It’s always fascinating to see how national success influences and whitewashes perceptions of local scenes. Hard as it may seem to believe, it turns out that Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney weren’t the only rock bands in Seattle circa 1991. Similarly, despite what the radio might suggest, Seattle’s hip-hop history does not start with “Baby Got Back” and end at “Thrift Shop.” For those looking to get a more complete story of local rap and its surrounding culture, the Museum of History and Industry’s new The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop exhibit provides a very basic crash course on the city’s hip-hop tradition.
A retro vibe immediately greets visitors as the exhibit’s boombox-strewn second floor entrance starkly contrasts with hanging airplanes and World's Fair relics that MOHAI showcases. Hip-hop isn’t merely a genre of music; it’s a vibrant culture that incorporates elements of art, fashion, and dance. The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop’s main focus is providing a glance at the elements that make our local scene stand out.
Seattle’s hip-hop history goes back longer than most realize, even boasting the West Coast’s first all-rap radio show with 1980’s debut of Freshtracks on KFOX. Art creation that mirrored the music soon followed. Breakdancing culture was a key element that MOHAI properly showcases. A corner of the exhibit highlights everything from the early b-boys and b-girls to internationally acclaimed breaking crews like Massive Monkees. Having a slightly raised dance floor in this area for any would-be breakers is a sweet touch. Hip-hop art is further explored via graffiti and fashion, including tagged denim jackets and a display case housing Macklemore’s fur-lined coat and scooter from the “Thrift Shop” music video.
In terms of interactivity, The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop gives patrons a tiny sample of the musical creation process via two conjoined digital mixing stations that allow visitors to experiment with adjusting the volume level sliders and turn the knobs that control echo and reverb in order to manipulate multilayered tracks by nationally acclaimed local producers Jake One and Vitamin D. While it presents a very simplified experience of a hip-hop producer (since this is a very small slice of the overall production process), it’s still a fun little window into the process of creating sonic foundation upon which the Seattle sound has grown.
But apart from this delightful knob-twisting display, the exhibit really never establishes a sense of immersion. While it’s nice to push through the doors and be greeted by a hip-hop soundtrack and SPECSWIZARD’s large colorful graffiti mural, it feels like the music should be throughout the exhibit. Instead, the tunes are only being pumped at the entrance while a couple small videos on a loop in other parts of the exhibit pollute the noise (those videos couldn’t have been set up with headphones for the sound, MOHAI?). The music should be the unifying element, the constant connector no matter what a visitor is currently reading about.
There’s also a distinct lack of personality in The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop. An entire wall of the exhibit is devoted to a timeline covering the totality of the scene’s history: from the pioneering ‘80s sounds of Emerald Street Boys to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s national booty-fueled breakout in the ‘90s to modern Macklemore fever. The dryness of the presentation is offset by little details like an annotated map that allows you to follow the journey Sir Mix-a-Lot takes in the song “Posse on Broadway.” While it’s great to have things like the timeline, a lot of the content on display seems like a distant reciting of facts.
The presentation underscores how difficult it is to to determine the exact intended audience for The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop. For hardcore local hip-hop fans or those in the scene, much of the history is presented in an oversimplified manner, but for newbies there’s not enough background. There’s very little about actual hip-hop artists and groups within the exhibits walls, and this lack of contextualization is glaring. The history is somewhat sussed out through the artifacts on display: show flyers, old beat making equipment, etc., but you don’t really learn about the people. To the layperson a lot of the names dotting the timeline have no meaning because there’s no section dedicated to the personalities that made up the scene and why they are important.
The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop fails to capture the voices of the scene. The exhibit features one video where Ishmael Butler and others gush about the Emerald Street Boys, but overall the exhibit needs more of that. Rappers love to wax about the MCs and producers that inspired them, and finding a way to incorporate of that would’ve been great and made things feel less disconnected. There’s plenty of info on display about things that happened as Seattle built its hip-hop culture, but very little about what makes it all special. It’s history divorced from the makers. The Legacy of Seattle Hip-Hop offers an intro to an oft-overlooked Seattle subculture, but it lacks the depth to really bring the scene to life.