A Groundbreaking Moment For Hip-Hop [WAAMN Chapter 2.1]

The start of construction on the Universal Hip Hop Museum gathered figures from Fat Joe to Bill De Blasio in the Bronx—and elevated ownership for hip-hop culture.

This is a limited-time free preview of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. To make sure you don’t miss future weekly serializations, click here. The below installment is Chapter 2: The Genius of Ownership (Part 1).

Pop out of the subway at 149th Street and Grand Concourse and you’ll find a more representative slice of life in the Bronx than you might by attending a Yankee game less than a mile to the north. 

On one particularly sunny Thursday, I stroll past Glackens, a brick bar where ordering an Old Fashioned means getting pint glass stacked with ice and filled to the brim with bottom-shelf whiskey for half the price of a beer at the Stadium. I navigate the seemingly permanent thicket of dusty orange construction vehicles. Then I pass a throng of union reps voicing displeasure via megaphone next to a giant inflatable rat.

But on the other side of a thunderous underpass, I find what I came for: a gathering to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Universal Hip Hop Museum—no relation to the record company—the genre’s answer to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I walk up as Nas and Fat Joe arrive, both set to speak along with a list of big names from LL Cool J to Mayor Bill de Blasio. As I settle into my seat, gazing out across a field of rebar with an American flag flapping in the breeze, Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz takes the stage.

“Today’s the beginning, it’s the groundbreaking, but it’s not the end,” he says. “It’s 60,000 square feet of condos and hip-hop. This is not rental space, this is a condo space. This is a permanent home.”

Diaz and friends are here to tout not just the Museum, which has raised $42 million and is now scheduled to open in 2024, but the broader $349 million mixed-use development in which it will be housed.

Indeed, the Museum has become a stand-in for the concept of ownership. It’s a perfect metaphor for hip-hop itself—a genre that grew from the rubble of Bronx neighborhoods like this one during the 1970s—evolving from a cultural movement to a means of global economic empowerment.

As Diaz points out in his speech, hip-hop has created “tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of jobs,” not to mention a couple billionaires of its own. And if there’s a unifying thread behind the business of hip-hop, it’s the title of this second chapter of We Are All Musicians Now: The Genius of Ownership. 

In the early days, faced with doors both literally and figuratively closed to them, hip-hop artists had no choice but to become independent entrepreneurs. Some of those gilded gates swung open as hip-hop went mainstream, and the savviest artists saw that they had to hang onto their intellectual property rights if they ever wanted to amass real wealth. 

Hip-hop’s stars have gotten to where they are not just by maintaining control of their own work, but by founding and investing in the businesses surrounding their work: record companies and streaming services, footwear and fashion, spirits and sports. 

Accusations of selling out will always follow any artistic medium that starts in the counter-culture and moves into the mainstream. Hip-hop is no different, nor is the Museum itself (as evidenced by the eternal anti-development element). 

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But the focus on retaining ownership of everything from ideas to companies is something hip-hop got right—a topic worth studying for anyone in any career.

Not only that, this focus prepares us, no matter our professions, for dealing with our new reality: we are all musicians now. In the coming installments of this second chapter of my book, we’ll hear from a few of the individuals inextricably tied to this storyline, folks Diaz knows well.

“We have hip-hop royalty in the damn building, everybody make some noise!” he shouts—and the crowd obliges (though there’s no building yet, only a giant doorless tent). “We got LL Cool J up in here! We got Fat Joe up in here! We got Nas up in here! We got Slick Rick up in here! We got Sha Rock up in here!”

The latter, widely hailed as the first female rapper—and certainly the first whose rhymes were laid down on vinyl—will be the subject of next week’s installment.

The above is a serialized segment of my new book, We Are All Musicians Now. You just read Chapter 2: The Genius of Ownership (Part 1). Sign up here to ensure you get fresh installments delivered to your inbox weekly.

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