he Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally chose NWA for its 2016 class. They’d been eligible since 2012, and one suspects it took the huge success of the group’s Hollywood biopic – Straight Outta Compton, which grossed $200m – to get voters to pay attention.
But perhaps it’s time for rap fans to stop hoping for validation from the out-of-touch Cleveland institution. Hip-hop clearly needs its own hall of fame. And that’s exactly the idea behind something called the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, which counts among its backers many important hip-hop pioneers, including Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Melle Mel and Kurtis Blow.
But though the spot was announced with fanfare about two years ago, it still lacks a physical home. Its organizers would prefer a location in the Bronx – where hip-hop began – and the museum was originally slated for the Kingsbridge Armory, a historical site that has remained vacant for decades. But its renovation has stalled, and the museum’s chairman Rocky Bucano says they now have their eyes on another location, called the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse.
In the meantime the museum is focused on its virtual space. They’ve teamed up with a visual effects company called Framestore, which is helping them develop virtual reality projects. Their first offering? A tour of the Rawlston Recording Studio in Brooklyn, where early New York artists like Whodini, the Fat Boys, and Doug E Fresh laid down tracks.
Oh, and Kurtis Blow, who recorded If I Ruled The World there, and who leads the 360 tour. (To take it, you’ll need a viewer called Google Cardboard, which costs $24, though that link also shows you how to build one yourself.)
Bucano stresses there’s much more on deck, including an exhibit called The Bronx Is Burning, about hip-hop’s first days. The plan from there is to create projects in chronological order, following the development of the genre as it moved to other parts of the country. They also want to develop curricula for students, combining hip-hop with American history. “We want to do one on the Liberty Bell, but using maybe Wiz Khalifa to narrate,” says Bucano. To raise money they’re partnering with universities including Cornell and Duke, and planning to launch a Kickstarter.
Bucano has got roots in hip-hop as well, having co-founded the Bronx based label Strong City Records, whose artists included Busy Bee and Masters of Ceremony, a Brand Nubian precursor. (Bucano’s co-founder, DJ Jazzy Jay, was featured on Def Jam’s first ever record, It’s Yours, with T La Rock.)
As cool as the museum’s virtual plans may be, Bucano won’t be satisfied until they have a permanent, physical home. “You need to have a brick and mortar,” he says. “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a great place in Cleveland, and hip-hop needs to have its own beautiful place in the Bronx as well.”
Hip-hop is a genre created by mashing up other types of music, which explains why it’s constantly reinventing itself. But it’s distressing that so much of its history gets lost along the way. While many rock stars from 30, 40 or even 50 years ago can still pack big venues, some of hip-hop’s most vital early artists often have trouble supporting themselves.
If the Universal Hip-Hop Museum is successful, Bucano says he plans to give jobs to many of these legends – as curators, or even adjunct professors. “My goal is to help a lot of the founding guys have another career path,” he says. But that’s not all. In the macro sense, the museum could very well preserve the genre’s early history, before it slips through our fingers.