Queens hip-hop heroes immortalized in sculpture come to public library

Queens Public Library is getting three sculptures representing two rappers and a DJ who made a major impact on the hip-hop scene called "A Cypher in Queens." Photo Credit: Socrates Sculpture Park

The works feature busts atop renditions of stacked speaker boxes.

Queens Public Library is getting three sculptures representing two rappers and a DJ who made a major impact on the hip-hop scene called "A Cypher in Queens."
Queens Public Library is getting three sculptures representing two rappers and a DJ who made a major impact on the hip-hop scene called "A Cypher in Queens." Photo Credit: STXfilms / Barbara Nitke

Three dearly departed masters of hip-hop are living on at the Queens Public Library.

Starting Sept. 19, artist Sherwin Banfield‘s trio of sculptures called "A Cypher in Queens" will take up residence at the Central Library in Jamaica.

The 9-foot-tall sculptures offer markers for fans and the Queens community to recognize, honor and celebrate three late examples of borough’s talent. DJ Jam Master Jay of Run-D.M.C. was killed in 2002, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Call Quest died in 2016 from complications from diabetes, and Prodigy of Mobb Deep died after battling sickle cell anemia in 2017.

The works feature busts atop renditions of stacked speaker boxes and the tall wooden musical instrument called the "slit gong" found in villages across Ambrym Island in the Pacific Ocean. Each sculpture represents where the musician is from — Jam Master Jay was from Hollis, Phife Dawg was from Linden and Prodigy was from Queensbridge. With headphones in front of the sculptures, visitors can listen to their music.

Banfield said he created them out of a need to see the artists represented in cultural institutions.

"I am crazy excited to personally introduce my sculptures and to hear the response from library visitors and the community at large because this will be something they’ve never seen before," he told amNewYork. "These legends of hip-hop left a mark on my life and countless others around the world, and to bring sculptural representations of them to a great institution such as the Queens Public Library, where they can be studied, debated and reflected upon, allows their legacy to be further cemented in Queens history. It’s about preserving hip-hop history, and I’m trying to introduce sculpture as an alternative medium for hip-hop preservation.” 

Sherwin Banfield with the models of his sculptures.
Sherwin Banfield with the models of his sculptures. Photo Credit: @Dros_Photos

The three were selected not only because of their influence on his life but, Banfield said, because each had a unique style, delivery and individuality in both poetic and sonic expression. Going to the library as a teenager, the sculptor never saw any art relating to hip-hop, which he listened to religiously on a Sony Walkman and watched on "Video Music Box."

"This exhibition comes full circle because it represents a unique coming of age period in my life," he said.

According to Ralph McDaniels, the former host of "Video Music Box" and now the hip-hop coordinator for the Queens Public Library, these musicians played a large role in countless people’s lives — so it’s only fitting they’re celebrated.

"We’re celebrating 50 years of hip-hop in three years, and it is not only a tribute to the artists, but gives fans sense of connecting with their favorite music and artists, and those who don’t know them can get a chance to learn — not just the songs, but more about them."

As the library’s hip-hop coordinator, McDaniels organizes hip-hop-themed emceeing, writing, performing, dance and workout classes, and DJ 101 programs for the system’s 62 branches.

"Instead of doing yoga to techno, you’re doing it to hip-hop songs," McDaniels explained. 

McDaniels admired the sculptures when they debuted at Long Island City’s Socrates Sculpture Park in 2018 and the exhibition finished in March, he and Banfield worked on getting them to the library. 

Sherwin Banfield with the Queens Public Library Hip-Hop Coordinator Ralph McDaniels.
Sherwin Banfield with the Queens Public Library Hip-Hop Coordinator Ralph McDaniels. Photo Credit: Sherwin Banfield

"Queens Public Library’s mission when it comes to hip-hop is to inform the world about the contributions of Queens hip-hop artists," McDaniels said. "We feel like the Bronx is well-known and is where it all started, but Queens has so many artists who have been successful. It can go pound for pound — the most successful artists are from Queens and there’s a very diverse landscape here."

A grand unveiling of the sculptures is slated for Sept. 19 at 3 p.m. with a ceremony to follow at 6 p.m. with music by DJ Jason Mizell Jr. (Jam Master Jay’s son) and spoken word by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor (Phife Dawg’s mother).

McDaniels also has a lot planned over the four months while the sculptures are on the museum’s first floor, including a sculpture class with Banfield and a hip-hop health program. You can check the schedule out on queenslibrary.org.

Shaye Weaver