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How New York defined rap's attitude

MC Lyte, Young M.A, Jay-Z & A$AP Rocky. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.
Frazer Harrison / Paras Griffin / Scott Gries / Ilya S. Savenok
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MC Lyte, Young M.A, Jay-Z & A$AP Rocky. Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR.

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, we are mapping hip-hop's story on a local level, with more than a dozen city-specific histories of the music and culture. Click here to see the entire list.

If you've been around for any of the past 50 years of hip-hop, you're already well aware of New York's place in the pantheon. Even if you haven't seen the famous DJ Kool Herc party flyer from 1973, rarely is the genre spoken about without giving the city its due. Decades later, hip-hop has gone from Sedgwick Avenue to di world, breaking borders and language barriers in a never-ending storm of cultural exchange. It has become the story of the streets, the voice of the marginalized and the mainstream sound for entertainment. And while it has picked up all the lovely nuances of each region along the way, there is no overstating its influence: The city gave rap its personality and attitude.

From then until now, New York has always been full of characters. A city of millions growing ever upward, NYC is the place to stand up and stand out lest you be trampled underfoot by sheer population size. Hip-hop is the story of Blackness in an anti-Black world, quite literally beat breaks using the funk music of the civil rights movement. From its birth the legacy and lineage of American Blackness has always been its backbone, but if the music has done one thing overall it is show the world that Blackness has never been and never will be a monolith. Black people are a constant swath of personalities, values and tastes and the city has always had enough people and perspective to show them all off with braggadocio and aplomb. It is its best contribution.


What started with the b-boys and b-girls simply dancing to beat breaks soon became rapping with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, alongside The Sugarhill Gang. With no idea of how far it could go, these groups performed for pure enjoyment. Like the matrons of the vogue balls of the time, they were the emcees, keeping the dancers energized and giving the people something else to cheer about. There was no need for the lyrics to make sense when they were accoutrement. But soon the scholars would enter the picture. The rise of DJ-rapper duos like Eric B. & Rakim, the godfather of lyricism, expanded the idea of rap itself — it wouldn't just accompany dancers and parties; it would be its own form of song. Through them, we began to see the potential for more. Rakim's lyricism enforced the idea that we were responsible for really telling a story and giving a glimpse into Black life. His first album with Eric B., Paid in Full, was named after an infamous posse in the city. With metaphors and philosophies, these men stood tall and long, reaching their arms out to talk about life in the city and the values that kept them 10 toes down. And just like that, we became the sound of the streets. But even the scholars had company: KRS-One (the militant intellectual) and Run-D.M.C. (the tracksuit-wearing funnymen) and Public Enemy's Chuck D (a philosopher in his own right). The message was delivered in many ways, from aggressive to almost cartoonish. Again the monolith was slayed.

Hip-hop is a snake-like creature that gets into all the cracks and crevices and a city that touted five separate boroughs of distinct cultures could never just stop at one level. Soon the scholars were followed by the whiz kids (think A Tribe Called Quest), devoted not just to smooth and snappy lyrics but also great beats. The famous record breaks of Herc's day had become cutting, sampling and looping to create a bigger sound for the lyrics to inhabit. It was then we began to see the music that had lent itself to this genre repurposed for the younger generation, born into a world where Black people could vote and Jim Crow had not been experienced firsthand. These folks would speak of our progress and also of how much road we had left to go. The success of this type of hip-hop would suggest a standard or stasis, but no — the music has always been about evolution, and the stickup kids of Brooklyn and Queens were ready to tell their own story.

Though not the first, the most famous rap stickup kid, one Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., has always been the face of rap's turn to a darker, more aggressive nature. Gone were the quips of delight and self-confidence. Biggie was rap's goth. He spoke of murder, poverty, death and self-harm as the norm of his life. From Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy, he saw a world that was actively trying to destroy him and rap as the key to freedom. His kind weren't reading books or passing on scholarly thoughts, they were giving it to you as raw as they sold it: This is what it's like on the street for the average Black man: You scrimp and survive until the cops get you or you die.

For many, this turn was an unwelcoming one, but it felt truer to the youth. In a city soon to become hostile to inhabitants, characters from its underbelly fired warning shots in songs about what capitalism would bring our way and how much progress would not be linear. Biggie, Nas, Wu-Tang and more led hip-hop to a place that was far less about respectability and more about honesty. They were proud to be dropouts, raised by the rules of the road and using hip-hop as another hustle to get rich. The bandits took rap from the streets into its new class of shiny suits and Benzes. They understood the glow up of drug dealers and all the opportunities that money could afford. Nobody was dancing, they were pushing lyrics.

Once hip-hop got some money, there was no stopping it, and even though New York's stronghold on the genre would lag by the mid-2000s, the personalities were never anything less than top of the game. From these avenues came the flip of feminism, women like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, who would shoot you in broad daylight wearing a Chanel bikini; the gangsters who refused to change for class privileges (guys like Ja Rule and DMX), a gang that acted as Diplomats for pink and leather, and the kingpin who turned legitimate businessman simply by telling his stories about drug dealing as free enterprise (one S Dot Carter). To top it off, rappers were not just at home on the block; they were jet-setting to Paris, buying houses in L.A. and drinking in Miami, everywhere they'd been told they could never go, and front row to boot. They brought hip-hop to the corporate boardroom and to the shores of an elite contingent that had always lived just down the road, on 5th Avenue, yet always remained a world away from Blackness.

In the end, what has sustained New York and its rap scene for so long is its belief in all of the sides of its personality. Even when the standard sound is coming from other regions — Atlanta, Los Angeles and even drill from the Midwest — the New Yorkers bring a "we grew here, y'all flew here" attitude to it all. Decades after Rakim, a boy named after him (A$AP Rocky) would bring the sounds of Houston to Harlem. Nicki Minaj took the tradition of sexual empowerment to record-breaking levels by fashioning herself as the Black Barbie with a dissociative personality disorder. French Montana continued the story of refugees turned American socialites and all the other marginalized folks that found safety in Black culture.

It's well-known that New York is the place where freaks move to be normal. It's a city of chosen families as much as it is one of money. New York gave rap a community and then made it micro. Nowadays, you don't just rep your city, you rep your block, your specific housing project or your specific people. New York smashed the seemingly immovable mountain of a homogenized Black Community into a multifaceted structure that will never stop growing, and that will always be its grandest legacy.


Where to start with NYC rap:

  • The Notorious B.I.G., "Who Shot Ya?" (1994)
  • Junior M.A.F.I.A., "Get Money" (1995)
  • Lil' Kim, Queen B****" (1996)
  • The Firm, "Phone Tap" (1997)
  • Jay-Z, "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" (1998)
  • Busta Rhymes, "Gimme Some More" (1998)
  • DMX, "How's It Goin' Down" (1998)
  • Shyne, "Bonnie & Shyne" (2000)
  • G. Dep, "Special Delivery" (2001)
  • Jadakiss and Styles P, "We Gonna Make It" (2001)
  • The Diplomats, "Dipset Anthem" (2003)
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    Judnick Mayard