A museum centered on Art + Education + Social Justice through the lens of Africa + the diaspora

The Pillars: Celebrating 50 Years of Hip-Hop

On View: Until December 31, 2023

Curated by: Amy Andrieux + Run P.

Curatorial Team: Haley Watson + Zola-Jourdan Savage


MoCADA celebrates Hip-Hop’s 50th Birthday with an outdoor art installation at 80 Hanson Place, that brings us back to the foundation by uplifting the elements that moved our culture forward and the history that should never be forgotten.

Born in the Bronx and reverberating throughout the five boroughs, Hip-Hop kept NYC’s underserved youth inspired and entertained as the city’s infrastructure crumbled around them. What began as four independent elements — the DJ, the emcee, graffiti, and breakdancing – has since become a cultural movement that has taken over the world. We salute the legends and the pioneering photographers who captured Hip-Hop’s iconic moments in real-time.

Rapper MC Lyte sets the stage as a true American icon by Ernie Paniccioli, 1996.

The true storytellers of hip-hop are the emcees, and their lyricism is at the center of it all. Emcees, at their core, are poets who evoke different feelings and emotions from the crowd. The best emcees are lyrical geniuses, rhyme words, and use wordplay to create more profound meaning and connect with their audience. They use their mic to address what’s happening within the community and their individual experiences. Their impact on the younger generations is huge as they speak directly to them, resonating with youth as they highlight aspects of their daily life and what is happening around them. As seen in the image by Ernie Paniccioli, MC Lyte pioneered the rap game. The crack epidemic affected everyone in New York in the 70s and 80s, and as a 12-year-old girl MC Lyte felt the weight of the epidemic on her community, so she began writing about it from the lens she knew. Her remarkable storytelling ability and fierce lyrics catalyzed her success as her verses touched all that listened. Years later as a 16-year-old teen, MC Lyte made Hip-Hop history as the first female rapper to release a full album, Lyte as a Rock, which took four years of her perfecting her lyricism, delivery, and pronunciation, not leaving a single detail out. Her extreme dedication to her craft and the maturity of her voice is the reason this album is celebrated as one of the 100 Best Rap Albums of all time. MC Lyte went on to become one of the first rappers to perform at Carnegie Hall and the first female emcee to be nominated for a “Best Rap Solo Performance”  Grammy award for her single, “Ruffneck”.

Grandmixer D.ST aka Grandmixer DXT, creating music with collaborator TROY, in his bedroom which doubled as his recording studio by Sophie Bramly, 1983.

The soul of Djing is about creating an atmosphere through a journey through music, ie setting the mood and feelings of the audience. It goes beyond mixing pre-recorded music and playing good songs, or playlisting. It’s an art form that requires the DJ to understand the crowd and tap into them, allowing them to express themselves through an unspoken cosmic bond. No one is more knowledgeable about music than a DJ. Anyone can play hit songs and put them together, but what a DJ does is so much more complex and intricate than that. DJ’s give context to an artist’s work in real time by weaving together tracks seamlessly through an unforgettable experience that keeps the crowd moving all-night long.

Every audience has a different vibe, but it’s the DJ’s job to create a memorable sonic experience. Grandmixer D.ST aka Grandmixer DXT, seen in the photograph by Sophie Bramly, is an innovator who brought something new to the world of DJing. As the first DJ to use a turntable as a musical instrument, he opened the door for a whole new arena within the genre. Having created a name for himself as a trailblazer — altering the pitch of a record’s sound and scratching, which led to him being the first DJ to play at the legendary Roxy nightclub in downtown Manhattan, DST set the blueprint for those that came after and expanded the presence of Hip-Hop out the gate. 

DEZ, aka DJ Kay Slay, with Due2 in the Harlem #3 subway yard by Martha Cooper, 1983.

The rise of graffiti in New York City developed from the various social and economic issues arising in the city. The younger generation sought a way to make their voices heard and creatively claim their space, while urban decay rapidly affected the Black community, community centers closed, and the crack epidemic rose. The younger generation of Black and Latino kids set out to mark their identity in the city in a beautiful way for all to see. They began using spray paint on building walls and subway cars as their art began to define the NYC landscape. The graffiti that flanked the city represented the individual artist and their voices. Some gravitated toward wildstyle, a complex technique made up of bright, interlocking letters and shapes, while others preferred tagging, a stylized monogram. Graffiti, at its core, is a form of visual communication for the community used to tell stories and/or provide social commentary. Martha Cooper photographed the famous graffiti artist DEZ, also known as  Spade 429, better known as DJ Kay Slay “The Drama King”, created some of the most iconic works of graffiti during its early explosion in NYC. Known for his neat and technical lettering, his work stood out from the other artists of the time. He used this art form to comment on the  Black experience, with much of his work dedicated to the victims of injustices faced in the city while shining a light on issues the news didn’t. Forcing the city to acknowledge what they would tune out was graffiti’s major impact. Anyone who rode the trains was forced to engage with the message, making it impossible for people to turn a blind eye to the reality in front of them. As the city began to crack down on graffiti, DEZ took on the name Kay Slay as he branched out into different areas of Hip-Hop. Forever the drama king, his passion moved to DJing, and he would later host unforgettable battles between some of Hip-Hop’s greats (as they were emerging), such as Jay-Z, Nas, and 50Cent. We honor DJ Kay Slay, RIP, a true pioneer from the very beginning of the culture.  

Danny and Mirna at 52 Park in the South Bronx by Ricky Flores, 1984.

Breakdancers brought dance to a whole new level as they took to the streets of New York City way back when. Legendary DJ Kool Herc played a major role in the evolution of the dance form in 1973 as he made breakbeats — combining multiple drum-solo sequence sections of records for dancers to show off their moves. Undeniably unreplicable, creativity and freedom sprung from breakdancing as the dancers moved their bodies in ways never seen before. On the streets, the word “breaking” had many meanings. Some thought of it as acting energetically or causing a disturbance, but breakdancing was more than just that.

Four kids posing in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, by Jamel Shabazz, 1981.

Hip-hop is more than a genre of music; its legacy resides in its culture and its impact. Created as a creative cultural expression for Black and Latino youth, promoting self-identity and awareness of social and political issues in the country, Hip-hop is a way of life. Knowledge sits at the core of the culture — understanding the history that led up to where we are now, learning from it, and then amplifying our truths to set Hip-Hop’s trajectory onto a brighter, collective future. As a platform to express one’s views while creating a sense of community empowerment, the four elements are the foundation that ladder up to the global culture that also includes fashion, language, journalism, and so much more.

Street style and the many expressions of Hip-Hop reinforce the notion of community, empowering crews and individuals alike the space to connect and share their cultural POV. Iconic photographer Jamel Shabazz, well-known for photographing everyday life in Black communities during Hip-Hop’s emergence in the ’70s and ’80s, went beyond the aesthetics to capture the energy and spirit of the time. In this photo of young boys from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, he highlights the dignity and pride that Hip-Hop built for us all.


Martha Cooper is the master of photographing graffiti in NYC at its height. After working as a staff photographer for the New York Post for three years, Martha Cooper was exposed to hip-hop culture and began documenting graffiti and breakdancing. She consolidated her enormous composition of photos into her book “Subway Art.” This was no ordinary photography book; it was nicknamed the “bible” by graffiti artists of the time as it showed the complexity and individuality of the art. She has several other extensive books on graffiti in her name, and her work has been seen in National Geographic Magazine.

IG: Marthacoopergram


Ricky Flores has created a vast archive of street life, photographing and capturing everyday moments in NY. Born in the South Bronx in the 1980s to Puerto Rican parents Flores documented the reality of his friends and family during a time of complete upheaval in the city. For 25 years, he dedicated his time to photojournalism for The Journal News and is further recognized and celebrated for his coverage of the 9/11 attacks.     

IG: Rickyflores


Sophie Bramly is a French photographer who came to New York in her early twenties, eager to immerse herself in a foreign culture. She became fascinated with all aspects of hip-hop and engaged in the scene, forming deep connections with the people. Now as an insider, she photographed some of the biggest names in hip-hop, including DJ DST, Rock Steady Crew, Run-DMC, and Dondi. She later wanted to expand the presence of hip hop to where she is from and developed the show Yo!MTV Raps for MTV Europe.

IG: Sophoebramly


Jamel Shabazz has been capturing the energy and vibrancy of the Black community in New York City since the 1980s. As a Brooklyn-born photographer, Shabazz takes pride in showing real life and people after commenting that there was no representation of ordinary Black people in the media.  He has contributed to over three dozen photography books with his photos of street life and fashion.  His work is housed at the Whitney, the Smithsonian, the Studio Museum of Harlem, and worldwide.

IG: Jamelshabazz


Ernie Paniccioli has been capturing the essence of hip-hop in New York for decades. As a Cree Native American, he set out to highlight the stories of marginalized communities and present them to the world. Growing up in Brooklyn during the rise of hip-hop, he began photographing some of the most notorious rappers in the game. He has been praised for his extensive portfolio of crucial figures in hip-hop and has two best-selling books “Hip Hop at the End of the World” and “Who Shot Ya?” His photos have graced the pages of The Rolling Stones and the New York Times with images of Aaliyah, Tupac, and Jay Z.

IG: Erniepaniccioli


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Made possible thanks to generous gifts from NYC Council Member Crystal Hudson, Council Member Chi Ossé, and :



MoCADA is committed to giving wings to artists by bringing dynamic, contemporary African art to a broad audience through a series of highly visible artists’ projects, new commissions, installations, and exhibitions in public spaces, like this virtual gallery. Your support goes in a long way in helping MoCADA create exhibitions and other special programs that benefit the community. Click GiveMo to give a gift today. 


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