Photos: From Run DMC to Jay-Z: Hip-hop's history, told through bling The extravagant jewelry worn by hip-hop artists has meaning beyond the shiny surfaces.

The history of hip-hop, told through bling

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Jewelry is celebrated in hip-hop as an eye-catching display of wealth and status.


B G: (Rapping) Every time I come around your city, bling bling.

CHANG: But all those shiny objects hold more meaning than they seem. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco says a new exhibit of hip-hop jewelry delves beneath the sparkly surfaces.

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: Roxanne Shante is an elegant woman in her 50s. You might know her as a radio host, but she's also a pioneer of battle rap. Her breakout hit, "Roxanne's Revenge," was recorded when she was 14.


ROXANNE SHANTE: (Rapping) My name is Roxanne, and they call me Shante.

Walking through here takes me from rope chains to seeing everything turn into diamonds and seeing it turn into Rolex watches when I remember we wore Swatches and Timexes.

VANASCO: Shante is standing in the middle of the "Ice Cold" exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. She's surrounded by some of the greatest hits of bling - Nicki Minaj's Barbie necklace, Flavor Flav's large clock. There's grills and belt buckles and a diamond-encrusted Lego man with working limbs. She lent a ring to the exhibition. It's small and rectangular with an R in the center. Shante says it speaks to the very earliest days of hip-hop. It's a Juice Crew ring, and you couldn't buy it. It had to be earned by helping the community.

SHANTE: I tell everybody hip-hop is a family. Though we're dysfunctional, we're still a family. So when I look at this, I just see these as family jewels.

VIKKI TOBAK: Hip-hop is a culture that's never needed outside validation. That's what I love about it.

VANASCO: Vikki Tobak is the guest curator of the show, and she says there's something about being in a major museum that gives the jewels a different context.

TOBAK: It's bigger than just bling.

VANASCO: Tobak fell in love with hip-hop culture as an immigrant kid in Detroit. She became a music journalist and wrote the book "Ice Cold." She says to tell the history of hip-hop in jewelry, you need to tell the story of the African diaspora and how these artists connect to that. She points out a glittering crown hovering above an equally glittering eyepatch, custom made for artist Slick Rick.

TOBAK: Right up front, we talk about how African royalty has traditionally used gold and diamonds.


SLICK RICK: (Rapping) God, it's great being the king.

TOBAK: Notions of royalty, notions of identity, what we choose to put on our body is such a human thing that hip-hop has just taken to the Nth degree.

VANASCO: All the pieces in the show were lent by the artists. So she wasn't surprised that some were reluctant to give them up for that long. But she was surprised that many iconic pieces are gone forever.

TOBAK: People would say, oh, that was lost years ago, or that was stolen, or that was melted down in, like, times of hardship.

VANASCO: The objects that remain, though, can still inspire a lot of lust. Kevin Lee, known as Coach K, is a co-founder of Quality Control music and a guest curator of the show.

COACH K: The one piece that really sticks out to me is the Ghostface Killah - the eagle. I was such a - I was a really big fan of Wu-Tang, so I remember when he - you know, he got that piece and showed it. And to see it in person, that was - it just blew me away.

VANASCO: He's talking about a forearm cuff. It's made of gold. It has a large, ferocious sculpture of an eagle landing - its wings back, its talons curved to strike. It weighs five pounds. It's so famous that other artists reference it, like in this song, "House Of Bricks" by Despot.


DESPOT: (Rapping) Get whole birds on the arm, I'm Ghostface.

VANASCO: The whole bird's on the arm, I'm Ghostface. Coach K pauses. He thinks for a moment.

COACH K: When you're coming up in hip-hop, most of the artists come from an unfortunate situation, you know, their upbringings. So when you're able to get a piece of jewelry from rap, it's like a prize.

VANASCO: Hip-hop is often about adversity, he says. But this jewelry, it's a symbol of strength, a sign that an artist has struggled and made it. Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York.

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