Hip-Hop History Tuesdays: Joe Conzo (Born In The Bronx) Amoeblog Interview

Posted by Billyjam, July 15, 2014 06:47pm | Post a Comment

"It's pretty humbling and amazing to see my photos from when I was a sixteen, seventeen year old kid," Joe Conzo told the Amoeblog - as seen in the above video clip - speaking last week by the wall of photos on display at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise gallery space on Greenwich Street in the Village in New York City. The exhibit is similar in title and theme as well as contributors to the highly recommended 2007 published book Born In The Bronx that he is an integral part of. "Born In The Bronx: Afrika Bambaataa, Buddy Esquire, Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style and Joe Conzo - A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop" the exhibit that is curated by Johan Kugelberg (editor of the book) runs through July 26th, 2014 at the downtown gallery space and is well worth visiting - and it is free.

In addition to Conzo's photos on exhibit are such artifacts as classic original era hip-hop show flyers by Buddy Esquire (RIP), a grid of original cells from the animated sequences of Charlie Ahearn’s landmark hip-hop film Wild Style, and a wall display of LP and 12" vinyl from the Afrika Bambaataa's influential record collection.  There's also Afrika Bambaataa manuscripts and notebooks and the original lyrics handwritten for “Planet Rock” - all of which adds up to must-see material for any true hip-hop history fanatic.

Particularly engaging are the photos of the Bronx from a bygone era by Joe Conzo - a self-described "Puerto Rican kid from the South Bronx" who hails from a music and culture loving, political-activist family. His grandmother was instrumental in starting bilingual education in the public school system. She was also among those strongly opposed to the filming of the 1981 Paul Newman film Fort Apache, The Bronx - a fight that her young photographer grandson also got involved in. "With my grandmother being a big community activist - when I wasn't with my dad or my school mates I was at demonstrations like the ones against the movie Fort Apache, The Bronx," recalled Conzo of a heated time three plus decades ago that he took photos like the one left showing a not-too-happy Paul Newman at the opposition to the movie he was the star of. "The producers approached my grandmother to use her daycare center as a resting place for Paul Newman when they were shooting," recalled Conzo. "And in turn they were going to hire some community workers. And she said 'yes but give me the script.' So she read the script and the script portrayed all the blacks and Puerto Ricans as pimps, whores, murderers, drug addicts, prostitutes - and that was it! We started demonstrating against the movie," he said adding, "And if you look at the movie today there is a disclaimer in the beginning of the movie [the title card] saying that this movie does not portray the beautiful hard working men and women of the Bronx which was a major major win against Hollywood in the early 80's"

Photography was something that the Bronx born Conzo got into at an early age.  "I have a report card from school stating that Joe is excelling at photography and that was from when I was about ten years old," he recalled. "My mother saw how interested I was in photography and bought me my first camera and she then allowed me to build a dark room in our house because we had two bathrooms so she allowed me to use the second bathroom. So it kept me off the street for a long time because of my love of photography." As much as his photographs are a document of hip-hop's formative years they are overall a document of the notorious New York City borough of The Bronx which in the 1970s had been plagued by a wave of arson and was known for, especially the South Bronx, block after block of rundown abandoned buildings. "Hip-hop is just a small part of my archives. My dad was Tito Puente's manager so when I wasn't hanging out with the guys in the Cold Crush Brothers or Afrika Bambaataa I was hanging out with my dad and taking pictures of Tito Puente and Celia Cruz and others," he remembered of growing up and taking photos.

"I'm just happy that I was able to preserve the history of the period in the Bronx when I was growing up. The Bronx was going through some turbulent times during the 70's and 80's but now, here I am at 51 years old, and there are people like school teachers who are retired who are buying my photographs and saying that even though the Bronx was going through a hard time back then it was still a good time because there was family unity, there was community and togetherness, and good times," shared Conzo adding that, "It was an exciting time because I knew nothing different. And people often wonder or ask me what was it like growing up in the Bronx among all the abandoned buildings and the abandoned cars and this that and the other, and  I tell them it was fine - that was my playground. I didn't know any different from that and I made the best of it - so, to me, it was fun growing up in the Bronx." 


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Johan Kugelberg (1), Jeff Chang (7), Rap (134), Interviews (31), Joe Conzo (3), Hip-hop History Amoeblog (33), Hip-hop History Tuesdays (43), Billy Jam (40), Hip-hop History (63), Hip Hop (94), Celia Cruz (5), Tito Puente Afrika Bambaataa (1)