Essays

A Brief (and Very Commercial) History of Hip-Hop

Hip-hop once offered more than stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, but Contact High feels focused on valorizing commercial might above all else.

Installation view of Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop at the International Center of Photography (photograph by Michael Mooney for ICP)

Seeing Contact High at the International Center of Photography I think of Eric B and Rakim’s track “Follow the Leader,” released in 1988. Being a teenager in the north Bronx in the 1980s when hip-hop was just beginning to flex its muscles, and like me, grow into an adult form, I couldn’t help but absorb the cadence, the pulse of hip-hop as it was blasted from car stereos on the street and boomboxes on the subway, and shows like Video Music Box on television, as the rhymes were rehearsed by my classmates on the long rides to soccer games at schools in New Jersey. Breakdancers battled in view from my bedroom window. Hearing the music at a stoplight would cause me to change the way I walked — I would step with the beat. At school and in my neighborhood we followed rappers’ leads, changing the way we spoke. What Rakim said was truth: “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard / Flip it; now it’s a daily word.”

Today, hip-hop has become a worldwide lingua franca. At the International Center of Photography, Contact High demonstrates that it wasn’t just the linguistic innovation, fresh clothing styles, or bravura performances that made it so; photography was crucial in making emcees and DJs into heroic, larger than life figures. But in so doing, the show relegates what for me are significant parts of the story of hip-hop’s development to marginalia that live outside the frame Contact High imposes on the history.

Installation view of Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop at the International Center of Photography (photograph by the author)

There are a few images of conscientious political rappers, such as Public Enemy, who told us that it really does take a nation of millions to hold us back (well, plus gerrymandering, a conservatively stacked Supreme Court, a corrupt executive officer, etc.). And I get to see Kendrick Lamar and Common, along with one image of Talib Kweli and a couple of Mos Def. However, there are many more of Jay Z (whose politics are anemic at best) and Kanye (whose politics are resolutely asleep). What about A Tribe Called Quest or Arrested Development? The show also generally neglects the ground-breaking, more alternative acts, like De La Soul, the Beastie Boys, and Jungle Brothers. (To be clear, the eponymous book created by Vikki Tobak that the show is loosely based on does include Tribe and the Beastie Boys, but the narrative arc of the exhibition is a less inclusive rags-to-riches story.)

In this vein, not surprisingly, the exhibition avoids addressing controversial figures such as KRS-One (whose defense of Afrika Bambaataa for his alleged sexual molestation of several young men is reprehensible), or Big Pun (who is credibly accused of physically abusing his wife, Liza Rios). There is a corner where many of the women who have been pivotal in expanding the reach of hip-hop are gathered (and includes the 1988 famous Paper magazine image “Ladies of Hip-Hop” by Janette Beckman). Even though there are women sprinkled throughout the show, it feels like a kind of relegation happening by gathering them together on this one wall, especially since groups like PE and Eric B and Rakim have clusters of images devoted to them. MC Lyte, at the very least, deserves her own portrait.

Installation view of Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop at the International Center of Photography (photograph by the author)

The contradictions that bubble up through the arrangement of these images, what they individually and collectively signify, and what they leave out lead me to think about what went into their making. Part of the image making process, at least at hip-hop’s start, was a concern with documenting what was at its inception a brand-new thing: a new way to represent the (urban) self, to tell stories, to validate the hood in the wake of then President Ronald Reagan’s complete dismissal of the South Bronx (one of the birthplaces of hip-hop) as an emblem of failed governmental intervention. Pride in oneself was the through line to all the production generated by the hip-hop movement. But that began to sour into arrogance when real money came to remortgage the house hip-hop had built.

What began as an effort to document and find oneself in a current, a development that simultaneously involved fashion, music, photography, and performance, by the late ’90s had become a business through which the documentation and self-affirmation morphed into for-profit presentation. This shift occurred with the rise of MTV which made videos of the stories produced by young (what we now call) creatives into commodities that were sold to advertisers who in turn wanted to sell their wares. And the market has a way of flattening out hip-hop’s incipient impulse to be transgressive. Or rather, the market channeled that transgressiveness into images of male superiority, indifference to state authority, and the potential for violence.

For example, In the eponymous video documentary which plays on a large monitor in the exhibition, a few photographers talk about how they arranged and took these iconic images. Among these Barron Claiborne talks about how he saw Biggie Smalls as a king before he shot him with a golden crown. But I never saw Smalls this way, and I couldn’t stand the way he rapped, though I appreciate that Claiborne recognized in him some aspect of charm or beauty. But it was not his charm that sold records. It was the quality of his voice and lyrics, and his massive size and the (implicit) sense of power his body held for many audiences (across a range of ethnicities, not only whites).

Smalls played on this image. His first demo tape released was titled “Microphone Murderer.” The representation of danger (thug life) would continue to be a running thread through hip-hop — a thread that dovetails with the intrinsic impulse of the culture to make shrines to those (like Biggie Smalls) who die before their perceived time. The Bronx, Brooklyn, and upper reaches of Manhattan feature myriad steel shutters and walls that memorialize people who are valued and missed by their communities. In similar ways the photographs published here are monuments to both the individuals and the power they held — as the music videos, magazine covers and stylized merchandise came to be. These figures rose to possess the (economic, social, cultural) power their listeners desire even if they become a cliché or dead to achieve it. The problem with this show and perhaps with hip-hop in general now is that it continues to uncritically pays allegiance to a cliché, which is best described by 50 Cent, “Get rich, or die tryin’.”

This allegiance to inherited power structures also influenced women rappers and DJs who were part of the growth and maturation of hip-hop. Watching the evolution of MC Lyte, in her early videos I remember her wearing tracks suits, door-knocker earrings, and acting out assertive body language to represent the hybrid construction of a strong, self-aware, Black woman moving through the culture under her own intuition. But in 1993 when she finally breaks the top 40 threshold on the Billboard charts she does so with the track “Ruffneck” (which I never bothered to listen to until now). A sample of the lyrics are:

I need a ruffneck

I need a dude with a attitude
Only needs his fingers for his food

Karl Kani saggin’ timbos draggin’/ …

I need a man that don’t snitch like a bitch

Shed tears or switch

Doin’ whatever it takes to make ends meet

But never meetin’ the end cause he knows the street.”

So under the guise of expressing her agency by relating to listeners what she wants, she peddles a notion of female sexuality that bows to stereotypical male power. By the time that Aaliyah reaches the cover of Vibe magazine in 2001 (which is displayed on the great wall of Contact High), her femininity is completely marketable as essentially indistinguishable from the dominant white culture that hip-hop had initially positioned itself in opposition: straightened hair, flawless makeup, a seductive look.

In these ways hip-hop ends up replicating precisely the tropes and symbols of beauty ideals and gender roles that already existed in the dominant Anglo-American and Euro-American populations. Public Enemy had rapped in the late ’80s on their track “Bring the Noise,” “Whatcha gonna do? Rap is not afraid of you / Beat is for Sonny Bono, beat is for Yoko Ono,” to essentially say that hip-hop’s reach was sweeping, crossing genres of music and visual art and cultural identity. But while hip-hop absorbed other styles and genres in its wave, it also soon itself became absorbed into the kind of image making which is chiefly concerned with corporate profit making. In the hands of producers, artists, repertoire (A&R) agents, editors, publicists, MCs, and DJs hip-hop became something to market to audiences to sell music and other products.

Contact High operates a bit like the marketplace — selecting information to show the musical genre in the most flattering, commercially successful light possible. And these perspectives are compelling. The largest wall displays portraits of hip-hop’s titans, hung salon style: Drake, Aaliyah, MF Doom, Pharrell, Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj. Another section displays images of Snoop Dogg, Nas and Redman (with Tupac), Mary J. Blige, and even Oprah Winfrey and Jean-Michel Basquiat when they were astonishingly young. These are lovely to see.

Installation view of Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop at the International Center of Photography (photograph by Michael Mooney for ICP)
Installation view of Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop at the International Center of Photography (photograph by Michael Mooney for ICP)

If the curators had made the show hew closer to the timeline given in the book, 1979 through 2012, the show could have been a more of a historical survey, which would have improved it in many ways, and also made it less New York centric. The show organizers, Vikki Tobak and Fab 5 Freddy, might have been able to relate the rise of hip-hop in the south in the ’90s, in places such as Houston, Atlanta, and Miami. They might have demonstrated the prophetic significance of André 3000 declaring at the Source Awards in 1995: “The South got something to say.” After the 1990s in the United States, hip-hop became multi-polar, rather than just east coast and west coast. And soon after hip-hop went international as a kind of updated liberation theology storytelling for economic or ethnic underclasses. The ’90s demonstrated that many other places in the world had something to say and the language of hip-hop made it possible to tell these stories in a way that both instrumentalized authenticity, and felt authentic. From my living room in Brooklyn I heard MC Solaar in Paris and Roots Manuva in London, earnestly developing a syntax and rhetoric that was Black, internationalist, picking up the torch of liberation theology where reggae had let it go.

This is to say that there are many deep and abundant storylines through which an overall history of hip-hop may be told, but there is too much hero worship and valorizing of the commercial might of rap in Contact High and not enough of a bird’s-eye view of the way that hip-hop transformed the cultural landscape — which is how I think a careful historian would have approached this exhibition. This show conveys how the long arc of the popular culture universe now bends toward hip-hop. But it once offered more than masculinist dominance and stereotypical femininity: it offered new ways to convey experience, to tell stories, to provide an ethnic and socio-economic underclass a compelling voice, and poetry that seemed to promise worlds without end.

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop continues at the International Center of Photography (79 Essex Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 18. It originated at the Annenberg Space for Photography, and was curated by Vikki Tobak and Fab 5 Freddy.

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