Luther Campbell
Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / © Janette Beckman

The ‘Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap’ Brilliantly Conveys Rap Music’s History in America

The Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap is a brilliant and expansive look at one of the most popular and important art forms of the last half-century.

Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap
Various Artists
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
20 August 2021

“I guess hip-hop has been closer to the pulse of the streets than any music we’ve had in a long time. It’s sociology as well as music, which is in keeping with the tradition of Black music in America.”

Quincy Jones

In his essay “Gangsta Rap and American Culture”, scholar Michael Eric Dyson characterized hip-hop as an art form born out of the tumultuous period in recent American history with urban blight, the deindustrialization of steel towns, unemployment, and disinvestment in urban communities. “Hip-hoppers joined pleasure and rage while turning the details of their difficult lives into craft and capital.”

Though mainstream culture and established academia initially dismissed hip-hop, it’s widely recognized as popular art that reflects and critiques social conditions exacerbated by institutional racism and stratified poverty. Hip-hop also reflects the rich history of African-American culture, including all of its joys and pain. With the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, the subculture and its accompanying art are given a historic chronicle scored by some of the most vital and important music of the last 50 years. Through hip-hop music, artists have looked at the American story of race, class, gender, and economics; often a critique on social ills, hip-hop also served as a celebration of Black history.

One of the difficulties of compiling a canon is comprehensively putting together a diverse and vibrant genre of music that tells a succinct and coherent story. In her note, Dwandalyn Reece, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs/Curator of Music and Performing Arts National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), described the daunting task of trying to draw together a wide-ranging anthology. She insisted that the project “needed to include the voices of those who were part of the culture drawing upon their different perspectives and life experiences to shape the story.” The best anthology does just that: it takes lots of different voices and creates a unified story.

Like most forms of popular American popular music, hip-hop has its roots in African-American culture and history. Its origins lay in the voices that “emerged from the ashes of the 1971 Bronx gang peace treaty,” according to historian and writer Jeff Chang in the excellent “Who Knows but That, On the Lower Frequencies, I Speak for You?” As evident by the work in this collection, from those beginnings in New York City, hip-hop has experienced a diaspora of sorts, moving west throughout the United States and finding its way abroad. The genre – which grew alongside dance music – would also weave its way into other forms of popular music like pop, gospel, rock, punk.

Stretched over nine CDs and boasting an incredible 129 tracks, this collection is a dizzying primer on the vibrancy, diversity, and urgency of hip-hop music. Arranged chronologically from 1979 to 2013, each disc is accompanied by an essay to give cultural and historical context to the era covered. Contributors like Regina Bradley, Joseph Schloss, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D offer insightful commentary on different movements, trends, and cultural shifts that influenced and reflected by the music of the time. Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary at the Smithsonian as well as the Founding Director of NMAAHC, maintains that this daunting collection “is not a ‘best of hip-hop and rap’. Rather, it is a testament to the creativity and resilience of African Americans who originated and shaped the music and culture.” Bunch’s point is important, and it can be expanded because many of the songs included have changed and shaped music and culture as a whole, not just hip-hop.

To put together the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, a working group of 44 members that included musicians, historians, authors endeavored to compile what they thought were examples of landmark songs in hip-hop. The collective of experts came up with a daunting 900 songs, which were whittled and narrowed down to the 129 we have in the completed project. The Executive Committee that condensed the sprawling 900 tracks to the resultant 129 includes Bill Adler, Bill Stephney, Mark Anthony Neal, Cheryl Keyes, Adam Bradley, and hip-hop giants Chuck D and MC Lyte, both of whom are reflected in the collection.

Hip-hop music has a series of predecessors, going as far back as the 1920s and 1930s with jazz and blues singers. Music journalist Bill Alder traces the history of hip-hop, delving into American popular music and Black American history. He cites jazz and blues greats Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Sippie Wallace, seeing these artists’ candid and frank approach to sexuality as an early precursor to contemporary hip-hop. Adler then threads the following decades’ of radio DJs, poets, civil rights activists, and even raunchy stand-up comics, all of whom found their echoes in the music that burst out of the Bronx in the late 1970s.  

Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture / © Diana McClure

Hip-hop had a dual history of social critique as well as party music. The pioneers of hip-hop came of age after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The genre found its power in the burgeoning urban youth culture, which bridged the desire for dance and party music with the growing anti-authoritarian social commentators who saw the indignities all around them and looked to hip-hop to entertain. In much the same way that Black queer artists created disco to find succor and euphoria on the dance floor, hip-hop was essential to “the audience, young, rowdy, wanting to hear music, wanting to celebrate being alive, despite or because of their circumstances, wanting to dance”. (Chang 17) Though it came from a subculture, hip-hop would find its way into pop culture and mainstream culture, and many of its practitioners would go on to become very wealthy. Hip-hop would become an avenue for many of its artists to not only create music but branch out into fashion, literature, film, academia, and capitalism.

When listening to the songs on the album, listeners will also appreciate the diverse way the tracks find their hooks. Hip-hop thrived on collaboration and a DIY approach that looked to sampling: a type of musical collage in which a memorable guitar lick or synth line will be lifted and appropriated for a new track. As hip-hop became more mainstream, original melodies and riffs from rap songs would be reappropriated in newer hip-hop songs. The process became so ubiquitous that young audiences often heard a remarkable musical break or strutting bass and have no idea where they originated.

Sampling is a crucial aspect of hip-hop because it’s the work of the DJ, a key figure in the genre. Instead of cultural appropriation, a DJ’s sampling of various songs and sounds is a marrying of sounds, illustrating the multicultural potential of hip-hop as well as its ability to speak to other kinds of music (for example, the dance outfit Cold Cut’s remix of Eric B. & Rakim’s remix of “Paid in Full” sampling Israeli pop diva Ofra Haza’s “Im Nin’alu” bringing contemporary Middle Easter pop sounds to New York dance and DJ club culture)

Though scholarship and academic appreciation for hip-hop have become a norm, it’s still an art form that, in its early stages, was seen with disdain by gatekeepers of what ‘good’ art or ‘good music’ is. Aesthetic values placed on music were misapplied to hip-hop, and the genre seemed to come short. Chuck D aptly noted that hip-hop differed from ‘high art’ because “from its beginnings, it has always been under attack”. Because hip-hop is the cultural product of marginalized communities, hip-hop musicians “have never been free of incessant, racist, and classist critiques.”

Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Public Enemy
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