Hip Hop Foray

Guided tours through the birthplace of hip-hop -- by those who created the genre

| June 2004

Classic icons like Times Square and the Empire State building are synonymous with sightseeing in New York, and on any given day the Macy's in midtown Manhattan is likely to be filled with more tourists than tax paying residents. But a new tour service developed by a native New Yorker aims to bring tourists to a part of the Big Apple rarely frequented by the tour busses: the Boogie-down Bronx.

Few New York guidebooks lend ink to the neighborhoods north of 96th street. The Rough Guide to New York City's upper Manhattan section typifies the travel industry's unenthusiastic view of the area: 'Washington Heights is a patchy neighborhood with little in the way of attractions.' As quoted recently in City Limits Magazine, Debra Harris, the Bronx-born mastermind behind Hush tours 'says the tourism industry is missing a lucrative market by relegating Bronx culture to this sort of postscript.'

Harris's Hush Tours, the Original Hip-Hop Cultural Sightseeing Tour, guides inquisitive visitors around hip hop's hometown. Leading the tours are the founding fathers of the music, 'the guys who as teenagers created what is now a multibillion-dollar global industry.' The list of luminaries includes Rahiem of Grandmaster Flash, whose 1982 hit 'The Message' is a hip-hop foundation, DJ Caz, one of the lyricists behind 'Rapper's Delight,' and 30-year-veteran Kool DJ Red Alert. For the benefit of the camera-wielding throngs, these living legends give informal history lessons and wax eloquent on the 'four elements of hip hop' culture: MCing, DJing, graffiti art, and break dancing. 'The group grows throughout the day as the guides spot other pioneers prowling the streets and invite them to join free-ranging conversation about the culture they all dreamed up 25 years ago.'

The tour bus makes stops at notable landmarks like the Apollo Theater, Rucker Park -- famous for its basketball tournaments -- and the movie locations for 'New Jack City,' 'Krush Groove,' and 'Sugar Hill.' On a more somber note in the itinerary, tour-goers pay homage to the memories of Brooklyn rapper Christopher Wallace (AKA Notorious B.I.G), R & B star Aaliyah, and Celia Cruz outside an Upper East Side funeral home. A substantial amount of time is also dedicated to admiring murals and taking photos at the Graffiti Hall of Fame in Harlem, and enjoying an all-you-can-eat lunch at a local soul food restaurant.

Patrons of Hush tours are an eclectic mix of ages, races, and backgrounds but there is often at least one aspiring MC in the group. On the ride back to midtown, equipped with complimentary Kangol hats and rope chains, tour-goers are encouraged to share their lyrical skills in an impromptu talent show. Now that's something you probably won't see at the top of the Empire State building.
-- Eliza Thomas

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