& cameraman Joe Conzo
a dying neighborhood and the birth of hip-hop
growing urban deterioration symbolized by Charlotte Street in the South Bronx
was captured by Joe Conzo back in 1977. President Jimmy Carter paid a visit to
the street that year and President Ronald Reagan visited in 1980.
a member of Local 2507, was born and raised in the South Bronx where he still
works. He captured the early days of hip-hop with his camera. Conzo is in front
of a mural on the corner of Intervale and Westchesteravenues with the late rapper
Big Pun in the background.
of the new book Born in the Bronx, documents the rise of hip-hop with
photos by EMTs and Paramedics
Local 2507 member Joe Conzo.
By ALFREDO ALVARADO
boys in high school learn quickly that skill with a guitar or a drum set significantly
increases their popularity among the girls. As a chubby teenager at South Bronx
High School during the mid-1970s, Joe Conzo picked up a camera instead. Girls,
he noticed, enjoyed being photographed. But he also wound up as the school photographer
and took scores of pictures of the new neighborhood heroes, rising hip-hop stars
like the Cold Crush Brothers, DJ Charlie Chase and Tony Tone, classmates of his
at South Bronx High.
Conzos South Bronx roots run deep: He is the
grandson of Dr. Evelina Antonetty, the late community activist who was known as
the Hell Lady of the Bronx. As the founder of United Bronx Parents,
Antonetty was instrumental in introducing bilingual education and summer lunch
programs in the public schools.
She taught me that the politicians,
the elected officials, they work for us, said Conzo, who says demonstrations
and protests were his childhood playground.
Conzo was front and center
at the birth of hip-hop. With his camera, he was also an eyewitness to history
as his South Bronx neighborhood went up in smoke. Despite the growing urban blight
around him, he also remembers being surrounded by a community that was close-knit.
Miss Smith, the next door neighbor, gave you that look because you were doing
something wrong, you stopped what you were doing, he recalled of his days
growing up. You respected your elders. There were family values.
high school graduation Conzo did a five-year stint in the Army, where he worked
as a medical specialist, and later worked at Lincoln Hospital. However, he had
a growing problem with recreational drugs that evolved into a serious addiction
and led him to sell his cameras. His mother saved his boxes of negatives.
night in jail and a judge who ordered him to enter treatment helped Conzo turn
his life around. He then enrolled at La Guardia Community College, where he received
his EMT license and began to work for the city in his old neighborhood.
advocate for members
On Sept. 11, 2001, Conzo was unfortunately
involved in another historic moment.
My most vivid memory of that day
was seeing everyone running away from the towers, while the police, firemen, EMTs
and Paramedics were all running into the burning buildings, said Conzo.
He was one of the first to arrive on the scene at the World Trade Center and helped
evacuate people who were trapped in the adjacent Marriott Hotel. I thought
I had seen it all, he said of that tragic day.
Charlie Chase gets ready to rock the house at Norman Thomas High School in the
Bronx. LA Sunshine, right, brings in the crates of vinyl records to start the
party as Tony Tone looks on.
the South Bronx, hip-hop leaves the neighborhood and arrives in Manhattan, where
it takes over the legendary Roseland Ballroom in 1982.
Tone spins his records at the Zulu Nation anniversary party back in 1981 at the
Bronx River Projects while Afrika Bambaattaa and Busy Bee wait their turn.
book also features
posters and flyers used to promote parties, this one was
designed by graphic artist Buddy Esquire.
a member of the Executive Board of Uniformed EMTs and Paramedics Local 2507, Conzo
has testified at Congressional hearings in Washington on behalf of first responders
who worked at Ground Zero and are now suffering from health problems caused by
the toxic air at the WTC. Are we going to have to wait until more people
die? he asks. Conzo helped train EMT Felix Hernandez, who worked in the
recovery effort and died in 2006 of a respiratory illness apparently caused by
the toxic substances he inhaled at the disaster site.
few years ago one of Conzos old friends from the Cold Crush Brothers introduced
him to a European record collector who was doing research on the early days of
hip-hop. The encounter led to an elegant coffee table book based on Conzos
photos from the early 1970s. Born in the Bronx: a Visual Record of the Early
Days of Hip Hop, shows those historic formative days through posters and
Conzos trained camera eye. Key to the books dramatic success are moving
shots of the neighborhoods decline and crisp black-and-whites of legendary
competitions among rap crews.
Because of his artistry
we have physical proof of stories that would otherwise be too fantastic to believe,
writes Jorge Popmaster Fabel Pabon, from the Rock Steady Crew, in
While the success of the new book has generated an article in
The New York Times and exhibitions in the Bronx Museum and in London, Joe Conzo
remains a community activist at heart. With my job I can be an advocate
for my community, he said. That for me is the most fulfilling thing
and thats how I get high today.