Curtis Sherrod: Hip-hop griot (39570)

Curtis Sherrod knows a thing or two about the art of being an MC because he helped create the art form. It’s no surprise that he serves as executive director of the Hip-Hop Cultural Center in Harlem. He uses hip-hop to not only teach young people, but also bring the community together.

“I like what I do and when you like what you do, it shows,” said the fresh-faced 45-year-old who could easily pass as someone younger.

Originally from the Bronx, Sherrod grew up during the early days of hip-hop in the late 1970s. He would frequent block parties and clubs, taking over the mic under the stage name “Mexi-Ray.”

“I consider myself a hip-hop pioneer,” he explained. “The reason I say so is that I was down with the era when we did it for the love and not for the money. When you do something for the love, I believe it becomes nurturing as opposed to cold and calculating.”

While he was heavily involved in the new musical phenomenon at the time, he stayed grounded in his academics while attending Brooklyn Tech High School and credits his parents keeping him on the right track inside and outside of the classroom.

“My mother stressed reading books because she was a teacher,” he said. “I was always reading a book, and my dad was aware of the streets, so in a way I got two educations. I learned a lot being on the hip-hop scene, but I also learned a lot of Brooklyn Tech.”

As hip-hop started to percolate, Sherrod recorded his first hip-hop song, “The Ultimate Rap,” with his group, the Nice and Nasty 3, on Holiday Records. The recording and video has been preserved and can be viewed on YouTube.

As hip-hop began to catch on in the early 1980s, he found himself performing with legends Kool Herc and Brothers Disco at the hottest venues such as Harlem World, Small’s Paradise and Studio 125.

Evidence of his performances, as well as the popularity of hip-hop at the time, can be seen in the thousands of event flyers he collected during the era. The often handmade, press-typed and copied flyers are preserved at the Hip-Hop Cultural Center, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and at Cornell University.

After graduating from high school, he earned his bachelor’s degree at New York Tech and went into the advertising business for 20 years, working for Macy’s and Harrison Wilson Pharmaceuticals.

In 2000, he left advertising to begin his own employment agency, All Things Traffic. The company, with a staff of about 25, specializes in training and placing traffic people for advertising and marketing companies.

Not letting go of his roots in hip-hop, Sherrod started the Hip-Hop Cultural Center in Harlem in 2006. Media giant Viacom was looking to have a hip-hop museum and hired him to build the venue. Sherrod put together a museum on 125th Street on the second floor of a building on Frederick Douglass Blvd., one floor below the Magic Johnson Theater.

Viacom, however, reneged on the idea after Sherrod finished the museum. But all was not lost. He decided to turn the venue into a center where people could learn about the history and cultural influence of hip-hop, with help from his strategic partners, Harlem USA, which owns the building.

“I’m a part of the first generation of Black people who did better than [the one] before,” he said. “I want to try and make a difference.”

Today, the Hip-Hop Cultural Center in Harlem opens its doors to over 2,000 students a month, teaching economic literacy, political awareness, diet and nutrition and home economics through hip hop music.

Teachers and principals also use the center by giving Sherrod their lesson plans and converting them to hip-hop vernacular to enhance what is being taught.

“Why not take something kids know by heart and love and combine that to reinforce what they need to learn? Different kids learn in different ways,” he said. This is just an option that works well.”

Sherrod resides in Harlem with his wife of 18 years. Together, they have one son.

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