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Program marks 50 years of hip hop and its impact on Pittsburgh

A man with a white beard, sunglasses and an orange beanie smiles.
Charles Sykes
Pittsburgh-based Paradise Gray, seen here at the Universal Hip Hop Museum groundbreaking, in 2021, in the Bronx, is among the panelists at Thursday's event at Blaxk Box Theater.

Chance Wideman grew up in Beltzhoover in the late 1990s and ’00s, and — as for many kids of that era — hip hop was a formative influence.

He listened to Tupac and Dr. Dre (though, he acknowledges, he might have been a little young for them) and, later, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z. But the appeal went beyond the beats and rhymes.

“The culture of hip hop, the way people talked, dressed, the music we were listening to, just everything was the hip-hop culture,” said Wideman. Echoing the title of DJ Semtex’s 2016 book “Hip Hop Raised Me,” Wideman says hip hop was “really what got me through my high school years.”

Today, as director of equity and inclusion programs at the University of Pittsburgh, Wideman is acknowledging that influence on what’s now multiple generations with “This Thing We Call Hip Hop.”

The free program celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip hop, organized with 1Hood Media, takes place Thu., June 15, at 1Hood’s Blaxk Box Theater, in Oakland. Five panelists led by moderator Chantel Petersen will explore hip hop’s influence on Pittsburgh as well as local contributions to the culture. (Stars like Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller are likely to get mentioned.)

“We’re really just hoping to have a really robust conversation about unpacking what hip hop has meant to Pittsburgh,” said Wideman.

Unlike many cultural movements, hip hop does indeed have a pretty specific date and place of birth. It was the summer of 1973, in the Bronx, when block-party DJs laid the foundation for the culture that encompasses rapping, turntable skills, breakdancing and graffiti art. Several years passed before the first hip-hop records were cut, and the music and styles have long since gone mainstream and global.

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Panelists at the June 15 event span the generations, starting with Paradise Gray, whose hip-hop roots reach to the late ’70s in the South Bronx, where he grew up. Gray went on to become a key talent manager, booking agent, and producer in early hip hop, and today is known as a key historian of the culture.

Other participants included the younger Pittsburgh-based rappers Hardo, FeddtheGod, and SpeciálK, along with Pittsburgh’s “rapping principal,” Margaret Starkes.

Petersen, also known as PopChanny, is a local journalist and event organizer, among other gigs. She said she hopes the event communicates that while hip hop has changed a lot, it continues to function as a culture of its own.

“It wears different clothes now, it wears different jewelry now, but it is still the same hip hop,” she said. “It is still music, it is still fashion, it is still art, it is still expression, It is still storytelling, all of those positive things.”

“This Thing Called Hip Hop” takes place at 7 p.m. Thu., June 15. The Blaxk Box Theater is located at 460 Melwood Ave. Pre-registration is suggested, and more information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: