Fifty years ago, on Aug. 11, 1973, a party thrown by DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx ignited a culture that has since spread throughout the world — transforming the musical and artistic landscape in the past half-century.
Hip-hop may have been born in the Bronx, but its history in Philadelphia is just as deep — and to mark its 50th birthday, Philly artists are going all out with celebrations throughout the weekend.
On Saturday, Christian “TAMEARTZ” Rodriguez, a renowned Philly graffiti artist, along with Black Soul Summer, an events platform by and for Black and brown artists and entrepreneurs, will host the second annual Hip Hop in the Park at Eakins Oval in front of the Art Museum. The all-day affair, free to attend, will feature the four elements of hip-hop — graffiti, breaking, MCs, and DJs — along with food, drinks, and more.
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For Rodriguez, it’s a chance to highlight the talents of many hip-hop artists in the Philly area and celebrate in the true spirit of the block parties and outdoor gatherings, which were essential in the development of hip-hop — a genre and culture created by Black and Latino, specifically Puerto Rican, communities.
“These are the places where families gathered back in those early days of the ‘70s just to unite and be with each other. And these are the spaces where the dancers were already dancing, because they were coming off the clubs from disco, and they were outside,” Rodriguez said.
Local hip-hop artists will be performing at the event, highlighting what Rodriguez calls the “lineage” of hip-hop in Philadelphia.
Sharif Talib Lacey, best known by his stage name Reef the Lost Cauze, is one of the artists whose talents will be on display Saturday.
Reef, who was born in West Philadelphia and now resides in South Philly, “made [his] bones” on the battle MC cipher circuit in New York and Philly in the late 1990s and early 2000s — but also devoted himself to songwriting and recordings, putting out numerous solo and collaborative albums throughout the past two decades.
For Reef, hip-hop was always in his life, and rapping was his most natural creative outlet.
“I wasn’t a good dancer … not a great artist, so graffiti was out. My hands are kind of like rock, so couldn’t be a good DJ. But one thing I could do is rap,” he recalled.
At 8 years old, Reef began writing and performing raps, and he hasn’t stopped since.
He said in many ways Philly has been “just as important” as New York and other cities in the growth and expansion of hip hop.
“If you look at the history of the culture, from DJing and emceeing… Philly’s an incredibly important part of the story. We’re woven into the DNA and the fabric of the culture,” Reef said.
The hip-hop scene today in Philly is “bustling” and “bursting,” Reef said — a description that fellow Hip Hop in the Park performer DJ Jovi agreed with.
“Philly has some of… the best DJs in terms of technical skill, they’re very skilled here. In terms of hip-hop, I mean, same thing. There’s a lot of talent, but I think Philly gets overlooked sometimes,” she said.
Jovi, who will be “digging in the crates” as she DJs at Saturday’s event, got her start in DJing in Philadelphia after moving from outside Boston to attend Temple University. There, she started organizing parties and booking DJs, but soon fell in love with the craft and wanted to try her hand at spinning.
After studying under some of Philly’s best DJs, she started DJing on her own — a journey that has at times been difficult for her as a woman DJ.
“I feel like all the cool stuff is like, it’s a boys club. Everything that’s cool is dominated by men. But thankfully, Philly has embraced me. It’s been cool. It’s been great,” she said, noting that a lot of women artists have made their mark in hip hop in Philly and beyond.
She said TAMEARTZ and event curators like Black Soul Summer also ensure that women artists are represented at their events. She performed at the inaugural Hip Hop in the Park last summer and is looking forward to the event this year.
“Everything doesn’t have to be big and fancy or whatever, it’s just if you want the real energy, these are the types of events that you should be at and support,” she said.
Black Soul Summer co-founder Melvin Powell said that hosting free festivals centered on Black and brown artists is not only in line with the roots of hip-hop as a community-based culture; it is a powerful way to reimagine and reform the creative industry to put power back in the hands of Black and brown artists.
“That’s the importance for us is, specifically for Black and brown individuals, is moving, if it’s not instant, moving to a sense of more control and ownership over what we produce and put out into the world,” he said.
“We want people to see this, they’re gonna see the representation, they’re gonna feel it, they’re gonna be able to experience this. And for some people, it’s a life-changing, or an aha moment, or it sparks something in them about, oh, I’m seeing other people that look like me that I know, do this on their own with each other, I can do this too, or I want to be a part of that as well.”
‘Built on community’
Rodriguez is full-focus on the Aug. 12 event — but for the renowned graffiti artist, it’s a lifelong passion and goal to share as much as possible about the culture and art form that has shaped his life.
“It’s always been important for me that people understand that hip-hop was built on community, and building community,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez, born in Puerto Rico, came to Philadelphia as a preteen and was “captivated” by the graffiti art he saw in the city. He already loved the music of hip-hop, but seeing the visual expression of the form sparked his passion.
“I feel like hip-hop has given me a voice, you know, what I mean, given me an outlet to express myself, tell my story. And know how to be uniquely myself,” he said.
Part of his ongoing commitment to being a “hip-hop ambassador” is showcased in the “Know the Elements” mural he and artist Bill Strobel completed last year, located below an underpass at 9th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia. The first in a series of four murals, the images and text depict the history of hip-hop and include portraits of numerous hip-hop artists currently working in Philly and beyond.
“I wanted to make sure that I put individuals that were still alive, living, kicking, and active as well. So that there’s an inspirational aspect of people seeing them be like, ‘Wow, I could be like these people are, they look like me,’” Rodriguez said. He noted that as he was finishing painting the mural, several girls passed by who expressed that exact sentiment: They were excited to see the rapper Queen Jo, portrayed on the mural, was a Black woman.
“I’ve always looked at my position within hip-hop, with a sense of responsibility, like understanding there’s lineage, there’s culture … Although it’s so young, we’re 50 years, approaching 50 years, it is the most powerful culture in the world, the most influential culture in the world now,” Rodriguez said.
The second mural in the series, still in the planning phase, will feature images by Rodriguez and Strobel, as well as lyrics by Reef the Lost Cauze, written specifically for the artwork.
Rodriguez said he hopes the mural series and events like Hip Hop in the Park can inspire and empower Black and brown youth to know the history of hip-hop culture and its roots, as well as its future.
“The culture has always thrived on kicking knowledge, which is, you know, essentially, the fifth element of hip-hop is knowledge of self, right, like knowing yourself knowledge of self, right. So kicking knowledge is a very important thing within hip-hop,” Rodriguez said.
“And that’s how we’re able to essentially keep the flame going, you know, keep the culture thriving.”
Hip Hop in the Park is free to attend; RSVPing online is encouraged.
Saturdays just got more interesting.