The rumor is that hip hop was born on August 11th 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue at a back to school party DJ’ed by Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc. A Jamaican born DJ, “Kool Herc” was one of the first DJs to play modern funk and soul records on two turntables, and the way he spun records eventually produced the sound that would come to be known as hip hop.
In 2023, 50 years after the birth of hip-hop, The Universal Hip Hop Museum, a museum celebrating the music’s history, will be breaking ground in the Bronx as part of a $350 million project in the South Bronx known as Bronx Point. This project includes space for nonprofit organizations as well as affordable housing, all overlooking the Harlem River waterfront.
When the museum founders set out to find a space, they wanted to be a part of the Bronx because of hip hop’s roots in the Bronx. “I would like to think … geographically, there’s synergy in the universe and this was an opportunity that came directly to the museum,” says Renee Foster, a publicist who represents the museum.
The museum was originally slated to open in 2023, but due to COVID-19 concerns, the development was pushed back and the museum is slated to have its grand opening in 2024. However, there will be a soft opening in 2023 to coincide with the 50-year anniversary of the birth of hip hop.
The museum currently has a semi-permanent exhibition called the [R]evolution of Hip Hop that is located within the Bronx Terminal Market at 610 Exterior Street. The exhibition is currently closed due to COVID-19, but a statement on the UHHM website says that they hope to reopen it soon. Foster says the temporary exhibit will remain open until the doors of the museum’s permanent home are opened. The exhibition currently displays hip hop artifacts such as a Keith Haring jacket, photos by Joe Conzo, and a recreation of The Fever (one of the first hip hop clubs in the Bronx).
When the permanent museum opens, it will display hip hop artifacts in conjunction with technology-based exhibitions. Martha Diaz, founder of the Hip Hop Education Center (an organization that is affiliated with the museum) and the Chair of Archives, Education, and Cultural Affairs for UHHM, says, “The museum has over twenty thousand items. We have at least fifteen thousand records, vinyls that were donated by Cutman LG. We have … boomboxes, ephemeral materials, posters and flyers, apparel, and even furniture. Right now, on loan, we have Slick Rick’s throne and we have acquired Snoop Dogg’s bicycle that was in a music video. We’re still collecting more.”
As far as the technology, UHHM is currently partnering with MIT and Microsoft in creating exhibitions with technology including alternate reality, virtual reality, and technology that will allow visitors to create music. According to Dr. Fox Harrell, UHHM’s tech partner from MIT, the virtual reality exhibits will be designed to highlight hip hop’s rich history and social and cultural impact, as well as its roots in the Bronx with an interactive timeline. UHHM’s tech partners are currently designing an interactive system called “Breakbeat Narratives.” In an email, Harrel says that this system will combine a computational model of musical preference with conversational AI technology and Afrofuturist art. This will provide a personalized and interactive learning experience to museum-goers.
The museum is not just a static archive. The museum will provide support to music industry professionals and emerging professionals through master classes or professional development conferences or symposiums. Diaz says that they will also partner with local school districts for educational opportunities.
There’s also a youth ambassador program to train college students within different museum departments which include education, marketing, and archiving. Diaz says, “we’ve had students from Penn State, NYU, American University who worked on a virtual exhibit and helped with the programming and learned the daily activities of how to run a museum.” The goal is to expand this ambassador program. Architect Michael Ford, the designer of the museum, is facilitating this partnership to include individuals who want to learn a trade.
Diaz says, “We will have students design part of the museum [learning] different jobs in constructing the museum. They’ll learn carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and engineering.” These trainings are a part of the museum’s partnership with L&M Development Partners.
The museum launched its Time 2 Build campaign — the second phase of its fundraising drive — on February 24. The museum is looking to raise approximately $100 million for the interior fit out of the museum. In the meantime, UHHM is offering programming online – for Women’s History Month, the museum and the Hip Hop Education Center launched Fresh, Bold, and So Def Women’s Initiative, which will feature year-round programming celebrating women in hip hop. This program will lead up to the 15th anniversary of the Year of the Hip Hop Woman, a year long campaign by the Hip Hop Association’s Womanhood Learning Project in 2008. The online programming will provide an opportunity for individuals to experience the museum prior to it’s official opening in 2024.
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
Nia Norris is a Chicago-based solutions and culture journalist who contributes to Next City and Kirkus Reviews. Her work has also been featured in Ms., Romper, and Parents.com.