Five Things to See: The Technology of Hip-Hop
Whether it’s the synthesizer sounds of the 80s, cross-genre MP3 mashups of the 90s, or the popularization of autotune in the 2000s, technology has always been a driving force behind hip-hop music. To celebrate the launch of the “Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap,” we’ve selected five items from our collection that explore the history of America’s most versatile – and tech-savvy – music genre.
1. Track sheet used during the recording of "Ladies First" by Queen Latifa
This handwritten track sheet belonged to producer and DJ Mark James, also known as Mark the 45 King. Here, James documents the production process behind Queen Latifah’s song "Ladies First" during the 1989 recording session at Calliope Studio in New York.
This track sheet shows how the song was developed from the perspective of a producer, before paper track sheets were replaced with digital technology. The 24 boxes on the sheet indicate the various audio elements that combined to create the finished song, representing the recording process for many songs during the 1980s. The handwritten notes, which were changed constantly during production, plot out the intertwined relationship between MCs, producer, and machine. In the finished song, both Queen Latifah and Monie Love’s voices and messaging combined with James’ production to create one of the most significant anthems for female empowerment.
2. MIDI Production Center 3000 Limited Edition and Minimoog Voyager synthesizer used by J Dilla
Producer and MC James Dewitt Yancey, also known as Jay Dee and J Dilla, used this limited-edition MIDI Production Center and custom Moog Synthesizer. These items were donated to the museum by his mother Maureen Yancey in 2014.
The MPC, also known as a drum machine or sampler, was used to create beats for many notable artists in hip-hop, rhythm and blues, neo-soul and other genres. The custom-made Moog synthesizer was given to Dilla by Robert Moog - the inventor of the first commercial synthesizer - and features Moog’s signature etched onto the faceplate. The MPC was so essential to Dilla’s life and work that when the artist was hospitalized with lupus in Los Angeles, he requested them shipped to his hospital so that he could continue making music. The MPC remained by his bedside until he passed away on February 10, 2006.
3. Turntable used as part of a DJ setup
The adaptation of the turntable for hip-hop marked a moment when technology would forever change how DJs shared and created music. This 1970s Technics SL-B2 turntable was donated by Angelo King. The Bronx native, also known as DJ Tony Tone, was a founding member of the prominent hip-hop group, the Cold Crush Brothers who were active in the late 1970s to early 1980s.
When it first debuted for commercial use, the turntable was expensive and inaccessible to most DJs and music producers. However during the 1977 New York City blackout, DJ equipment was looted from stores and the number of people who had access to this technology skyrocketed. Individuals could now quickly and directly alter music with just the touch of their fingers, resulting in a boom of creativity from new and seasoned hip-hop creators. Over time, the turntable evolved from a machine that transmitted music into an instrument that could create it.
4. Boombox used by Public Enemy
Purchased by Chuck D in New York, this boombox was taken around the world by the hip-hop group Public Enemy. Known for their ability to combine skilled poetic rhymes with political and social consciousness, Public Enemy was at the forefront of using music to express their identity.
Despite its large size and weight, the boombox was a relatively portable alternative to the bulky, stationary stereo systems first available during the mid-1970s. As hip-hop became the soundtrack of many people’s lives, playing cassette tapes or the radio with a boombox allowed the owner to share their ideas, beliefs and style loudly and proudly with anyone within earshot. In Spike Lee’s landmark film “Do the Right Thing,” the character Radio Rakeem is personified almost entirely by his relationship to his boombox, which blares "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy throughout his neighborhood.
A big part of this hip-hop culture in the beginning was putting things in your face, whether you liked it or not. Fred Brathwaite, also known as Fab 5 Freddy
5. Queens of Rap CD and the Portable CD player
It is impossible to discuss the evolution of hip-hop without acknowledging the legendary female MCs who were central to its development. This “Queens of Rap” compilation CD was released in 1989 and features J.J. Fad, MC Lyte, The Real Roxanne, Antoinette, Big Lady K, Salt-N-Pepa, Sweet Tea and Roxanne Shanté. This CD represents the undeniable presence of female MCs and their impact and popularity.
Portable CD players started to replace portable cassette players during the late 1980s and became popular during the 1990s. The CD and portable CD player represent a shift in how people experienced music, from the public declaration of the boombox to the personalized experience of a Discman. The portable CD player brought sounds like the “Queens of Rap” directly into the headphones of fans, giving each listener their own personal experience and an opportunity to connect with the music.