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Hip-hop's global culture 'affects everyone,' pioneers say

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Blaine Friedlander

Hip-hop pioneers returned to campus April 13-15 to discuss history, authenticity and the importance of the Cornell archive documenting the origins of the culture that they helped found three decades ago.

DJ Afrika Bambaataa, dancer Popmaster Fabel and photographer Joseph Conzo joined scholars for the symposium "Born in the Bronx: Afrika Bambaataa, Hip-Hop and Radical Peace," presented by the Atkinson Forum in American Studies, April 14 in Barnes Hall.

Assistant professor of Africana studies Travis Gosa asked panelists to discuss the culture's global appeal.

"Hip-hop culture affects everyone. It transcends racial barriers, everything," Fabel said. "In Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, you can say 'hey, these brothers and sisters are just like us' ... with the same kind of heart and giving that we share in the 'hood."

Conzo recalled a trip to London several years ago. "I was dumbfounded by how much the culture is adored overseas, and more so in Asia," he said. "The movement is so alive and vibrant."

Still, Bambaataa said, "radio stations don't recognize the music of this global community, [and] many people are turning to satellite or Internet radio."

Conzo said the hip-hop archive now at Cornell -- which has almost tripled since his photos and the materials historian Johan Kugelberg collected for their book "Born in the Bronx" were donated to the library in 2007 -- was initially unwanted in the Bronx, when they offered it to Fordham and other educational and cultural institutions. "No one we approached at first wanted it, but Cornell did," he said.

The archive "plays a huge role," Conzo continued. "You love this culture so much, close your eyes -- what do you see? … What other genre of music has had the impact globally that hip-hop has? It's in the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we treat each other. If you don't preserve it, it's lost."

The panelists also addressed technology's role in hip-hop's evolution and vice versa, from belt-drive turntables to YouTube.

"I'm a vinyl junkie," Bambaataa said. "I'm now a digital junkie, playing music from all over the world. I used to carry 100 records in a crate, three, four, five crates of records to a show. Now I'm carrying thousands of records in my pocket."

Bambaataa, who helped found the Universal Zulu Nation to promote the positive foundations of hip-hop, has said that knowledge should be the first element of the culture. The panelists also addressed authenticity as something they value, distinct from those who misrepresent hip-hop or co-opt its fashion.

"Even before hip-hop, we represented ourselves with our regalia ... it's not what you buy, it's how you rock it," Fabel said. "When the rap industry hijacked hip-hop, we saw it as the stripping of a culture."

Bambaataa also transformed the Theta Delta Chi (Thumpty) fraternity into a packed dance club April 14, where DrShaka Zulu worked up the crowd as MC. After his two-hour DJ set, Bambaataa chanted Queen's "We Will Rock You" a cappella, plugged in his laptop again and kept the sold-out party going for another 45 minutes.

The next day, the pioneers answered questions in associate professor of music Steve Pond and music librarian Bonna Boettcher's "Discovering Hip-Hop" seminar in Lincoln Hall, where students wore T-shirts they had printed with Pond's photo and the legend "Prof. Pond -- The Chronic."

"The archive has two functions," Pond said. "One, for people to be acquainted or reacquainted with this culture. ... Also, for the same reason we have a Gutenberg Bible, to preserve it in a state and keep it viable so [it can be accessible] 100 years from now."

The delegation also toured the Kroch Library rare book vault April 14 and attended a father-son event April 15 at Ithaca's Southside Community Center.

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