[R]Evolution of Hip Hop: Breakbeat Narratives

A personalized, conversational interactive storytelling system for museum education.

A [R]Evolution of Hip Hop Exhibit visitor interacts with the Breakbeat Narrative exhibit on a Surface Hub display.

A museum visitor shows their custom playlist on their mobile device after scanning the QR code presented in the chatbot interface at the end of the experience.

Our research and development team who built the system from the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, Directed by Professor D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D.

A screenshot of the Breakbeat Narratives system title screen.

Detail from the Breakbeat Narratives chatbot interface. Users converse with characters called Elementals by selecting inputs via a touch-screen interface.

Project Overview


The Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM) is the first of its kind to provide distinctive educational and entertainment experiences to preserve the history of local and global Hip Hop. Commonly known as a globally influential musical genre (with many subgenres) – it has more accurately been described by its progenitors and scholars alike as a “culture” involving five elements: MCing (conducting audiences/rapping), DJing, breakdancing, graffiti art, and knowledge (of self, community, history, etc.). Through this project, we have introduced a novel interactive narrative exhibit for educating the general public about Hip Hop culture and history developed as a collaboration led by the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality and involving the Universal Hip Hop Museum, TunesMap Educational Foundation, internationally known Afrofuturist artists Black Kirby, and Microsoft. The exhibit’s narrative system is personalized by categorizing users based on evaluating their input data light of a social psychology-based model based in musical identity theory. The system uses user input to determine which interactive narrative and customized music playlist to present to the user. The system has been deployed as the central interactive display within the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop for an exhibit of the Universal Hip Hop Museum.

System Personalization

The musical preferences survey was informed by an empirically-based latent five-factor, genre-free music preferences structure based on users’ affective responses to music (Rentfrow et al., 2011). The five factors are as follows: Mellow, Urban (which we referred to as “Danceable”), Sophisticated (which we referred to as “Artsy”), Intense, and Campestral (which we referred to as “Rootsy”). More information about the underlying musical features of each of these categories can be found in Rentfrow et al.’s paper and/or our published Late-Breaking Report featured in the proceedings of the CHI 2020 conference. The descriptions of each of the five factors in the model were used to subjectively guide the curation process of five playlists (corresponding to each of the five labels) for each of the 11 narrative topics (resulting in 55 total playlists). The Hip Hop lyrical preferences survey prompts users to select which lyrics they prefer between five pairs of Hip Hop songs. The songs and lyrics used were curated subjectively using the descriptions of the three overall Breakbeat Narrative themes. The narrative cluster presented to the user is chosen at random from the theme in which they are determined to have the most interest. Using the musical preferences category the user is placed in (Mellow, Danceable, Artsy, Intense, or Rootsy) and the specific narrative they are assigned based on the result of their lyrical preferences survey (one of 11 narratives related to Fashion, Social Impacts, or Location), the user is presented with a customized narrative and playlist experience following their completion of the surveys.


The Breakbeat Narrative experience was publicly launched as the central interactive display at the [R]Evolution of Hip Hop Exhibit in New York’s Bronx Terminal Market in December 2019. The exhibit, which is free to the public, attracted over 3500 RSVPs within the first 10 days of its launch, with visitors of all ages traveling from Australia, London, France, Sweden, Brazil, China, Japan and Israel. The interactive display is situated within a physical exhibit space with signage that has been designed using the same aesthetic as the appli-cation itself. Exhibit visitors can interact with the Breakbeat Narrative experience using two touch-enabled Microsoft Surface Hub displays and headphones, with museum docents available on the floor to help guide users through the experience as needed

My Contributions

I was responsible for managing a team of 6 researchers who worked on the system design and implementation of this novel conversational AI system. My key contribtions to this project were (1) researching and developing the identity model used for system personalization under the direction of Professor D. Fox Harrell, Ph.D., and (2) coding the entire conversational AI "chatbot" component of the system using the Microsoft Bot Framework in collaboration with MIT CSAIL Doctoral Student, Nouran Soliman, and (3) managing the undergraduate research team who supported the design and development of the system (Angela Wang, Magdalena Price, and Omoruyi Atekha) with support from Project Manager Rita Sahu. Through this project, I worked in collaboration with faculty members, Hip Hop experts and artists, historical researchers, external developers, and museum exhibition experts. The system was built in collaboration with Microsoft, TunesMap Educational Foundation, and the Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM) of the Bronx.

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