You can get up close and personal with the Notorious B.I.G.’s red leather peacoat or test out your turntable skills at Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit, open now at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles. A retrospective look to mark the genre’s 50th anniversary, Hip-Hop America brings together elements of fashion, music, dance, graffiti, business, activism, and history — all with the aim of capturing the sweeping, global impact of hip-hop.
"It's something that started as a genre that people considered a fad, as a novelty," says GRAMMY Museum Chief Curator Jasen Emmons, "but it has become not only a global musical force, but a global cultural force. So many young people have grown up with hip-hop and take it for granted, but its ability to evolve and continue to be relevant is pretty powerful."
The 5,000-square foot exhibit space is packed with artifacts, interactive elements, and curated video, as well as photo ops. Here are six things we learned walking through the installation, which runs through Sept. 4, 2024.
There Were Always Women In Hip-Hop
Saweetie┃Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Entering Hip-Hop America, you’ll get a look at a few standalone cases featuring everything from an essay Tupac Shakur wrote in junior high, to a gorgeously over the top set of custom nails made for Saweetie by celebrity nail artist Temeka Jackson. The exhibit’s main space showcases what life was like in the Boogie Down Bronx, the birthplace of hip-hop music and culture. On display are pieces like a leather vest made for a junior member of the Young Nomads street gang and pieces of graffiti art from Edwin "HE."
Also on display are various paint caps used by Lady Pink, an artist known for her work in New York in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. She would go on to star in 1983’s Wild Style, which is widely regarded as the first hip-hop movie.
The inclusion of influencers and acts like Lady Pink was a very intentional move on the part of the exhibit’s creators, Emmons says. Quite often, when people think about hip-hop’s origins, they think of acts like the Sugar Hill Gang, Cold Crush Crew, and Fab 5 Freddy, and they were all there — and are all featured in the exhibit — but they grew and prospered alongside a number of female acts, and with the help and support of women like Sylvia Robinson, the founder of Sugar Hill Records who produced "Rappers Delight." Her confidence and the success of that track helped birth a wealth of small, independent labels that helped give the new sound a platform.
Hip-Hop And Soul Have Intermingled From The Beginning
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
In the middle of the exhibit, there’s an interactive video display dedicated to the marriage of the hip-hop and soul genres. Hip-hop, it says, "is an omnigenre that incorporates many music traditions." The relationship between hip-hop and R&B is complex, the exhibit continued:
"From the earliest days of hip-hop, artists created new grooves using melodic breaks and drum patterns from records by R&B stars like James Brown and the Ohio Players."
While early rappers tended to avoid R&B-friendly topics like love and loss in favor of what the exhibit calls "braggadocio," by the 1990s rappers and R&B stars were working together in harmony. The resulting hip-hop soul gave songs like Janet Jackson and Q-Tip’s "Got ‘Til It’s Gone" and Mariah Carey and Jay-Z’s "Heartbreaker" a permanent place in the cultural lexicon.
Hip-Hop Has A Mind For Business
A history of entrepreneurs┃Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
One of Hip-Hop America’s exhibits focuses on the commercial aspects of the genre, highlighting people like the aforementioned Robinson and acts like the Wu-Tang Clan, who refused to sign all of their members to one label. They instead insisted that each member have an individual deal with one of the six majors, meaning that, come album release time, each label would have a vested interest in promoting the material and the group. That’s smart thinking.
The exhibit also calls out artist-entrepreneurs like Master P, Jay-Z, Diddy, and Drake, all of whom have thought outside the confines of a tracklist to creating businesses built on hip-hop culture.
A Lot Of Rappers Have Great Penmanship
Handwritten lyrics for "Fight The Power"┃Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
There are a number of handwritten pieces in Hip-Hop America, from Shakur’s junior high essay about citizenship to Lil Wayne’s letters home from prison and Wyclef Jean’s lyrics for the Fugees’ "Ready Or Not." Everything is remarkably legible and these pieces offer unique insight into the mind and lives of some of hip-hop’s biggest acts.
Take, for instance, a case featuring the late Shock G’s hand-drawn album cover art for "The Humpty Dance." He leaves copious notes on the drawing and in accompanying materials explaining not only what samples he wants cleared for the record but noting that in his cartoon visage, "Humpty’s gums are not white or red," saying the artist should use "the same brown used for the skin." Looking at these pieces, it’s clear that Shock G took his art and his image very seriously, and that though "The Humpty Dance" may have become a party classic, a lot of work went into creating something so fun.
B.I.G. Was Big, Big, Big
Biggie's peacoat and other distinctive jackets┃Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
For someone to earn the moniker "the Notorious B.I.G.," they probably have to be pretty large in either stature or scale. At Hip-Hop America, you’ll get a sense of how big the artist born Christopher Wallace. actually was, thanks to a mannequin sporting his iconic 5001 Flavors red leather peacoat and Karl Kani jeans.
Worn in an appearance on "MTV News," for a feature in Vibe, and in the Junior M.A.F.I.A. video for "Player’s Anthem," the coat was one of Biggie’s favorites and has the scuff marks, wear, and creases to prove it.
Ryan Butler, the VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Recording Academy and an advisory board member for the exhibit, says that Biggie’s coat is one of his favorite pieces in the exhibit, in part because it’s placed (per the Shakur family’s request) next to the white suit that Tupac wore in his last music video.
Hip-Hop Fashion Has Defined Trends For Generations
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
"To really see the impact that hip-hop has had on fashion is just so incredible," says Butler.
That impact is made clear throughout the exhibit, which features items like Andre 3000’s fringed green pants from the 46th GRAMMY Awards, MC Lyte’s bamboo earrings, and the chain and padlock worn by Naughty By Nature's Treach before he could afford something a little more swank.
"The rugged accessory suggested strength and proved useful as a defensive weapon when the trio faced potential violence in clubs," the exhibit notes, continuing that, "It was also meant to show solidarity with those locked up."
Also on display are multiple pieces made by the legendary designer Dapper Dan, who’s been fashioning hip-hop looks since the very beginning. There’s a look at the beginning of the exhibit that he made for old school DJ Busy Bee that’s pretty sharp even now, as well as a longer black leather motorcycle jacket he customized for Melle Mel to wear at the 1985 GRAMMY Awards, where he rapped the intro to Chaka Khan’s "I Feel For You."
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