What Do We Owe the Old School?

Plans for a National Museum of Hip-Hop have already hit a major snag: the old school founders of the culture want to get paid. Does the world owe anything to the innovators—who were screwed as subculture became pop culture?

Nothing in hip hop starts on time, so the WSJ's report of troubles making the National Museum of Hip Hop a reality is not particularly surprising. But while these things are always done with the intention of honoring the real founders, the real founders themselves have more concrete concerns.

[A group of "40 rappers and associated veterans"]formed the Universal Federation for Preservation of Hip Hop Culture, a union of sorts with plans to generate revenue for the pioneers. In one proposed scenario, the Federation would license its members' collective memorabilia and oral histories to museums or film productions in exchange for fees.

Hip hop's not unique in this sense. Every time some small group of people get together and found a subculture that later blows up, the second or third generations are the ones that get paid, while the first generation gets a pat on the back.

The problem is that while most fans would agree in the abstract that that's fucked up, nobody then starts sending out "Thanx For the Memories!" checks to Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa. So the old school cats eventually have to stand up and ask for some money, and they come off looking like greedy whiners.

What we have here is simply a case of bad management. The old school people think that they need to leverage their life stories to get paid, because their life stories are all they have. Fine. But don't go shitting on the people trying to put your story in a museum. That's bad PR. Think of that museum as free advertising. Last week, I went to an event for Sedgwick & Cedar, a hip hop clothing line that kicks a portion of its proceeds back to a bunch of old school hip hop artists. (Pictured: Melle Mel and Grandmaster Caz). That's an easy example of what these cats should be doing: leveraging their life stories into cash through commerce, not through extortion. There's a huge fan base with a lot of love for Kool Herc and Busy Bee and all the other people that the original fans may now be telling their grandkids about. Sell those people some t-shirts! And reunion concert tickets! And, you know, Melle Mel "Natural Herbal Fitness Supplements!" There are bound to be some hip hop heads who'd do some brand consulting work for free, for the love. It's not selling out if you get all the money yourself.