Poor Urban Planning and the Birth of Hip Hop

An architect known as the Hip-Hop Architect explains how the planning decisions of the 20th century served as muse and breeding ground for the multi-million-dollar industry of hip hop.

2 minute read

August 23, 2016, 5:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

The Bronx

Tutti Frutti / Shutterstock

Alice Kemp-Habib writes of the deep connections between 20th century traditions of urban planning and architecture and the birth of hip hop, with help from the lifetime of study on the subject by architect and designer Mike Ford.

Kemp-Habib describes the themes of urban living found throughout the history of hip hop, from its earliest beginnings trough its most famous figures:

Life in the so-called inner city has always been a major theme in hip-hop. From the desolate state of the Bronx Projects described in Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” to the poor conditions in parts of Brooklyn and Queens recounted by artists like Jay Z, Biggie, and Nas, rappers have used their music to offer a glimpse into urban spaces across the United States…

The significance of the relationship between hip-hop and architecture and planning is the purview of Ford's work. Ford recently "became the lead architect for the Universal Hip Hop Museum, a Bronx-based project that seeks to celebrate and preserve the genre's history," and spoke with Kemp-Habib in describing the connection between the music and the city where it was first made.

According to Ford's argument, hip hop, a multi-billion-dollar industry, was born out of the "poor urban planning" of Robert Moses. According to Ford, Moses adopted the visions of Le Corbusier, but without the latter's concern for "social, political, and economic resources for residents." According to Ford, "Moses extracted the physical architecture [from Le Corb's concept] and ignored the rest." 

In Ford's own words: "the projects — now completely void of amenities or employment opportunities and coupled with a pre-existing racial bias in America — literally and figuratively represented structural racism."

Ford explains more about how the projects in Bronx "necessitated the birth of hip-hop culture":

The lack of private space created a high concentration of people whose cultures cross-pollinated and resulted in the four elements of hip-hop: DJing, MCing, B-boying, and graffiti.

Ford also includes strong words about the exclusivity of planning and architecture education, and argues for the benefits of a more inclusive field, both in academia and in professional practice.

Thursday, August 18, 2016 in Fader

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