The art and (r)evolution of hip hop

The Universal Hip Hop Museum and Executive Director Rocky Bucano are on a mission to celebrate hip hop and chronicle its history, cultural impact, and rise as a powerful form of art.
Grand Wizzard Theodore in subway

Welcome to the South Bronx—the undisputed birthplace of hip hop and home of the Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM).

The museum is breaking ground with the goal of giving visitors “a broader understanding of hip hop history and hip hop culture, so that they walk away feeling empowered and inspired by what has happened in the genre and how the music has become a part of their everyday existence,” says Bucano. “We want them to feel a sense of pride.”

UHHM is scheduled to open to the public in 2024. In the meantime, the museum has launched a pop-up exhibition near its future home to give the community a taste of what’s to come. Called the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop, it’s dedicated to exploring the foundations of hip hop, decade by decade. Beginning with its origins in the 1970s, the exhibit cycles through a new decade of hip hop culture every six months.

But how do you tell a complex story like the history of hip hop in a way that’s as innovative as the music itself? UHHM curators partnered with Microsoft as well as MIT professor D. Fox Harrell, who also heads up the university’s Center for Advanced Virtuality, to make [R]Evolution of Hip Hop come to life. Their goal was to use AI to help categorize the evolution of hip hop and create a deeply personalized and conversational experience for every visitor, based on their musical preferences.

The resulting Breakbeat Narratives uses Microsoft AI to share various narratives around the history and impact of hip hop, centered around the five core elements including: MCing, turntablism, breakdancing, graffiti art, and knowledge. With these “Cosmic Elementals” as your guides, you can explore various narratives, using your personal taste in music as an entry point.

Hip hop is participatory. That’s why I say ‘I AM hip hop.’
Paradise Gray
Lead curator at [R]Evolution of Hip Hop

“Because there’s not one singular story of the evolution and the revolution that led to hip hop music and culture now,” says Dr. Harrell, “we wanted every single story to reveal nuance. So when we took a narrative like hip hop and fashion, it’s not just a superficial look at the clothes that people wear, but a look back at the early days, when you had cross-fertilization with punk and rock; and what it means when that fashion also has a commercial dimension, or intersects with what’s seen as elite culture.”

The Breakbeat Narratives also leaves you with a personalized playlist, based on your conversation with the Elementals and your own musical preferences. “We’re not using technology just for the sake of technology, but to really empower people so that they get information in a very unique way that they weren’t expecting,” says Bucano.

The very high-tech Breakbeat Narratives enhances the hundreds of physical artifacts displayed at the [R]evolution of Hip Hop—from clothing and accessories to party flyers, photos, records, and tapes—much of which was donated by the exhibit’s lead curator, Paradise Gray. It’s a powerful mix of media and entry points, that even includes a deconstructed subway car, which the exhibit invites you to tag during your visit.

“When you go to a museum, it should be accessible to you,” says Dr. Harrell. “So to me, the future isn’t driven by what particular technology you use. But it’s the concept and the imagination and the vision that can allow it to connect with anyone.”