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Rapper's Delight 

The history of hip hop, at Yerba Buena Center

Wednesday, May 16 2001
If punk rock was the wake-up call to the '70s, hip hop was urban reality knocking at the door of '80s excess. And just as punk circles raged with poets and underground artists, hip hop was multidisciplinary at its core. The four essential elements of hip hop -- rhyming, scratching, breaking, and graffiti -- incorporated the poetry, musicianship, dance, and visual art of the Brooklyn streets where the style was born. From its earliest years, hip hop was an art of the dispossessed. Any student of the old school will tell you it all started with two turntables and a microphone. But the real story is how its innovators turned the inability to buy instruments into a new form of expression that would rock the musical landscape.

Like a weed sprung from the cracked ghetto streets, hip hop spread quickly, first to suburbs across the country, then on to Europe's immigrant neighborhoods and to Third World shantytowns. Much of the music's popular appeal came from its ability to speak for and to the urban underclass, and the lyrical heroes who riffed on inner-city blues gave voice to a marginalized community and spread that message far and wide. While today's hip hop may have outgrown its ghetto roots, its influence touches everything from dance music to modern art to how white kids talk and dress in the suburbs of Des Moines.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts flexes its street cred this weekend with the opening of "Hip-Hop Nation," a multipart exhibition looking at the art form's history, influence on pop culture, and future in the commercial mainstream. The exhibition's centerpiece, "Roots, Rhymes, and Rage," organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, moves from the back-in-the-day artifacts of hip hop's early years to the style's commercial breakthrough and enduring influence. This history bus stops to peep early handbills, b-boy get-ups, and turntable and mixer technology that would make most mixmasters weep. Moving beyond relics to lyric sheets, newspapers, and media footage, the exhibition also contrasts the negative perceptions of hip hop music (largely due to hype over gangsta rap's incendiary rhymes -- remember Ice-T's "Cop Killer"? -- and to its rising body count) with the music's socially conscious leanings, as seen in the lyrics of folks like Public Enemy and Chuck D, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Queen Latifah.

Don't trip on the East Coast vibe, though: Local artists get their props with "Hip-Hop by the Bay." It highlights the players on the scene (Too $hort, the Hieroglyphics crew, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Rappin' 4-Tay, and others) as well as the neighborhood institutions that helped them get there. Also part of "Hip-Hop Nation" is "Rapper's Delight," a visual compilation of out-there hip hop--inspired sculpture, painting, and video. And since keeping it real is essential, "Hip-Hop Nation" includes a free performance or discussion every Thursday. Some highlights include a turntable technology history lesson on June 7, a discussion on women in hip hop on June 21, and the Aug. 9 exhibition closer, a hip hop dance battle that'll take you back to the day.

About The Author

Todd Dayton


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