The Bronx's Hip-Hop Boulevard Connects the Borough's Past to Its Future
Councilmember Vanessa Gibson wants to connect the Bronx to hip-hop's social-justice roots.
The problem with legends is that they tend to be forgotten; no one knows that better than DJ Kool Herc. He might never have reached quite the level of notoriety of other early hip-hop DJs, but no one disputes that Herc is one of the form's forefathers. We know the who, but this origin story wants a where. The neighborhood in KRS-One's 1987 song "South Bronx" often gets the credit — don't buy it, says Herc, now sixty. "The South Bronx ain't got nothing to do with hip-hop," he says of the diss track. Hip-hop's first home was in the west Bronx, he says, in the basement of the brick-and-brushed-metal building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue.
It was there, on August 11, 1973, that a sixteen-year-old Herc threw a back-to-school party for his younger sister, unveiling a new turntable technique that would allow a record's percussion break to loop ad infinitum as the crowd danced to the pulsing beat. It wasn't long before now—elder statesmen of hip-hop like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash cribbed the style, but if you wanted to go to the source, you had to make your way to the rec room below 1520 by following Herc's graffiti tags around Morris Heights. These days, pilgrims journey to the housing complex down the winding streets, climbing rows of crumbling, concrete stairs before descending into a jagged valley carved out by the Harlem River.
Now Councilmember Vanessa Gibson wants to put 1520 Sedgwick on the map. Earlier this month, Gibson, who represents the Bronx's 16th District, announced plans to co-name a stretch of Sedgwick Avenue "Hip-Hop Boulevard," an attempt to recognize Herc while solidifying 1520's legacy as the undisputed cradle of rap. The City Council and Parks and Recreation Committee recently voted in favor of the legislation, and Gibson is now waiting on Mayor Bill de Blasio to sign the bill into local law. The hope is to debut the honorary name with a party in August in celebration of the 43rd anniversary of Herc's back-to-school jam.
The renaming, then, is just as much a rebranding. "We want to make sure that the pioneers and trailblazers who started over thirty years ago scratching the turntables are recognized. It's a part of our history; it's a part of our fabric," explains Gibson, standing outside 1520 on a dreary February Tuesday (she's on her way to see Hillary Clinton speak at Harlem's historic Schomburg Center). "I would say there's been a bad rap for the Bronx overall," she says. " represents the birthplace of hip-hop, the Bronx, in a positive way."
Born Clive Campbell in Kingston, Jamaica, Herc immigrated to New York City as a child, later earning his nickname for the muscular, Herculean physique he often showed off on the basketball court. His family was relocated to Sedgwick Avenue after their previous apartment building caught fire, he says, and though Herc maintains that the extreme violence now synonymous with the Bronx of the Seventies has been overhyped in recent years, the parties at 1520 came to represent a refuge from the gangs that tore through the neighborhood at the time. Secluded by the Major Deegan Expressway and the Harlem River, the building provided affordable housing and waterfront views to working-class Bronx families largely removed from the rest of the borough.
"It was very isolated, but the beautiful thing about that building was that it seemed like something magical was taking place there," Cindy Campbell, Herc's sister, remembers. 1520 was one of the first buildings to go up on Sedgwick, she says, and for years not a single bus would run to the area. "I speak to people who lived there and the feedback I get is that it was the best time of their lives. Their childhoods were actually really safe."
In 2008, a real estate investor bought 1520 after the building's previous owner removed the property from New York's Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, making it possible to evict dozens of low-income families and rent out the apartments at market price. The episode became symbolic of a greater housing crisis threatening to devastate the Bronx; Herc and Campbell stepped in to save the building's residents, calling on Gibson, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board for help.
In 2011 the Workforce Housing Group, a development firm focused on transforming distressed multifamily properties into affordable housing resources, took over ownership of 1520 from the developers. After years of major renovations, Herc and the building's residents finally declared victory with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2013. As the Bronx continues its revitalization into 2016, Sedgwick's designation as Hip-Hop Boulevard is meant to summon the social consciousness that lives at the heart of hip-hop — and to remind New Yorkers that the music still has the power to mobilize marginalized communities and empower young people of color.
"If you listen to what artists talked about back [in the Seventies], it's much different than what they're talking about now," Gibson says. "It wasn't denigrating women, it wasn't talking about abusing women. It was talking about being in communities, low-income neighborhoods, rising out of urban decay, rising to the occasion."
Until the renaming is a done deal, those hoping to visit hip-hop's Bethlehem, as Herc calls it, can follow a chorus of car horns to the brick apartment building beside the expressway.
Though Herc has not lived at 1520 Sedgwick in decades (he now lives in New Rochelle), he stays in touch with friends in the building and sees the nation's new class of rising rap stars as his children. While commemorating Hip-Hop Boulevard is a start, he hopes to one day see his old home honored as a landmark like the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville or Graceland in Memphis, hip-hop's Holy Land immortalized for generations to come.
"It's Martin Luther King's dream and it's spread off into hip-hop," Herc says. "Little black boys and white boys DJ'ing together, rapping together, breakdancing together, making music together. That's big, man."
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