From Run DMC to Jay-Z: the history of hip-hop, told through bling: NPR

Slick Rick is known for his eye patch and the crowns he often wears.

Janette Beckman/courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery


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Janette Beckman/courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery

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Slick Rick is known for his eye patch and the crowns he often wears.

Janette Beckman/courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery

Taste Taste's clock. Barbie pendant by Nicki Minaj. Smooth crown and eye patch from Rick. These are well-known symbols of hip hop. But perhaps the most iconic piece of all is Ghostface Killah's eagle cuff.

The gold bracelet weighs 5 pounds and features an eagle, with wings outstretched, landing on the cuff. And it is now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

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Ghostface Killah wears his iconic gold eagle cuff.

Atsuko Tanaka/American Museum of Natural History


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Atsuko Tanaka/American Museum of Natural History

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Ghostface Killah wears his iconic gold eagle cuff.

Atsuko Tanaka/American Museum of Natural History

“I was a really big fan of Wu-Tang,” said Kevin “Coach K” Lee, guest curator for the show”Ice Cold: an exhibition of hip-hop jewelry' and co-founder and chief operating officer of Quality Control Records. 'So I remember when [Ghostface] got that piece and showed it – and to see it in person today? It just blew me away.”

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From chains to diamonds

But early hip-hop artists didn't start out with giant gold eagles, diamond-encrusted nameplates or Rolexes.

Instead, according to music journalist and guest curator of the exhibition Vikki Tobak, they shopped in small jewelry stores, mostly owned by immigrants. “There weren't many diamonds, just a gold cap for your tooth, a simple name tag, just to show success.”

From there it was on to Run-DMC's thick gold ropes, pendants like the NAS QB pendant, which represented the houses in Queensbridge, and the diamond-encrusted Roc-A-Fella medallion for the record label co-founded by Jay -Z; and finally to playful items like A$AP Rocky's jewel-encrusted Lego figure, with fully operational arms and legs.

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This playful Lego pendant, designed for A$AP Rocky by Alex Moss

Alvaro Keding/© AMNH


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This playful Lego pendant, designed for A$AP Rocky by Alex Moss

Alvaro Keding/© AMNH

“Hip-hop jewelry grew up with the music and the culture,” Tobak said.

As hip hop became more mainstream and the artists became wealthier, the jewelry became more expensive and elaborate.

Not every piece is about wealth

With so many spectacularly shiny objects, it would be easy to miss a more modest item in a box: a rectangular ring with the letter “R” in the center.

It's a Juice Crew ring, lent by Roxanne Shanté, a radio host and battle rap pioneer. Her breakthrough song 'Roxanne's Revenge' was recorded when she was 14 and living in Queensbridge.

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“It used to be that someone who had juice had respect and control over their neighborhood and situation,” Shanté said. “So when you saw someone with the Juice Crew ring, you knew that was a person you could trust. You knew that was a person you could go to with your problems. So you had to earn that. The Juice ring could never be.” be purchased. It had to be given to you.”

She said people earned the ring by, for example, helping send a child to camp or mediating a dispute.

For her, it is a symbol that hip-hop is a family.

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Roxanne Shanté, a teenage member of the influential hip-hop collective Juice Crew in the 1980s, is the only female rapper to receive a Juice Crew ring, with a diamond-encrusted 'R'.

Alvaro Keding/© AMNH


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Roxanne Shanté, a teenage member of the influential hip-hop collective Juice Crew in the 1980s, is the only female rapper to receive a Juice Crew ring, with a diamond-encrusted 'R'.

Alvaro Keding/© AMNH

Other pieces in the show feature African iconography, such as a leather pendant worn by a member of De La Soul. Curator Tobak said the exhibition purposefully connects these pieces to other anthropological sections in the museum, because the story of hip-hop and jewelry is intrinsically linked to the African diaspora.

“What we put on our bodies is so human that hip-hop has just reached yet another degree. And I think that's the bigger, powerful story here,” she said.

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“Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewelry” is on display at the American Museum of Natural History as part of the Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals.

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