Stepping into the Culture House for the opening night of the Hip-Hop Museum Pop-Up Experience was like stumbling into a time warp. You were transported, in what looked like a warehouse, to an alternate hip-hop universe equipped with caps with fat laces for sale, interactive turntables and graffiti-covered walls. The launch Jan. 18 commemorated the 40th anniversary of the world’s first commercial hip-hop single, “Rapper’s Delight,” and featured ciphers fueled by local talent producing beats in real-time and willing participants stepping up to the DJ booth to lay down a freestyle.
Jeremy Beaver, the founder of Listen Vision Studios, shared the idea for a hip-hop-centric museum a year ago with David Mays, who started a newsletter in 1988 that became the Source magazine. Beaver had been collecting hip-hop memorabilia for the past two years and called this interest turned pop-up a chance to share the cultural legacy around hip-hop music. The pop-up museum, open through Feb. 18 in the Blind Whino art space in Southwest D.C., features more than 500 items, some exclusively owned by Beaver and others donated, and claims to be one of the largest collections to preserve and share historic moments that made the genre not just a billion-dollar industry but also a culture. Its strict focus on hip-hop, in comparison with the broader music exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, helps visitors explore the rough and grit that inspired a generation.
Rather than walk visitors through the history of hip-hop chronologically, the exhibition is organized by artist and music label for a capsule-like experience. You’ll find an electric chair with Death Row Records' logo emblazoned on it positioned near items related to Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, but it isn’t obvious that you’ve crossed into ’90s West Coast hardcore rap territory until you’ve digested all of the items on display. Other pieces underscore the evolution of media and sneaker culture as part of hip-hop’s legacy. If you aren’t intrigued by cassette tapes commemorating the heyday of television show “Yo! MTV Raps,” there’s always the microphones signed by such hip-hop greats as Ice Cube or Air Force Ones inspired by De La Soul.
Mays hopes that the exhibition will find a permanent home in Washington. He said that having it in the nation’s capital has a certain significance, because hip-hop is a uniquely American art form: “D.C., being the nation’s capital, it’s a museum town. There are so many parts of the country that have their own unique history with hip-hop. Why not have a museum in the capital that reflects that music and important culture?”
Hip-hop as we know it was conceived on Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx in the ’70s, but there’s a connection between hip-hop taking its first breath and go-go, a genre created by Chuck Brown that’s often seen as just a local style of music in the D.C. area. Red Summer, a full-time teacher in the District and co-curator of the pop-up, was surprised by the connection while doing her research.
Go-go blends elements of funk, R&B, hip-hop and even pop for nonstop high-energy live band performances indicative of the name. Summer said there is a debate about where go-go fits in the story of hip-hop, but the team decided that a tribute to Trouble Funk, a D.C. band that helped popularize go-go, should be the first thing attendees see when they walk in.
“It’s debated because people say the Sugarhill Gang is where it started,” Summer said of the decision to highlight Trouble Funk. “But when you talk to real old-school hip-hop heads, they were like, you can’t talk about the birth of hip-hop without talking about Trouble Funk.”
On the pop-up’s opening night, go-go music was recognized, alongside such hip-hop pioneers as Grandmaster Caz, who wrote lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight” that he didn’t receive credit for, even though the catchy tune helped forge mainstream hip-hop.
Summer acknowledged how music originating in black and Latino communities with few resources or formal music studies created “DIY art forms” like hip-hop. She said those communities inspired a tradition of recycling and reinventing sound that became different iterations of go-go bands in the D.C. area, and even some of the first hip-hop artists and respective crews in New York.
Just like go-go, hip-hop exists because of the eclectic sounds that birthed the culture. “It’s a feeling,” hip-hop artist and D.C. native GoldLink said when asked about the D.C. area’s sound of hip-hop as well as go-go. He called it a “pulse” embedded in the DNA of D.C. locals who created go-go as a genre without borders. As for the District’s place in hip-hop history, GoldLink said it is bigger than just creating a unique sound.
“Our position is important. I don’t really know what it is, but it’s not a small part,” he said. “It’s more of an intricate part of it. Maybe we are serving as the pulse of the entire music” genre.
The Hip-Hop Museum Pop-Up Experience, 700 Delaware Ave. SW (inside Blind Whino). Open from noon to 6 p.m. daily through Feb. 18. Free.