Several different perspectives of life can give us several different interpretations of a situation or place. One such place is beautiful New York City, home to over 8 million people, and of course, home to hip-hop. New York City is the most important place to hip-hop, the city is its creator, its Mecca. No place on planet earth has given birth to more hip-hop artists, and not just in quantity, it’s given birth to some of the most significant hip-hop artists of all time. The likes of Q-Tip, RZA, Rakim, Jay-Z, Nas and even Tupac Shakur, were born in the city that never sleeps. Not all of these individuals resided from the same area of New York City, it is quite a big place, split into its world famous five boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and of course, The Bronx. The city holds several different perspectives from several different artists. To capture the different portrayals of America’s largest metropolis, we shall investigate the lyrics that these artists have left us with.
“The city never sleeps, full of villians and creeps/That’s where I learned to do my hustle had to scuffle with freaks”-Nas, New York State of Mind
We begin with a lyric from Nas’ hit record “New York State of Mind” from his critically acclaimed Illmatic record. Nas leaps us into the world that he grew up in from the mean streets of Queens, during his days with his brother Jungle and long time friend Ill Will. He shows us the dangers of New York City, inciting that New York is the city that never sleeps, not because of its surreal night life, but do to its underworld where drug dealers and fiends alike attempt to stay alive. The intriguing part is Nas does not shy away from these vices, mainly because he has no choice, but this only strengthens the young MC, who learns from this unfamiliar territory, even when he encounters the grimmiest of characters.
“New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothin’ you can’t do”- Alicia Keys, Empire State of Mind
To another hit track, Alicia Keys on the chorus of “Empire State of Mind” shows us a different portrayal of New York, a brighter side, from her Manhattan past. This is most likely due to her more stable upbringing. Keys, tells the tale of the “anything is possible” New York. This aligns with the city being known for its’s business and capitalistic mindset. She shows us that the possibilities are endless, as long as you have the drive to pursue your dreams. She references the nickname for the city “Concrete Jungles” due to its massive ensemble of streets and skyscrapers, but despite the confusion in the city, it is still the home of possibility, and Keys does not let us forget that.
“Like a momma you birth me Brooklyn you nursed me schooled me wit Hard knocks better than Berkeley.”-Jay Z, Hello Brooklyn 2.0
From mister NYC himself, Jay-Z gives credit for his raising to the streets of Brooklyn, New York that made him into the man he is today. Even though Jay Z gives thanks to Brooklyn, his life was not an easy one, having to sell crack to make a living until he earned his first record deal in 1996. Despite this, it was those hard streets, those hard knocks that developed his hustler mentality, and have developed him to become one of the wealthiest hip-hop artists ever. He makes the clever comparison, claiming though he did not attend post secondary institutions, rather the streets of Brookyln have schooled him better than that of one of America’s best academic facilities in the University of California, Berkeley. When you’re worth over $500 million dollars without a undergraduate degree….why not.
“I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side, staying alive was no jive.” – Raekwon, C.R.E.A.M.
From the streets of Staten Island, Raekwon The Chef delivers probably his most famous rap line. He displays the harsher side of New York, one filled with crime. Growing up in the poor impoverished areas of the Park Hill projects, where resorting to crime is nothing new, especially for those of minority status. This leads to the next part of the line, his neighbourhoods are so bad they constantly make the pages of the world famous paper The New York Times, in a city like New York that’s quite the feat. Despite having to encounter these violent obstacles on a daily basis, Raekwon has survived these turbulent times, something he regards as nothing to take for granted.
“They tried again outside in Cedar Park
Power from a street light made the place dark
But yo, they didn’t care, they turned it out
I know a few understand what I’m talking about”- KRS One, South Bronx
From the Boogie Productions hit diss track “South Bronx”, KRS One recalls the historical days of hip-hop in New York. In the 1970’s, hip-hop oriented parties would be held in local parks, and power would be stolen from street lamps to start up their DJing equipment, ultimately leaving the area without light. This is only natural as KRS One was representing his home in the middle of a feud with Queens rappers MC Shen and Marley Marl. He displays his imagery of New York through his memory, a better day in his childhood when the style was about having fun, marking, that few outside the witnesses that were there with him would understand.
Though, many identify New York City as one place, it is quite large, and hip-hop artists reside from all sides of the Big Apple. These depictions of the city through different artists lyrical expressions is merely an example that we cannot take one perspective of something, or we will fail to gain a greater understanding of most things in life. If we merely took Alicia Keys point of view, we would believe that the city is all positives and dreams, which would contrast the point of view from Raekwon or even Nas. The city has its positives and negatives, like any place on earth, it may be more severe and apparent in New York, but that’s the thrill that makes the city what it is today. Not to justify the underworld of NYC, but the atmosphere of the city has an allure to it, its grit and nonchalant attitude has provided a place where only the strong survive. Understand, there is no right, there is no wrong, there merely is. By that I am suggesting that there is only a perspective, a view that one has attained through years of experience within a lifetime. New York City, is a melting pot of cultures, it is home to several art forms known across the globe, and it is interesting to see so many of its great artists perceive a common scene in several different lights.