Last week, I had a chance to listen to Tahir Hemphill at the Office of Creative Research in New York City.
The OCR is 111 Bowery and you walk up two flights, up out of a neighborhood dominated by Chinese grocery stores. It feels like moving up in space is moving back in time, like you are caught in something Victorian, entering one world secreted in another. Think something out of Sherlock Holmes’ London. A delicate, organized world now bursting with, on the verge of failing to contain, the forces that made it. A little dreamy. A little strange.
The Center does not disappoint on this score. You enter to see 8 Oscilloscopes staring at you all in a row. Back room science. Wild inquiry. The pursuit of knowledge running away from academic, professional and commercial convention.
Waiting for the talk to start, I fell into conversation with a guy from the “green tech” sector and for some reason, perhaps that Victorian vibe, we started talking about what great ghosts this building must have. I was once part of the museum profession and we used to talk a lot about how to get the knowledge of the museum into the world. Usable holographs were just then appearing on the horizon and surely some day, the green-tech guy and I agreed, every building would have hand-crafted ghosts that wander through and can be relied to tell you the story of the building. This will be a standard feature of the well-appointed office space. As in, “Well, I was going to work at start-up X but when I asked them what ghosts they had installed in the building (they have this great warehouse on the river), they just stared at me like it had never occurred to them. Dude! Dump the ping pong table and get some ghosts!”
And Tahir does not disappoint. He started talking about his childhood, about parents who wanted him to concentrate on math and science, how he discovered art, and the talk sort of spiraled out of control like opium smoke rising (to evoke our Victorian theme again). We were spell bound. Only.
Tahir is famous for his searchable rap almanac, The Hip Hop Word Count. I was complaining the other day that in an era of generalists, we are disinclined to dig deep on any given topic. Tahir dug very deep. Millions of people have supped from the hip hop well. Hundreds of thousands have participated in the profit stream that ensued. But far as I know, Tahir is the only one who actually charts exactly what happened and is happening now. (This is a little like learning, first, that we have discovered a lost continent and that, second, only one person has mapped it.)
As nearly as I can tell (and this is me guessing) hip hop the most formative cultural trend of the past couple of decades. It is now part of the cultural vocabulary of every cosmopolitan. (Thanks to Jey Van-Sharp for illuminating remarks on this theme over drinks after the talk.) It’s possible that some day we will say that hip hop made us the way people now routinely say that Shakespeare made English and the English. (Speaking of ghosts, if Shakespeare is witness to hip hop, just how much do you think he loves it? Very much, that’s how much. By the way, Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is coming up.)
Tahir Hemphill has been a Fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard and at The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. So some resources have been available to him. But as nearly as I can tell, he does not have people lined up the block to give him money. This is distinctly not the fate of those guys who made a Hip Hop encyclopedia called Rap Genius and got bags of dough from Marc Andreessen. And very wrong.
Really! When you think about how much meaning and value the artistic and commercial world has extracted from hip hop, this is not just wrong but unimaginably weird. Hemphill ought to look like a Victorian captain of industry, lauded, celebrated, admired, imitated and the person you go to when you are trying to figure out whether and how the brand or your music or your film can stick its finger in the hip hop socket. As so many have done.
As it is, he keeps a modest office in a building that is surely the greatest story never told. Tahir’s office is in the Millionaire’s Retirement Home, a Bronx building created in 1915 (almost Victorian!) expressly for the purpose for giving comfort to very wealthy people who have fallen on hard times. I know. The irony is too painful. Many people have extracted material riches from hip hop. Tahir is not one of them. His wealth is all intellectual.
When you are ready to hire the very gifted Mr. Hemphill as your consultant, you can find more about him here.