The Gentrification Effect: Is the Heart of New York City Rap Being Priced Out?
At one point in time, New York City served as the epicenter of hip-hop -- it was born in the Bronx, after all. The music in the vibrant city always had a certain allure about it, an edge that put its appeal a notch above other locales. But following the rise of 50 Cent in the early 2000s, there has yet to be another street-wise artist from New York that captivates the rap world, let alone has crossed over to the mainstream. Although the city has tried to place its long-coveted crown on the likes of born and bred rappers like Saigon and Papoose, among others, all failed to garner much attention outside of the underground sector.
The prospects of a newbie creating the next "Cuban Linx" or "Infamous" looks slim at this point, as the city's younger generation are more accustomed to streetwear than the teachings of the Five Percent Nation and street lore. The music that was once inspired by the sights and sounds of the city has changed -- for better or for worse, depending on which side of the spectrum you're on -- in part due to the lifestyle in urban communities being infiltrated due to gentrification. Harlem native Wayne Clark, owner of Triangle Offense Management, a company centered on management, A&R and marketing in the digital age, has witnessed gentrification's effect on hip-hop firsthand.
"I believe that gentrification plays somewhat of a role in the effect on hip-hop," he states. "I'm not totally upset about the rebuilding in Harlem because living here since 12 years old, it's like an entirely different world. Growing up in Harlem, I saw it birth artists such as Cam'ron, Ma$e and even Vado, whose name was broken down from 'Violence and Drugs Only.' Their lyrics were a firsthand depiction of what they saw, and trust me, it's not all good in Harlem, but things have definitely changed."
The change he describes is artists no longer having to walk down the same crime-ridden streets of the '80s and '90s. Witnessing drug deals in daylight, a murder outside a front door and the like are less likely these days. "You now have artists whose music isn't as violent due to the shift," Walker shares. "Your mindset is totally different when you walk outside and every Caucasian person you see isn't of law enforcement because that's the way it was at one point in time."
The earliest incarnation of the hip-hop scene in New York was heavily party-centric, but there were always elements of the streets associated with the culture -- from the people who frequented the park jams to the promoters who threw them. Even one of hip-hop's most timeless songs, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message," was centered around the plight of the ghetto, with the vivid imagery making you feel the danger and despair of the streets.
During rap's first "golden era" of the '80s, artists like Rakim, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane, among others, embraced the hustler aesthetic. They carried that mindstate and grittiness of the concrete jungle over into their music, fashion ques and videos. These artists were not only fans of the lifestyle, but in many cases, actually affiliated with known street icons. To be considered "good in the hood" was "it" and having street cred was invaluable to your rep.
Moving forward into the '90s, a majority of what many consider the greatest hip-hop albums released were by New York MCs -- Mobb Deep's The Infamous, Nas' llmatic, Biggie's Ready to Die and Raekwon's Only Built for Cuban Linx -- with a majority of those projects centered around the mental of the everyday hustler, killer, stick-up kid or intelligent hoodlum.
Continuing the efforts of former political bigwigs Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the war on crime would eventually lead to the beginnings of what is now the full-blown gentrification of New York City. Considered the place to be for anything artsy and cultural, a new generation of young adults would infiltrate upon the boroughs around 2006, drawn in by the allure of living in a city with a rich reputation as an urban mecca.
MTV News Senior Editor Rob Markman, who hails from Brooklyn's Flatbush area, recognizes New York City hip-hop's shift as a result of the gatekeepers in the music industry. "Even the media in New York is not made up of people from New York," says MTV News Senior Editor Rob Markman. "If you look at our New York radio stations, a lot of people, on morning shows, afternoon shows, night shows -- on both major hip-hop stations [Hot 97 and Power 105.1] -- that are not from New York. So automatically, when they come through, while they may rep New York while they're on the airwaves, but if [they] grew up in Cali, that's totally different [from New York culture]."
"And I'm not saying it's a good or a bad thing, it's just a thing," he continues. "So when some of the gatekeepers, influencers, and people in media aren't from New York, you're gonna see a change in the music [that's pushed] cause the tastes change. A lot of those people are called tastemakers, so the taste changes."
With many of the younger generation being influenced by various sounds and styles from across the country -- and not old enough to have experienced New York City's rap renaissance in full -- there is a noticeable void of artists entering the mainstream while following in the tradition of their musical forefathers. Whereas previous generations of artists embraced the city's criminal-minded mentality with a certain air of pride, upstarts seem more than happy emulating the sounds of artists based thousands of miles away.
With the distinction of being known for having the largest public housing system in the country, not to mention the city's crime rate rising for the first time in over a decade, it's not as if the younger generation have no hard knock experiences to speak on. "The hipster integrated with the gangsters; you got gipsters now," laughs Bronx resident and rising MC Tray Pizzy. "I think it's dope though. I've always been a weirdo. It's crazy to see New York embrace that wave. I mean it's kind of an invasion, too. Like when the Europeans came over here and took from the Indians. Where there's bad there's good, too -- all depends on how you look at life."
According to Tray, he hasn't necessarily heard a big change when it comes to rap in the city that raised him. "New York rap will always be New York rap, but places like Brooklyn don't seem too bad now that it's being gentrified. As far as what it's done for rap, I don't see too many changes as of yet."
Markman points to hip-hop's nationwide explosion and homogenization of different regions as a reason for the sonic shift in the Big Apple. "I don't think gentrification, while it may be a contributing factor to why New York City music sounds the way that it does, it's not the main factor; there's a lot of different factors," he explains. "You just have more access to more than one influences. Like A$AP Rocky and A$AP Mob, who [are] clearly influenced by Bone Thugs and Houston [culture]. I don't think gentrification had anything to do with that. He just grew up in an era where it was less closed-off. Music is a reflection of where we're at."
Or maybe it's just that the public has become bored with the street-wise narrative, as the line between the mean streets and safe ground has become more blurred than ever in New York. To outsiders, the five boroughs were a mythical land that MCs weaved intricate tales about, serving as an audio tour guide. But with the emergence of outlets like World Star Hip-Hop, which depict instances of violence in the urban community in a laissez faire manner, Middle America has become desensitized to the ills of inner-city life.
The cautionary messages imparted through hip-hop have been devalued as the exploitation of New York City street life during the mid 2000s made fans believe that they know the ways of these streets. Long considered musical super heroes, the "New York rapper" is sometimes but a laughingstock at the expense of the rap populist, a mockery and subject of cliche punchlines playing on stereotypes of the city's talent.
Gentrification isn't bad in every aspect. There are more police patrolling the streets, more revenue entering the communities and diversity is far from negative. But it shouldn't be embraced wholeheartedly at the expense of a city's cultural and musical identity. "The people that were labeled weirdos and such before now have people that dress just like them so there's not really a need to change or fight to be in a lane anymore. You can create your own. I don't really see any big changes as of yet but I see long-term. But when they take our blocks for good what will we rap about then?" says Tray, with a tinge of concern, mirroring the thoughts of many artists.
These days, while frequenting New York City's neighborhoods like Washington Heights, Bushwick and the like, you're more likely to discover the latest trendy hipster hangout -- where a pre-fame Jay Z or Nas would be given the side-eye -- first rather than finding the next rap prodigy. That's a shame regardless if you were born in the city or were drawn into it.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on when it comes to gentrification's effect on New York's rap scene, one thing that everyone should agree on is the importance of maintaining the genre's integrity. "Hip-hop was born in the streets and the streets have changed due to gentrification to an extent, but the principals haven't, so there should always be some sort of integrity in your sound," Clark states. "People should just have honesty [in their art] no matter how they came up, whether your neighborhood is gentrified or not."
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