On a recent Thursday, Grand Wizzard Theodore was busy DJing in his home borough of the Bronx. Theodore is widely acknowledged as the man who invented turntable scratching, so his presence behind the decks was not unusual. The venue, however, was unexpected: The Cornerstone Academy for Social Action – a middle school, where Theodore’s selections were soundtracking furious Lego-building.
While Theodore cued up hits, Mike Ford, founder and leader of Hip-Hop Architecture Camp, was guiding a group of sixth, seventh and eighth graders as they assembled Lego models based on rap lyrics. Students gathered around the table where one of their peers was working with lines from Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message:” “Broken glass everywhere/ People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care/ I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise/ Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.”
This student created a literal representation of the song’s image: a staircase, a sprinkle of green pieces for “broken glass everywhere” and scattered yellow pieces for “people pissin’ on the stairs.” “Good start,” said Ford. But he gently pushed the student towards a more constructive response to “The Message.” “Could there be a building made from all the broken glass?” Ford wondered. “Let’s start to think about how we can make it so that nobody has to say those words in their song again.”
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Ford sees his teaching as a way to counter the troubled history of urban planning in America. “We’ve decimated cities that were built by the hands of African Americans – like Black Bottom in Detroit, or here in the Bronx, when they built the Cross Bronx Expressway through a community of color,” he says. “Those decisions are made by people outside of those communities. There are a limited amount of people at the table to advocate for our communities.”
Hip-hop Architecture Camp attempts to correct that representational imbalance, using rap as a hook to introduce young minority students to a field they may not otherwise encounter. “I have been on this planet for several decades, and I have moved in some pretty radical circles, but personally, I cannot recall meeting a melanated architect in my whole life,” says Chino XL, a veteran rapper who attended the camp in the Bronx. “Just for these children to know it’s a thing, that’s important.”
“I’m letting kids know we have a history of building spaces and places,” Ford adds.
For more than a year, Ford, a longtime hip-hop fan with a master’s degree in architecture, has led sessions like this around the country. (Ford has planned nearly 20 sessions nationwide this year.) The idea for the camp came from a simple insight made while Ford was in graduate school at the University of Detroit: “Less than three percent of architects in America are African American,” he explains. “We’ve spent a ton of money trying to diversity the profession, but it’s always from the same perspective: Come learn this western culture. Come learn about the Greeks and the Romans. It’s not making it relevant.” The tendency to emphasize the importance of certain models – Greek but not Egyptian, for example – means “we’ve experienced the world through a limited lens,” Ford says.
“I’m letting kids know we have a history of building spaces and places” – Mike Ford
He is also interested in the aesthetic connections between hip-hop and architecture. “Music is saturated with references to architecture,” Ford says. “Not just critiquing your environment, but in the songs, [rappers] express what they wish architecture was. KRS-One talks about hip-hop artists buying property to build a hip-hop city.”
It’s not a coincidence for Ford that Kanye West recently expressed interest in architecture and community planning “for like the third time.” (“He also said a lot of other stuff that I don’t agree with,” Ford notes.) Ice Cube studied architecture before co-founding N.W.A, and Pharrell Williams included discussions of architecture in his 2012 book Places and Spaces I’ve Been.
Ford aimed to strengthen the relationship between the hip-hop and architecture communities with a summit he organized earlier this year. Architects attended the event along with the lyricists Chino XL, Lupe Fiasco and Nikki Jean. “They talked about city skylines, if they can write bars that fit within those lines to see how each city sounds,” Ford says. “Is there a hidden sonic experience within these environments?”
Anyone who can tell the difference between Golden Age New York hip-hop and Los Angeles gangster rap knows intuitively that there are connections between music and place. Then the question becomes, if space impacts rap, what happens when you change the space? “How do we make architecture so that people stop saying, ‘I want to hear another track like “The Message”‘?” Ford says. “I want to stop the cycle, and stop the environment that’s influencing some of these songs that are very challenging.”
During the five-day program held in New York in May, students used rap lyrics as a basis for Lego models, practice working with the three-dimensional design program Tinkercad, hone their own rap verses, often with help from professional MCs, and create a music video. Autodesk, the company behind Tinkercad, provides the software to Ford for free and helps fund the camps. “When you meet Mike and you hear what he’s doing,
you can’t help but want to be involved,” Sarah O’Rourke, Autodesk’s youth audience strategist, tells Rolling Stone. “We’re looking to inspire kids, and what
better way to do it than with music they’re already involved with?”
The Bronx students hunted for architectural connections in “The Message,” Nas’ “I Can” and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” They were focused, only breaking from their modeling efforts to perform an impromptu line-dance to Migos and Drake’s “Walk It Talk It” or to lobby the DJ: a sixth grader named Dirk politely asked Grand Wizzard Theodore to play a song from the rising Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine. Theodore had misgivings about the track – “a lot of negativity in that record; our kids need better role models” – but he cued it up anyway.
Theodore started visiting schools in 2002 with his Scratch Academy before connecting with Ford’s architecture camp. “To be able to go to school and have some people talk to me about my life, I didn’t have anything like this,” he said. “I grew up in abandoned buildings, fires all over the place, people smokin’ dope and nodding in the corners. I want to be able to turn on the TV and see a kid from the Bronx – that grew up the same way I grew up – building buildings.”
“I want to be able to turn on the TV and see a kid from the Bronx … building buildings” – Grand Wizzard Theodore
Both Theodore and Ford hope that more hip-hop artists will participate in future Hip-Hop Architecture Camp sessions, raising the program’s profile and expanding its reach. “The artists that have the biggest voice – that these kids see on TV every day that they play their records on the radio every six minutes – those are the artists that should be doing these programs,” Theodore says.
“We need to have youth hear it right from the artist,” Ford adds. “[Artists] have been influenced by the environment. I want to give them the opportunity, in turn, to influence their environment.”
In addition to enlisting more rappers to participate in his camps, Ford ultimately hopes to train others to lead sessions so they can take place in multiple cities at once. “It’s cool to have Mike Ford going to every city,” Ford says. “But I ended my TED talk with, I want to create an army of architects that can right the wrongs of modernism in communities of color. It’s about the dissemination of this curriculum to as many people as possible.”
For now, Ford’s army remains small, but it’s growing. Chino XL’s visit to the Cornerstone Academy marked his first time participating in the camp. “I was overwhelmed at how many kids signed up for it on a Saturday and Sunday, and how completely focused they were on what the goal and the initiative was,” the rapper said.
Ford called his work “making advocates,” and many of his students in the Bronx quickly grasped his mission. Toward the end of the first day, Dirk, the sixth grader, presented a model he built based on a line from Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story”: “When laws were stern and justice stood.”
“When [Slick Rick] said, ‘when laws were stern … ,” I don’t really think that resonated with me,” Dirk told the class. “Now we’ve got a lot of people being arrested for no exact reason – like Kalief Browder, who the sixth grade is learning about now, who committed suicide because he went to Riker’s Island for three years for a crime he did not commit. He was given the opportunity to plead guilty, but he never did because he knew he didn’t do it.”
Dirk was imagining an alternative outcome. “This police station is supposed to represent a better future,” he said, “without false accusations.”
This episode drove home Ford’s words from earlier in the day. “These kids can have an immediate impact,” he asserted. “And they can create architecture we have not seen before.”