Philly quartet Mannequin Pussy harnessed the power of self-reflection and solitude. The result is a cacophonous record of punk and indie rock that's "overly amorous, horny, and lustful."

GRAMMYs/Feb 28, 2024 - 08:01 pm

Mannequin Pussy’s musical and lyrical charge is raucous, raw, angry and jangly, yet leavened with angelic choruses and delightfully impious asides — and that’s just I Got Heaven’s first song. 

From its opening track, the Philadelphia quartet's new album is redolent of riot grrrl fervor. The 10 tracks of I Got Heaven, out March 1, are laced with industrial intensity ("Of Her"), pretty and propulsive punky power pop ("Nothing Like'') and moshable speed metal duets ("OK? OK! OK? OK!").  

Founded by singer/guitarist Marisa Dabice in 2010, the quartet of Colins "Bear" Regisford (bass, vocals), Kaleen Reading (drums) and Maxine Steen (guitar, synths), Mannequin Pussy are proof that rock’s not dead. In fact, it’s being created by smart, conscious women (and one man) whose creativity is unfettered, living proof of goals that include inclusion, change and connection. And a hefty dose of raw power. 

I Got Heaven is the group's fourth album, and their second LP for Epitaph Records; it follows 2019’s Patience, and the 2021 EP Perfect. Years of DIY dues-paying have culminated in what may be a breakthrough that uplifts the quartet from scrappy indie darlings to a serious, multi-faceted rock band to be reckoned with. 

Dabice, who spoke to GRAMMY.com from her Philly home, might agree. "It's been beautiful to see the progression of this band and how much it means to people; how much it means for them to feel like they have a cathartic place to put their emotions and to feel things deeply and think critically about things and to challenge things," she says.

Post-meditation and drinking tea on a recent Thursday morning, Dabice is in the calm before the storm. A few years of sobriety, self-reflection and the catharsis of playing and songwriting finds her both self-possessed and excited as Mannequin Pussy launch their third tour April 4, with more than 20 sold out shows through May. 

As the conversation ranges from her fondness for Park Chan-wook movies to feeling part of an "iconic collective, an awakening" to working on lyrics in a 24 hour Korean spa, Dabice shares that she feels "like this is the best work we've ever done." 

The title track, "I Got Heaven," kicks off the record with such a massive punch of energy and power, it made me want to instantly join your band. Growing up, what artist or record did that for you?  

I think I've been fortunate to experience that quite a few times. As soon as you asked that question, I got the vision of watching the music video for "Maps" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on MTV, I must have been 13 or 14. It's such a beautiful piece of cinematic history, it bridges the gap between Yes, it's a music video, but it also makes you feel so intensely emotional because of the song and because of her performance.

Everything about that song is just like what is so phenomenal about being in a band. When you listen to a song, and you can hear it for the collaborations that went into it. There's that drumbeat you can isolate in your mind, that guitar arpeggiation that you can hear in your head, and then Karen O’s vocals on top. You can isolate, individually, how exciting each moment of that song is. That to me is what's so exciting about being in a band.

So you always knew you could sing and wanted to be a front person?

No, no, I definitely never thought I could sing. Never wanted to sing. I think even when Mannequin Pussy started, I was just screaming, but I was more like singing as a placeholder. I was [thinking], someone else will come along

Then, I could just play guitar and write songs, and then they can sing them. I wanted to write music; that was the thing that really propelled me and motivated me.

Did you audition any potential singers?

That never really happened. But our bass player, he also contributes vocals. So I do have someone whose voice I love for when a song doesn't feel right for my voice. We like to call it "hardcore duets," where we're both singing on a track.

**That works so well on "OK? OK! OK? OK!" which is one of my favorites on I Got Heaven. Was it initially written to be a duet?**  

It was a bit of happenstance, but I've always just loved the way that two voices on a song can really kind of elevate the emotionality, where it can feel as though you are just dropping in on a conversation that maybe you shouldn't be eavesdropping on. Or you have this kind of bystander effect of listening to the way these two voices interact with each other. 

How did that song begin?  

We started writing in Philadelphia, all at our practice space together. I was on the microphone, and I had had that, "okay, okay" in my brain for a few months, actually.  I'm very East Coast, but I liked this Valley Girl tough affectation. I had a voice memo for it. 

I did that "okay okay" and then [our drummer Kaylene] immediately started playing this epic drumbeat. Maxine and Bear were in the other corner watching her play drums and me do this vocal affectation as a top line thing and they filled in the spaces with guitar and bass. 

You don't usually start a song that way, right? We all had this thing that we were pouring into it. The more I looked at Bear, it was like what I'm doing is akin to an ad lib or hype man, or like this  character that should just kind of like step back and allow you to take the full breadth of the song.

It's called playing music for a reason. You're having fun, and you're playing around with different ideas and shapes and sonic textures. It was a very fun day for us doing something that felt silly, but we were all very excited by it.

That said, I’m sure there were times when creating this record wasn’t as fun?  

I mean, I cried for sure while we were making this record, during every record. Producers are really an incredible combination of roles. They're not only a tastemaker, and an engineer and someone who's there to capture and elevate, they also really take on a dynamic of kind of being a therapist and a friend to you in those dark days where you don't really know, when you get a little lost in the weeds.

Any creative person understands what it feels like to be that moment where you're too deeply in something; you need to step out into the macro in order to be able to hear the record fully and know where you're going.

I definitely had a day where I cried to [producer] John Congleton. It was like, "I don't know if this is like any f—king good. I feel insecure about it." It's also that I feel like everyone around me is so talented. And, sometimes you're like, Am I bringing enough to this? John was really wonderful. We were all in a moment of intense financial struggle. We hadn't been on tour in a long time, so money was tough. It was a combination of a lot of stresses, kind of overwhelming. So yes, sometimes it's so much fun. Other times you're crying, wondering if it's all shit.  

This is your first time working with John as a producer. Why him?

John approached us, which I love. I’m a big believer in being courted. I don't want to be out there sending flowers! John called Brett Guerwitz, the founder of Epitaph Records, I guess they were friends. Brett called me, probably mid-2021. I looked [John] up. I was like, "Oh, I definitely know this guy. He's worked on some records I f—ing love." 

Brett's never the type of person to tell us what we should be doing with our art, but he said, "I really want you to meet him and see if there's a creative vibe between you. I think this is the record that you guys should leave Philly for and do a destination record in L.A. and just really be in it."

We were fortunate enough at that point to have the support of Epitaph.

I loved the way that John spoke about music, I love his philosophy toward music. I felt like we would be in good hands, and that we would be finding the right collaborator for this. Because what a good producer does is kind of become a temporary member of the band. A band is a combination of collaborative creative energies, and as a producer, you're being invited into that world we built between us. It was really important to find someone who would mesh with our sensibilities, and our humor and our outlook and also be in a place to teach us new things and show us new things.

I read an article where you talked about I Got Heaven as having a "pervasive feeling of longing and horniness to it." Can you comment on that vibe?

As much as we joke around we are quite serious. But I think that [with] a band name like ours, for some people, that's never going to be something they can take seriously. I think that's also a reflection of the way that we see things as being inherently feminine, perhaps, or attached to the feminine or things that are not worth real time attention or recognition. But that's a totally separate conversation!

We’re very serious, yet we wanted to make a record that really felt a bit overly amorous, horny, and lustful, because that's kind of where a lot of us in the band were. We had all these jokes about lust and desire and everything because we were traveling so much on tour. Three of us in the band all experienced breakups around the same time. It led us all into a really deep solitude period of healing, where we all kind of took two years off from dating. Really separating ourselves completely and really putting ourselves into the work.

I think creative work requires the practice of solitude. That was something we also strongly felt in the making of this record; that our own solitude was also feeding our creativity. But even in moments of solitude, that doesn't mean that you can escape the fantasy of what it would feel like to be with someone again, or what it would feel like to have love and human connection in that more carnal way. This record is full of human connection but some of it is just fantasy.

The videos for "I Got Heaven" and "I Don’t Know You" were shot on a farm, as were some of your press photos, and there’s a pig on your album cover. Are you vegetarians?

We are not vegetarians. We believe in the pursuit of moderated pleasure. But more so in like, I believe very strongly in conscious carnivorism. I think that the way in which we interact with all living beings on the planet needs to be from a place of gratitude, curiosity, and respect. Respect for the animal that has not chosen to sacrifice its life to nourish you, right? I'm not someone who overindulges. I'm like a hedonist who doesn't indulge in anything.

Interesting. Seems like a long life plan!  

I quit smoking. I quit drinking over the last two years, not because I had a problem. I just felt like it was boring. It was not making me feel good anymore. Like, it's time to move on.

I don't believe in being too strict with ourselves. I think everything should allow for the moment to infer what you should do in it. I was a vegan for three years. I feel so much healthier now that I haven't put restrictions onto myself. At the end of the day, the most important thing is you getting the energy you need to perform.  

I read that your song "Spilt Me Open" was written a day after taking acid. Is that a group activity or did you try to utilize it as a creative tool?

The story behind it is actually quite wholesome. Maybe the most wholesome LSD story! Our band vacations together. Maxine's family has a small off the grid cabin that’s been in her family for generations. No electricity, no internet, in New Hampshire.  

I'm a believer in a yearly psychedelic trip. I think it kind of realigns the system and gets your brain functioning in a healthy and creative way. And maybe helps you purge some things that you need to purge. Again, hedonist but not excess. Experimental, but not dangerous. Maxine and I took acid and usually it’s a day of being naked in nature. I forced everyone to listen to Paul Simon for 24 hours. 

The next day, we were laying around next to the lake, just me and Maxine, coming down from our trip. She started playing the beginning chords of "Split Me Open" on acoustic guitar. I was laying down next to her, and kind of had a similar experience when she started playing it. I immediately started singing along; a lot of those lines would end up in the final version. The song just kind of spilled out of us.   

What is success to you?

On one hand, I feel like success on a more spiritual level feels as though you are being seen, understood and accepted for exactly who you are, and your creative output. People connecting with our music in a way that is immensely thoughtful. 

I think success on a material level, especially for artists, means that you're paying all of your bills through your own creativity; your own creative talents are actually what is sustaining your life. That, to me, feels like a really beautiful combination. Where if it was just the one — just the material without being seen and understood? I'm not sure it would feel as rewarding.

For Laura Jane Grace, Record Cycles Can Be A 'Hole In My Head' — And She's OK With That

10 Alté Artists To Know: Odunsi (The Engine), TeeZee, Lady Donli & More
(From left) Cruel Santino, Somadina, Prettyboy D-O, Odunsi (The Engine), Kingsley Okorie of the Cavemen, Tay Iwar, TeeZee

Photos: The Lizard Queen; Kate Green/Getty Images; Paras Griffin/Getty Images; Jérémy Beaudet; Pedro Gomes/Redferns; Lorne Thomson/Redferns; David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Raf Simons

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10 Alté Artists To Know: Odunsi (The Engine), TeeZee, Lady Donli & More

Nigerian slang for "alternative," the fusion genre of alté describes any artist with a unique visual aesthetic whose music blends elements of Afrobeats, pop, rap, R&B, soul, and dancehall.

GRAMMYs/Feb 28, 2024 - 05:40 pm

Afrobeats and amapiano may be the most prominent sounds originating from Africa on the global radar, but another sound from Africa is gaining steam. 

Coined by the creative collective DRB LasGidi in 2014, the alté genre combines elements of Afrobeats, pop, rap, R&B, soul, dancehall, and more. It's the sonic result of a Nigerian arts scene developed by and for unconventional personalities; alté describes any artist whose music blends the aforementioned elements and subscribes to the aesthetic tenants of the scene. 

"Alté is Nigerian lingo for 'alternative,' which means freedom of expression essentially through any medium," alté pioneer, rapper, singer/songwriter, and producer TeeZee told RedBull. In 2016, alté exploded into the mainstream, with a new class of rising stars gaining cult followings.

The genre's emergence is a reaction to conservative Naija culture, which is sometimes unwelcoming to radical changes in the status quo. Alté is distinguished by its origins in youth-led subculture and is built around an experimental aesthetic; it is exemplified by the vibey visuals of genre trailblazers Cruel Santino and Odunsi (The Engine) and the radical, non-traditional designs inspired by Nigerian and London youth culture of Mowalola.

Alté artists such as Amaarae and Tems have experienced global commercial success, while  Ayra Starr, who unifies alté and mainstream Afrobeats, was recognized at the 2024 GRAMMYs in the new Best African Music Performance Category. In Lagos, the fifth NATIVELAND music festival was held in December 2023 at the biggest venue to date and featured a bill of alté acts. Organized by the culture platform The NATIVE co–founded by TeeZee, the publication has been lauded for supporting the alté's rise. 

Lagos youth have successfully created a paradigm-shifting global movement. To get to know the multidisciplinary genre, these 10 alté acts are an introduction to the innovative scene. 

Cruel Santino

Formerly publishing music under the mononym Santi, the Nigerian singer/songwriter, director, and rapper is widely recognized as a key figure and the frontrunner in alté. A member of the Monster Boys collective, Cruel Santino is known for his distinct delivery and fusion of R&B, dancehall, rap, Afrobeats, and indie, as well as his signature ever-changing locs and distinguishing fashion. Santi first developed a cult-like following among Lagos’ youth in 2016 following the release of "Gangsta Fear," a collaboration with fellow alté trailblazer Odunsi (The Engine). At the time, Cruel Santino was rapping under the moniker Ozzy B. He has since demonstrated his range and artistry in collaborating with Gus Dapperton, Amaarae, Skepta, and DRAM. 

Cruel Santino’s highly anticipated sophomore album, Subaru Boys : FINAL HEAVEN, was featured on Rolling Stone’s The 100 Best Albums of 2022 list. The project is a fascinating exploration of the creative mind of Santi, who orchestrated the album to have the same effect as a video game. On tracks like "WAR IN THE TRENCHES" and "TAPENGA," dense synth beats, classic breakneck African drums, and computerized PlayStation-like effects fuse to create an idiosyncratic sound and help craft the vision of the Subaru Boys digital world. The Afrofuturism and intergalactic visuals associated with the concept album also draw influence from Mortal Kombat, cementing Santi’s talent as a multidisciplinary visionary.      

Odunsi (The Engine)

Odunsi (The Engine) is one of the most critical figures and producers in alté, and ushered in a new generation of Nigerian creatives who challenged the existing status quo. Odunsi released his debut project in 2016, Time of Our Lives, and followed with a slew of singles and EPs. His 2019 project, rare, was a commercial success, earning him nominations at The Headies, Nigeria’s annual music ceremony recognizing outstanding achievements in the industry, and SoundCity MVP Awards. 

Known for his cutting-edge sartorial choices and elaborate production abilities, Odunsi effortlessly blends sounds of R&B, hip hop, and Afrobeats with braggadocious lyrics, crooning on his track "PDA!" from his 2020 third studio album EVERYTHING YOU HEARD IS TRUE, "That girl got too much swagger/Fashion killer, uh, that's Margiela."

His eye for fashion goes beyond just lyricism. In 2023, Odunsi collaborated with longtime friend and fellow alté influencer Nigerian designer Mowalola for the SABI BOI collection. The same year saw the surprise release of his three-track EP SPORT. The compact project is a captivating cruise through the remarkable sonic experience Odunsi has spent years crafting. The intro track "NOSTALGIA" is a sultry blend of Afrobeats and R&B and, unsurprisingly, features Cruel Santino. 

On the EP’s second track, "OTE!," named after his abbreviated moniker, the energetic instrumental ladened with fast-paced African drums creates an infectious rhythm impossible to deny. Throughout the standout’s 1-minute and 32-second runtime, Odunsi seamlessly flows between English, Nigerian pidgin, and Yoruba languages, showcasing a one-of-kind swagger that cannot be replicated. 

Prettyboy D-O

Erupting into the scene in 2018 with Everything Pretty, the eclectic artist has created his own lane within alté. A rap maverick, Prettyboy D-O is known for his distinct flow and frenzied blend of Afrobeats, dancehall, alté, and R&B. His ascension continued with his 2021 album Love is War, which appeared as the 17th slot on the Fader’s list of Top 50 best albums that year. 

Aesthetically, he is easily distinguishable from your typical Naija rapper. Owing to his bold appearance — including a signature colorful buzzcut — cult-like following and fusion of grimy street music and the alté genre, Prettyboy D-O has been described as "culté." 

Tay Iwar

A genuine jack of all trades, the musician’s buttery vocals posit him as one of the most soulful agents in alté. Tay Iwar debuted in 2014 with his mixtape Passport, following up in 2019 with his debut album, GEMINI. The latter weaved together elements of Afrobeat and R&B, while featuring guest appearances from Cruel Santino, Odunsi (The Engine), Preyé, and his brother Suté Iwar. 

Tay Iwar has also participated in GRAMMY-nominated projects. In 2020, he provided vocals on "True Love" from Wizkid’s Made in Lagos project in 2020, and co-wrote "Steady" on the deluxe version. The deluxe edition was nominated for Best Global Music Album at the 64th GRAMMY Awards. 

Showing no signs of slowing down, the vibrant alté vocalist signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music in 2022 and released his Summer Breeze EP in June 2023. 

Lady Donli

While there is space for all artists in alté, commercial success sometimes seems like a boys-only club. Despite this, Lady Donli has paved her own path within the genre. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Donli spent her early years between the Nigerian cities of Abuja and Kaduna. The songstress flawlessly melds Afrobeat, R&B, and soul music.

She released her first project Love or War in 2014 and, nearly a decade later, she returned with sophomore project Pan African Rockstar. Combining an Afro-fusion sound with self-assuring lyrics on the title track, while including content about social issues affecting African youth, particularly Nigerian youth and women on other album cuts, Lady Donli is a vanguard of the revolutionary alté scene. 

BOJ

One-third of alté founding fathers DRB LasGidi, BOJ is recognized for pioneering the fusion genre. The term was coined in his 2014 debut track "Paper" where he croons, "The ladies they like me cus I’m a shy guy/Say the ladies they like me because I’m an alté guy." His knack for self-expression without boundaries and the contemporary constraints of popular culture has paid off, earning him a partnership with Jameson Irish Whisky and a solo publishing and distribution deal with MOVES Recordings.    

BOJ credits artists such as Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Lagbaja, and Sean Paul as influences, attributing his taste to the records his parents played at home while growing up. Being raised on a diverse musical palette, these creative sources formed the eclectic rhythm of BOJ’s afrobeats, dancehall, reggae, and hip-hop-influenced signature sound. This prototypical sound he helped craft has fed directly into the modern sound of Afrobeats, and he is now regarded as a musical backbone in Lagos. His 2023 project Gbagada Express confirms this, littered with appearances from heavy hitters, including 2024 GRAMMY nominee Davido, Mr Eazi, Wizkid, Fireboy DML, Tiwa Savage, and others.

The Cavemen

Formed in March 2018, the highlife band of sibling duo bassist Kingsley Okorie and drummer Benjamin James are known for their avant-garde live performances. The group was discovered early by Lady Donli and their debut project, Roots, was released in August 2020. An ode to their Naija heritage, the pair recorded the project in their living room, and took home the 2020 Headie Award, a music award show founded in 2006 to recognize outstanding achievements in the Nigerian music industry, for Best Alternative Album. 

The album was executively produced by Lady Donli, and The Cavemen. returned the favor by producing 11 songs on the alté pioneer’s 2019 project Enjoy Your Life. Their contributions to alté are precise and unique, retaining the original essence of highlife music while combining additional Afro-fusion musical elements.    

SOMADINA

Somadina has claimed her space among the next generation of alté stars. The young songstress cites many influences on her artistry — including John Legend, Fela Kuti, Avril Lavigne and the English pop music duo Shampoo — which is reflected in her bold blend of R&B, pop, alt-rock, and Afropop. 

In 2019, Somadina was tapped by Lady Donli to feature on the track "FLAVA" alongside alté breakout star Amaarae. In 2022, Somadina continued to showcase her promising rise by releasing an EP titled Heart of the Heavenly Undeniable under her independent label Somadina Sounds. featuring Odunsi (The Engine) and The Cavemen. on the track "Small Paradise."  Later that month, she performed at Lollapalooza Chicago as one of the Nigerian artists featured on the bill alongside Tems and Rema. 

TeeZee 

Co-founder of Nigeria’s The NATIVE Networks, TeeZee’s contributions to the alté movement are undeniable. He began his career as one-third of the group DRB LasGidi and is regarded as one of Nigeria’s first self-publishing artists. The rapper/singer has since collaborated with artists ranging from Skepta to Davido to Kid Cudi. He continues to release projects as a solo act and executive producer, and debuted his first solo album, Arrested by Love in 2022. Still, his contributions to alté extend beyond just music. 

In 2016, he established The NATIVE, a space for Naija youth to unite for their shared interest in the craft. He cited the genre's lack of media attention during the early stages of the innovative style as the reason for founding the music magazine, which has since become an epicenter for all things relating to the culture. NATIVE Records, a label under The NATIVE Networks, was founded in 2022 through a joint venture with Def Jam Recordings and signed its first act, Odumodublvck in the same year. The rapper has since experienced significant critical and commercial success upon releasing his mixtape EZIOKWU, executively produced by the alté OG.

SuperJazzClub 

SuperJazzClub is a nine-person Ghanaian supergroup with skills ranging from vocals and production to DJing, filmmaking, and more. Their first song, 2019's "Couple Black Kids," is an alternative hip-hop tracj with brassy synths, heavy drums, and a computerized piano featuring vocals from all members.

Since the collective’s founding, SuperJazzClub has concentrated on encouraging a spirit of creativity and self-expression among youth. The first of its kind within alté, the group’s novel sound and boundary-pushing aesthetic secures them as a staple in the movement. 

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