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An Interview About The Rap Quotes Project With Artist Jay Shells

The story behind a unique art installation that brings famous rap lyrics to the exact locations mentioned in the songs.

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Photo: Courtesy of Jay Shells

The Rap Quotes project by Jay Shells is a unique art installation that brings famous rap lyrics to the exact locations mentioned in the songs. Using colorful street signs, Jay Shells places the lyrics at specific sites in various cities, creating a visual connection between the music and the urban environment. This creative project blurs the lines between art, music, and the cityscape, allowing passersby to experience their favorite rap lyrics in a whole new way while exploring the neighborhoods that inspired the music.

In 2023, in celebration of Hip Hop At 50, Jay collaborated with Universal Music Group and the L.I.S.A. Project to install a new collection of signs. Check out a video here that details the project. Shells: “I’m honored to collaborate with Universal Music Group and the L.I.S.A. Project to celebrate 50 years of the music that raised me, and the culture that I love so much. It means the world to me that I get to contribute my artwork and take part, even in a small way, to the movement of Hip Hop. Here’s to the next 50!”

Ten years ago, the graphic designer Jay Shells was working on a painting while Harlem rapper Big L’s 1995 debut Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous was playing in the background. Rapping in characteristically cocksure fashion over Lord Finesse’s low-slung loops, at one point Big L issues a stark warning: “On 139 and Lennox Ave. there’s a big park/ And if you’re soft don’t go through it when it gets dark.” The geographical specificity of the MC’s lyrics sparked an idea in Shells’s head that quickly bloomed into a project he named Rap Quotes.

“It was a song I’d heard countless times before, but I just thought it would be so cool to put the actual lyric in the actual place somehow,” recalls Shells, who was living in New York City at the time. “What a cool campaign it would be to go and commemorate all the places mentioned in rap lyrics in the exact place. It was a time before the term meta was used as frequently as it is now, but at the time I just sort of realized how cool for the hip-hop fan that meta aspect could be, to actually put the lyric in the place.”

After emailing a few rap aficionado friends about ideas for lyrics to consider, Shells set about making Rap Quotes a reality. Shells picked a red and white design template similar to New York City parking notices, and emblazoned the aluminum placards with lyrics mentioning specific locales, locations and street names. Then Shells set about placing the signs in their precise lyrical places of reference.

Along with Big L’s quote about Fred Samuel Playground in Harlem, Shells’s inaugural batch of 15 signs included East New York MC Jeru The Damaja‘s reference to the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station in downtown Brooklyn that turns out to be the grounds for a treacherous set-up in the comic book-styled “You Can’t Stop The Prophet.” Technically, Jeru’s sign holds the honor of being the debut Rap Quotes installment.

Since its initial run, the Rap Quotes project has seen 200 signs go up in New York, around 100 in Los Angeles, plus more compact campaigns in Houston, Oakland, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. The roll call of lyrics honored in the Rap Quotes series includes anthemic words from golden era icons MC Shan and KRS-One, uncompromising couplets from Los Angeles wordsmith Blu and Canarsie gore-master Necro, plus widely known brags from mainstream fixtures Drake, Snoop Dogg, and Nicki Minaj. (Without mentioning names, Shells also says he’s come across more than a few rap lyrics that are effectively geographical typos: “It’s usually surprising. It’s like, as a New Yorker, how do you not know your own neighborhood?”)

Early on, Shells discovered that as soon as he’d place new Rap Quotes signs in public places, they’d inevitably be stolen by eager-eyed hip-hop junkies. “People have sent me links of my stuff on eBay. That’s cool, that’s flattering,” says Shells. “The project is illegal so, honestly, people stealing them has kept me out of trouble. In any of the cities, if the local law enforcement wanted to make an example of me, it’s all over the internet and the nature of the project literally tells you where the signs are!”

Reflecting on the continued popularity of Rap Quotes, Shells simply says he personally thought it was an interesting idea and was convinced there would be enough like-minded hip-hop fans who pride themselves on having formed a mental map of regional hip-hop hubs based on song lyrics. Shells adds there’s an inherent landmark element to the hip-hop lyrics he spotlights that can cause inquisitive fans to seek out the referenced spots in the same way as some tourists go to New York City to gawk at the Empire State Building.

Building on the regional appeal of Rap Quotes, Shells says he’s currently readying a Chicago-themed run of signs to be installed around the city. Then, with a self-deprecating laugh, he notes how he may be a graphic designer by trade, but the Rap Quotes signs “are no stellar piece of design.” That’s a deliberate decision to bolster their impact. “They’re very red and white and municipal-looking and boring,” says Shells. “It pains me a little bit that the project I’m most known for is very purposely a very poorly designed piece of material – but that’s intentional so they blend into the landscape a little bit, so it’s like a treasure hunt.”

Hip-Hop 50 logo

In celebration of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, uDiscover Music is proud to work with Urban Legends throughout 2023 that highlight the breadth and depth of the genre. The Hip-Hop 50 logo was designed by Eric Haze, the mind behind iconic graphics for EPMD and LL Cool J.

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