As Hip Hop Turns 50, Cornell’s Collection Celebrates Its Vibrant Past and Present

Hip Hop reached its 50th anniversary on August 11, 2023, and the world’s largest collection of Hip Hop artifacts is prepared for a semester of celebration and education.


The Cornell Hip Hop Collection, established in 2007, opened the exhibition “It’s Just Begun: Celebrating 50 Years of the Hip Hop DJ” on August 11. In November, they will host an event on the same theme, according to Assistant Curator Ben Ortiz.


The anniversary commemorates a 1973 back-to-school party in the South Bronx, where 18-year-old Clive Campbell, or DJ Kool Herc, used the merry-go-round turntable technique to loop melodic breaks in songs. His sister Cindy Campbell, a graffiti artist and breakdancer, organized the party. It consolidated the main elements of Hip-Hop, giving birth to a genre and culture.


Hip Hop as a movement involves more than just music. The four main elements of Hip Hop are commonly recognized as MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti art or tagging. Thus, the Cornell Hip Hop Collection contains over 250,000 multimedia items, including flyers, records, photographs, sound recordings, and more.


The Collection began in collaboration with historian Johan Kugelberg and photographer Joe Conzo, whose work had recorded the earliest years of Hip Hop. Katherine Reagan, the assistant director in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, helped Kugelberg and Conzo find a home for their artifacts at Cornell.


“Hip Hop’s history and culture is incredibly important and influential, and it was not being collected by other academic libraries at the time,” Reagan said. “Other libraries and archives in the New York City area had turned it down.”


Kugelberg and Conzo’s materials, including records, photographs, and hundreds of event flyers, arrived in July 2007. The collection formally opened in October 2008.


Dr. Riché Richardson, a professor of Literatures in English and Africana Studies, recalled the collection’s opening event as a highlight of her first days at Cornell. A panel of veteran artists and Cornell faculty led a dialogue on Hip Hop studies, which Richardson described as “inspiring.”


She stated that the multimedia nature of Hip Hop makes this collection unique, and it could help Cornellians explore broader avenues of research in multiple fields. She expressed that the collection is a highlight at Cornell, and she has used it to great effect within her classes.


“What Cornell has provided is a premier epicenter for the study and research, as well as a reflection, on Hip Hop as a genre,” she said.


The collection, according to Ortiz, aims to teach all people about Hip Hop history and culture from multiple standpoints. Its goal is accessibility and longevity.


“Having a concentration of this material in one permanent archive allows students, scholars, researchers, journalists, documentarians, and community members to learn about Hip Hop history, arts and culture,” he said. “Not just today, but for generations to come.”


The collection contains valuable personal archives from prominent figures in Hip Hop, including filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, emcee Grandmaster Caz, DJ Afrika Bambaataa, Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, and more. It centers visual and textual documentation, though it sometimes branches into sound recordings and memorabilia. The preservation of unconventional archival material is a constant goal.


Richardson noted that the collection can and should gather material from a wide variety of sources. Hip Hop culture and history often develops by word of mouth; it varies across the United States and the broader African diaspora. She stated the importance of memory work, where people who engage in Hip Hop can share their firsthand experiences and deliver oral histories.


She expressed that the CHHC can uniquely expand methods of academic research. Its broad scope creates new opportunities for thought.


“I think that makes it more exciting to think about what it means to be a researcher,” she said, “and it will inevitably lead to more outside-the-box thinking or research, and also potentially collaborations.”


Ortiz explained that the collection follows Hip Hop as a living culture. Collection materials come primarily from artists and creators, so the collection should reflect what the community values as it evolves.


“Materials included in the collection should have research value that sheds light on Hip Hop’s creation, consumption, practice, or communities,” he said.


Visitors can consult with the curators and see specific artifacts by request. The CHHC also began digitizing their collection in 2012; many materials are now available on Cornell’s library website.


The CHHC collaborates with various educational units. It offers online and in-person presentations for multiple institutions, organizations, and ages. It also hosts events and exhibitions. In summer 2022, it launched “More Than Reported: Images of Black Women from the Cornell Hip Hop Archives.” Richardson recalled the exhibition as a unique and valuable exploration.


Richardson has used the collection in her course Beyoncé Nation, which she introduced in 2017 and taught again in 2022. Both times, the class visited the collection and used it to research their final projects. They explored rare photographs of Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé’s early career.


“Seeing those pictures really was a very good complement for the biographical work that we had done on Beyoncé as well as some of the major biographical figures linked to her,” she said. “It was a very important visit for helping bring the topic to life.”


Richardson also interviewed Beyoncé’s father, Dr. Matthew Knowles, and took him to the CHHC for a tour. She described this as a generative and fascinating experience.


The CHHC hosts multiple events throughout the year, and interested visitors can find promotions online. Richardson encouraged potential researchers to plan ahead and get in on the busy schedule.


Aside from the Collection’s events, Hip Hop enthusiasts can find regional celebrations of Hip Hop’s anniversary throughout this summer and fall. Governor Kathy Hochul announced the “I LOVE NY Summer of Hip Hop,” a statewide commemoration of the anniversary that encompasses multiple events.


Notable celebrations in western New York include Buffalo’s Beau Fleuve Music and Arts Celebration, the Rochester Summer Soul Music Festival Weekend, and an exhibit at The Strong Museum in Rochester. The Great New York State Fair will invite Hip Hop headliners old and new, featuring Salt-N-Pepa, Ludacris, Doechii, and Yung Gravy. Other events are listed on the I LOVE NY website.


As the anniversary passes, the collection prepares for decades to come. It will continue to educate, collaborate, and preserve Hip Hop art and culture.


“A visit to Cornell isn’t complete without it,” Richardson said.

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