A History of Hip Hop in Six Objects

A History of Hip Hop in Six Objects

One third of the foundational group De La Soul and the guest curator of Sotheby’s Hip Hop auction, Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer shares the stories behind six objects that reveal the cultural phenomenon’s earliest days, from Tupac Shakur’s crown ring to Ice-T and Afrika Islam’s E-mu SP-1200 sampler.
One third of the foundational group De La Soul and the guest curator of Sotheby’s Hip Hop auction, Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer shares the stories behind six objects that reveal the cultural phenomenon’s earliest days, from Tupac Shakur’s crown ring to Ice-T and Afrika Islam’s E-mu SP-1200 sampler.

F ifty years ago this August, an enterprising New York City high schooler named Cindy Campbell organized a party in the recreation center of her apartment building in the West Bronx. Charging the neighborhood kids a few quarters to enter, her goal was to raise enough money to buy herself a new wardrobe before the start of the school year. For entertainment, she recruited her older brother Clive, an 18-year-old DJ who had taken to calling himself Kool Herc, and who devised an ingenious dual-turntable method for extending the most danceable instrumental breaks from his vinyl collection. The party was a success: Cindy went back to school in style and the siblings resolved to throw another one.

Though no one present at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue that day could have possibly predicted it, that party on 11 August 1973 would later take on immortal significance as Hip Hop’s ground zero. The scene quickly expanded from a regional youth dance craze into the most broadly significant cultural phenomenon of the past half century. From music to dance, fashion, visual art, cinema, politics, entrepreneurship, sports and even the English language itself, virtually every aspect of contemporary life has been touched and permanently transformed by this art form. Ever mutable, Hip Hop has evolved in astonishing ways over the past five decades, serving as the dominant driver of youth culture for three consecutive generations and rewriting history all the while.

In honor of this momentous anniversary, Sotheby’s will present nearly 130 unique artifacts from all eras of Hip Hop history in an online auction running 18-25 July, presented in collaboration with Mass Appeal and Hip Hop 50. On view at Sotheby’s New York from 20-24 July, the auction includes stage-worn apparel, handwritten lyrics, studio equipment, rare promotional items, artwork, photography, personal correspondence and one-of-a-kind jewelry, offering a vibrant firsthand view of one of America’s greatest indigenous art forms, from its earliest days to its full flowering.

For guest curator Kelvin “Posdnuos” Mercer – one third of Hip Hop innovators De La Soul – perusing the treasures in the collection is both validating and a little bit surreal.

“Thinking back to when we first fell into Hip Hop culture, it feels like an eye-blink; it doesn’t feel that long ago,” Posdnuos says. “But seeing these show flyers or this piece of equipment or this person’s stage costume, you realize that yes, this is all so important to the culture. It’s of importance to history.”

De La Soul’s Posdnous, Maseo and Trugoy the Dove outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem on 12 September 1993. (Photo: Getty Images / David Corio / Redferns)

Curated and organized by Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby’s Global Head of Science & Popular Culture, and Monica Lynch, president of Tommy Boy Records from 1981-98, a majority of the auction’s items were consigned directly by some of the culture’s most important protagonists. The collection offers a glimpse of Hip Hop history at its most tangible and most human: items suffused with the joy and pain of the trailblazers who dedicated their lives to beats and rhymes.

“Hip Hop, to me, is life,” Pos says simply. “It’s literally life. It is something that was given to me, and it was something where once you heard it, you knew you were a part of it immediately. It is life, and it became my life.”

Below, Pos shares some of his favorites from the sale.

Tupac Shakur’s Crown Ring

Designed and commissioned by Tupac Shakur himself, this ring of gold, rubies and diamonds was worn by the late rapper during his final public appearance at the 1996 VMAs. It bears the inscription, “Pac & Dada 1996,” in dedication to his fiancée, Kidada Jones.

“Pac was larger than life,” says Pos, who remembers first meeting the future icon during his earliest days with Digital Underground. “You’ve heard it said so many times, but it’s really the truth – this roadie guy who’s dancing with Digital? You knew he was always gonna be a star. You just saw it. That man was on a crusade to do a lot through Hip Hop culture.

“But what’s so special about this ring is that it shows him in a moment where he was not necessarily on the front lines as an artist, but just a man expressing his love for another person, and that’s beautiful to see,” continues Pos. “I literally look at Pac the way someone would look at Paul McCartney, and I think of how great it would be to get a peek at him and his wife Linda when they were together, when they were forming Wings – those little moments that could be shared between them, which the rest of the world then gets to look into.”

RZA’s Handwritten Liner Notes for Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

RZA’s handwritten liner notes for Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (Estimate: $10,000-15,000)

“This one almost speaks for itself in my mind,” Pos says of the Wu-Tang Clan founder’s notes that accompanied the group’s 1993 classic debut. “Wu-Tang is one of my favorite groups of all time, if not my favorite. And having known RZA since his Tommy Boy days and then seeing what he became – anything related to that album just blows my mind, and this is literally the blueprint for it. That’s what all these rhyme books and these different thoughts and notes that you jot down when you’re in the process of making an album are: they’re blueprints for an album that is changing people’s lives to this day.”

Ice-T and Afrika Islam’s E-mu SP-1200 Sampler

Ice-T and Afrika Islam’s E-mu SP-1200 sampler in travel case, c. 1987/88. Signed by Ice-T, with 4 discs. Used to record Rhyme Pays, Power, O.G. Original Gangster, Colors and Rhyme Syndicate comp. (Estimate: $6,000-9,000)

The E-mu SP-1200 drum machine and sampler was to 1980s Hip Hop what the Gibson Les Paul was to 1960s rock ’n’ roll, and this SP-1200 is particularly special. Used by Ice-T and producer Afrika Islam to create the rapper’s seminal early albums, this historic piece of equipment comes signed by Ice-T himself and bundled with four original floppy disks.

“I’m really curious to see who steps up to buy this one,” Pos says. “For me, listening to music, and thinking about what that music does to you at that moment, and then being able to touch the equipment that was actually used to create it? That’s special. It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh yeah, I recognize that drum sound, I know that comes from the SP-12.’ But knowing that you can physically see the exact one that was being used? There’s a level of energy that’s been leaked all over that machine. I feel the same way about it that someone might feel knowing that they can get their hands on Jimi Hendrix’s guitar – to see it and feel it and learn about it.”

Original De La Soul Leather Pendant from 1989

Original De La Soul Leather Pendant from 1989. All proceeds go to Hope for Haiti in honor of David Jolicouer. (Estimate: $2,000-3,000)

“That was the era of big, black medallions,” Pos recalls, thinking back to De La Soul’s first brush with fame in the late 1980s. The trio were newly signed to Tommy Boy Records and on the verge of releasing their landmark debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, when the label’s then-president Monica Lynch had the idea to promote the young group with branded leather medallions sent to radio programmers and tastemakers.

“It was pretty much the first-ever piece of De La merchandise, and it wasn’t even for sale, so they were hard to come by. I unfortunately misplaced mine years ago,” Pos says. “I just remember that period was a moment of real joy for us, being brand new to the music business, when everything had that fresh, new-car smell. Everything was so colorful and vivid. We were all just so happy.”

David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur’s Prototype De La Soul Tour Jacket

David “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur’s Prototype De La Soul Tour Jacket (Estimate: $4,000-6,000)

One of fewer than ten prototypes ever produced, this reversible embroidered jacket was created as a collaboration between De La Soul and the legendary London streetwear label Maharishi in the mid-2000s.

“At the time we were going overseas a lot, working with the Gorillaz, and we got really into the clothing company Maharishi,” Pos remembers. “We would lose ourselves in their incredible store, which had toys and statues and the weirdest stuff you can think of. The store itself was built on an actual bunker where Winston Churchill used to hide paintings during the war, and we would always find something fascinating there. And so one day [Maharishi founder] Hardy Blechman asked if we wanted to do a jacket together, and we said we’d love to, because the level of detailing they put into their products was incredible.

“Dave really took the lead, because he always was the visual guy in the group; he went to architecture school, he was the guy who used to cut all that cool stuff into our hair. The results kept coming back even better than we expected. But that was just a prototype, and the jacket never came out. I honestly can’t tell you why we never finished it. But seeing it reminds me of all the fun we had putting in the work to make it.”

Original artwork by Bill Siekiewicz for EPMD’s Business as Usual

Original artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz (renowned Marvel Comics artist) for EPMD album BUSINESS AS USUAL (1990). 38 x 38 inches, mixed media: pencil, paint, airbrush on illustration board. (Estimate: $6,000-8,000)

From its earliest days, Hip Hop has taken substantial aesthetic and narrative cues from comic books. As Pos puts it: “I’ve always been a comic book person, and a lot of us Hip Hop kids were. Because we were writers, too; we were young kids trying to write our own comics in our rhymes, our own adventures.”

Appropriately, there is a long history of comic book artists designing Hip Hop album covers, starting all the way back in 1983 with Bob Camp’s cover art for Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force’s single “Renegades of Funk.” But for Pos, it was the cover of EPMD’s Business as Usual – drawn by Marvel Comics legend Bill Sienkiewicz, who would later go on to design album covers for the RZA and Kid Cudi – that lodged itself indelibly in his memory.

“The ‘Renegades of Funk’ joint was amazing, but for me, it was the EPMD cover that really struck a chord,” Pos says. “EPMD being from Long Island like we were, we really looked up to them, and they helped push that feeling in us that we could do this too. Seeing Public Enemy and EPMD doing what they were doing, it just reaffirmed for us in our hearts that we could do this. So I recall feeling that way when I first saw that particular cover – how dope it looked, how they looked like they didn’t have any fear as all these weapons were being pointed at them. That image really stuck with me.”

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