Yes Yes Yall: The Birth of Hip Hopby Megan Heuer
Deitch Projects Brooklyn
Graffiti on subway cars, yellow signs for street names and numbers, and hand-lettered flyers for a "Rappers Convention" all point to signs of life before Puff Daddy. Tragically coinciding with the violent murder of Run DMC’s Jam Master J, Yes Yes Y’All tells the story of a more peaceful time in hip hop history from which groups like Run DMC emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Organized to celebrate the publication of Yes Yes Y’all, the Experience Music Project’s oral history of hip hop, the show presents photos and flyers from the birth of hip hop as a musical style and a cultural movement in the Bronx. Offering a view of the urban desolation and poverty that spawned and still pervades hip hop culture (see Eminem), Yes Yes Y’all also manages to capture a more joyous perspective, making music for pleasure, for parties, for people, with less commercial aspirations.
Fuzzy color snapshots of an underground pleasure emphasize the organic evolution of hip hop as an underground aesthetic revolution in the Bronx. The photos depict young black men in decidedly unflashy clothing posing on desolate street corners, break dancing in cramped living rooms, and hunched over turntables in school gyms. Afros, sweatshirts customized with iron-on letters, and clunky silver boom boxes are timely reminders that the current ’80s "retro" craze has roots in a lived-in style without so many other alternatives. Images of colorful graffiti murals on subway cars and walls offer another view of public art that has been suppressed in favor of city-sponsored projects by "approved" artists.
The crowd at the gallery’s opening presented just this kind of diverse array of color and style, which is sadly so often lacking in Williamsburg art galleries, where the crowds at art openings tend to mirror the demographics of patrons at the shops along Bedford Avenue. Hosted by Grandmaster Caz, it was a serendipitous collision of New York City’s diverse elements: Brooklyn’s contemporary art scene hosted the Bronx’s musical history and invited a Manhattan gallery audience. The Brooklyn-based writer Touré was there, whose recent collection The Portable Promised Land offers a fictional world full of characters like those in Yes Yes Y’all, colorful and exuberant and full of life despite (or because of) a lack of resources. In Touré’s urban magical realism there is an apt definition of hip hop outside of MTV offered in these photographs: "Everything hip-hop could be all at once: over-the-top and from the heart and brilliant and revolutionary and hopeful and nihilistic and macho and racist and hypocritical and cartoonish and way too real. Epic theater worthy of Shakespeare, costarring musical anarchy, disinformation, deep truth, organized chaos, gleeful malevolence, and wild mythomania." Or more simply, as the red bubble letters on one subway car declares, "We are unstoppable, we are uncatchable, we are nasty!"
The opening of Deitch Brooklyn with Yes Yes Y’all suggests that the direction of gallery migration has shifted, at least momentarily. As many Brooklyn-based dealers contemplate moving to Manhattan because of the lack of a stable collecting community, Deitch Brooklyn is a cavernous space on North 1st street, the second attempt at a Deitch Projects in Williamsburg after a single exhibition in 2001 was the opening and the closing show of the first try. This perseverance is heartening, especially since the gallery was filled on Sunday afternoons all month for hip hop workshops by the DJs and emcees in the photographs. As more difficult economic times return to New York and the United States moves towards wartime, Yes Yes Y’all serves as a reminder of the powerful effects of adversity in creative production. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in 1986 "In the teeth of things that threaten, in the face of routine disaster, the poetic blossoms. Even, or especially, in the reality of poverty and disorder that build toward political reckoning, there are new ones and new colors. Anyone insensitive to them will deserve taking history by the medicinal spoonful from Ted Koppel on television." Or as one flyer boasts, "We’re definitely gonna have a rockin’ affair!"