WBLS "Kiss-Busters" Street Block Party, Summer 1985, Harlem. Photo: Winston Sanders
Hip-hop may have started in the Bronx, but it had to expand in the City before making its way as a global phenomenon. Manhattan, the Bronx’s neighbor to the south, naturally became a bastion of hip-hop due to its proximity—with uptown separated from the Bronx by the Harlem River. And the island’s connections to the rest of NYC’s boroughs made “Money Making Manhattan” (as it’s commonly referred to in hip-hop culture) a center for the culture’s explosion, especially in neighborhoods like Harlem, the Lower East Side and Soho. A number of hip-hop’s most influential artists called Manhattan home, and the borough’s profusion of clubs, record labels and media outlets helped push the culture worldwide. Read on for more of the story.
Some of hip-hop’s first stars claimed Manhattan, in particular Harlem—the epicenter of Black culture since the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s—as home. Early notables included Doug E. Fresh, known for his beatboxing skills, and the group Treacherous Three, of which Kool Moe Dee was a member. Harlem’s imprint continued throughout the decades, thanks to mainstream artists like A$AP Rocky, Cam’ron and the Diplomats (Juelz Santana and Jim Jones), Black Rob, Kurtis Blow and Ma$e. Even its underground rappers hold lofty status with fans, such as the late Big L, Immortal Technique and Smoke DZA. But Harlem isn’t the only neighborhood in Manhattan that contributes to the culture. For example, the Beastie Boys called the Lower East Side their stomping grounds—a fact recently memorialized by the naming of , at the intersection where the cover of Paul’s Boutique was shot—and Rick Rubin co-founded Def Jam Recordings out of his NYU dorm room in Greenwich Village.
Harlem has always been known for its hustlers and flash amid the grit of the inner city. This same spirit often crept into the artists it spawned. Kurtis Blow, hip-hop’s first major-record-label signee, showed the genre’s moneymaking potential with early hits like “Christmas Rappin’” and “The Breaks.” Adding to Blow’s influence, his manager was Russell Simmons, who went on to co-found Def Jam with Rubin, while Run (Simmons’ brother Joseph) of Run-DMC fame was Blow’s DJ.
In the late 1980s Harlem’s Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock released “It Takes Two,” one of hip-hop’s biggest hits and a song that still gets a dance floor shaking. By the mid- to late ’90s, when NYC artists like Notorious B.I.G. were dominant, Biggie’s Bad Boy Records labelmate Ma$e fiercely repped Harlem, as did Ma$e’s high school classmate (and former bandmate) Cam’ron, who eventually commandeered his own Diplomats collective. The Diplomats’ influence was undeniable, providing a throughline to the current crop of Harlem artists like Smoke DZA, A$AP Rocky and the A$AP Mob.
The neighborhood’s impact has not been limited to rappers. A number of popular hip-hop dances also originated in Harlem. These moves, such as the Harlem Shake, the Chicken Noodle Soup and Litefeet, made their way from the streets to clubs around the world.
The business side of hip-hop also took root in Manhattan. The underground hip-hop scene often centered on Rawkus Records, which had offices based in Manhattan, as did (and still do) most of the hip-hop music, fashion and art industries for most of its existence. Major labels hoping to secure local talent kept offices in the borough and sent their A&R reps to weekly parties at clubs like Latin Quarter, the Tunnel and the Palladium. Those artists, once signed, would be run up to local radio stations like Hot 97, WBLS and later Power 105. Mr. Magic (John Rivas), the first DJ to devote a show to the genre on commercial radio, hosted Rap Attack on WBLS, and Hot 97 was home to the renowned Funkmaster Flex. Music video shows on BET and MTV such as 106 & Park and TRL were also based in the borough.
Manhattan held famed recording studios like the Hit Factory, D&D and Chung King where classic hip-hop records such as Run-DMC’s Raising Hell and Jay-Z’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life were produced. All the while, the culture was being documented by journalists at magazines like The Source or local papers like The Village Voice. In short, Manhattan served as the center of the hip-hop music industry during its major growth years.
It’s no surprise that Manhattan was also the breeding ground for some of the most iconic hip-hop performances, parties and fashion. Manhattan had a party scene that featured storied clubs where hip-hop heads and scene followers would come to party. Not only would the best DJs play the choicest records, artists would also perform. These spots were literally all over the borough: The Tunnel was off the West Side Highway in the 20s, The Rooftop (Rooftop Roller Skating Rink and Disco), an OG nightspot, was in Harlem near the Polo Grounds housing projects and Rucker Park; and the Apollo Theater held down 125th Street.
But to truly experience hip-hop—the language, the music—you had to be outside. Harlem’s position as a fixture in Black culture naturally meant hip-hop rhythms permeated the air. Down in Lower Manhattan in neighborhoods like the West Village and Lower East Side, a more diverse mixture of fans were devoted to hip-hop’s budding sounds. Soho became the center for hip-hop fashion with stores such as Atrium, David Z and Supreme. Numerous iconic hip-hop music videos (many directed by Hype Williams) were shot in Times Square, including Busta Rhymes’ “Wooh-Hah!! Got You All In Check,” Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind,” 112’s "Only You (Remix)," which features Notorious B.I.G. and Ma$e, and Nas’ "If I Ruled the World,” with Lauryn Hill.
Photo: Kate Glicksberg
The prestigious Apollo is credited with launching the careers of legendary music acts such as Fat Joe, Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill. The long-running Showtime at the Apollo series featured countless hip-hop performances over the years, with labels using the show to break records across the country.
Photo: David Dee Delgado
This hall of fame is actually a public school’s playground whose walls serve as the canvas for some of the graffiti world’s most prestigious artists and crews.
Holcombe Rucker Park is home to the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic (aka The Rucker) summer pro-am league, which has featured pros like the late Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
Many hip-hop artists, including the likes of Cardi B, Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, have performed at Sounds of Brazil. It is one of the few remaining venues that consistently book up-and-coming hip-hop talent to perform making it a great place to experience the music.
Photo: Gabby Jones
Fat Joe didn’t keep his sportswear empire strictly in the Bronx. This Washington Heights location holds down local streetwear needs on Broadway (another store is farther uptown at 519 W. 207th St.).
The Uptown Night Market features food, vendors, art, music and culture once a month from April to October.
Here are a handful of songs that, from my perspective, best represent Manhattan hip-hop.