Indoor Public Space

is what we make of it.

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Hip Hop, Youth and Free Space

We bumrush the show when the doors start shuttin.

Hip hop is when you make somethin outta nothin.

Like chicka-boombap to the beat y’all,

My name in fly colours on a concrete wall.

AKBAR, Hip Hop Is…

I love hip hop and I love sharing knowledge about hip hop, whether that means teaching young people how to do a six-step or explaining an emcee’s clever wordplay, but one of the best things about hip hop has always been the fact that it was seemingly created out of nothing [1].  Sharing what we love about hip hop (or any subculture) with a new generation is a great thing to do — but we should also ask ourselves if today’s youth have the space they need to create their own art and subcultures.

One of the most meaningful insights into hip hop culture I have encountered is Jeff Chang’s observation that while the blues developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work.  In the seventies, New York teenagers had almost nothing to call their own.  Hip hop was what happened when a whole city full of young people was set adrift, ignored by society and left to fend for themselves in an urban environment that was nearly devoid of cultural and economic opportunities.  Graffiti, bboying, emceeing and deejaying were all pieced together like schoolyard games out of whatever scraps of culture and technology these kids could get their hands on.

The ‘Freshest Kids‘ as they have come to be known, expressed themselves with what little they had, putting ordinary things to use in electrifying ways. They couldn’t afford fancy clothes so they popped collars, replaced laces and painted denim with their own hands. They kept white sneakers clean amidst the mud and trash by scrubbing them with toothbrushes. They weren’t ever going to get rich or achieve social standing, but they still wanted to make a name for themselves, so they invented new fields of competition. Style Wars. They fought for titles unknown to their parents and teachers. King of the B train, all-city king, the King of NY, party of the year, sickest crew, the G.O.A.T.  Society had turned its back on them, so they built a parallel culture with its own ranks and titles.  Titles that people are still fighting for today, nearly fifty years later.  Those kids were trapped, hemmed in by poverty and racism and they just stepped out of it, stepped into a new territory within the same physical space, a territory which was free of the socio-economic barriers which bound their parents.  Yes, they still encountered these barriers in their day-to-day life, but in the moment, while they were living hip hop, they were free.  This rich and storied culture with its own dance, poetry, music and visual art traditions and was primarily created by young people with very little money and little or no formal training.  How was that even possible?

These kids didn’t have jobs or money or respect, but what they did have was free space and other people.  Brooklyn and the Bronx were big, empty and unprofitable, so open space was cheap and easily accessible.  At that time, it was possible to hold all-day block parties in school yards, parks and city streets by simply setting up an amp and two turntables on a table dragged down from a friend’s kitchen– something that would be a nightmare of permitting today.  1520 Sedgwick Avenue — a working-class apartment tower — is known as the birthplace of hip hop because DJ Kool Herc was able to rent out a community room in the building and throw parties that were promoted throughout the city when he was only 18 years old.  What young people today have opportunities like this?  Beat Street, a classic hip-hop film, is perhaps most famous for the party in an abandoned building that kicks things off.

Block Party

Photo by Henry Chalfant, 1984.

Do kids today have these same resources?  Our cities are getting denser, real estate is growing more and more expensive and liability concerns are becoming increasingly constrictive.  The cultural value of inexpensive, accessible space is a common topic on this site, but it is particularly important for young people.  If we want to nurture the hip hop of the future, we have to work to make space available at little or no cost, with few restrictions, so young people can express themselves and develop their own culture.  Right now, there are a lot of exciting programs such as UnityBlueprint for Life, Toronto BGirl Movement and Manifesto that are sharing hip hop culture with today’s young people.  These are awesome initiatives and they are bound to resonate with a lot of kids because hip hop asks each new participant to do things differently, to create new sounds and moves and styles upon styles upon styles. Hip-hop is about creativity, self-expression and innovation, so it demands to be reinvented by each new generation, giving them a chance to add their own chapter to the story.  On the other hand, part of what made hip hop so great is not something we can rebottle and pass on to the next generation.  We should also think about what it was that allowed hip hop to blossom.  What if today’s young people want to do something completely new and unexpected?  Where do they have space to be themselves?  That’s something of a rhetorical question, but it’s also an honest one.  If you know of any spaces that give over the reigns to young people, please let me know, I would love to feature them on the website.

Related Articles:

Young People and Semi-Public Spaces: Skating in London and Street Dance in Japan

The FFIPS Rule of Thumb: Thinking about Indoor Public Spaces


[1]  Of course hip hop wasn’t created completely out of nothing; it re-purposed many existing bits and pieces of different cultures — Jamaican toasting, radio disc jockeys, comic books, martial arts, funk dancing — but for the most part these were bits of culture that came down to these kids second-hand.  Early hip-hop innovators had not been formally trained in these artistic traditions — they were self-taught, “sampling” whatever appealed to them.