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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Stakes Its Evolution On Hip Hop Revolution

MOUNT VERNON, New York -- Across the street, jobless men playing checkers in the shade look over at the old Fourth Avenue Firehouse and see crumbling brick, padlocked garage doors and boarded-up windows. Mayor Ernest Davis sees the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame.

He sees big Hollywood-style induction nights. He sees rotating exhibits of memorabilia from rappers like LL Cool J, Heavy D, Mary J. Blige and Doug E. Fresh. He sees shows that relate hip-hop culture to African history.

And he sees hope for the desolate neighborhood: "coffee shops, artists' galleries, new sidewalks, new streetlights."

"It looks like a building but it's not," Davis said outside the 94-year-old firehouse, vacant since the 1960s. "It's an idea."

The idea is to latch on to the wildly popular rap music culture for a project that will attract Mount Vernon's youth away from drugs and crime and serve as an anchor for the renewal of its toughest neighborhood.

The city of 67,000, just north of the New York City borough of the Bronx, is using a $500,000 federal grant to start the project. Davis is confident of getting more grant money and contributions, especially from wealthy hip-hop performers and executives, several of whom have ties to the city.

"In rap, they call this city 'money-earnin' Mount Vernon,'" the mayor said, quoting a bit of rhymed hip-hop slang.

"But," he added, "we don't keep the money."

Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, an industry titan who grew up in Mount Vernon, and his mother have already spoken to the mayor about helping out. Combs has earmarked some personal rap paraphernalia for the museum, including the desk on which his first big record deal was signed, Davis said. Heavy D, who spent his formative years in the city, is also expected to play a part.

Kirk Burrowes, who manages hip-hop queen Mary J. Blige, said a museum might educate today's artists, "who are making tons and tons of money off hip-hop and might not even know how far back this thing goes." How far back it goes is apparently up for debate. Akiba Solomon, national affairs editor at the hip-hop magazine The Source, said some trace the start of hip-hop to 1979 and the first rap hit, "Rapper's Delight," by the Sugar Hill Gang. But Burrowes said the roots of hip-hop can be found in '20s and '30s swing dancing.

The culture's giant, Burrowes said, is Kool Herc, a reggae-influenced Jamaican disc jockey who began talking over the music while playing records at dance parties in Bronx parks in the mid-1970s.

Hip-hop is about much more than music. Wendy Goldstein, senior vice president for artists and repertoire at MCA Records, said she'd like to see separate wings at the museum for "great graffiti artists, great break dancers, great DJs."

That vision may be a bit grander than what's available at the three-story firehouse. The mayor wants to reserve the upper floors for job-training classes.

Davis said he will involve young people in the planning, construction and operation of the museum, which he said could open next year. He has already recruited teens from a shelter to lug 30 years of debris from the ground floor.

"You have to give these kids a reason to see past the next shooting or shoot-up," he said. "Make them think they'll live past next year, stay out of jail. Then, if they begin to think that maybe they'll be around a while, they'll want to look around and contribute. I want to treat these people as resources, not adversaries."

Davis, 61, says his own musical tastes run to Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

"Hip hop is not my culture," he says, "but if you want to change people you have to reach them where they are."