NEW YORK — There have been books dedicated to rap history, biographies, hip-hop portraits, fiction, legendary feuds, dancing and more.
But with the massive new hardcover book Hip-Hop: A Cultural Odyssey, Jordan Sommers believes he's come up with a definitive historical look that chronicles its milestones, legends, music and culture that is unique and — more important — from a hip-hop insider's perspective.
“No one outside of the culture, no one who is new to the culture participated in the book,” said Sommers. “It was made in cooperation with the pioneers and cooperation with the veteran journalists who have been covering the culture.”
Through 420 pages, hundreds of photos and dozens of essays, the book takes readers from hip-hop's beginnings in the Bronx borough of New York City through its metamorphosis into a major cultural, musical and financial movement in America and beyond.
Among the topics the book explores are the impact of women in rap, the commercialization of the genre, the role graffiti played in the culture, its regional differences, its early influences and more.
Cee Lo Green was among those interviewed. Although he is known for crooning hits like the Grammy-nominated Forget You, he got his start as part of the hip-hop outfit Goodie Mob.
“It's about knowing and learning about what our take on our history and what our contribution to hip-hop has been,” he said of the book. “It's a golden opportunity to stand up and be counted.”
Afrika Bambaataa, the hip-hop pioneer credited with helping create the genre back in the Bronx in the 1970s, was one of the earliest acts approached when the book was being imagined. Bambaataa said while there have been many books about hip-hop, most have focused only on rappers.
“There are all the other elements that they don't really focus on, which is the B-boys, the B-girls, the DJs … songwriters and the graffiti artists and that fifth element, the knowledge that holds it all together,” Bambaataa said. “There needs to be more thorough research on how hip-hop has helped so many people from different nationalities and so-called races on this planet.”
In conjunction with its release, the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles is launching its first major exhibit on the genre, based on the book. A launch party was scheduled for this Tuesday, the same day California was set to declare February “Hip-Hip Odyssey Month.”
The exhibit, scheduled to run until May, will include handwritten lyrics from 2Pac, Grandmaster Flash's turntables, clothing from LL Cool J and Run DMC, graffiti and more, along with multimedia and interactives.
“By no means is this a definitive story of hip-hop. What we hope to do with the exhibit is begin the big process of introducing the cultural institutions, particularly those music museums in America, to hip-hop,” said museum director Bob Santelli.
“Hopefully this acts as an inspiration for other museums to tackle pieces of the hip-hop story,” he said. “It's high time that we start to interpret this great music and its culture as well as preserve the artifacts that come with it and hopefully this is along that path.”
The exhibit’s opening came ahead of Sunday's Grammy ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles which will air live on CBS at 8 p.m. Hip-hop artists are dominant in key categories. Eminem is the leading nominee (and a big favorite) with 10 nominations, including album of the year, while four of the five songs up for record of the year were recorded by hip-hop artists.
It's a far cry from the Grammys' sometimes thorny relationship with rap: It wasn't acknowledged by the Recording Academy until 1989.
“It took awhile for the Recording Academy to accept hip-hop on such a scale that it would actually put it as part of the Grammy Awards show on television each year. However, that's certainly in the past; we've come a long way since that,” Santelli said. “But in this exhibit we acknowledge that, and also celebrate that.”