Old-School Cool

Run-D.M.C.'s pristine Adidas, Biz Markie's big diamond-encrusted nameplate, Flava Flav's bigger watch, giant gold rope chains, enormous boom boxes, Futura 2000, Doug E. Fresh and his Get Fresh Crew, MCs, DJs, B-boys, and graffiti. What does it all bring to mind? The beginnings of hip-hop in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a seemingly more innocent time when the party started on the mean New York streets and the music had yet to go gangsta, leading to East and West Coast rivalries and shootings on the Vegas strip.

Back in 1979 when the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" began permeating the popular radio airwaves and climbing the charts, many predicted a fad. Twenty-five years later, hip-hop is a culture that has evolved in countless ways and become a billion-dollar business. The "Hip-Hop History Art Exhibition" provides a glance back at the period. A traveling show, it will stop in Miami for a mere three days on its way to a half-dozen major U.S. cities and then on to Europe.

"It's important to maintain where it came from," says local organizer Donnamarie Baptiste, who notes she "grew up with hip-hop" as a first-generation immigrant of Caribbean descent. "There was a sense of unity, a party spirit, that doesn't exist anymore."

What does exist? Original recordings of hip-hop parties and performances. An archive of those sounds, some digitally remastered, will allow listeners a brief step back in sonic time. Also still around are hundreds of party flyers. Stenciled, penciled, and made by hand, they were advertising tools stapled to utility poles and passed out on the streets to alert folks of upcoming events. A collection of original flyers, part of a permanent exhibition at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, will be on display in the show.

Other highlights of what Baptiste describes as a "museum quality" exhibition include an appearance by the Human Beat Box himself, Doug E. Fresh. Originator of what some call "mouth drumming," Fresh possessed the uncanny ability to imitate drum machines, a necessary skill for ghetto kids who couldn't afford ordinary musical instruments, let alone synthesizers or samplers. At 2:00 p.m. Friday, he'll offer a lecture on the art of beatboxing. Images from photographer Jamel Shabazz's book Back in the Days will depict unique street fashions of the hip-hop crowd and the activity on the streets of various New York neighborhoods in that brief moment before drugs such as crack began to exert their pernicious grip.

Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam records and whose brother Joey put the "Run" in Run-D.M.C., is a mogul whose empire includes much more than music. Shot and killed nearly two years ago, Run-D.M.C's Jam Master Jay was one of the latest artists (and perhaps one of the few old schoolers) to die violently. Hip-hop is not and may never be the same as it once was, but as the exhibition strives to demonstrate, the blithe spirit of its origins remains.

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman