Detail of a promotional illustration for the 1982 film "Wild Style," from the Charlie Ahearn Wild Style archive — Cornell Hip Hop Collection

Hip Hop Collection Charts Early Days of a Cultural Phenomenon

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By Joe Wilensky

As a cultural movement, hip hop began in the Bronx in the 1970s and grew into a global phenomenon—and the largest single archive of its historical material is housed in the University Library.

Browse through just a few items within the vast holdings of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection and you’ll find photos of rappers LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and Queen Latifah; a framed platinum record of De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising”; and original poster art for 1983’s Wild Style, considered the first film to showcase hip-hop culture.

Keith Haring and DMC (of Run-DMC), circa 1988
Artist Keith Haring and DMC (of Run-DMC), circa 1988.

The archive comprises more than 250,000 items documenting hip hop’s origins and evolution into a multibillion-dollar industry, with a particular focus on the artists who were part of its pioneering generation in the ’70s and ’80s.

It includes not only thousands of sound and video recordings but also artwork, photos, books, magazines, and related advertising, like the hand-drawn, mimeographed event flyers that were once hip hop’s only PR method.

Cassettes of live show recordings from the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Cassettes (remember those?) of live ’70s and ’80s show recordings.

It also houses the personal and professional archives of many of the genre’s photographers, filmmakers, dancers, emcees, DJs, producers, publicists, independent labels, managers, and journalists.

“It has definitely become one of the collections for which Cornell Library is best known—important historically, and a unique resource offered nowhere else,” says Katherine Reagan, the Ernest L. Stern Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

As collections specialist Ben Ortiz notes, hip hop is a broad movement, far more extensive than simply the rap music with which it is most identified. It comprises four distinct elements: rappers, DJs, breakdancers, and graffiti artists.

“They each have their own separate histories,” Ortiz notes, “and they all kind of came together to create hip hop.”

The genre’s origin story even has a specific place and time. At a dance party in the Bronx on August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc first used a mixer and two turntables to seamlessly overlap the percussive sections of different songs—“breakbeats”— giving dancers an extended riff to showcase their moves.

The library marked the half-century anniversary of that fateful party in summer 2023 with an exhibit, “It’s Just Begun: Celebrating 50 Years of the Hip Hop DJ.”

Hip hop artifacts on display at the rotunda in Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
The exhibit is on display in the Michael T. Silverman ’68 Rotunda of Rare and Manuscript Collections through February 2024.

The display includes several gold and platinum records from the archive of the former head of PR for Def Jam Recordings; albums by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Eric B. & Rakim, and De La Soul; and Polaroids from DJ Kool Herc’s own collection.

But as Ortiz stresses, the exhibit, focusing on DJs, offers a glimpse of just one of the pillars of hip-hop culture. The overall collection is a true research archive—not a museum or a hip hop “Hall of Fame,” as some curious visitors sometimes expect to see.

Ben Ortiz, collections specialist of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, holds a platinum record by De La Soul that is among the artifacts on display at the rotunda of Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Ortiz shows the platinum record by De La Soul that is a collection highlight.

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“Hip hop can speak to so many identities and situations and walks of life,” Ortiz says. “The collection is diverse and multigenerational; there are so many aspects of humanity that you can study through this material.”

The archive traces its roots to author and collector Johan Kugelberg, who began seeking out hip-hop artifacts in the late 1990s.

There are so many aspects of humanity that you can study through this material.

Ben Ortiz, collections specialist

In the mid-2000s, he and noted hip-hop photographer Joe Conzo Jr. began assembling material for a book (Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop) and later looked for a museum or library to house the many things they’d collected.

Impressed by Cornell’s track record of public access and top-notch archival facilities, Kugelberg ultimately donated about 7,000 items to the Library’s Rare and Manuscript Collections in 2007.

“One of the reasons why we decided to bring the archive here is because it is so cross-disciplinary, and because of its relevance,” Reagan says.

“It’s not just music history; it’s the history of art and of dance. It’s urban studies, it’s Africana studies, it’s government studies—it’s American studies.”

From its origins, the archive has sought to provide opportunities for hip hop’s artists and community members to tell their own stories: noted DJs have visited campus to teach classes; celebrated dancers have taught workshops in the Department of Performing and Media Arts; and panel discussions have explored topics such as police and community relations through the lens of hip hop.

1979 hip-hop advertising flyer by Buddy Esquire
Hand-drawn flyers—like this one by Buddy Esquire—were the main way to advertise hip-hop events in the ’70s.

Ortiz gives presentations on and off campus and hosts the myriad groups who visit—from fourth-graders to law students (the latter exploring the debate around the need to compensate artists whose music is sampled).

“People use the collection to study the fashion of the 1980s,” Reagan observes. “Some come here because they’re doing a documentary on roller rinks of the ’70s. We even had an architecture class here to consider, ‘Was there such a thing as hip-hop architecture?’”

It’s the history of art and of dance. It’s urban studies, it’s Africana studies, it’s government studies—it’s American studies.

Katherine Reagan, curator of rare books and manuscripts

The collection is also used by faculty—like Riché Richardson, who teaches the popular course Beyoncé Nation. Ortiz introduces students to the collection on the first day of class, and they later visit the archives.

“He’ll bring out artifacts related to artists the students admire—gold albums, sometimes even their clothing or jewelry,” Richardson says. “He’ll bring out graffiti artists’ books that students can look through. He really helps them to understand that hip hop is a multifaceted discourse.”

Andrew Boryga ’13 is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. He grew up in the Bronx and had a strong interest in hip-hop culture; as an undergrad majoring in English in Arts & Sciences, he served as a student representative to an early advisory board for the collection and even helped Ortiz and Reagan categorize and organize some of the incoming material.

“Hip hop was still seen as this kind of underground culture, and you would never think of it being in an institution like Cornell,” Boryga recalls. “It was always cool to me that Cornell gathered these materials and invited hip-hop pioneers to campus, and really treated them like the scholars they are.”

All images provided by the Cornell Hip Hop Collection. Top image: Detail of a promotional illustration, artist unknown, for the 1983 classic hip-hop film Wild Style, from the Charlie Ahearn Hip Hop Archive. Photo of Keith Haring and DMC by photographer Ernie Paniccioli; black-and-white photos of Grandmaster Caz and JDL and of the b-boy in the Rosalind Ballroom by Joe Conzo, Jr.; cassette tapes are from the collection of Grandmaster Caz; and the news clippings shown in the exhibition case are from the archive of Bill Adler.

Published November 15, 2023

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