The forgotten music of Boston’s early hip-hop and rap scene is being revived by two unlikely heroes: a local college and the public library.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston have been working with the Boston Public Library to compile an online archive of demo tapes by the city’s top hip-hop and rap artists of the 1980s. Opening to the public on Saturday, the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive was created in part to reclaim the city’s role in the genres’ history.
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“It’s been an untold story,” said Pacey Foster, a rap historian and professor at UMass. “Boston is not a city that has had its rightful place in the early stories of hip-hop history.”
The archive aims to connect new audiences to early rap artists such as the Almighty RSO, Guru, and others who have faded from memory even in Boston.
But the project is also intended to spark academic interest in the city’s rap and hip-hop roots. Like a growing number of U.S. colleges, UMass is encouraging students to approach hip-hop as a scholarly subject. Several students have already started research tied to the archive, and the university launched a new course on hip-hop in 2014.
It joins dozens of other schools nationwide that have added classes on hip-hop in recent years, analyzing its value to fields from sociology to women’s studies.
At Bowie State University, a historically black college in Maryland, students can earn a minor in hip-hop studies. The University of Arizona says it offered the nation’s first hip-hop minor in 2012. A year later, the rapper Nasir Jones — known as Nas — established a fellowship at Harvard University for scholars of hip-hop.
“There are so many dimensions to the culture,” said Murray Forman, a media studies professor at Northeastern University. “It’s really rich for analysis in all kinds of contexts.”
Some scholars still question whether hip-hop has a place in academia, but its acceptance is growing, said Forman, who was a Nasir Jones fellow last year. University presses have published dozens of textbooks on rap and hip-hop’s political and cultural importance. Scores of graduate students have taken on similar topics for their dissertations.
For archivists in particular, there has been a surge of interest in preserving the artifacts of hip-hop, especially from its early days in the 1970s and 1980s, Forman said.
“A lot of the early materials are at risk of disappearing,” he said. “People don’t want to be carrying around all the ephemera, the concert fliers and promotional materials.”
Other schools with major hip-hop archives include Harvard and Cornell University. Four historically black colleges in Atlanta house the notebooks and letters of rap icon Tupac Shakur.
The new archive at UMass features almost 300 demo tapes, along with audio from a local radio show whose host was credited with discovering many of Boston’s biggest acts. Most of the artists aren’t household names, but Foster said their work captures the youthful spirit of a time when artists were seeking a new sound.
“It will have natural interest for academics,” Foster said. “This collection is a very complete look at a scene that nobody has heard about, at a moment when rap was just exploding.”