Touring the City Where Hip-Hop Started

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

The final part of the tour took us to the bridge, literally. As we crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge to the Bronx, Caz recalled the Bridge Wars, the famous rivalry between Bronx rapper KRS-One and MC Shan of Queens, while Chief69 blasted Shan’s “The Bridge.” followed by Boogie Down Productions’ “South Bronx,” to the delight of many onboard.

A quick group photo in front of Yankee Stadium was followed by what I consider the pilgrimage part of the tour: a visit to the apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where, on August 11, 1973, in a rec-room party for his sister, 16-year-old Clive Campbell, later known as DJ Kool Herc, debuted a new deejaying style that would become the foundation of hip-hop’s sound.

As we congregated near the building’s entrance, Caz broke into a detailed narrative about that first hip-hop jam and the sensation it caused throughout the neighborhood. Our last stop in the Boogie Down was, fittingly, the Bronx Walk of Fame, where borough notables including several hip-hop legends such as Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, break dancing originators the Rock Steady Crew, Caz and most recently Fat Joe are immortalized with novel street signs.

Hip-hop culture didn’t predate graffiti, but it certainly used the vibrant displays to make a mark, especially early on. If you consider classic tagging, wheatpaste posters, yarn bombing and the like to be works of art rather than vandalism, then Graff Tours is for you. These mostly walking excursions (bike, limo and hybrid car tours are also available) provide an in-depth look at past and present graffiti scenes throughout the city, as well as the galleries showing street art.

You can even perfect your own tagging skills in artist-led workshops. Graff Tours occur in several New York neighborhoods, including the Lower East Side, SoHo, Chelsea and Harlem, and the borough of Brooklyn. They range in price from $20 for a Chelsea Street Art and the High Line Tour to $350 for the Luxury Limo Graffiti Tour.

Urban historian and tour guide Matt Levy of Levys’ Unique New York Tours views graffiti as an agent of change. “I’ve always been interested in the history of how neighborhoods transform from post-industrial, derelict wastelands to boutique-ified, creatively attuned gentrified communities,” says Levy, a Brooklyn native. “I feel that graffiti acts as an effective catalyst for connecting these two worlds.”

His NYC Artists Tour: From Graffiti to Galleries explores what he calls “outdoor galleries,” as well as the city’s most interesting and iconic sections. Private and family walking and subway tours range from $150 to $1,100, depending on the number of people and duration, while private and family Honda CR-V tours cost from $200 to $750. The thing to remember about street art is that it’s fleeting. Catch it while you can, because it’s likely to be gone in a New York minute.

Julia Chance is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist and the author of Sisterfriends: Portraits of Sisterly Love. Follow her on Twitter.