Rocky Bucano, founder of the Universal Hip Hop Museum
The (UHHM) is a nonprofit cultural institution more than a decade in the making. After several false starts, founder and executive director Rocky Bucano says that the institution came together through a ton of grit and determination. Bucano eventually partnered with a small team of entrepreneurs and rappers—including Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J and Nas—to get the project off the ground.
“It was a hustle to build this place,” says Bucano, as we sit across from each other in a corner of the museum’s current exhibition, . The exhibit focuses on hip-hop’s so-called Golden Era—a period defined as the years 1986 to 1990—and is housed in the Bronx Terminal Market, adjacent to the Major Deegan Expressway. Bucano and UHHM staff emphasize that the display is a precursor of what’s to come; the museum proper, in a building just south of the market, is set to open in 2025.
[R]Evolution of Hip Hop exhibit. Photo: Matthew Papa
Upon entering [R]Evolution of Hip Hop, visitors encounter Slick Rick’s ostentatious golden throne, an iconic piece of furniture he used at live shows that is inscribed with the initials SR. Just a few feet away, a video montage highlights the most significant moments of hip-hop’s Golden Era. The interactive gallery also features music, rare interviews, handwritten letters, memorabilia, tour footage, jewelry (think “” gold chains, which became synonymous with the era) and party flyers, among other remnants of the period’s most prominent artists. One installation displays a Troop leather track suit, worn by LL Cool J in 1987 during the first Def Jam tour. The 3,000-square-foot space is bustling with visitors—tourists, artists, former B-boys and, of course, hip-hop enthusiasts, much like the executive director, who is a direct disciple of the culture.
“I DJed before hip-hop was a thing,” says Bucano. As a teenager, the Bronx native took up DJing to make extra money and entertain the people who lived in his community. This was the mid-1970s, before hip-hop became ubiquitous. As a young DJ, Bucano spun funk, soul and disco—music genres from which hip-hop would draw. After briefly relocating to Texas, Bucano moved back to New York City and in 1986 started Strong City Records with DJ Jazzy Jay. As a record executive, the self-proclaimed “muscle of hip-hop” helped both artists and producers, such as Teddy Riley, get started in the business.
Bucano remains one of hip-hop’s guardians. Wearing a UHHM hoodie and speaking in a steady tone, the salt-and-pepper-haired founder says the museum’s development is analogous to the functioning of old locomotives. “The train would not move until the engine got superhot. And in order to get the train superhot, you had to take the coal and feed it into the furnace and you would see these guys feeding it, feeding it, feeding it. And then slowly but surely that train would start moving.” He explains, “That's the journey of this museum. In the very beginning, no one really thought it would happen.”
Bucano and the museum even faced early resistance from artists. “A lot of them have no concept for what a museum actually means to their legacy,” he says. As hip-hop is still a relatively young genre, some of the rappers don’t see themselves, or their work, as artifacts and believe being a part of a museum places them in the past. But the executive has the confidence of a person who has paid his dues—a rite of passage in hip-hop. “A lot of the artists push back. ‘I’m still relevant. I don’t want to be in a museum because I want kids to still like me. If I’m in a museum, maybe they’ll think I’m a has-been.’ So you have to inform and educate everyone.” Bucano adds, “You’re not going to be performing forever.”
So UHHM intends to tell the full story of what hip-hop means to the world (hence the “Universal” in the organization’s title). According to Bucano, the museum will be “responsible for documenting, celebrating and preserving the global history of the culture.” He says that the nonprofit will do these things authentically, and that the genre’s history will bee told by those who created it. “You cannot allow the museum to be left up to the devices or powers of other institutions to basically curate our own history.”
In addition to putting on the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop exhibition and prepping for the eventual opening of the actual museum, UHHM is working with the City to produce events this year for hip-hop’s 50th birthday—including what Bucano describes as a “major” concert that is yet to be announced.
As for the genre’s staying power, the museum’s founder has no concern. “Hip-hop will always be around because it’s a youth culture,” says Bucano. “That’s where it started with Black and Brown teenagers, and that’s where it is today. The youth will continue to drive the creativity of the culture.”