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At the Smithsonian, Hip-Hop Is History
Museum Launches Collection of Genre

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

NEW YORK, Feb. 28 -- Just another day for the Smithsonian: The place unveils a new project and some guy at the news conference recalls his days forcing women into prostitution.

"I decided I really wanted to try this pimp thing, so I went into the street and started getting me some 'hos."

The dulcet musings of Ice-T, ladies and gentlemen, gangsta-rap pioneer, "Law & Order" regular and now -- ta da -- Smithsonian donor.

Ice and a handful of other urban legends packed a conference room full of television cameras and reporters Tuesday at a Midtown Manhattan hotel to unveil a Smithsonian initiative for Washington's National Museum of American History, "Hip-Hop Won't Stop: The Beat, the Rhymes, the Life." The goal is to gather artifacts donated by rappers, dancers, DJs and record executives and amass a definitive collection, one that captures hip-hop's 30-year journey from inner-city subculture to international phenomenon.

Museum officials predict it will take three to five years before they warehouse enough material for a full-scale exhibit, but they say some of these pieces will be on view by summer, and they're certainly off to a colorful start. At the press conference, a parade of luminaries took turns at the microphone, starting with entrepreneur Russell Simmons and ending about an hour later with a break dancer named Crazy Legs.

Washington press conference etiquette at an event like this is pretty clear: Keep it clean and keep it brief. The hip-hop press conference etiquette is, ah, different. Ice-T might have been the most profane, but he was positively succinct next to Grandmaster Flash, one of the great DJs in the genre. You get the sense that if Flash had his way, he'd still be at the Hilton, explaining the technical ins and outs of his craft.

"I would take the two ends of my turntable and I would cut the jack on either side," he said, a good 10 minutes into his monologue, "and add a third and I would jack that third one to the left and to the right of the single-pole double-throw switch, so that when you clicked the switch in the center it was off, when you clicked it one way to the right, only you would hear it. When you click two times to the left I could hear it, they couldn't."

The Smithsonian officials, led by National Museum of American History Director Brent D. Glass, listened patiently. They didn't flinch at anything, not even when Afrika Bambaataa, a seminal DJ from the Bronx and father of the electro-funk sound, offered a shout-out to Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan. Foremost on Bambaataa's mind, though, was the state of radio, which, in the cadences of a preacher, he deplored as narrow:

"We saying we still want to hear James Brown, we still want to hear Kraftwerk. If you're playing reggae and you're playing Sean Paul, we still want to hear Yellowman." By now the crowd was all but shouting "amen!"

"If you're playing Limp Bizkit, we still want to hear the Rolling Stones, we still want to hear the Beatles, or take it way back, we want to hear Chuck Berry."

Bambaataa was easily the most generous of all the donors, at least so far. He handed over more than 20 items, including two custom-made jackets with the logo of rap collective Zulu Nation on the back, a Zulu warrior beaded necklace, a USA/Africa necklace, nine "Don't Stop Planet Rock" posters and a red fez with the "Proud Nuwaubian" logo.

Fab 5 Freddy, DJ from "Yo! MTV Raps," delivered what was arguably the choicest gift: a vintage boombox. It was brought in like a priceless bauble by a woman wearing white gloves. Simmons appeared to be the most stinting of the donors. He gave the museum a Phat Farm sign -- the name of the clothing company he created -- and a 1985 advertisement for the record label he co-founded, Def Jam. Not exactly the family Rodin. Maybe that's a reflection of Simmons's ambivalence about this whole project. During his remarks, he seemed worried that moving hip-hop from the streets to the national display case might actually do some harm. To the music, that is.

"My first thoughts were [darn], the party's over," he told the audience. "The idea of hip-hop is that it's from the underbelly, it's from people who've been locked out and not recognized."

He came around, he said, though it's easy to understand his initial apprehension. One of the reasons that rap has thrived, particularly among white teens, is that it's among the few musical styles that will actually annoy your mom and dad, who are getting harder to annoy. How shocking is anything that's enshrined in the Smithsonian?

The organizers of this project say that nobody they approached turned them down. And if the collection seems slight for now -- the whole thing took up just two tables -- there's more coming. The strategy is to bring aboard the founding fathers (and mothers -- MC Lyte gave the museum her handwritten journal that became her book "Just My Take") and then move on from there.

"I would love to see more jewelry, more bling-bling, more clothes, more graffiti," said Marvette Perez, the Smithsonian curator leading the project. "I'd love to get Queen Latifah's hat from the 'Ladies First' video, some of Missy Elliott's sneakers. We're just getting warmed up."

Ice-T kicked in a poster from his European tour and two copies of "Home Invasion," including the Warner Bros. pressing that was never released. (The label didn't like the album cover, which depicted a home invasion.) Infamous for a song called "Cop Killer," Ice-T these days is positively bubbly. He more than anyone else seemed thrilled that hip-hop history would someday be told at the Smithsonian.

"I'm so happy right now," he said as he finished his speech, "because when somebody comes and asks me about my music and about hip-hop, I can say, 'Take your [flipping hindquarters] to the museum, all right?"

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