The Hip Hop Hall of Fame will also include a museum, a hotel, and a multimedia broadcast studio, as well as educational and community outreach programmes. Blooloop caught up with the man behind the venture, James ‘JT’ Thompson.
Creator and executive producer of the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards, Thompson was one of the co-founders of the historic L.A. Gang Truce Alliance during the 1992 Riots, taking the lead in empowering community, private, and public economic development partnerships, and pushing for the National Empowerment Zones from Los Angeles, to the new Harlem USA projects.
Plans for The Hip Hop Hall of Fame were originally launched in September 1995 at Harlem’s historic restaurant Sylvia’s.
Growing up with talent
“I’m a Brooklyn-born guy, raised in Hollis in St. Albans, Queens,” Thompson tells blooloop: “Black, Rock and Ron lived on the same block as I did; around one corner was Ed Lover; down 113th was LL Cool J; Jam Master Jay and the FUBU boys grew up on the street around the corner, and, if you went another way, there were Pharoahe Monch and A Tribe Called Quest.
“That gives you an idea of the talent level I grew up with at that time. But I was a kid. At that time, none of us were who we were going to be.”
Thompson moved to Harlem later with his mother, and met his grandfather’s brother:
“He had played with Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway. I saw the pictures; his name was on the records. They played in places where they weren’t permitted to eat. I was a kid at the time when I met him, and his George Jefferson smoking jacket was incredible, but the thing is, I didn’t understand the historical context, and how would it impact my life later.”
When his mother divorced, Thompson moved to Los Angeles:
“You can imagine: going from a SHAFT environment to growing up with Crips and Bloods. It was a totally different experience.”
In all, Thompson moved 10 times, growing up.
“But I was with my mother, a strong, single mom. I played sports. I was very heavily into basketball, football.”
Thompson won championships as a young athlete. After being the National Business Delegate selection for Junior Achievement, he went on to serve in the United States Armed Forces, where he excelled in operations and leadership in the field. He also continued to shine on the basketball court, earning a full college scholarship after his honourable discharge.
After college, he explored free agent professional basketball both in the US and overseas. He then went into business as a concert promoter and television producer, a guest of former MCA/Universal artists Pebbles, and the R&B Group The Deele.
LA Gang Truce Alliance
Thompson says: “I thought I grew up poor, but you don’t know poor till you meet real poor people. My perspective changed as I became increasingly enlightened about the world around me, and I began to develop a world vision.”
When he returned from overseas in the early 90s, that childhood experience of having moved ten times to a range of diverse neighbourhoods; the experience of being an accomplished athlete; of having served abroad and seen true poverty, had all equipped him with a valuable toolkit of skills and insight.
These skills enabled him to be instrumental in helping bring about a 1992 peace agreement among rival street gangs in Los Angeles, a major factor in the decline of street violence in the city.
He worked with members of Congress, city and county government, community and ecumenical leaders and other organisations, on the nationally publicized Los Angeles Gang Truce Alliance during the L.A. Riots. He explains:
“As a hip-hop generation empowerment movement at that time, we were an organization called the R.O.Y.A.L. Alliance (The Representatives of Young African-American Leaders Youth/Students Alliance). With all the colleges and universities on our team, as well as the organizations from the streets, we were able to push change for public policy.”
The beginning of the Hip Hop Hall of Fame
“We started the public & private partnerships that later became Inner City Empowerment Zones, under President Bill Clinton, who came in to play basketball with us.
“That was all good,” he adds: “But were there any resources coming into the community? I didn’t see any. So that’s why I created the Hip Hop Hall of Fame: concerts and live entertainment with Yo-Yo, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and others. Next thing you know we added TV cameras, and there you go: the Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards gets a deal with National Syndication Group, as well as with BET Cable Network.
“I had to fly back to New York to launch the Hip Hop Hall of Fame because it is New York.”
When he was travelling, he says:
“People didn’t notice, but I was carrying mixtapes from what was Kiss FM back then, and Rap Attack with Mr Magic [John Rivas, better known to a generation of hip-hop fans as Mr Magic, died this month of a heart attack, aged just 53.] I carried those tapes everywhere I went. So, Hip Hop was a part of my life and I was an ambassador and didn’t even know it at the time.”
A bumpy road
Describing the events that made realising the Hip Hop Hall of Fame vision a lengthy process, he explains:
“When my show broadcast on BET in the 90s, after my show, Tupac was killed. Violence was coming back into the music industry. We were out doing peace again.
“I was with Russell Simmons and other community leaders around the country. It was the same thing as the gang truce. It was about bringing peace to hip hop. We thought we had it under control, and were about to announce our new TV deal when Notorious B.I.G was killed.”
The violent, tragic deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G lost the Hip Hop Hall of Fame and Museum advertisers and sponsorship clients. It made a return to the airwaves during that era impossible and put the museum building plans on hold.
I was with Russell Simmons and other community leaders around the country…It was about bringing peace to hip hop
“I lost Kraft Mac & Cheese, The Kool-Aid Man, Sprite, all the various advertisers and sponsors which kept us in business.
“The purpose of the TV show was to be like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They had 25 years’ worth of shows before they were able to open up their museum. That was the trajectory we were on. So that got cut short.”
Keeping the brand alive
While the Hall of Fame attempted a re-launch in Los Angeles in 1997, it wasn’t until 2014 that the awards could return to screens.
“We did events to keep our name and brand alive.”
He knew the museum would, given the right amount of time, be a winner.
“If you fast forward from 2000 to now,” he says: “Not only do we have the Hip Hop Hall of Fame; we are bringing back the Hall of Fame Awards next year, after COVID, but the plans for the Hip Hop Hall of Fame have transformed.
“It’s not just the Hall of Fame anymore. It’s a hotel, it’s a residential and retail mall and it’s a live entertainment venue. We are building something sustainable.”
New Hip Hop Hall of Fame development
The new Hip Hop Hall of Fame development will provide up to 200 jobs, internships, and co-branded marketing opportunities for corporate sponsors and advertisers. It will also provide educational events, job training, and outreach programs, serving around 1,000,000 fans, visitors, tourists, and students annually.
Our brand has the ability to galvanize communities and peoples from all walks of life, all cultures, all creeds around socioeconomic empowerment, under the banner of hip hop
“We’re rebranding, and moving into just being known as the Hip Hop Hall of Fame. We will still have the Hip Hop Hall of Fame and Museum, but, from a brand perspective, it’s important everybody understands there’s only one Hip Hop Hall of Fame in the world.”
The timing, he feels, couldn’t be more relevant:
“Our brand has the ability to galvanize communities and peoples from all walks of life, all cultures, all creeds around socioeconomic empowerment, under the banner of hip hop. That is what our brand is about now.
We are moving from just protesting towards opening up businesses; towards channelling those resources into real-estate development, and housing projects. I believe that our project could be a catalyst. We’re opening up to investors; institutional investors, artists, and celebrities can now invest and own a piece of the hotel.
“The museum is non-profit, but will benefit from the for-profit entities on the side.”
Education and outreach
The Hip Hop Hall of Fame will provide educational programmes and outreach with its mascot, B-Boy Scratch and friends, mentoring over 25,000 NYC public school children.
“B-Boy Scratch,” Thompson says, “Is our own Mickey mouse. I’ve co-authored a book that will also come out as an animation piece, to connect with the young kids.
“The messaging is more than just PSAs. It will address not talking to strangers and not doing drugs, but it’s also about being relevant to today’s world. Today’s world is totally different from when we grew up. We used to be able to catch the bus and go anywhere. Now it’s kind of different.”
“We have also partnered with Thrive Collective, to create hope and opportunity through arts and mentoring in public schools. Our educational outreach is in over 60 schools. But, due to COVID, a lot of that programming is turning into virtual programming.
“Over the last three or four years, working with Thrive, we’ve been able to help create 50 murals where the kids come in and be a part of making the schools, the community, the parks, beautiful with murals as an example of hip hop arts and education.
“That’s what we’re about as a museum and education institution.”
Moving onto the next phase
In terms of timescale, when COVID struck, the decision had already been made not to break ground on the development this year.
“We had already told everyone early on when we put out an RFQ for an architect,” Thompson says.
Sir David Adjaye, the ‘hip hop architect’ will be a consultant on the project:
“We’re opening it up for a new architect to come in and put the finishing touches on what the facility should look like. That will be taken care of by the end of the year; the property acquisition should be complete by February, and we should be able to break ground next year.
We are on track to open late 2023, and no later than 2024. Phase one right now is complete
“We are on track to open late 2023, and no later than 2024. Phase one right now is complete. The acquisition of our site, the launch of the IPO, bringing as many folks for wealth creation in that we can. We will shortly be announcing a major capital fund-raising piece.”
The work will be carried out in accordance with COVID safety guidelines:
“Safety is important, but we want to position ourselves to incorporate all these things in an in an environmentally friendly, sustainable facility.”
Thompson predicts that the positive socioeconomic impact will be huge, generating around $350 million for the City of New York within the first three years, from on-site and off-site programming, tourism, B2B local commerce, consumer spending in the Tri-State area.
The project will create jobs, and create futures:
“That’s what we’re excited about. The hotel gives us an opportunity to have a management program for minorities to get into hospitality. The residential component allows us to also train others in property management.
“With the live entertainment venue, not only do we showcase hip hop music and entertainment, but it also becomes a venue that we can expand upon to do things in other venues, and to create further properties around the world.
“With the museum, which will be approximately 50,000 feet, our mission is to preserve, archive, showcase and highlight hip hop music and culture past, present, and future.
“We will have a plethora of exhibits in rotation. Different floors of memorabilia, showcasing everything from music, film, sports, television, to the history from the DJs to B-boys and B-girls, the MCs, the groups, the graffiti artists, the entrepreneurs and fashion folks.”
The Hip Hop Hall of Fame goes online
Since the COVID pandemic, the enterprise has been expanding into the digital space.
“We have a brand-new website being developed. COVID has provided a whole new opportunity for us from a content perspective, from an educational perspective. We realise that some of the things we were doing in the classroom can now be done virtually, so we’re now transforming that into an actual curriculum so we’ll be able to engage with schools not just in the Tristate area, but around the country and around the world.”
— Hip Hop Hall of Fame (@HipHopHoF) August 20, 2019
“It’s a learning curve, but I see the digital space, especially regarding exhibits and memorabilia, as another layer. Once we start putting some of those things in place, we’re going to have a two-tier operation: a continuous digital operation, as well as a brick and mortar one.”
A global reach will, he envisages, work towards bringing down barriers, and forging connections:
“Music is a way to bring people together from all walks of life, whether you love to beat, you love the lyrics. Me, I grew up with hip hop, but I also grew up with RNB, soul and funk. I was exposed to jazz, and, believe it or not, when Run-DMC did Walk This Way, we started listening to some rock.
The power of music
“Music takes you into different places. When you go visit other cultures and you see the family unification around festivities and dances, you get to appreciate other cultures and other people. That is what the Hip Hop Hall of Fame is about. How do we bridge those gaps?
“I don’t care if you’re in London, in Paris, in Denmark, in Moscow, in Tokyo, Brazil, the Caribbean or Iceland. Somebody in Hip Hop loves you there.”
“We started this thing with the pioneers of hip hop: DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and The Universal Zulu Nation; Grandmaster Flash.
Music takes you into different places.
“We announced back in the 90s that we wanted to make sure the pioneers would remain involved. And we’re keeping our word. We are going to be announcing the fact that we’re going to put together a $3 million fund from the stock offering to help support the pioneers.
“Some of them don’t have health care, some need housing. There are so many other disparities that we’re not even aware of. I think it’s important that we as hip hop take responsibility for our own. As the NFL does with its players.”
The Hip Hop Hall of Fame aims to inspire a new generation
He concludes: “Our goal is to inspire a whole new generation. This has been a labour of love for me. We rode the roller coaster; hip hop went up, went down and up again, and down. As the Hip Hop Hall of Fame, we felt, ‘Hey, we’re here, and no one’s listening.’
“It has been hard, but we’ve been fortunate enough to galvanize our brand, know exactly who we are, and now we’re in demand.
“We have a perspective and a plan of action. One which is built on bringing hip hop communities together, the artists, celebrities, athletes, music, film, sportspeople, community organizations, community leaders, those on the front lines and the first-line responders.
“What we are doing with this project is shining a light that we can kindle in other cities, in other countries, bringing people together. That is what is important, and what is driving us for the future.”