Straight Outta Virginia

Charting The Grooves with William and Mary’s Hip Hop Collection

Kevin Kosanovich with gems from William and Mary's Hip Hop Collection

Jim Pile

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Kevin Kosanovich doesn’t look much like a b-boy. Instead, the College of William and Mary graduate student gives off the veneer of a brainy lacrosse player. Armed with a dry wit, the stocky 33-year-old Saginaw, Michigan native wears glasses, frequents cultural symposiums for fun, and says he’s getting too old to stay out late at night. In many ways, he’s your average white academic fellow living in AnyCollegesville, USA.

But Kevin K., as unassuming as he appears, possesses mad skills.        

The American Studies doctoral candidate can tell you all you want to know about the old-school break dance crews, cocaine rappers and hip-hop street teams of the Old Dominion. The roots of Pharrell, the early days of Missy Elliott, the beginnings of Timbaland, the down low on Danja ... this bespectacled redhead has got, or is getting, the knowledge.         

“How did Hip-Hop come to Virginia? That was something I was really interested in,” Kosanovich tells me as we prepare to enter William and Mary’s Earl Gregg Swem Library together on a 100-degree day in early July. “Who were the people who created this culture?”         

In truth, I feel a little culturally discombobulated, sweaty, surrounded by green grass and restored Colonial brick. Can the only collection devoted to Virginia rap and street culture really be nestled in the bucolic confines of America’s second-oldest academic institution? Is this Bizarro World?         

William and Mary, after all, was established in 1693 by King William III and Queen Mary II. Hip hop and rap music were established in 1979 by the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash.         

“It’s not a natural fit,” Kosanovich admits. “I have had a lot of people look at me funny.” Still, he says, the strange marriage of posses and the Tribe is working out. “Once I went out into the hip-hop community and started talking to folks and asking them to contribute either oral histories or songs and artifacts, that sort of disconnection—William and Mary and hip-hop?—was intriguing to them. They maybe listened to me a little more than if I was from a different school.”         

The college’s Special Collections department, housed in Swem library, includes more than two million printed artifacts, includes treasures like the famous “Frenchman’s Map of Williamsburg” from 1752, the papers of former Supreme Court chief justice Warren Burger (not yet open for scrutiny—please stand by) and memoranda from illustrious presidential alumni such as Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler.       

And now there’s a new joint at Virginia’s oldest academic campus—a real life, balls-on, college-approved hip-hop archive. The William and Mary Hip-Hop Collection joins a half-dozen academic hip-hop research labs, at places like Cornell and Harvard, but is only the second (behind the University of Houston) to have a statewide focus. “It’s definitely a collection that sets William and Mary off from other institutions in Virginia,” says Gerald “Jay” Gaidmore, the director of Special Collections.

The college convened a big one-year anniversary event for its hip-hop survey this past April. It included panel discussions with figures hailing from both academia and the music business, including Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, Tidewater b-girl Zulu Queen MC Lisa Lee and radio personality Angela Castleberry (a.k.a. M$ Blendz). William and Mary’s own S.M.I.L.E.s Crew performed. The break dance squad—an offshoot of the campus B-Boy Club— has been around since 2008, bouncing it out with similar teams from all over the country.         

And then there’s the giant graffiti mural, as painted by visiting art instructor John Lee, which hangs near the doorway of special collections. It’s more than a bit ironic to have it here, prominently displayed, Kosanovich says. “Virginia, along with Arizona, has some of the nation’s strongest anti-graffiti laws.”         

Still, graffiti art, and outsider speech in general, are a part of what has made hip hop such a potent—and still controversial—social force.          

“These wonderful cultures that bubble up that come from classed groups of folks—working poor—it’s a threat to some,” Kosanovich says. “The thinking goes that these are folks that shouldn’t be heard from.”

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