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Salt n Pepa Lower East Side NYC (1986)
Photograph: By Janette Beckman | Salt n Pepa Lower East Side NYC (1986) / Courtesy of Fotografiska New York and copyright of the artist

This powerful photography exhibit in NYC chronicles 50 years of hip-hop

See hip-hop's evolution from 1973 to today.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

The hip-hop we know today—the kind that sells out arenas, racks up Grammy awards and gets major radio airtime—grew from DJing and breakdancing in New York City. 

A new exhibition at Fotografiska, the photography museum in the Flatiron District, traces the genre’s evolution from its early days to today through 200 powerful photos by 57 photographers. “Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious," which opened today, runs through May 20. The exhibition celebrates hip-hop as the influential genre turns 50 years old.

RECOMMENDED: Celebrate hip-hop History Month with this exhibit in the Bronx

"There was a time when hip-hop wasn’t conscious of itself. There was a time when it was conscious of itself where we started to see ourselves and understand ourselves through the video and photography and everything else and that's what this show represents," said Sacha Jenkins, CCO of the entertainment company Mass Appeal, who co-curated the exhibit with photography expert Sally Berman. "What hip-hop is, is a reflection of itself and a reaction to the environment. ... Through hip-hop you can learn a lot about what's going on in our communities and what needs to change." 

Grand Master Flash, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Chris Stein of Blondie and friend (1981)
Photograph: By Charlie Ahearn | Grand Master Flash, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Chris Stein of Blondie and friend (1981) / Courtesy of Fotografiska New York and copyright of the artist

Fifty years ago on August 11, 1973, Kool Herc (aka Clive Campbell) threw a back-to-school celebration at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx; many call it the founding party of hip-hop, though Jenkins said other DJs pre-date this by a bit.

"Young people found a way to be creative," Jenkins said. "Before hip-hop was conscious of itself, it was a way for us to express ourselves."

The exhibit starts in that unconscious era showcasing stories of everyday people—not hip-hop celebrities—in the South Bronx. Photos document graffiti, the Savage Skulls gang posing for a photo, artfully painted denim jackets and kids break dancing.

"We didn't know what it was, it was just what we did," said Jenkins said. "Eventually hop-hop started to understand there was an aesthetic we had built as kids in NYC."

Walking through the timeline of hip-hop, you'll see a bootleg 8-track of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang, a handwritten invitation to an early hip-hop party and a Village Voice article titled "Physical Graffiti: Breaking is Hard to Do." 

Beastie Boys Radio City New York
Photograph: Josh Cheuse | Beastie Boys Radio City New York (1985) / Courtesy of Fotografiska New York and copyright of the artist

As the exhibit continues, it shows the movement solidifying into a famed genre.

Each borough of NYC offered its own spin on the music. “Brooklyn doesn’t sound like Queens, and Queens doesn’t sound like the Bronx and money-making Manhattan is always smashin.’ As for the island of Staten—The Wu-Tang “W” beams from the slums of Shaolin to the rest of the world,” Jenkins wrote in a text panel at the exhibit. 

Trick Daddy, Miami, FL (2004)
Photograph: By Jonathan Mannion | Trick Daddy, Miami, FL (2004) / Courtesy of Fotografiska New York and copyright of the artist

But the show isn't just about NYC. It also spotlights Southern hip-hop and West Coast musicians as well, all leading up to the musical leaders of today. 

Here's just a handful of the artists you'll see in photos: Tupac, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Ice Cube, The Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Dogg, The Game, DMX, Ja Rule, Xzibit, Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim, Sister Souljah, Nas, Method Man, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, The Beastie Boys, The Roots, Foxy Brown, Eve, P. Diddy, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Erykah Badu, Future, Trick Daddy, Pharrell, Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone, Mac Miller, Drake, 21 Savage and Cardi B.

The photos evolve as the genre evolves, from photojournalistic street scenes to glossy magazine-style images. 

Future, Atlanta (2016)
Photograph: Theo Wenner | Future, Atlanta (2016) / Courtesy of Fotografiska New York and copyright of the artist

Images range from famous photos you've likely seen before to rare portraits. The exhibition spans five decades and two stories of the museum. Fotografiska will also offer programming including family workshops, zine making, talks, panel discussions and yoga.

In addition to the exhibit at Fotografiska, there's another exhibit in The Bronx hip-hop fans won't want to miss.

"[R]Evolution of Hip Hop" is on view through the summer of 2023 at Bronx Terminal Market exploring the genre from 1986-1990, known as the golden era of hip-hop. The exhibit is put on by The Universal Hip Hop Museum, which is currently under construction and slated to open in 2024 at Bronx Point. A dollar of every ticket sold to the Fotografiska exhibit will benefit The Universal Hip Hop Museum. 

Megan Thee Stallion posing for The Cut Magazine (2022)
Photograph: By Campbell Addy | Megan Thee Stallion posing for The Cut Magazine (2022) / Courtesy of Fotografiska New York and copyright of the artist

Keep an eye out for more Hip Hop 50 events this year, all celebrating of five decades of the most influential pop culture movement of its generation. Mass Appeal's created the exhibition in partnership with Fotografiska as part of the company's Hip Hop 50 cross-platform initiative.

"Hip-hop is for everyone, and I think that's a beautiful thing," Jenkins said. "We just shouldn't lose sight of where it comes from and what it really means."

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