This story is the first in NPR's new Morning Edition series produced by The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) called The Keepers, stories of activist, archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians — keepers of the culture and the cultures and collections they keep.
Over a decade ago, students of Dr. Marcyliena Morgan, then a Professor of Linguistics at UCLA, started dropping by her office, imploring her to listen to hip-hop.
"I taught urban speech communities," Professor Morgan says. "Students said, 'We want to do work on hip-hop.' I said, 'That's performance but it's not a speech community.' They said, 'We'll be back.'"
They wanted her to hear the rapping and rhyming, the bravado of the wordplay, this new underground culture that was being created. They wanted her to help them begin to archive the medium.
"They came back with the most amazing projects," she says. "They showed the elements of hip-hop: rapping, MCing, the writing of lyrics, the poetry and rhyming, b-boy, b-girl dance, graffiti art. And what it meant to their lives."
Marcyliena Morgan sought the advice of scholar, cultural critic and instituion-builder, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Director of The Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
"I remember when Marcy shared her idea with me and I thought, "Oh my god,' Professor Gates recalls. "I'm no fan of hip-hop, but you don't have to be Albert Einstein to realize that this was a brilliant idea. Imagine if someone had thought of this when jazz was at its zenith. 'Why don't we have the jazz archive at Harvard?' Of course it would have been turned down but, in retrospect, they would have been a genius."
Morgan was not an archivist by training and she didn't listen to hip-hop. But she listened to her students. Bit by bit, she opened her office, drew on available resources and began to collect the history and material culture of hip-hop.
Then, in 2002, The Archive was packed up and moved from Professor Morgan's office at UCLA, across the country to Harvard where, with the strong support of Professor Gates, it became The Hiphop Archive & Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research (at the time, known as the W.E.B. DuBois Institute) at Harvard University.
Along with gathering everything about hip-hop for preservation, The Archive works with rappers and producers to share the history and thinking of the masters of the medium and pass on the traditions. The Archive employs Harvard students and works with interns to help maintain the memorabilia and do deep research into hip-hop culture.
"My earliest hip-hop memory would be at my mom's house in the crib," says Robert Rush, an intern at The Archive. "She used to play Montell Jordan's "This is How You Do It," The Notorious B.I.G. Those were the sounds that soothed me. They were lullabies that spoke to the experience that I was having."
In 2013, The Archive created The Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship for scholarly research in the field and The Classic Crates Archive of 200 seminal hip-hop albums curated by super producer 9th Wonder.
"Every art form has their standards that they've placed in the canon. Mathematics, science. Everybody has their greats and somebody placed them there," 9th Wonder says. "People in the visual art world say 'OK, this is what's going in The Louvre. This is it. We decided this.' I think hip-hop needs the same thing."
The first four albums highlighted in Classic Crates were The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill, Illmatic by Nas and To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar.
"In order to be well versed in the culture, you have to be an encyclopedia because what The HipHop Archive is doing is creating a family tree," 9th Wonder says.
Click the audio link to hear the full Morning Edition story and enjoy a Spotify playlist of essential hip-hop songs curated by The Kitchen Sisters.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today we begin a new series with our friends The Kitchen Sisters, producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson - stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians, keepers of the culture. The first one is called "Archiving The Underground," and it takes us to the Hiphop Archive and Research Center at Harvard.
9TH WONDER: Every artform has their standards that they've placed in the canon. Mathematics, science - everybody has their greats, and somebody placed them there. People in visual art world say, hey, OK, this is what's going in the Louvre. This is it. And I think hip-hop needs the same thing. This is the archive.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING")
LAURYN HILL: We 'bout to set...
MARCYLIENA MORGAN: Archiving the underground is what we do. The Hiphop Archive began at UCLA - late '90s. I taught urban speech communities there. Students said, we want to do work on hip-hop. I said, that's performance, but it's not a speech community. They said, we'll be back.
They came back with the most amazing projects. They showed the elements of hip-hop - rapping, MCing, poetry or rhyming, B-boy, B-girl dance and graffiti art - and what it meant to their lives.
I'm Marcyliena Morgan, founding director of the Hiphop Archive and professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University.
My students, when they were graduating, would say - I collected this. This is from hip-hop.
9TH WONDER: Boombox.
MORGAN: You have to keep it.
9TH WONDER: Turntable.
MORGAN: I'm a linguistic anthropologist. Anthropologists love material culture.
9TH WONDER: Adidas.
MORGAN: I couldn't throw it away.
9TH WONDER: Spray paint they use to graffiti.
MORGAN: So I started having all this stuff. Then all these students were like, well, I think it should be called an archive because an archive is important.
9TH WONDER: Pieces of hip-hop history.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAS SONG)
HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: I remember when Marcy shared her idea with me. And I thought, oh, my God. I'm no fan of hip-hop. But you didn't have to be Albert Einstein to realize that this was a brilliant idea, the world's first archive of the hip-hop and rap movement. Imagine if someone had thought of this when jazz was at its zenith. Why don't we have the Jazz Archive at Harvard? Of course, it would have been turned down. But in retrospect, they would have been a genius. I'm Henry Louis Gates Jr. professor at Harvard, director of the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research.
9TH WONDER: Why hip-hop at Harvard? Harvard is a high level of genius, so is hip-hop to me. My name is Patrick Douthit. My stage name is 9th Wonder. I am a DJ, music producer, college professor and Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at Harvard. This global phenomenon needs to be studied.
ROBERT RUSH: Hip-hop music is a form of keeping records and a form of archiving culture.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS HOW WE DO IT")
MONTELL JORDAN: (Singing) This is how we do it.
RUSH: My name is Robert Rush, from the South Bronx, intern here at the Hiphop Archive. My earliest hip-hop memory would be at my mom's house in the crib. She used to play Montell Jordan's "This Is How You Do It," The Notorious B.I.G.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUICY")
THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.: (Rapping) One-room shack - now my moms...
RUSH: Those were the sounds that soothed me. They were lullabies that spoke to the experience that I was having. I remember when Biggie said the line, Christmas missed us. Me and my mom, we used to go through struggles. We didn't necessarily have all the material resources.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G. SONG, "JUICY")
BRIONNA ATKINS: My name is Brionna Atkins, media and publications coordinator. Besides collecting memorabilia and caring for it, we also have a Classic Crates project archiving 200 classic hip-hop albums curated by 9th Wonder.
9TH WONDER: Classic Crates - we'll have the album in question, Nas' "Illmatic," all the participants. Then on top of that, you have all the samples and the records that they came from - the Stanley Clarke record, the Michael Jackson "Thriller" album, Joe Chambers' "Mind Rain." In order to be well-versed in the culture, you have to be an encyclopedia. The Hiphop Archive - what we're doing is creating a family tree.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JUSTIN PORTER: The archive, I would label it as a living, breathing, evolving analysis of hip-hop. My name is Justin Porter, senior at Harvard College, doing research on the Fugees' "The Score" album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEAST")
FUGEES: (Singing) Warn the town the beast is loose.
HAROLD SHAWN: We are in the heart of Harvard Square, a cross-campus walk away from the Hiphop Archive. We have formed a partnership with the Loeb Music Library to house the Classic Crates collections. I'm Harold Shawn, program director of the Hiphop Archive.
JOSH KANTOR: My name is Josh Kantor, assistant keeper, special collections for the Loeb Music Library. On display here is a 12-inch vinyl, 33 1/3 RPM pressing of the "The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill" selected for Classic Crates in the display case next to a handwritten copy of Mozart's "Figaro."
(SOUNDBITE OF TURNTABLE NEEDLE LIFTING)
KANTOR: Play it, Side B - Kendrick Lamar, "To Pimp A Butterfly."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I (ALBUM VERSION)")
KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) N-E-G-U-S - say it with me, or say it no more. Black stars can come and get me. Take it from Oprah Winfrey. Tell her she right on time. Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.
MORGAN: Hip-hop is more like the canary in the coal mine. When hip-hop starts talking about it, something is going on in society that we need to pay attention to.
HARRY ALLEN: The average black male is probably not going to, in his lifetime, hear his voice amplified, tell anyone what to do or get to talk about his strengths or powers. But in hip-hop, you do all of that in a way that's romantic, captivating. And this has great power. My name is Harry Allen, Nasir Jones Hiphop fellow, Harvard University.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Mr. Nasir Jones, how do you feel that the creation of this fellowship will inspire other audiences to promote this culture?
GATES JR.: What do you think, Nas?
NAS: It's going to make them want to appreciate the culture. It's starting to open a lane in America. They're starting to want to see other American stories.
MICHAEL DAVIS: I think of the keepers as the ones who are on the ground right now. We're collecting the era and the zeitgeist, the spirit. And we're bottling it up for generations that we'll never see.
9TH WONDER: I'm trying to keep the torch lit that was passed from Tribe and Pete Rock and Lauryn and Queen Latifah that was passed to them from James Brown and Marvin Gaye and Steely Dan...
DAVIS: I see a lot of young people come through here.
9TH WONDER: ...Motown...
DAVIS: They see all this history...
9TH WONDER: ...Beach Boys...
DAVIS: And it just makes them dig more and more, more.
9TH WONDER: ...Muddy Waters...
DAVIS: Then they become the keepers. I mean, this could be the seed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXCURSIONS")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Rapping) Back in the days when I was a teenager, before I had status and before I had a pager, you could find...
MARTIN: "Archiving The Underground" was produced by The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, along with Nathan Dalton and Brandi Howell. It was mixed by Jim McKee. You can hear more stories from "The Keepers" on their podcast The Kitchen Sisters Present. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.