New Flowers From the Roots of Hip-Hop

An underground radio show rewires a cultural legacy of The Bronx

Guerrilla Grooves radio

Artists and audience at the Guerrilla Grooves studio. (Photo courtesy of Guerrilla Grooves Radio)

 

The “boom-boom-bap” sound got louder further up the staircase of this loft-house in the South Bronx. At the top, the muffled verses of someone rapping crept out from underneath the doorway.

Miguel Brown, 32, opened the door to a large room covered in framed artwork; a bright tapestry of cityscapes and abstract blocks of color. “I told you to be early; we’ve started already,” he said, smiling. “Make yourself at home.” Past an overflowing bookshelf on the right and a television on the left, people sat on two long sofas at the back of the room. An “on-air” sign flashed red underneath the recording booth window, which faced the two sofas.

The Bronx—“Home to 50-cent sodas and abortion quotas!” said Rhinoceros Funk from the recording booth, grinning at DJ Fred Ones, who stood over the turntables in the glass-fronted room, nodding his head to the beat.

Welcome to Guerrilla Grooves Radio, a weekly radio show in the Bronx dedicated to the promotion of Boom Bap hip-hop—the essence of the original hip-hop sound that was born in the Bronx forty years ago. Juls Money—yellow shirt, flat peak hat, and Lord Kitchener-esque moustache—sidled across the room, offering cans of lager. “You hear that? That’s the Boom Bap!” said Money, 39. “This borough should be called Boom Bap!”

For almost a year, Guerrilla Grooves Radio has broadcast—every Tuesday night on WKCR 107.3 internet radio —a blend of handpicked hip-hop tunes, live performances from independent artists, and special guests that have included community leaders and activists. The Guerrilla Grooves duo—Fred Ones and Rhinoceros Funk—have taken the quintessential elements of an underground New York hip-hop radio show: promoting music from outside of the mainstream and finding the next generation of unsigned artists.

If they were an orchestra, Rhinoceros Funk would play lead violin and Fred Ones would be the conductor. Both are united in their love of hip-hop. And with their experience and love of the music, the Guerrilla Grooves pair is extending the proud legacy of Bronx hip-hop right next to where the genre was born.

Across the borough there is a growing movement to celebrate Bronx as the birthplace of hip-hop. “There is a lot going on in terms of wanting to promote and recognize the legacy and history of hip-hop,’ said Elena Martinez, Co-Artistic Director at the Bronx Musical Heritage, an organization that promotes local music. Many hip-hop aficionados credit Kool Herc’s party on his block on Sedgewick Avenue in the Bronx in 1973  as hip-hop’s formative moment. Later in 2016, this stretch of Sedgewick Avenue will be renamed Hip Hop Boulevard. “If you have friends on the West Coast, remember to tell them it all started here, okay?” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York City Mayor, when he signed the renaming bill last month. At the very least, Guerrilla Grooves founder Ones says, his own career was built on the blueprint laid down by all the original artists, many of whom were from the Bronx, such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and KRS-One.

Guerrilla Grooves airs out of the studio owned by Fred Ones in the South Bronx, or as advertised on the website, the South South South Bronx. He has two decades of experience in the industry and has deejayed all over New York City and been on tour with the famous rappers Mike Ladd and Just Ice. Ones is a sound engineer and the founder of the record label Peasant Podium Music, which has a small roster of artists and producers. “It’s a dream job,” he said.

With the studio and all that experience, expanding into radio made perfect sense. “What I do here is to create an environment, to create energy. A place for people to come together to generate ideas,” said Ones.

His colleague, Rhinoceros Funk—the show’s witty and gregarious host—adds his unique personality to the proceedings. Funk, 37, first hosted a radio show at SUNY, where he studied sociology and then pursued a masters degree in Latin American and Caribbean studies. Asked about his literary heroes, Funk rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of Karl Marx on his bicep. His musical tastes, meanwhile, were influenced by the Mexican, Spanish, and Brazilian ballads his mother used to play at his home in East Harlem. He still enjoys sampling these records today.

Guerrilla Grooves has the feel of genuine counterculture. “Hip-hop was about creativity, freedom of expression, the ability to develop your own talent,” said Rocky Bucano, the co-founder of the Universal Museum of Hip Hop project, which seeks to honor the story of hip-hop culture since its inception in the Bronx. Bucano is pushing for the museum to open in the Old Bronx Courthouse. “Without the Bronx, there would be no hip-hop,” he said. The early culture was not just about the music because the graffiti and b-boy dancing were also crucial elements, said Bucano. At Ones’s studio, the bathroom is painted like a graffiti Sistine chapel.

While Ones is clear that the radio project is not about looking back to the past—because his focus is to birth new talent—he understands the history of hip-hop in the Bronx, which is where he grew up. Perhaps the Bronx hasn’t capitalized enough as the genre’s birthplace, he said. The Bronx, he said, ignored a positive legacy by fixating on the negative stereotypes that often accompanies hip-hop rather than the art and culture, thus shunning the music and graffiti.

At the live show Tuesday night people flowed in and out of the studio and the green room. “It’s an open door policy,” said Juls Money. Occasionally local activists are invited on the radio, including Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets and the Bronx-based activist hip-hop group Rebel Diaz. The show, which makes no profit, is more than just about the music. A willingness to engage with politics and non-music-related culture is perhaps a reflection of Fred and Rhinoceros. They both believe that it is important to pass down knowledge, which is a central aim of their operation.

Fred, for example, teaches his apprentices how to use his equipment and how to run a successful professional enterprise. Hip-hop, for him, has been an entrepreneurial endeavor. “The early days was about inventing something for themselves,” said Devaughn Holliday, who heads up the Cypher League record label. He’s 22 and had a father who grew up in the days when hip-hop started. It’s important to bridge the knowledge gap between generations, he said.

Fred is Miguel Brown’s Uncle. For Miguel, being involved in the hip-hop game is natural for someone who grew up in the South Bronx. “We’re trying to just rap. Trying to do the thing from our neighborhood. To represent us,” he said.

 

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