The Times May 23, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Ginny Dougary and teenage sons take a guided tour of Harlem and the Bronx to find the roots of hip-hop

ginny and sons at the wall of fame

So there I am with my solid crew, two teenage sons and me in Kangol berets, dripping in bling, on loan from our hosts Grandmaster Caz and Reggie Reg, the grandaddies of hip-hop, manoeuvring our way through Harlem and the Bronx in a tour bus rapping to “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”.

What a great way to start a family holiday in New York. Caz (short for Casanova) is an A* teacher; no slacking permitted as he fires out questions, checks whether his pupils have been listening, points out places of interest — where such and such a gangsta rapper was shot dead (“We always pause here to pay a little love . . . a little respect”) — and lists the four cornerstones of hip-hop culture: the DJ, the MC, breakdancing and graffiti. And then there’s the clothes.

“What’s the difference between fashion and style?” Headmaster Caz asks. To my astonishment, son No 2 puts up his hand: “Style isn’t what you wear, it’s how you wear it.” “Excellent answer,” Caz replies.

Our first stop is the playground of an empty school in Harlem, walls ablaze with cartoon figures and slogans, which has been dubbed the Graffiti Wall of Fame. Caz, who does most of the talking, finds it amazing that what was once considered an “outlaw” activity has been transformed into Art — depending on who’s doing it and where it’s displayed.

We learn how hip-hop started on August 11, 1973, when Kool Herc (whose father was a DJ in Jamaica and taught his son that James Brown was god) decided that his Party Must Go On.

After several nights of booming music that could be heard three blocks away, “it started getting out of hand”, Caz says, and the party moved from a tiny living room to nearby Cedar Park, which is where things became creative.

He leads us to what looks like a lamppost and says: “We needed electricity so you open this up and inside is a ‘thingummyjig’. You go to a hardware store and get a ‘thingummybob’ and you plug the thingummybob into the thingummyjig and you’re away. So the authoriteee of New York Citeee unwittingleee kickstarted hip-hop.”

Soon hip-hop parties were taking place all over the boroughs, from its birthplace in the Bronx to Brooklyn and Harlem — the boom box became known as “the Harlem briefcase” — while the Manhattanites remained in thrall to square old disco.

The first hip-hop single to enter the Top 40 was the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in 1979, and the original words were written by none other than our tour leader who performs the number for us on the bus, urging us to sing along to his “signature” line: “I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, the rest is F-L-Y”. Grandmaster Caz fought successfully to get a writer’s credit but has never received a cent in royalties; all the more reason to book a ride on his illuminating, and massively fun, tour.

After we are deposited, now sadly bling and beret-less, the boys (boyz?) and I walk down the streets of Harlem, all the way to our serviced appartment near Times Square. This is something of a nostalgia-fest since the last time I spent any time in Harlem was back in 1981 when the boys’ father, Bruce, and I were in New York as part of an extended honeymoon.

He ended up working on 125th street, the main vein of Harlem, selling fruit and vegetables from a stall with Gillie who — a quarter of a century later — is the photographer for this trip.

Harlem, then, was considered something of a no-go area for many native New Yorkers. Bruce would always take the subway to work from our studio sublet in Greenwich Village, since most yellow cab drivers simply refused the fare.

Our Harlem circle of friends and acquaintances tended to be in a less respectable line of work than our downtown gang, and their recreational habits were more self-destructive. Manchu, the fruit-and-vege boss, was an engaging figure who lived on a diet of Thunderbird wine and various heavy-duty drugs which, sadly, did for him in the end.

The Apollo Theatre, Cotton Club and Lenox Lounge, whose heyday was in the 1930s, are still in operation and thrive under the new tourism, as does Sylvia’s famous soul food restaurant.

The Body Shop, The Gap and other international brands have long since moved in, along with Bill Clinton’s headquarters, and the magnificent brownstone terraced houses that were once derelict and used as shooting galleries for junkies (Manchu once offered me a look around, but I declined) are restored and selling for millions.

On Sunday we returned to Harlem on a gospel tour. On our way to church we stopped to admire a number of striking historical buildings which, rather shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of as a twentysomething. Sylvan Terrace is a double row of wooden two-storey houses, very quaint with their ivy-green shutters, built in 1882 across a cobblestoned street.

This was the carriage drive for a substantial Georgian mansion, Mount Morris, built in 1765 for Colonel Roger Morris, a Royalist, and his Dutch wife. George Washington used it as his headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. In 1810 the wealthy French-Caribbean wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his wife, Eliza Bowen, restored it.

Jumel died in mysterious circumstances, according to our guide, and his widow — who had become the richest person in New York — went on to marry Aaron Burr, Vice-President to Thomas Jefferson, in the front parlour.

The church service, itself, was a bit of a letdown and too long for our unGodbothering tastes. I loved the way the congregation dressed up and the warm, sprawling family atmosphere. But the gospel singing was distinctly tame (its members, we were told, are recovering addicts) and not a patch on the choir I saw at a gospel brunch in Jimmy’s, a celebrity hangout in Harlem in the late Nineties. The singers were ultra-lively and rejoiced in such bonkers lyrics as “My Lord is a washing machine”.

The rest of our week was packed with all the enjoyable New York clichés: the free entertainment of opera-singing, rollerblading show-offs in Central Park; carb-filled breakfasts in the Empire Diner; oysters in Grand Central station; the Rockettes in Radio City Hall; jazz in the West Village; Polish food in the East Village; ice- skating at the Rockefeller Centre.

After a break in Philadelphia we returned for a last night at the Mandarin hotel in a suite of Madame Jumel-like luxury. The boys were thrilled with their eyrie views of Central Park. The staff, with the minimum of fuss, converted the sofas into beds while we were dining downstairs and both sons pronounced the hamburgers “excellent” and the female diners “fit”.

Earlier, I had a half-a-day in the company of a personal shopper, Deanna, who picked me up in a white stretch limo. We were, alas, a mismatch; she being a willowy Sex and the City girl, while I am more Rosemary and Thyme (not Felicity Kendal, the other one).

Deanna was frank: my look “definitely needed updating”. Thus I found myself, in slight panic mode, buying absurdly feminine shoes, a white coat and Prada boots, most of which have remained in the wardrobe. I should have listened more carefully to the hip-hop headmaster or, indeed, my son: “It’s not what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it.”

Bang that, shoppers, to the boogie, boogie beat.

Getting there

The Mandarin Oriental (001 212 805 8800, www.mandarinoriental.com/newyork), 80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, has double rooms from £515 a night including breakfast.

Hush Hip Hop Tours (001 212 209 3370, www.hushhiphoptours.com) of Harlem are $50pp.

Fashion Junkie (www.fashionjunkie.com) offers four-hour guided walking tours from $100pp, and private shopping from $275pp including transport.

Further information NYC & Company (020-7367 0934, www.nycgo.com).

Virgin Atlantic (0844 8747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Heathrow to New York from £315 return.

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