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Crotona Park Jams Summons the Swagger of Hip-Hop's Early Years

By Patrick Wall | July 13, 2012 3:04pm
A break dancer at the Crotona Park Jam on July 12, 2012. The annual event harkens back to hip hop's early years.
A break dancer at the Crotona Park Jam on July 12, 2012. The annual event harkens back to hip hop's early years.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

CLAREMONT VILLAGE — Pristine Adidas sneakers, Kangol hats and oversize tees. Break dancers haloed by a ring of spectators. James Brown spun to a different beat.

It was a vintage park jam Thursday evening in Crotona Park — the old-school grooves mingling with backslaps and belly laughs just as they did more than 30 years ago when hip-hop was born at parties just like this.

“The majority of people who come out were part of the original era when hip-hop was created,” said Meiling Viera-Delgado, president of Friends of Crotona Park. “Except that now they have permits.”

Now in its 10th year, Crotona Park Jams has become a reunion of sorts, reconnecting some of hip-hop’s founding fathers — disc jockeys such as Biz Markie, GrandWizzard Theodore and Afrika Bambaataa — with its earliest disciples, many of them now in their middle age.

Christie Z-Paboń remembers talking her mother into shuttling her and her best friend, Ronda, to a record store in 1980s Uniontown, Pennsylvania, so that the budding hip-hop enthusiasts could snatch up every rap album for sale.

Today, Z-Paboń coordinates a nationwide DJ battle and, with Friends of Crotona Park, co-organizes the Crotona Park Jams with her husband, Jorge Fabel Paboń, through their hip-hop promotion company, Tools of War.

“It was kind of a dream to create the classic park jams of the 70s and 80s that I missed,” Z-Paboń said Thursday.

She may have missed the original jams, but most of the free event’s attendees did not.

Among those coursing through the crowd was Joe Conzo Jr., an EMT in the city’s Fire Department who also happens to have been the personal photographer for one of hip hop’s earliest rap crews, the Cold Crush Brothers, when they cut their teeth in the early 80s at venues like Disco Fever and St. Martin’s, a Catholic school whose gym doubled as a rap incubator.

“Going to one of these jams,” Conzo said Thursday, camera dangling from his neck, “is like being transported back in time.”

Nearby stood Dr. Duss The Mixologist, who started scratching records in the Mill Brook Houses in the 1970s. He and his crew, CC and Company, battled rival MCs in their high school lunchroom.

“There were no rap records when we started the game,” said Dr. Duss, 50, who still rents an apartment in Mill Brook. “It was who could find the baddest beats.”

Perched beside his glinting low-rider bike, sat Albin “Albee” Arzu, 43, who recalled sitting with fellow graffiti artists in the 1980s near the train tracks in Mott Haven, pointing out their handiwork as it blew by on the sides of subway cars.

He still writes graffiti, but now his canvases are living room walls and T-shirts, not alleyways and trains.

“You won’t catch me in the streets no more,” Arzu said.

The annual festival, which runs on Thursdays in July, attracts hundreds of New Yorkers, many from The Bronx, as well as visitors from as far away as Florida, the UK and Japan.

Still, some of the regulars lamented today’s limited interest in the history of hip-hop, which began in The Bronx but has become a worldwide phenomenon.

“These are the dudes who laid the foundation for a multibillion dollar enterprise,” said Muhammad Islam, a leader of the Zulu Warriors, the security team for the Universal Zulu Nation, the influential hip-hop cultural movement founded in 1973 by Afrika Bambaataa.

And yet, the event’s DJs — Lord Finesse, GrandMaster Caz and Popmaster Fabel — are likely to be recognized mainly by old-timers and dedicated hip-hop heads.

“It’s a shame that someone like my son, who can recite Lil Wayne or Young Jeezy, doesn’t know who Afrika Bambaataa is,” said Conzo.

But, of course, that isn’t true for all of today’s hip-hop aficionados.

Nelson “Chief 69” Seda, 21, is a Bronx-based b-boy, graffiti artist and MC who models his look, his sound and his swag off of hip-hop’s original practitioners.

For him, Thursday’s event reverberated the way the old CBGB’s or the 1969 festival at Woodstock might for devotees of a different culture.

“This is the closest you could get to the original park jams,” Seda said. “It’s a beautiful thing to see.”