Music moves us, the imagery in our favorite songs propel us and motivate us to act out or live the lyrics in them. Hip-Hop was born in New York and it has since gone global. Our beloved genre will be turning 40 soon, still in a youthful stage compared to other genres. Throughout time, emcees have been putting on for their respected hoods or blocks. They paint a picture that reaches everyone familiar or unfamiliar with the scenery on those streets. Documenting the movement and everything that happens on the block has been coupled with the music being put out.
Artist Jay Shells has been hitting the streets posting up signs on corners and intersections that have been mentioned in a particular rapper’s song. All over New York, the Rap Quotes creator puts his stamp where former and current emcees have given a block its respect. The idea is visually and conceptually stimulating. The design resembles a New York City traffic sign, quickly getting the attention of people parking their cars and pretty much anyone walking the streets.
We sat down with Jay Shells to talk about his project, street art, and much more. Check out the interview below.
Tell us about yourself and your work outside of RapQuotes.
I’m an artist. A visual artist, graphic designer, I’m constantly working on all kinds of different projects. Whether it’s branding, advertising, I paint as well – sometimes outdoors. I’m into drawing, print making, silk screening, I’m always up to something.
How did the idea for Rap Quotes come to life?
I was at home working on something else, listening to music like I always do. I was listening to Big L’s first album and while I was listening I heard myself kicking some lines out loud. One of them mentioned “139 and Lenox Ave” and I just thought it would be cool to mark that spot somehow with the lyric so that everybody walking by would know that this corner was mentioned in a song and this is who said it. My little brother and I run a Twitter account called The Rap Quotes. Once a day we’ll tweet out a hot verse and I thought it would be cool to incorporate the twitter handle into the signs. I began to think about what other verses mentioned areas specific enough to mark with a sign. I started thinking about songs and asked friends for verses they could think of and before you know it I had a bunch. Making street signs was a fresh idea because the poles that you put them on are everywhere. I had them manufactured and I started putting them up. Since the video with Animal NY – which was the first installation – I’ve put up thirty and after that I put up another twenty. It’s been really fun, I’ve got eight more at home that I will be putting up soon.
What are people doing with the signs, do you know?
I just put them up and whatever happens-happens. People have been stealing them really quickly, that’s why it’s good that I’m documenting it. The idea now is to come up with a more permanent solution and try and find financial support because I can’t afford to do it. If I made brass plaques and bolted them on the sidewalks at the spots people couldn’t steal them and they would really be a part of New York history.
As an artist, was the process also about teaching and informing people outside of hip-hop?
Honestly, the project was for me and people like me, hip-hop heads. When it comes down to it – since they’re in the public – people of all walks of life pass by them and see them. The project has shown me that people from all different areas with different musical tastes from all over the world have latched on to the project and the idea. It wasn’t so much about educating anyone so much as “this happened here.” So, more like an FYI but I guess it is educational.
Who are your favorite visual artists at the moment?
That’s a good question. I really like everything Jeff Soto does. There are some graffiti artist that are doing really well right now, there’s this kid FAUST who has the nastiest hand style in New York right now. I’ve been a fan of Barry McGee for a while now. I went to see his retrospective out in California and it was amazing, he’s still just killing it. Anyone that makes me think, you know. There is a side for just being visually amazed by someone’s talent and ability then there’s work that is thought provoking. If I see something that makes me think “I should have thought of that”, there are artists that do that but not many that do it with consistency.
Music you’re listening to right now.
Yikes! I’ve been listening to the Cru album from back in the day which makes me feel like I’m in high school. I’ve just been loving that and revisiting old stuff like Eric B. & Rakim. As far as new stuff, Roc Marciano – anything that he does I’m a fan of, he is one of my favorite emcees. Action Bronson, Action’s new stuff is ill.
Being that your work is out in the street, what’s your opinion on Bloomberg’s trifecta as mayor and his obsession with wiping out graffiti and street art?
It’s interesting that he has such a hard-on for arresting graffiti artists. I actually got arrested last sunday and spent a whole 24 hours in bookings. It’s been ten years since I been there now. The cops even said my painting would’ve turned out great but they had to take me in. We’re in a time right now where you see a lot of legal street work go up, like in Bushwick there’s a section where they’re allowing kids to go paint. It’s great if you have permission to do stuff on walls and building owners are on board with it, it draws people into neighborhoods even. But it’s a tough time to do it the way it originated which was illegally. I remember talking my way out of s***, they just have a quota where they get so excited if the catch someone painting. The vandal squad is really active, one of them interviewed me for abut 30 minutes asking me questions about all these other artists, if I had information on them. I wouldn’t have given it to them if I had it or not. I think it’s a shame because it’s something that brings color to a neighborhood and I wish the cops would sort of let it be.
Virgilio Mendez (@REGULARGUYV)