Straight Outta Virginia
Charting The Grooves with William and Mary’s Hip Hop Collection
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“What’s the most profitable company in the world right now outside of the oil industry?” Ben Ortiz asks me, calling from Ithaca, N.Y.. It’s a rhetorical question. “Apple,” he says.
The assistant curator of Cornell University’s hip hop collection—established in 2007 and marked as the first of its kind—points out that Apple recently hired rap legend Dr. Dre to be one of its music division’s highest-paid representatives. “This is the same Dr. Dre who, if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have had N.W.A. but also the entire genre of gangsta rap.”
The question we were discussing: Does the academic study of rap risk glorifying the harder-edged side of the music ... the so-called “thug” element?
“If it’s [academia] validating the more salacious of hip hop culture, I would be quick to point out that Apple, and corporate America, is looking past all of that at this point,” Ortiz says with a smile you can feel on the phone.
“The regional story, the story that William and Mary is trying to tell, is the one that will be lost the easiest,” he maintains. “Virginia hip hop’s bigger names, like Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Missy Elliot, Lady of Rage, Mad Skillz, these are people who have grown into being national or international hip-hop figures. Their stories will be told. But the other stories are the ones that will be lost if we don’t save them. Our job should be to save as much of the documentation as possible so that the rest of society can learn from it.”
Back inside the special collections department, a smattering of researchers sits in a reading room. Kevin Kosanovich lowers his voice.
“What we’re trying to show people here is that what you are listening to on the radio has been shaped by Virginia in some way or another,” he says as we take over a conference table to look at artifacts from the W&M collection. He tells me that the idea for the archive came out of research he was doing for his American Studies dissertation and time spent in Cornell (At presstime, he is still waiting to find out if his paper, “Building a Bronx Movement: A Material History of Hip Hop Culture, 1951–1984,” has been successful enough to make him a full-fledged professor of American Studies.)
“I was writing about the emergence of hip-hop and hip-hop culture in the Bronx in the late 70s so I spent a lot of time at the Cornell archives, seeing what a great job they did for that particular history. And I thought: ‘Why can’t we do it down here?’.” Out of the blue, he asked Swem’s [then] acting director of special collections, Amy Schindler, about starting a Virginia hip hop collection. “She agreed and gave it the green light,” he says, still somewhat surprised.
“You don’t picture a white kid with red hair from Michigan being as knowledgeable about hip hop as he is,” Jay Gaidmore says. The gregarious Gaidmore took over Schindler’s position when she left for the University of Nebraska earlier this year. He recalls hearing some of the “library buzz” about William and Mary’s collection when he was working for the University of North Carolina. “It’s great to have someone as knowledgeable as Kevin is, making contacts, making connections. He’s forever throwing out these names and songs and records ... I’m trying to jot them down, and I can never keep up.”
Sitting in piles in the conference room are many of the artifacts collected so far at W&M: The cassette fronts of mid-80s Mighty MCs mixes (Fun fact: Petersburg’s James “Dynamite J” Allen of the Mighty MCs has been identified as Virginia’s first b-boy!), press releases for Timbaland&Magoo LPs; a cute thank you note to fans from Portsmouth’s Missy Elliot, and a grouping of vinyl releases by Tony B., a Norfolk serviceman who was singing karaoke one night in Italy in the mid-80s when a local producer heard him and signed him up; when he came back home after a strange Italo dance music career, he helped famed producer Teddy Riley set up shop in Virginia Beach. It’s this kind of unique story that the archive was created to tell.
Truthfully, the collection’s physical holdings are a bit bare—nothing like Cornell’s 200,000 artifacts—and are clearly a work in progress. It’s the collected oral histories that make the W&M collection special. Currently up to more than 100 interviews, all of them accessible online at swem.wm.edu, these oral testimonies (conducted by Kosanovich) are a treasure trove of uncollected history about a genre that rarely receives such regional scrutiny.
“It’s a game of relationships,” Kosanovich says when I ask him how he gets to his subjects. “You meet enough people and let them know what we’re doing, and you let them know that it is being done with the hip hop community in mind and just keep building from there.”
He hasn’t got to Missy, Pharrell or Timbaland yet, but he’s hopeful that they will all one day add their personal stories to the collection. The guys in Clipse and the now retired (Mad) Skillz, all of them. The biggest “name” to go on the record so far is Melvin Barcliff, a.k.a. Magoo. “Timbaland and Magoo knew each other growing up, then they started a b-boy crew called Playboys Express, then they were in Surrounded by Idiots,” Kevin K. says. “Magoo does a lot of stuff behind the scenes now, real estate as well as music career counseling. I was happy that he wanted to do an oral history with us because I think it was the most soulful interview we’ve done.”
There are other illuminating conversations, like the interview with Ike Owens, the man who put future producer-stars Pharrell Williams and Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley inside a studio for the first time. He’s a pivotal figure in the area’s music history, not just hip hop history. His grand-uncle, Henry Owens, was once in the classic lineup of the pioneering gospel group the Golden Gate Quartet.”
“I was a runner, I was a roadie ... in those days, you did everything,” Owens tells me of his days promoting and working local concerts by Public Enemy, Run DMC and other national acts. “It’s phenomenal that William and Mary is doing this history, and doing it now. For all of our stories, you see, they intertwine, and the history is all coming together.”
Owens was working in “a little studio in Portsmouth” in the early ’90s when Magoo, Timbaland and a guy named Larry “Live” Lyons came by with their “little group.” Pharrell was part of their crew.
Most of the seminal material that was cut—under the name Surrounded by Idiots—has never been officially released (“if those guys wanted it out, it would come out”). Still, those homegrown experiments provided a template that those producers—and their many successors in Virginia Beach and beyond—now use for not only hip hop jams, but top international pop hits crafted for the likes of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Nelly Furtado.
“We have a sound in Virginia that is very, very exclusive and that Virginia hip hop sound has revolutionized hip hop music,” Owens says. “It’s the Virginia drums. Coastal Virginia producers and artists have very distinctive drums, like Pharrell’s stuff—it doesn’t matter who the artist is, you know Pharrell produced that beat.”
“If you can’t dance to it, it’s not a Virginia thing.”