Hiphop at Cornell University

Phil Ford

I just got a press release from Cornell University Library which seems remarkable enough to pass along:

The Cornell University Library (CUL) Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections has acquired a significant archive on the history of hip hop and rap music, documenting its emergence in the Bronx in the 1970s and early 1980s. Among notables in the collection: nearly 1000 sound recordings, and the photographic archive of Bronx photographer Joe Conzo Jr., as well as “textile art, books and magazines, and a collection of more than five hundred original flyers designed by Buddy Esquire and others.”

The materials in Cornell’s hip hop collection were the gift of collector and author Johan Kugelberg, and formed the basis for the forthcoming book Born in the Bronx: a Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop (Universe, November 2007) , edited by Johan Kugelberg (author), Afrika Bambaataa (foreword), Buddy Esquire (contributor), Jeff Chang (contributor) and Joe Conzo (photographer).

There's an easy joke to be made here. Hiphop and Cornell! Ha ha! Ivy League be keepin' it gangsta, yo! OK, now, everybody done? Did we get that out of our system? Good.* I think this is kind of a big deal, for reasons that the press release gets: "CUL officials said the archive is an important addition to the library’s collections documenting 19th and 20th century American life, offering original research materials for students and scholars in various fields, including music, American studies, urban studies, theater, film & dance, art history, African American studies, government, literature, and history." Whether you love hiphop or hate it, you can't deny that it's the most important musical genre to emerge since the 1960s, and as hiphop heads always like to say, hiphop isn't just music — it's a complex of cultural forms (music, dancing, visual design,  verse, fashion) grouped around a shared social/political sensibility. So hiphop recommends itself to history and offers itself to a wide variety of historical disciplines.  Why wouldn't an Ivy League rare books and manuscripts collection want a piece of this?

I think it must be very difficult for university special collections departments to figure out which aspects of vernacular culture are worth collecting. Pop culture is like a stock market. Back when I lived in the Bay area I used to go to Amoeba Records on Haight, which has a vast stock of used records. In the documentary Scratch you see shots of famous DJs walking the aisles at Amoeba with their little toy record players, trying out different records and looking for good breaks, and you do actually see this in real life — a young generation of musicians going to the bottomless well of old pop culture to find new sounds. And it was always interesting to see which records they chose — which kinds of records became scarce and expensive, and which ones stayed stubbornly available and cheap. The price stickers became a kind of crude cultural stock-price indiicator. It seemed like they couldn't give Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet away; Chico Hamilton, on the other hand, was a hotter property. Who knows why? And the thing is, it's hard to figure out the eventual cultural importance of this or that pop-cultural figure, which is what special collections departments have to figure out if they're going to go to the trouble of acquiring some cache of papers. When I first got interested in Les Baxter, all his old stuff was moldering in boxes in some U-Stor-It place in Los Angeles, and after making a couple of quick inquiries was told that a couple of educational institutions had passed on acquiring them. Eventually Arizona figured out that Baxter is actually kind of a big deal. I would think that the greatest single ability you would want in a special collections curator is the ability to figure this sort of thing out before anyone else does — an ability to play the market, in other words. This seems to be the secret of Tom Staley's legendary success at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.

More on the collection here. There's a kickoff conference in a couple of months, too.

*The other day I mentioned the tendency of a certain generational cohort of white people (mine, and older) to start working a Robin Williams routine** whenever hiphop is put in any context that is taken to represent white middle-class culture. Interestingly, Matthew Yglesias wrote about a related instance a couple of days ago, when Rich Lowry, speaking at some political-punditry event, played the National Review's sharing a NYC building with a hiphop label for laughs.


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Hiphop at Cornell University

  1. Jonathan says:

    Isn’t there a subplot about something like this in Zadie Smith’s *On Beauty*?

  2. Phil Ford says:

    I haven’t read that book. Was there a plot thread about archives?
    I’m told that the plot of A.S. Byatt’s _Possession_ revolves around a literary research center modeled on the Ransom Center. But I’ve never read that novel, either. It seems like a promising premise, though.

  3. cpo says:

    I’m so excited about this archive! And I think I’ll go to the Ransom Center tomorrow.
    Interesting post.

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