Part One: Rap on Tap

“It must be the water, right?” says Mobb Deep’s Havoc with a chuckle.

One half of the celebrated Queensbridge hip-hop duo, he isn’t the first to suggest that a secret ingredient meandering through the pipes of the nation’s largest public-housing development might be responsible for its storied hip-hop history. What else could explain how this sprawling complex in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens has been home to a string of hip-hop luminaries whose artistic weight has been felt well beyond its hallways?

“There was definitely something in the water,” says Roxanne Shanté, one of rap’s original stars, who called the 3,142-unit complex home from the day she was born until she moved out in the early ’90s. “Though that something in the water we talk about was probably pollution—we lived right next to the damn power plant! We probably all got a little bit of Incredible Hulk in us.” Perhaps this explains Queensbridge’s prolific output of hip-hop superheroes.

Hip-hop culture is widely considered to have been born in the Bronx on Aug. 11, 1973, at a “back to school jam” thrown by the music’s founding father, a Jamaican-born DJ who went by Kool Herc, then 16. He made history by developing and popularizing the breakbeat-turntable technique that would forever transform pop music.

The Bronx came to be recognized as the mecca of this explosive, multidimensional new expression. But its amalgamation of marginalized youth, immigrant culture, urban social ills and the politics surrounding them would ultimately sprout across the city; poor, over-policed, disenfranchised and underserved Black and Latino young people gravitated toward hip-hop, eager to add their signature flair to the original recipe—to be heard and seen.

The 96 nondescript, six-story brown brick buildings that make up Queensbridge are not unlike countless other developments overseen by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). But when hip-hop made its way from the Bronx to Queens, the new culture exerted a particularly strong grip on its residents—the list of homegrown talent that flourished in Queensbridge from the ’80s to the 2000s reads like a who’s who of hip-hop, both mainstream and underground: Mobb Deep, Roxanne Shanté, MC Shan, Marley Marl, Nas, Capone-N-Noreaga’s Capone, Craig G, Tragedy Khadafi, Big Noyd, Screwball, Blaq Poet, Big Twins, Nature and myriad affiliates.

“Music was a way to convey to the rest of the world what was going on in our projects when nobody else really cared,” explains MC Shan (born Shawn Moltke). “Music was always alive in Queensbridge.”

Part Two: Drums in the Living Room

The Queensbridge Houses were built in 1938 on 61 acres north of the Queensboro Bridge, which gave the development its name. Occupying six long blocks, the buildings are divided into two complexes: The North Houses on 40th Avenue and the South Houses on 41st.

“The first thing people say when they come to QB is, ‘Oh my God—it’s so big,’” says Shanté. “You learned how to do a lot of walking. Between walking to other buildings, plus going to the store and the park, you could easily cover 10 miles in a day.”

QB was partly the result of a pledge by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and NYCHA to prioritize housing for the working poor; Manhattan’s deteriorating and unsanitary tenements would be replaced by public housing. The new complexes, it was said, would reduce overcrowding and improve living conditions for low-income families.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the ceremony that saw Queensbridge open its doors in 1939. It was meant to be a model. To call the dwellings economical would be a gross understatement—indeed, every expense was spared. The small, spartan units had no closet doors. Instead of wood flooring, there were asbestos tiles. The elevators stopped only on the first, third and fifth floors.

Of the nearly 4,000 families living in Queensbridge in 1940, only 52 were Black. To ensure this racial composition remained, from 1953 to 1968 NYCHA implemented “moral codes” to screen out would-be tenants with irregular work histories, welfare participation, children born out of wedlock or drinking problems. Applicants could even be rejected for not having enough furniture.

It wasn’t until 1968, then, that Black and Latino residents began moving into Queensbridge in large numbers. Several factors drove the influx, chief among them the discontinuation of the moral codes, which fell under federal pressure and the opposition of welfare-rights activists, who argued that public housing should be reserved for the neediest.

White flight also played a role; as Black neighbors moved in, whites moved to the suburbs. Low-cost home ownership there was within reach for whites, whereas systemic racism (typically enshrined in housing “covenants”) kept Blacks from benefiting from the opportunities offered beyond the city limits. The continued migration of Black people from the Jim Crow South further contributed to the browning of Queensbridge.

Residents brought with them their patchwork of hope, faith and dreams, eager to weave new possibilities. The good, bad and uncertain times ahead would come with a soundtrack.

Before the QB projects reverberated with the sound of hip-hop, its units thrummed with jazz, soul and funk, the music spilling into hallways and stairwells. On warm days, the grooves blasted from open windows, serenading community members perched on benches or strolling along the complex’s paths.

By 1968 soul music was disseminating protest and trenchant commentary on the complexities of Black American life—and an uncompromising affirmation of Black identity. Climbing the R&B charts were James Brown’s “Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Aretha Franklin’s “Think” and Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” (which also landed on the pop charts).

In Queensbridge, the catharsis of soul came not only from records spun during Sunday-morning cleaning sessions or songs sparking out of transistor radios; it was live. “On the first floor across from me, you could hear a band playing,” MC Shan recalls of growing up on 10th Street. “They had drums set up in the living room, and you’d just hear them jamming.”

Music was everywhere in Queensbridge during the ’60s and ’70s. In addition to the jamming, residents taught each other how to play different instruments. Performances drew large crowds composed of residents and nonresidents alike. Poets dropped blank verse. Doo-woppers harmonized.

“Queensbridge was always musical, and that’s on every block,” affirms Shanté. “That’s why we’re so successful at what we do; if you talk to rappers from QB, you notice we’re all really into old-school R&B, because that music was played everywhere. People think QB is all hip-hop, but it’s really all music.”

Well before the advent of hip-hop, Queensbridge artists gained respect and fame outside its environs. In 1964 singer and songwriter Shirley Ellis had a #3 pop hit with “The Name Game.” Bernard Fowler of The Peech Boys—whose “Don’t Make Me Wait” is credited as the missing link between disco and underground house—would go on to collaborate with creators as diverse as Bootsy Collins, Duran Duran, Herbie Hancock, Phillip Glass and The Rolling Stones. Producer/songwriter Darryl Payne, an influential figure in disco, was also living in Queensbridge when his hits hit the radio. Buoyed by the support of the QB community, these breakouts gave aspiring creators in that community an inkling of what could be.

Part Three: The Segue

Marlon Williams was just a teen when inspiration struck him in the late ’70s, long before he became the architect of Queensbridge hip-hop and a legendary producer under the nom de guerre Marley Marl. His burgeoning oeuvre thundered from the turntables in Queensbridge Park. His uniquely smooth transitions between cuts drove QB wild.

Influenced by DJ Ted Currier, who popularized club-style mixing on the radio, Giorgio Moroder, Afrika Bambaataa and Kraftwerk, Marl got the B-boys and B-girls flaunting their flawless footwork. Other DJs were scratching, back-spinning and cutting records, but blending music the way he did was unheard of at the time.

Marl’s skills earned him gigs at clubs spinning electro and disco. But not hip-hop. “The earlier pioneers, like the Crash Crew songs, the earlier Sugar Hill songs, The Fat Boys and a lot of the earlier Kurtis Blow productions were great songs and great hooks,” he told NPR. “But it wasn’t really touching what made me fall in love with rap.”

When he heard the rap tapes coming out of the Bronx and Harlem, however, Marl was mesmerized—the raw, unfinished quality, the dirty echoes, the enthusiastic crowd in the background and the scratching and break beats all resonated deeply. Hip-hop would come to define his career as Marl sought to translate the grimy energy of those Bronx tapes onto wax.

One of his advances would have a seismic impact on the nascent form of rap—and echo throughout pop culture. “Marley Marl, in his infinite wisdom, figured out how to sample sounds from these records we knew and loved,” Shan remembers. “Hip-hop was there in the clubs, but when it came to records, Marley Marl innovated the whole game.” While Kool Herc was playing the breaks again and again on a continuous loop, Marl picked snippets of different records to create a new song. The collaging technique we now know as sampling would contribute mightily to Queensbridge’s early reign in hip-hop.

Thanks to Marl, the housing complex maintained its reputation as a creative center of New York music. Indeed, Bronx pioneers like Furious 4, Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash traveled to Queens to perform at Queensbridge’s Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House. Says Shan, “QB has its own little underground; I was introduced to hip-hop because of the Riis center. It’s what brought elements that I would have never seen otherwise.” He may have been too young to actually attend the Queensbridge jams at the Riis center, but he heard the music from his bedroom window, which faced the building.

Queensbridge even had its own weekly Top 10 countdown, with the songs residents deemed worthy of the QB seal of approval listed at the Queensbridge record store, Top Ten.

“My earliest memory is sneaking out to the park jam,” recounts Shanté. She recalls hearing Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” from her apartment window as it rumbled through the park. “The music was calling me, and I was like, ‘OK, that’s enough’; I had to answer. It was maybe 7pm and my bedtime was 8. I remember thinking I could just run down here and feel this energy of this hip-hop music and make it back into the house by 8. I got down there and next thing I knew, people are saying, ‘Shanté, here comes your mother.’ I thought, ‘Damn, I’m about to get fucked up at the park jam.’ I also remember it being worth the spanking I got!”

Part Four: Rap Attack

When Marley Marl landed the coveted job of DJ for Mr. Magic’s historic WBLS show Rap Attack, the doors opened not only for him but for many in Queensbridge. Mr. Magic, aka John Rivas, was the first on-air personality with an all-rap show on commercial radio. He heard Marl’s remix of Malcom McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” and hired him on the spot to spin his remixes on the air and show off his blending technique. Rap Attack became mandatory listening for any hip-hop fan, as Biggie attests in “Juicy”: “Every Saturday Rap Attack/Mr. Magic, Marley Marl.”

Magic and Marl founded the Juice Crew, which included Shanté, Shan, Craig G, Tragedy Khadafi and noteworthy MCs from outside Queensbridge such as Big Daddy Kane, Masta Ace, Kool G. Rap and Biz Markie. This posse of venerated MCs would record together and separately, with Marl producing and Cold Chillin’ Records releasing the music.

“In the beginning, we all recorded in QB at Marley Marl’s sister’s apartment on 12th Street,” Shanté says. “He took her living room and turned it into a studio. Eric B slept on the floor. Shan slept by the kitchen table. At any given time, you’d see Kane, Biz or Rakim. I lived in the building across the hill, so I could walk out my building and straight into his.”

For his first remix, Marl recruited a female MC from Queensbridge, Dimple D, to record a remix of Run-DMC’s “Sucker MCs” titled “Sucker DJs.” Queensbridge was captivated by the remix, and Marl’s status in the projects soared—everyone wanted to be down with Marl.

But it was 14-year-old Lolita Shanté Gooden, notorious for destroying Queensbridge MCs with her no-nonsense freestyles and self-assured swagger, who in 1984 helped Marl earn his first gold record.

The fateful day Marl asked Shanté to record the track that would change their lives was recreated in the 2018 Netflix biopic Roxanne Roxanne. “He called me out the window while I was going to do laundry,” Shanté recollects. “He said, ‘Hey, listen. I heard you’re a really good battle rapper.’ I said, ‘You didn’t hear that; you know that!’” Marl tried convincing her to come upstairs to his home studio to record a freestyle, but Shanté was too preoccupied with her chores. That is until she remembered that Marl worked at the Sergio Valente jeans factory. She continues, “I was really into clothes, so my main thing was, I need some Sergios! In QB, a lot of things were done on a barter system. So I said, ‘Get me and my sister some jeans and I’ll do it.’”

Over the instrumental of UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne,” a song about a girl the group thought was stuck-up for rejecting their advances, Shanté delivered a seven-minute freestyle “answer” from the point of view of the girl. In one take.

Yeah, I am fly, that I must admit
But everybody knows I don’t go for it
So, if you’re tryin’ to be cute and you’re tryin’ to be fine
You need to cut it out ’cause it’s all in your mind

Recalls MC Shan, “It was very unorthodox, because before Marl started recording Shanté and me, everybody thought you had to be in a studio with a 24-track to make a record. Marley Marl recorded us in his apartment on four-track cassettes. It had that dirty basement sound.”

“Roxanne’s Revenge” became an instant hit when Marl played it on Rap Attack, so they decided to release it. The song sold 5,000 copies before UTFO issued a cease-and-desist order. Shanté and Marl re-recorded it with a new beat and ended up selling 250k copies in New York alone.

Shanté became Queensbridge’s first veritable hip-hop star. “Roxanne’s Revenge,” meanwhile, would go down in hip-hop history for kicking off the genre’s longest-running answer-record series; in addition to “The Real Roxanne,” UTFO’s riposte, more than 90 rebuttals were recorded by a bevy of contenders.

The song was the foundation of Queensbridge’s reputation as a place where MCs did not fear confrontation on the mic, where verbal shots came effortlessly. “Shanté and I would sit on the benches on 12th Street all day, just rhyming and honing our skills,” says MC Shan. “Then here she comes with the biggest record in the country. I had to scheme a way to get Marley Marl’s attention to make a record.” He accomplished that with “Marley’s Scratch,” a rap praising the DJ’s aptitude.

“I didn’t have a record, but Shanté took me with her on tour to do ‘Marley’s Scratch,’” Shan relates with enduring gratitude. “She introduced me to the world. We would come back to QB Park and just sit on the bench and roll up the fattest spliff we could roll up and say, ‘Wow, look where we come from and look at where we just came from, doing what we love to do and making money doing it.’ It was inspirational.”

Their success was Queensbridge’s triumph, and it helped others dream big. “I lived on 12 Street and that was called ‘the escape block,’ meaning we heard the train all night long,” says Shanté. “We always knew there was a way out. We saw the bridge, which means we had a million-dollar view and wealth was always within eyesight. It felt like you could touch it.”

In QB it was a rite of passage for MCs to write some bars on the rooftop. Shanté says every rapper had a picture of themselves on the roof. “It was our way of saying, ‘The world belongs to us,’ and we weren’t afraid to go out into the world to make it.”

While Queensbridge was making a name for itself in hip-hop, though, the projects were changing; the crack epidemic was taking hold. “When you watch these docs about the ’80s drug scene, that was it. It wasn’t like QB was some kind of paradise,” Shan says. “Drugs were being sold, your friends were getting shot, people going to jail and cops killing individuals.” Says Shanté, “Did drugs come into play? Drugs were always there. QB was its own city. But there were also rules about how things worked. It’s because of those rules that a lot of us grew up able to avoid certain things.”

Read Part Two: They Came From Here.

Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a pop-culture writer obsessed with ’90s hip-hop. She has covered music and fashion for Blackbook, Ebony, i-D, Essence, Nylon and Konbini. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and eight-year-old daughter.

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