In 2012, the special collections division of the College of William and Mary’s Swem Library launched a hip-hop collection, filled with oral histories, recordings and artifacts documenting the entire history of hip-hop in Virginia.
It was the brainchild of Kevin Kosanovich, then an American studies doctoral student, whose dissertation examined the emergence of hip-hop in the Bronx.
After discovering that Virginia’s hip-hop roots were largely undocumented, Kosanovich began the long and arduous task of preserving that history through oral interviews. He’s continuing the work from his new home in Richmond, where he teaches U.S. history at John Marshall High School.
“Virginia really does have a longer history with the musical culture that remains hidden because the earlier stuff was mostly local communities,” he says — “young kids picking up breaking crews, DJing parties along the 95-64 corridor, from Virginia Beach up through Northern Virginia.”
The foundation was provided through radio (WRAP in Hampton Roads began playing the first hip-hop records from 1979-’80), networking of relatives transferring sounds from New York and the influx of diversity within the military culture of Hampton Roads.
He notes that Richmond’s own Dynamite J., or James Allen, claims to be the Commonwealth’s original B-boy. Kosanovich says he hasn’t found any reason to doubt him. “He talks about forming a local prototypical B-boy crew with his friends in the early ’80s. … We have a tape in the collection and he’s still active today as a DJ.”
Today, Kosanovich says that many local artists bounce back and forth between Richmond and Atlanta or New York, always looking for larger outlets.
“But I think the lapse of historical thinking has the potential to doom this very talented generation of Richmond hip-hop artists,” he adds.
He says he’s interviewed roughly 120 people across the state, around 25 in Richmond. He’s working on archiving and cataloging the record collection of producer and artist Kleph Dollaz, who died in 2012. And he’s talking to a former employee at Phonobooth record store, once on Laburnum Avenue near the Essex Village apartments, where major hip-hop stars always stopped in the ’90s. [**Editor's note: The historian learned after this interview that the individual was not employed by the record store but had only taken photos there. Kosanovich says he is now going to interview employee Andre Christian and owner Artie Jefferson - which might make a good future story about the history of hip-hop in Richmond. However, this feature is about the current state of hip-hop in the 21st century and the myriad challenges local artists face that other genres don't].
“Richmond was one of the markets that helped Public Enemy break nationally,” Kosanovich says. “That might be our main claim to fame in the larger hip-hop [culture].”
You can listen to the oral histories already updated at the website maintained by William and Mary. And anyone can contact him through the website.
“We need to present these historical moments so that people can point to important things in Richmond’s past,” he says. “This helps us make value judgments that are missing today from the local scene.”