BALTIMORE — The Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” is often considered the first hip-hop track. That steady, percussion-like delivery of lyrics layered over that familiar, bouncing bass line combined to create the perfect remedy to the excesses of pop music in the late ’70s. Yet “Rapper’s Delight” heralded a cultural moment several years in the making. In 1973, DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant now considered one of the founding fathers of hip hop, hosted with his sister the “Back to School Jam” in the recreation room of their Bronx apartment building, an event now regarded as the advent of hip hop. 

Five decades later, hip hop has indelibly influenced contemporary culture — from dance and fashion to advertising and cinema. With Rap Research Lab, on view at the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture (CADVC) at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), technologist and multimedia artist Tahir Hemphill takes hip hop as his object of study.

Curated by Rebecca Uchill, director of CADVC, Rap Research Lab is divided into discrete sections that can be experienced in any order. The series Maximum Distance. Minimum Displacement comprises an installation of black-and-white photographs and a vitrine showcasing small golden sculptures, similar to the images on the walls. Locational cues, as in direct references to places, culled from hip-hop lyrics were translated into commands for a robotic arm gripping an LED light to create curvilinear “light drawings” in the air. Through long exposures, Hemphill photographically documents the formations made by the apparatus and names the finished products after the rappers whose lyrics were processed, including Jay Z, Missy Elliott, and Nas. The golden objects in the display case are 3-D versions of the light drawings. According to the artist, Maximum Distance. Minimum Displacement was inspired in part by Picasso’s similar series of long-exposure “light drawings” captured by Albanian photographer Gjon Mili for Life Magazine in 1949. 

Tahir Hemphill, left: “Kendrick”; right: “Biggie,” from the series Maximum Distance. Minimum Displacement (2017)

In late February, Hemphill and Dr. Foad Hamidi, assistant professor of Information Systems at UMBC and a specialist in human-centered computing, discussed their shared interests in participatory digital media research in a workshop. They also demonstrated how the robotic arm works.

Rap Research Lab also includes Hemphill’s newer works and ongoing works-in-progress. “Rapbot: Implications of a Rap Neural Network” (2017) is an interactive piece that generates rap lyrics based on keywords received via text messages. Like the “Parental Advisory” labels on so many rap albums in the ’80s and ’90s, this work includes an “advisory” under its wall text: “Rapbot produces AI-generated song lyrics that some audiences may find offensive or triggering.” Similarly, Hemphill’s ongoing “Mapper’s Delight” is an interactive “virtual and augmented reality collaboration tool built on semantic relationships of tens of thousands of rap lyrics,” according to the website.

Rap Research Lab continues what hip hop has been doing for the past half century: playfully rearranging the words, sounds, and textures of postwar American pop music. But Hemphill’s project reflects hip hop itself. The innovative use of new media in Rap Research Lab is apropos its subject. Hip hop, perhaps more so than any other genre, is inherently linked to the machine. Whether it’s just two turntables and a microphone or the Auto-Tune in today’s trap music, hi-tech gadgetry goes hand in hand with the rap. Hemphill’s data-fed, human-curated robotic arm recalls that of the DJ scratching a record or breakdancers doing “the robot,” and personifies the close relationship between human and machine found throughout hip hop. Rap Research Lab doesn’t simply respond to its subject; it expands and complicates the culture and history of hip hop for both the well-versed and the uninitiated. 

Tahir Hemphill, “Rapbot”

Tahir Hemphill: Rap Research Lab continues at the Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, Maryland), through March 18. The exhibition was curated by Rebecca Uchill.

Originally from Boston, Dereck Stafford Mangus is a visual artist and writer based in Baltimore. His artwork has been exhibited in select galleries throughout Charm City, and his writing has appeared in...