Riding on New York City’s subway is an evocative experience. Images of classic movies such as The Warriors – a film that depicts gang culture in the city during the economically depressed 1970s, and Beat Street – the 1984 movie about Hip Hop and Graffiti that places the artist as hero – are conjured in the head and remind us of a city whose ragged, cultural past can seem like a distant memory in the 21st century. This is particularly true in most of southern and middle Manhattan where gentrification has socially cleansed the borough and fragmented many communities – although small pockets of the Lower East Side still embody the edgier side of New York City.
Uptown around 103rd Street, however, is another story altogether. Far from the glittering lights of Midtown and it’s chaotic tourism, in the shadows of East Harlem’s housing projects, lies The Museum of the City of New York, home to the nostalgic exhibition, Hip Hop Revolution.
Exiting the subway at East 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue is like ambling into another city. The change is sudden. The delicious smell of Latin cooking floats out of local restaurants. The aroma merges with the sounds of Latin drums and Mariachi trumpets that pound and screech from a passing car. A man in a white suit, straw hat and dark shades passes by – slowly. The rundown bodegas in this part of town have glass panels above the counters – presumably bullet proof – that separate the proprietor from any menacing behavior. Beyond the streets that cut across the avenue, East Harlem’s housing projects loiter in the distance. This area has a real edgy vibe. The neighbourhood is apt for an authentic feel of the Hip-Hop phenomenon.
The exhibition, Hip Hop revolution fuses together the work of Joe Conzo, Martha Cooper and Janette Beckman – three New York-based photographers who chronicled the evolution of Hip-Hop from its obscure, subcultural origins to the movement’s mainstream accomplishments. Each artist presents a distinctive perspective of the subject. Conzo documented many of Hip-Hop’s founding figures in the 1970’s as they performed in school gymnasiums and clubs. His images of seminal MC and break-dancer Almighty KG rapping to an ecstatic audience, and DJ Charlie Chase behind a set of turntables are truly emotive – the photos capture the birth of a subculture that could not have known how significant its place would be in modern history.
Martha Cooper began shooting B-Boys and Graffiti artists in 1979. Her interest in youth cultures led her to the Hip-Hop phenomenon as it began to grow. One of her charismatic photos captures the High Times Crew – a group of Hispanic New York youths – breakdancing outside a police station in Washington Heights. Another presents the iconic dancer and body- popper Little Crazy Legs clutching a beat box standing in front of a wall sprayed with Graffiti art.
Janette Beckman, the third artist whose work is on display, documented the movements’ major figures for magazines and album covers as mainstream interest in Hip-Hop grew in the 1980’s and 90’s. She captures images of Public Enemy, EPMD, LL Cool J, Latifah and Eric B and Rakim during Hip-Hop’s transition from backstreet craze to popular cultural phenomenon.
New York City may have changed significantly since the 1970’s, but the city’s rich, cultural past continues to affect the global present. Hip Hop and Graffiti art has given a voice to social groups worldwide and presented them with identity.
By Ray Kinsella
Hip Hop Revolution from April 1 – Sept 27, 2015 at The Museum of the City of New York