Keen-eyed Angelenos may have seen official-looking red street signs pop up all over the Southland, from Long Beach to Malibu, in recent weeks. But upon closer inspection, the signs clearly aren’t government-issued. Rather, they are emblazoned with hip-hop lyrics as part of a guerrilla street art project.
The signs are installations from "The Rap Quotes" by New York artist Jay Shells, who places the often-inconspicuous signs at site-specific locations mentioned in rap lyrics.
Shells was inspired to start the project 2½ years ago, after listening to Big L’s seminal track “Lifestylez ov da Poor and Dangerous,” in which the rapper references a park in Harlem. Since then, "The Rap Quotes" have crisscrossed the country numerous times. Shells estimates that he’s hung up more than 100 signs in Los Angeles County and the surrounding area, including 28 in late July alone. Many of the city’s prominent native sons have been featured, including Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and DJ Quik.
“The best part about it is that it’s as much about the location as it is about the emcee saying it,” Shells says. “There’s obviously a connection between the sound of the music and the location. It’s great to be in that neighborhood listening to the music that’s from there and really feeling it and why it sounds the way it does.”
During his most recent trip to L.A., Shells concentrated on the lyrics of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube and N.W.A to commemorate the release of the new biopic Straight Outta Compton.
In the best cases, the quotes evoke vivid imagery. You can picture Eazy-E riding low in a Cadillac, the dank smell of marijuana in the air, police paranoia on full tilt, when he rapped, “Ridin’ on Slauson looking for Crenshaw/Turned down the sound, to ditch the law” on N.W.A’s “8 Ball,” a lyric that Shells put up at that intersection.
While cross-streets or blocks are popularly referenced, other times it’s a local landmark that gets the shoutout, such as Inglewood’s Randy’s Donuts, South Central’s Snooty Fox Motor Inn or Mid-City’s Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles, to name just a few.
“When Ice Cube talks about Staples Center to hang with the Lakers," Shells says, referencing the song “Nothing Like L.A.,” "that’s a lot different than when he’s talking about Van Ness and Imperial in 'Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,' which is an otherwise unspectacular South Central intersection. But because he put it in a song, he put it on the map. It makes it a part of musical history.”
The Rap Quotes signs are ephemeral; most get stolen not long after Shells puts them up, creating an urban treasure hunt for hip-hop heads and street art collectors. But the project’s lasting impact is how it serves as a touchstone and entry point into the issue of gentrification and how neighborhoods evolve. The most poetic hip-hop lyrics serve as a time capsule of the zeitgeist in the streets.
“This old lady came up to me after I hung a sign right by a church in Watts and she said she remembered that incident the lyrics referenced, but now the neighborhood’s changed and she doesn’t have to worry about her granddaughter walking to school,” Shells says.
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As the number of signs has increased, so has the scope of the project. Shells has experimented with large-scale wheatpastes on billboards and hanging vinyl posters on bus shelters so more people can see them, hopefully seek out the song and maybe even learn a little civics lesson in the process.
“This whole thing is really about the emcees, for hip-hop fans and for all the neighborhoods,” Shells says. “This is my contribution to the culture that I love.”