Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop Exhibit Experience

by Luke Notkin

Graffiti panel by Specs Wizard at the opening of the exhibit.

Graffiti panel by Specs Wizard at the opening of the exhibit.

Music from the Emerald Street Boys fills the room. A large spray paint mural greets you. Macklemore’s thrift shop fur coat and scooter are displayed in a glass box.

Visitors are led down a timeline, beginning with Program Director Robert L. Scott of KYAC  playing “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, marking the birth of hip-hop in Seattle. Six years later “Nastymix Records,”  the first Seattle hip-hop label, was founded by Ed Locke, ‘Nasty’ Nes, and Sir Mix-A-Lot. The exhibit shows how Seattle quickly became a gold mine for hip-hop.

A display board at the entrance to the exhibit opens with a quote from Dr. Daudi Abe, Seattle hip-hop historian, explaining what makes Seattle hip-hop so special: “There are a number of characteristics which define Seattle emcees, however two stand out in particular: One is the importance of representing home. A song like ‘Posse On Broadway’ exported specific aspects of Seattle street culture to the world. Throughout the years, local artists continue to reference their hometown and release ballads about the city.”

Seattle rap music is full of songs for the city that represent the true voice of Seattle. Songs like  “The Town,” “The Ave,” and “My Oh My,” reinforce the city pride Seattle is known for.

“The other key characteristic is a willingness to be different. Local Grammy Award winners have done so by challenging cultural norms, and while their names are known worldwide, they reflect the legacy of emcees from Seattle and the community that continues to produce them,” Dr. Abe said.  

The exhibit makes clear that for local artists, hip-hop is about more than just the music. It is about the issues affecting the city.

In the back corner a projector plays old episodes of “Coolout Network” a show dedicated to Seattle rappers and b-boys. The Coolout network is a place for local artists and dancers to gain recognition in Seattle, and later break into the radio and television scene.

While the exhibit emphasizes the personality and intimacy of Seattle’s hip-hop scene, it seems to be lacking those characteristics itself. The room is scattered with artifacts and graffiti art by locals in an attempt to give the visitor the feeling of being close to artists they know and love. But it feels bland. The space is small, the layout is hard to follow, and for an exhibit about music the room is rather silent.

There are a few interactive stations to try and get visitors to engage with the exhibit. One corner of the room is turned into a lifted dance floor with videos encouraging people to breakdance and there were listening and mixing stations where visitors could “write their own rhymes,” or pick apart Seattle songs. These interactive elements feel a little forced and overly complicated. The rest of the exhibit does not bring the attendee closer to Seattle hip-hop.

The exhibit not only lacks content, but it also lacks visitors. I look around to see my only company is a middle aged couple who stands on the raised wood floor watching a video of the Massive Monkees dancing at a Sonics halftime show. It seems as though no one knows it’s there. The curators seem confused as to who their target audience is. Mohai advertises it as a way to experience Seattle, but presents an incomplete display.

Hip-hop is a large contributor to Seattle culture, music, street art, lifestyle, and fashion. While the exhibit does give an overview of the legacy of Seattle hip-hop, it does not show why Seattle’s hip-hop scene is so special.

Photo by: Courtesy of Mohai

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