US Army Vet Making Hip Hop Hall of Fame Reality
Ask Army veteran James “JT” Thompson of Harlem about waiting for dreams to materialize and he’ll tell you to be patient and persevere, regardless of timing — especially when your project takes decades to launch.
“Life and business will throw curveballs,” he says. “You have to be mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally strong enough to compete, conquer your fears and believe in your training and preparation, and plan to succeed against the odds.”
And succeed he has. Later this year, the much-anticipated 40,000-square-foot Hip Hop Hall of Fame (HHHOF) Museum and Entertainment Complex will open on 125th Street in Manhattan.
In addition, next month Thompson is launching an academy for students with classes in multimedia broadcasting and fashion, as well as a pop-up museum with a coffee-shop environment featuring over 100 exhibits, set to start in the summer.
The visionary entrepreneur first dreamed of these projects in 1992. A veteran who served in the Army and the Reserves from 1982 through 1988, he recalls how his service prepared him for this long road by “thinking militarily.”
“Focus, pay attention to detail, never quit, never give up regardless of the circumstance,” he explains. “You might have to step back, re-strategize and find another way to get to your ultimate goal.”
Thompson was inspired to open the museum by his experiences growing up hearing his great-uncle, saxophonist Carl Frye, share tales about playing alongside legends like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Enamored with music and determined to preserve urban community culture, he listened to Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy while in the Army. “I had the big boombox in my military housing unit,” he says.
Hip-hop aside, Thompson was responsible for assembling and maintaining weekly operational schedules and distributing information to commanders and non-commissioned officers. This also meant supporting the executive officer in maintaining communications with five companies for any purpose.
Thompson was able to parlay his teamwork abilities into skills to pursue his passion of music. While attending college in San Diego, he was introduced to concert production and promotion as a guest of R&B artist Pebbles.
“The bug bit me,” he recalls. “I knew what I wanted to do after giving Pebbles her fur coat after her performances and seeing the audience.”
Thompson went on to produce live concerts and events while getting involved in peaceful community events during the Los Angeles riots. In 1996, he created and executive-produced the first Hip Hop Hall of Fame Awards on BET, which he had hoped would help inspire the museum. Sadly, Tupac Shakur was shot and killed soon after the broadcast, followed by the Notorious B.I.G.
Subsequently, there was decreased interest by mainstream media and millions of dollars of losses in real estate and advertising sponsorship. “Hip-hop got a bad rap over violence associated with the culture,” says Thompson.
Thompson kept the dream alive by meeting more than 25 executives, record labels and distribution companies to drive attention to his HHHOF brand. He partnered with Urban Sports and Entertainment Group, which provided the pre- and post-game concerts for NBC’s McDonald’s Heritage Bowl.
What kept him going? Steadfast discipline and determination from his Army days, he says.
“Hip-hop is about empowering yourself, moving beyond the music,” he says. “The HHHOF and I have a duty and responsibility to preserve this rich history of music and culture. [You need to] pull yourself up by your bootstraps to pursue your dreams.”
The museum will feature interactive exhibits, listening stations, memorabilia from pioneers and icons of hip-hop, DJ equipment, autographed items and more. The property will also include a gift shop, concert lounge, arcade, restaurant and sports bar. Plus, the venue aims to produce 100 live events annually, including book signings, panel discussions and more, and will offer over 200 jobs and internship opportunities.
A choked-up Thompson sums it up.
“This has been a labor of love. It’s had its valleys, mountains, peaks and falloffs. In the Army, I had leaders, mentors and brothers like teammates working to achieve something special. In life and in business, be disciplined and finish strong without quitting.”