The Gritty World of New York Rap

When trying to come up with a list of leading New York rappers, who comes to mind?

For me, Nas, Biggie, and Mobb Deep are always the first I think of. What about Los Angeles rappers? Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Dr Dre represent the West most prominently in my mind.

While the East-West coast beef was notoriously exaggerated by media and politicians - a set of events that proved fateful for Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace - in my mind, there has always been a stark contrast between the hip hop produced by the West and the East, largely due to their respective environments. Certainly, this is not to say that either coast is less ‘gangster’ than the other, and each contributed to the sound in unique, groundbreaking ways.

But nonetheless, I challenge anyone to speak of ‘LA rap’ without referencing the long beaches, sunny weather, lowriders, cali weed, and topless gang members flashing signs. In contrast, when I speak of ‘NY rap’, I think of high-rise blocks, clubs under subway lines, cold weather and an altogether gloomier aesthetic.

To get a good feel of why those stereotypes (and they are, ultimately, stereotypes) spring to mind, one should listen to two unquestionably classic records - NY State of Mind by Nas and Shook Ones by Mobb Deep - the latter of which I claim to be the best hip hop song of all time. Both remain extremely popular examples of hip hop from New York, and each are perhaps the most known songs by their respective artists; but this critical acclaim is well-deserved, and they both remain poignant examples of the unique circumstances that bred New York rap.

In the video by Mobb Deep, one is presented with a powerful image of the life led by Mobb Deep members Havoc and Prodigy. There’s no cruising through the city in lowriders; no sipping on gin at a party; and no attractive accompanying women. Instead, Havoc and Prodigy take us through their home of Queen’s, interspersed with burned out tenements, scenes of murder and violence and graffiti, in all its reality.

Indeed, the lyrics given to us by Mobb Deep include aspects of the braggadocio almost ubiquitous with hip hop, and yet at the same time, do not present their life as enviable; we are under no illusion that the life lived by many in Queensbridge is one of genuine hardship, poverty, criminality and injustice. Again, this is made poignant by the fact that at the time, both members were barely 20.

New York’s tradition of exposing this life through the medium of rap is proud - Boogie Down Productions were trailblazers in conscious hip hop, as were Public Enemy. From the very beginning of the transformation of hip hop from disco-influenced club songs to hip hop as we now know it, NY rappers shone a light on the life many of them lived, and did so in such an honest manner that their produced songs remain pivotal to understanding life in New York during the period.

Thankfully, this consciousness in hip hop was not exclusive to New York, and one would be foolish to deny the very real hardships faced by many living on the West coast. But throughout west-coast hip hop traditions, there seems to be a greater aspect of optimism; Tupac sings about the joys of being part of a community in Los Angeles; Snoop sings about parties hosted in his house while his parents are out; and Dre cruises through central LA while listening to g-funk.

Again, this is a stereotype - at best a caricature that has stood the test of time; indeed one of the earliest large-scale rap groups was NWA, who certainly cannot be said to fall into optimism about their situation. Conversely, the likes of Biggie were more than happy to sing about their own experiences with partying and inibrients.

But perhaps it is simply due to the urban geography of the two respective locations that - at least in my mind - New York remains the ‘darker’ of the two rap settings. But both certainly are powerful views into a world foreign to many of us, and for this, both deserve respect and a modern playing.


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