Celebrate the diverse culture of hip hop with the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Educators explore museum objects, read a children’s book, and share postage stamps to reveal a rich history that spans decades.
Stamp Stories: Hip Hop
Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.
Tammy: And I’m Tammy from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. Stamps are put onto mail to show that the sender has paid the right amount to get the mail delivered. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about the culture of hip hop.
Tammy: Thanks, Maureen! And thank you for inviting me to join you to talk about the 4 pillars of hip hop. Today we are going to learn a little bit about how this form of artistic expression has evolved over generations to create a culture that is known throughout the world
Maureen: Let’s start by reading a book all about hip hop called The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop. Special thanks to author Carole Boston Weatherford and to Little Bee Books for permission to use this book.
Tammy: As we read this book, I want you all to look out for the 4 pillars of hip hop, which are DJing, or someone who is playing music on the turntables, MCing, and that is someone who might be holding a microphone, breakdancing and graffiti. And we will discuss them more in detail after the book. But keep your eyes and ears open for those pillars or elements of hip hip. Hip hop music and culture has its roots in many different forms of self-expression.
Folk Tales, street rhymes, spirituals – rooted in spoken word. Props to poet Hughes and Dunbar; published. Ain’t you heard?
Soul man James Brown shouting, “I’m black and I’m proud,” Giving birth to funk – bass line pulsing loud.
The origins go way back – beyond old school. But it’s in the seventies that rappers start to rule.
Crews with cans of paint spray tags on subway trains. Writers from every borough take risks to make a name.
Graffiti is thrown on buildings, bridges, and billboard signs all along the Manhattan, Queens, Bronx, and Brooklyn lines.
A boom box-toting homey blasts a hot track on a corner. Passersby four-deep surround a street performer.
With sheets of cardboard for a stage, B-boys bust out moves – donkey, spider, robot, windmill, rock, lock, spin – to break-dance grooves.
Jamaican deejays shouting toasts invent what’s now called dub; remix with twin turntables at soul and reggae clubs.
DJ Kook Herc in the Bronx, block party under his command, rocks and rocks nonstop; mic clutched in his hand.
Dropping, scratching, beat juggling/matching wax on wheels of steel. Wordplay, rhyming, triple-timing, keepin’ the lyrics real.
Sugarhill Gang, Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, Biggie, and the Fat Boys jammin’ on the radio.
Nas, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent, Tupac, too. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; “The Message” ringin’ true.
Female MCs break it down; Salt-N-Pepa and TLC. Queen Latifah sports a crown, reigning like royalty.
All around her kingdom, shorties raised on rap boogie to phat beats in backward baseball caps.
A generation voicing stories, hopes, and fears founds a hip-hop nation. Say holler if you hear.
From Atlanta to Zanzibar, youth spit freestyle freedom sounds. Hip-hop is a language that’s spoken the whole world ‘round.
Did you catch those four pillars? Did you remember what they are? That’s right! DJing, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Let’s learn a little more about them and look at some related objects we have at the Smithsonian.
In 1973 a man named Kool Herc came to the Bronx New York from Jamaica. He brought with him the popular use of the sound system, which consisted of huge speakers that people would often make themselves and the idea of having these large parties outside in the park. Kool Herc was a DJ which means he played albums like this on turntables like these. He played the music he liked and it was usually only heard at his parties. When a song came to a break or the drum solo, the crowd would react and start dancing more and more. Then the term “breakbeat” was coined. He would find that artists like James Brown and funk artists had a lot of breaks in their music and he would focus on those breakbeats and extend their play.
There were other pioneers like Grand Master Flash who took turntabling to a science and really mastered extending that breakbeat using two turntables.
These turntables that we see here belonged to a young DJ by the name of Grand Wizard Theodore. Grand Wizard Theodore was the little brother of one of the members of Grandmaster Flash’s group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The story is that Theodore wanted to be a DJ just like his brother and he would often practice DJing on his brother’s set. One day in his apartment he was playing music too loud when his mother came in to tell him to turn it down. He was so startled that he tried to stop the album from playing by placing his hand on the record. He realized that he had made a new sound when he stopped and started the spinning of the album. Do you know what it’s called when someone stops and starts a spinning album with their hands? It’s called scratching and we hear it all the time in songs and from DJs. It’s been such a huge part of this hip hop culture.
Maureen: A lot of these developments Tammy mentioned happened in the 1980s, which was such an important decade for the evolution of hip hop! The first hip hop stamp issued by the United States Postal Service came out in 2000 as part of the Celebrate the Century series. Each decade of the 20th century has its own series of 15 stamps featuring things or events that were important during that time. The hip hop stamp is part of the set highlighting the 1980s. A few of the other topics selected for the 1980s were the Space Shuttle Program; figure skating; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Cabbage Patch Kids; and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.” Interestingly, there was also a stamp featuring compact discs, which were a new format for playing recorded music introduced in the 1980s. They replaced cassette tapes and became hugely popular. But hip hop DJs didn’t use CDs to play their music – they used the older technology of vinyl record albums, so they could create their signature scratch sounds that Tammy told us about.
Talking about how the music was made makes me think of all the amazing dancing that went along with it. Tammy, can you tell us more about that pillar of hip hop?
Tammy: Of course! Breakers were the dancers that came to these parties to dance and show off their latest dance moves. They were called breakers because they started dancing to the breakbeat of the song that the earlier DJs like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash would play. Once the breakbeat started to play, they would take to the dance floor and start breaking to the extended breakbeat. Kool Herc would often get on the mic and ask for the b-boys or break boys to come in start dancing over the break.
Here we’re looking at an insert from a popular toy in the 80s called a viewmaster. You would have the viewmaster and put these films in and you could see images in 3D. Here we see that this is a reel that is supposed to teach you how to breakdance. This shows that breakdancing was becoming very popular amongst young people and children.
Breakdancers often formed crews that would include members from their neighborhood. They often dressed in the same outfits or had specific colors that they wore to represent their crew, as we can see in the photo on the left. Breakdancing is a combination of so many different international dance styles, martial arts, some James Brown moves and gymnastics. We’re looking at the 25th anniversary of the Rock Steady Crew, which was one of the first breakdancing crews in New York, in the picture on the right.
Maureen: The hip hop stamp from the Celebrate the Century series features a b-boy, or breakdancer, with his boom box who is listening to music and dancing. The stamp is labeled “Hip Hop Culture” and if you look closely you can see people in the background, which I imagine to be a crowd listening to a DJ and an MC.
Tammy: The role of the emcee in hip hop during this time was to simply introduce and hype up the DJ. Then it turned into the art of emceeing or rapping over the DJs beat that was playing. Now we have emcees like Nas or Run DMC which Run DMC is a group that has two emcees and a DJ. Now we really don’t see too many emcees and DJ groups anymore. It’s usually an emcee or just a DJ. Nowadays most hip hop is a matter of creating a long breakbeat that is looped over and over again and an emcee rapping over that beat. Here we have an image of Rakim’s microphone when he recorded the 18th letter.
Maureen: I’ve learned so much from you, Tammy, about the elements of DJing, breakdancing, and MCing. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say about the fourth pillar – graffiti.
Tammy: Graffiti is the visual art element, I would say besides album covers, in hip hop. Graffiti started out with simple tags or graffiti artists like Taki 183 or Phase 2 just writing their names on a wall, fire hydrant and subway trains. They were called Burners.
Here we see a jacket that was worn by Crazy Legs who founded the Manhattan branch of the Rock Steady Crew. We can see that there is graffiti on the back of his jacket in kind of a blockbuster style, the kind of letters that are written out like blocks. There are many forms of graffiti from tags, that’s someone simply tagging their name on the wall, subway train or anywhere – and more intricate styles like the blockbuster style we see here, the wildstyle, or the Heaven spot which is what the graffiti pieces that you see in very difficult places to get to. We saw that in the book that we just read – someone very high up getting to a very difficult spot in creating some graffiti.
Next we see some spray cans used by a graffiti artist named DAZE in the late 80s and a postcard he created of a subway train and graffiti in kind of a wildstyle.
Our last image is that a subway train that is covered with graffiti of all kinds. There are tags and graffiti done in block styles.
A lot of graffiti artists used subways trains as a canvas so that their artwork traveled throughout four of the five boroughs in New York. That’s Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. This is how many graffiti artists gained notoriety.
Maureen: In the Hip Hop Culture stamp we looked at, there was no graffiti pictured anywhere, so although that stamp is a vibrant image that definitely captures the energy of hip hop, one of the four elements is missing from that depiction. The postal service changed that in 2020, when they issued a set of four stamps to honor hip hop culture. The set features graffiti on its own stamp, along with the three other pillars of hip hop: breakingdancing, DJing, and MCing. These stamp designs were made from photographs by Cade Martin, and they are intended to appear in motion. They all use the same colors: red, black, yellow, and green.
These stamps were unveiled in July 2020 in a virtual ceremony with the Universal Hip Hop Museum of the Bronx. Hip hop pioneer Kurtis Blow is one of the founders of the Universal Hip Hop Museum and he took part in the ceremony with the postal service. Right now this museum’s exhibits and collections can only be viewed online, but work has begun on building a physical space to welcome visitors in person. The museum broke ground in May 2021 and is set to open in 2024 in the Bronx, New York - the birthplace of modern hip hop. I would love to visit it once it opens – imagine how much more there is to see and learn!
Tammy: I’m also looking forward to the release of the Anthology of Hip Hop and Rap later in 2021. This collaboration between the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and The National Museum of African American History and Culture will include 9 CDs with more than 120 tracks and a 300-page book that captures the evolution of hip hop through photographs, carefully chosen music, and essays.
I love how books, stamps, and objects can help us tell important stories. If you’d like to learn more about Black history and hip hop culture, visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website for fun activities and recommended resources.
Maureen: Thank you so much, Tammy, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. You can learn more about the stamps we saw, and stamps on a wide variety of topics, by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!