UPDATE Dec. 30, 2013:
Artist Jay Shells just revealed images of all 45 Rap Quotes signs he posted around Los Angeles. There's also a video of him traveling around the city posting them. Check it out!
Jason Shelowitz — also known as Jay Shells — is the New York-based artist behind the Rap Quotes project.
For the past year, Shells has been traversing New York City, posting red and white street signs with location-specific rap quotes, in an effort to make people aware of hip hop's influence on the cities in which we live.
His work has primarily been seen in New York, but he came through Los Angeles in mid-December and posted 45 of his signs throughout the city. We talk with him about his project and what brought him out to LA.
Can you explain the genesis of this project?
"This particular project started out of just a pure love for hip-hop music, that I've been listening to my whole life. I just had the idea while I was home working on a painting listening to music, and a line from a Big L song called out 139 Lennox Ave... I thought wow there's got to be a lot of other lyrics like this that mention specific locations. It would be neat to start a whole project where I try to document all of them. It kind of took off from there."
You've been doing this only in New York. What brought you out to LA?
"I knew after the first batch of signs went up based on people's response that I was going to have to bring it to other cities. People were asking for it. It just made sense. I got some lyrics sent to me from Philadelphia, so I thought that would be the next one, but then I had a trip planned to come out to California to be with my wife's family for the month of December, so then I just decided that LA would be the next one. And also just as far as my musical references go, I think I listen to hip-hop coming out of LA before anywhere else. It was kind of, New York first, obviously, but then listening to NWA and Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. That was the next big hit of music that I was into, so it kind of made more sense anyway, from a concept standpoint that I go to LA second."
Have you ever gotten in trouble for posting the signs?
"I got a cease and desist letter from New York City's Dept. of Transportation, but it wasn't even for this project, it was for a different project of mine where I was using the same vehicle for the messaging, which was signs. The thing about that project, about this project, in both NY and LA is that as soon as it's made public where these signs are, by the nature of the project, it's immediately clear where they are, if the lyric is 'On 3rd and La Cienega,' then that's where the sign is, so people go and they take them.
"People are collecting them taking them, so to really get into any sort of trouble, knock on wood I don't want to get in any trouble, but it would probably have to be while I was putting them up and I really haven't yet been caught doing that, and because they disappear so quickly it's really not doing anyone any harm and it's not causing any extra work for the City, so I think for the time being they're looking the other way and it's ephemeral."
Do you ever plan on replacing the ones that were stolen?
"I can't spend the sort of money it takes to keep putting them up, I get them up the first time, make sure to document them really well. I'd like to kind of become a hub of all of these references to site specific lyrics, so that ultimately, you can go to these places and know that they're kind of landmarks in hip-hop history, so it's kind of just neat to go to those places for fans of the music, for people, it's just kind of a big shoutout to the MCs that wrote these lyrics, like, "Hey I'm listening, I'm paying attention to what you're saying."
Is there an area in LA that was represented more than another?
"I don't really know LA very well to begin with, I've only been there a handful of times, so it was surprising for me to see how many signs were in Hollywood, for example. You think Dr. Dre's always Compton, Compton, Compton, so I just thought I was going to be spending all the time in Compton when really there were only five or so there. I put up 45 in total all over LA. We went as far south as Long Beach, as far east as Compton, as far west as Venice beach and as far north as Hollywood. They were really spread out in between and almost every neighborhood has something in it."