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On a balmy August evening in 1973, Clive Campbell aka Kool Herc set up two turntables in a basement apartment at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York City, ready to DJ his sister’s back-to-school party. That night, in a bid to keep the partygoers dancing, he’d shrewdly loop the funk-drenched drum break of James Brown’s “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose” using his then-unique setup. By all accounts, it worked. So innovative was the technique that no one yet had the vocabulary for it — Herc simply dubbed his party trick the “Merry Go-Round.” But today, we’d term it a break beat and the broader style it helped birth, we’d call it hip hop.

Five decades after Herc turned the first break beat loose on the Bronx, the same borough is due to play host to the Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM), a 52,000-square-foot venue set to occupy the ground floor of the upcoming Bronx Point development. Opening in 2024, the institution will tell and preserve the history of an expansive culture that encompasses elements from rap to graffiti to breakdance — and that, as suggested by the museum’s name, is profoundly global. 

“We’ve come to realize that the museum is representative of what hip hop is,” Edward Young, a UHHM trustee, tells Jing Culture & Commerce. “It’s a global phenomenon coupled with the fact that it’s the lifestyle coupled with the fact that it’s a part of so many diverse cultures.”

Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM)

Once completed in 2024, the UHHM will occupy the ground floor of the upcoming Bronx Point development. Image: artist’s rendering of the Universal Hip Hop Museum

And UHHM’s founders have the ambition to match that sweeping scope: they’re planning to leverage technology in a big way to vivify hip hop’s history and deepen visitors’ experiences. In short, they’re building a smart museum. “We want to have a museum that doesn’t just rely on technology to create experience,” says Rocky Bucano, UHHM’s Executive Director, “but uses technology to inform and engage, and to do it in a very unique kind of way that no other museum is doing.”

For starters, the museum intends to breathe new life into its permanent artifacts “to give them a greater presence,” says Bucano, using technologies like mixed reality. The cultural significance of, say, LL Cool J’s Kangol hat can be animated in a way that, like the object itself, transcends its particular era. “We’re capturing these things volumetrically, but they’re also not stuck in time,” says Young. “You have the multi-temporal capability that you’re able to play on so that cap exists in a time span, not one but many.”

UHHM is also aiming for each museum visit to be customizable and customized to each visitor, with an assist from artificial intelligence (AI). “When you walk into the museum, it will know how to engage you. Wherever you’re from, the museum will know that you’re in the building,” Bucano explains. Collected visitor data, he adds, will be used to tailor experiences to “provide you with the information that you want to know, but also information that we think you need to know about.”

Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM)

Endeavoring to capture the breadth of hip hop culture, the UHHM will see its permanent collection enhanced by technologies like AI and XR. Image: artist’s rendering of the Universal Hip Hop Museum

We can already get our hands on such an experience at the Bronx Terminal Market where UHHM is currently staging [R]Evolution of Hip Hop, a satellite exhibition housing artifacts and multimedia that recount the cultural movement’s unstoppable rise.

Centering the show is Breakbeat Narratives, an interactive experience created in partnership with the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality. Using AI and a scripted chat, the exhibit invites users to converse with five “Elementals” — namely, MC, DJ, Breakdance, Graffiti Art, and Knowledge — to gather their musical preferences and vibe, before serving them with a personalized narrative presentation and curated Spotify playlist. Through these interactions, visitors get to more deeply engage with hip hop’s history and elements in a way that encompasses and hinges on their input.

Breakbeat Narratives invites users to chat with five “Elementals” before compiling for them a customized playlist. Image: Universal Hip Hop Museum

To accomplish all of the above, UHHM has in its corner a vital collaborator, Microsoft, its Chief Technology Partner that has put $5 million toward the museum’s growth. Breakbeat Narratives is already powered by Microsoft AI, while the company’s tech from its Mesh platform to HoloLens headsets will play key parts in the museum’s audience-facing programs. “They’re also assisting us with training and development,” adds Bucano. “We’re leveraging their enterprise software and hardware to really make the museum and the people who work for the museum so much more productive.”

That internal infrastructure also comprises the build-out of a digital asset management system on Terentia that will integrate the museum’s store of physical and digital objects. With it, according to Young, “You have the capability to tie the physical and digital representation in ways that you need to be able to do now, especially in the age of NFTs.”

UHHM

Breakbeat Narratives at the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop exhibition was created in partnership with the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality and powered by Microsoft AI. Image: Microsoft

Yes, UHHM isn’t just ready to launch IRL, but has plans for the metaverse too (of note: Young is behind nft.hiphop). None of the above tech, though, has been adopted for purely faddish reasons; instead, for Bucano and Young, UHHM’s smart push is grounded in accessibility — to put its contents within reach of fans and non-fans, wherever they are in the multiverse. “We’ve always had a vision that we should make this the most accessible museum on the planet. And in order to do that, you have to use digital platforms to reach that audience,” Bucano notes.

For a museum set to open a few years ahead, such digital or tech considerations would naturally entail significant forward-thinking. Or as Young puts it, “If we’re building for now, we’ve lost.” It’s how he foresees working around challenges like exhibiting hip hop tracks with lyrics that aren’t entirely family-friendly. Looking ahead to 2024, he imagines the possibilities offered by AR glasses, which, when donned in the museum, would potentially allow visitors to experience different audio tracks — for example, one playing radio edits and another uncensored versions — in the same space. And again, he says, “That gives us the opportunity to offer different paths through the museum.”

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All of which is fitting for an institution built in the name of a movement fixed on artistic innovation. Who knows: it might even house technology that we don’t yet have names for. Good thing, then, that exploration is built right into the UHHM experience. “We want you to come in here with probably one mindset about hip hop,” says Bucano. “And by the time you finish your visit, you leave with a totally different perspective of what it actually is.”

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