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Voices Fall-Winter, 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Archival Questions column, “Documenting the New: Hip Hop as Archives” by Nancy Johnson here.
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Volume 29

Documenting the New: Hip Hop as Archives by Nancy Johnson

Archival QuestionsArchival projects often involve lots of dust, antique audio formats, and brittle, yellowing paper. But what happens when the subject being documented is not that old, when it continues to be a vibrant part of our culture and society? How do we document the new? Two years ago, working with the New York Folklore Society and the Brooklyn-based Urban Think Tank, I signed on to a project documenting Hip Hop.

Hip Hop as archives?

The Community Scholars at Urban Think Tank (UTT), which describes itself as a "nonpartisan, community-based home for a body of thinkers in the Hip Hop generation," had identified collections of material that were important to the development of Hip Hop culture in its earliest incarnations. In our first meeting, Vee Bravo, Yvonne Bynoe, and Chic Smith spoke passionately about the need to document this material, provide access to it, and preserve it for the future. Their instincts couldn’t have been more timely. Even at the stodgy Library of Congress, Hip Hop has been an authorized subject heading for some time now.

Although Hip Hop continues to be a cultural major influence, its roots are becoming historical. Several decades have now passed since the first independent recordings were made, since people were literally dancing in the streets, since subway cars became the vehicles of art. The earliest Hip Hop artists—graffiti writers, b-boys, MCs and DJs—are themselves getting older, as are their earliest fans. And among them, Urban Think Tank identified eighteen significant collections of documentation in varied formats: commercial and homemade sound recordings in many different media; photographs, some professionally shot, some amateur, documenting people, fashions, breakdancing contests, subway art; sketchbooks; flyers and posters; interviews; even clothing. Together these items provide a rich and immediate portrait of an era and its personalities.

The goal of the project each year was for the UTT Community Scholars to interview collection holders, and then for me, as the archivist, to produce a narrative summary of the collection, and a MARC record. MARC records are standardized, machine-readable descriptions of archival collections that are posted to bibliographic networks such as OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) and RLIN (Research Libraries Information Network). Once included in these utilities, the collection descriptions are available, via the Internet, to researchers worldwide. In addition, UTT would produce a guide to the material using the narrative summaries.

Collaboration between community scholar and archivist was particularly effective here, with each of us bringing different skills. Here are some issues, from both sides of the table, to consider when documenting the new:

Define a focus. To be archival by definition, documentation must no longer be in active use. At first glance, it might seem that something as current as Hip Hop would still be active. But by focusing this project on "Old Style" Hip Hop developments through the mid-1980s, we made it archival. Before starting, define your parameters: a chronological limit; the work of a participant no longer active in a particular genre; the records of an organization, now defunct, which was the predecessor to another currently active body.

Get all the information. Best archival practice calls for collections to be described with specific kinds of information: dates, provenance information, scope and content notes, measurements of quantity, etc. With a little help from an interview template, Community Scholars had a guide for collecting all the information that goes into standard archival description. This made for little backtracking and allowed the interviewers to make best use of the collection holders.

Go to the source. The Community Scholars at Urban Think Tank used their knowledge of the field and their connections in the Hip Hop community to find significant collections. By identifying them now, they were able to interview the collection holders directly and get information about the collections first-hand. In addition, the Community Scholars, themselves steeped in Hip Hop culture, were able to add their own interpretive expertise to the collection descriptions. Had this description been done twenty years from now, the significance of some of this material may well have been lost.

Raise awareness. Identifying these new collections serves several purposes. The material is described and made accessible to the interested public. At the same time, the collectors themselves are made aware of the importance to a wider audience of the material they hold. With this awareness among collectors, among acknowledged scholars like those at Urban Think Tank, and among the public at large, comes awareness of a need for a repository for these collections.

This project has been a successful collaboration between the UTT Community Scholars, who knew what they were looking for; the collectors, who had important things to say and significant artifacts to share; and the archivist, who applied standard descriptive practice to something new, bringing information to the public about an important new cultural phenomenon.


Photo of Nancy Johnson Nancy Johnson is a freelance archivist and a member of the New York Folklore Society Board of Directors. She has worked with the society on its archives project, as well as with the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, City Lore, the Calandra Italian American Institute, and the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archives.

Although Hip Hop continues to be a cultural major influence, its roots are becoming historical. Several decades have now passed since the first independent recordings were made, since people were literally dancing in the streets, since subway cars became the vehicles of art.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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