Within Harvard’s hallowed halls, hip-hop music is being recognized as the art form its admirers have long known it to be.
Harvard researchers are in the process of archiving 200 of the most significant hip-hop albums as part of a project called Classic Crates.
The work will involve assembling and documenting the history of each album, including digital and vinyl recordings, along with information on sample tracks used in some songs and even the liner notes and other information that went into its creation.
Each package will help explain the influence and impact that album has had.
The first four albums in the archives include a tour through 1990s hip-hop along with a representation from the recent past. They are: A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory” from 1991; Nas’ “Illmatic,” which appeared three years later; Lauryn Hill’s breakout album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” from 1998; and Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” from 2015.
“I think the recognition of hip-hop as a true American artform is something that is not necessarily widely recognized,” said Brionna Atkins, a staff member at Harvard’s Hiphop Archive & Research Institute. That, she said, is “really a central act of the Classic Crates project… That it has a significant cultural presence — not just currently, but also how it connects to the past.
The project is on firm ground, with a 2015 study published in the academic journal Royal Society Open Science, counting hip-hop as the most important music genre in our last half-century.
Patrick Douthit, a Harvard fellow, college lecturer and music producer known as 9th Wonder, is the lead curator for the entire 200-album project.
He’s working directly alongside Marcyliena Morgan, Harvard professor and director of the Hiphop Archive and Peter Laurence from the school’s Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, along with peers in the hip-hop community and Harvard researchers.
Atkins, 22, is a recent Harvard graduate and media coordinator at the Hiphop Archive. She helps lead the undergraduate research associates, who work directly on the Classic Crates project by filling out the background work that goes into each archival package.
It’s a lot of work, Atkins admitted. The archival packages include earlier recorded versions of songs, details on every sample, collected articles and reviews of the albums, music videos and more. But, she added, it’s worth it to highlight the importance of these musical marvels.
The archived albums aren’t released in order of importance and are not ranked, the staff said, but chosen instead for their overall significance to the form.
Beginning this year, Classic Crates will announce 10 archived albums each year. This year’s picks are expected in the fall.
The archive has already drawn notable visitors, including current hip-hop artists like J. Cole and Chance the Rapper, as well as the actress Pam Grier and something of a surprise, former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
Atkins is already anticipating many others will visit the archives in the coming years as it continues to grow. Each one will connect with the albums in a different way, Atkins said, as she has done.
“It’s music, but it’s bigger than music, it reveals a lot about history and truth,” she said. The albums, Atkins added, are “definitely telling stories of black Americans, but also a wider story of the United States and the world.”
Impressions on a masterpiece
A Tribe Called Quest's "The Low End Theory" is one of the four albums first archived in Harvard's Classic Crates project.
Brionna Atkins, a staffer at the school's Hiphop Archive & Research Institute, cited the album's jazz sampling as “significant." She added adding it can be “traced later to other artists using these techniques and drawing inspiration.” One prominent sample on the album uses a Miles Davis track.
“So there’s these samples that are from 1980s, 1970s, 1960s that also reference another history and another period,” in addition to the period that A Tribe Called Quest represents, Atkins said.