This week, true legends of hip hop were on hand for the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards in Manhattan. Hosted by the still charming and lively Roxanne Shante - who was intermittently supported by the Diabolical Biz Markie with his signature beatbox, DJing and comedy - the evening was one part concert and one part acknowledgement for the often overlooked hip hop legend.
The affair featured B-Boys from Zulu Nation as well as appearances by Busy Bee (indicted), Treacherous Three (inducted), Sequence (inducted), graffiti artist Cornbread (inducted), Mercedes Ladies (inducted), DJ Hollywood (inducted), photographer Ernie Paniccioli (inducted) as well as a tribute to the late DJ EZ Rock featuring Rob Base. DJ Mel Starr was the house DJ for the evening's festivities. But the night would not have taken place without the brains behind the operation, founder JT Thompson.
“We’ve scaled back the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards some,” says Thompson. “The next one will probably be someplace like the Hammerstein Ballroom, the Beacon Theater or Radio City Music Hall. The plan is to bring back honor to some of the earlier legends of hip hop music and culture.”
The original Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards were taped at Harlem’s Victoria 5 Theater in 1996. Since then, the idea of a brick and mortar building to house the Hall of Fame has fallen from the public’s notice.
“Back in the early 90s you had positive and conscious music going on in hip hop. When we came up with the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards it was supposed to be a funding mechanism to actually build the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum in New York City,” says Thompson, a former basketball star who remembers taking Rap Attack recordings across the country and to places like Moscow and Yugoslavia when playing college and junior national basketball. “As you know, there was an East Coast/West Coast, media-hyped and profited feud going on at that time that made it look like hip hop was apart or dysfunctional when actually the things that were being brought upon us were for profit. The conscious music on the radio was now scaled down, more upbeat street hustler music was on the radio. It took away from a lot of the movement and the things that we were trying to initiate with the community at that time.”
The conceptual idea surrounding what was and was not good rap music would fluctuate throughout the 90s. But two critical events affected the credibility of rap music, hurting the genre and any idea of a Hip Hop Hall of Fame.
“We did our show that many are familiar with, it was in syndication and on BET. But after our show aired, Tupac was killed within the next four days,” says Thompson. “That sent shockwaves throughout the whole country. I went back to the community, along with Russell Simmons, to start initiatives to try to bring the hip hop community back together. Consequently, we had a new deal on the table in 1997 and I got ready to announce it at the Soul Train Awards. Then you had the unfortunate incident that occurred with the Notorious B.I.G. After what happened, there was no independently produced hip hop on television for the next four or five years. We lost a lot of money from our initial investment. We tried to get a new deal with UPN, but The Source got that because they had a magazine. So I told myself the next time we try to come back it’s not just going to be with the award show. We’re going to come back with the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum.”
Part of what makes hip hop culture so popular is the way it keeps rising above any and all efforts by society to minimize and discard it.
“After years of struggle, trying to keep others from stealing our trademark and our name, we’re coming back with the award show,” he says. “And not only that, but we’re coming back with a building adjacent to Time Square which will be the home of the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum and Entertainment Complex. What makes this unique is [it] has the Hall of Fame, the museum, retail gift shop, a restaurant, sports bar, and a concert venue.”
The Hip Hop Hall of Fame has already raised over $50 million for their new location in midtown Manhattan and are looking to close escrow on the property sometime in September. The actual structure will take 18 to 24 months to build and Thompson predicts it will be open for business in November 2016. In the interim, a Hip Hop Hall of Fame Popup Museum will open in Harlem housing some of the memorabilia, offices, and a visitor’s bureau.
"When hip hop first started it was about plugging into light poles and providing activities because there wasn’t anything else for kids to do at that time,” says Thompson. “Now that we’re here and circulating some money, we have to reinvest in our community, reinvest in education, and reinvest in development. The Hip Hop Hall of Fame is going to lead the way with stop the violence initiatives as well as educational programs. It’s been a struggle and for us to be here today is a blessing."