When you think of hip-hop, Harvard University isn’t the first place that comes to mind.
But this month, the Ivy League institution has announced the first four standout albums its curators will include in a musical archive they plan to build in the years ahead. It’s part of the work of Harvard’s Hiphop Archive, established in 2002 and housed at the campus’ Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
That means that right now, you can walk into Harvard’s Loeb Music Library and see one of those first four albums — 1998’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” — on display right next to scores by Mozart.
Peter Laurence, the library’s senior curatorial assistant, has cataloged hundreds of recordings during his 11-year career. This is the first time he’s archived a collection of hip-hop music.
“I think it’s really great timing here in the music library,” said Laurence. We’re “looking at bringing many more different types of music into the course of study.”
Patrick Douthit is the curator charged with picking the indispensable records of the past 40 years of hip-hop. He’s better known as “9th Wonder,” a cult-favorite record producer out of North Carolina.
9th thinks the new displays represent an important acknowledgment of an art form that’s been too long dismissed by mainstream audiences. He’s heard complaints that hip-hop is “a waste of time, that it’s vulgar, that it’s misogynist — and I’m thinking, so is America. This is the society we live in. Hip-hop has just been a megaphone [for] it.”
In all, 9th will choose 200 of the most influential hip-hop albums for the Harvard archive. It’s an ambitious project, especially for an institution with a high-brow, exclusive reputation. And some hip-hop heads are skeptical. Boston artist and activist Jamarhl Crawford wonders if Harvard is really serious about chronicling a culture.
“I have a level of disdain, and I look at it with suspicion — it’s suspect to me,” he said.
9th understands the skepticism. But he argues, the connection between Harvard and hip-hop is one worth drawing.
“If we’re talking about two ideas of genius, you know, or setting the standard, then why can’t hip-hop live at Harvard?” he asked. “Why can’t it be at a place of genius, if it’s already genius itself?”
He points to the first four selections for the archive as proof that he and others take the challenge seriously. Nas’ classic album “Illmatic” sits alongside “To Pimp A Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar, which has served as a soundtrack to Black Lives Matter protests since its release in 2015.
“Miseducation” is the only album of the first four that was recorded by a female artist — Lauryn Hill, the rapper-singer formerly of the Fugees.
9th points out that Hill’s title calls back to a history of political thought going back to 1933’s “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” a polemic against the way American schools taught black students “to do what they are told to do” instead of learning their history.
To round out the foursome, 9th chose a record that holds a special place in his heart. 1991’s “The Low-End Theory” is the second album by the legendary “jazz rap” group, A Tribe Called Quest.
“Tribe was the earth, wind and fire of our culture. They’re one of the most important groups of our time,” he said. Why “Low-End”? “It spoke truth, it spoke love. It tells a complete story. You can’t skip a song. And we haven’t really seen an album like that since.”
Critics like Crawford say the issue is not with the selections themselves. Instead, he’s questioning why Harvard has decided to take on hip-hop in the first place.
Crawford calls the effort “window dressing” — a marketing campaign to help the almost 400-year-old university look hip. He compares it to McDonald’s advertising, going from “Hello, ma’am” in the 1960s to beatboxing in Big Mac ads in the 1980s.
Harvard’s not alone in listening to rap and R&B with new interest. Cornell University has started to develop a similar archive, along with UMass Boston.
This story aired on February 28, 2017.