Biggie Smalls, 1994. Photo: Michael Benabib
Rap music may have started in the , but there’s a strong case to be made that Brooklyn has provided an equal or even greater contribution. Whenever the culture made history, Brooklyn was in the house, and many times was the house. The borough has long been the epicenter of culture and cool in the hip-hop scene, thanks to its iconic block parties, historic park concerts, plethora of DJ sets and trendsetting street style.
The native pedigree speaks for itself. Nicknamed Medina, Brooklyn has birthed the best to ever do it—not just top MCs like Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z but GOATs in other realms, such as Michael Jordan and Eddie Murphy. Read on to learn more about the stamp the borough put on hip-hop.
Who Is from the Culture
In the ’80s, underground songs like “What People Do For Money” by ’s Divine Sounds and Cutmaster DC’s “Brooklyn’s in the House” helped put the borough on the map. Meanwhile, the first major US hip-hop tour featured pioneering groups Whodini, whose members hailed from Brooklyn’s Gowanus section, and Newcleus of Bed-Stuy. While hip-hop was visiting stadiums for the first time, the East Flatbush trio UTFO were making their own history, battling in the first rap-single rivalry with Roxanne Shanté in what was known as the Roxanne Wars.
By the mid-’80s, Bed-Stuy produced the borough’s first MC to claim the top spot in the streets of NYC. Big Daddy Kane, the smooth operator with the high-top fade, ruled as a soloist and member of the predominantly Queens-based Juice Crew (which also featured fellow Brooklynite Masta Ace). Along with rappers like MC Lyte and Audio Two, they kept BK’s hip-hop scene pulsating.
While Kane competed with Rakim, LL Cool J and KRS-One for the unofficial King of New York Hip-Hop title, another Bed-Stuy native, Chris Rock, set his sights on the King of Comedy crown. Rock made a name with hip-hop films like CB4 and New Jack City; however, no cinema spoke to and for the culture of the time like a Spike Lee film, especially Do The Right Thing (which featured Public Enemy’s incendiary “Fight the Power”) and Crooklyn. While the Brooklyn-bred director was bringing culture to the big screen, Brownsville’s Mike Tyson was revolutionizing the sport of boxing as the youngest-ever heavyweight champion—and the first to represent hip-hop, from the part in his fade to the Public Enemy tracks that blared as he entered the ring.
By the mid-’90s, Brooklyn was home to both the King and Queen of NY. The Notorious B.I.G.’s reign was brief but his 1994 debut, Ready to Die , and posthumous double album, Life After Death, are considered two of the finest hip-hop albums ever. After Biggie’s passing, Jay-Z succeeded him at the top. Around this same time, there were no bigger femcees than Bed-Stuy’s Lil’ Kim (aka Queen Bee) and Prospect Heights’ Foxy Brown, both of whom generated hits during the late ’90s and early 2000s, going toe-to-toe with the fellas while creating an uber-feminine, sex-forward aesthetic.
Once the new millennium arrived, fresh talent like Roosevelt Projects’ Mos Def helped underground rappers ascend to the mainstream and Brevoort Houses’ Fabolous represented the club era of the early 2000s. Eventually a young Canarsie MC would emerge to become the face of NYC drill rap: the late Pop Smoke.
Over the Years
In the ’80s, boroughs shared the fashion aesthetic of rope chains, door-knocker earrings, suede Pumas, Lee jeans and sheepskin coats. Once the ’90s arrived, Brooklyn began to steer the style ship. Walker Wear, by borough native April Walker, is recognized as hip-hop’s first streetwear line. Everyone from Tupac to Method Man wore the brand, known for its oversize jerseys, tees and hoodies with “WW” or “Walker Wear” logos; the style inspired Virgil Abloh decades later.
Around this time, New Yorkers began to seek a baggier silhouette. Enter East Flatbush’s Karl Kani, who used Jamaican-dancehall-inspired cuts to satisfy the cravings for oversize denim. Then there was the Polo explosion, which the borough . While New Rochelle’s Grand Puba (original lead for Brand Nubian) was rap’s face of the preppy B-boy look of the early ’90s, his swag was powered by Brooklyn’s Ralph Lauren hysteria.
Flatbush and East Flatbush also fostered the intersection between hip-hop and dancehall—which is, like rap, a club- and DJ-originated music from the 1970s though spawned from slower-tempoed roots reggae. Many rappers were of Caribbean descent, especially those in East Flatbush. On Church Avenue, MCs with Jamaican heritage like Special Ed and Busta Rhymes could be found hanging with dancehall superstars like Buju Banton and Super Cat, whose “Ghetto Red Hot” sourced its remix from hip-hop rhythms. Fun fact: Super Cat gave the Notorious B.I.G—whose mother was Jamaican—his first remix appearance on “Dolly My Baby.” Biggie and artists such as Fu-Schnickens (Trinidad) and Chubb Rock (Jamaica) paved the way for the next era of second-generation Caribbean rappers like Bobby Shmurda.
Shmurda, who hails from the 90s section where East Flatbush and Brownsville meet, put the borough in the limelight with his smash single and viral video “Hot N***a.” His friend and neighbor Rowdy Rebel followed with the street hit “Computers.” After both were incarcerated, Brooklyn’s rap scene was left with a void, eventually filled by drill rappers. Pop Smoke took the baton, which was passed to Flatbush’s Fivio Foreign and into the hands of artists like Maiya the Don and Lola Brooke.
Courtesy, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership
Pockets of Hip-Hop Culture
Hip-hop culture lives throughout the borough. Sherwin Banfield’s interactive stands in Cadman Plaza. Just east is Westinghouse, the high school Biggie attended with aspiring rappers Busta Rhymes and Jay-Z. Head down Flatbush to find classic restaurant (which became MTV famous after P. Diddy sent his Making the Band artists on a ) and the historic Fulton Mall—once the home of the legendary Albee Square Mall, where rappers from Kane to Biz Markie (who in its honor) to Slick Rick would come to shop for everything from gold grills to eight-ball jackets.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the now-closed Empire Roller Skating Center on the border of Crown Heights and Flatbush was a hip-hop hub, where major artists performed and hung out. Both neighborhoods remain centers for the culture, seen particularly in block parties and street events. During the summer months, this can be felt from Red Hook to Marcy to Cypress Hill down to Coney Island. Two sights are certain on the Coney Island boardwalk: hot dogs and the latest hip-hop dances.
Still, no other Brooklyn neighborhood is more rooted in hip-hop than Bedford-Stuyvesant. The area has not only produced arguably the best rappers of all time, it served as the setting for Spike Lee’s 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing. That took place on Stuyvesant Avenue, though the street that probably best represents hip-hop in Brooklyn is Fulton. The stretch from downtown through Bed-Stuy and Brownsville to East New York is where you’d find rap residents from Junior Mafia to Gang Starr to Smif-N-Wessun hanging out. It’s also where café-lounge opened in the 1990s, holding open mics that featured appearances by members of a new generation of hip-hop: Erykah Badu, Wu-Tang Clan and Common.
Fort Greene packs a ton of history too. It’s the neighborhood of the original 50 Cent (Kelvin Martin), who inspired Curtis Jackson’s stage name, and was home to Spike Lee and his 40 Acres and a Mule store (offices and a mural from Do the Right Thing remain).
Where Hip-Hop Culture Can Be Felt Today
You’ll often hear hip-hop music playing throughout the park and see the latest hip-hop fashion; as well, BRIC’s Celebrate Brooklyn series always brings top hip-hop performers—the Roots and the Lox, for example—to the Lena Horne Bandshell.
Courtesy, Sweet Brooklyn
Tompkins Avenue between Gates Avenue and Halsey Street. Take part in a true Brooklyn block party filled with hip-hop culture every Sunday in the summer. This event brings out some of the best DJs and most fashionable Brooklynites to party, shop and socialize.
239 Flatbush Ave. Walking distance from Barclays Center is sibling-owned Vinnie’s Styles, which has been a Brooklyn mainstay (particularly for millennials in search of tees, sweatshirts and caps) for a couple of decades.
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