Geography has always played an important part in hip-hop and rap culture. Where you’re from is important. It could connect you with like-minded people. It could get you killed. Dropping lyrics about where you’re from is a way of saying who you are, where you started, and how far you’ve come. NYC-based artist Jason Shelowitz, a.k.a. Jay Shells, understands the important of place in hip-hop, so he’s taken the lyrics to where they started.
Taking the form of red street signs, Jay Shells’ “Rap Quotes” puts shout-outs about specific places exactly where they came from. One sign in Stapleton House Village, for example, has lyrics by RZA: “Grew up in Stapleton House Village, where blood flood the waters in the streets like oil spillage.” Up on Broadway and Myrtle, a sign quotes Mos Def. A street post near Carnegie Hall sports lyrics by Busta Rhymes. Slowly but surely, Jay Shells’ signs are popping up all over NYC.
Since the signs themselves mimic official street signs, the very medium of “Rap Quotes” delves into the rebellious and anti-authority sentiments found in much of the hip-hop Jay Shells quotes. The project is less about praising these areas and more giving a visual history to a largely auditory medium. Cam’ron’s lyrics about 145th and Broadway speak directly about the violence he experienced in that area.
With over 60 of these signs now gracing street poles in New York City, Jay Shells crossed to the West Coast to give L.A. a similar treatment. Over 45 signs have been put up in L.A., celebrating the city’s rich hip-hop culture. “Where you at? Western & Imperial, It’s the pure West Coast coming out your stereo” reads one sign that quotes WC. Another quotes Gangsta Rap pioneer Ice Cube: “I never forgot Van Ness & Imperial, look at my life Ice Cube is a miracle.”
Since the East-West Coast is rivalry largely over, Shells had no problem finding some help for “Rap Quotes,” from helping put up the signs, comb rap lyrics for the perfect quotes, and snap some photos so the signs are immortalized in proper place before the signs are taken down by fans, detractors, or the authorities.
Since posting street signs without a permit is illegal pretty much everywhere, Jay Shells is used to seeing his work taken down. But these days, the authorities are the last people to take them down, because fans and detractors usually get to them first. In Harlem, for example, Jay Shells and his colleagues watched from across the street as a freshly installed sign quoting Sadat X was removed. Jay Shells seems unfazed by the entire removal process “He removed the sign and threw it in the trash,” he said in a recent interview, “You can’t please em all.” But despite his laissez-faire attitude about the signs getting removed, he does try and preserve the sentiment on his Twitter (@TheRapQuotes) and by taking the signs off the streets and into galleries.
The most recent gallery to showcase Jay Shells “Rap Quotes,” along with some of his other art projects, is Gallery 1988. Jay Shells hopes to expand the project outwards to other American cities and galleries, taking his subversive work, quite literally, to the streets across America.