If you thought the conversation regarding Seattle hip-hop started with Sir Mix-A-Lot and ended with Macklemore, do yourself a favor and head to the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI).
“The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop” is the latest special exhibit at the museum. Tucked in the corner of the building, a large room is devoted to exploring the rich roots Seattle has with the music and culture of hip-hop. The exhibit, curated by Jazmyn Scott and Aaron Walker-Loud, does more than take a look at hit songs; it breaks down the history revolving around the music as well.
With bright colors and music playing from various corners of the room, the exhibit begins by acknowledging the media forms that really elevated hip-hop culture in the city during the early 1990s. The Coolout Network was a hip-hop channel that debuted on public access television in 1991. It catapulted many underground artists to a level that hadn’t been achieved before. In footage from the network’s broadcast, artists recall the first time they saw their videos on television and being recognized in Seattle. Its critical role alongside other media outlets in elevating Seattle hip-hop as an art form is clear in the anecdotes presented.
Radio also played an important role in hip-hop’s transition from underground to mainstream. KYAC 1250 AM’s Robert L. Scott is recognized as the first disc jockey to play Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a 1979 hit track that many deem the first popular rap song. Nasty Ness is also a founding person in the legacy of Seattle hip-hop, with his radio show “Fresh Tracks.” As the first Northwest hip-hop show, “Fresh Tracks” broke major records from Emerald Street Boys, Sir Mix-A-Lot and more.
“The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop” allows for listeners to become active participants rather than simply absorb historical timelines. In one corner, museum-goers can listen to instrumental tracks created by local artists. Notebooks are available to jot down your thoughts and rhymes as they come.
Another area looks at production, highlighting prolific Northwest producers like Jake One and Vitamin D. Two monitors and sound control boards allow visitors to remix a record and compare their production skills to the original song. A dance floor takes up a corner for people to breakdance behind iconic videos of the Seattle SuperSonic halftime performances. Graffiti, break dancing, emceeing, fashion and deejaying all are cornerstones of what makes hip-hop what it is. Each has a place in the exhibit, completing the history in a well-rounded manner.
Because of its isolated nature, Seattle’s hip-hop scene has developed unlike that in other major cities. The unique blending of genres and sound that developed in the Northwest sets it apart from Atlanta’s trap music or Los Angeles’ gangsta rap. While sounds are now blending, what the MOHAI exhibit makes clear is that what Seattle does have is a community driven hip-hop culture that extends beyond headphones and into action that betters the city. Organizations, such as 206 Zulu, develop programs that incorporate hip-hop with social justice teaching, and internationally recognized dance crew Massive Monkees have opened a studio in Beacon Hill to do the same.
Macklemore’s 2005 song “White Privilege” is played in its entirety in the exhibit. The rapper has seen commercial success, winning four Grammys with Ryan Lewis. The two recently released a controversial sequel to the song, “White Privilege II,” which examines issues of appropriation and white supremacy, while partnering with organizations that are working to undo racism on local and national levels.
Artists such as Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Gabriel Teodros, Blue Scholars, Gifted Gab, Raz Simone and more are proof that Seattle’s hip-hop culture is far from dry. It continues to unfold as music — by, for and about the Seattle community — by carving space to fit in today’s sound while also acknowledging the legacies of those who came before. MOHAI’s exhibit brings the new listener along for the ride.
Where: MOHAI, 860 Terry Ave. N | When: Through May 1 | Cost: Adults, $17; Seniors (62 and over), $15; Students and Military, $14; Members and Youth under 14, free