How Hip Hop Took Over the World, and Quite Possibly Can Save Architecture in the Process

In the old school days…

If you polled my classmates in 1991, a good many of them may have voted me off the studio.  You see, prior to the iPod or iPhone containing a huge library of music; prior to you even having access to a computer in the studio which could also play your music, architecture studios were essentially boom box battle zones.  My boom box was among the biggest and hardly anyone else liked my kind of music.

I like a lot of music.  Truly.  But, for all that is holy, I can only stand so much Brown Eyed Girl or, Lord help me, Best of Billy Joel.  Certain people in my studio pirated the airwaves with that junk all day long while professors were mulling around.  Either all they had was that one CD or they were too lazy to take it off of “repeat”.  It didn’t matter because it was the banal stuff that would offend no one.  It was, however, all I could do not to grab their boom box and throw it out the fourth story window onto the unsuspecting engineering students below.  During the day, my kind of music was taboo.  But as soon as night fell, I pressed ‘play”.

One of my favorite album covers.  Maybe because the artist was an architect, Matteo Pericoli.
Check him out:  Matteo Pericoli

I showed up to college in 1991 with a crate of rap and hip hop cassettes and CD’s.  There was no streaming music back then?  Remember Columbia House Records?  You got 10 CD’s for $1, then you had to buy so many for regular price over then next 37 years.  It was a total scam but I had Public Enemy, Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, NWA, Digital Underground, Eric B & Rakim – you get it.  I had some punk and what would be called alternative stuff too, but in order to drown out the Chicago Greatest Hits for the eighth time that day, I went to something like Ice Cube.  And loud.  My friends hated me, but I was 18 and intent on offending those around me whom I had decided had offended me with their oppressively uninspired and stale taste in music all day.

Shock value?  Sure.  But contextual too.  This was one of my first hip hop albums.

I was nearly alone in my affinity for the genre.  They all scoffed at my “Hizzouse” music and they were all sure it (hip hop) would never last as a viable musical category.  I did get a few friends together to see Public Enemy, Ice-T and House of Pain at Rec Hall with me in 1992.  It was a steal for a $20 ticket!  But as Chuck D looked out on us (the audience), I believe he called us “Quaker Land”.  Predominately, it was a sea of white kids at Penn State, as it was my studio.

Fast forward almost 30 years.  Hip Hop basically took over the world, as we all know.  Beyonce, the Kardashians – they all married into hip hop royalty.  All of my friends were wrong, and I was obviously right.  And today the AIA is literally dying to get some diversity in the profession of architecture.  Still.  They talked about this 20 years ago.

A couple years ago, a then graduate student in architecture, Michael Ford, blew up the architecture scene with a compelling program called Hip Hop Architecture Camp.  From their website:

The Hip Hop Architecture Camp® is a one week intensive experience, designed to introduce under represented youth to architecture, urban planning, creative place making and economic development through the lens of hip hop culture.

Learn more about Hip Hop Architecture Here:  HipHopArchitecture.com

Beautiful.  How do we get young architects with diverse backgrounds in the pipeline?  College is too late.  High school is too.  Take the message to them early.  Make it seem cool and like it can make a difference.  Music and architecture have always had this symbiotic relationship.  I remember our first year instructor Don going on and on about Mozart’s compositions and how you could have “too many notes” and all that.  Did that resonate with 17 and 18 year olds in 1991?  Not a bit.  Well – maybe a little since I remembered it 27 years later but – Don was no Grandmaster Flash, that’s for sure.

Early hip hop spoke about the environment, the real environment, in which the artists lived.

Ford introduces kids to architecture within the context of contemporary messages.  Bad environments can produce bad social/economic situations for those who live there.  -Of course.  Good environments can promote social equity.  -There’s the solution based problem solving we need.  Architecture is contextual, just as there is a regional component to hip hop.  It started as a battle between the Boogie Down Bronx and Queens, but as rap spread, it became East Coast vs. West Coast.  Then it became even more regional, so today we have such selections as Dirty South, Crunk, Miami Base; there’s a Chicago scene, a Twin Cities scene, St. Louis, Atlanta…you get the picture.  If a certain type of music makes sense in certain place, doesn’t it make sense that maybe the architecture should reflect that too?  Ford will personalize his hip hop to the location of the camp.

Photographer Glen E. Friedman took this photo on his own roof.  He did album covers for many artists across many genres.

Hey, it is no coincidence that the rappers I was listening to in the late 80’s / early 90’s are now popular cultural icons with proven acting careers like Ice-T, Ice Cube, LL Cool J, Will Smith, Latifah, Mos Def, Common, etc. The list goes on.  These people had something to say, and once our demographic became the one with all the money to spend, producers and sponsors took notice.  Now half the commercials on TV have hip hop scores in the background.  And by now we’ve all heard that Ice Cube was studying architectural drafting if that whole NWA thing didn’t pan out.  Kanye wants to “architect” things.  The interests are aligned.  Sir Mix A Lot now fronts the Seattle Symphony.

Even Canada has their rapper.  Yeah, Toronto!

While I may have tried to force my musical preferences on those around me in studio by cranking my box to “11”, it took someone smarter than me to harness the power of hip hop to reach out to youth that maybe wouldn’t have ever considered the career path of architecture or design.  If you don’t get what the kids are listening to, they probably know something that you don’t, and maybe never will.