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The MediaShift Innovation Spotlight looks in-depth at one great mash-up, database, mapping project or multimedia story that combines technology and journalism in useful ways. These projects can be at major newspaper or broadcast sites, or independent news sites or blogs. The main spotlights will run every other week, with mini-spotlights running on the off-weeks.

What It Is

BronxRhymes is an attempt to raise awareness of the history of hip-hop in the Bronx, the northwestern borough of New York City where the musical style is thought to have originated. The history of hip-hop is illustrated through rhymes and plotted on an online map.

Why It’s Innovative

The creators specifically set out to create a connection between the physical, digital and mobile planes. The website features a map of the Bronx and an archive of contributed rhymes. They then put up posters near the physical locations marked on the online map, describing the location’s relevance to hip-hip history in a rhyme. The posters also challenged passersby to respond via SMS with their own rhymes about the location, the people who made it famous, or hip-hop in general. The project captures the battle tradition of hip-hop, while informing the community through multiple mediums.

But in addition to all the cool technology, what really caught my attention was the way that the project’s motivation and technology is conceptually in line with the tradition of “underground” hip-hop. For example, communicating via SMS instead of instant messenger or Twitter — the Bronx is a poor neighborhood, where many locals are more likely to have access to a cell phone than to a computer. The emphasis on SMS makes it possible for even those without computers to respond to the rhymes. They’ve “tagged” these historical locations — note the parallel between the context of tagging in underground hip-hop (with graffiti) and its use online.

The hallmark of underground hip-hop is that sense of locality; contrast that with mainstream hip-hop which strives to appeal to the largest possible market while still paying lip service to locality. There may also be some community-building power lurking in BronxRhymes’ technology.

Who’s Behind It

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Claudia Bernett

Masha Ioveva and Claudia Bernett are interaction designers at R/GA, an interactive marketing agency. They had been kicking around the idea of uncovering interesting places in music history when they responded to a call from the Bronx Council on the Arts. Ioveva and Bernett wanted to “create a game-like experience, mixing digital and physical.” Thus began their study of hip-hop in the Bronx.

After reading Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang, the pair arrived at the conclusion that the Bronx is the birthplace of hip-hop. They got in touch with Mark Naison, a professor of history and African American studies at Fordham University who connected them with community organizers and local MCs.

Although Ioveva and Bernett didn’t get the grant from the Bronx Council on the Arts, they did receive one from Turbulence, a Boston-based digital arts organization that sponsors about 20 projects a year.

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Masha Ioveva

The original rhymes for each location were written by coworker Steve Caputo, a copywriter and hip-hop fanatic, along with Caputo’s friend, Brett Hill. Although they tried to get artists from the community to contribute, it was difficult to find rhymes that fit because each one had to fulfill three requirements: It had to rhyme, be 160 characters and encapsulate facts about the locations. However, since the site launched they have received a number of submissions.

“The people we talked to were really excited about the project and thought we were doing a huge favor to the neighborhood,” Bernett said.

Challenges

The hardest part of the project was bringing everything together.

“We were coordinating a lot of moving parts; there were a lot of unknowns,” Ioveva said.

They had to figure out how the text messages would interact with the website, and how to get people to respond to the posters. Late in development, they decided that people should also be able to submit rhymes through the website and added that function as well.

They were also limited by the size of the grant and quickly discovered how expensive printing costs could be.

“We learned that we should have used lighter stock,” Ioveva said. “The posters were the most expensive part of the project.”

There are still some problems with the interaction between mobile texts and the web archive.

“There is no way to tell who the rhymes come from, and you can’t respond to specific rhymes,” Bernett said. “It takes a little bit out of the battle experience we were going for.”

Despite their setbacks, Bernett and Ioveva would still like to grow the project further. To the slate of interactive options, they hope to add contests, original artists and “borough battles.” The idea behind a borough battle is that the different New York boroughs could challenge each other to come up with the best rhymes — such a contest might have additional relevance in that there are some who maintain that Queens or Brooklyn gave birth to hip-hop.

3 Questions

How did you come up with this unique mix of mediums?

Bernett: We started out thinking about how mobile devices untether people from the physical world. We had this idea that people could text information about locations. It kind of evolved from there.

You were originally thinking about music in general, how did you get to hip-hop and the Bronx?

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Photo of 1520 Sedgwick Ave by ra41

Ioveva: 1520 Sedgwick, the ‘birthplace of hip-hop’ was recently sold to developers, so hip-hop was the relevant angle. The sale of 1520 started a conversation about culture.

(1520 Sedgwick Ave is an apartment building where DJ Kool Herc is said to have invented hip-hop. The building was recently sold to developers despite the tenants’ attempts to buy it themselves.)

What other sorts of side projects have you done?

Bernett: I’m always working on something. Before BronxRhymes, I did a series of light boxes for a show in Philly — incidentally also on gentrification.

Ioveva: Actually, I did my thesis on the history of gentrification in New York City, using motion graphics animation. I guess that’s just something we’re both interested in.

Specs

BronxRhymes is built using Google Maps, which Bernett customized for their use. They use TextMarks for the SMS integration, with a PHP script that turns the text messages into a plain .txt file to load on the website.

Then Bernett and Ioveva pasted their posters up around each location on the map. Each poster has a rhyme describing the history of the location and a call to action for responses.

Slideshow

Call for more spotlights

Please let me know of any innovative projects you are working on or have seen lately. It doesn’t have to be from a major newspaper; it just has to be an innovative blend of journalism and technology. Please e-mail me at mtaylor[at]megantaylor[dot]org to submit a Spotlight recommendation.