Salt-N-Pepa perform at a park in Ozone Park, Queens (1986). Photo: Dave Funkenklein, courtesy of Pete Nice
Though the Bronx is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of hip-hop culture, the origin story was the source of one of the first crew wars in the genre’s history. The beef between KRS-One’s Bronx-based Boogie Down Productions and Marley Marl’s Juice Crew out of Queensbridge was known as The Bridge Wars, which arose in the late 1980s over a dispute about the birthplace of rap music.
While Queens may have lost the battle in the history books, its contributions to hip-hop are countless. The borough has been a hotbed of talent since early on and continues to produce world-famous artists. Along the way, Queens has forever shaped the culture. In the ’80s, for instance, Queens group Run-DMC had the first-ever hip-hop video played on MTV. Eric B, from Queens, and Rakim, from Long Island, released Paid in Full, widely acclaimed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Then LL Cool J changed the game again when Bigger and Deffer spent 11 weeks at No. 1 on the R&B charts. Queens can even claim the first hip-hop mogul, Russell Simmons, not to mention a wealth of other artists who became household names—A Tribe Called Quest, Ja Rule, Waka Flocka Flame, Nas, Mobb Deep, Salt-N-Pepa, N.O.R.E., Action Bronson, Nicki Minaj, 50 Cent and more.
Read on for more about Queens’ role in hip-hop and where the culture can be found in the borough today.
Over the Years
In the mid-1980s, Queens produced the first rap supergroup, Run-DMC. The trio’s impact on hip-hop cannot be overstated. Along with singles such as “Sucker MC’s,” and “Run’s House,” their unlikely collaboration on “Walk This Way” with hard-rock band Aerosmith was a watershed moment in the early history of hip-hop culture. Run-DMC were style influencers as well. Their uniform of black Kangol hats, black jeans and T-shirts, gold chains and Adidas sneakers helped launch the streetwear fashion revolution. Their 1986 single “My Adidas” drew the fashion world’s attention to hip-hop’s influence on young consumers. As if that weren’t enough to canonize the group, Russell Simmons, brother of Run-DMC member Rev. Run, founded Def Jam records, which became the seminal label of hip-hop’s golden age.
Another well-known Queens superstar of the era was LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James), hip-hop’s first sex symbol, who realized his calling after performing in the lunchroom at Manhattan Center High School in East Harlem. Said the musician in a later interview, “As soon as it was over there were girls screaming and asking for autographs. Right then and there I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’” The St. Albans, Queens, native has had a multifaceted career as a recording artist and actor, with a long list of credits.
Queensbridge, a public housing development in Long Island City, played a critical role in hip-hop history. From DJ/producer Marley Marl and his Juice Crew collective’s park jams to Nas and Mobb Deep, Queensbridge nurtured a prodigious scene. Some of the neighborhood’s most famous early moments included Roxanne Shanté’s 1984 breakout hit “Roxanne’s Revenge”—one of hip-hop’s most beloved diss tracks. A proto-feminist response to Brooklyn hip-hop group UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” the idea came from Shanté’s neighbor Marley Marl, who invited the then 14-year-old to freestyle an answer record that established her as one of the first female rappers.
While collaborating with the Juice Crew collective (Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace, Craig G and others), Marl was also instrumental in the career of Salt-N-Pepa. Then recording as Super Nature, the duo of Cheryl James (Salt) and Sandra Denton (Pepa) got their track “The Showstopper” into Marl’s hands; he played it on his radio show, providing the exposure that led to their signing with a label and eventually recording as Salt-N-Pepa. Their debut album, Hot, Cool & Vicious, sold more than 1 million copies in the US, making the Hollis, Queens, natives the first female rap act to go platinum. Since then, they’ve won several Grammys and sold more than 15 million records.
Some elements of the borough’s hip-hop history are fraught. Most notably, in the ’80s and ’90s Queens was home to gangs. The most notorious of these was the Supreme Team, run by Kenneth McGriff and his nephew Gerald Miller. Feared and respected as both employers and role models, they commanded money and power, and their flashy lifestyle, which included designer cars, clothes and over-the-top parties, in some ways inspired the likes of Nas, LL Cool J, Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z, who have all referenced the Supreme Team in their music.
McGriff gravitated to the rap scene, where he was courted by Irv Gotti of Murder Inc. Records—the label of Hollis, Queens, rapper Ja Rule. Gotti offered McGriff a job, but the gang leader refused, though he played a role in the company, especially with regard to his friend Ja Rule. Ja Rule went on to sell over 30 million records worldwide, though he too has a checkered past, including convictions for tax evasion and gun possession. Nas produced an illuminating Showtime docu-series about the gang titled Supreme Team, and Ethan Brown’s excellent nonfiction book Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler goes into the story in greater detail. (McGriff is currently serving a life sentence after being convicted in a murder-for-hire plot in 2007.)
In the ’90s, Queens musicians continued to expand the boundaries of the genre. A Tribe Called Quest, also out of St. Albans, helped shape alternative hip-hop by forming the Native Tongues collective. The loose-knit group, which included Tribe, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, Monie Love and Queen Latifah, pioneered the use of eclectic sampling, jazz-influenced beats and a positive-minded social agenda.
The decade also saw the rise of Nas and hip-hop duo Mobb Deep. Nas’ debut album, Illmatic (1994), is acknowledged as one of the best-ever hip-hop records. His unique style, emphasizing flow, storytelling and introspection, inspired a generation of rappers to delve deeper into their own experiences and emotions. At the same time, he brought the hardcore style, and public attention, back to the East Coast, most notably through his rivalry with Jay-Z. The beef has long since been buried, but it nevertheless showed that NYC was still tough and ready to battle. For Nas, “the king from Queens,” this was just the beginning. He keeps an extensive touring schedule while expanding his empire as a serial entrepreneur with ventures like restaurant chain Sweet Chick and creative agency Mass Appeal.
Also paving the way for the City’s move from conscious rap to a harder, more contemporary sound was Mobb Deep. Keeping it all in the family, the duo was discovered by Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest when he stopped to listen to a tape they were bringing around to record labels. Mobb Deep became a big success, selling over 3 million records.
From South Jamaica, 50 Cent brought Queens hip-hop into the 21st century. Discovered by Eminem, he signed a $1 million contract with Shady Records and later started the G-Unit record label. The rapper, Emmy winner and entrepreneur wears many hats, from charity work to acting to beverages to sports.
Hip-hop continues to thrive in Queens with independent artists such as Anik Khan and the best-selling female rapper of all time, Nicki Minaj. Although originally from Trinidad, Minaj absorbed her new home’s culture and took it to a new level in mainstream culture with more than 20 top-10 hits. Another key player, Action Bronson, born in Flushing, is known as much as an underground rapper as he is for being a foodie. He now makes music and hosts a popular web documentary food series, Fuck, That’s Delicious.
Pockets of Hip-Hop Culture
Those looking to explore hip-hop culture in Queens should know that the locations significant to the culture are many—and widely spread out, from Long Island City to Hollis, Jamaica, St. Albans and beyond. In the ’80s, when hip-hop began to take off in the mainstream, 203rd Street in Hollis was where you could see stars like Run-DMC hanging out. As mentioned above, the Queensbridge Houses were home to Nas (listen to his track “Queensbridge Politics”). Russell Simmons spent much of his early years in Jamaica, as Onyx and Nicki Minaj did decades later. The neighborhood’s Jamaica Colosseum Mall was a cultural marketplace where stars shopped for their outfits, and Famous Eddie was the first jeweler to sell grills, which would become a staple of hip-hop fashion. Other parts of Southeast Queens, including areas such as Springfield Gardens, Laurelton and Rochdale, are the home-ground territory of other hip-hop greats, including A Tribe Called Quest, Lost Boyz and LL Cool J.
Where Hip-Hop Culture Can Be Felt Today
A Tribe Called Quest Mural. Photo: Nicholas Knight
A Tribe Called Quest Mural
Located at Linden Boulevard and 192nd Street in St. Albans, this mural was commissioned after the untimely passing of founding member Malik “Phife Dawg” Taylor in 2016 following complications from diabetes. Artist Vincent Ballentine painted the mural on the side of the building on whose roof the group’s “Check the Rhime” video was filmed in 1991.
Jam Master Jay Mural
At 205th Street and Hollis Avenue, a cornerstone of hip-hop culture in Queens that was renamed Run-DMC JMJ Way in 2009, fans will find a mural that honors the life of the group’s DJ. Jay was murdered in 2002; this artwork was created by the airbrush muralist Art-1 the following year.
Jamaica Colosseum Mall
Many rappers have walked through the doors of this mall, including LL Cool J, who used the location for his “Hush” video; Wu-Tang Clan, who filmed their “Ice Cream” video here as well; Run-DMC, Jay-Z, 50 Cent and other artists who grew up and shopped in these stores as kids and have mentioned the Jamaica Colosseum Mall in their music. They still visit, along with a new generation—the mall is a place where small business owners can thrive.
Courtesy, Sweet Chick
Sweet Chick LIC
Backed by Nas, this restaurant franchise with a few locations in New York City and one in LA pays homage to hip-hop culture through their long list of regulars. A-listers like Nicki Minaj, Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar have dined here, and the restaurant has hosted pop-up performances from the likes of Slick Rick and collaborations with brands like Clarks.
Courtesy, Rock the Bells
Rock the Bells Festival
This annual festival, “The Home for All Things Classic and Timeless Hip-Hop,” is headed by Queens local LL Cool J and takes place in August at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. It always features a lineup of international and local artists, plus up-and-coming names from the underground scene. The 2023 edition included Queen Latifah, Ludacris, De La Soul, Method Man & Redman. The Trill Mealz Food Court at the festival featured local restaurants and restaurants owned by hip-hop artists.
Here is a selection of songs by Queens-based hip-hop artists that provide a sampling of how the genre has evolved.
Eric B & Rakim, Marley Marl, “Eric B Is President”
Run-DMC featuring Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”
LL Cool J, “Mama Said Knock You Out”
Lost Boyz, “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz & Benz”
Ja Rule, “Always on Time”
Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind”
Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones Pt. II”
A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It?”
50 Cent, “Many Men”
Nicki Minaj, “Moment 4 Life”
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