People Behind the Plans: The Intersection of Hip Hop and Planning with Michael Ford

About This Episode

In this special episode of the People Behind the Plans podcast, guest host Jason Pugh, AICP, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), sits down with Michael Ford, AIA, NOMA, keynote speaker at the 2022 APA National Planning Conference. In this live-recorded discussion in San Diego, Ford and Pugh talk about the unique connection between hip-hop, urban design, community engagement, and so much more.

Ford, a licensed architect, is the creator of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, a free national summer camp, dedicated to introducing underrepresented youth to architecture planning, creative placemaking, and economic development. Through the camp, he helps young people analyze hip-hop songs by local artists to uncover critiques of their cities, and then learn how to address those issues through urban design. Ford currently serves as president of the Wisconsin NOMA Chapter, and he is the founding principal of BrandNu Design Studio in Madison.

Episode Transcript


Michael Ford: Some of the songs at an entry level, the message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. You can hear them critique ideas that were created by planners. And you can hear them critique buildings that were designed by architects. And it's a direct contradiction to what our professions thought they were bringing to the table. It's like the urban reality of urban renewal. 


Courtney Kashima: Welcome to People Behind the Plans an American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the work, life and stories of planners from across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal of Muse Community Design. Today we have a special episode for you. It was recorded live from the APA National Planning Conference in San Diego, and is guest hosted by certified planner and licensed architect Jason Pugh. Jason is a principal at the global design firm Gensler and president of NOMA, the National Organization of Minority Architects. So I'm leaving you in good hands. Jason is joined by our guest and NPC’s keynote speaker, Michael Ford. Michael is the creator of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp, a free national summer camp dedicated to introducing underrepresented youth to architecture planning, creative placemaking and economic development. Keep listening to learn more about the connection between hip hop, urban design, and so much more. Let's get to the conversation. 


Jason Pugh: Mike, just wanted to welcome you and just say again, thank you for tapping me to be a part of this discussion. 


MF: I'm happy to be here, Jason. So thanks for joining me and if I can get some one-on-one time with the president—definitely going to do that. 


JP: For formality’s sake, very quickly, let me read your bio—share that with the audience just so they get a deeper understanding of you know, the man, the professional that you are and the work that you've been doing. So, again, Mike Ford, he's a licensed architect, originally from Detroit now based in Madison, Wisconsin. Ford is the founder of MUUNDO Incorporated, a 501(c)(3) through which he runs the Hip Hop Architecture Camp. It's an international program, which positions hip hop culture as a catalyst to introduce youth to architecture and design. The program has been featured in a variety of media publications, including Oprah Winfrey's network, Super Soul Sunday, the Today Show, Rolling Stone magazine, Architect Magazine, ESPN, and more. Ford currently serves as president of the Wisconsin NOMA Chapter. And you are the founding principal of a brand-new design and architectural firm where you are leading the design of projects such as the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx, which I'm sure we'll talk about at some point today. And just this week, right, just this week, Mike was named the Young Architect of the Year by American Institute of Architects’ Wisconsin Chapter, which is huge. You opened up, I think, today with an amazing keynote, in front of an audience that probably typically isn't fully aware of the work that you are doing in a lot of underserved and marginalized communities. And one of the most impactful quotes that you've added to that is your quote about hip hop being a post-occupancy survey of ghettos and underserved communities for the last 40-50 years. In fact, it's an unfiltered, unsolicited, post-occupancy survey of the built environment. And so in that vibe and lane, name a few songs that you think planners should listen to, and why. 


MF: Hip hop in this post-occupancy evaluation of modernism, it is a conversation that allows us to link architecture and planning to hip hop in a tangible way, right? It's not I want to bring hip hop into these design professions because I love hip hop, or I grew up on hip hop, or I think there are some unique design perspectives that are embedded within the culture. It was a way to tangibly tie the culture to architecture and planning. And what I always encourage people to do with music is give hip hop the same attention that we give other pieces of notable literature. When we listen to or read Shakespeare, we're going to read it once, twice, three, four times, we're going to go by Cliffs Notes. If you're in high school, you're going to try to understand what's being discussed by Shakespeare. And with hip hop, music or rap, we oftentimes listen to it once and then discard it. The language maybe was too fast, we couldn't understand. So what I encourage people to do is print off lyrics and really understand some of these, as you said, these unsolicited, raw and uncensored, unfiltered critiques of urban space. And some of the songs at an entry level, the message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, you can hear them critique ideas that were created by planners. And you can hear them critique buildings that were designed by architects, and it's a direct contradiction to what our professions thought they were bringing to the table. It’s like the urban reality of urban renewal. But, The Message (Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five) is one song. And then you have a number of other pieces to, like…one of the most hilarious ones is Every Ghetto by Talib Kweli. You know, he starts off talking about the patterns of some of the businesses, when you cross over into cities. He's like gun store, gun store, liquor store, church. Now he's describing this urban fabric in this pattern and challenging us to think differently about the things that are in our neighborhoods and communities. But to end that, I have a title playlist and a ridiculous Excel sheet that I had since 2005 in college, and I've been adding songs to. It's been going from hard drive to hard drive, different email to email. Now Google Docs, but this list has hundreds of songs when I ride in a car, when I'm talking with friends, anytime I hear the word architecture or planning or my blog, my hood, my community mentioned in a song, I'm saving it and using it as some type of reference to guide young people to create solutions to some of the problems that they hear people talk about in music.  


JP: And you're going above and beyond that. You're not just creating your own playlists. My understanding, you have created a list, I think it's either the top 20 or top 50 hip hop artists, right, and how they rank. You have a rubric grading system, so to speak, that you evaluate these artists, these very well-known artists that we all know and love today, and how they respond, critique or talk about the built environment. So tell me a little bit about that. I think that's really interesting. 


MF: I did a TEDx that had that title, “Hip hop as a Post-Occupancy Evaluation of Modernism”. And after doing that TEDx, I received a lot of questions about ‘can you give me a playlist?’ ‘Can you tell me who really talks about their cities, their communities, etc.’ And I would always give this list of songs and people ask me, ‘Well, is there an order I should listen? Does something take precedent over the other one?’ I don't know, you know, I will just name off who my favorites were. And I started to come up with this system to see who talked about some of the most issues that were relevant when it comes to planning and architecture. So we talked about environmental injustices. And this rubric, which I've been developing since the pandemic, is something that I'm looking to make available and actually have these creative listening sessions so that we can score more artists, get more people are involved with this process. And the ultimate goal there is creating a database that allows anybody that's working in any city, any neighborhood, to be able to look up music from their city and see what people are talking about. Because oftentimes, you know, you're an architect, you're also a planner, you do these community engagement sessions. And the first thing you hear is, ‘We can't get black people to come to the community engagement sessions. We can't get any minorities. We don't know what they're saying about the neighborhood.’ And I always say, with hip hop—it's going to be 50 years old next year—it's a 50-year backlog of complaints and critiques. And going beyond hip hop, you got the Blues. I mean, it's called the Blues. You can listen to the lyrics and stop dancing through it, stop dancing to the lyrics, and start responding to what they're saying. You'll see that we have more than enough critiques of what we're doing as a profession. We just haven't taken the time to really hear what people have been saying in the music. 


JP: And I know some of those artists are very popular artists that we know today. Right? Talking Jay-Z, Nas, but I have a question for you. What artists maybe are out there that's on this list, this list of your top 20/top 50, right, that maybe most people do not know much about? Are there a couple that you can list their name and why you think they're important, why they're on the list to begin with? 


MF: Yes, so I'll name a few. Rapsody. Rapsody to me is by far one of the greatest MCs. I won't say one of the greatest women. She’s just one of the greatest MCs ever. Rapsody's music definitely critiques space and place, talks about women in spaces, and she shared some of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp work of a number of times on Instagram, so shout out to Rapsody. Other folks like Lupe Fiasco, has been a champion of the Hip Hop Architecture Camp since he first got introduced to the idea. He's introduced me to other folks within the business or in the world of hip hop. His music. I mean, it touches a number of different topics from Habitat for Humanity, he talks about mathematics and like sacred geometry, things that make you question what you haven't learned. And like, what else don't I know? Lupe’s lyrics is littered with a lot of references to architecture and design. And last, another person that I think is not as well known—he's one of the pioneers—Kool Moe Dee. Kool Moe Dee has a song called ‘I Go to Work.’ And the second verse, he says, ‘I go to work like an architect.’ And after he says, ‘I go to work like an architect,’ it’s a masterpiece on how we can use rap and, you know, lyrical compositions and the construction of a rap verse to actually inform how we construct buildings and neighborhoods. And it is, again, nothing short of a masterpiece. He's laid out this framework, which has aided me in creating the curriculum for the Hip Hop Architecture Camp. 


JP: I think that was even your critique, right? It's, you know, we often dance to this music but very rarely are we listening to the lyrics. Wanted to thank you for inviting me to participate in the design charrette that took place a few years ago in San Francisco with Autodesk and getting a chance to collaborate and work with you know, Lupe and Chino XL.  


MF: Your twin! That’s your twin! 


JP: Chino! Chino! 


MF: You can’t just say Chino XL. You have to say my brother, Chino. 


JP: My brother, Chino XL, man. 


MF: Oh, man. Yeah, one of the, you know … shout out to everybody who came to that design cipher. So I met Lupe. Everybody was impressive, because, up until that date, the Hip Hop Architecture Camp had only been done with, you know, students, sixth through eighth/ninth graders. So now to have professionals, designers, architects, and then MCs, not kids who are learning how to write a verse, but I mean, the greatest battle rappers like Daylyt—you know, the person who you got to pull out a dictionary when he's freestyling. You know, that was an amazing experience. So it's been very intriguing to see MCs use this process as this writing challenge and something that pushes them to create more writing. And last, since that design cypher, learning more of their interests. Like these guys and ladies…Lupe has an album called House right now with recipes. Virgil Abloh, right, where he's talking about architecture in the house. And it's been fascinating to see where they have gone since that cipher, and also where the Hip Hop Architecture Camp has gone, because they gave us a great foundation to go back and shake up our curriculum and take the camp to the next level. 


JP: So speaking of Lupe, talk about the project that you collaborated on in Africa. I don't think everyone realizes just how much more you do beyond just the architectural camps.  


MF: The entire approach to hip hop architecture is a little unique for me, where I see this as a tool to solve problems, not an aesthetic approach, not something to become the architect/the ‘starchitect,’ be on the cover of a magazine. But how can we literally solve problems that are highlighted within the music? And we're in San Francisco. This is the first time meeting Lupe in person after all the phone calls and text messages. That same weekend I get invited to go out to Kenya. It was about maybe four hours north of Nairobi. So, a group that the University of Wisconsin Madison is working with. It’s called the Samburu tribe. Within that tribe, a young woman, Dr. Josephine Kulea started a foundation called the Samburu Girls Foundation. She rescues young girls from traditional practices that have now been outlawed in her tribe, like female genital mutilation, early marriage. President Obama called her out on his campaign trail as someone who gives him hope. So that's when she started to get a lot of national or international notoriety. And she had been working with the University of Wisconsin Madison. They said, ‘Hey, can you go out and do a camp with the Samburu tribe to help design a campus for them, and then we'll do some fundraising and see if we can get somebody to help build some of the buildings.’ The Cypher is going great. So the last day, I asked Lupe and say, ‘Hey, you want to Kenya? Let's do this all over again and design a campus for some young girls?’ And he's like no. And it's even funnier to hear him tell the story. Well, he straight up says no, and there’s like no conversation afterwards. And then he ends the awkward pause and he says, ‘Well, what can we do beyond a camp, like you know, I'm excited. Now let's solve a problem. Do they have water?’ ‘No, they don't have water. Let's dig a well, Lupe.’ ‘No, I don't want to do wells. I got this company that I'm on a board. It's called Zero Mass Water. So Lupe tells me about endeavors that he's involved with that is inspired by his favorite artist, Mos Def. Mos Def has a song called New World Water where he talks about water’s going to become one of the biggest problems, and it was made in the early ‘90s. Again, Lupe helped fund this organization or this company. Now he sits on a board. Long story short, we go, we do a camp, we surprise the girls with these water panels. They're called hydro panels. And what they do is they condense water vapor and turn it into drinking water. And Lupe and that group, you know, installed enough panels to give, you know, close to 400 girls enough water for drinking, cleaning, cooking. And it's amazing. You know, for me, I always describe it as, you know, Lupe song ‘Hip Hop Saved My Life.’ Like, you know, that is a product that he has, that's literally, you know, saving people's lives by giving them access to clean, you know, fresh water, and eliminating some of the quick fixes that we see like digging, which still become contaminated. It was an amazing time. We joked and we called it Vibranium because, like, Black Panther came out the same year. 


JP: I love it. I love it. You had mentioned some of our peers and close friends that have participate in the camps. And I'm curious, who are some of the other planners and architects that have participated in the camps or some of your collaboration projects? 


MF: Yes. So, some of the other folks that participated—I don't know if it's like a trajectory to become NOMA president after you participate in a camp. You and Pascal have participated in the camps out there in the Bronx. Brian Lee, you know, one of the first large talks that both of us did was a joint talk at South by Southwest where he talked about design justice. 


JP: I remember. I was mad I wasn't there. I remember the two headshots side by side, I mean, it almost looked like it was like a title belt fight or something between the two of you guys, black and white facing each other. I was like, that’s dope. 


MF: It was Bill Nye, the Science Guy, which made it even more interesting. You know, Bill Nye was the other keynote. So it was like this guy who you know,  


JP: The comparison and juxtaposition. 


MF: It was an interesting mix of folks. You know, Tiffany Brown, who's the executive director of NOMA.  


JP: TB. 


MF: And then we've also had, you know, architects and planners who might not be as nationally known, who've participated in a campus as well. So people like Thomas Brokaw who's out in D.C., you know, young and up and coming architects who are also some HU graduates like Renee Whitely. So the amazing thing about the campus that we've been able to connect with, you know, seasoned professionals like a Stephen Lewis, when he was with the city of Detroit planning department, you know, down to young graduate students at HBCUs across the country. 


JP: Fresh out of school, want to make an impact, and they see the work you are doing. They're inspired by the work you're doing, they just want to get involved. Yeah, you find a place for them. That's awesome. 


MF: Give them a stipend. You go to a new city for a week, you get paid. 


JP: Wait, they get a stipend? I don't get no stipend. I've been participating in a couple of these camps. Brother, come on. I get it, I get it. I'm fussing with you. But no, you know, tell me how has your involvement with organizations like NOMA and AIA further supported your mission? And how can the APA get involved? 


MF: Yes, so I after I completed my thesis, you know, 2005/2006. I'm in grad school at University of Detroit Mercy, and when I graduated, I go work for Hamilton Anderson Associates. And my thesis was titled, ‘Hip Hop innovation.’ No, ‘Cultural Innovation: Hip Hop Inspired Architecture and Design.’ And I'm excited. You know, I use this to do my interview with Hamilton Anderson Associates. I'm doing Lunch and Learns about this topic. And I would not stop talking about hip hop, and I needed to use it on some professional project. And Rainey, who's still a mentor to this day, takes me to my first NOMA conference. 2008, where we met in Washington, D.C. So the first public talk outside of graduate school and talks at Hampton Anderson was at a NOMA conference, also where I met Brian Lee. Brian Lee, we still talk about to this day. Brian had so many questions like, ‘I just got so much potential.’ I mean, ‘Brian, yeah, stop asking me questions.’ 


JP: I was there. I was in the session. I remember, I was there.  


MF: How could this benefit our people? How could it benefit…. So that experience, you know, that NOMA set the stage for me to then gain some comfort, I came back to NOMA a number of times, continuing to polish this, within a fairly safe space, but also a space that challenges you. We’re going to ask the right questions, do we need you to polish and you got typos, you got this, let's go ahead and clean this up. And NOMA helped propel me or prepare me for the next stage. So in 2017, AIA invited me to do a keynote panel. It was hilarious. When they invited me, my wife was like, ‘Oh, that's great.’ She had no intention of coming. ‘That's great. You know, you're gonna have fun.’ And then later on that summer, they announced Michelle Obama. 


JP: So that was, that was Orlando. That's right. That's right. 


MF: So now my wife was like, ‘You know what, I do want to see your keynote.’ So my wife now comes to the AIA to see Michelle Obama. So AIA, you know, much respect for them for inviting me to, you know, share this on a larger stage. And then now, you know, doing his keynote at APA.  


JP: American Planning Association. So the audience that really needs to be a part of this conversation. And when you talk about policy, when you talk about urban planning, the impact, the negative impact of urban renewal, you know, unintentional consequences. So yeah, let's talk about how APA can support this. 


MF: You know, this idea of using lyrics to diagnose issues in the city, I think is even more relevant to planners than it is to architects now. I'm not trying to exclude architects from this conversation, but y'all need to be at this table, too, because y'all got some dirt on your hands. But I believe APA has put me in front of the people who are at the table before architects are even in a discussion. 


JP: It's spot on. 


MF: And, you know, the conversations I've had post the keynote has showed me that, you know, there's some interest in, one, listening to music in new ways—as people who came up and say, ‘I never really listened to hip hop, but I think I can listen to it now. Because I now know how to listen to it,’ which was, you know, interesting conversations for people saying, ‘Now I know how to listen to hip hop,’ which is a whole other podcast in and of itself, knowing how to listen to music. That's a very interesting statement. I understand it. But the ways that APA can help, there's always the low-hanging fruit. Like, we would love to have people go to our website,, sign up to be a volunteer. And when there are opportunities, where we have camps that come into your city, we'll definitely send you an email where you can volunteer. But more than volunteering or getting your city organization, your firm, etc., to host a camp. So the only way that we do camps is through partnerships. With organizations, we don't charge our young people a fee. So we're totally dependent upon donations to make the camp happen. So that is one of the biggest things that we can do, as a partnership with APA, is get some camps in in cities across the country. 


JP: Aside from the artists and the students that you've been able to work with, have you found opportunities to also engage local residents and stakeholders from the same communities where you're doing these projects? 


MF: Yes, so one thing that gets overshadowed about the Hip Hop Architecture Camp’s start is, it started off as this partnership with the city of Madison's planning department, their mayor office, as they're updating the city's comprehensive plan, and it was all about getting residents to come out and be civically engaged. And I have went to some of the community engagement meetings by the city. And I know they were trying. But everybody agreed that they were missing the mark. They had these demographic questions, you know, you do the live Q&A, and they will show you the answers afterwards, you know, what's the average age in a room? How many men, how many women, other demographics, etc. And I went to the mayor's office and the planning department, I said, ‘You know what, I can get people.’ ‘Oh, can you?’ Yes, and after having so much back and forth, at the end, I said, ‘Yeah, I'm gonna do all of this, but I'm gonna use hip hop to do it.’ And they were already, like, committed to working with you at that time. So I have to do hip hop at the end. And they couldn't say no at that point. But we worked with residents around the city of Madison to look at the maybe 12 or 15 points that the comprehensive plan was focused on. These were kids who were like 8–12 years old. And the city's comprehensive plan looks 25 years into the future. So these young people will be, you know, entering their prime, once everything has been put in place in this competition. But then their parents were there too. So their parents are like, you know, you're playing Biggie. What's happening? The parents were, like, lingering around to a point where the parents have conversations. 


JP: They’re intrigued.  


MF: Right, right. So that was one scenario that, again, gets overshadowed sometimes. You see the music videos, you see like this unique approach to design. But it started off as this way to get residents involved with what's happening with their city, and Madison was a start. But we've done that with other cities, with other projects, not just city government but also private developers who want to make sure that they get input from residents. So we've used it as a tool to not only listen to current residents but also that creative listening I was talking about earlier. Let's listen to some of the music that was produced in that neighborhood and see if there are nuggets in it, that you as a developer or us, you know, the mayor, or whomever is doing some type of development or project in this neighborhood, if you should be listening to it. 


JP: And you know, it's wild, having seen the evolution of the camps and everything you've been tackling and touching, I did not know that. I did not know the details of that, that it started, you know, through the mayor's office in Madison, Wisconsin, and it kind of just exploded from there. And you started to take it to other cities. I learned that this weekend, just kind of you know, hanging out and kicking it. 


MF: When I started it, it is my fault that people didn't notice. I was like, ah, it started with the mayor's office, the planning department, that's cool, but that's not going to be the draw. Right? Right, go, wow, it's gonna be alright, let's use LEGO®s, let's use this, let's try to rebuild rap lyrics. I wanted to make it, you know, more, quote unquote, like, of the culture. And as the years have gone on, and after trying out a ton of different approaches to this topic, we went back to our roots of, you know, let's do the thing that really allows our young people to critique what's going on in their neighborhoods, dream about what's going on in their neighborhoods, and, you know, focus on actual projects. There's still sometimes when we're dreaming. But let's really use this as a way to get young people like civically engaged and let them propose buildings and design concepts to their neighborhood leadership. 


JP: I love it. I love it. I mean, I think that's the exact approach. I mean, the thing that has always drawn me to urban design, urban planning, you know, for me, kind of straddling both scales working between the macro and the micro scale, as a planner and an architect. The piece that ties me to planning and urban design is a community engagement piece. We're trying to build consensus with stakeholders and residents and, you know, and the developer and just, you know, finding a way to create real shared ownership on these type of projects. And so I think getting the students to buy into that, the residents to buy into that, I think that's honestly the sweet equation. That's the perfect equation for these projects that have real success and longevity, right? That's the heart of the projects kind of coming together. We're closing in at the end of this session. You and I…I'm really excited to have this exchange. Like I said, I know we could go on for another hour or two. But Michael, my brother, it's good to see you. I think we're gonna wrap it up here. Again, thank you to the APA and the 2022 National Conference in San Diego. We really appreciate the invite to come and speak and engage Mike to open up the keynote. Just was such an inspirational speech this morning and also to have an opportunity to do this one on one, talking today for this podcast this afternoon. So with that, we'll say good day. Thank you.  


MF: Alright, thanks, J. 


CK: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of People Behind the Plans, an APA Podcast. Special thanks to Michael Ford for joining us and Jason Pugh for guest hosting. For more episodes, subscribe to the APA podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. If you're enjoying the show, please rate us on iTunes and to listen to past episodes visit Until next time, thanks for listening. 

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