Sotheby’s Honors Hip Hop Throughout the Years with Upcoming Event

James Ardis
Published on
“King of New York” photo of Biggie Smalls by Barron Clairborne. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
“King of New York” photo of Biggie Smalls by Barron Clairborne. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

When Puffy first saw a photographer put a crown on Biggie Smalls’ head, he worried Biggie would look like “the Burger King.” But Biggie went along with photographer Barron Clairborne’s vision. Clairborne, a Black man who admitted to not connecting with the typical hip hop aesthetic, wanted to offer a new iconography to rappers and the Black community at large. “There are images of black people, rappers or not, that you don’t see in American culture,” Clairborne contends. “You rarely [see them depicted] as regal.”

Three days later, Biggie Smalls was shot and killed while leaving an afterparty for the Soul Train Music Awards. The “King of New York” photos Clairborne took would not appear on the cover of Rap Pages magazine until after Biggie’s death.

The image would become a reminder of Biggie’s power and the profound loss that came with his passing, a community losing a king. It was carried and posted all across the route of Biggie’s funeral procession. “This photo is about hip hop, but it’s also beyond that,” says Clairborne. “It’s people perceiving you as the best. When people die young, they are mythologized.”

Crown worn by Biggie Smalls during the “King of New York” photoshoot. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Crown worn by Biggie Smalls during the “King of New York” photoshoot. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

On September 15th, 2020, Sotheby’s will offer the crown worn by Biggie Smalls for the “King of New York” photoshoot (estimate: USD 200,000 – $300,000). This piece highlights the auction house’s Hip Hop event, which will make available over 120 lots from throughout the genre’s history.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale will go to a couple of initiatives, including the Queens Public Library Hip-Hop Programs. With both programming and a growing archive, the Queens Public Library aims to educate the community on hip hop’s cultural significance and evolution. This Sotheby’s event will also benefit Building Beats, a nonprofit organization offering DJ and music programs to underrepresented students.

Love letters written by Tupac Shakur. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s
Love letters written by Tupac Shakur. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

“Forgive me while I reminisce….do you remember?” asks Tupac Shakur in his final letter to high school sweetheart Kathy Loy. This and 21 other love letters Shakur sent to Loy are available in the upcoming Sotheby’s event (estimate: $60,000 – $80,000). Together, they trace Shakur and Loy’s relationship and eventual breakup while studying at the Baltimore School for the Arts. 

In the letters, Shakur worries about how his fear of rejection might impact his relationship with Loy. “I just want to be less sensitive and less of a pest,” he writes. He admits in another letter that this fear might also drive him to retire from his music career.

These letters also offer an early example of Shakur’s lyrical and romantic writing. “I love you now more than ever, want you now more than before, No one compares to you, the one that I adore,” writes Shakur to Loy. 

“There are definitely moments that made me blush reading the letters — he is a 16-year-old boy after all,” says Sotheby’s senior specialist, Cassandra Hatton. “But he is very respectful. He advocates for clear communication and boundaries and wants to define relationships.”

This loving side of Shakur would later come to the forefront in such songs as “Dear Mama.” In the song, Shakur considers the traumatic memories of “huggin’ on my mama from a jail cell.” He ultimately decides that the unconditional love between him and his mother outweighs these bad experiences. “Sweet lady place no one above ya (You are appreciated)/ Sweet lady don’t you know we love ya?” he concludes.

The Wall of Boom, collected and constructed by DJ Ross One. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.
The Wall of Boom, collected and constructed by DJ Ross One. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

DJ Ross One grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, admiring his hip hop idols like the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy from afar. In his teens and early twenties, he took unpaid jobs at record stores to accrue store credit and get first dibs on new records. Eventually, his DJ sets caught the attention of Prince, catapulting his career. Among his career highlights was performing a New Year 2011 set with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Rihanna.

Coming from DJ Ross One in this Sotheby’s event is an installation of 32 vintage boomboxes, affectionately titled The Wall of Boom (estimate: $70,000 – $100,000). Each of the boomboxes, spanning the 80s and early 90s, is wired together, allowing it to function as a single sound system. 

The boomboxes represent various eras of hip hop history, including two JVC M90s. This model was popularized by LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, both of whom featured it on their album covers. Also represented is the Clairtone Super Jumbo, the boombox that blared “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy in a climatic scene in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989).

Like many other hip hop enthusiasts, DJ Ross One’s introduction to the genre began with Public Enemy. To the best of his memory, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet was the first hip hop album he bought for himself. “I had ‘911 is a Joke’ on some compilation CD that my parents bought me, and I had to have the album,” DJ Ross One remembers.

Sotheby’s Hip Hop live auction begins at 6:00 PM EDT on September 15th, 2020. Register to bid and view each of the lots on the auction house’s website.