Straight Outta Virginia
Charting The Grooves with William and Mary’s Hip Hop Collection
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.”
“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.”
What has the William and Mary Hip-Hop Collection uncovered about the early days of the genre?
For one thing, Coastal Virginia was into the music from the very beginning, Kevin K. says. “Radio stations like WRAP [in Portsmouth] and some of the older stations was spinning the first records in 1979, like “Rapper’s Delight” [Sugarhill Gang] and Fatback Band’s “King Tim … we’ve done a lot of interviews with people who have memories of driving around with their parents, and listening to the radio, and being galvanized by these people rapping or talking over the music.”
“The early movies, Beat Street, Wild Style and Style Wars, they were all very popular here in Coastal Virginia. They really piqued the interest of kids in the early ’80s.” The first real hip-hoppers in Virginia were the b-boys—the break dancers. “It was really the dancing that led them to making music. It’s crazy to think how young they were—10,11,12—and they are participating in this new culture, inventing this new culture. It’s kind of wild.”
So far, there have been very few vinyl records uncovered by the archivist. Early Virginia rappers made cassette tapes and sold them out of the back of their car (later, artists would burn their tracks to CD-R). The disposal part of the culture is one reason that it’s important to collect all of this material now, Jay Gaidmore says, before it disappears into the digital abyss.
“With the hip hop stuff, they have their photos on their phone, or saved as mp3s. What’s going to happen to them when the phone gets switched out or the computer is replaced?” Archivists, for many years,have collected music from Virginia, he says —“the 1927 Bristol Sessions and whatnot. But it’s always a game of catch up. So we’re dealing with all of this now, while people are still alive.”
“It’s ephemeral culture,” Kosanovich adds. “A lot of the flyers now are being generated digitally; they may not even get printed as posters.” But all of it is important, he maintains. “Give us your Photoshop, give us your gifs, get that digital record to us so we can preserve it,” the archivist says, mock pleading.
The College of William and Mary’s enthusiasm for this Hip Hop Collection notwithstanding, its future is uncertain. Kevin Kosanovich may or may not be at Swem much longer. There are hopes to bring him in for a year on a part-time basis, but that (or anything further) requires donors, honoraria, sponsorships—the usual academic funding stuff. In the meantime, the rap-minded redhead is looking for a real job.
“Obviously, if Kevin left, we’d have to rethink our approach,” Gaidmore says. “But whether Kevin is here or not, we’re fully committed to him, and to the hip hop community, to keep the collection going.”
“I’d love to stay,” the man himself says. “But I may get a position somewhere else.”
When I trade a firm handshake goodbye with Kosanovich, outside of Swem library, it’s still sweltering. But my head is clearer and I have a newfound respect for the inclusionary nature of cultural institutions set in idyllic locales. I also have no doubt in my mind that, if the man behind the college’s Hip-Hop Collection should leave for, say, the University of Dayton, that there will be a burgeoning Ohio Hip-Hop Collection developing very, very soon. Kevin Kosanovich doesn’t just have mad skills; he’s a builder.
Driving out of Williamsburg with the AC on, I flip around on the radio and eventually run into the closing minute of “Happy,” the gazillion-selling hit that Pharrell released last year. I’ve heard it played so many times that I almost can’t process it anymore. But listening again, I very quickly realize that Ike Owens is right—it’s the drums, those Virginia drums. And the beat goes on.