Grammy Museum exhibit salutes 50 years of hip hop

By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — The Grammy Museum at L.A. Live is paying homage to the 50th anniversary of hip hop.

“Hip-Hop America: The Mixtape Exhibit” is on display through Sept. 2.

Entering the exhibit on the museum’s fourth floor is like taking a nostalgic stroll through the sights, sounds and history of hip hop, with countless artifacts from legendary hip hop artists on display.

The exhibit begins with a video projection featuring iconic hip-hop performances from Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, Coolio, and a hip hop 50 melody curated by Questlove. 

Artifacts on display include Lil Wayne’s 2009 Best Rap Album award for “Tha Carter III,” Flava Flav’s huge diamond-studded watch; Biggie Small’s fire engine red leather pea coat; LL Cool J’s Kangol bucket hat; Tupac Shakur’s handwritten essay “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” rap pioneer Kurtis Blow’s original handwritten lyrics for his 1980 hit single, “The Breaks,” the first gold-certified rap song; and Melle Mel’s (Melvin Glover) black leather jacket worn at the 1985 Grammy Awards. Mel was honored as the first rap artist to ever win a Grammy and was later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Since its beginnings in the Bronx in 1973, hip hop’s influence has grown to impact music, dance, art, activism and fashion and has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry.

Visitors can witness a lifesize replica of a boy spinning and break dancing on his head that brings back the challenges that were waged between hip hop rivals on the streets.

Then there is an interactive hip hop playlist that features 200 songs tracing the genre’s evolution. Iconic videos such as MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This,” Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” can be viewed flashing on multiple screens.

West Coast rappers, including the Egyptian Lover, Nipsey Hussle, NWA and 2 Live Crew are prominently displayed, solidifying their contributions to the genre.

In the sound lab, visitors can test their scratching and beatbox skills on turntables or view the dozens of mix tapes that were the early lifeblood of hip hop music.

“In the early days of the 1970s, people recorded raps or songs off the radio before the era of singles or recorded artists such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five during live performances and then they would make mixtapes,” said Adam Bradley, one of the curators of the exhibit.

According to Jasen Emmons, the chief curator, it took seven months to compile all of the artifacts for the exhibit.

He noted that visitors from the hip hop and music worlds, including Chuck D from Public Enemy, Grammy Award-winning musician Jon Batiste and rapper Buster Rhymes have toured the exhibit and given it their seal of approval.

“They were really excited about the exhibit,” Emmons said. “After touring the exhibit, Chuck D said, ‘This is really impressive.’ And Batiste was also blown away. He said, ‘“This (exhibit) is fire.

“The response from the public has been strong,” Emmons added. “Everyone I’ve taken through the exhibit has been impressed by it. It’s been really rewarding to see the response.”

The museum hopes to have additional virtual and in-person education and community engagement programs at a later date.

“Hip hop has impacted society by giving voice to the voiceless and by shining a light on the ingenuity and creativity of young Black people by creating an art form that can be practiced and embraced by the world,” Bradley said.

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Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at