From the first frenzied block parties in the Bronx in the 1970s to the global success of rappers in the late 1990s, Pierre-Jean Cléraux retraces the history of rap in New York, the birthplace of hip hop. Check out our interview with the “New York State of Mind” author below, and listen to a selection of tracks from the anthology.
From Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC, Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, to Action Bronson and Beastie Boys: Pierre-Jean Cléraux retraces the history of New York rap through 100 iconic albums in his rap anthology entitled New York State of Mind (in French only) – just released on Le Mot et Le Reste press.
As a blogger and historian, Pierre-Jean Cléraux is passionate about music in all its forms, especially rap from the late 90s on. Below, he discusses his reasons for writing this book and takes us on a journey through the history of New York rap. At the end of the article, you’ll find a selection of tracks that you can listen to along with the interview.
Why did you write a book on New York rap?
Simply because it’s the style of rap I like the most and what I’ve listened to the most. Through New York rap, I discovered groups like Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, and De La Soul. At first, my idea was to write about 1990s rap in New York, because that’s what I got hooked on first, but Yves (Editor’s Note: Yves Jolivet, the founder and director of Le Mot et le Reste publishing house) wanted to expand the time frame. So we decided to make the project a sort of synthesis of the history of New York rap by looking at a series of albums that were important both artistically and historically. It’s really fascinating and incredibly diverse. Le Mot et Le Reste had never covered the topic in detail, so that’s what I proposed we do.
How important is the New York scene in the history of rap?
Incredibly important. From a historical point of view, New York is where rap was born, in the Bronx to be specific. That’s where it all started. So, essentially, rap is from New York.
The rap in New York is what influenced the other scenes in the United States and Europe, and France, in particular. The New York rap scene is what brought all the hip-hop imagery with breakdancing, graffiti and tags in the subway. It’s also where the first famous rappers started, like Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and big stars like Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas and later the rapper-entrepreneur hybrids like Puff Daddy and 50 Cent, to name some of the best-known ones. The MC-businessman duality isn’t necessarily unique to New York, but since it’s a city that symbolizes the power of money, the symbolism is pretty strong. There’s a reason why New York is called the Mecca of Hip-Hop.
Your book explores the history of New York rap chronologically through 100 albums. How has New York rap evolved over the years? What makes it stand apart, how would you characterize it?
In New York in the 1970s, the hip-hop movement and rap, in particular, helped people get away from the culture of violence and move toward a new culture that was much more positive and creative, even though there was still a lot of rivalry that spilled into it as a result of gang culture. That’s exactly what Afrika Bambaataa did with Zulu Nation. Moved away from violence toward something healthier. Of course, this didn’t eradicate violence entirely from the poor neighborhoods of the Bronx and Harlem, but a movement definitely took shape, and it used the codes of street life and put them in a new frame of reference.
In a very general way, New York rap has evolved a lot over time. The 80s and 90s were an extremely prosperous time for rap in New York. That’s when rap laid a foundation and asserted itself as an art and an industry, and as a venue for political discourse based on pro-black values.
Toward the end of the 90s, rap reached maturity on a commercial level, which led to a lot of musical sub-genres. The material success of rap is what sparked an indie wave to develop. In the 2000s, despite the success of Jay-Z and G-Unit, New York rap had to contend with the influences coming from the south, which despite resistance, literally made their way into New York and nearly wiped out that original New York sound.
The New York scene is also important for its style. New York rap arrived with something mature in the 90s thanks to the culture of sampling and also because of the technical methods available at the time (samplers, drum machines, etc.). That was also the heyday for recording studios. The sound coming out of New York at the time had a kind of dirty color and texture that was highly sought after, and was the exact opposite of the gangsta rap coming from the west coast.
There’s also a whole school of rhyme and flow symbolized by rappers like Rakim, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, O.C. Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z, Big L, and Big Pun. New York rap has its own pantheon of legendary lyricists. And it’s also incredibly diverse. If you dig into it, there’s not just one version of New York rap, but a whole multitude of styles: Public Enemy isn’t the same as X-Clan, and Mobb Deep isn’t like D.I.T.C., Boogie Down isn’t Juice Crew. Even today, there are those who can’t hide their southern influences (A$AP Rocky, The Underachievers) and those who stay faithful to a more traditional sound (Roc Marciano, Joey Bada$$). Currently, the New York rap identity has kind of exploded in all directions, it’s almost been drowned out by the smooth sound of southern rap that’s become the norm.
In your opinion, what was the Golden Age of New York rap?
That’s a hard question! There are a lot of different interpretations of the so-called Golden Age. Some people, like the journalist Paul Edwards, would say it’s between 1986 and 1994 or 1996. Others have it begin in 1992 and end in 1998. In my personal opinion, the Golden Age corresponds to a specific period when all the identifying marks reached their highest level of maturity and finally converged, which would be between 1993 and 1996 or 1997. In those years, New York rap underwent a musical and commercial revolution with the arrival of Wu-Tang Clan, who changed the entire approach to rap and business, and it’s also a time when big names like Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas appeared. So everyone was trying to be at their level artistically. It was also a great time for studios and sound engineers. The industry really established itself at that time, rap videos were playing non-stop on TV, ads were using rappers’ images to sell products, rappers were creating their own lines, etc. At the time, New York rap had a very identifiable style to the point where people could really distinguish East Coast from West Coast. Some groups, even on the West Coast, were influenced by that sound, like Souls of Mischief, The Nonce, Freestyle Fellowship, The Pharcyde, etc.
Today, in the 2010s, do you feel like the role of New York rap is still as important as it was in the beginning?
Now that the scenes in the US have all broken up because of the dominance of southern influence over the last fifteen years, and now that music is distributed online, which takes it away from its origins, New York rap doesn’t really have a specific role anymore. It’s definitely not as important as it was in the 80s and 90s. That’s partly due to the fact that it kind of sat on its laurels. The rap veterans of the 90s wanted to preserve their aura by riding out the success of their classic tracks, but the younger generations move fast and adapt quickly. To survive, New York rap has had to reinvent itself while also staying true to its roots. That’s the case for Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$, Roc Marciano, WestSide Gunn, etc. By doing lots of collaborations with artists from other scenes like El-P or Killer Mike in Run the Jewels. But for anyone who loves rap, New York rap will always be a major reference, a light in the dark. New York rap is to rap what the Burgundy region is to wine.
Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force – Renegades Of Funk (1983)
With “Planet Rock” and “Renegades of Funk,” Bambaataa and Arthur Baker prefigure the birth of techno and house with their electro-funk inspired by the Afro-Futurism of Parliament and Funkadelic.
Run DMC – Hard Times (1984)
The arrival of Run DMC is a turning point for rap. It gets rawer and gets closer to the street. “Hard Times” produced by the underestimated Larry Smith totally shook up the scene.
The Cold Crush Brothers – Heartbreakers (1985)
This legendary group epitomizes the spirit of 1980s rap, which relies on routines with vocal play and duels between MCs. Groups like the Californian Jurassic 5 later replicated this style and dynamic.
Big Daddy Kane – Young Gifted & Black (1989)
As a very technical and seductive rapper, we often forget that Big Daddy Kane was also an activist. With “Young Gifted & Black” produced by Marley Marl, he proudly asserts his blackness.
Public Enemy – Sophisticated Bitch (1987)
Discovered by Rick Rubin, Public Enemy started out in 1987 with a first album entitled Yo! Bum Rush the Show, intended as a polemic against white America. But in addition to the politics, Public Enemy had their very own Bomb Squad sound that took on that explosive feel with this album.
Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – On The Run (1992)
A truly cinematic track, “On the Run” shows Kool G Rap’s talent for gangster storytelling in a breathtaking and convincing way. Chased down by the local mafia after double crossing them, Kool G Rap tells the story of his escape with an incredible sense of narrative that ends up influencing illustrious rappers like Jay-Z, Biggie and Nas.
Wu-Tang Clan – Bring Da Ruckus (1993)
The strength of RZA’s production style coupled with Wu-Tang Clan’s lyrics gives “Bring Da Ruckus” a kind of rock energy, with a hard beat that becomes indicative of the New York style. With Wu-Tang Clan, New York experiences some truly beautiful moments.
Nas – Halftime (1994)
Throbbing bass, a killer beat, diffuse jazz and the genius of Nas. “Halftime” is one of those tracks that really gave Nas his reputation as a genius from Queens on the album Illmatic in 1994.
Pete Rock – All The Places (1994)
Pete Rock carried New York rap toward something softer and suppler, with the warmth of soul combined with the freshness of jazz. “All the Places” is a good example of that, and its sample is taken from “Places and Spaces” by Donald Byrd. Airy and sublime.
Cannibal Ox – Ox Out The Cage (2001)
Symbolic of indie New York rap, Cannibal Ox picks up where Company Flow left off in 1997 with an audacious sound with a metallic aftertaste made even better with the help of El-P, who had been behind this kind of indie dynamic since the late 1990s.
Discover our selection of alternative spots in NYC with our city guide Indie Guides NYC.
Article translated by Andrea Perdue