Hip-Hop, the Collaborations Don’t Stop

What happens when you put museum experts and hip-hop community members in the same room? The Lemelson Center found out when we hosted a hip-hop discussion day in July.

The day was organized as a culmination to Goldman Sacs fellow Martha Diaz’s summer at the Lemelson Center. Martha is the founder of the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University. The Center cultivates hip-hop scholars, teaching artists, hip-hop advocates, and social entrepreneurs to encourage the incorporation of hip-hop into the way teachers educate students. She is also a scholar-in-residence working on an upcoming hip-hop exhibit at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Martha came to the Lemelson Center to learn more about museum practices and to share her knowledge of hip-hop with us as we continue research for our upcoming exhibit Places of Invention. When the exhibition opens in 2015, it will include the invention of hip-hop in the Bronx during the 1970′s as one of five case studies that represent various characteristics  of a place of invention.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

Conceptual design drawing of what the Bronx section of the exhibition may look like.

We had intended the meeting as a wrap-up event for Martha’s fellowship. Little did we know that instead it would be the start of some great collaborations. Participants from the hip-hop and cultural/performing arts communities in D.C. and New York  contributed to a robust conversation that covered a variety of topics.

One issue that surfaced is that many pioneering hip-hop artists feel that current histories of hip-hop do not present a full picture—they discussed how important it is to emphasize that hip-hop was created in spite of the environment in the Bronx. Our participants also felt that it will be important to capture hip-hop’s conflicting history while the most prominent figures are still living. This is an issue that the National Museum of American History’s Jazz Oral History Program has struggled with and can serve as a good case study for the hip-hop community.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

Grandmixer DXT, Grammy award winning turntabalist and hip-hop historian, address the conference.

The hip-hop community voiced the desire for institutions to be more inclusive. They observed that institutions tend to cater toward other institutions, but reminded us that it’s important to reach out to community members, even thought this often the more difficult path. This is something that the Lemelson Center is familiar with. In partnering successfully with the skateboarding community on a recent event about inventions and innovations in skateboarding, we learned that while there are often vocabulary barriers and differing working methods that make collaborating more challenging, ultimately if both collaborators are committed to the end product, then success is achievable and inevitably more meaningful.

Perhaps the most surprising comment to come out of the meeting that this was the first time the hip-hop artists participating had been asked to participate in a meeting like this—of D.C.-based groups working on hip-hop projects. The energy and enthusiasm from people was apparent and has translated more quickly than I anticipated into the creation of collaborative projects. We are currently awaiting the results of an application co-written by Martha Diaz and Deborra Richardson, the chair of the Archives Center at the National Museum of American, to fund the creation of a Smithsonian hip-hop group that would coordinate hip-hop related projects at the Institution. It is hoped that part of this may be the founding of a hip-hop oral history program and a book about documenting hip-hop’s history.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Conference attendees included representatives from the Smithsonian, D.C. performing arts groups, and the State Department.

Another direct outcome of the meeting is the negotiation of long-term collaborations between the Lemelson Center and two pioneering hip-hop artists. These artists would help us tell the story of hip-hop through our exhibition, website, book, and programming.  The artists will be featured at the Smithsonian, and gain exposure to a different type of audience, and inspire new generations. There have also been discussions with all of the people in the D.C. hip-hop community who participated in the meeting about future programming collaborations, allowing the Lemelson Center to tell a fuller story of inventions in hip-hop beyond the walls of the exhibit, and for other organizations to find new inspiration in the museum’s exhibits and collections. These collaboration will give us all the opportunity to interest people who may have had no previous interest in hip-hop.

Without knowing it the meeting was a kick off to fruitful collaborations with other people, organizations, and communities they represent. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!

Bob Casey: Beyond the Podcast

I recently interviewed inventor Bob Casey for the Lemelson Center’s podcast series. As with many people I’ve interviewed, Bob had many interesting stories to share—far more than can be contained in a 20-minute podcast. Although our podcast focused on the debut of the dual turntable system, Bob also told us how he ended up donating objects to the National Museum of American History and about his military career.

Bob shadowed his father Edward P. Casey (a pioneer in commercial sound system design and installation) on many of his sound system projects.  His father built a rectangular box with two multi-speed transcription turntables inside for a religious event. After the event his stored it away. Years later, Bob took the discarded box and used it in 1958 to present prerecorded music at teenage dances by combining his father’s dual turntable box with two special Hi Fi horn speakers. This was the first time that dual turntables were used at a dance to play prerecorded music—introducing a whole new format of entertainment nearly ten years before the technology became the standard of every DJ. The equipment gave Bob the advantage he needed to put on some of the best dances in the area and he was asked to run “Record Hops” in other venues including country clubs and parks.

casey 1

Now retired in upstate New York, Bob was cleaning out some old equipment from his shed, separating it into “throw” and “keep” piles. That first dual turntable system went into his “throw” pile. Fortunately, one of Bob’s friends told him he was crazy if he threw it out. After photos of the dual turntable box appeared in books about DJs, Bob was encouraged to contact someone about finding it a good home. Upon contacting the National Museum of American History in 2012, curator Eric Jentsch requested a few photos of the turntable. Eric assumed he would get a few photos of the device sitting on a tabletop, but Bob took this opportunity to photograph it in the environment it originally debuted. He reassembled the entire system in the same high school gym he first played it at in 1958—St. Eugene’s in Yonkers, NY. It was a wonderful way for Bob to have one last experience with the equipment before giving it to the national collections.

casey 2

While interviewing Bob, I discovered that the inventiveness and resourcefulness demonstrated by his invention also shaped his military career. While stationed in an infantry outfit in Germany in 1967, Bob’s reputation earned him an audition—though he didn’t know it at the time. One day, while visiting the flagship station (network) of the American Forces Network –Europe in Frankfurt, Germany, the Head of Network Production, who had previously met him, casually asked Bob to put together a few promos for radio. Bob furiously put some things together on reel to reel tape but the officer started to play it before Bob thought it was completed.  Bob tensely watched as the officer listened to his improvised radio intros. The officer said he loved it and offered Bob a position at the network.  After only six days on the job, another twist of fate redirected Bob. As part of the military “lottery system,” he was given orders for Vietnam. However, by taking an audition that was so bad that it was good, and with many letters of commendation from the European station, his abbreviated position in Germany allowed him to serve his time in Vietnam as Head of Radio Production for AFVN. Without his skills to invent and create on the spot there’s no telling where he might have ended up.

Listen to our podcast with Bob Casey.

Cool Inventions from Different Invention Cultures

Cultures of invention are as diverse as places of invention. One community of inventors’ attitudes toward failure, success, competition, and collaboration during the invention process may differ widely from other inventor communities. An interesting example of this contrast is the pioneering counterculture communities of hip-hop and skateboarding.

Skateboards were invented in California during the 1940s and 1950s by laid-back surfers interested in finding a way to do on land what they did for fun in the ocean. Skateboarding gained wider recognition and popularity in the 1970s and 1980s with the construction of skate parks, improvement in skateboard materials and designs, and an explosion in the invention of tricks.

Hip-hop music was invented in the 1970s and 1980s by a disadvantaged community of African American and Caribbean (Jamaican, Puerto Rican, etc…) American urbanites in the Bronx. When the elements of hip-hop coalesced, gang territories became DJ territories and physical fights became break dancing fights, rapping contests, or DJ battles. The community reinvented the turntable as a musical instrument through physical alternations and new techniques of use. In the mid to late 1980s hip-hop expanded both artistically and geographically and around the 1990s became a part of mainstream America.

In both communities, then and today, individual inventors tend to work first in isolation; when they meet with others, the two communities, generally speaking, have different attitudes toward collaboration. Skate culture values humility. Egos are disliked. Many skaters resist skateboarding being labeled as a sport and don’t want skateboarding to be included in the Olympics for fear that skateboarding could become “jockified.” Experimentation in front of peers is encouraged and failure is accepted as an important part of the process. It typically takes a skater many days of attempting the same trick to succeed once. If a guy fails for two hours then does an amazing trick, the community embraces him. It is an open-source community where skaters enjoy sharing their tricks with others. Skateboarders create an environment supportive of failure, and the quantity of failure enforces skaters’ humility.

In hip-hop, ego and competitiveness is valued. As DJ Cash Money says “I’m a very competitive person [and] I wanted to be known as the world’s greatest DJ.” The records from which a DJ samples music is a closely guarded secret. Some early DJs replaced record labels with others and even spied on each other while they were out buying records. Young DJs often learned techniques through observation while “paying their dues” (carting around equipment for more prestigious artists). When two DJs showed up at a venue it was often not for experimentation but competition—a DJ would throw down a challenge to another to meet at a specific time and place for a battle. Some had a crew to give them an aura of power and intimidation (and, because DJ’s had so much large and heavy equipment to transport to and from gigs, crews helped transport it and ensure that it wasn’t stolen). DJs set up their equipment on opposing sides of the venue and the one with the most cheers and dancers won. At first DJs won primarily by having the louder sound system, but later they won more through showing off better techniques. The winner continued to rock the party and the loser went home to tweak their system and techniques then fight another battle. As Cash Money put it, “If someone beats you, you just go back to the drawing board and try to do better the next time.” Ego in the form of a crew, a superhuman DJ name (like Immortal), MC boasts, clothing, and sound volume could all help win battles and respect, or street cred. DJ Immortal describes competing competition the following way: “I saw them going back and forth, fighting each other with the turntables. The crowd was totally eggin’ ‘em on. It was this awesome instrument that I was seeing, the turntable. Plus that competitive element, too, where you could just destroy someone. It was like a real sport.”

From "Yes Yes Y'all."

Competitions and contests exist within the skateboarding community as well. Skaters seek recognition by, say, being featured in magazine articles, garnering lots of positive comments on their YouTube videos, or winning skating contests. But once you have fame, it can often be prohibitive to further invention. As a skater is defending their title or reputation, they may be more likely to keep doing their signature tricks and take fewer risks on new moves, as it becomes difficult to retain an environment where they feel comfortable failing. So while competing well can be a motivating factor it is only one path to the success of receiving credit for inventing a new trick.

Similarly with hip-hop, a skate contest can provide the street cred or name recognition many seek. But hip-hop artists are typically motivated to achieve more than just name recognition, such as a recording deal, commercial endorsements, more money, wider fame, their own brand labels, etc. Cash Money’s DJ name in itself illustrates this focus. Skaters tend to invent for the purpose of inventing and impressing their own community, and many are satisfied with receiving recognition for their inventions in the form of a contest title, magazine photo, or YouTube video.

That these two inventive communities value different means for achieving success emphasizes to me that place matters. A place or environment shapes the values of the inventors that live there, and their values shape their invention process and definition of success. Any place can become a place of invention because people in any community can develop amazing inventions with a mix of creativity, collaboration and competition, risk-taking and problem-solving along the way.

Source for Cash Money and DJ Immortal quotes: Katz, M. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

Revolutionary Invention: Hip-Hop and the PC

What do hip-hop music and personal computers have in common? They were both children of the turbulent 1970s, born to innovative people who, building on inventive skills and technologies, nurtured them through creativity, collaboration, risk taking, problem solving, flexibility, and hard work. As with all inventions, their parents created them using some existing technologies. Hip-hop music evolved from adaptations of sound recording and playback equipment, while personal computers were built on integrated circuits, or “microchips,” co-invented in 1959 by Robert Noyce of Silicon Valley.

Imagine the social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals in America during the 1960s and 1970s. Picture the urban decay happening in inner-city areas of many major metropolises. Then picture the suburban communities that had burgeoned after World War II, representing the American Dream of where and how to live. Within these vastly different contexts, the Bronx, New York, and Silicon Valley, California, became places of invention—for hip-hop music and personal computers, respectively.

From "Yes Yes Y'all." Photo by John Fekner, copyright Charlie Ahearn

By the 1970s, the Bronx served as a national symbol of urban blight. Cut off from the rest of New York City by the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the primarily black and Puerto Rican residents were left to their own devices to deal with crime, drugs, dilapidated housing, few public services, and fewer job opportunities. Meanwhile, across the country, the relatively new, sunny suburbs between San Jose and San Francisco (which became known collectively as “Silicon Valley”) attracted primarily middle- and upper-class white, well-educated residents, many of whom were employed by the rapidly growing semiconductor industry there. Unlike the Bronx, Silicon Valley already had a reputation as a place of invention.

G Man and his crew DJ-ing at a park Bronx, New York, 1984 © Henry Chalfant

Sometimes lack of material resources encourages inventiveness. People in poor communities in America and around the world put their creativity to work on a daily basis using whatever materials are available. In the Bronx, residents searching for innovative, non-violent ways to express themselves took advantage of the limited resources around them to create the technology and artistry of a new kind of music. As Grand Wizzard Theodore (regarded as the inventor of the hip-hop scratch) said, “Hip-hop came from nothing. The people that created hip-hop had nothing.  And what they did was they created something from nothing.”[i] People like DJ Grandmaster Flash had electronics training and used those skills to adapt record players, speakers, and other stereo system elements to invent the new musical sounds, tools, and techniques that became hip-hop.

In resource-rich Silicon Valley, people like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs had computer experience, access to lots of new technologies, and networks with people in the industry. Among other activities, they were involved in the Homebrew Computer Club, which was founded by electronics hobbyists in a Menlo Park garage in 1975 and later met in a Stanford University auditorium. The two Steves lived and worked in a prime location to invent and promote their personal computer, the Apple I. Although not the first personal computer (that credit goes to John Blankenbaker’s 1971 Kenbak-1), the Apple is arguably the most famous.

What inventors and innovators in Silicon Valley shared with Bronx inventors and innovators was what might be termed “counter cultural” perspectives. Both groups were interested in democratizing their respective inventions—although hip-hop DJs and computer tinkerers probably wouldn’t have expressed it quite this way at the time! In the Bronx, the pioneers of hip-hop wanted to create their own music, uniquely representative of their community, away from the disco clubs in Manhattan and without mainstream limits.

Silicon Valley East. Flickr photo by Andrei Z.

In Silicon Valley, they wanted to break away from the corporate and government control of huge mainframe computers and create small, personal computers for themselves, their friends, and eventually the larger public. As Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak remembered in the 2006 documentary, In Search of the Valley, “There was lots of talk at Homebrew [computer club] about social revolution, we were going to have our own tools at home and own our own computers and not be slaves to what our employers wanted us to use.”

Another important element shared by inventors and innovators in the Bronx, Silicon Valley, and indeed all of the communities featured in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibition project was the support of like-minded individuals who collaborated as well as competed to further creativity. In the end, it turns out you’re not necessarily limited by limited resources. What you need is imagination, adaptability, perseverance, encouragement from your community, and eventually a wider, welcoming market. Hip-hop music and personal computers ended up revolutionizing not only American but also global society and culture.

Many thanks to Eric Hintz and Laurel Fritzsch for their expertise on these two Places of Invention!


[i] Mark Katz, Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 253.

 

Academic Hip-Hop

Opening panel discussion at the Remixing the Art of Social Change: Expanding the Cipher conference on July 7, 2012.

As a Midwestern Caucasian female—whose musical tastes run more towards classic rock— tasked with researching the history of hip-hop music in the Bronx during the 1970’s and early 80’s, I cannot avoid approaching this subject from an outsider’s perspective. What authority do I have to tell this community’s story in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention Exhibit? This same insider/outsider perspective conflict also exists within the academic community teaching courses at colleges and universities on hip-hop music.

I recently attended a panel discussion at Howard University during the “Words Beats & Life” conference about just this conflict. Panelists Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal discussed the state of hip-hop music in the academic environment. Popmaster Fabel holds a high school diploma but is an adjunct professor teaching courses on hip-hop at New York University; Dr. Neal attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and is now a professor at Duke University and the author of several books on African American history and culture. During the panel Fabel argued that a person can’t understand hip-hop, and consequently doesn’t have the authority to teach about hip-hop, unless they’ve performed hip-hop music. He said that his “degree” comes from being a hip-hop practitioner in the Bronx during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Neal countered that although practitioners of hip-hop who are also professors provide a valuable insider perspective, professors with academic training put hip-hop into a wider social and historical context, such as how hip-hop artists relate to social constructs of masculinity or the social and cultural effects of urban planning. By the end of the panel, both speakers concluded that insider and outsider perspectives are valuable and should be included in hip-hop courses.

This made me feel much better about telling the story of hip-hop music in Places of Invention. My outsider perspective enables me to put hip-hop music into a context that people may not expect to find it in—technological invention. I am equipped to discuss how hip-hop music relates to technological invention and its impact on society and culture. The conference also served as a reminder that the voices of practitioners need to be key components within the exhibit. Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion has helped me appreciate that non hip-hop practitioners such as myself can bring valuable insights to the story of hip-hop music.

Mello-D and the Rados perform at the conference. Video by Laurel Fritszch.

My Trip Behind the Scenes of the NMAH’s Hip-Hop Collection

It’s always exciting going into the vaults of a museum’s collection. Ok, so actually they’re rarely “vaults,” but it’s still exciting to open collection cabinets and discover what objects may lie inside. On this particular occasion, National Museum of American History curator Eric Jentsch was showing me items in the Museum’s hip-hop collection. Although for several months I’ve been reading about hip-hop culture and technology, and looking at images related to it, this was my first opportunity to handle the objects themselves.

Afrika Bamabatta coat, front view, NMAH photo.

Eric opened up a cabinet and before me was an outfit worn by hip-hop advocate and community leader Afrika Bambaataa. Bambaataa was a pioneering hip-hop DJ known for playing obscure records, but his key contribution to the early hip-hop movement was bringing peace to a drug and gang riddled Bronx. He was a founding member of a gang in the Bronx River Projects but had a transformative experience when he visited Africa. He returned with a desire to provide his community with peaceful alternatives to gangs.  Bambaattaa turned his turf-building skills into peacemaking skills and used them while performing grassroots promotion for hip-hop parties. In the 1970s he formed first the Bronx River Organization and then the Universal Zulu Nation, an awareness group of reformed gang members who organized hip-hop parties for youth to provide peaceful and fun havens away from violence.

Afrika Bambaataa coat, back view, NMAH photo.

Despite having read all of this about Bambaataa I lacked a sense of what he was like in person. But by holding one of his jackets, I could better comprehend him. From the jacket’s size I got a better idea of how big he was. From seeing the outfit’s colors and examining the quality of its workmanship I got an idea of his taste. Taking it all in together I could picture him filling out the jacket and was better able to get a sense of what it would have been like to be in his presence.

Mixer donated by Grandmaster Flash, NMAH photo.

My visit to the collections also gave me information about the technological advances of hip-hop music. I have virtually no experience with sound mixing, so attempting to comprehend the evolution of mixing equipment from a record player to a mixing board has been a bit mind boggling. For example, DJ Grandmaster Flash invented a mixer from spare parts. According to him, “today you can buy turntables, needles and mixers that are equipped to do whatever. But at that particular time, I had to build it. I had to take microphone mixers and turn them into turntable mixers. I was taking speakers out of abandoned cars and using people’s thrown-away stereos.”

Once hip-hop became popular, the music industry took notice of the technologies artists invented to produce hip-hop’s sound. The Rane Corporation worked with Grandmaster Flash to develop a mixer that in Flash’s opinion, corrected the various problems he encountered as a DJ. The Rane mixer in the NMAH’s collection was donated by Flash. I was surprised by its appearance. Having read about the heavy use hip-hop equipment got, and how even after mixers no longer functioned they were re-purposed, this Rane mixer was in nearly mint condition. I expected something with heavy wear and tear and mis-matched parts. I was also surprised by its complexity. I didn’t think it would look so much like the mixers currently in use. Seeing this mixer designed (and donated) by Flash really impressed upon me how rapidly mixing technology improved.

I think that sometimes people undervalue doing research in museum collections, but it’s something that I have found useful in my research. At the very least, it’s exciting to handle objects used by the people you’ve been researching. I look forward to delving deeper into the Museum’s hip-hop collection as research for Places of Invention continues.