Meet The Woman Who Hosts The Ultimate Old-School Summer Jam

Christie Z. Pabon, the 'hardest-working woman in hip-hop,' keeps the old-school spirit alive with her park jams.

When DJ Rob Swift was young, he plied his craft by watching his older brother with his friends mess around with their father's equipment in the living room. And, as he wrote for Medium, "There were times when my brother would take me to hooky parties, friends' birthdays or park jams and I'd watch other people DJ. I was exposed to this very, very organically."

The culture in which Swift learned how to DJ has all but disappeared for most, except at the park jam. Every summer Thursday, this old-school hip-hop celebration is resurrected in New York. The Tools of War True School Summer Park Jam series runs from June to September in parks throughout Harlem and the Bronx. The first of 2015's gatherings was held at Poor Richard's Playground, a park in Spanish Harlem. It was an all-ages affair, with little kids dancing, B-boys getting down on the concrete, and DJs such as Red Alert, Biz Markie and Jazzy Jay on the 1's and 2's.

The driving force behind the park jam is Christie Z. Pabon, who Blackbook called "the hardest-working woman in hip-hop" back in 2011 for her tireless DJ promotion through her administration of the DMC DJ battles in the U.S. and for her Tools of War newsletter, which advertises underground hip-hop events.

Pabon described herself with a little less bombast and little more humor, commenting that others referred to her as "the Muslim Ellen," she says, laughing. Pabon, who converted to Islam shortly after marrying her husband, hip-hop pioneer Jorge "Popmaster" Fabel Pabon, covers her hair per religious tradition.

B-boy Vitamin of Floor Royalty Crew top rocking in the cypher.
B-boy Vitamin of Floor Royalty Crew top rocking in the cypher. Photo credit: Dvora Meyers

Pabon's mission is simple: to bring back the park jams she had heard her husband talk about. "Fabel talking about park jams [had me almost ... near tears because] I missed the ones he's talking about," she says of her inspiration. Pabon, 46, had grown up in Perryopolis, Penn., a world away from the streets of New York City where the hip-hop music and culture she loves were being created. "I'm re-creating what I missed," she points out.

"They sounded awesome — the park jams before anybody had permits. Now you have to get a park permit, and you have to go to the police and get a sound permit. Even just the other day, Lovebug Starski [a legendary MC and producer] was like, 'We didn't wait for permits. We just went out in the park and jammed, and the police left us alone,' " she says. Pabon sympathizes with the need for permits. "But to go 'til five in the morning and jam — that's awesome," she says wistfully.

Pabon doesn't run into much trouble these days getting permits and institutional support for the park jams. After more than a decade, the project enjoys consistent support from local politicians and the Parks Department. They recognize the jams for the contribution they make to the local culture and community.

Most Thursdays, the greatest threat to the jam isn't the Parks Department or the police, it's the weather. Given the unpredictable nature of New York summer weather, Pabon often has to make last-minute decisions about whether or not to shut down the event. "If I cancel a jam, it has to be gloomy and rainy all day. I just won't feel good if it isn't. We almost never cancel," she says. "Every Monday in the news, it looks like it's going to rain on Thursday, and then we get to Wednesday and it's looking good for tomorrow again."

Photo credit: Dvora Meyers
Photo credit: Dvora Meyers

June 4, the opening day of 2015's summer jam season, was overcast, seemingly on the verge of rain as though on the edge of a sneeze. But it didn't rain. Before the jam, the adjacent playground was filled with just-dismissed-from-school kids on the swings and monkey bars, mostly oblivious that very nearby, there were legends of hip-hop on the turntables.

The simultaneity of the jam and communal life is part of what makes the gatherings special to Joseph Schloss, author of Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop and adjunct assistant professor of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College. "There's something special about the park context. You have people, for example, just walking by, going about their business, popping their heads in. You have people playing basketball. You have people playing handball," he explains. "You have the people that would be there anyway even if the jam wasn't going on and they all contribute to the vibe."

And the vibe that day was decidedly laid-back. As the first DJ started his set, people trickled in and sat on the benches that lined the perimeter of the basketball courts. It was hard to distinguish who was there for the jam and who was simply there. As the music started up, a woman in her 50s sporting bright yellow Nike kicks started to dance, shuffling from side to side. She was joined by two kids, one carrying a skateboard. A couple of B-boys alternate between sitting and dancing. One of those dancers, Michael Schools, when asked why he comes out to the park jams, grabbed this writer's recorder and rocked it like a mic. "This is the root of all. This is the sperm from which the egg birthed hip-hop," he says. The scientific analogy may not line up perfectly, but point taken.

Schloss made a similar, albeit less biological analogy. "I think events like Tools of War jams preserve the original context that hip-hop happened in. You can experience what the jams were like," he says.

Kid Break was the most energetic dancer at Poor Richard's Playground.
Kid Break was the most energetic dancer at Poor Richard's Playground. Photo credit: Dvora Meyers

For legendary graffiti artist Albert Mercado of the Black Spades, also known as Lava 1 & 2, these jams are something of a time machine. "I come to jams 'cause I need to support this, 'cause it brings me to my essence, my time," he says.

And to the people he knew from "back in the day." The park jams, unlike the slickly produced depictions of hip-hop in pop culture, feel homey, like a family reunion. There's Joe Conzo, a renowned photographer who has been capturing moments in hip-hop history from the beginning, pacing the pavement with his camera, searching for photo opportunities. (Conzo's work is on display at the Bronx Museum, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Museum of New York.) There's Grandmaster Caz, the longtime emcee of the park jams, who was a former member of the Cold Crush Brothers — a pioneering hip-hop act — who announces early on that Pabon's homemade cookies have sold out. "Crack cookies. That's how fast they sell," he booms into the mic.

Then there are the people they've met at the jams. Pabon speaks of one man who attends the Crotona Park gatherings who told her that he was in the same high school class as DJ Kool Herc, one of the godfathers of hip-hop. "The other day someone told me he went to class with [Afrika] Bambaataa," she says. "What a crazy high school that must've been to have so many legends in one school."

Photo credit: Dvora Meyers
Photo credit: Dvora Meyers

At first, the jam's attendees mostly stand and talk and watch the DJ, but certain tracks managed to drive dancers to the pavement: Babe Ruth's "The Mexican," The Jimmy Castor Bunch's "It's Just Begun" and anything by James Brown. That's when everyone, even the onlookers, turns their attention to the dance floor where the b-boys and rockers take center stage. (Even little kids managed to "Get On the Good Foot.") "This," Schools says, referring to the jams, "is where we get our inspiration as dancers."

And these park jams have also been where Pabon and others have created community. As Caz says near the end of the first June event, "This has been an event we've been doing for 13 years. It's a labor of love."

Cover photo: Noisemaker Media/YouTube

Check out dancing and jamming from past events: