Hip-hop started out in the park, but pieces of it are being preserved in a church covered in wildstyle paint on a D.C. cul-de-sac.
The Hip-Hop Museum Pop-Up Experience debuted in the Blind Whino arts space, formerly the historic Friendship Baptist Church, last month.
The exhibition runs through March 17, but the goal is to take it on the road — and Boston is high on the wish list.
For now, a former church is a fitting place, considering hip-hop is solace for some, praise for others, and a liberation for many.
Starting the tour in Washington, D.C., is both a matter of the founders living nearby but also what it means for it to be in the nation’s capital.
“When it comes to hip-hop,” says Hip-Hop Museum Pop Up-Up Experience founder Jeremy Beaver, “I can’t think of anything more American.”
There are no pews, Bibles, holy water, or paintings of Jesus and The Last Supper when you walk into the space. The exhibit is filled with 500 pieces of rare memorabilia: signed mics by the likes of Lauryn Hill and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa’s autographed Rolling Stone cover, a brick from Eminem’s childhood home, an authentic “Rap City” leather bomber, hip-hop sneakers, action figures, platinum plaques, even a replica of the Death Row Records electric chair.
Some of it has been donated — like the Brand Nubian leather coat given to the museum by rapper Sadat X, with a handwritten letter explaining the backstory. But the bulk of it is Beaver’s personal collection.
For 42-year-old Beaver, hip-hop started as an awakening. Born in New York, where the culture was born just a few years before him, Beaver got a boombox for Hanukkah. The sun would go down, he’d eat his dinner, and stay up late into the night waiting to tune in to the few stations that played hip-hop.
“Listening to Red Alert and Terminator X, and I’m 10 years old and I hear the cuts, the scratches, the blends and my jaw drops. I fell in love. By the time I got to high school, that is what I wanted to do.”
He became a DJ, a producer, and went on to open Listen Vision recording studios in D.C. where artists like Wu-Tang Clan and Lil Wayne have recorded. But his collection wasn’t much until recently.
Two years ago, Beaver bought a $12 Biggie Smalls action figure. It sat on his desk for a while. And one day, he looked up the value. It was worth $1,000.
With hip-hop being less than five decades old, so many of its fans tossed out posters, magazines, shirts, and tapes. Vinyl records, like concert tees, were hot, then not, and only recently revived.
Beaver wondered what other things from our hip-hop past might be worth something. It started out as an investment and an outlet to break free of the 24-hour news cycle and monotony.
With his 7-year-old son by his side, he started thrifting and searching the Internet for pieces of music history — they unearthed a rare promo of Nas’s first single on tape, “It Ain’t Hard to Tell,” an exclusive Jay Z Roc-A-Fella jersey, original issues of Real Roxanne records and ’90s mixtapes.
It became less about the money and more of a reminder of the culture he loved and how little preservation of it there currently is. There’s an unforgettable and thoroughly curated hip-hop section of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And Universal Hip Hop Museum is expected to open in the Bronx in 2022. But Beaver wanted to do his part and make it accessible, a gallery free and open to the public.
“It became bigger than me, and something I wanted to do for the lifestyle, for the culture,” he says. “Hip-hop, for a white Jewish guy like myself, is a conduit for me to deal with things I couldn’t. Black music, the culture, hip-hop music deals with the political tension, racism, and it’s a microcosm of American life and identity.”
To use his collection to celebrate that, Beaver connected with Dave Mays, the mastermind behind The Source, hip-hop’s first magazine. Started out of his Harvard dorm room in 1988 and built from connections at record stores in Boston, The Source is a piece of history itself.
Beaver and Mays pooled their connections and opened up shop in time for the Sugar Hill Gang’s 40th anniversary of “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap song to be a Top 40 hit. The living members, along with Grandmaster Caz, performed it live at the museum’s opening weekend. Last weekend, legendary breaker Shabba Doo of the 1984 film “Breakin’ ” was honored at the pop-up.
“I think in some ways it’s overdue,” says Mays, 50. “Hip-hop is everywhere and everything and it’s popularity is at an all-time high. It’s time to create a little more formal recognition of its history and culture now that there are several hip-hop generations.”
A wall of the museum is dedicated to The Source and what it meant during a time when people discounted hip-hop as disposable.
Mays’s love for the music started at home in D.C. where he grew up, surrounded by black people and black culture and go-go music. But at Harvard, where there was a different class dynamic and a much whiter environment than he was used to, he lucked out when he met Jon Shecter in his freshman dorm. With hip-hop in its infancy, it wasn’t easy to hear it on campus, so they started a radio show, “Street Beat,” on Harvard’s station.
First people complained, calling the music noise. But then they gained listeners from all over the region. Mays started collecting mailing addresses so he could send listeners a newsletter about the show and the latest in hip-hop news. Soon he had relationships with labels in New York and local artists and record stores in Boston.
The Hip-Hop Museum Pop-Up Experience, in many ways, has the same mission as The Source — to pay homage to the creators, the moments, and to bring people together. When you walk through it, it feels like a live-action issue, telling the stories of certain eras. There’s a shadowbox capturing the first ladies of hip-hop like Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Monie Love, and J.J. Fad. There’s homage paid to Boston natives like Guru of Gang Starr and Ed O.G.
For Mays, his Boston ties are attached to his hip-hop experience and The Source.
“The show allowed me to get off campus and into Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. It was a whole different diddy bop from Harvard Square. In New York, most of the people only cared about the music in New York. In Boston, people cared about the hip-hop coming from everywhere. I wanted to create a platform for that, a Rolling Stone for the hip-hop generation.”
Within three issues, he went from one page to six pages to a booklet. It first sold for $1.25.
“Hip-hop, like rock ’n’ roll, was started by black people,” Mays says. “But rock was co-opted. It was stolen by Elvis and other artists and the music business wrote black people out of its history. I wanted to build something that would capture the history. It was appealing to everybody but still respectful to the creators and hip-hop was a more unifying music and I thought it would be bigger and more influential.”
Now it is exactly how Mays envisioned it would be. Hip-hop has grown from a few songs played late night on the radio, to kids around the world rapping every Kendrick Lamar or Cardi B lyric streaming on their smartphones. For Mays, it’s grown from a newsletter to a pop-up museum.
And the hope is to bring the museum to Boston or Cambridge where The Source was born, to have that full-circle moment. A chance to not just drop the mic, but rock it, too.Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at email@example.com and @sincerelyjenee.