November 4, 2008

Conference Draws Hip-Hop Pioneers to Cornell

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Next time you search the Cornell Library catalogue, don’t be surprised if you stumble across names like “Funky Four Plus One” or “The Treacherous Three” alongside “functional analysis” and “trials (treason).” The 8021 range is now home to Kroch Library’s newly acquired Born in the Bronx hip-hop archive, which was inaugurated last weekend with a groundbreaking conference on the origins of hip-hop culture.
Johan Kugelberg, a Swedish music journalist who formerly collected punk memorabilia, began putting the archive together in 1998, when he was introduced to hip-hop by a godson.
“He started bringing over records, and they kicked my ass,” he remembers. “I told my wife, ‘this is what I’m going to be doing for the next 10 years.’”
The heart of his collection was a series of photos by Joe Conzo, a Bronx resident who said he was “just taking pictures of [his] neighborhood.” Conzo arrived in Ithaca on Friday on a bus direct from the Bronx, full of hip-hop pioneers. Attendants included Afrika Bambaataa (affectionately known as “Bam”), unanimously considered one of hip-hop’s most important visionaries, and Roxanne Shanté, whose “Roxanne’s Revenge” is perhaps the first “beef” track in hip-hop history — she also holds a Ph.D in psychology from Cornell.
“We didn’t do an average academic conference,” said Kath-erine Reagan, curator of Kroch’s rare books collection. “The most gratifying part for me was seeing the pioneers get to talk about their history in their own words.”
Reverend Kenneth Clarke, director of Cornell United Religious Work, introduced the event, making a connection between hip-hop as a movement and the academic discipline of popular cultural studies, the analysis of “texts other than books that are bound.” Both practices have survived, Clarke said, in the face of their dismissal as fads by a traditionalist cultural mainstream.
Ithaca College professor Sean Eversly Bradwell, who also holds a Ph.D from Cornell, followed with a presentation focused on the precedent within hip-hop culture for academic study and preservation, describing crate-digging for beats, shout-outs to the “old school” and the oral dissemination of knowledge as forms of scholarship. In Bradwell’s words, “hip-hop archives itself.”
The pioneers presented a narrative in a panel discussion that was a far cry from the multinational corporate culture to which many commentators reduce hip-hop. Moderator Jeff Chang, noted journalist and author, pointed to the fact that hip-hop “began as a local movement, and still thrives as a network of local movements.” Hip-hop, for those who participated in its creation in the Bronx in the 1970s, was a multimedia youth culture that took place in parks and high school gymnasiums, rather than in clubs or on television.
During a recollection of rap battles — the embodiment of what dance pioneer Popmaster Fabel called hip-hop’s “fiercely competitive spirit” — a common theme emerged. As Kugelberg put it: “To summarize, everyone lost to Bam.”
The stately Bambaataa was perhaps the quietest member of the panel, but his few comments were among the most potent. A quick and spontaneous genealogy of hip-hop, which traced the genre backwards through jazz, funk, spoken poetry, country music, scripture and even Broadway musicals, drew the most vigorous ovation of the afternoon. Bambaataa also lam-ented the current state of hip-hop distribution, suggesting that restrictive radio programming, which repeats the same 10 to 20 records in constant rotation, results in a social programming that limits public discourse and self-determination.
Pebblie Poo, one of the first female rappers, emphasized the history of women in hip-hop, in contrast to the “video chick” stereotype prevalent today.
The evening’s performance aimed to present the kind of music hip-hop pioneers produced in Bronx jams in the mid-’70s. D.J.’s Tony Tone and Disco Wiz played sets of the records that Bronx crowds used to dance to, while Grandmaster Caz performed his original lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight,” stolen nearly verbatim by the Sugar Hill Gang for their 1979 recording. Grand Wizzard Theodore, inventor of the turntable scratch, showed off his rapid, precise technique, at one point even playing blindfolded. Much of the night saw Cornell’s Absolute Zero, a student dance crew, breaking, popping and locking to the beats.
Saturday’s sessions featured scholars Mark Anthony Neal and Tricia Rose, among others, discussing the implications of academia’s increasing interest in hip-hop.
The spirit of the weekend was summed up by Bambaataa, who mused, “When the creator spoke to the prophet, he was rapping.”

A sampling of the Born in the Bronx archive is on display in the lobby of the Kroch Library, provocatively located next to copies of the Gettysburg address. The archive is available for research during library hours.