"The city’s my biggest influence"
Hip hop is written into the streets and subways of New York, if you know where to look – mostly, it’s there even when you aren’t looking for it. There’s the boom bap of old school bass drifting out of every other passing car and through the badly insulated headphones of passing strangers. The bloc parties and the summer street dance concerts at city parks. There’s the litefeet boys, still swinging from subway car poles as you make your way home, back-flipping to tinny beats played through iPhone speakers, despite the city’s clampdown on subway dancing meaning that, if caught, they face a Misdemeanour A charge (and the threat of up to a year in prison). There’s the Graffiti Hall of Fame at the Jackie Robinson Education Complex on 106 Street and Park Avenue, where, back in 1986, the school principal told students they could use the playground walls as a canvas, so long as they stopped spraying outside. The Frank. E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue at 81st Street, where Biggie, Aaliyah and Heavy D were laid to rest. Up in Harlem, tourists huddle in front of the Big L memorial mural on 104 W 140th St, snapping photos as locals walk past, unimpressed, pulling their baseball caps down low and shaking their heads at this intrusion on their neighbourhood.
Hip hop is the way the city communicates with itself, as cultural critic Marshall Berman argued when he described how graffiti painted onto subway trains in the 1970s and ’80s provided a way for those from impoverished neighbourhoods to speak to people in more affluent areas. I guess this is what rapper Wiki means when he tells me that when it comes to his music, “The city knows. New York knows it’s good.”
“That’s the thing, you know what I’m saying?” he says. “You can go anywhere. Like, obviously, you don’t wanna go to Times Square. You gotta go to the Bronx, obviously, if you wanna understand where [hip hop] came from, you go to the South Bronx. But then hip hop spread to everywhere, and every neighbourhood had their own thing going on. You could go Uptown, to the Bronx, East Harlem, Spanish Harlem, 125th, walk down 125th. You wanna know my shit you go to China Town, you go Upper West Side, walk down 96th Street. Whatever. That’s what I’m saying.”
Sipping on a can of beer as we chat, Wiki speaks with a broad New York accent, lacing the conversation with so much city slang that his PR emails me the next day to check I understand what he is saying. (“The gram?” I ask, at one point. “Yeah, yeah,” he laughs, raising his can, “The Instagram!”).
“The whole hip hop scene – it’s about finding your culture.” He grins a gummy smile that reveals missing front teeth. “A certain group of kids, some of them skate, some of them do graffiti, some of them make music, some of them make art, some of them in a fucking band, you know what I mean? Like that’s hip hop, you know what I’m saying? It really just depends what level you talking about. I got Tony Seltzer, who produced a lot of the [new] record, he makes a lot of beats, like a lot of litefeet beats for the litefeet cats, so in that sense there’s all these connections [in the city].”