Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Hip Hop Treasures’ On A&E, A Docuseries About The Search For Artifacts For The New Universal Hip Hop Museum
In Hip Hop Treasures, LL Cool J and Ice-T lead a group that travels the country in search of artifacts that will be on display in the new Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM), scheduled to open in The Bronx, NY in 2024. Field collectors Cipha Sounds and Yolanda Whitaker (known to most of us as YoYo), with the help of Ice-T, LL, chief museum curator Paradise Gray and co-curator Pete Nice (of 3rd Bass fame) travel the country looking for artifacts big and small, and talking to the people that were instrumental in the lives of the hip hop legends being honored. In some episodes, the legends themselves talk about the artifacts that they’re lending to the museum.
Opening Shot: “Hip Hop is turning 50. It’s time to honor the culture that we love,” says LL Cool J, as he stands in the “Hip Hop Headquarters”, where artifacts for the Universal Hip Hop Museum are gathered.
The Gist: In the first episode, Cipha Sounds looks for artifacts celebrating the life and career of The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, whose legend has only gotten bigger since he was shot and killed in 1997, when he was only 24. Even casual music fans know that Biggie was already considered one of the best rappers of all time after two well-received albums, and his life was snuffed out as part of the same East-West war that took the life of Tupac Shakur in 1996.
What Cipha is specifically looking for is the plastic crown that Biggie wore during a photo shoot for the cover of Rap Pages magazine; that cover has turned out to be the most iconic photo of the artist, and it sold at auction in 2020 for over $500,000.
Cipha first goes to Brooklyn to visit Lil’ Cease, Biggie’s protégé and part of the Junior M.A.F.I.A., which Biggie started to feature young rappers. They FaceTime with Barron Claiborne, the photographer that took the iconic portrait, who held on to the $6 novelty crown for years until finally auctioning it off in 2020. He tells the story about the photo shoot, but can’t tell them who bought the crown because of an NDA he is obligated to honor.
Cipha and Cease then go to the Brooklyn boutique that is owned by Biggie’s daughter T’yanna Wallace. She was only 4 when her father was killed, so her memories of Biggie are through the videos and interviews he left behind, as well as other people’s memories of him. But he’s been very influential in her life, and she shows them an even more coveted artifact: The basketball jersey he wore in his first video, for the song “Juicy”.
We then see Cipha in Los Angeles, where he visits Biggie’s wife, singer Faith Evans and her son C.J. Wallace. C.J. was only five months old when his father died, and he mentions to Cipha that when he was a kid, seeing pictures of Biggie, like at his grandmother’s house, would intimidate him. But he has two artifacts that might be of interest: Biggie’s shades and the cane he had the night he died.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Hip Hop Treasures has a similar structure to the sports memorabilia reality series King Of Collectibles: The Godin Touch, but instead of finding things to put up for auction, the artifacts being found will be potentially part of the “Official Record of Hip Hop” at the UHHM.
Our Take: While Hip Hop Treasures has a slick reality show format, the producers really take the time to get the stories behind the artifacts being presented to Cipha and YoYo, and show the impact the artists had on hip hop specifically and the culture in general.
We loved hearing the stories about Biggie, especially some of the stories coming from Lil’ Cease about the crown photo shoot, and the fact that the corner in Brooklyn that now bears his name was a place where his mother didn’t want him to hang out, due to the level of violence it saw in the ’80s and early ’90s.
But what was really fascinating was hearing from Biggie’s children, T’yanna and C.J., and hearing their adult perspective on the strange disconnect of getting to know their father as both Christopher Wallace the man and the rap icon The Notorious B.I.G. It’s not the same perspective of children who grew up with famous parents who just knew them as mom or dad, not how the general public knows them; their memories of Biggie are intertwined with his fame, because that’s all they know.
We really hope other episodes of this series go into the same territory, and the highlights of the season include a number of musical icons, no doubt due to the influence of LL and Ice-T.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Paradise Grey talks about how having artifacts of Biggie are like puzzle pieces that can be put together to get a picture of a legend who has been gone for 26 years.
Sleeper Star: Speaking of Paradise Grey, he is someone who knows the history of hip hop better than most, because he lived through it and worked with most of the biggest names in the genre.
Most Pilot-y Line: Once Barron Claiborne said he couldn’t legally tell Cipha and Cease who bought the crown, the search was more than likely at a dead end. But for the show’s purposes, the search had to keep going, which means that Cipha had to ask people who had no idea where the crown was.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Hip Hop Treasures really leans into the stories behind the treasures that are being found, and the fact that all of the discoveries are going to the Universal Hip Hop Museum and not just some rich person’s private collection makes the show all the more worth watching.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.