Oct. 8, 2009

Hip-hop historian takes center stage at NYC Library Salon

Hip-hop collector, historian and author Johan Kugelberg praised the leadership of Cornell librarians during the latest Library Salon, held Oct. 6 at the Union League Club in New York City.

Kugelberg, whose gift of archival materials in 2007 became the foundation of the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection, told almost 200 alumni and friends that many of New York's best-known institutions showed no interest in receiving his material before Katherine Reagan, Cornell's Ernest L. Stern Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, finally "got it."

"Institutions are filled with the well-preserved histories of power and privilege," said Kugelberg, who serves on the Cornell University Library Advisory Council. "Hip-hop was about neighborhood leaders, grassroots artistic expression and Saturday night jams." These artists "gave no thought to self-documentation," he said.

Reagan, introducing Kugelberg, shared one of Cornell co-founder Andrew Dickson White's ideas. "White believed that students learned better from original documents," she said. "The hip-hop collection is A.D. White's principles come to life."

Kugelberg told the crowd that he spent more than six years in the Bronx, looking for source material. Eventually he befriended such hip-hop pioneers as DJ Disco Wiz (Luis Cedeño), hip-hop's first Latin American DJ; and Joe Conzo, a photographer whose pictures of early hip-hop gatherings feature prominently in Kugelberg's book, "Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip-Hop." Conzo and Cedeño spoke at the event.

"Hip-hop was just poor kids trying to make their own fun, create their own platform," Cedeño told the crowd. "The only other options were jail or the grave."

"I was a poor Latino kid with an Angela Davis afro who listened to disco," said Conzo. "Somehow I got kidnapped by the energy of the hip-hop movement." Conzo said he was "thrilled [his] work is now on the same shelves as the Gettysburg Address."

Cornell's hip-hop collection spans the earliest days of hip-hop from the 1970s to 1980s. It includes more than 1,000 early sound recordings, a photographic archive and more than 500 handmade party and club flyers designed by Buddy Esquire and others. A gift of 14,000 additional sound recordings recently expanded Cornell's holdings.

Anne Kenney, the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, said Cornell is "much enriched by the acquisition of the [hip-hop] collection, which guarantees it will be preserved for future generations."

Kenney, who created the Library Salon events, said the idea came from the tradition of literary salons. They "provide an opportunity for Cornell alumni and friends to gather and engage in intellectual discussions on research, current events and ideas as they relate to the role of research libraries in the academy," Kenney said.

After the event, Henry Steinglass '62 said he was impressed that Cornell would see the value in such a collection. "Our culture tends to lose track of things we should keep track of," he said.

The free event was sponsored by William Gratz '53, James Bruno, Martha Coultrap '71 and Harvey Bagg, and Cornell University Library.

John Mikytuck '90 is a freelance journalist, writer and producer living in New York City.