Hip hop was born in an apartment building in the Bronx, but it grew up in New York City’s parks. In the 1970s and ’80s, DJs would steal electricity from street lamps to power their speakers, plug in two turntables and a microphone, and throw a jam. Amateur rappers gathered for freestyle sessions in parks, most famously Manhattan’s Union Square.

Join Grist as we explore the wild landscape of our cities.
Susie CagleJoin Grist as we explore the wild landscapes of our cities.

The essence of living in a dense urban area is trading private space for public space. City-dwellers don’t have sprawling suburban lawns, or often even a backyard. But they do have access to great public and semi-public places: sidewalks, stoops, and, most importantly, parks. Parks are also where people without big houses, and people who are too young or too poor to gather in bars, go to party. And hip hop is party music, invented by DJs and MCs mixing records and making up rhymes to entertain the crowd.

So it’s natural that an intensely urban art form such as hip hop was nurtured in the parks. Hip hop is filled with nostalgia for the days of park jams, before the era of aggressive policing under the “broken windows” theory led to crackdowns on anything that might be construed as public disorder. But even after the heyday of park jams was past, parks continued to play a vital role in urban life and in hip hop music. From playing basketball to chess, rap lyrics celebrate the diverse uses of great public parks.