This week MOHAI opened a new show called The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop. The exhibit is not just about the history here, it’s also about how Seattle hip-hop fits into the larger culture.
For Daudi Abe, author of the upcoming book “Emerald Street: A History of Hip-Hop in Seattle 1979-2015,” it all began 36 years ago.
“When I was 9 years old, my father took me to a record store over there on 22nd and Union and let me pick any record I wanted. I ran around and found ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang. I was puzzled by how these people were singing, but what they were talking about spoke immediately.”
Jazmyn Scott is the co-curator the exhibit. “My father was a DJ and he was the first to play ‘Rapper's Delight’ in Seattle.” Scott said that introduced hip-hop to Seattle.
The exhibit includes a timeline that goes back to Seattle’s first hip-hop group, the Emerald Street Boys. In 1988 Seattle rapper Sir Mix-A Lot broke nationally with his hit “Posse on Broadway,” and in 1993, he won a Grammy for “Baby Got Back.”
In 1994 Digable Planets, with Seattle’s Ishmael Butler, were Grammy winners. Rap groups proliferated in Seattle, so many that the exhibit may prompt controversy.
“We anticipate when people come through this exhibit that they might wonder, where's my uncle? Where’s my cousin?” Scott said. “In this exhibit, we can really only put together a snapshot, so we set up a Tumblr page where people from the community can say, hey this is missing.”
You enter the exhibit through a wall of boom boxes, but the exhibit includes more than music. Graffiti art, fashion, video and dance — a full range of Seattle hip-hop culture is on display.
You'll even be able to mix your own music. “Two of the most innovative, well-known producers around the world, Vitamin D. and Jake One from Seattle, were generous enough to give us some unreleased music,” said co-curator Aaron Walker-Loud. “Not only the tracks themselves, but the dissected stems are isolated so people who come to the exhibit can actually break down their compositions to see how these things are built.”
Why is it that Seattle, one of the whitest cities in the nation, has become such a wellspring of rap?
“The mainstream narrative about hip-hop is that it's this black thing that came from black culture — and that part is true,” Abe said. “It did come out of the African-American experience, but the culture itself has always been extremely diverse. It started off in the Central District, but eventually those cultural shockwaves spread out first to the south and Beacon Hill and throughout the rest of the city.
“Hip-hop has always been a completely inclusive thing. If you listen to the beginning of ‘Rapper's Delight,’ DJ Wonder Mike says ‘I'd like to say hello to the white, to the black, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow.’ It’s a shout-out to all races.”
Culture commentators have long noted that Seattle's isolated location in the upper left hand corner of the country has allowed painting, rock music and other art forms more license to develop their own voice. Abe said that’s how Seattle hip-hop also forged its own path.
“The latest example is Macklemore. Two of his biggest songs, ‘Thrift Shop’ and ‘Same Love,’ go directly against the most long-held norms of mainstream hip-hop: bling, fancy name-brand clothing, jewelry and homophobia. The fact that people are able to address these issues through the lens of hip-hop speaks to the uniqueness and originality of Seattle.”
That uniqueness and originality is on display at MOHAI through May 1, 2016.