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Free Richardson opens the gates to creativity at The Compound

An artistic and cultural haven is tucked away within the South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven. A site in which art, music, fashion, sports and film, react, intermix, and synthesize into what is called, The Compound; a creative agency and gallery founded and run by the cultural pioneer, that is, Free Richardson.

Born in the Bronx and growing up between Queens and Philadelphia, Richardson is embedded in the East Coasts’ hip-hop and rap scene. He is widely known as the creative mind behind AND1 Mixtapes; a project that took streetball and hip-hop music on a cultural cross-country tour, with the circuit visiting the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and more.

The AND1 Mixtapes popularity ascended to immense heights during the 1990s. Yet, the project is ultimately indicative of Richardson’s continual innovation and advocacy for the collaboration between different industries, as he has never seen different art forms as mutually exclusive.

Indeed, the interplay between different art forms and industries is exactly what defines his space, The Compound.

The gallery’s location is fitting given that the South Bronx is widely considered to be the birthplace of hip-hop in the 1970s. The beats, breaks, and sounds that were produced in the Bronx, however, reverberated across the different boroughs of New York City, as well as state lines, as the groundbreaking music incited the discovery of more artistic outlets and means of self-expression.

With graffiti art sprayed on subway carts and neighborhood walls, U.S. cityscapes became canvases. The bright, bold, and vibrant colors that decorated the urban environment also translated into the world of fashion, reflected in the streetwear of city-dwellers, and each neighborhood had its own flow.

The colors sprayed across the urban milieus and the colors worn on black and brown bodies ultimately had an audible effect, as if their identity and humanity was screaming out not to be denied amidst the violence, poverty, and struggles that pervaded life on the street. Evidently, hip-hop has a deep and rich history.

Nonetheless, the attention the music garners due to its expansive global reach often dominates over the art and culture that developed alongside the production of the beats, kicks, rhymes, and lyrics.

While art has not exactly been the discursive focal point in regards to hip-hop, in speaking to KultureHub, Richardson maintains that art has always been there and this informed his decision to transform The Compound. The space metamorphed from a personal office and business space, into a gallery where he could showcase emerging artists from marginalized backgrounds.

Setor Tsikudo (@tsikudo_/)

On Wednesday night (October 24th), The Compound opened its doors for the art show,  ‘A WAY OUT,’ exhibiting the work of contemporary abstract artist, King Saladeen. In our interview, Richardson revealed his views on the relationship between art and hip-hop music, declaring,

“To me art is everything. Hip-hop and art are like hip-hop and basketball. It’s never been separate. When you think of hip-hop, from the album covers that have been drawn, to the stage designs that have been drawn, to the way an artist even gets dressed, these are all art forms. A lot of artists today, from King Saladeen to other artists, this [hip-hop] is the soundtrack to what they paint too, so it’s always been connected.”

Saladeen also discussed the interconnectedness between the two art forms, citing it as instrumental to his own creative process. He says,

“All of these pieces here are from a different vibe or different feeling I got from a certain song or from a certain album. When I first started seeing hip-hop as a kid, I would see art. It was art in all the videos. If it was a certain wall they would rap in front of a certain area or neighbourhood.”

In asking the importance of bridging the gap between artists and creatives from different industries, Richardson described how he wanted to formulate a space for creatives to exercise their artistic license to the utmost degree and to pioneer new ways to experience art, as he asserted,

“You know, I could curate an art show with King Saladeen and a person who does fencing, and the guy could be doing fencing while Saladeen paints. That’s going to draw a way better crowd than if I just put him with another painter. So, the space is about combining things that normally don’t go together and compounding them together makes everything just a bigger experience.”


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Shout out to @daveeast for pulling up to “A Way Out” last night! #Compound @iam_setfree @kingsaladeen 📸 by @sonnyshootswaves

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Saladeen added that moments of collaboration as Richardson imagines, from an artists viewpoint, make for a more exciting, inspiring and comfortable artistic environment. He stated,

“If you bridge the gap and make different things come together, people feel more comfortable. At the end of the day, if you ask a basketball player what does he do when he is not playing basketball, he is probably listening to music, loving clothes, liking different kinds of art.”

In discussing the title of the exhibition, Saladeen commented that the title was fitting since, despite both Richardson and Saladeen growing up in the same neighborhood in Philadelphia, the two didn’t know each other and speculates that in all likelihood if they were still there, they still wouldn’t have crossed paths.

In other words, it was art that allowed them to gain economic mobility and provided the opportunities necessary to levitate beyond the hardships that characterize life on the street. Saladeen emphasized the importance of the space for the local community, noting the space’s didactic purpose.

He described how for the youth in the community, The Compound puts art on their radar and provides crucial access to an exciting and inspiring space that is not relegated to the localities of Soho or Chelsea. Saladeen illustrated,

“When you walk past these windows and these different shows, they are all amazing. You might haven’t been inside yet, but you are wondering when you are going to get your chance come inside and it is around the corner from your house. It helps people feel like they are a part of this world too.”

Setor Tsikudo (@tsikudo_/)

Both Richardson and Saladeen agreed that the art world needs more outlets, with Saladeen underlining how the title of the exhibition in itself seeks to break out of the confines of the industry,

“We are creating a way out because there hasn’t been many young black artists or even black gallery owners to even put something like this together so, it was the perfect name I think.”

In this sense, the show’s title ‘A Way Out’ applies to both the project of using art as a mode to provide economic opportunity for marginalized communities while also transcending the institutional confines of the art world.

With hip-hop built on the premise of overcoming obstacles and any limitations, we see this rendered through both the oeuvre of Saladeen and Richardson’s vision for the Compound.

The Compound and Saladeen’s exhibition ultimately elucidates black cultural production as a full of movement and reactive.

In doing so, ‘A Way Out’ underlines how different art forms never operate statically, but rather, the relationship is reciprocal and interconnected. Simply put, there is not one singular modality in which to articulate and express our set of experiences.