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Jay Shells Brings His Rap Quotes To Philly.

August 25, 2014

rapquotes04Text by Jay Balfour. Images by Jessica Flynn.

Last week, Jason Shelowitz parked across the street from Jimmy Jess at 60th and Market streets in a red rental car. The artist and graphic designer who goes by Jay Shells drove in from New York the night before with Aymann Ismail, a staff photographer at the website AnimalNewYork.

After posting up nearly 80 site-referencing hip-hop lyric signs between both New York and Los Angeles up to this point, the 34-year old Long Island native added 22 more of his Rap Quotes installations around Philly that day. When I met him at the El in the late morning he’d already installed more than a dozen, avoiding foot-traffic and prying eyes at sites around Center City and on South St. with an early start. Here in West Philly he has a Black Thought lyric designated for the elevated Market-Frankford Line stop.

In camo shorts and a grey Raekwon T-shirt, he grabs a plastic step-ladder and one of the signs from a bag in the car, decides on a signpost with a keep-off-the-curb sign in the middle of the street, and fastens his own below it through two of the predrilled holes in the post. Ayman photographs and Shells takes his own cell-phone picture before walking away. The process takes about a minute.

rapquotes02Spark shit / Them ni&&as try to talk shit / We hit ‘em like the El at 60th & Market” the sign reads, a lyric culled from “Adrenaline” on The Roots’ fifth album, Things Fall Apart.

“The irony is that there’s no design on these signs at all,” Shelowitz admits of the simple Trade Gothic inspired font on a red background. “They’re like hack typography to look like a street sign. I was just trying to mirror the normal municipal bullshit.”

We drive a few blocks east and he notices a Steve Powers handstyle before securing a Tone Trump rhyme referencing “54th & murder Market” to a post with another pair of bolts and Loctite. At 56th and Vine, a line of women in front of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church take interest in the Myself lyric sign he installs.

“This morning we were at 23rd and Tasker,” he says. “As soon as we walked up to the pole, this guy just started walking at us from his house like, ‘What are you doing? What are you putting up there?’ I showed it to him. He was like, ‘Okay, okay. Carry on.’ He wanted to see we weren’t doing anything weird.”

With most of the signs installed in the public eye, the real time reactions seem generally positive, though Shelowitz tells a funny story about a man angrily breaking a sign off its post on 110th and Lennox Avenue. More commonly – and especially in New York thus far, the Rap Quotes signs are stolen by fans as trophies once Shelowitz Tweets their locations. While he maintains that the project “isn’t really vandalism” in his latest AnimalNewYork feature, he also submits to the volatility inherent in any public art.

“I feel okay about it,” he says of the signs being stolen, some of which are broken in the process. “I’ve just accepted that anything you put in the wild, even if it’s graffiti on a wall someone could paint over it. Nothing’s permanent. Nothing’s sacred. So I’ve just kind of accepted it which is why the photography has become such an important part because it’s really part of a longer project where I’m gonna have a website and I’m gonna plot all these geographic lyrics that you can reference. I’m gonna just keep doing this, so I plan to get every major city in the country. So chronicling the whole thing has become really important. If the physical signs aren’t there anymore it almost won’t matter.”

rapquotes01In Los Angeles, Shelowitz promoted the project with a gallery showing and reproductions of some of his signs are being sold online through the same space. There, he encountered the first hint of what has remained an unrealized copyright fear.

“Ultimately, it’s exposure for the artists and it’s giving back to the culture,” he says. “If I started making t-shirts that would be a different story. I’ve been thinking about doing that and I would probably try to work with Action Bronson on that. He’s been really receptive of the project. He has a lyric in every city I’ve been to.”

(In this case, a pair of Bronson lines rhyming “Ishkabibbles” and “Richard Kimble” add to one of several cheesesteak references now plastered in the area.)

Shelowitz describes the process of securing lyrics for the signs as part user submitted and mostly careful listening.

“Since I knew I was coming to Philly for months, I’ve been listening to Philly hip-hop,” he says. “I’ve got a fine-tuned ear now to hear the words ‘street,’ ‘corner,’ ‘avenue,’ ‘boulevard.’ It’s a hard thing to Google. I’ve tried.

“There are artists that I knew I wanted to have represented,” he adds. “Like, Bahamadia. I’ve gotta find something [for her]. So I start Googling: Bahamadia + lyrics + avenue, Bahamadia + lyrics + street. It just didn’t work so I listened to the Bahamadia album three times in a row really closely.”

He eventually settled on a track referencing the iconic Belmont Plateau from the rapper’s debut, Kollage, one of two now posted in the same spot, ziptied instead of bolted.

Raps way back at the Plat with Superbad Disco / Used to do the freak to Patty Duke and Giggalo.”

Later, we double back to Center City to find that one of the earlier Black Thought installations from the morning is already gone. After hesitation about the location and then lunch at Sonny’s in Old City, Shells installs what might be the most daring of his Philly signs. Leaning against a fence in the bustling area within view of the Liberty Bell on 6th and Market he zipties a Danny Brown lyric against the metal and walks away: “Used to have that crack like the Liberty Bell / But now I hit chicks with lips like Estelle.”

Before driving back to Manhattan, Shelowitz installs signs bearing raps from EST of Three Times Dope, Jay Electronica, Beanie Sigel, Cassidy, Freeway, Quilly Millz, Neef, Dark Lo and more. About half of the signs represent Philly staples while as many lay claim to less celebrated intersections like 7th and Wingohocking or Haines and Morton.

Back at the Plateau, it feels like the Will Smith “Summertime” quote Shelowitz has put up alongside Bahamadia’s describes the same type of day at the park the Fresh Prince rapped about more than twenty years ago, barbeques and a deejay dotting the iconic hangout in the early afternoon. And for Shells at least, that seems to be the whole point.

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