Your Art Weekend at the Museum of the City of New York

Your Art Weekend at the Museum of the City of New York

This weekend we're checking out Hip-Hop Revolution at the Museum of the City of New York, an exhibition of photographs taken in New York between 1977 and 1990. We've been exploring contemporary New York photography with our own community of artists recently, so this is the perfect show to explore some of what came before us. The photos in the show -- by Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo and Martha Cooper -- document the city's hip-hop scene as the movement emerged on the streets of the Bronx and Manhattan, years before it became a centerpiece of mainstream culture worldwide. And while we're up on the Upper East Side, we'll head down to ABV on 97th Street and Lexington Ave for a drink after the exhibition. 


Last year, the Museum of the City of New York scored a huge hit with its "City As Canvas" exhibition, which focused on the city's street art scene of the 1970s and 1980s. Now the museum is returning to that era of New York street culture with another strong exhibition curated by Sean Corcoran, featuring more than a hundred photographs, plus contemporaneous posters, clippings, Polaroid snapshots and, of course, music. These images document the incipient phase of hip-hop in a time before the music and fashion documented here became an integral part of global pop culture. 

The exhibition's three photographers came to the scene from different backgrounds and with different goals, and looking at their work together offers three distinct angles of the hip-hop movement. Joe Conzo, whom the Times called "the man who took hip-hop's baby pictures," joined the hip-hop scene as a teenager himself, and was there when DJs, MCs and B-Boys were performing on streets and in tiny nightclubs and high school gyms. His shots capture the frenetic energy of performances in a time before million-dollar record deals, stadium shows and car insurance commercials. Martha Cooper studied anthropology and became a documenter of New York street culture by taking photos of teenagers breakdancing outside, their sidewalks becoming public stages. Janette Beckman came from England already an experienced music photographer (credits included album covers for The Police), and her shots are professional, iconic portraits of artists in the studio and on the street. 

The exhibition also includes concert posters, song lyrics, newspaper clippings and other artifacts from the era. One series called "The Mash-Up" features a series of collaborations between Beckman and New York street artists, who paint and draw on top of her photos, adding some colorful graffiti style to the black and white portraits. Listening stations let you cue up songs by the artists in the photos, and listen to world-class MCs like Guru and Rakim at their best. 

Hip-hop, of course, eventually grew beyond the streets and beyond New York. As the museum's director Susan Henshaw Jones puts it, “hip-hop is yet another incredibly vibrant example of how the world has been shaped by what started in New York." The Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill became the first rap LP to top the Billboard charts in 1986, and artists from California and the South competed with New York rappers as the movement spread. Seeing these photos is a wonderful reminder of the grassroots origin of what has now become such a huge, inescapable juggernaut. Many of the subjects in these photos were genuine superstars even then -- Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, Eric B. & Rakim -- but the impression of seeing them all together is one of an organic, youthful movement of street culture and authentic self-expression: young people doing their own thing, and doing it well. 


One of our favorite spots on the Upper East Side is ABV, on 97th and Lexington. They've got a seriously awesome beer list, and you'll never regret going for the fried chicken. 

Image credits: The Museum of the City of New York (photos by Janette Beckman, Joe Conzo and Martha Cooper); and (ABV).