The boombox arrived late one night at a hotel in Atlanta, and it came from Chuck D.
Purchased in New York in 1987, a year before Chuck D’s group Public Enemy would drop its landmark album It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, the boombox had seen hotels like this all over the world. Public Enemy used it on tour in the 1980s, retired it, then brought it back on the road in the 2000s. For awhile, the hunk of metal played a role as a hallowed stage prop.
But now, in late September 2012, the hulking tape player was at the Westin hotel near the Atlanta airport, and Timothy Anne Burnside needed to figure out how to get it back to the Smithsonian in D.C.
“I’ve got a 9 a.m. flight out on a Sunday morning to Houston, and there’s no Fed-Ex open for miles,” says Burnside, a Smithsonian museum specialist who had arranged the boombox drop-off after meeting with the hip-hop icon. She couldn’t check it as luggage — Smithsonian procedure doesn’t allow that. “The only option I had,” Burnside says, “was to carry it on the plane.”
The stereo gave Burnside a headache at the security line and made her a minor spectacle. “I’m carrying a gigantic boombox through an airport, and some people are pointing and staring and taking pictures,” she says.
When Burnside finally stepped onto the plane, she says, the pilot gave the old boombox a once-over.
“Where’s that going?” the pilot asked. “The Smithsonian?”
Burnside does this for a living. She flies around the country hunting down music artifacts for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is still being built on the National Mall. It’s expected to open in 2016.
Burnside, 35, works out of a plain office building in Southwest D.C. when she’s in town. In November, her small, shared office looked like any other white-collar workspace, except for the revealing photos on her cabinets. They show her smiling with landmark figures in hip-hop and R&B: Kurtis Blow, Ice-T, MC Lyte, members of En Vogue.
The Smithsonian is called the “nation’s attic.” But Burnside’s work in music acquisition feels like it starts in the living room.
“I think it really smashes a lot of ideas about what the Smithsonian does and what it’s supposed to do,” Burnside says of the African-American museum’s growing hip-hop collection. “I think a lot of people put the Smithsonian museums into this kind of realm of long-gone history, and way, way, way back is how we can understand things and learn from our distant past. And that’s not the case.”
“I think [acquiring in hip-hop] really smashes a lot of ideas about what the Smithsonian does and what it’s supposed to do.” —Timothy Anne Burnside
Burnside is one of a few staffers tasked with selecting objects for the African-American Museum’s inaugural music exhibit, “Musical Crossroads.” Her colleague Kevin Strait, a historian and museum specialist at the institution, picked up some of its highest-profile music items. He scored a replica of the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership and some of George Clinton’s wigs. He got Curtis Mayfield’s famous glasses. When he was working on acquiring Chuck Berry’s famous Cadillac, he and the rock ‘n’ roll star ate an ice cream sandwich together.
Listen: The Kojo Nnamdi Show‘s related segment, “Preserving the History of African American Music“
Working with living musicians can be intimate that way. Sometimes they ring you up, too — whenever they feel like it.
“I got a random call from George Clinton at one point while I was eating my dinner,” says Strait, 40.
That intimacy is what can give Smithsonian staffers stories they might never forget — and Burnside has at least one. It started in 2010, backstage at D.C.’s Black Cat club, when she met the mother of a producer that left an enormous footprint on hip-hop: underground legend J Dilla.
‘The Smithsonian? Yeah, Right’
Before he died at age 32 after a long struggle with lupus, J Dilla — James DeWitt Yancey, also called Jay Dee — had brought a jazz-steeped musicality to rap music. With his use of organic-sounding drums and soulful samples, Dilla helped shape the sound of underground hip-hop and the Soulquarian era in the ’90s and early 2000s. Most of his work didn’t even graze the pop charts — and sometimes it went uncredited — but his distinctive production is found on songs from popular artists like Common, Janet Jackson and D’Angelo. And as new generations of hip-hop heads discover Dilla’s sound, his stature has only grown.
Throughout Dilla’s life, he maintained a close bond with his mom, Detroit resident Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey. She cared for him throughout his illness. Three days after his birthday in 2006, he died in her arms.
It had been four years since her son’s death when Yancey met Timothy Anne Burnside at a “D.C. Loves Dilla” tribute concert at Black Cat. They later chatted via email, only tentatively discussing bringing some of J Dilla’s belongings to the Smithsonian.
Yancey felt skeptical about working with the museum. “I wasn’t eager to talk to her or anything about it because it seemed so farfetched,” she says. “The Smithsonian? I’m like, ‘Yeah, right.'”
“I was trying to hold on, like Dilla was going to pop right out of the equipment or something and come back.” —Maureen Yancey
She didn’t fully grasp it at the time, but Yancey’s mind was also ailing. She hadn’t given herself a chance to mourn her late son. So she took her time, and Burnside waited, checking in and visiting Yancey in Detroit once in a while. As her trust in Burnside grew, Yancey’s feelings began to change about keeping her son’s music gear.
“I was trying to hold on, like Dilla was going to pop right out of the equipment or something and come back,” Yancey says. But she’d made a realization: You don’t give objects life by keeping them to yourself.
“These gifts, like the gift that great people have, they were given to them to share with the world,” Yancey says. “Not to just have for themselves.”
Four years after they first met in D.C., Burnside and Yancey stood on stage together at the July 2014 “D.C. Loves Dilla” concert at Howard Theatre. They were there to make an announcement: J Dilla was coming to the Smithsonian.
‘They’re All Connected’
“I don’t think either [Yancey or I] understood how popular the announcement would become, and what kind of a presence it would have on social media,” Burnside says. Her big reveal at the Howard Theatre — coupled with the Smithsonian’s own announcement the next day — reached millions of people worldwide. Their acquisition of J Dilla’s custom synthesizer and Akai MPC generated incredible interest in the museum, on a scale the Smithsonian doesn’t always see online.
But when the African-American museum formally opens in 2016, its “Musical Crossroads” exhibit won’t just touch on hip-hop — it will place it in a constellation of African-American expression.
“We’ve got all of these things that are part of the story, and you can’t understand the whole without examining all of it,” Burnside says.
Yes, the museum has J Dilla’s gear and Public Enemy’s boombox (Burnside eventually got to a Fed-Ex in Houston and shipped it back to D.C.). But it also has a rare reel-to-reel tape of opera singer Mahalia Jackson performing on Studs Terkel’s TV show, donated by a Mainer who stumbled across it in a house he’d just bought. The glamorous silver dresses En Vogue wore in the music video for their 1992 single “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).” A flugelhorn used by The Gap Band. Cassette tapes from Chicago’s house scene — including live recordings of huge figures in the music, like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, donated by DJ and attorney Charles Matlock. Items contributed by Cab Calloway’s daughter. Four outfits worn on Soul Train. Key objects from the estate of D.C.’s godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown, which Strait can’t discuss publicly yet.
They’re all part of a shared tradition, Burnside says — a larger story of African-American culture and art. “You can stand in the exhibition and look at the Chuck Brown case while you’re next to the [Parliament-Funkadelic] Mothership, and then behind you is Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, and they’re all connected.”
But as seriously as the Smithsonian takes its growing collection in contemporary music, there are still skeptics both from inside and outside hip-hop culture. Some wonder whether hip-hop has “paid its dues,” Burnside says. Does it deserve to be in the Smithsonian yet, alongside artists like Cab Calloway and Mahalia Jackson?
And what does it mean when a culture that started underground now has a home at one of the most prominent locations in the world? At a 2006 press conference in New York, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons said he’d had doubts about donating his own materials to the Smithsonian, because hip-hop’s institutionalization could signal its demise. “The idea of hip-hop is that it’s from the underbelly, it’s from people who’ve been locked out and not recognized,” Simmons said.
“I’m coming in as an historian and explaining to these artists … why their work needs to be represented in the broader spectrum of the African-American musical experience.” —Kevin Strait
Of course, Burnside thinks hip-hop has earned its place in history — “Our argument, in a way, is that it doesn’t have to be old to be good, or it doesn’t have to be old to be influential,” she says — and J Dilla’s mother vehemently disagrees that putting hip-hop in the Smithsonian could somehow damage the culture.
“I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I think that’s a fearful way to look at it,” Yancey says. “You can’t hold these things in. … You have to share. These gifts, like the gift that great people have, they were given to them to share with the world. Not to just have for themselves.”
Yancey says she’s been asked about compensation for her contributions to the museum. It’s a question that both Strait and Burnside sound familiar with, too, working for an institution that relies heavily on donations. When many of the culture’s stakeholders didn’t make much money on their art, what should the Smithsonian offer in return?
A part of history, Strait says. Most donors understand that being in the Smithsonian is about being recognized as a piece of something bigger.
“I’m coming in as an historian and explaining to these artists why we feel their work needs to be represented on the National Mall,” Strait says. “Why their work needs to be represented in the broader spectrum of the African-American musical experience.”
Yancey, who has spoken openly about her financial struggles, says that preserving her son’s work in the Smithsonian offered a longer-lasting reward than money.
“Someone asked me … ‘How much are you going to get for these things?'” Yancey says. “I said, ‘Don’t insult me. My son is not for sale.’ I want the world to know about who he was and what he did.”
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Specialists from the National Museum of African American History and Culture are scheduled to appear on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show May 7.
Some music items from the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection will be on display in the exhibit “Through the African American Lens: Selections From the Permanent Collection,” opening May 8 at the NMAAHC Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Top photo, clockwise from top left: Maureen Yancey with J Dilla’s music equipment; bass guitar donated by Meshell Ndegeocello; Kurtis Blow and Timothy Anne Burnside; dresses donated by En Vogue; Chuck D and Timothy Anne Burnside; Slick Rick and Timothy Anne Burnside. All images courtesy Smithsonian and/or Timothy Anne Burnside.