Keeping hip-hop alive in borough of its birth


At this summer jam, teens and pre-teens in the amphitheater at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center took turns as the DJ, spinning and mixing vinyl records on the turntables. Classic hip-song raps like Run-DMC’s “Walk this Way,” Digital Underground’s “Humpty Dance” and The Sugarhill’s Gang’s “Apache” filled the air.

They had just finished Hip-Hop Summer School, a five-week course at the community center, learned about DJ-ing, MC-ing (rapping), breakdancing and even graffiti art.

The class was a hit with students who embraced learning more hip-hop culture.

Sunny Vazquez grew up attending local schools like P.S./M.S 95 Sheila Mencher — and later — The Marie Curie School for Medicine, Nursing and Health Professionals. But said it was hip-hop that helped her build “a sense of community” and find her voice.

In turn, Vazquez wanted to share her love of the music and bring that same sense of camaraderie to a next generation of students.

Vazquez enlisted her friends Buddy “DJ Buddy” Niederhoffer and Rainey Cruz to create this class, serving more than 20 students. The trio is a part of Uptown Vinyl Supreme, a group of DJs who love hip-hop and vinyl records.

The three received a $5,000 grant from the Bronx Council on the Arts to launch this summer’s pilot program, and now are looking for funding for future classes.

“We are here to expose them to this culture that belongs to them,” DJ Buddy said.

“I decided to be a part of this class because it’s really fun,” said Arleen Ramos, 11. “You get to interact with music that you never heard before because I’m a little bit young for it.”

And many might be young since hip-hop began just after the Nixon era in 1973.

The last day of class fell on Aug. 11, the 44th anniversary of when Bronxite Clive Campbell — better known as DJ Kool Herc — and his sister Cindy organized a back-to-school party — or jam — in a recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Ave., in Morris Heights, playing hip-hop music for the first time.

Andy Jiminez said learning more about hip-hop gave him even more pride about being from the Bronx — the birthplace of hip-hop. He joined the class to learn more about spinning and mixing music on the turntables, allowing him a chance to enjoy the “groove of DJ-ing — the movements, the sound, the beats.”

But hip-hop is more than just music. It’s also about the art, something the kids experienced creating a spray-painted mural not on a wall, but instead a large piece of fabric.

“We did graffiti, and I tried to express myself on it because hip-hop is not just about songs and DJs and dancing and singing, it’s about the creativity that you do,” Ramos said. “And, I really like this because I get to interact with things that I never did before.”

It’s part of the immersive experience course co-founder Sunny Vazquez wanted each of the kids to experience.

“They are able to create something literally from scratch,” she said. “Just seeing their faces and seeing how happy they were … that was the most beautiful part of the program.”

For a generation that has grown up on MP3s and downloading music, it was the first time most had ever touched music on vinyl.

“We had to explain how you handle a record,” said class co-founder Buddy “DJ Buddy” Niederhoffer. “They were moving the needle across the record.”

On one particular day toward the end of the class, the kids had a chance to hear from Easy Mo Bee, a music producer whose real name is Osten Harvey Jr., who worked with artists like jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and rapper Tupac Shakur.

“That was kind of surreal to see,” course co-founder Rainey Cruz said. Watching Bee interact with a younger generation of students, he realized how far hip-hop had gone. The culture is known around the world, and pioneers like Bee were there to teach a new generation, he said.

Students also received a visit from Coke La Rock, credited with being one of the first MCs. He was part of Herc’s crew at that first back-to-school jam in the Bronx.

“It was cool seeing their reactions to people who were basically pioneering this and bringing them to say, ‘Hey, they are still alive and living in the neighborhood,’” Vazquez said.

As they both looked back at the previous five weeks, they hoped these young, new hip-hop DJs would be creatively inspired in the own lives while still fostering Bronx pride in its hip-hop roots.

Hip-hop, Cruz said, “was started by kids in the Bronx that found something constructive to do with their lives. As an art movement, it pioneered things and … continues to change the world and influence the world.”