Grant Allows Cornell Hip Hop Collection to Process Afrika Bambaataa Archive

Thanks to a $260,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Cornell Hip Hop Collection will be processing the archive of hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa.

“If something is not online,” Ben Ortiz, assistant curator of the CHHC, said. “It just doesn’t exist these days.”

The CHHC has been compiling Bambaataa’s archive for about two years, and part of having the archive of an artist that is still living is that it will continue to grow over time. Ortiz explained the archive resides in approximately 600 individual boxes consisting of tens of thousands of vinyl records, books, papers and personal notes, even clothing and jewelry.

On the sleeves of the vinyl, Bambaataa would assign each record a number as he continued the collection. The archive consists of music from a variety of genres, not just hip-hop, ranging from artists like Aretha Franklin to Carlos Santana.

“He annotated some of the record sleeves indicating his ownership, or sometimes indicating on the back of the record what song he likes on the album,” Ortiz said. “That is a particular dynamic I think would be analogous to buying lots of music on iTunes and then creating a playlist of the songs you really like.”

With the help of the grant, the plan is to scan the vinyl sleeves and other personal notes onto a computer for online availability. Some of the rarest music, like demos and acetates, will be digitized, but not released online due to copyright concerns. The uniqueness of the albums is not in their content, but rather that they were used by Bambaataa as he helped to create the hip-hop universe.

The CHHC was started in 2007 when Johan Kugelberg, a former record executive turned collector, donated the collection he had started in 1999 to the Cornell University Rare and Manuscript Collection. Katherine Reagan, the curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, assembled an advisory board for the collection, and Ortiz was one of the members. He became assistant curator in 2011.

According to Ortiz, the collection started with roughly 5,000 individual items, photographs, vinyl records, flyers and ephemera. Now he estimates the collection consists of around 300,000 items, as a lot has been compiled in less than a decade.

The relationship between Bambaataa and Cornell started in 2008. He took part in panels and other discussions at the university, along with performing at local clubs. In July 2012, he was appointed visiting scholar for three years. Before finishing his term in the fall of 2015, Bambaataa visited the campus several times per year, interacting with the community.

Bambaataa was the first person to promote the title “hip-hop” to the media, therefore introducing the phrase to the world.

Growing up in the South Bronx in the 1960s and ‘70s, Bambaataa was a member of the Black Spades gang, but gang violence began to slow down with the effort of him and others promoting bonding through music.

“The gangs, sort of, crumbled with hip-hop being the phoenix that came out of those ashes,” Ortiz said.

Through his creation of the universal hip-hop awareness group called the Zulu Nation, Bambaataa promoted peace, unity, love and having fun. In the Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, people do not get too many chances to step outside of their neighborhood. Fortunately for them, they had Bambaataa, who Ortiz described as a musical tour guide.

“It is clear that we are talking about an individual who has a great reverence for human culture and all of its diversity,” Ortiz said. “You can tell that he was somebody who really loved to expose people to new forms of music that they probably haven’t heard.”

After looking through the archive and spending time with Bambaataa, Ortiz refers to him as a leader. Bambaataa is still trying to evolve and grow, striving to learn and expand his self-knowledge. As someone learns more, they obtain the ability to teach others as well.

“People in every corner of the globe, young people in third world countries and impoverished neighborhoods,” said Ortiz, “Appreciate and aspire to be hip-hop artists because the culture has been disseminated throughout the world by the Zulu Nation, and many others, but most importantly and most notably the Zulu Nation.”

Ortiz estimated the processing would be complete in three or four years. With the extent of Bambaataa’s still-growing archive, he will need to assemble a team to help him with the process.

“That would take me a decade to do by myself if I worked on it every minute of every day,” Ortiz said.

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