Touring the City Where Hip-Hop Started

Explore the roots of rap and graffiti on these excursions through New York's boroughs.

(The Root) — Hip-hop is to New York City what country music is to Nashville. A cool way to explore rap’s evolution in the Big Apple is to take a trip with Hush Tours, a company that specializes in hip-hop history and lore with an eye to the vibrant black and Latino communities from which the culture is derived.

With a selection of comprehensive tours that range from $32 to $68 and span four of the city’s five boroughs (from the Bronx and Manhattan to Queens and Brooklyn), Hush features excursions led by a rotating crew of hip-hop pioneers. Icons such as Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, Kurtis Blow, DJ Red Alert, Ralph McDaniels of Video Music Box (the New York City precursor to Yo! MTV Raps) and the genre’s legendary DJ Kool Herc offer their unique and informative firsthand accounts.

On a recent steamy Saturday, I embarked on the four-hour Birthplace of Hip-Hop: Harlem/Bronx Bus Tour, helmed by the charismatic and extremely comical Grand Master Caz who was assisted by B-boy, graffiti artist and onboard DJ Nelson “Chief69” Seda. My sister and I, the only locals on the tour that day, boarded an amply air-conditioned luxury bus in midtown Manhattan, along with several tourists from the U.S. and Europe. Thumping from the speakers was Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.”

Once we were settled, Caz gave a warm greeting. “Welcome, welcome, welcome! Welcome to Hush Tours, the original and only hip-hop sightseeing tour on the planet. There is no other! And if you hear of any other, please let us know. We’ll send some people over there.” He then asked, “What is hip-hop?” and pointed to me for a response.

Caught off guard, I began a rambling explanation. “Hip-hop is a New York, um, Bronx-based art form, with Jamaican-style toasting influences, big sound systems … “

Caz stared at me, eyes glazed over, and broke into a snore as laughter erupted from the crowd. “She’s on the right track,” he admitted, while pressing the crowd for more succinct definitions. “It’s a culture!” someone blurted out. “It’s the pulse of the streets!” another intoned. “It’s an attitude!” replied another.

Caz smiled broadly at the responses and then offered an analogy. “Hip-hop is like a table,” he said, “and the four legs of the table represent its four elements, deejaying, emceeing, break-dancing and graffiti.” He continued with a lecture on hip-hop’s roots, quizzed us on trivia, gave a young tourist a B-boy-style makeover — complete with Kangol, Cazal sunglasses and a thick gold dookie chain — and broke into rap for several musical interludes throughout the trip.

Our first destination was 106th Street and Park Avenue in Spanish Harlem, home to the Graffiti Wall of Fame. Here, along yards of wall space bordering a school playground, are dazzling works by a select group of some of the city’s most renowned graffiti artists. The art lasts for a year, with new works going up every August during a two-day graffiti event. One block over we gathered on a basketball court to learn about the art of break dancing, watch a demonstration and learn some moves with Chief69, who was joined by fellow B-boy Jayson “Might Mouse” Vasquez.