Before hip-hop became a global cultural phenomenon, the genre emerged at a 1973 block party in the South Bronx. DJ Kool Herc had organized the party for members of his apartment building, word of the event spread borough-wide and it quickly set the precedent for a recurring community gathering. DJs would set up turntables right on the pavement, using two copies of the same record to mix, layer and scratch beats. Over these funk and soul-inspired sounds, spectators laid down cardboard for dancing and the DJs shouted out to engage the crowd, a routine that became known as MCing. In the ensuing few years, MCs placed greater emphasis on rhyme and rhythm, and by the late 1980s, hip-hop had entered its golden era, led by a vanguard of rapper-tastemakers such as LL Cool J, Slick Rick and Biz Markie.
Fifty years after Kool Herc’s block party, hip-hop has paved the way for modern music production techniques, spawned countless rap subgenres — from Southern crunk to Brooklyn drill — and cemented its place among a mainstream listenership. The genre is continuously evolving too, thanks to the rise of social media and streaming platforms, enabling virtually anyone to make and distribute music. With vinyl and print media gradually becoming antiquated, so much of hip-hop culture now exists exclusively online, but Rocky Bucano, director of the forthcoming Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM), has made it his mission to preserve the physical artifacts of hip-hop history.
Slated to open its doors in 2024, the Bronx-set UHHM is a first-of-its-kind institution that will trace the legacy and progress of hip-hop back to its roots in New York. Hypebeast spoke to the former record executive turned museum director about the genesis of the UHHM, the process of assembling its collection of over 30,000 artifacts and his vision for the culture moving forward.
What made you initially want to become involved with the project, and how did the concept of devoting an entire museum to hip-hop history first come about?
Hip-hop has always been part of my DNA. I’ve been involved in the culture from the very beginning. I had my own record label, Strong City Records, during the golden era of hip-hop and I’ve worked with so many unsung heroes from the time, like DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba and Lovebug Starski.
Hip-hop music has impacted communities all around the world. It’s now the number one most-listened-to music on the planet. Not having a permanent repository — a permanent space to celebrate this amazing culture — was a travesty. There was a need for an institution to recognize the great accomplishments of many of the artists who have created the culture.
Over the past half-century, hip-hop’s influence has permeated fashion, film, technology and politics. I imagine narrowing all that down to the confines of a museum is a complex task. Can you describe the process of assembling the museum’s collection of artifacts?
Our collection is growing on a day-to-day basis. We have a warehouse out in Newark, New Jersey, where we’re storing all of our artifacts. People are donating everything from magazines to CDs to vinyl albums. We have outfits, we have studio equipment. [New York recording studio] Hit Factory even donated one of their main consoles that was used by so many iconic artists to record their albums. Our curators have assembled an amazing collection that goes back to the very beginning when hip-hop was not even called hip-hop.
A collection of hip-hop memorabilia of this scale and scope has never been organized for public consumption. How does one begin to go about sourcing and organizing these artifacts?
It’s about really understanding what artifacts are important, what artifacts are required to make sure that the history, stories and people who have contributed to this history are celebrated in the most authentic way. But more importantly, it’s all about making sure that the history is properly documented so that the storyline — who started it, where it started, how it started, where it is today, how it has impacted our communities, how it has impacted fashion and politics and social media and technology — charts a clear through line from day one to where we are today.
We specifically look for memorabilia and artifacts that help us tell that story, whether it’s flyers, cassette tapes, magazine covers, newspaper articles or films and videos. Whatever the asset is, we analyze it to see where it fits into the overall scheme of the museum’s storytelling and then digitize it in a digital asset management system.
Critics often accuse hip-hop of glorifying drug use or violence. Recently, rap lyrics have even been used as evidence against artists in criminal trials. Do you envision the museum having the potential to sway the public’s perception of the genre?
One of the main objectives of the museum is to educate, inspire and promote a greater understanding of what hip-hop is. Many people have, like you said, a misconception of hip-hop just being about misogynistic stuff and violence — stuff they see happening on the dark side of hip-hop culture — but hip-hop has always been about peace, unity, love and having fun.
In the early days of the culture’s emergence in the Bronx, hip-hop started with gangs wanting to figure out how to stop violence and come together and form a more peaceful way to coexist. It became this culture that was really about celebrating unity and giving voice to the voiceless.
Yes, there are some things in hip-hop that are contrary to what I just said. Something people may say is, ‘oh, hip-hop is damaging to today’s youth.’ That’s something the museum will try to help inform on and redirect the narrative so that people understand that this is music built on love and peace, not violence. Through educational programs, cultural programs, and its network and resources, the UHHM will be at the center of creating a stronger narrative around the beauty of hip-hop and how it has empowered people all around the world as opposed to creating a disenfranchised community.