September 25, 2008

Kroch Libe Goes 'Street'

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Cornell has nine dance groups who perform it, two classes taught exclusively about it, four radio shows that feature it, funding agencies and concert organizers who sponsor it, one official blog devoted to intellectual discourse about it and now, over a 1,000 records containing it, more than 500 original flyers advertising it and about three decades of photographs of its infancy. What is it? It’s Hip Hop, in all its quixotic, nonconformist, ever-evolving, hard-to-define glory.
It features the photographic archive of Joe Conzo, Jr., who, at 16, started going around the Bronx with a camera around his neck in an attempt to attract girls, and inadvertently captured some of the most momentous moments and characters from Hip Hop‘s inception.
The collection includes original flyers designed by Buddy Esquire. These flyers evidence Hip Hop’s penchant for sampling and absorbing influences: Before the advent of the computer, party flyers were made in a constant cycle of cannibalization and re-arrangement. This is literally cut and paste, and you can see the detailed work of Buddy Esq in the meticulous alignment of text and design elements.
All of this treasure is under the watchful and enthusiastic eye of Katherine Reagan, curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, and the one responsible for bringing the collection here.
In conjunction with the official opening of the exhibit, Cornell will host a two-day conference starting on October 31 to discuss the long history and bright future of Hip Hop embodied in this rare and important collection. Representatives of Hip Hop’s early days like Grandmaster Caz, Grandwizzard Theodore, Popmaster Fabel, Tony Tone, Disco Wiz and Kool Lady Blue will speak. If you don’t know who these people are, that is as good a reason to come as any. And the bottom line is, when it comes to the history of Hip Hop, you don’t know what you don’t know. Members of the academic community will present recent research and discuss Hip Hop’s place in academia.
As for its place at Cornell? There are only two classes in the 2008-2009 Course Guide devoted to the evolution of Hip Hop: Dance 2430 Hip-Hop, Hollywood, and Home Movies: Exploring Movement and Media, taught by professor Jim Self, dance, and MUSIC 2301 Discovering Hip-Hop: Research and the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection, taught by professor Steven Pond, music.
The first is a look at Hip Hop dance’s evolution all the way from the Snake Hips dance in Harlem in the 1920s to the early days of breakdancing, up to Hollywood’s video girls dancing in a Kanye video. The latter will be offered for the first time this spring in conjunction with the Born in the Bronx exhibit, and will use the archive as a source for new scholarship and understanding.
It’s not surprising that there are so few classes on the topic; though the field is exploding with research, there is very small body of academic scholarship on Hip Hop, even in comparison to other contemporary movements. There are both scholars who reject it as a valid point of study and devotees who are wary of academic analysis. When asked about their willingness to take a class on Hip Hop at Cornell, some students expressed worries about the legitimacy of the course, especially in comparison to those offered in tmetropolitan areas.
So then why Cornell? According to Reagan, Kugelberg knew that he wanted the collection at a university so that it would be not only well-preserved, but well-used. He originally intended to keep it in the Bronx, or at least Manhattan, but when he found no satisfactory venue, a mutual acquaintance connected him with Reagan who “knew immediately that [she] wanted it,” while Kugelberg was “really impressed by Cornell and by [Reagan’s] vision.”
What attracted Kugelberg to the Hip Hop movement was the fact that it was a “self-starter, […] DIY culture to the most extreme” citing the sampling of beats in new music and the fact that it originated out of the necessity for entertainment, emphasizing that “it was about Saturday night.” Physical documentation of the early days of Hip Hop is difficult to come by; there were very few records until “Rapper’s Delight,” and flyers like those in the collection were handed in as tickets and lost the next day. Many of the pioneers captured in Joe Conzo’s photos have faded into obscurity, and people’s memories are starting to fade as well.
Is Hip Hop dead? The perceived differences between today’s capitalist, somewhat homogeneous mainstream Hip Hop culture and the origins yvisible in Conzo’s photos of YMCA gyms in the Bronx, or Buddy Esquire’s flyers (“damage: $1”) often lead to the discussion of Hip Hop’s “death.” There is a certain degree of paradox in the archiving of an ongoing artform; does archiving Hip Hop signal its death, or instead insure the possibility for continuity and understanding?
In line with Kugelberg’s comments, Cyrus Woolard ’08, Hip Hop producer, explained that “Hip Hop has always been dance music with a latent political message that had much more to do with context than content.” It is the incorporation and reinterpretation of that which came before in a socially and sonically relevant way that has always defined and continues to define, the creation of Hip Hop. And don’t forget a dope beat — as Stephanie Tominaga, ’09, president of Slope Radio commented in a sentiment shared by DJs past and present: “I wish more of Cornell would just get up and dance.”
So for those who only know the Hip Hop on the radio, for those who don’t know anything, for those who have lost faith, and for those who never lost anything, Cornell Library’s exhibition “Born in the Bronx” is a jumping off place for all of us. As Yoon Kim ’08, president of Absolute Zero Breakdancing Crew says, “as long as we maintain the essence of hip hop — the attitude, the nonconformity to society — while experimenting at the same time, hip-hop can only go forward.”
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