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Fans Want to Rename Park Slope Street for Rapper Pumpkinhead

 Robert Diaz, also known as Pumpkinhead, grew up on Degraw Street and Fifth Avenue.
Fans Want to Rename Street After Rapper Who Was Proud of Park Slope Roots
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PARK SLOPE — People sometimes laughed when the rapper Pumpkinhead boasted about his Park Slope roots, but now he could get his old block named after him.

Friends and fans of Robert Diaz — the underground rapper known as Pumpkinhead who died suddenly in June at the age of 39 — hope to convince city officials to rename Degraw Street and Fifth Avenue in his honor.

Diaz grew up there and proudly rapped about his neighborhood, even as the rest of the hip-hop world bragged about ties to parts of Brooklyn with more street cred, such as Bed-Stuy and Brownsville, friends said.

"I always thought it was kind of brave of him to represent Park Slope so hard, because it had an image of being a white neighborhood and upper-middle class," said Claudia Imperiale, a longtime friend who grew up with Diaz in Park Slope.

"He would say Park Slope and people would laugh, because people think of yuppies and strollers. In the hip-hop world, Park Slope was never even a factor. He really got people to respect Park Slope."

Imperiale, who was a teacher at P.S. 39 until last year, has gathered more than 600 signatures in an online petition supporting the street renaming. She's also collecting letters of support from the hip-hop community and plans to make her case to Community Board 6 this fall.

Diaz attended P.S./M.S. 282 and M.S. 51 and lived on Degraw Street until his late teens. He devoted himself to hip-hop starting in the early '90s, performing in rap battles and releasing several solo albums. He rapped about his early days in the neighborhood in songs such as "Rock On" and "Park Slope."

“Within hip-hop, especially if you're from Brooklyn, people want to represent their neighborhood," said Rodney Willie, a longtime friend of Diaz's who co-founded the label that released Pumpkinhead's last album, MCMI Records.

"Park Slope just never gave off that hip-hop vibe, and he wanted to be that champion for the neighborhood. A lot of people respected that."

Though now known for kale-fed babies in $1,300 strollers, Pumpkinhead's Park Slope previously had a rougher edge and was home to a mini hip-hop scene, Imperiale said.

The neighborhood spawned the Brooklyn Academy hip-hop crew and Talib Kweli attended P.S. 282 with Diaz. The duo Das EFX once lived on Fifth Avenue and Second Street, Imperiale said.

She remembers local kids sitting on stoops on First Street and Seventh Avenue "having a cypher" — a rap battle. Pumpkinhead performed frequently at Southpaw, the music venue that closed in 2012 and became a NY Kids Club "children's enrichment center."

Behind-the-scenes footage from a 2011 video shoot shows Diaz visiting his old block. “It's been gentrified for years already, but it used to be the wild wild west out here,” Diaz says to the camera.

The City Council has final say on street renamings, and the process can be lengthy — it took three years to rename a Morningside Heights block after comedian George Carlin.

Imperiale feels Diaz deserves the honor in part because it would let his three children know about their father's role in hip-hop, but also because Pumpkinhead never gave up in his dreams and refused to change his music to match commercial tastes.

“It’s important for him to be remembered," Imperiale said. "There are barely any original Park Slopers left in Park Slope. He was an important part of it... He loved his art, he loved rapping, he loved doing it. It's an important message for people to not give up.”