This Is Hip Hop: Summerstage 2013 Series – New York (Photos)

Every year the folks at the City Parks Foundation put together an impressive list of concerts that last the entire summer and touch dozens of far-reaching New York neighborhoods. This year the City Parks Foundation celebrated the 40th Anniversary of hip hop with its series of shows called “This Is Hip Hop.”

The 40th Anniversary of hip hop according to who? Well, according to a hip hop pioneer who can legitimately lay claim to its origins, DJ Kool Herc. It was at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx where he held the first hip hop party on August 10, 1973. Back then it was just a party for the kids in the neighborhood where he DJ’d from the closet. Forty years later, after health and financial challenges, that party-rocker spirit Kool Herc nurtured remains. Whether Kool Herc was DJing SummerStage at Crotona Park in his native Bronx Borough, or at SummerStage in Central Park — NYC’s lawn — Kool Herc treated each “show” like a party. He split his time between hitting the decks, bringing bottles of water to people in the crowd, shouting out folks he knew, and speaking on current community events.

It’s easy to see how someone like Kool Herc is critical to the founding of hip hop, but doesn’t become its star. He’s truly a man of the people. He explained to me that, “It’s not about ego,” for him and when he started playing this strange music that developed from records that someone had made and released, it was not about money…because there was none.

So now it is 2013 and hip hop is grown and global. Jay-Z is a hip hop elder statesman who rubs elbows with President Obama, sells out Yankee Stadium, and sells everything from tablets to sports franchises. That’s no shade. It’s a testament to the force that people such as Kool Herc created. But in an age where hip hop music and its influence are ubiquitous, but its lifestyle is starkly inaccessible, SummerStage’s “This is Hip Hop” is a refreshing counterpoint that puts hip hop back where it started…in the neighborhood parks of New York City.

This summer it was awesome to see Big Daddy Kane rhyming at Tompkins Park (now Herbert von King Park) in his native neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Walking around the show that day, so many people had a Kane story from back in the day. It was a triumphant moment for longtime BedStuy residents who have weathered the storm of the rise of hip hop that coincided with the crack era. Here, in a neighborhood that was known as “Do or Die BedStuy,” old school Brooklynites came out with enthusiastic neighborhood pride that could not have shown itself any other way.

“This is Hip Hop” curator Erika Elliott explains, “It’s always different when it’s outside and it’s free and it’s community-based…When it’s early evening and you’re in a community and people have brought their kids it’s always different. That’s the joy of being able to present these concerts in public spaces for free. It’s that we are exposing artists to people who may have never seen them perform. They’re not going to go to Manhattan to a B.B. King’s and pay $20 to see these guys perform. But to have a hometown hero come back and play near where he used to live, that’s really special.”

At “This is Hip Hop” concerts, Kool Herc was roaming the crowd speaking to people or dancing on stage to support the performing act. In an era where hip hop is often associated with VIP velvet ropes, many of the SummerStage concerts felt as if hip hop was being given back to its early adopters. I often overheard people not only flawlessly reciting lyrics, but telling their kids where they were when the song came out 25 years ago. That’s a special thing: a hip hop show that you can take your kids too. It’s a reminder of hip hop’s youth movement days and gave this summer’s shows a family affair feel.

What made “This is Hip Hop” awesome is that it created special moments for hip hop’s legends and pioneers. On August 10, 2013, 40 years to the day that Kool Herc played his first party in the Bronx, we all gathered at SummerStage in Central Park and Kool Herc hosted us for a true celebration of art. It was a who’s who of hip hop DJ royalty that included Grand Wizard Theodore, Marley Marl, Red Alert, and DJ Premier. But the moment that drove the hip hop faithful insane was Big Daddy Kane and Rakim onstage together. And, pardon my hip hop nostalgia and romanticism, hearing Pete Rock play “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.) in East River Park, under Manhattan moonlight, while watching the J train sail across the Williamsburg Bridge, in front of a crowd that knew every single word, was one of the best concert moments I’ve experienced (or, when Crazy Legs came onstage at Central Park and did moves that we still can’t figure out and brought out his Rock Steady Crew kids and they upstaged all the hip hop luminaries on the bill with their incredible dancing).

It was a good summer. And as Kool Herc explained to me, “This is how it started, in the Park. Hip hop belongs to the people.” “This is Hip Hop” brought the music back to its first audience, the people of New York City, and to its first venues, the parks of New York City. And in a town where so much about hip hop is available, but not accessible, it was an important and appreciated gesture.