Ed Koch’s Legacy in Hip-Hop

Koch presided over New York City from 1977 to 1989, almost exactly the years during which hip-hop went from a small scene of Bronx block parties to a global cultural phenomenon. During those years, the history of hip-hop is the history of Ed Koch’s New York: Until the last couple years of his reign, nearly every major hip-hop artist rose out of one of the five boroughs or Long Island, from Afrika Bambataa and Grandmaster Flash to Run DMC and Chuck D. While Koch saved the city from sliding towards bankruptcy—cops, teachers, and firefighters had just been laid off, and crime and fires were on the rise in the South Bronx—his relationship to these communities would ultimately be mixed at best, culminating in his defeat by New York City’s first and only African-American mayor, David Dinkins.

The movement came to a head around the 1989 mayoral election. On the sets of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee filmed walls graffitied with “Dump Koch” to the tune of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” And he encouraged people to register to vote him out. “I don’t know if the film will defeat Ed Koch, but I hope so,” he said, calling Koch “a polarizer of races in the city.” On A Tribe Called Quest’s classic “Can I Kick It?,” Phife Dawg would rap, “Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?/ You’d be doing us a really big favor.”