Artist Jay Shell places street signs with rap lyrics throughout New York City
As the over 8 million New Yorkers pound the pavement every day, many don’t know they cruise over streets that have been immortalized in some of the most famous lyrics in rap.
Now artist Jay Shells is shining a light on the hallowed ground. For his ongoing project “Rap Quotes,” the artist who was born Jason Schelowitz created works that mimic official New York City street signs and are adorned with famous hip-hop lyrics. Shells then installed them at the exact locations that are referenced in the rhymes.
It was an idea that grew out of Shells’s existing Twitter project @HipHopQuotes where he shares his favorite rap quotes.
“With Twitter being so limited in characters, I could pull out specific lyrics that no one really looks at but that really speak to me,” said Shells. A quote from Big L’s 1995 album Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (“On 139 and Lenox Ave there’s a big park, and if you’re soft don’t go through it when it gets dark.”) made Shells realize that he could transfer his Twitter concept to real life and make it a community project.
"Sometimes I rhyme slow sometimes I rhyme quick, I was on 125 and St. Nick." — Smooth B
“New York City is a city full of culture and history; and hip-hop was born in our city. I think it’s important to mark these spots in a more permanent way,” said Shells. “I thought it was really cool so I thought other hip-hop junkies would think this is dope, and they’re the ones really responding. But what’s surprising is that it’s resonating with people outside of the [hip-hop] community.”
And why wouldn’t it? It’s an art project that brings together a community. One that let’s neighbors know their street corner has been immortalized for all time. Of course, some residents may wish their neighborhood had a different reputation than the ones captured in the lyrics. But it’s tough to not be psyched about having your hood name-checked by the likes of Busta Rhymes, KRS One, Jay-Z, Prodigy, Heavy D, Mos Def, Kayne West, and others.
It’s an idea that’s catching fire with fans tweeting back to Shells and alerting him to lyrics that move them. And it’s not just fans. Artists themselves have reached out to Shells to let him know it’s on their radar.
“Big Daddy Kane was the one that got me the most geeked out. I was like ‘Oh, sh*t!’ Big Daddy Kane telling me, ‘That’s hot!’”
If you want to check out Shells’s project, time is of the essence. A number of the signs have already disappeared. It isn’t city officials removing them, it’s fans of the work who want to keep a piece for themselves.
“A lot of them have been taken but it’s not the city,” explains Shells. “ In a way, I want it to be up there forever so people can see it. But the internet will help it live forever,” Shells says. “And to be honest, I’d probably take it. If I were lucky enough to spot it, I’d say, ‘I want that on my wall.’”
Ultimately, if he can gain enough funding, Shells’ goal is to convert the signs into brass plaques welded to the ground so they can live on.
“People should know when they’re standing in the middle of a classic song. I’m looking at this as the appetizer and not the main course.”
Iris Yen is based in New York City and Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter at @IrisYen