Enter the The Cornell Hip Hop Archive: A Vast Digital Collection of Hip Hop Photos, Posters & More

The music and the cul­ture of hip-hop are insep­a­ra­ble from the Bronx, Queens, Harlem, and Brook­lyn, NY. And now that the form is a glob­al cul­ture that exists in online spaces as much as it does where peo­ple meet and shake hands, its doc­u­men­tary his­to­ry may be more valu­able than ever. Hip-Hop began, unques­tion­ably, as a region­al phe­nom­e­non, and its for­mal qual­i­ties always bear the traces of its matrix, a con­flu­ence of African-Amer­i­can, Caribbean, and Latin Amer­i­can socio-cul­tur­al expe­ri­ences and cre­ative streams, meet­ing with new con­sumer audio tech­nol­o­gy and a dri­ve toward coun­ter­cul­tur­al exper­i­ments that took hold all over New York amidst the urban decay of the 70s.

Pho­to by Joe Con­zo, Jr.

We know the sto­ry in broad strokes. Now we can immerse our­selves in the dai­ly life, so to speak, of ear­ly hip hop, thanks to a par­tial dig­i­ti­za­tion of Cor­nell University’s vast hip hop col­lec­tion. The phys­i­cal col­lec­tion, housed in Itha­ca New York, con­tains “hun­dreds of par­ty and event fly­ers ca. 1977–1985; thou­sands of ear­ly vinyl record­ings, cas­settes and CDs; film and video; record label press pack­ets and pub­lic­i­ty; black books, pho­tog­ra­phy, mag­a­zines, books, cloth­ing, and more.”

Pho­to by Joe Con­zo, Jr.

While this impres­sive trove of phys­i­cal arti­facts is open to the pub­lic, most of us won’t ever make the jour­ney. But whether we’re fans, schol­ars, or curi­ous onlook­ers, we can ben­e­fit from its cura­to­r­i­al largesse through online archives like that of Joe Con­zo, Jr., who “cap­tured images of the South Bronx between 1977 and 1984, includ­ing ear­ly hip hop jams, street scenes, and Latin music per­form­ers and events.”

Pho­to by Joe Con­zo, Jr.

While still in high school, Con­zo became the offi­cial pho­tog­ra­ph­er for the ear­ly influ­en­tial rap group the Cold Crush Broth­ers. The posi­tion gave him unique access to the “local­ized, grass­roots cul­ture about to explode into glob­al aware­ness.” Cornell’s site remarks that “with­out Joe’s images, the world would have lit­tle idea of what the ear­li­est era of hip hop looked like, when fabled DJ, MC, and b‑boy/girl bat­tles took place in parks, school gym­na­si­ums and neigh­bor­hood dis­cos.”

Anoth­er of Cornell’s col­lec­tions, the Bud­dy Esquire Par­ty and Event Fly­er Archive, pre­serves over 500 such arti­facts, the “largest known insti­tu­tion­al col­lec­tion of these scarce fly­ers, which have become increas­ing­ly val­ued for the details they pro­vide about ear­ly hip hop cul­ture.” Local, grass­roots scenes like this one seem increas­ing­ly rare in a glob­al­ized, always-online 21st cen­tu­ry. Archives like Cornell’s not only tell the sto­ry of such a cul­ture, but in so doing they doc­u­ment a crit­i­cal peri­od in New York City, much like punk or jazz archives tell impor­tant his­to­ries of Lon­don, New York, D.C., Paris, New Orleans, etc.

The third dig­i­tal col­lec­tion host­ed by Cor­nell, the Adler Hip Hop Archive, comes from jour­nal­ist and Def Jam Record­ings pub­li­cist Bill Adler. The mate­ri­als here nat­u­ral­ly skew toward the indus­try side of the cul­ture, doc­u­ment­ing its leap from the New York streets to “glob­al aware­ness” and a spread to cities nation­wide, through mag­a­zine pho­to spreads, ads, pro­mo­tion­al pics, press clip­pings, and much more.

Some of these col­lec­tions are eas­i­er to nav­i­gate than others—you’ll have to wade through many non-hip-hop pho­tos in the huge Joe Con­zo, Jr. archive, though most of them, like his Puer­to Rican por­traits and land­scapes for exam­ple, are of inter­est in their own right. Con­zo’s pho­to jour­nal­ism of the Bronx in the late 70s and 80s has all the inti­ma­cy and can­dor of a fam­i­ly album or col­lec­tion of year­book pictures—charmingly awk­ward, exu­ber­ant, and a stark con­trast to the high-pro­file glam­our of com­mer­cial hip-hop eras to fol­low.

The core of Cornell’s col­lec­tion came from author, cura­tor, and for­mer record exec­u­tive Johan Kugel­berg, who donat­ed his col­lec­tion in 1999 after pub­lish­ing Born in the Bronx: A Visu­al His­to­ry of the Ear­ly Days of Hip Hop with Joe Con­zo, Jr. It has since expand­ed to 13 dif­fer­ent col­lec­tions from the archives of some of the cul­ture’s ear­li­est pio­neers and doc­u­men­tar­i­ans. Hope­ful­ly many more of these will soon be dig­i­tized. But we might want to heed Jason Kottke’s warn­ing in enter­ing the three that have: “don’t click on any of those links if you’ve got press­ing things to do.” You could eas­i­ly get lost in this incred­i­bly detailed trea­sury of hip-hop—and New York City—history.

Pho­to by Joe Con­zo, Jr.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Found­ing Fathers, A Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed By Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D, Presents the True His­to­ry of Hip Hop

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

Hip Hop Hits Sung Won­der­ful­ly in Sign Lan­guage: Eminem’s “Lose Your­self,” Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yel­low” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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