“Like a kid that’s always dreaming about going to the NBA and then you get the call, I was dreaming of this project even before I knew I was going to work on it,” says artist Cey Adams, the founding creative director of Def Jam. Adams art directed the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, which is released on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings today (20 August 2021).
The anthology’s creators eschew the notion of a canon and instead envision the project as a foundation upon which to build. “I was on a call with LL Cool J and Chuck D, and we talked about not only making this book, but our journey as a people,” says Adams, who got his start as a graffiti writer in the 1970s.
Roxanne Shante at Cold Chillin’ Records, 1990, photo by Al Pereira
“The thing I remember about being a teenager when hip hop was being born is that it was a lot of like minded people from different disciplines – artists, dancers, DJs, rappers and MCs – but we were all moving in the same circles,” Adams says.
“As people of colour from the inner city, we were trying to figure out the formula, because we needed it to happen and happen now. There were many different options – I won’t call them opportunities because nothing felt like an opportunity at that time. I had to find a way to express myself and earn a living because that was my reality.”
Like every hip hop musician and artist determined to succeed, Adams created his own path by learning how to make a dollar out of 15 cents. “You need to know your past to know where you are going, but always put a contemporary spin on it, showing people this is not your grandfather’s music – this is something brand new,” Adams says.
Four young men posing in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, by Jamal Shabazz
Female Rappers, Class of ’88, 1988, photo by Janette Beckman
The anthology takes great care to preserve the four elements of hip hop, providing insightful essays into the history of breaking, graffiti, and DJing, as well as thoughtful meditations on the role of women in the genre and the influence of the South.
“I love hip hop [music], but it takes up all the air in the room. We were always working side by side in harmony but once records started to sell, rap took off and overshadowed everything. When they’re used together, its really powerful,” Adams says.
“When you’re in the moment making it work, that’s all the really matters. As a teenager, I always knew I wanted my voice to be heard. I knew I wasn’t going to have a solo show at a major museum so I had to find another route. It’s taken a long time to get the point across, but it’s finally happened.”
MC Sha-Rock, The Valley, NYC, June 1980, photo by Charlie Ahearn
Spinderella at the Getty Center, 2002, photo by Diane McClure
Grandmaster Flash at the Chrysler Building, NYC, photo by Bill Adler
Master P in the office of No Limit Records, 1997, photo by Joseph Rodriguez
Flier for a rap battle in the Bronx, 1979, designed by Buddy Esquire
Clock worn by Flavor Flav, mid 1980s