I grew up as a ‘90s hip-hop head, which means that I have an ironically romantic view of New York City. Though my musical palette tended to veer south (where I lived) and west (where the sounds seemed fit for driving), I knew that New York City was what made it all possible. Also, I say “ironically” because most of the hip hop I loved from NYC at that time was the grimy, rah-rah, boom-bap stuff that typically spoke to a life of which I had zero understanding or desire to step into. But it looked and sounded like hip hop to me. That’s all I needed.
I made my first trip to NYC in 2001, a few months before 9/11, and I vividly remember the excitement I had when I got my first glimpse of Manhattan from the New Jersey Turnpike. When we parked somewhere near 109th Street and 5th Avenue and I stepped onto a New York City street for the first time, I was completely sold on it being the greatest city on Earth. It was that simple for me. And all of that was on the back of hip hop. It’s one thing to listen to this music, but to then be on the very streets that birthed the music breathed new life, for me, into the culture. I could see it and taste it. I could visualize how the music came to be. Like I said, romantic.
So as you can imagine, I took a special interest in Vulture’s list of the “100 Songs that Define New York, Ranked.” As a Not-From-New-Yorker, it’s interesting to see what the folks who literally grew up in it (or spent a week in Brooklyn since that shit tends to make niggas view themselves as native-New Yorkers) view as music essential to the culture. As I (and probably most folks) tend to do, I went straight to the top 10 to decide if I loved or hated the list based on that. And I didn’t have any real quibbles with the top 10 (I’d switch a few things out—but again, I’m not from New York). I scrolled the rest of the list to see how many of the songs I assumed would be there were present and accounted for. 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” was an interesting omission—it was THE biggest song of 2003, PERIOD—I guess NYers (and moved-to-Brooklyn-ers) didn’t think it moved NY like that.
Anyway, what I immediately started to think about was songs that defined New York rap to me as an outsider and somebody who didn’t actually set foot in the city until I was 22 years old. That means that for a vast part of my foundational hip hop years, I viewed the whole thing from afar. I could do 100 (I actually did this in my head and it was EASY to come up with 100 songs), but for the sake of time and words, I’m just going to list 10 songs that defined New York rap to me as an outsider. As a point of note since I’m about to go HEAVY on the ‘90s, remember, I was 22 in 2001. Also, it took everything in me to not craft a list entirely full of DJ Premier bangers.
(This list is not in any particular order.)
I am not the biggest fan of KRS-One, but KRS is one of the best to ever do it, period. And this man’s songs felt so NYC to me. Over classic Premier production, it had that feel that I associated with New York City.
I have no idea how the folk who put together the Vulture list had this at 29. In fact, now I’m upset.
Amazingly, this is number 4 on their list. Though I understand considering what’s ahead of it, had it been number 1 on the list, I’d have been said, “that makes sense.”
This is probably one of THE most New York songs (in my head) that ever did NY. And the video was so grimy and authentic. The whole shit made me never ever want to go to Queensbridge. But imagine that: I was a 15-year-old in Madison, Ala. with an opinion on Queensbridge. If that ain’t some defining shit, then what is?
I really wanted to go to the Boulevard of Linden because of this song. I wanted to be part of a New York video so badly because of this joint.
Full disclosure, I HATED the Wu-Tang Clan when I first heard them. Fuller disclosure, “C.R.E.A.M.” is probably one of my favorite records ever. That shit was so vivid and it signaled, to me, the realness of what was possible with hip hop. I was all in after that. I know the first two sentences make no sense together.
The energy. Purely the energy. It made me want to wear butta Timberlands to stomp out niggas and I was at Morehouse College when this song came out. I did not stomp out anybody. M.O.P. put a whole NYC Brooklyn neighborhood into my purview.
The “newest” song on my list because Cam’ron spearheaded what was, to me, a whole new New York City movement. I went to New York after this dropped and I remember thinking, the whole city looks like Dip Set.
This was just pure hip hop to me. I mean everything about this said NYC and Brooklyn. They’re even called Black Moon. So dope.
Despite the fact that half of the group publicly has said “Fuck Very Smart Brothas”—fuck him too, to be sure—that doesn’t change how real and how New York this song and video feels. I remember visiting Brooklyn and seeing the landmarks, etc. I get how niggas can go to Brooklyn for a few hours and decide its where they’re from. You want to be part of this energy. I get it.