Born from the cauldron of Kool Herc’s fiery block parties, hip-hop was an effective community organizer before it was hanging out in presidential suites and cashing checks. That grassroots chumminess was alive and well when artist and graphic designer Jay Shells dropped his “Rap Quotes” project on fellow hip hoppers.
As documented by NY blog ANIMAL, Shells fastened metal signs brandished with location-specific rap lyrics to their real world locales. The hip-hop world went into a frenzy before bigtime publications like the New York Times and Mashable got in on the fun.
In a world where the digital annotations of Rap Genius reign supreme, Shells upped the ante by taking the footnotes to the pavement.
TSL caught up with the native New Yorker to chat about his love for hip-hop, how the “Rap Quotes” project came to him, and the next step in this creative venture.
TSL : How long have you been a hip-hop fan?
JS : (Laughs) Well, I’m 33. I’d say, as early as I can remember. I was born in 1979, MTV started about ‘80 or ‘81. And, as far back as I can remember, I was listening to the radio with my older sibling. Not just hip-hop, I was listening to everything. So, I was listening to hip-hop as long as I can remember, would be the short answer.
TSL : Do you have an emcee of choice?
JS : Right now, I think my number one, or at least top three, is Roc Marciano. No one’s touching him. He’s getting a lot more recognition now, which is great. For a while he was sort of underground. Marcberg was bananas. Even his old group, the U.N.—really, really good stuff.
TSL : Other than a love for hip-hop, was there anything else that inspired the project?
JS : Well, I’m an artist and graphic designer by profession so this is a perfect blending of two things that I love. It was really organic and made sense; it wasn’t forced. The project just made sense for me.
TSL : “Rap Quotes” shares a lot of similarities with your Metropolitan Etiquette project [ more on that here], but other than the street art aspect, is there anything else that links the two projects?
JS : Really just the vehicle that I used to get the message out is the same. Because I want to talk to the public in an analog sense, there aren’t that many options. There’s paintings on walls, paintings on sidewalks. Signs. This just made the most sense. Especially in New York, those poles that are so easy to attach things to are ubiquitous, so I know that any corner, or housing project, or restaurant, or music venue that I need to call out for the sign, there’s going to be one of those within the same visual area.
TSL : You’ve had some work misappropriated in the past, would you feel slighted if other artists started their own “Rap Quotes” initiative in other cities or states?
JS : Yeah, I think that would be a really wack thing to do. People are writing me, asking me if I’m going to do other cities, and I try to respond to all of them, saying, “Yes! Just give it some time.” People are asking, “Ooh. Can I do it in L.A.?,” and I’m like, “You can do whatever you want. But I don’t think you should.” If you think of any lyrics, send them to me, and I’ll do it. But I can’t stop anyone from doing it. I’m involving the public, people are writing to me with suggestions with lyrics that I missed and I’m turning them into signs. Someone wrote to me from Philly last night, and they sent me a lyric. And they said, “I’d be really dope if you made it to Philly. I’d help you, I’d love to be involved.” And I told him, “that’s great, man. Start writing them down, and when you have ten, send them to me, and I’ll come to Philly.”
It would be cool to go global with this at some point, but really, just like the music, hip-hop was born in New York, and then it trickled out. I’m covering New York head-to-toe with everything I can think of, and that people send me. Once it’s been done right, I’ll consider the ripple effect. New York is my hometown, New York is part of this music, and New York needs to be covered first.
TSL : Have you heard from the city?
JS : No. I don’t expect to because people are stealing the signs. There’s no remnants of them except for online. I’d be shocked. They came at me last time, but it was the same thing: people stole them [the Metropolitan Etiquette signs] and there was nothing to really fine me for. Knock on wood, but this project is bigging up New York, bigging up a culture that New York gave birth to. It would be a dick move for them to come after me on it.
But that leads me to an interesting point. Since they’re being stolen, the whole point of the project is out the window. The signs don’t get to live on in their locations for people to see. So it’s laying a foundation for a bigger project where I want to do something legitimate and actually make brass plaques that get bolted to the sidewalk. They’d be permanent and be something that people can’t steal. But I can’t pay for that myself, that would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. Hopefully some cool but very successful company would be interested in supporting that effort, and actually get permission from the city, and do it that way.
When the times’ right, and the money’s there, I’m going to do this on a permanent level.