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Where hip-hop lives: NYC wants genre to remember its roots

Orville Hall, owner of Hollis Famous Burgers, poses in front of a mural of his late friend Jam Master Jay. (Photo: Kate Warburton)

In Hollis, hip-hop is a way of life.

“I can’t say it’s just music,” said Natheefa Stephenson, 18, who works in the Queens neighborhood that inspired Run-DMC’s hit songs. “Hip-hop is worn today; you hear it from people’s mouths. It helps you stay positive.”

From its humble beginnings at Bronx house parties to the multi-billion-dollar global industry it is today, hip-hop has remained an authentic expression of urban life.

In the 1990s, hip-hop increasingly glorified the same violence it condemned at its inception, but artists today are trying to take the form back to its activist roots, an effort that resonates in New York, the cradle of hip-hop.

“Surviving, that’s the culture we were brought up in. This is our reality,” said Gary “Black Kasper” London, 37, of St. Albans. “Hip-hop is just a reflection of how we live.”

London, a producer who worked with the late Notorious B.I.G., was eating at Hollis Famous Burgers, a restaurant that doubles as a hip-hop museum and tribute to Run-DMC, Ja Rule, LL Cool J and other stars raised around the bend.

It has been years since a Hollis artist went mainstream, with some experts saying Atlanta is the new talent incubator and others saying violence has eclipsed creativity in Queens.

But Orville Hall, the owner of Hollis Famous Burgers and a childhood friend of the late Jam Master Jay, isn’t discouraged. “Hip-hop has always belonged here, but we put it out there for the world and it belongs to the world,” said Hall, 45, who plans to soon release a record featuring the Hollis Boyz, Jam Master Jay’s nephew and other young local talent.

Hall named the record “Queens Is in the House” and the project “Chryme.” “At least now, if you hear about crime in Hollis, it can be a good thing,” said Hall, a kind of neighborhood patriarch who also commissioned a mural of Jam Master Jay at 205th Avenue and Hollis Avenue.

Just as hip-hop has crossed geographical boundaries, it has transcended racial ones, spurring white rappers such as the Beastie Boys. And just as the world knows hip-hop was begun in New York, everyone knows it was begun by the black community.

“Hip-hop is totally a part of black history on so many levels. To some extent, it’s part of a legacy of black resistance culture,” said M.K. Asante Jr., author of “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop.” Hip-hop was created as a form of rebellion to share stories of crime and oppression, Asante said.

Artists such as Mos Def and Dead Prez seek to take hip-hop back to its grassroots form, but expert Datwon Thomas said the process also involves marrying the underground with the mainstream.

“Hip-hop has brought people together more than any other music,” said Thomas, 34, operating chief and editor of Russell Simmons’ hip-hop Web site,

“Hip-hop has become more of a culture, because it’s a way of life,” he said. “It’s part of the fabric of American culture now.”

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