Hush Tours Gives Visitors a Look at NYC’s Hip-Hop History

Words by Kemi Ibeh, Portraits by Simbarashe Cha

Born and raised in the Bronx, Debra Harris began her career in the early 1990s, promoting comedy shows and parties at venues citywide. Growing up in the borough that hip-hop was created, she developed a love and affinity for the culture and the City that eventually blossomed into her starting Hush Tours—better known as Hush Hip Hop Tours, for its primary offering—which celebrates NYC as the birthplace of the genre.

The company has taken more than a million visitors from all over the world on its tours, which are typically narrated and led by hip-hop legends, much to the incredulity of guests. We caught up with Harris to talk about her company, the Bronx and hip-hop tourism in New York City. Read on for more.

Walk This Way Thru Harlem Tour. Courtesy, Hush Tours

You started your business over 20 years ago, when cultural travel and social media were not so prevalent. What prompted you to begin?

Debra Harris: I started Hush Hip Hop Tours in 2002 as New York City was still dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 and regaining its balance. This was also the onset of the new millennium, which ushered in hip-hop as the driving force of American pop culture. As a native New Yorker born and raised in the Bronx [Harris later relocated to Lower Manhattan], it struck me as the perfect time to shine a light on the people and places that imagined and built hip-hop, and even more importantly, to bring people directly to the Bronx, an underappreciated piece of the fabric of this city.

Not everyone was a fan of hip-hop when it began. Was there any resistance at the start of your business?

DH: In 2002, hip-hop had already exploded into a global phenomenon and billion-dollar industry. Many of our guests, from Australia to Idaho, admitted that they weren't always fans of hip-hop at its onset—they just didn’t get it. These are usually the same guests that know all the classic songs word for word and really dive headfirst into the experience.

How do people react when they realize who the guides are?

DH: Over the years, we’ve witnessed every reaction you could imagine. Our guides, like Raheim and Kurtis Blow, are true pioneers of hip-hop and are heroes to many of our guests. So many visitors are in awe that they get to spend the day with people who helped shape their sense of style, talk and being. For younger guests who may not be familiar with our legends when the tour starts, they end up grateful to have learned from them.

Debra Harris

How do the guides make this more than just a music history narration?

DH: It all starts with perspective. Our guides’ narratives are molded by genuine lived experiences, which makes their stories something our customers don’t just hear but feel. As our guests travel through the backdrops of these stories, history becomes visualized in the present. Combine that with our guides’ natural skills as MCs, and you have the perfect recipe for an authentic journey through music and NYC history.

Debra Harris

How do you counter any preconceptions people may have about the Bronx?

DH: It’s unfortunate that a stigma still exists today, and that’s one of the key reasons I started Hush Hip Hop Tours. While many of our tours are focused on hip-hop culture, all of our Bronx offerings show the borough’s beauty and the rich and vibrant cultures of its residents. That vibrancy is at the core of what makes NYC exciting and attractive to so many. To avoid the Bronx because of negative reports would be missing out on seeing what the City is really about.