Beatmap to the Bronx

"Hip-hop is love" ... a crowd gathers outside the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
"Hip-hop is love" ... a crowd gathers outside the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Photo: New York Times

Lance Richardson follows a hip-hop soundtrack along the backstreets where the subversive musical style was born.

The bar, which looks like an afterthought, sells only two things: beer and wine. Forget mixologists, Manhattans and mind-numbing pretension, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is a paean to simplicity. Walls are exposed brick, the Alphabet City mainstay stripped of all distractions. People huddle around rickety tables or perch in the shadows of a peanut gallery. All eyes are focused on one thing and one thing only: the open mike.

A girl steps up, smiling shyly, then stuns everyone with a lyrical critique of democracy, "the man-made virus of stupidity". A bass player picks up her rhythm and drums creep in, improvising a climax. She's followed by a sax player riffing on Broadway tunes. Then an awkward boy mumbles epic verse about Odysseus, holding down his yarmulke as though the collective glare of the audience might blow it from his head.

Finally a man gets up, high on adrenalin, introducing himself as a doorman. By day he opens doors for "rich white people", he says. But this is what he really wants to do. He takes the mike in his hand and brings down the house with hip-hop so vital it feels like a battle cry.

Hip-hop more than anything else electrifies the audience in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. In a city filled with sound, as inescapable as concrete and glass, hip-hop is the native soundtrack.

Before Beyonce and b-boying or breakdancing, there was simply the Bronx, birthplace of a strange new musical style in the 1970s that gave voice to an underclass. The Nuyorican drags this tradition downtown, taking the stage from Kanye West and giving it back to the disgruntled doorman.

Wanting to learn more about the origins of hip-hop, I turn to my headphones. Sound is often overlooked as a medium in travel, though New York developers are offering innovative ways of using it to interact with the city.

In October, for example, a musical duo called Bluebrain released a free iPhone app called Central Park (Listen to the Light). "It's like a choose-your-own-adventure album," co-creator Ryan Holladay told The New York Times, referring to its use of GPS in co-ordinating sound. Visitors wander Central Park, their real-life route mirrored in a digital "beatmap" on their phones. In a canny example of augmented reality, sound becomes a comment on the world: string quartets overlap with bass or electronica, dictated by a person's trajectory through more than 400 tracks anchored to Central Park locations.

When it comes to hip-hop another company, Soundwalk, sends the curious traveller straight to the source. Several days after my lesson in hip-hop at the Nuyorican, I find myself catapulting out of the subway past the low buildings of the Bronx to Morrison Avenue. Soundwalk leads the way in audio tours of New York, covering everything from Ground Zero to Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community. Its hip-hop walk, narrated by Jazzy Jay, takes listeners to the Bronx River Houses, a low-income housing estate in the aptly named neighbourhood of Soundview.

"Take your time," whispers the voice in my ear as I step off the train. "We're going to start our journey now. Say hi to the ticket clerk. Now take a left, walk down the street. Here we go, baby."

The hint of adventure could not be more appropriate. I step out between chattering Latina mothers, dodging their prams. An African-American man watches quietly from the doorway of a diner, eyebrows raised at my incongruous appearance. Here is the same New York air, laced with grit, the same man-made clutter that defines Manhattan. But something has shifted. On cue, that cool voice coos reassurance: "Don't worry 'bout nothing," it says. "If anybody asks you why you're here, tell 'em Jazzy Jay invited you to the jam."

Jazzy Jay, the legendary African-American disc jockey and co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, is a perfect guide through the ethnic enclave of Soundview: he grew up here. A pioneering figure in the history of hip-hop, Jazzy Jay lived in a world where hip-hop had subversive social power, where the Universal Zulu Nation, a hip-hop awareness group created by reformed gang members, had yet to be driven from the Bronx by city politicians eager to snuff out its revolutionary spark.

For just under an hour Jazzy Jay acts as an urban Pied Piper, drawing listeners through the backstreets of a borough rarely visited except for its zoo and Yankee Stadium - all the while describing the emergence and evolution of its greatest export, hip-hop. He even shares tips in adopting hip-hop style, offering a mix of thumping bass and entrancing beats to get the swagger going. What this also does is slow a stroller's tempo to match the recording. As I cross a street so does Jazzy Jay, perfectly in sync with my location. "You're walking in the footsteps of a lot of people who came before you," he says.

Sometimes those people speak up on the soundtrack, creating a rich conversation with snatches of competing sounds. By the time I reach the Bronx River Houses, its bleak housing blocks clustered around a central courtyard, this aural bubble filled with voices from the past overlays the living world with startling completeness.

"Wait, you hear that?" Jazzy Jay interrupts. "Look up. Sixth floor. That's me!"

Soon, though all alone, I'm standing on a modest concrete stage surrounded by the shouts of a heaving crowd. This is where the Universal Zulu Nation was born, where hip-hop crystallised as the spirit of a community. "This is where it all began, baby," says Jazzy Jay, detailing the scene at hand, how he's "chopping beats like chop suey" alongside Afrika Bambaataa, another pioneer. Breakdancers perform on bare concrete, their echoes sending the invisible crowd into paroxysms of joy. "I know you're enjoying this," he says, turning up the energy even further. "You want to get up and dance with them, right? Ain't no shame in that."

I'm not sure the woman watching me from a fourth-floor window would necessarily agree.

But this actually points to where the tour is most effective.

Jazzy Jay recounts the genesis of hip-hop, its growth in a world of gruelling gang violence where financial disadvantages were acute. He talks of schooling, ethnic conflict, government crackdowns, the arrival of AIDS and the meaning of music throughout it all ("hip-hop is love"). He even offers sage advice: "If you don't respect Mother Earth, she'll spit yo' ass out." His information is rich and detailed, though it helps to have prior knowledge of characters such as Grandmaster Flash.

Where the tour gathers its greatest strength, however, is through its deft use of sound as both the medium and the message. Hip-hop rises up and permeates the Bronx. To hear it in this place is to see its perfect complement: sound and place define each other. The tour becomes a gripping insight into history, augmented by the convincing argument that hip-hop is more than music in a place like this. Being pulled through Soundview's past by Jazzy Jay is to not only appreciate hip-hop's full force and significance - but also to feel it.

Then it's over. The voices have led me back to Morrison Avenue in a tidy circle. I step through the turnstile to wait for a Manhattan-bound train.

"Time to go back to the city, baby," Jazzy Jay says, breaking into a final beat from the Bronx that sends my head bobbing all the way to Midtown.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas has a fare to New York from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1820 low-season return including tax. Fly to Los Angeles (about 14hr), then to New York (5hr 15min); see qantas.com.au. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

Staying there

The comfortable Hotel Beacon on the Upper West Side, official hotel of the Beacon Theatre, is popular with Australians and within easy walking distance of Central Park. Rooms cost from $US308 ($290); see beaconhotel.com.

Listening there

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in Alphabet City has been a cultural landmark since 1973. Theatre, music and poetry is staged through the week; see nuyorican.org. Entry to poetry slams is $US10. Hip-hop is assured.

Bluebrain's app, Central Park (Listen to the Light), is a free download on iTunes; bluebrainmusic.blogspot.com.

The Bronx River hip-hop walk with Jazzy Jay, billed as "an audio tour for people who don't normally take audio tours", won the 2004 Audie Award for best original work. Cost for download is "pay as you wish". Soundwalk offers a variety of other audio tours through New York, China, France and India; see soundwalk.com.

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