Harvard University—that old, stuffy, Ivy League institution—might not seem like the most hip-hop-friendly place. After all, hip-hop grew from Bronx block parties in the 1970s, where Black and Latino kids created a new culture in the shadows of abandoned buildings, rubble and project housing, not some quad full of old-money kids.
But considering that recent grad Obasi Shaw submitted a rap album for his thesis, maybe Harvard and hip-hop go together much better than expected.
Nestled in the heart of the university’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, one floor below director Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s office, is the country’s preeminent collection of hip-hop artifacts—everything from classic vinyl records to vintage magazines to scholarly articles. The 40-year-old genre has found a home at the center’s Hiphop Archive and Research Institute (HARI), where it’s surrounded by the Black art, history and scholarship contained elsewhere in Hutchins.
When you enter the second-floor hallway leading to the archive, you’ll see Pam Grier on the movie poster for Friday Foster, looming tall, smirking, with a camera around her neck and a pistol in her hand. Several more movie posters showcasing Black cinema line the hall, like the 1972 documentary on Malcolm X, the Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones vehicle Claudine and the 1971 blaxploitation staple Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The blaxploitation posters in particular hint at the sounds of hip-hop that lie ahead; pioneers of the genre sampled plenty from those movies, from their soundtracks to clips of dialogue to the attitudes.
At the archive’s entrance, you’re greeted by a large mural of Medusa, the legendary female emcee from Los Angeles, looking as confident with the mic as Grier with her gun. The doorway slightly behind her features an orange mural of Rakim, the emcee who leveled up lyricism with his dense, rapid rhyme schemes and is still considered one of the most influential contributors to the genre. They stand sentinel at the institute.
And while its name may conjure images of boxes full of dusty vinyl—the type of place throwback crate diggers scour for rare songs to sample—the archive almost looks more like some sleek comic book store: clean, white tile floors, rows of glass displays, a few cases along the walls decorated with classic vinyl sleeves from Jeru the Damaja, Jay-Z, Outkast, Lauryn Hill and 2Pac, among many others. What’s out in the open is just a small piece of what the archive holds; the LPs rest atop cabinets holding much more. Two turntables and a mixer anchor the collection—the defining tools of the DJs who rocked New York block parties and underground clubs in the ’70s and ’80s.
Prolific producer and HARI fellow 9th Wonder has spun on those same tables, as have several other guests and scholars of the institute. 9th Wonder—who’s collaborated with artists ranging from Kendrick Lamar to Jay-Z to Big K.R.I.T.—curates the archive’s Classic Crates collection, which in 2016 inducted its first four albums: The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest; Illmatic by Nas; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill; and To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. The goal is to induct 200 vital albums that will be preserved by Harvard.
“I think it’s very telling that we learn so much from producers, because they are the ones who are listening to sounds or music, whether it’s local or national or global, and actually bringing together new ideas around how to represent these voices within the context of hip-hop,” says professor Marcyliena Morgan, who established HARI in 2002. “When you get a producer like 9th Wonder, what you’re bringing is what I like to call the ‘nerd factor’ of hip-hop, which is what hip-hop really is.”
After all, when you look past all the posturing and machismo commonly associated with hip-hop, what you find is a bunch of kids memorizing every line, every beat, every connection between all the artists they can dig up. “What you’re really dealing with is notion of how much fun it is to know something really well, and to talk about it and think about it and use it as sort of a creative underground experience in terms of who you are as a young person,” Morgan says.
Since its start, the archive has amassed hundreds of hip-hop-related artifacts, from records to books to graphic novels. After all, the genre didn’t stay confined to the Bronx, and its media wasn’t confined to dancefloors, tagged-up walls or records. The archive is out to capture all those connections, to highlight the breadth of hip-hop’s reach and its cultural impact.
“One of the things [HARI] did was open so many eyes,” Morgan explains. “Fans of hip-hop, people involved in hip-hop, it open their eyes to the significance of what they created. It’s an arts movement, it’s a social movement, a cultural movement—all those things were combined in what they were doing.” The academic world took notice, too. “From a national and international perspective, Harvard is viewed as a place where, if it can happen at Harvard, it can happen anywhere,” Morgan adds, noting that the archive helped open doors for similar projects at schools around the world.
In 2012, HARI set up a fellowship in the name of one of hip-hop’s greatest emcees—the Nasir Jones Fellowship. The fellowship is commemorated with a glass display holding a collection of Nas memorabilia, including a vinyl copy of his classic debut (possibly the best rap album ever), Illmatic, and a picture of Nas standing next to the Hutchins Center’s bust of W.E.B. Du Bois.
“Nas, from our perspective, is one of the most important hip-hop artists,” says Morgan. Beyond his talent, Nas’s diverse career—where he’s played roles from wayward street kid to kingpin to father to frustrated political observer—also represents the growth of a hip-hop-immersed young person into adulthood, and an artist.
He “represent[s] that growth within the context of telling the truth about what it means to be in the city … and the issues associated with it. I think he’s just an incredible storyteller and has incredible vision,” Morgan adds.
Visitors to the archive may not get to meet its high-profile collaborators, but take a tour, and you’ll find the building does boast some unique artifacts. In one glass case, there’s a tribute to the late rapper Phife Dawg, a member of the legendary group A Tribe Called Quest, who passed away in 2016. Phife’s family donated a street sign for Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor Way—formerly the intersection of Linden Boulevard and 192nd Street in Queens.
One display shows off some of the collection dedicated to female emcees, while another highlights its international hip-hop collection. There are also dozens of movies, action figures and comic books, including copies of Blokhedz, a hip-hop-fueled comic by Cambridge duo the Madtwiinz. Plus, there’s an open space with a table for studying, couches for lounging and TVs tuned into BET Jams—the archive is on a college campus, after all. Professor Morgan’s office is in the same room, partially hidden by a large chalkboard.
While HARI is closed to public tours during the summer, researchers and school groups are still welcome and are often on-site. Morgan is particularly proud of the archive’s involvement with local schools and the fact that HARI has a place not just in Harvard, but in Cambridge. The archive is also transparent about what materials are in its collection, and records that information in the bibliography section of its website. (Scholars and researchers can access the archive by sending out a request.) Articles in the collection go back as far as 1939, reflecting how deep the roots of the genre reach.
Those deep roots can also be heard in the music, of course. Pioneers of sampling were always ready to reach into the discography of days past, and the origins of rap have been credited to sources ranging from Muhammad Ali’s ringside poetry to church preachers’ polemics to talking bluesmen’s boasts and tall tales (though disco and reggae DJs are the most direct ancestors).
“A lot that happens in hip-hop is in fact intergenerational—that is, the spirit of hip-hop is what you hear as a kid,” says Morgan. “And what you hear as a kid is coming out of your parents’ generation, and your grandparents’ generation. And very often, when we’re learning, we’re learning from older cousins or older relatives. It’s what keeps it going but also what keeps it connected to so many things.”
This intergenerational connection may be best captured by that photo of Nas posing with the bust of W.E.B. Du Bois—two titans born over a century apart, each with a legacy at Harvard’s nucleus of Black research and history.
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