Hip Hop Foray

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Check out nycvisit.com–the city’s official tourism site–and you’ll find textured profiles of Manhattan neighborhoods, encouraging you to explore “experimental music clubs” in the East Village and artists’ lofts in SoHo. The Bronx, however, is presented as one borough-wide destination, with Yankee Stadium and the zoo as its main attractions. Its profile closes with an aside: “Break dancing and salsa music were born here.”

Debra Harris says the tourism industry is missing a lucrative market by relegating Bronx culture to this sort of postscript. So in the summer of 2002, the 36-year-old Bronx native founded Hush Tours, which takes visitors on a hip hop journey through Harlem and the Boogie-down Bronx. In May, Harris plans to offer promotional hip hop tours of Brooklyn and Queens as well, to test the potential for expansion.

Harris, who used to promote comic acts, got into tourism while living in Battery Park City. “That’s when I was awakened to tourists and how many people come here and do the same things time and again,” she says. She noticed while earning her tourism license that most guidebooks framed the New York she knows in the language of danger. The opening words of The Rough Guide to New York City’s upper Manhattan section typify the industry’s idea of life above 96th Street: “Washington Heights is a patchy neighborhood with little in the way of attractions.”

Harris’ bus tours seek to counter such notions. But they are not so much sightseeing expeditions as they are afternoons hanging out with the guys who, as teenagers, created what is now a multibillion-dollar global industry.

One afternoon finds Rahiem of Grandmaster Flash–whose 1982 “The Message” is one of the genre’s foundational singles–doing his daughter’s hair while encouraging his teen son to give a sample of his R. Kelly-style crooning. DJ Caz–widely credited with having written lyrics for “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap single released–performs a new song in which he takes lyrical aim at the Sugar Hill Gang for stealing his rhymes 25 years ago. The group grows throughout the day, as the “guides” spot other pioneers prowling the streets and invite them to join a free-ranging conversation about the culture they all dreamed up 25 years ago.

An eclectic collection of tourists–a budding hip hop artist from Queens, a middle-aged art gallery director from Portland, a young couple from Geneva–fires questions and snaps photos. None of them have ever been to Harlem or the Bronx. “We’d have never gotten over here,” testifies a woman from Georgia who wanted to find something she thought her husband, a music fan, would engage with. “We’d have stayed in Times Square.”