AADHum’s final digital humanities incubator session last semester, entitled “Representing Movement”, explored how we can use GIS to document travel and movement. To prepare for the Incubator, the AADHum team decided to construct ea series of maps based on the lyrics of some of Atlanta’s most well-known rappers. We were motivated by an interest in how we might represent space through a non-hegemonic lens, having reflected on how we, as scholars, create archives and the tensions that arise in using digital tools to do that work. More specifically, we wondered: How would Atlanta look if you used Black oral history in rap as a starting place?
Our team worked together to brainstorm artists, songs, and location references rappers mentioned, entering them into an Excel sheet that we uploaded to Airtable.com to help us quickly identify links among lyrics, places, producers and artists. Pairing our list of place references with their geographic coordinates helped reveal patterns in the kinds of places various artists referenced. We quickly realized through this exercise that Atlanta’s musical sound actually seemed to emerge primarily from about four specific Metro Atlanta regions .
Our MITH colleague Ed Summers, a talented programmer, engaged our list with the Application Programming Interface (API) of Genius.com, the popular lyrics website with detailed song and artist information including lyrics, who produced the track, and the song’s album. APIs allow programmers to request data from websites like Genius.com in a format suitable for data analysis, providing us with a much fuller dataset. Ed converted that data into a CSV file which we uploaded into Google Fusion Tables, allowing us to identify geographic coordinates to map locations referenced in lyrics – and to develop a visualization of producers and artists networks (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. A visualization of networks between rap artists and producers in Atlanta
Our visualization of these network ties not only revealed how Atlanta rappers produced sounds localized in different parts of the city, it also helped us trace soundscapes in one of the South’s rap capitals. Rapper Gucci Mane’s songs, who comes out of East Atlanta, for instance, were filled with references to East Atlanta landmarks like strip clubs, streets, and even gas stations where he once passed out his mixtapes. Even more intriguing, our analysis revealed that Gucci Mane frequently used beats from Zaytoven, an East Atlanta producer and their collaboration gave rise to the co-cultivation of the “trap sound,” as Zaytoven continued making music with artists elsewhere in the city. On another front, as Gucci Mane’s brought his trap lyrical stylings to music produced by Hollywood staples like Pharrell and Scott Storch, Atlanta’s trap sound made progress from East Atlanta to the global stage.
The analysis stimulated a conversation among incubator participants about how scholars choose to archive hip hop artists and the communities they rap about – particularly the need to reflect on how our positionality and privilege shapes archival work. Several area scholars felt like our insights from our analysis of Atlanta’s rap scene were consistent with their lived experience, leading them to suggest ways that the academy could better engage Black voices in developing rap archives. Similarly, recognizing how Atlanta’s rap scene is dominated mostly by Black men, some White scholars raised questions about their privileges and biases in interpreting these visualizations. Although many fields study Black people and their cultural production through a deficit lens, the kind of archival work represented in our incubator challenged assumptions about Black people’s lack of resources or ability to innovate.
The Search for Hip Hop Archives
Inspired by our Incubator, I began reflecting on how rarely scholars used their academic toolkit to develop digital archives of rap as a cultural artform, leading me to search the internet for rap archives and collections. Most of the ones I found were privately owned or housed in universities, each offering a wide variety of artefacts. While universities tended to offer access to their archives free to the public, privately owned archives tend to require a fee to access.These archives reveal a diverse range of artifacts we can consider when constructing a hip hop collection – from lyrics and digital recordings to magazines and albums.
Creating this list made me think about the biases we bring to the narratives we make about Black culture through the interpretation of artefacts. For example, the analysis AADHum did on Atlanta rappers featured mostly commercial artists because our datasets seldom included lyrics from indie artists. While Genius.com might provide lyrics to mainstream hits, Soundcloud remains home to up and coming rappers. This particular site, however, does not provide the service of indexing an artist’s lyrical production the way Genius.com does.
Searching for archives also made me think about how scholars can use archives to make a community’s cultural production visible and what these archives might constitute. For instance, as a social media researcher, I think about whether or not Instagram pictures or posts on Twitter should be archived for hip hop posterity.
I created this brief list of archives I found as a resource for others interested in similar questions. While these archives represent profound efforts to illuminate the scholarly connections within hip hop, the list also reflects additional directions archivists could explore to broaden the scope of digital collections on rap. Check them out below!
Adler Hip Hop Archive
Cornell University is home to a visual digital collection of over 1,000 photos of artists like Public Enemy and LL Cool J. Each image comes with a title, noting the artist pictured, and date the photo was taken. In addition to photos of events, the collection includes images of letters, billboard charts, and news articles related to the rise of hip hop in the 90s.
The Digital Music Archives
This digital collection began as 50,000 vinyl albums stored in Decatur, Georgia. Curated by archivist Abiyome Manrique, the collection started out as Ear Wax Records, a popular music store located in Atlanta that closed recently. Their collection spans Black music from 1960 to 2015. In addition to hip hop, the collection includes digitized versions of other genres including blues, jazz, gospel, and rock & roll . However, unlike some of the other academic archives, this particular archive costs money to access.
Hiphop Archive & Research Institute at the Hutchins Center
Dr. Marcyliena Morgan founded the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard in 2002. It was permanently established as part of the DuBois Institute (now Hutchins Center) in 2008. The group dedicates the hiphoparchive.org database to Hiphop legends like 2Pac and Lauryn Hill while also making room for newcomers like Kendrick Lamar. The archive features blog posts, citations for the project in various publications, and digital archives for each album that highlight other albums inspired by that work.
Houston Hip Hop Research Collection
The University of Houston libraries offers a diverse range of resources related to hip hop from one of the most musical cities in the south. The collection features over 1,000 vinyl records formerly owned by Houston native DJ Screw who originated the chopped and screwed sound. Further, the collection includes lyrics, photographs, and other artifacts. Beyond that, the collection highlights the contributions of Hispanic hip hop artists in the Houston scene.
Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive
The Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive launched in 2016 out of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The archive contains the Lecco’s Lemma Collection, a series of recordings of a radio show founded by Magnus Johnstone that ran from 1985 to 1988. Recorded at local stations WMBR (88.1 FM) and WZBC (90.3 FM), the collection illuminates the sounds of rappers from late 1980s Boston, a city not often highlighted in popular narratives about the rise of hip hop.
Music Magazine Archive Hip Hop & Rap
NA Publishing Inc provides one of the few privately owned archives available online. The company has shared its collection of rap magazines with universities like Rice and Duke for educational purposes. These magazines document the performances of musicians, DJs, and other artists in the urban hip hop scene. They offer glimpses into the fashion, cars and other material culture associated with the genre.
NOLA Hiphop and Bounce Archive
A project out of Tulane University, the NOLA Hiphop and Bounce Archive includes over two decades worth of New Orlean’s unique hip hop sound. The archive offers a historical explanation of the evolution of bounce music and its relationship to other New Orleans traditions like Mardi Gras. The archive features photographs and video interviews with some of the influential producers and soundmakers in the area hiphop scene.
Northside Hip Hop Archive
While stories of hip hop history often revolve around New York or West Coast rappers, the Northside Hip Hop Archive highlights the contributions of Canadian artists. The archive features audio, visual, and material culture from the late 80s to the present. The project is still growing and will soon feature bibliographies, book and film reviews as well as other learning tools.
Tupac Amara Shakur Collection Conference
This gathering of scholars took place in 2012 at the Atlanta University Center. The organizers gathered the abstracts and videos of the lecture into a list of resources centered on the revolutionary rap artist known as Tupac Shakur. The scholars analyzed the rapper’s lyrics, handwritten notes, videos and albums. The collection is unique in its insertion of academic analysis into the archive of rap music.