Hip-Hop Gives Voice to Urban Culture

Article excerpt

When hip-hop music first hit the streets of New York City in the late-'70s, it was joyful party noise, a much-needed means of self- expression for ghetto kids who didn't have many options. It quickly became an underground form of communication, an outlet for disenfranchised blacks to express anger at society, and, through careers in music, a way out.

Now hip-hop has become the stuff of academic studies and museums. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum in Cleveland has undertaken the first large-scale examination of the origins, growth, and cultural impact of this phenomenon in a new exhibition, "Roots, Rhymes and Rage: The Hip-Hop Story."

One installment, entitled "Pop Goes the Culture," shows how pervasive hip-hop's influence has become, from the early radio crossover success of MC Hammer to today's dance moves of Britney Spears and the metal rap of Limp Bizkit. It notes how hip-hop references now permeate our language ("yo"), fashion, and the marketing of products from soft drinks to cars.

The multimedia exhibit, on display through August, documents the rise of hip-hop as an art form, a political forum, and a lifestyle. "You can't do contemporary music without addressing urban culture," says Howard Kramer, the museum's associate curator. "They're inexorably tied.... Hip-hop is the most dominant pop-culture form now, and we would be remiss in not paying attention to it....

"Hip-hop's parallels to early rock 'n' roll are eerie," he adds. In both genres, popularity and controversy have danced together every step of the way.

"Roots, Rhymes and Rage" doesn't shy away from the uglier aspects of hip-hop, also known as rap, but it does explain the social conditions that created gangsta rap and its violence. Before viewers step into a room displaying the words to three songs deemed to be among rap music's most offensive, they see this warning: "The lyrics in this room represent hip-hop's darker moments. They are harsh, angry, sexist, and not for the squeamish.... But to understand hip- hop, and, by extension, understand the complexities of urban America, then it is important to hear and see these words. …