TALES OF QUEENSBRIDGE,
PART TWO

Hold up! If you haven't read Part One yet, go here.

Part Five: They Came From Here

One summer night in 1986, Marley Marl and MC Shan were at Queensbridge Park after returning from a tour. “Marley said, ‘Let’s make a record about the Bridge.’ It was a freestyle,” Shan recollects. “We started working on it at 5am and then played it at the jam in the park that same day. The crowd went crazy!” “The Bridge” was Shan’s homage to Queensbridge’s hip-hop history. Because the song was so specific to their experience, Marl and Shan didn’t intend to release it. But “The Bridge” became an anthem at QB, with tapes making the rounds for two years before it was played on the radio.

Marl released his debut album, In Control, Volume 1, in 1988. It showcased his production work with the Juice Crew. He also produced albums for every Juice Crew member: Craig G‘s The Kingpin (1989), Big Daddy Kane‘s Long Live the Kane (1988), Biz Markie’s Goin’ Off (1988), Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s Road to the Riches (1989), MC Shan’s Down By Law (1987) and Born to Be Wild (1988), Roxanne Shanté’s Bad Sister (1989), Master Ace’s Take a Look Around (1990) and Tragedy Khadafi’s Intelligent Hoodlum (1990). The Juice Crew ultimately went their separate ways but not before leaving a blueprint for future rap collectives, including the Wu-Tang Clan.

Marley was also the maestro behind LL Cool J’s 1991 double-platinum, Grammy-winning classic, Mama Said Knock You Out. He likewise lent his musical ear to TLC’s 1992 debut, the quadruple-platinum, Top 20 Oooooooh… on the TLC Tip and The Lords of the Underground’s 1993 Here Come the Lords.

By then, though Marl, Shanté and MC Shan were still spotted greeting fans and visiting family in Queensbridge, they no longer lived there. “I left QB when I was 20,” says Shan. “I figured out I was making enough money that I don’t have to live in there anymore. That’s not a disrespect. Everybody who comes from that type of environment should always strive to be better.” Even so, their bond with the place was unbreakable. “I don’t think anybody really moves out of QB; I think you carry that spirit in your soul,” says Shanté, who retired from the limelight after dropping her third album, The Bitch Is Back, in 1992.

Shan went on to release two more albums, the aforementioned Born to be Wild and 1990’s Play It Again, Shan. In 1993 he produced reggae artist Snow’s massively successful 12 Inches of Snow. The 1992 single “Informer,” to which Shan also contributed a verse, spent seven consecutive weeks at #1.

The subsequent generation was dazzled by what the QB elders had achieved. “It was fucking crazy,” marvels Mobb Deep's Havoc. “I started noticing how the older people were looking up to Roxanne Shanté, Marley Marl and MC Shan, so of course us little kids are following along. They were coming through and looking extravagant with the nice clothes, nice jewelry and cars. It makes you proud, because they came from here. It immediately makes you believe you can do this, too.”

Part Six: The Perils of the Projects

Still, glimpsing the light at the end of the tunnel in QB had become much more challenging. The do-or-die mood that shrouded Queensbridge in the ’90s was a far cry from the communal philosophy that reigned back in the day. “I grew up in QB with different morals,” says Shan. “I wouldn’t go shoot my friend, ’cause I know his mother. The generation after us and till today… Instead of going outside to scrap and be friends the next day, I’m gonna shoot him!”

“You hear how QB used to be like a big family, with everyone looking out for one another. There wasn’t a lot of that when my generation was coming up,” Havoc says. “There were lots of drugs and lots of shootings. Every block was like its own world, and not everyone got along.”

By this point, Queensbridge rap narratives were exploring its dark underbelly, “the perils of the projects,” as Havoc puts it. Both Mobb Deep and Nas were adept at translating this stark reality into vivid poetry, their lyrics skewing toward the sinister—dark and gritty, swathed in venomous beats. Once again, Queensbridge was at the wheel, driving hip-hop forward.

Mobb Deep’s career-defining 1995 album, The Infamous, wasn’t their debut, but it might as well have been; their first outing, 1993’s Juvenile Hell, was largely ignored. Explains Havoc, “We made the first album in the confines of Prodigy’s grandmother’s house in Hempstead, Long Island—away from the crew and away from Queensbridge. That was translated into the music. It wasn’t us.”

They decided to start from scratch, in a new location. “All the equipment was in Hempstead, and Prodigy would get sick a lot,” Havoc continues. (Prodigy suffered from sickle-cell anemia. He died in 2017 at age 42.) “Nothing against Hempstead, but I would be in the house by myself with none of my crew around to bounce ideas off. I thought, ‘Let’s bring this equipment to QB,’ and P said yes with no hesitation.”

Prodigy (né Albert Johnson) and Havoc (born Kejuan Muchita) met at New York’s High School of Art and Design and quickly hit it off. “We both wanted to be hip-hop artists,” says Havoc. “We got along so well we said, ‘Fuck it—let’s make it a group.’”

Their chemistry came to a crescendo during the recording of The Infamous. Havoc worked on the beats in Queensbridge, and they’d record the songs in the studio. “QB was a very important element in the process,” he says. “Without it, I don’t think we would have made The Infamous; we needed to be in that environment to create. Something would happen outside, and we’d go upstairs and make a song about it.”

The result was an unfiltered, bone-chilling 66:51 magnum opus about the place they called home. A claustrophobic intensity snakes through the album. Prodigy’s line “There’s a war going on outside” (“Survival of the Fittest”) was no hyperbole. “We wanted people to come away with a day in the life of Mobb Deep—how we saw and experienced everyday life in QB,” Havoc attests. “The shooting, robbing, drug-selling, dirty cops, relationships, all the different facets of life in QB.”

Mobb Deep’s extended Queensbridge family is a clear presence on the album; you can hear their voices throughout, setting an ominous tone with huddled whispers or offering celebratory shout-outs. Even the most banal signifiers of Queensbridge—the sounds of apartment doors opening, a gas stove flickering on, police sirens—are foregrounded, like instruments in the mix.

Part Seven: N.Y. State of Mind

Nas, who was from the 40th side, made an appearance on The Infamous on “Eye for a Eye (Your Beef Is Mines).” Of course he’d already introduced himself with 1994’s Illmatic, to rapturous critical acclaim. The album quickly made it onto numerous “best hip-hop albums of all time” lists (and continues to occupy an airy perch in critical assessments nearly 28 years later).

In March 2021 The Library of Congress announced that Illmatic had been inducted into the National Recording Registry. It lauded Nas as a formidable scribe and Illmatic as a masterpiece, hailing the set’s “masterful use of multi-syllabic and internal rhyme, surprising line breaks and rhythmic complexity” and noting that “the album’s technique has been widely copied and proven broadly influential.”

But before the 14 studio albums, gold and platinum plaques and Grammy love—14 nominations and a win in 2021 for Best Rap Album for King’s DiseaseNasir Bin Olu Dara Jones was an inquisitive, sharp-eyed Queensbridge shorty cautiously observing the world around him. His father, Olu Dara, is a jazz multi-instrumentalist who introduced Nas not only to everything from jazz to Afro-funk but also instilled in him a deep passion for reading. Nas would often lose himself in the pages of books by Langston Hughes and other trailblazing authors. He absorbed it all, transforming the chaos, joy, pain and love around him into kinetic, cinematic, deeply personal and frequently philosophical tracks.

Nas fell in love with hip-hop the first time he heard it at Queensbridge. Seeing the neighborhood MCs living out their dreams, meanwhile, fired his imagination. His ambition was spurred by the spectacle of Shan battling Boogie Down ProductionsKRS-One to defend QB’s honor with 1987’s “Kill That Noise” in the so-called Bridge Wars—when KRS-One misinterpreted Shan’s “The Bridge” as a claim that hip-hop was born at Queensbridge, responding with 1986’s “South Bronx” (and later, “The Bridge Is Over”). He wanted to let the world know that Queensbridge still had something to say and plenty more to offer hip-hop culture.

When he was 16 Nas met Main Source’s Large Professor, himself only 17. They recorded Nas’ demo together, kicking off a long-lasting partnership that found Large Professor collaborating on some of Nas’ most memorable songs. The hype that ensued when the world heard Nas on Main Source’s 1991 “Live at the BBQ” and MC Serch’s 1992 “Back to the Grill Again” set a high bar for his Columbia debut. But Illmatic would blow past all expectations.

The album’s music and lyrics were so intricately intertwined with Queensbridge that a few wags said it deserved an executive producer credit. The front cover features a portrait of seven-year-old Nas transposed onto an eerie picture of the projects. On the back, Nas is seen on a Queensbridge rooftop with his crew.

Part Eight: Coda

The moment Havoc returns to Queensbridge, a rush of emotions come over him. “The love they show us makes me happy and I love them back,” he says. But other, more complex feelings also come up. This is, after all, the place where the pain and strife he stirringly articulates in his rhymes played out.

“It’s a little bit deeper for me when I go back,” he confides. “It’s like I almost want to cry. I went through so much there. I lost my brother there; he committed suicide in the apartment we lived in.” Havoc wishes he could snap a finger and make “the ’hood all good.” He contemplates this hope with a pause, then adds, “But we can’t.”

“From the moment I got to Queensbridge as a kid to the moment I left, it has been a crazy journey,” he concludes. “But QB means everything to me. QB was a mother, father, brother, sister, hating friend, the good friend and the mentor. QB is everything to us. Without it, we wouldn’t be here.”

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