Cornell To Digitize A Rich Hip-Hop Archive : The Record The founding publicity director of Def Jam Records, Bill Adler, amassed a highly valuable collection of music, writing and images.

Cornell To Digitize A Rich Hip-Hop Archive

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next story is about one man's treasure trove of records, books and correspondence. Bill Adler worked for Def Jam Records. He was the founding publicity director and as such, he amassed a huge archive that covers the birth and evolution of hip-hop.

Adler recently sold his entire collection to Cornell University where it's being digitized and will be made available to scholars all over the world. Reporter Jon Kalish paid Adler a visit while he was packing everything up.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: One of Bill Adler's first assignments at Def Jam was getting pop music critics and daily newspapers to cover one of the label's new artists, LL Cool J.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT MY RADIO")

LL COOL J: My radio, believe me, I like it loud. I'm the man with the box that can rock the crowd. Walking down the street to the hardcore beat while my JVC vibrates the concrete.

KALISH: Adler was at the label for six years before going independent and later running a gallery devoted to hip-hop photography. He kept all of his stuff in his office and loft before eventually renting a storage space in the basement of his building.

The storage room is filled with flat cabinets for large posters and traditional filing cabinets, all of the material meticulously organized in alphabetical order.

BILL ADLER: Here are the files. I've got Aaliyah, Ace Hood, the Afros, Ali D, Arrested Development...

KALISH: Along with these, Adler sent Cornell 500 vinyl recordings as well as an impressive collection of books about rap music in several languages. One, in Polish, is a 600-page encyclopedia of rap. Another is a collection by French photographer Sophie Bramly.

ADLER: These are stupendous. Look at this picture. Here's Rick Rubin with Afrika Islam from the Zulu Nation very early on. Rick didn't even have a beard - great photo. Very early Run DMC.

KALISH: By the year 2000, Jon Caramanica was writing for hip-hop lifestyle magazines like Urb and Vibe. Today, he's a pop music critic for the New York Times and says Adler recognized from the beginning that hip-hop culture was something worth archiving.

JON CARAMANICA: He was always very mindful of the fact that hip-hop needed a translator to the mainstream, and it needed a caretaker. Basically, it needed to be treated like jazz was treated and like rock was treated. Those are genres and communities and worlds that had their own ecosystems. They had their own historians. They had their own documentation, and I think Bill very early on realized hip-hop was going to be big enough that it was going to require those things.

KALISH: And all the while, Adler let anyone who was interested use his files.

ADLER: People have been coming to me for 20 years at a minimum because I put together this collection. So writer friends and editor friends and documentarians have come here to do their - all their individual research.

KALISH: One of those friends is Jeff Chang who used the Adler archive to write "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History Of The Hip-Hop Generation," which won a National Book Award in 2005. Chang is now the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.

JEFF CHANG: There's really been an explosion of hip-hop scholarship. Really, it's been in the last decade that you've seen a lot of folks beginning to really take seriously hip-hop as a form that's worthy of serious scholarship and study.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANET ROCK")

KALISH: Harvard University began to take it seriously in 2002 when it started its Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute. At Cornell, hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa is a visiting scholar.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANET ROCK")

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA: (Rapping) Just taste the funk and hit me. Just get on down and hit me.

KALISH: In fact, Cornell takes hip-hop so seriously that it's storing the Adler archive with its rare books and manuscripts in a secure vault 150 feet underground.

KATHERINE REAGAN: The collections are Cornell range from 4,000-year-old the cuneiform tablets to medieval manuscripts to the Gettysburg Address in Abraham Lincoln's handwriting.

KALISH: Katherine Reagan is a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Cornell. Her associate, Ben Ortiz, says some of the newspaper and magazine clippings in Adler's archive are quite valuable.

BEN ORTIZ: I originally thought that we would be able to locate digitized versions of most of these articles online somewhere, but that's actually not the case. I have trouble finding virtually any of these things online. And what that means is that these are completely unique things that haven't really been seen in many years.

KALISH: For his part, Bill Adler says it's crucial that this original source material be made available to scholars. He insisted Cornell digitize the collection and make it available for free online.

ADLER: I want to believe there's a hunger - really, a global hunger for these materials. It's a unique collection, if I do say so myself. And I believe it's going to be widely used, and I sort of can't wait for it to happen.

KALISH: Because it won't be just scholars. Once the material becomes searchable online, it'll provide history and inspiration for high school students and the next generation of rappers. For NPR News, I'm John Kalish in New York.

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