The Universal Hip Hop Museum is set to open in 2024 and will be the first museum dedicated to the preservation of Hip Hop. The museum is part of a $349 million mixed-use project to transform Bronx Point along the Harlem River waterfront. The museum broke ground this past May after ten years of work on the part of Hip Hop legend and historian Paradise Gray, a team of Hip Hop icons and enthusiasts, and the museum’s Executive Director Rocky Bucano.
Rendering of the Universal Hip Hop Museum
The journey to create the Universal Hip Hop Museum started nearly ten years ago when Rocky Bucano was approached by a developer Young Woo who was working on a project proposal to redevelop the Kingsbridge Armory and was thinking about including a Hip Hop museum. “And Rocky has a long history of being in the Hip Hop culture,” said Adam Silverstein, Director of Museum Collections and Archives. “He was a DJ early on in the Bronx and said yes and recruited some people including Kurtis Blow, Shawn LG Thomas, Grand Wizzard Theodore (inventor of the scratch), Grandmaster Melle Mel, and others who said they would support this.” That project would eventually fall through, but the group kept the dream alive of one day opening a Hip Hop museum.
The founding members discussed the idea of creating a virtual museum or renovating the old Bronx Courthouse. Then L + M Development Partners and Type A Projects approached the group. “They were responding to an RFP from the City to create affordable housing, retail, and a park space. They asked Rocky if the Hip Hop museum would be the cultural anchor of this project,” said Silverstein. The museum gained its 501(c)(3) register non-profit status in 2015 and moved forward with L + M to include the museum in this multi-million dollar project at Bronx Point.
Bronx, the Birthplace of Hip Hop
For Bucano and the founding members, the museum was always going to be in the Bronx. “We were always looking at the Bronx. It was never really an option to go anywhere else.” Silverstein said that it was like Hip Hop was finally taking control of its own narrative and recognized the importance of building the museum in the Bronx. “It’s the community that spawned a global culture and now it’s time to come back to the community. We talk about it like a phoenix, Hip Hop rising from the Bronx and then spreading across the world and now it’s returned. It’s time for the institution of Hip Hop to make itself in its birthplace.”
The Universal Hip Hop Museum is south of 1520 Sedgwick Ave, a 102-unit apartment building in the Morris Heights neighborhood of the Bronx, widely regarded as the birthplace of Hip Hop. The museum’s collection tracks the history of Hip Hop starting at Sedgwick Avenue where at a party in 1973, DJ Kool Herc was the first person to use two turntables to extend a song’s drum beat, the “beatback” where you switch from one record to another. The museum aims to tell the story of Hip Hop’s rapid growth and cultural impact from graffiti, sneaker culture, dance, urban fashion, and other movements that can trace their history back to Hip Hop.
Keeping it “Fresh”
The museum will occupy 52,000 square feet over two-floors in a 22-story building that includes 542 affordable housing units, 2.8 acres of public open green space, and retail space. “It's not a tremendous amount of space so one of the things that we want to do is to keep the museum fresh,” said Silverstein. “Not only by retaining the exhibitions, but we want to make this a technology advanced museum. It’s been part of our goal since the start.” The museum has three areas of interest: physical space, traveling exhibitions, and virtual. “These plans have gained traction at different times and obviously when L + M came along we went forward with the physical plan for the museum but we still have plans for a virtual museum and plans for traveling exhibitions. It’s part of why we are called the Universal Hip Hop Museum because this is a universal culture,” said Silverstein.
The museum will have an immersive 1970s experience including space where visitors can create and spin their own records in an imitation DJ Booth and visit a recording studio. There will also be a virtual reality theatre where visitors can interact with some of Hip Hop’s biggest icons.
“When we get into the permanent space, the goal will to be to exhibit our artifacts but we really want to focus on technology and being able to give people multiple experiences in our space that will change frequently,” said Silverstein. “An element of Hip Hop is to be fresh and if you're not fresh, you’re wack and we don’t want to be that. We want to be cutting edge just like Hip Hop is cutting edge.”
The museum received funding from the New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Housing Development Corporation, and Empire State Development. The total funding for the entire building is $323.5 million with an additional $27 million for waterfront construction. During the groundbreaking ceremony on May 20, 2021, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. announced that he would contribute $4.2 million from his office’s capital budget to support the museum’s capital campaign. It's one of the largest single funding allocations made by Diaz.
“The groundbreaking for the first phase of Bronx Point is a tremendous step forward for our borough,” said Diaz at the groundbreaking ceremony. “Not only will this project create much-needed affordable housing units, but it will also activate underutilized space, open up more waterfront for public access, create new public spaces and retail amenities for community use. This development will combine two of my favorite things, history and Hip Hop, bringing the Universal Hip Hop Museum to its rightful location in the birthplace of Hip Hop, The Bronx.”
The reimagined Harlem River waterfront space
The groundbreaking ceremony served as the official launch of the museum’s $100 million capital campaign. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Hip Hop legends including Nas, LL Cool J, Fat Joe, and NYS Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie joined the event.
Empire State Development awarded the Universal Hip Hop Museum $3.5 million in Round IX of funding, citing its community programming and an in-house museum job training program as central components of the project in addition to attracting worldwide visitors and furthering the development of the Bronx/Harlem waterfront.
The museum plans on continuing to reach out to individual donors and to the Hip Hop community. “We want everyone to feel included in this,” said Silverstein. In addition to reaching out to local Bronx businesses, the museum is approaching large companies like Adidas, Nike, Sprite, and Gucci. “We’re reaching out to larger companies that are now supporting underserved communities but also because a lot of these companies have profited off of Hip Hop for years and this is an opportunity for them to give back,” said Silverstein.
Silverstein said that the museum’s approach to these larger companies is to not only have them donate, but that they also have a Hip Hop story that needs to be told.
Staying Engaged: AI and Temporary Exhibition Space
The Bronx Terminal Market located directly across the street from the museum’s soon to be permanent home offered the museum space for the public to preview the collection and created temporary exhibitions The first, [R]evolution Exhibition uses a fabricated subway car as display space and focuses on Hip Hop’s emergence from park jams and the projects to nightclubs, national concert tours, TV, and film from 1980 to 1985. This temporary exhibition space will change every six months. It began with Hip Hop’s origins in the 1970s and will continue with new exhibitions, each focusing on a 5 year period until the museum opens.
Universal Hip Hop Museum’s temporary exhibition at the Bronx Terminal Market
This space also features the museum’s first AI project, “Breakbeat Narratives” which is a collaboration with the MIT Center for Advance Virtuality and Microsoft, the museum’s official technology partner. It uses AI to help categorize the complex evolution of Hip Hop to create a personalized experience for every visitor. It’s goal is to help visitors explore various narratives in Hip Hop using their personal taste in music as an entry point. Visitors can take away a personalised playlist. “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,” said Bucano. Microsoft has committed both technological resources and $5 million to expand the museum’s cultural heritage program. “Documenting, preserving, and presenting the history of the culture for generations of Hip Hop lovers globally via exciting new tech innovations from Microsoft is thrilling,” said Bucano. “This partnership is truly a milestone for Hip Hop culture.”
Once the museum opens in its permanent home, it will continue to utilize technology and AI. “Technology changes and so we want to be flexible within the museum,” said Silverfine.
The museum hoped to open in 2023, Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary but because of the pandemic, the museum is now set to open in 2024. “The heartbeat of Hip Hop culture will live at Bronx Point, the future home of the Universal Hip Hop Museum,” said Bucano.
Learn more about the Universal Hip Hop Museum: https://uhhm.org/