Article and photos by Rolando Cruz
“Queens! I rep it to the fully, you think I own the Mets,” went the lyrics by the late Phife Dawg in the skit “Ghost Weed,” off of De La Souls 2000 release “Art Official Intelligence; Mosaic Thump.”
The Queens native often expressed his pride for his borough. In the past decade, however, Queens has not been as prominent in hip-hop as Brooklyn, home of Jay Z, or cities like Compton, Calif., home of the Grammy award-winning MC Kendrick Lamar.
“We haven’t produced anything as triumphant as Russell Simmons, A Tribe Called Quest, and Nas in a long time,” said Michael “Mike See” Clowney, a 36-year-old producer from Lefrak City, Queens. “As a producer, I feel like the current state in Queens has lost its place in the genre.”
One artist that Clowney was referencing was the late Jam Master Jay from Run DMC, a group from Hollis, Queens, that was discovered by Russell Simmons, who founded Def Jam Records. Run DMC is not only the most respected collective in the borough, but one of the most influential groups in the history of hip-hop culture, according to MTV, VH1 and many others. “Jam Master Jay was to me, one of the first DJ’s I saw make it look cool and it inspired me,” said Clowney. “He was instrumental in so many of the big artists from Queens,” including 50 Cent and Lost Boyz. “I feel like he has always been a major player behind the scenes.
Jam Master Jay was shot and killed in 2002 by a gunman inside his Hollis, Queens, studio. The gunman has not been caught.
Even next-generation artists such as Gilberto “ENY the Artist” Velazquez, a 25-year-old MC from northern Queens, shares the sentiment: “The golden era of hip-hop was when the music and culture was flourishing,” he said, but many of the major players from then have fallen from favor or are now considered outdated.
“I grew up in the greatest era of hip-hop but now the music is partial due to the music being produced out of state,” said Diego “Kesp” Ortiz, a 40-year-old MC from Jackson Heights. “Queens Hip Hop is generational and now trying to sound like artists from the South and West Coast.”
All the artists agree that Queens Hip Hop is not the same as it was during its “golden era.” They cite a generational thing, a lyrical thing, an absence in hometown influences or an absence of identity.
“I think we should focus more on having a sound and true voice as we did from the ‘80s to early 2000. When artists came out from Queens, it was a story that reflected a more unique yet globally accepted sound that was a true reflection of what Queens was to me” said Clowney.
In the ’90s, considered to be the golden era by most, A Tribe Called Quest was the most vocal representative of Queens, next to Nas. “Tribe are the fathers of sounds that are now being created by the likes of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole,” said Velazquez.
Phife Dawg, one-third of A Tribe Called Quest, who passed away from diabetes earlier this year, was a major influence on Queens artists. “Phife had a straightforward flow. He went right to the point. He was simple and complex due to his metaphors,” said Ortiz, while Velazquez described Phife as “the backbone of Tribe. His passing hit us just as hard as Biggie, Pac and Big Pun.”
Today, few Queens natives draw the spotlight. Nicki Minaj and Action Bronson have had some hits. Queens remains home to a plethora of artists, from MCs and producers, to managers and video directors.
Nas, arguably one of the most successful artists from Queens, is still relevant and making hit records.
“Nas is the biggest influence,” Velazquez said. “He’s an intellectual hoodlum. Like, Yeah, I’m a hood and can slap the shit out of you but I’d rather give you these lessons.”
Many Queens artists express optimism and say they feel the time will come where Queens will be as dominant is it was back in the day. Velazquez believes that some of these artists still haven’t had the opportunity. “But their time will come. Even a drop of water can hollow a stone,” he said.
Ortiz feels the same: “You have artists like Khan Boogie, Dready Kruger, Antman and others who are doing shows across the country, making a name for themselves. Queens has a bunch of artists but the challenge is getting them recognized on a larger scale.”