“Rap Quotes,” Placemaking and the Geography of Hip Hop

Animal, one of the great new online art, news and culture sites covering New York City, has a tremendous video up on their site profiling Jay Shells’ most recent public art project – “Rap Quotes.”

Shells has created a series of official-looking street signs quoting rap lyrics that mention parts of the city – intersections, buildings, parks and other landmarks. He then posts the quotes at those locations, grounding the lyrics in the place that inspired them and creating a hip-hop geography of the city.

The video is masterfully produced, layering clips from the songs on top of video of the places, as Shells attached his signs.

I love this project on so many levels. It’s a great example of placemaking, of connecting cultural production to concrete community, and a kind of rap history all rolled into one.

Where I grew up we heard more bluegrass than break beats, but the summer camp I went to was a huge mix of kids from cities across New York state – from Rochester to Albany, Syracuse to Binghamton. As such, my introduction to hip hop came in the backwoods of central New York, not the street corners of Brooklyn or the Bronx. We listened to Tribe Called Quest in our tents, blasted KRS One from our cabins. Later we swapped bootleg mix tapes and tried to trace samples back to their source like a scavenger hunt. There was rarely any hip hop on the radio around me, so everything I knew about rap was literally word of mouth.

But my listening to hip hop was always removed from the geography of the music itself. The places rappers mentioned in their songs were abstract names to me, places I couldn’t picture. The songs gave them life, and animated my imagination, but there was something about seeing them chronicled in this video that I found really powerful.

Below are a few of the signs, but check out all of the quotes on the Animal site.

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