A new museum celebrates hip hop as an art form

Construction kicks off in the Bronx for the Universal Hip Hop Museum, a groundbreaking institution tracing the history and cultural impact of hip hop.

“It’s more than just music now. It’s everything.” That’s Universal Hip Hop Museum Executive Director Rocky Bucano on the far-reaching cultural impact of hip hop, and why it deserves to be celebrated and chronicled as a legitimate art form.

The mission of the museum, now breaking ground in the South Bronx—the undisputed birthplace of hip hop—is to give visitors “a broader understanding of hip hop history and hip hop culture, so that they walk away feeling empowered and inspired by what has happened in the genre and how the music has become a part of their everyday existence,” says Bucano. “We want them to feel a sense of pride.”

UHHM is scheduled to open to the public in 2024. In the meantime, the museum has launched a pop-up exhibition near its future home to give the community a taste of what’s to come. Called the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop, it’s dedicated to exploring the foundations of hip hop, decade by decade. Beginning with its origins in the 1970s, the exhibit cycles through a new decade of hip hop culture every six months.

And that’s where Microsoft—the museum’s Official Technology Partner—comes in, committing technological resources and $5 million to expand the museum’s cultural heritage program. “Since its birth in the Bronx almost fifty years ago, innovators have harnessed creativity and technology to evolve and grow Hip Hop into one of today’s most celebrated musical, artistic, and cultural influences,” says Microsoft President Brad Smith.

It all started when UHHM curators partnered with Microsoft as well as MIT professor D. Fox Harrell, who also heads up the university’s Center for Advanced Virtuality, to make [R]Evolution of Hip Hop come to life. Their goal was to use AI to help categorize the complex evolution of hip hop and create a personalized experience for every visitor who sets foot in UHHM.

Our role was to develop this personalized experience that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to give people a glimpse into the history of hip hop.

Dr. D. Fox Harrell, Professor of Digital Media & AI, MIT

“We created a kind of engine that used a social science model of musical identity to help categorize users in terms of their musical preference,” says Dr. Harrell. “But we wanted to make it a conversational, engaging experience. And the Microsoft Conversational AI allowed us to do this.”

The resulting Breakbeat Narratives uses Microsoft AI to share various narratives around the history and impact of hip hop, centered around the five core elements including: MCing, turntablism, breakdancing, graffiti art, and knowledge. With these “Cosmic Elementals” as your guides, you can explore various narratives, using your personal taste in music as an entry point.

a man in jeans and a black hoodie poses in front of a #4 subway car, tagged with graffiti and marker.
Executive Director of the Universal Hip Hop Museum, Rocky Bucano, stands in front of a life-sized replica of a subway train, housed with UHHM’s [R]Evolution of Hip Hop.
a group of five young women and a man sit in a graffiti’d subway car and converse with one another.
Dr. Fox Harrell and his students from MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality built the Breakbeat Narratives experience using Microsoft AI.

“Because there’s not one singular story of the evolution and the revolution that led to hip hop music and culture now,” says Dr. Harrell. “We wanted every single story to reveal nuance. So when we took a narrative like hip hop and fashion, it’s not just a superficial look at the clothes that people wear, but a look back at the early days, when you had cross-fertilization with punk and rock; and what it means when that fashion also has a commercial dimension, or intersects with what’s seen as elite culture.”

The Breakbeat Narratives also leaves you with a personalized playlist, based on your conversation with the Elementals and your own musical preferences. “We’re not using technology just for the sake of technology, but to really empower people so that they get information in a very unique way that they weren’t expecting,” says Bucano.

a group of people smiles and poses within a graffiti’d subway car.
The team that brought the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop to life includes hip hop artists and managers, journalists, curators, professors, collectors, Bronx community activists, and more.
an older man with a long gray beard, dreadlocks, and eye patch sits in a graffiti’d subway car, holding a wooden staff and wearing a Run DMC t-shirt.
Paradise Gray, a curator at the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop says, “Hip hop is participatory. That’s why I say ‘I AM hip hop.’”

And that’s why the very high-tech Breakbeat Narratives serves to enhance the hundreds of physical artifacts displayed at the [R]evolution of Hip Hop—from clothing and accessories to party flyers, photos, records, and tapes—much of which was donated by the exhibit’s lead curator, Paradise Gray. It’s a powerful mix of media and entry points, that even includes a deconstructed subway car, which the exhibit invites you to tag during your visit.

“When you go to a museum, it should be accessible to you,” says Dr. Harrell. “So to me, the future isn’t driven by what particular technology you use. But it’s the concept and the imagination and the vision that can allow it to connect with anyone. Our aim then is to use AI and other immersive technologies to engage the imagination and give people an experience that acknowledges that diversity— and the power and history of who they are.”

Learn more about the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop here.