The sound of the street

Chris Mugan sees an exhibition on the origins of hip hop
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The Independent Culture

Britain's first exhibition devoted to hip-hop culture is well timed. Only two weeks ago, the US Top 10 singles chart reached a historic milestone, as every artist in it was black and every track inspired in some way by the genre that has outlasted punk and disco.

Britain's first exhibition devoted to hip-hop culture is well timed. Only two weeks ago, the US Top 10 singles chart reached a historic milestone, as every artist in it was black and every track inspired in some way by the genre that has outlasted punk and disco.

Yes Yes Y'All celebrates the first 10 years of hip hop, from its emergence in South Bronx block parties to its arrival with Run DMC as a worldwide phenomenon. It also happens to be the inaugural exhibition at new arts venue The Hospital. Many of the tatty club flyers and grainy photos on show were first seen in Seattle's pop-culture museum, Experience Music Project, but Mark Pringle, curator of the exhibition at The Hospital, has gone further.

"The Seattle exhibition was more of a family show, but in London we're expecting more knowledgeable fans. We'll be playing music loud to give people an idea of what club jams and park jams were like," he says, evidently aware that even the most casual fan of the genre knows of pioneers like Kool Herc, who failed to cash in. The accompanying book fleshes out such characters and recounts how they emerged from New York's roughest streets.

Yes Yes Y'All reveals how the likes of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa stood up to gang violence. Denied access to downtown clubs, they were forced to put on parties in their own neighbourhoods and create their own security forces. Bambaataa actively fostered unity in streets where you once had to wear gang colours for safety. Partly thanks to him and his peers, gang culture in New York faded until the arrival of NWA and cocaine in the Eighties. Today, hip-hop labels, such as Deathrow Records, seem to be run along gang lines, with rivalries occasionally spilling over into violence.

Hip hop was a means of self-expression. Blown-up photos and films of the period reveal a vibrant world where almost anyone could contribute. You had the breakdancing b-boys and graffiti artists moving from tagging gang symbols to designing flyers. Even gang members notorious for robbing and dealing could gain respect providing security for the emerging crews of DJs and MCs. Nowadays, the focus is on producers and rappers, with a firm emphasis on entrepreneurs - the Dr Dres and P Diddys of the industry. While such figures may nurture new talent, such as Eminem, their stables hold a near-monopoly on outlets.

We should celebrate the creation of a multimillion dollar industry, but not forget that hip hop originated in, and can still come up from, the streets. Yes Yes Y'All closes on a positive note, depicting a new generation of b-boys and b-girls as far afield as Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. A posse of Havana MCs rapping in their native tongue about life in Cuba may be a million miles from the plush offices of Deathrow Records, but they are close to the South Bronx communities where hip hop began.

Yes Yes Y'All is at The Hospital, 24 Endell Street, London, 24 October - 23 January (020-7170 9159)

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