Reece also points out that the law governing the collection of items like mixtapes and TikToks is strict, especially for an institution like the Smithsonian. Due diligence, licensing and all sorts of other procedures need to be done. However, she emphasizes that the museum wants to digitize as much of its archive as possible. “We catalogue, we research, we preserve, and once it’s all processed, we digitize it to make it accessible,” she says.
Some of these efforts have already paid off. As we finish our conversation, Reece shows me that Smithsonian Anthology of Hip Hop and Rapa collection of 129 songs and a 300-page book that was released in 2021. She notes that it’s a collaboration between writers, b-boys, graffiti artists, academics, and community members that is “not the definitive history of hip hop, but.” [it is] a story about hip hop.” The whole movement is too much for any collection, but the collection, says Reece, illustrates its cultural, political and historical significance.
In the midst of all this This discussion of how to archive hip hop history raises larger questions about where these collections should exist.
Almost everyone I spoke to for this article has spoken about the importance of keeping a personal stash of CDs, tapes, party flyers, and MP3s as digital archives disappear. But what about the physical things? Much of Cornell’s archive and a similar archive at Harvard University are open to the public, but viewing often requires appointments. (Much of Cornell’s was digitizedhowever.) Part of the Smithsonian collection is on view and the National Museum of African American History and Culture is free.
But many of the physical artifacts of hip-hop history reside in private collections. Last year, DJ Kool Herc, the man whose Bronx block party is credited with birthing hip hop, auctioned take off most of his gear about Christie’s. It used to be the Radio Raheem boom boxes in the Smithsonian collection owned by Gene Siskel. It was gifted to him by Spike Lee himself; The museum acquired it at auction after his death in 1999. The Smithsonian obtains most of its archives through donations, but will acquire them this way whenever possible. The Kool Herc auction was “competitive,” Reece says, but the organization did acquire some items.
A place like the Universal Hip Hop Museum has promise – a place in the Bronx that will be accessible to the community. But every museum exhibition or academic archive raises questions. Jenkins compares it to African art ended in the collections of American museums. “Did you get this as a gift? Or did you take it? Who wrote the poster? Where is it in the museum?” he says. “All of these things have a tremendous impact on us, and it’s crazy because hip hop often challenges the same institutions, individuals, and ideas.”
Putting hip-hop behind glass also carries the risk of turning something that is evolving and interactive into a one-way conversation, Aku notes. “I think sometimes science creates an invisible gateway as a repository for a lot of things,” he adds. It’s at odds with a culture that started with block parties open to all.