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Tech and hip-hop meet head-on in ‘Rap Research Lab’ at UMBC

The solo exhibition by artist, educator and creative technologist Tahir Hemphill is on display through this week at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture. Here, Hemphill discusses his path to creating this multidisciplinary exploration of hip-hop culture.

An exhibition view of Tahir Hemphill's "Rap Research Lab." (Courtesy photo by Tedd Henn)

This editorial article is a part of Universities Month 2023 in Technical.ly’s editorial calendar.

Tahir Hemphill was immersed in a technical environment at a very young age. He attended specialized schools and eventually pursued a dual-degree engineering program at Morehouse College and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Despite his technical prowess, Hemphill’s passion for art and design led him to graduate school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where he obtained a master’s degree in communications design.

“That’s why the art that I’m making is heavily influenced by technology,” the multidisciplinary artist, creative technologist and faculty fellow in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s (UMBC) visual arts department told Technical.ly between panels at South by Southwest.

Drawing from this background in engineering and design, Hemphill employs an innovative approach to examining the cultural impact of hip-hop. He demonstrates this approach within “Rap Research Lab,” the solo exhibition that the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s (UMBC) Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC) will display this week until Saturday, March 18.

“Rap Research Lab” is a community-based creative technology studio that uses a hip-hop framework to develop fresh avenues for individuals to interact with data and culture. According to a press release, UMBC’s exhibition of this work dovetails with Hemphill turning “the CADVC into a learning forum” via another of his projects, “Mapper’s Delight.” This immersive tool leverages augmented and virtual reality, as well as sculptural data visualization and collaborative elements, based on semantic relationships within over 100,000 rap lyrics. Since 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, these projects offer attendees a timely opportunity to explore the evolution and influence of this globally influential music and cultural phenomenon.

Black box with blue screen and white text next to white paper with black text, both presenting rap lyrics

A component of “Rap Research Lab.” (Courtesy photo by Tedd Henn)

Hemphill, a New York City native and hip-hop aficionado, credited his upbringing in the artform’s hometown for his deep understanding and appreciation of the culture.

“When I was a teen, I grew up in Queens, New York, where hip-hop was an integral part of the culture,” he reminisced. “My friends and I contributed slang and style to the culture that is now recognized worldwide.”

Hemphill’s passion for hip-hop and its broader impact drove him to explore its intersection with technology and data — particularly given all the ways tech and data get misused.

“Being able to process the types of data that we have is important, especially in this century,” he said. “It’s about understanding what to do with that data, how to tell stories with it, and how to use it in service. It’s also important to act ethically with the data, which was not always the case in the last century.”

Hemphill’s latest project, “The Rap Almanac,” is a manifestation of this intersection, allowing users to overlay hip-hop lyrics with other types of data, such as crime statistics and political data. He sees “The Rap Almanac,” which is a constituent part of “Rap Research Lab,” as a novel way to demonstrate hip-hop’s unique and unparalleled influence on global art and culture.

“By combining hip-hop with data, we can tell powerful stories and shed light on important issues,” he said.

Silhouette of Lil Wayne near black and gold text with featuring his "I'm Me" lyrics on off-white wall.

Tahir Hemphill’s “Lil Wayne I’m Me.” (Courtesy photo)

Those interested in Hemphill’s tech-infused approach to hip-hop can see his work on display at the CADVC in Catonsville, Baltimore County, until Saturday. He will also attend a special closing reception on Thursday, March 16, that features a discussion with Hemphill and DJ set from CX KidtroniK at 6 and 7 p.m., respectively.

Learn more about “Rap Research Lab”

Companies: University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)
Series: Universities Month 2023

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