“Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hiphop Culture,” a new exhibition at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, charts the formative phases of hip-hop through the experience of two of its early practitioners: the rapper Ice-T and his friend and frequent collaborator, the producer DJ Afrika Islam. Working with the archive the pair amassed over the years, curator Laylah Amatullah Barrayn crafted a more expansive frame to mark not just their career trajectories but a more holistic view of the culture as it marks its 50th anniversary this year. (November is also National Hip Hop History Month.) The Globe spoke to Barrayn about some key elements of the show that give shape to the larger narrative.
Q. Something that struck me was how in that nascent moment for the culture, you see magazines like The Source in their formative phases, when they were really just fan-driven, do-it-yourself underground publications that went on to become massive corporate media entities as hip-hop became a huge commercial phenomenon.
A. That’s definitely important to the narrative of the show. The Source was the the biggest one, which, as we know, became the hip-hop bible. It was started in Cambridge at Harvard, by Dave Mays when he was a student.
But I also wanted to talk about Cynthia Horner, who founded Word Up magazine, and Rap Masters magazine. She was a young black woman, a 20-year-old journalism student out at Pepperdine University when she was appointed editor in chief of Right On! magazine, which was an R&B magazine.
But in the ‘80s, there was a new market to speak to in hip-hop fans, so she created these magazines that actually predate The Source. They celebrated and highlighted the fun — we had pull-out posters, we had who’s who was at this party, concert photos. And I don’t think that’s really been talked about much.
The Source had more of an analytical focus on the culture — longer features by writers who were trained journalists who took a more critical eye. But when we look at how the media is defining what is happening at the time, mid-’80s to early ’90s, hip-hop looked very diverse. You had someone like Big Daddy Kane, who was this smooth rapper with this playboy persona. But then you had A Tribe Called Quest, who were the hippies. And then in the early ‘90s you had the emergence of quote-unquote “gangsta rap.” So you have this moment in hip-hop where the analysis was begging to be had, and I think that that’s where magazines like The Source and Vibe came in — like, OK, we really need to take a more analytical approach to looking at this culture.
Q. When you listen to older hip-hop albums, the Universal Zulu Nation reference comes up a lot. You include a lot of ephemera from the organization, and define its aesthetic. How does it factor in?
A. That organization formed during the formation of hip-hop — they’re also celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. It’s literally integral to the history of hip-hop. In 1973 the term hip-hop did not exist, but the the elements existed. The founder of the Zulu Nation, Afrika Bambaataa, was responsible for identifying those elements: rap, deejaying, breakdancing, and graffiti art. He’s really known as the godfather of hip-hop. During the ‘80s, he was a mediator between practitioners of the culture — if there was a beef, they would go to him.
Gang culture as it relates to the Zulu Nation is not spoken about so much. But really, for Afrika Bambaataa, the formation of the Zulu Nation was to halt the violence between rival gangs in the Bronx. He was a DJ himself, and he was trying to form a coalition of local organizations to really press the idea that we’re all doing the same thing, we’re in the same environment, and we would be stronger together as opposed to being in opposition to one another.
He wanted to fight against things like drugs, police brutality. He felt that it would be more effective to come together as opposed to being separate.
It’s just really interesting how the formation of hip-hop was also this formation of this urban coalition of young people who were engaged in the culture, but also in this politicized organizing in the community.
[Editor’s note: Wall text at the exhibition notes that the Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa, whose real name is Lance Taylor, is facing allegations that “emerged in 2016 when multiple individuals accused him of sexual misconduct and abuse. He has since stepped down from the organization.”]
Q. Comic books, superheroes, martial arts movies, sci-fi, horror — all of these things are really front and center in the installation of DJ Afrika Islam’s studio from the ‘80s.
A. One of the first things I thought about when I was invited to curate was that I really wanted to create a sense of place somewhere in the gallery. [Ice-T and Afrika Islam] met in Los Angeles. But their artistic collaboration began in that apartment in the Bronx. This is where he scratched his records, this is where his friends would come over and eat and hang out.
The room isn’t an exact replica, but I wanted to get the feeling of what this room looked like in the ‘80s, and where their artistic friendship started. Afrika Islam met Ice-T in LA, when Ice-T had his record out. But Afrika [Islam] said, “You gotta come to New York if you want this thing to grow; New York is really where it’s at.” So Ice-T lived in his apartment, slept on the floor. They ate tons of tinned tuna fish — I didn’t put those in, though [laughs].
Ice-T was the first West Coast rapper to get a major deal with Warner Brothers. And that was only because he went to New York and met all of the important people. They produced the record in the apartment with all of the vinyl; they hung out there all the time. Not just them, but, all of the rappers and the DJs would hang out there, too. So I wanted to give a sense of place, something tangible.
There’s all the records there, of course, but then you have what pop culture was at the time — the comics, the cartoons, (sci-fi and martial arts) TV series — all of that inspired the elements of hip-hop, particularly the visual culture, the graffiti.
And of course, the sneakers. He was a B-boy, he was a dancer, so he had tons of sneakers — that was their instrument. These are the kind of elements that a hip-hop practitioner has in their possession.
DAY ONE DNA: 50 YEARS IN HIPHOP CULTURE
Through May 31. At the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge. 617-496-5777, www.coopergallery.fas.harvard.edu. The gallery will be closed through Nov. 26 for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Interview was edited and condensed.