Tag Archive | "hip-hop"

Building the world’s largest collection of hip-hop memorabilia, one piece at a time

Mixed Media on Repurposed Street Sign titled “My Radio (LL Cool J),” 2013 by Dunn The Signtologist.

The definitive history of hip-hop doesn’t lie in the Bronx—at least not yet. For now, it’s sitting in rows of boxes inside a fine art storage facility in Newark, N.J.

That’s where the principal archive for the Bronx’s soon-to-come Universal Hip-Hop Museum is being stored until construction is finished on the project’s nearly 60,000 square-foot facility just north of the 145th Street Bridge. With a core formed from the vast collection of hip-hop legend and historian Claude “Paradise” Gray, it’s likely already the largest stockpile of hip-hop memorabilia in existence and is only growing as the museum’s 2022 opening date approaches.

Open up one box and you might find a collection of cassettes, vast in scope but full of many difficult-to-find gems like Cool C’s I Gotta Habit and Steady B’s Let the Hustlers Play—tapes that vaulted both Philadelphia natives to local celebrity before it all came crashing down in a botched 1996 bank robbery attempt.

Open up another and you might stumble upon several original pieces of artwork courtesy of Chuck D, the firebrand frontman of socially conscious rap group Public Enemy. Concert scenes show rough-hewn outlines of a crowd, while several performers look on, hands raised in defiance. “Prophets of Rage,” one is titled. “Backed by the God of Hard Drums,” another reads.

“People understand that these artifacts will outlive us,” said Gray, the museum’s chief curator and former member of pioneering hip-hop group X-Clan. “It’s only right that they reside in the Bronx and are no longer stored in people’s basements. These things are asking to be on display and accessible to everyone.”

The collection tracks the history of hip-hop, starting in the basement of an unassuming south Bronx apartment building where DJ Kool Herc first used two turntables to extend a song’s drum beat—the “beatbreak”—by switching from one record to another. From there, it aims to tell the story of the genre’s rapid growth and cultural impact—showcasing things like graffiti, sneaker culture, dance, urban fashion and other movements that can trace their history back to hip-hop. With a definite nod to the genre’s global reach today, collectors hope to acquire everything from records to photographs, CDs, clothes, videos, cassettes, artwork, magazines, posters, writings, ticket stubs and much more.

Cassette collection from the Universal Hip-Hop Museum official archive.

The ambitious project is the result of nearly five years of work on the part of Gray and a team of hip-hop enthusiasts and all-stars that includes pioneers Ice-T, Kurtis Blow, Shawn LG Thomas and Executive Director Rocky Bucano, who knew Gray and convinced him to participate in the project early on.

Several similar museum proposals have moved forward in fits and starts over the past decade, most notably a rival organization named the “Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum” that’s currently fundraising in an attempt to break ground on a site in Harlem over the next few years. This history of uncertainty has presented practical challenges in gaining popular support and a fundraising base this time around, but after the Universal Hip-Hop Museum gained City Council approval last October for a new construction site just south of Yankee Stadium and secured $20 million in city and state money, organizers say the future of the project looks bright.

“I think everyone’s initial response is, ‘There’s not a hip-hop museum already? How can that be?’” said Adam Silverstein, the museum’s director of archives and a board member on the project. “Our challenge right now is doing a better job at getting the word out, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Central to that mission are Gray and Silverstein, who both plan to showcase their personal collections at the Universal Hip-Hop Museum. It was a no-brainer for Gray, who said he’s been a collector since well before he discovered hip-hop.

While he was growing up in the Bronx, Gray’s brother had stamps and coins, while he amassed a large stockpile of baseball cards. From there they both turned to comic books—but Gray, more than anything, wanted to find his own path.

“I rebelled against my brother, and old school hip-hop flyers fit the bill perfectly,” he said. “They had extremely comic book graphic styles, and the names of the hip-hop stars on the flyers were just like superheroes: Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and the Herculords, Grand Wizard Theodore.”

It was the early 1970s, and the south Bronx was coming alive with the sound of hip-hop. Gray lived in Soundview’s Bronxdale Projects—today rebranded as the Justice Sonia Sotomayor Houses and Community Center—one floor down from one of the genre’s architects, Disco King Mario.

Window treatments from the 2018 Hot 97 Summer Jam, courtesy of the Universal Hip-Hop Museum.

The building’s laundry room, rendered mostly useless by people who had broken the machines to steal the quarters inside, instead became a laboratory in which to test the original formula of hip-hop. Though 1520 Sedgwick Ave. is commonly credited as the genre’s birthplace, Gray said, 1715 Bruckner Blvd. was more like the site of its first steps. The building saw a revolving door of artists like Mario and his protégé Afrika Bambaataa, as well as others involved in the Black Spades, a Bronx-based street gang that was influential in early hip-hop culture.

“One day I was walking by and I saw the door was cracked open so I peeked inside, and there he was: Disco King Mario,” Gray said. “I was absolutely amazed to see someone DJ-ing with two turntables … I was hooked from that moment forward.”

As he developed into an artist in his own right, it became increasingly easy for Gray to ask his friends and peers to pass along their items. Every new tour, every magazine cover, every new fashion hip-hop was championing at the time became a part of what would later become known as the “The Paradise Collection.”

“After a while I got to know the artists and the people whose stuff I was collecting,” he said. “I was hip-hop’s greatest fan, and a participant in it at the same time.”

The most cherished items in his collection, however, are the ones that trace Gray’s time in X-Clan: beads, jewelry, his signature hand-carved wooden walking stick and a crown he used to perform in that signifies the group’s membership in the Blackwatch Movement, a socially conscious strand of black nationalism that promoted revitalization of inner cities and community development through hip-hop.

Developing and showcasing a large archive of historical items, however, is as much a logistical challenge as it is an academic one. Recruiting donors with tax incentives requires the organization to register as a nonprofit, for example, and without a location to store items there were, for a time, physical constraints on how large the collection could become.

Paperwork, manual labor, communicating with bureaucrats and stakeholders, all of this takes time and money—two things that are currently at a premium for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum, which is operating as a 100 percent volunteer organization.

Enter Adam Silverstein. A lawyer by trade, he first came on board after agreeing to donate his collection of memorabilia and ultimately found himself reviewing legal documents and building up the nonprofit’s corporate infrastructure.

“I had to ask myself, ‘Who was going to build this?’” Silverstein said. “Well, the answer was that not many people were.”

Original Artwork by Chuck D: “Backed by the God of Hard Drums, Bard Wilke.” Watercolor, ink: 24 x 18 in.

Original Artwork by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: “Shirley Gets Us Ready.” Watercolor, ink: 24 x 18 in.

Original Artwork by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: “Prophets of Rage: France July 2017.” Watercolor, ink: 24 x 18 in.

By handling the business operations and marketing of the museum, Silverstein’s plan was to allow Gray to focus on his artistic vision. In addition to his legal duties, about two years ago Silverstein began building a following for the Universal Hip-Hop Museum online using social media, curating playlists under the museum’s name, issuing press releases and revamping the organization’s website. All of this proved critical later on while fundraising and undergoing the political process of gaining approval from the city for a site.

With the hard part done, he says, the museum can now focus on the work of building a unique collection that spans nearly 50 years of history and will encompass hip-hop’s now global reach.

“I have no doubt that it will be the biggest and best collection of hip-hop music and culture in the entire world,” Gray said. “And we do have a focus on curating from the entire world.”

Bumpboxx Freestyle Boomboxes with Signatures from participants at Uncle Jamm’s Army 2017 Events in Los Angeles.

This summer the Universal Hip-Hop Museum began to promote callouts on social media for people to donate their hip-hop related items to the archive. Sure enough, artifacts from the nearly half-century rise of hip-hop started to roll in.

“Much THANKS 2 Pash from LA 4 donating a 4 CD Def Jam 10th Anniversary sealed box set!!” one Tweet from August reads. “We are building our Collection & Archives with the help of people like U!”

With at least three years left to go before the museum opens to the public, however, organizers say the best is yet to come. They anticipate a late influx of donations as word spreads, and said the museum is looking for absolutely anything they can get their hands on. Despite a great start, the archive is very much a work in progress—and will likely remain that way forever.

“I have a belief that hip hop was created based on a collection,” Silverstein said. “If it wasn’t for the collection of records, you would never have the hip-hop DJ. If you don’t have the hip-hop DJ, you don’t have the emcee. You don’t have the dancers. You don’t have the artists. If you don’t have the collection, you don’t have hip-hop.”

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Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rebel Diaz: A musical legacy of activism

Rodstarz of Rebel Diaz stands on the roof of the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

Rodrigo, aka Rodstarz and Gonzalo “G1” Venegas, members of the South Bronx hip-hop group Rebel Diaz, inherited a family history of struggle and survival. As children, they moved frequently because their parents, Chilean political refugees, never gave up hope of one day returning to Chile. “Half the time we didn’t even unpack,” said Rodstarz. “We were children growing up in exile.” But now, the Venegas brothers have found a home in the Bronx.

Their parents were supporters of Salvador Allende’s socialist government.  They became political prisoners when Augusto Pinochet launched a bloody coup on Sept. 11, 1973. After three years of torture in a Chilean prison, they were able to escape to England, where Rodstarz was born in 1979.

The Venegas family spent their first five years of exile in Chertsey, a small town in Surrey. Rodstarz has very little memory of that time. “We don’t think Chertsey really exists,” joked G1, who was born five years later in Chicago, the family’s next stop in exile. “Most British people have never even heard of it.”

Rodstarz, the older brother and unofficial spokesperson of the duo, has braids down to his waist and a welcoming presence. He gives hugs out like handshakes, likes expensive sneakers (despite their capitalist underpinnings) and wears a t-shirt that says “No Human Being is Illegal.”

G1, the younger, quieter brother, wears sunglasses inside the studio and has his hair up in a Samurai-style ponytail. “Only because it’s hot,” he said. G1 lays the beats and produces the music while Rodstarz grabs the audience with his stage presence and trenchant vocals.

Their parents had a love for revolutionary Chilean folk music from artists such as Violetta Parra, Silvio Rodriguez, and Victor Jarra, whose hands were broken by Pinochet’s military to stop him from playing “subversive” music. And though their parents don’t understand hip-hop, their music provided a tenet for Rebel Diaz’s own sound: it requires a social message.

“The drive we have is unstoppable,” Rodstarz said, “because we carry the weight of history on our shoulders.”

Their ability to build a movement in the streets started at an early age. A 12-year-old Rodstarz used graffiti, an urban artistic expression of rebellion, to bring his friends together. He would sneak out to do graffiti late at night in Chicago, dragging his sleepy seven-year-old brother with him. “One time we got caught when my mother found a pillow that was supposed to be me under the covers,” Rodstarz remembered. “But she wasn’t mad because when she was younger she also ran out of the house to do political graffiti promoting her socialist ideals.”

Rodstarz and G1 have always had a love for hip-hop. At the age of 10, Rodstarz became a B-boy, or a break-dancer. “Every single day after school in Chicago I was break dancing on the roofs or in the parking lot,” he said, “My friends and I would set up some cardboard and be out there for hours.“ Eventually that passion for hip-hop would lead to Rebel Diaz.

Rebel Diaz, the hip-hop group, was born in Hunts Point after G1 moved to New York City to study music engineering at New York University.  Rodstarz came a few years later to record music with his brother who got free studio time through the university. Hunts Point had affordable rent, so that’s where Rodstarz stayed. “I was blessed to end up on the best block in New York City,” he said. Hunts Point became home.

Invited by a local community organization called Mothers on the Move, Rebel Diaz played their first show at an immigrants rights march in Manhattan in April 2006.  Rebel Diaz spoke directly to the community with lyrics like these:

“This music is resistance it’s the voice of the poor,

I’m on the side of the workers, the teachers and lunch ladies,

On the streets with brown mammies raisin’ our brown babies,

I’m with youth organizers cleanin’ up the Bronx River.”

And from the start, they were a success, with several other New York City organizations asking them to perform for their events and music festivals.

Within the first year they were hosted by international organizations allowing them to eventually tour in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Guatemala, and Chile. These tours solidified their appeal and allowed them to hook up with other Chilean political refugees doing similar work. The music was a vehicle to deliver their message but they also dreamed of a space for others in their community to be able to learn and create.

They created the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx (RDAC-BX) in November 2008 with money from the North Star Fund and a Union Square award. RDAC-BX is a hip-hop community center where young people can drop in to get political education and learn practical skills. They can create their own music with software like Pro Tools and attend workshops on topics such as the history of hip-hop and social movements.

G1 of Rebel Diaz (JANET UPADHYE/The Bronx Ink).

Their collective space is housed in an abandoned warehouse near Hunts Point on a back street by the Bruckner Expressway. “It was once a candy factory,” said G1. “It stood empty for many years before we got a tip from a friend that we could rent it at a reasonable price.”

The front door is an extension of a skillfully graffitied wall. It leads into a spacious room with a red brick floor, comfortable couches, a stage, recording studio and roof access. Local music artists live in the apartment upstairs.

The space was created because their parents passed the torch of struggle to their children and Rodstarz still feels the responsibility.  “My feeling is that if my father withstood three and a half years of physical torture for a cause,” he said, “the least I can do is make music and encourage others to make music that uplifts.”

Rap artist YC the Cynic of Hunts Point credits the brothers with giving his music more of a social message.  “I grew up with injustice, so I know it well,” he said. “But Rebel Diaz helped me find the words to describe it. Without them, my lyrics would sound more like what you hear on the radio.”

But Rodstarz immediately dismissed the idea that he is a mentor. “Mentorship doesn’t exist in our community,” he said. “A lot of those terms come from an idea of power. I’m 10 years older than YC but I learn from him too.”

Rodstarz distinguishes the collective from non-profits. “A lot of times in the non-profit world there ends up being a sort of messiah complex,” he said. “They want to empower inner city folks. But we don’t need anyone to empower us. We got power.”


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DIGITAL BRONX: Brothers bypass record labels to promote music online

Rebel Diaz's Rodrigo and Gonzalo Venegas sell their music online

By Manuel Rueda

Gonzalo Venegas and his brother Rodrigo have been rapping about social inequalities since the 1990s.

Based in the south Bronx—the cradle of the hip-hop movement—the two brothers use the Internet to share their work with fans across the world.

Known in hip-hop circles as the Rebel Diaz duo, the Venegas brothers blend hip-hop and Latin rhythms in songs about inner city youth, corrupt government and the problems faced by recently arrived immigrants.

The sons of political refugees from Chile, their songs are often bilingual, with lyrics in English followed by a chorus in Spanish or an English verse punctuated by Chilean slang.

The name Rebel Diaz is a take on the Spanish word for rebels, rebeldes.

Raised in Chicago, the Venegas brothers have created an online community—and built a fanbase— using the most common web tools of the modern age: Facebook, Twitter and their own web site.

On their Twitter account, they update their 1,500 followers about their upcoming concerts and share small snippets of their lives. Last Thursday, for example, the brothers informed followers they were watching their Chicago Bulls “put the bats” on Boston.

On Facebook, the duo will occasionally share articles on civil rights protests with their politically conscious fans.

But in other ways the Venegas are anything but typical web musicians.

Rebel Diaz does not promote its work on digital stores like iTunes. Despite being relatively well known in hip-hop circles, the duo doesn’t do deals with record labels to market their music on the web.

Albums go for $10 on the Rebel Diaz site

“If we wanted to take a route to give us mass exposure we would,” says 26-year-old Gonzalo. “But you have to remember, those labels are controlled by corporate interests that don’t want to hear the type of message that we’re putting forth.”

Instead, Rebel Diaz sells its material exclusively through its website, with tracks going for $1 and an album for $10.

And unlike online retailers like iTunes or Amazon that only provide short previews of the songs they sell online, Rebel Diaz lets you listen to the whole track for free. You only need to pay if you want to download the song or the album into your computer.

“Our experience as producers of music and consumers is that if people want to buy your music, it doesn’t matter if they listen to three seconds or one minute,” says Gonzalo Venegas, who goes by the artistic name, G1.

The younger of the two brothers, G1 explains that the group makes most of its sales “hand to hand” after their concerts. He believes that most of those buying Rebel Diaz’s records online are people who were not able to get their hands on a CD after one of their shows.

“Most people aren’t really hearing our music on our website. They’ll hear it on Democracy Now (a radio news show) or a friend will tell them about it, and at that point they’ll go to the site,” he says.

The band’s web presence helps the duo promote itself and sell albums, but the brothers make no secret about the fact that they rely on live performances to make a living. Last year, the duo rapped at 100 shows. And in May, it kicks off a month-long European tour that will take it to Germany, Greece and the United Kingdom.

For some extra income and to give back to the community, the Venegas brothers hold workshops on the history of hip-hop for students and youth groups in low-income neighborhoods.

“Even though the Internet is very important to us as a tool. It’s not the be all and the end all,” says G1. “The person to person contact, is probably the most important thing that we do.”

One of the group’s recent videos

Click here for more stories on the Digital Bronx.

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The Art of Lyrics

The Art of Lyrics is a monthly free styling event
at The Point, a non-profit cultural organization based in Hunts Point.
Watch this video to see how it’s keeping hip-hop alive in the Bronx, where it all began.

Video by Elettra Fiumi and David Alexander

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Rap In Time

Rap In Time


Big Punisher still looms large in the South Bronx. Photo: Alexander Besant

The history of rap music begins in the Bronx. Its neighborhoods are dotted with iconic sites of rap history such as 1520 Sedgwick Ave. where DJ Cool Herc first created the break-beat, or the infamous Forest Houses on 166th St. where Fat Joe grew up.

Add to that list the “Big Punisher” memorial mural on Rogers Place and 163rd St.  Though he died of heart failure over 10 years ago, the Grammy nominated Big Punisher, or “Pun” for short, still looms large in his native ‘hood on a wall that had special importance to him. In his days as a budding young rapper, Pun posed for a promo shot in front of the same wall which was decorated, at that time, with a cartoon of a Puerto Rican gangster carrying two guns.

Pun was a heavyweight in two ways. Literally, since some estimate that he weighed over 400 pounds, and musically, as the hip-hop giant of the late 1990s with hits like “Still Not a Player” and “It’s So Hard”.

The Bronx mural, painted by Tats Cru, a Bronx-based graffiti crew that knew Pun personally, was created on the day he died in 2000 to much fanfare and a bit of mishap. BG 183, one of the artists involved in creating the memorial said of the its inception in a recent interview with the Bronx Ink:

“We just decided to do this wall for Pun when he died. It was our choice because he was a friend.”

BG 183 remembered that it was one of the coldest days of the year but, despite the biting temperatures, fans and fellow rappers came out in droves to see the painting of the memorial.

“A lot of people heard we were painting the wall from Hot 97 [a hip-hop radio station in New York]. A lot of fans came down,” said BG 183, “Fat Joe and a lot of hip-hop artists came too. The whole place was like a mad house.”

After the mural was complete things turned sour. For some reason, the artists involved in painting were picked up by police one by one.

“The police saw that we were painting the wall and they called the owner and told her that there were kids painting illegal graffiti on the property,” BG 183 said. “Landlady decided to press charges. Boom! The police grabbed each one of us. Next thing you know we were there at the police station for five or six hours.”

The landlady eventually recognized the mural and its importance to the community and dropped the charges freeing the Tats Cru members. Tats Cru now tries to update the mural every year but they admit that it’s not always possible nor even desirable, especially if people in the community begin to like the new creation. The last rendition was updated in the spring and shows Big Punisher holding an iron mic with some of his most inspired  lyrics behind him:

“When I was young. I wasn’t always Big Pun. It wasn’t always this fun. Ayo I rose from the slums.”

Check out friend and fellow rapper Cuban Link discussing the wall here…

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