Since 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of hip-hop, the creative culture that emerged following a truce between rival gangs in the South Bronx, it’s the perfect time to take a closer look at the Cornell University Hip-hop Collection, the most in-depth archive of hip-hop artifacts and ephemera in a library. Music Matters spoke to assistant curator Ben Ortiz and curator of rare books and manuscripts Katherine Reagan about materials, outreach, and partnering with hip-hop titans.
What is the scope of materials in the collection?
The mission of the Cornell Hip-hop Collection (CHHC) is to collect and make accessible the historical documents of hip- hop culture and to ensure their preservation for current and future generations. The original core of the collection was donated in 2007 by Johan Kugelberg (Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip-hop), a former music industry executive. He was concerned that the true origins of hip-hop culture, as it first arose in New York City in the 1970s and early 1980s, would be lost if someone did not intentionally locate and save surviving documentary evidence of that era.
The CHHC features hundreds of party and event flyers ca. 1977–85; thousands of rare and early vinyl recordings and rare cassettes and CDs; record label press packets and publicity; books, blackbooks (graffiti artists’ sketchbooks), magazines, clothing, and more. We also are the home of the archive of early hip-hop photographer Joe Conzo, the working archive of Buddy “The Flyer King” Esquire, the archive of Breakbeat Lenny Roberts (cofounder of the “Ultimate Breaks and Beats” series), the archive of Richie SEEN Mirando, the archive of IGTimes (one of the earliest and most influential graffiti ’zines), the archive of Ernie Paniccioli (Word Up magazine’s photographer; Who Shot Ya: 3 Decades of Hiphop Photography), and Charlie Ahearn’s (director of Wild Style) archive. The archives of journalist and activist Kevin Powell and DJ Afrika Bambaataa will be arriving soon. The CHHC welcomes additional materials—books, manuscripts, photographs, flyers, artwork, recordings, and the papers of hip-hop artists—in order to enrich and preserve hip-hop’s contributions to world culture.
It looks like you do a lot of outreach to promote the collection and engage people with the materials.
We feel it’s important that this collection reaches not only academic audiences but also members of the community at large. We offer tours and special presentations for high school students, local community groups, and hip-hop fans of all ages. There are also multiple classes taught at Cornell that cover hip-hop culture, and those classes visit the library to work with artifacts we house.
How did you decide to involve hip-hop creators as subject experts for the archive?
The CHHC actively honors and supports the generation of artists who created hip-hop culture—DJs, MCs, bboys/bgirls [breakdancers], writers, photographers, journalists, authors, and more. Central to our philosophy is the belief that hip-hop’s pioneers and other cultural creators must be involved as deeply as possible in all aspects of the CHHC. It is important for them to be the ones telling their own personal and cultural stories for students and other audiences. We believe that the CHHC does not come alive without their participation and that we must include their voices while we are still lucky enough to have them living among us.
Who is working with the collection now?
We are very fortunate to have the support of many hip-hop performers and artists. Many of them are members of our advisory board, which includes DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Rahiem from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Crazy Legs and Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon of the Rock Steady Crew, and MCs such as Grandmaster Caz, MC Sha-Rock, and Zulu Queen MC Lisa Lee.
Who is the collection’s patron base?
The CHHC receives a steady stream of inquiries from journalists, filmmakers, PhD candidates, professors working on books, students researching papers, dancers and artists, and from many others who are passionate about hip-hop culture or curious about what they can learn from the collection.
What do you recommend saying to the patron who asks why the library celebrates hip-hop?
A person who would ask that question has had little opportunity to learn about hip-hop’s actual history and culture, which have made an enormous impact on late 20th- and early 21st-century history and culture in America and around the globe. As such, it needs to be preserved, documented, and celebrated just like any important historical event, celebrated author, or cultural movement, such as the Civil War, Shakespeare, or jazz.
Pick one item in your collection that would surprise us.
Most people would be surprised to learn that Rodney Dangerfield recorded an album called Rappin’ Rodney in 1983. We have our copy on display in a section called “Hip-hop Branches Out: The Good, the Weird, and the Ugly.”
Matthew Moyer, Reference Librarian, Popular Media Department, Jacksonville Public Library, FL. He is a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker