Ithaca Times

Unbound from the Underground: Ithaca prepares to celebrate hip hop culture with movement’s icons

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Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 12:00 am

Hip hop isn't just music, it's a culture.

That much will be evident in Ithaca April 4-7 when icons from the birth of the cultural movement descend upon our city to share their experiences. A who’s who list of the people who created hip hop music, graffiti writing and b-boying/b-girling (commonly known as breakdancing) will be on hand to talk about the importance of its elements, what led to its creation and how it has evolved.

Ben Ortiz, assistant curator for the Cornell Hip Hop Collection, said the unveiling of “Now Scream!” has been in the works for the past two years and as the CHHC got closer to the exhibition opening, they learned of the Tompkins County Public Library’s interest in putting something together about hip hop.

“We decided about a year ago to join forces and put together an entire weekend of events,” Ortiz said, “to continue to put Ithaca on the map, so to speak, for the hip hop community worldwide.”

One perception of Ithaca may be that of a hippie vibe, but hip hop has been a vital part of the area’s music scene for some time.

“Anybody who doesn’t associate hip hop with Ithaca probably hasn’t been paying attention,” Ortiz said, noting the longstanding Grassroots Festival has featured hip hop acts among its variety of musical acts. “They’ve had the Gunpoets, which a lot of people associate with the Ithaca music scene, as well as Thousands of One. They also have live bands, along the lines of something like The Roots, for example.

“Ithaca has gotten a particular reputation, but it’s time to update Ithaca’s reputation to include its place in the hip hop community,” he added.

In addition, Cornell is home to the nation’s largest archive of hip hop culture artifacts — as well as having appointed the “Godfather of Hip Hop” DJ Afrika Bambaataa as a visiting scholar.

“The Cornell Hip Hop Collection arrived in 2007, there was a major conference to inaugurate it in 2008. That’s when Afrika Bambaataa, among many others, made his first visit to Ithaca and he’s been coming back steadily since then,” Ortiz said. “Hip hop belongs at the highest levels of academia. You can look at any discipline — sociology, English, music, dance and so forth — and you can see where hip hop fits in.

“Hip hop has informed everything about popular music in 2013,” he added. “Anyone who doesn’t see hip hop as music has a severely uninformed definition of music. That's just talking about the music, let alone all the other art forms in hip hop culture.”

The idea behind the weekend’s events is two-fold: To educate and celebrate.

“The central goal is education about the culture,” said Ortiz. “The other would be celebration, because we are celebrating this entire community. The fact is the pioneers of this culture have informed so much of this world today and, for some of us, guided who we are for our entire lives.

“This will be the second visit from our visiting scholar (Bambaataa), which itself warrants celebration, but there are also a large group of other pioneers and influencers coming to Ithaca to help us understand the culture and building with each other moving forward.”

Cornell Hip Hop Collection will unveil "Now Scream! - The Cornell Hip Hop Collection Exhibition" from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, April 4, at 2B Kroch Library at Cornell. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, as well as from 1-5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The CHHC currently includes more than 50,000 items and “Now Scream!” is its first comprehensive exhibition. The exhibit includes rare and classic vinyl records, photos, event flyers, live performances and interview recordings, artwork and many more unique artifacts.

Ithaca also will play host to approximately 50 graffiti artists over the course of the weekend, as they will be painting the Cornell University Press building. Called “Get-Up State,” the graffiti event is being presented by the group ‘cap matches color,’ which has made it its mission to document and record vintage spray paint ephemera and graffiti artifacts.

Over the three days of the event, artists will be painting the building and spectators are encouraged to come out and view the work as it progresses.

“It will be totally open for people to come and observe, to wander around the outside of the building and see the work,” said a cap matches color representative who did not wish to be personally identified.

He noted the company Ironlak, based in Australia, has donated all of the paint for “Get-Up State.”

“It was such a generous gift, I don’t even know what to say,” he said. “They were willing to donate all of the colors.”

Artists are traveling not only from up and down the East Coast, but also places such as Sweden, Montreal, Toronto, the Midwest and the Bronx.

“I reached out to a lot of really great people, prolific people who have painted all over the world,” said the cap matches color representative. “The headline people that are coming are really excited about it. Like the hip hop events going on, this is a gathering of amazing, talented graffiti artists.”

“It’s really a humbling thing that so many people are able and willing to come. I can’t even believe it. It’s like that for the whole weekend, though. The amount of prominent people coming to one place is mind blowing,” the cap matches color representative said. “I can’t think of another event in this size in a major city in the last five or 10 years, and it’s happening here in Ithaca, New York. Hopefully our community will come and observe and enjoy it.”

Cornell University student Dajahi Wiley was working on an event with the Native American Students at Cornell to bring the Native American hip hop group Antithesis to campus. The group liked the idea and it grew to include The Welfare Poets and Kiki, all groups that explore activism and social change from the perspective of indigenous cultures.

What it evolved into was it becoming a part of the weekend’s events with a panel discussion, “Unbound from the Underground: An exploration of Hip-Hop activism and social change from Indigenous and other cultural perspectives,” taking place at 3 p.m. Saturday on the third floor of Appel Commos on Cornell’s north campus. The panel discussion will feature The Welfare Poets, Antithesis, Kiwi, as well as photographer Ernie Paniccioli. The three groups will perform later that evening, at 8 p.m., at G10 Biotech Building at Cornell.

“If you look at the topical content of the work they put out, their music deals with political and socially-conscious themes; I wanted people to go to the concert with an understanding of what their music is about,” Wiley said of the idea behind creating the panel discussion. “It will allow the artists to communicate their beliefs and it gives people a chance to ask them questions.”

As for what he hopes to see come from the discussion? A better understanding of what hip hop music is about.

“I want people to have a greater appreciate for hip hop as a vehicle for promoting activism and social change,” Wiley said. “I want people to engage criticially, not just with the music, but issues we face in society.

“Giving people the opportunity to engage with the music in this way will be a productive way for them to gain some of those insights,” he added.

Wiley also was responsible for coming up with the name for the weekend’s events — Unbound from the Underground.

“My thought process, looking at the origins of hip hop, where it came from as a form of cultural expression of people living in the inner cities in the United States, specificially in New York City, in the South Bronx, and it was underground,” he said. “There’s been a global expansion of hip hop into an international art form, that’s where the unbound came from.”

In addition to the unveiling of the Cornell Hip Hop Collection exhibit, two other exhibits — those at the Tompkins County Public Library and the History Center of Tompkins County — will be highlighted during the weekend’s celebration.

The exhibition, “Top 2 Bottom — A Journey Through The Elements of Hip-Hop Culture,” will open from 5-8 p.m. Friday, April 5, at the Tompkins County Public Library. The exhibit, curated by Jason Otero of Ithaca’s Art and Anthropology, is multi-facted. It will feature the work of hip hop photographers Joe Conzo and Ernie Paniccioli, a new collection by Ithacan Jay Stooka, a showcase of early hip hop memorabilia and materials from the collection of cap matches color, a group devoted to collecting graffiti memorabilia and ephemera.

In addition to the opening of the library’s exhibition, TCPL also will host a panel discussion at 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 5, featuring Conzo and Panicciolo, and moderated by Sean Eversley Bradwell, assistant professor at Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity. The panel also will include appearances by legends such as Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, JDL, Richard “Crazy Legs” Colon, Popmaster Fabel, Charlie Ahearn, Buddy Esquire and Mare139.

The History Center of Tompkins County opened its exhibit, “Decay to DJ: Exploring the Roots of Hip Hop,” at the beginning of March, but will host an event from 6-8 p.m. Saturday, April 6. The exhibit, which features the photos of Conzo, tells the story of the birth of hip hop in the Bronx in the early 1970s. On hand for the April 6 event will be Conzo, as well as fellow South Bronx native and Ithaca resident, Eldred Harris, and Jorge "Popmaster Fabel" of the Rock Steady Crew and Tools of War to give a presentation on the history of destruction and rebirth in the South Bronx during the early days of hip hop culture.

Other events talking place during the weekend include a public panel discussion featuring DJ Afrika Bambaataa, MC Sha-Rock of the Funky 4 Plus 1 More (Hip Hop's first influential female MC), Rahiem of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (the first Hip Hop group inducted into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame), and filmmaker Timothy C. Brown Sr. (who shot the earliest known footage of a hip hop performance in 1977, which features the Funky 4 and others). The event, which is free, will take place on Friday, April 5, at the Cornell Cinema theater, Willard Straight Hall.

There also will be a 30th anniversary screening of "Wild Style," with a panel discussion featuring the director, Charlie Ahearn, and stars of the film, Grandmaster Caz and JDL of the legendary Cold Crush Brothers, and Crazy Legs of the world-famous Rock Steady Crew. The showing at 9 p.m. Friday, April 5, will take place at Cinemapolis, 120 E. Green St. Tickets are $9.50; students and seniors pay $8.

Ortiz encouraged people — even those with little knowledge about hip hop culture — to take part in the celebration.

“The people who don’t fully understand hip hop culture can get a full undersanding of what the culture is — writing, b-boying/b-girling, MCing, DJing and the knowledge that holds them all together,” he said. “This weekend has something for everybody. For hip hop heads, it’s going to be a celebration of your culture that you know and love.

“For the uninitiated, you will get a fuller understanding of what hip hop is all about — its history, its art, its true meaning,” Ortiz added. “I would encourage people from all walks of life to come to these events, because hip hop is something that is worldwide. It’s mainstream pop culture, but also mainstream youth culture. It’s pervasive, it’s everywhere.”


For more information about Unbound from the Underground, including links to all participating organizations and facilities, visit

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