A Love Letter to Hip-Hop

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To celebrate hip-hop’s birthday, the Projects and Collaborations team asked Mahogany L. Browne, Lincoln Center’s first-ever poet-in-residence and an acclaimed author, to write a love letter to the genre, composed entirely of lyrics both oft recited and obscure. In the resulting interactive piece, which is full of stunning archival photography, we’ve annotated the lyrics with information about the artists, songs and their significance in the history of hip-hop. When you hover on each line, you can read a bit about the song and hear audio clips of the lyrics Browne “sampled.”

“The birth of hip-hop created a sound entirely unique in the history of music, and we wanted to bring that sound into our story,” Marcelle Hopkins, the team’s visuals editor, explained. “Each of the audio clips represents a voice, a feeling, a moment in the 50-year evolution of the music. We hope that the listening experience sparks memories for fans and adds a visceral understanding for others.”

Two multimedia editors, Alice Fang and Antonio de Luca, had the challenging task of designing the piece. “From the start we knew the conceit was to use lyrics and this found poetry structure, but how does that look on the page?” Fang said. “Since it’s all song lyrics, how do we actually hear all the lyrics, hear all the songs, and then from an interactive design perspective, how do we get readers to engage with that on the page?”

Ultimately, Fang and de Luca were able to construct a choose-your-own-adventure design that allowed readers to listen to as many audio clips as they liked, or if they preferred, to read through the piece with no audio at all.

Annotations to the lyrics, reported by Jeremy Gordon, give the readers insight into the history of the genre. For example, Warren G’s “Regulate”originally appeared on the soundtrack to “Above the Rim,” which starred Tupac Shakur. The track also features a sample of Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting (Every Time You’re Near).”

The piece also includes a mix of contemporary and archival images by some of the photographers who documented hip-hop beginning in its early days, including Jamel Shabbazz, Lisa Leone and Sue Kwon. As Hua Hsu wrote about Kwon’s work in a 2022 essay in The New Yorker: “What made Sue Kwon one of the great photographers of hip-hop’s ascension was her innate understanding of the tensions felt by so many of the artists. They were still learning how to dream.”

The crowd at a New York City hip-hop music festival in 2012.Credit…Jessica Lehrman

The piece features lyrics from every decade of hip-hop’s history from Slick Rick and Eric B. and Rakim, to MC Lyte and Lil’ Kim, to more recent artists like Ice Spice and Tyler, the Creator. Not surprisingly, rap all-stars figure prominently in the piece; there are multiple contributions from Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Method Man, LL Cool J and Mos Def. Sifting through hip-hop history — neighborhood by neighborhood, lyric by lyric, decade by decade — we were reminded of how hip-hop repeatedly taught a community, then a nation, then the world, how to dream.

Narrowing down the list of artists to include was a tough assignment. “Here’s the hard part about a hip-hop love story using only lyrics: You don’t always get to put in your favorite M.C.’s,” said Browne. “Once I got over that creative obstacle, I was allowed to sing along to Too $hort and be amazed at the culture he helped create. Because of Pharcyde’s indelible hold on me, I wanted their lyrics highlighted. But it was edited to fit the moment and the page. Therefore, I relied upon the landscape they tended to and hoped the admiration could be located in the tone.”

At the end of the story, you can hear Browne read her piece all the way through. Finally, there’s a Spotify playlist, featuring 56 of the songs sampled in Browne’s work. What’s your favorite lyric in the track? Did the piece remind you of a song or artist you’d forgotten about? Leave a comment in the interactive. We’re reading them all.

Additional reporting by Emmett Lindner.

Read Mahogany L. Browne’s love letter to hip-hop here.

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