For "hip-hop architect" Michael Ford, rap holds the key to a just society

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      In what is arguably one of hip-hop’s most recognized, sampled, and quoted tracks, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s Melvin Glover—aka Melle Mel—and producer Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher offer a frank account of their lived environment within seconds of the song’s pulsating opening: “Broken glass everywhere / People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don't care,” Mel raps over a groovy drum-machine beat. “I can't take the smell, can't take the noise / Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.”

      Over the next five minutes of “The Message”, the duo describe, in detail, the strands of inner-city poverty: the rats and cockroaches that infest their residence, the “junkies in the alley with a baseball bat” they must contend with, and the nearby parks they’re reluctant to walk through at night because “it’s crazy after dark”. Released in 1982, the tune gave way to a wave of socially conscious rap anthems that similarly called attention to substandard living conditions: “Ain’t no trees, the grass ain’t green,” Snoop Dogg laments in the 1999 track “Life in the Projects”; “Ghetto poverty, fuck the housing authority,” asserts Inspectah Deck and Street Life in the Wu-Tang Clan’s “S.O.S.” Even today, long after the so-called “golden age of hip-hop”, rap music is rife with references to slums and time spent hustlin’ to escape the ’hood.

      For Wisconsin-based designer Michael Ford, these searing narratives are no coincidence. Rappers don’t just rap about settings they happen to find themselves in; they rap about settings that are built from poor urban planning and design—those that inadvertently birthed hip-hop culture. “Rap music, as I see it, is a critique of the lived environment,” Ford tells the Straight by phone ahead of his appearance at this year’s IDS Vancouver, happening at the Vancouver Convention Centre’s West building and various Vancouver venues from Tuesday to Sunday (September 18 to 23). “All the lyrics we hear—these are artists who are describing their neighbourhoods, the buildings they grew up in, where they go to school, where they spend their time. And those spaces and places were designed by someone.”

      Dubbing himself the “hip-hop architect”, Ford—a confessed rap head who grew up on N.W.A, Jay-Z, and Yasiin Bey—has dedicated his academic career to researching the insidious connections between hip-hop and architecture. According to the University of Detroit Mercy grad, the establishment and proliferation of low-income public-housing developments around the United States in the ’50s and ’60s—coupled with racist and restrictive policies that displaced many people of colour to these spaces—created a fertile breeding ground for hip-hop and rap, a genre in which such dwellings continue to be arraigned by disenfranchised communities today.

      Detroit-born designer Micheal Ford shares his research surrounding the underlying relationship between hip-hop and architecture in a TEDxMadison talk.

      Devised in New York City by American builder Robert Moses based on plans from Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, these inner-city residences resembled “monotonous brick towers” that boasted no amenities, argues Ford, and housed high concentrations of minority populations in a way that encouraged violence and made improving one’s socioeconomic status difficult. In fact, 1520 Sedgewick Avenue, a colourless apartment complex in the Bronx constructed at the suggestion of Moses in 1967, is accepted by many as the birthplace of hip-hop, thanks to the parties that Clive Campbell—better known as DJ Kool Herc—hosted in its recreation room in the early ’70s.

      “With the racial tensions and the lack of programming in communities of colour, hip-hop was bound to happen,” Ford contends. “This [these buildings] just helped it happen faster.”

      The influence of design and architecture in the emergence and shaping of hip-hop culture means there is much we can learn from the lyrical content of rap in regards to building environments that better serve marginalized groups. We just have to be willing to listen and take action, emphasizes Ford. “We’ve fallen in love with the way the rappers tell the stories, but we haven’t heard the stories they’re telling,” he explains. “And, by that, I mean: instead of saying, ‘Give me another story about your vandalized houses, your neighbourhood, or the drugs in your community,’ our response should’ve been ‘I need to come into your neighbourhood and help you.’ ”

      Through the establishment of his Hip-hop Architecture Camp, Ford is challenging others—especially youth—to respond constructively to the housing issues voiced in rap. Using hip-hop culture as a catalyst to familiarize underrepresented groups with the realms of architecture and design, the camp’s workshops ask its tween and teen participants to engage with lyrics from rap songs like “The Message” by erecting model buildings from Lego that remedy the spatial concerns outlined by artists, for example. Attendees may also craft their own rap verses, film a music video, or learn the basics of Tinkercad, a program that allows users to create 3-D digital designs.

      Designer Michael Ford works with participants at one of his Hip-hop Architecture Camp workshops in Boston.

      By introducing youths to fields they may otherwise not consider, Ford hopes to inspire more people of colour to pursue careers in architecture, urban planning, and design—three disciplines that are severely lacking in diversity. “Right now, we experience space from predominantly a white male perspective,” notes Ford. “There are very few women, very few minorities that are in urban planning and architecture. In the U.S., less than three percent of architects are African-American, so the spaces and places that we are experiencing are not from a variety of perspectives. And if the professionals can’t have this sensibility or empathy for communities that they don’t know about, then we’ll constantly create these environments that lend themselves to the harsh critiques of hip-hop.”

      In addition to serving as a keynote speaker on IDS Vancouver’s Trade Day (September 21), when he’ll take to the stage to stress the importance of listening to the experiences and analyses of end users in architecture, Ford will conduct a hip-hop architecture workshop in downtown Vancouver as part of the design festival’s new youth programming. Open to children aged 11 to 14, the five-hour class will explore architecture through the lens of hip-hop and offer various activities in the pursuit of what Ford calls “design justice”.

      “The goal is not to change rap music,” he states. “The goal is to get people to create better environments. And what I believe about young people is that they have spent their entire young lives listening to rap music, which is nothing but a critique. So they’ve heard this critique over and over from various voices, from different people….And if you can entice them to extract those ideas, they are ones that will make their neighbourhoods better.”

      Given that the roots and content of rap haven’t changed much since “The Message” hit airwaves more than three decades ago, Ford figures he can’t do any worse than architecture’s dismal three-percent statistic. “It’s looking at a problem and it’s going about the solution in a different way,” Ford says of his Hip-hop Architecture Camp. “Because, right now, the profession works for a certain population. It’s always attracting the same people or the same demographic. And what I’m trying to do is turn it completely on its head.”

      IDS Vancouver presents Michael Ford’s hip-hop architecture workshop at the Vancouver Convention Centre’s West building on Saturday (September 22), from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Registration is $20. For details, click here.

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.