I saw the circle before I saw the kid in the middle. I was nine years old, the summer of 1978, and Marcy was my world. The shadowy bench-lined inner pathways that connected the twenty-seven six-story buildings of Marcy Houses were like tunnels we kids burrowed through. Housing projects can seem like labyrinths to outsiders, as complicated and intimidating as a Moroccan bazaar. But we knew our way around.
Marcy sat on top of the G train, which connects Brooklyn to Queens, but not to the city. For Marcy kids, Manhattan is where your parents went to work, if they were lucky, and where we’d yellow-bus it with our elementary class on special trips. I’m from New York, but I didn’t know that at nine. The street signs for Flushing, Marcy, Nostrand, and Myrtle avenues seemed like metal flags to me: Bed-Stuy was my country, Brooklyn my planet.
When I got a little older Marcy would show me its menace, but for a kid in the seventies, it was mostly an adventure, full of concrete corners to turn, dark hallways to explore, and everywhere other kids. When you jumped the fences to play football on the grassy patches that passed for a park, you might find the field studded with glass shards that caught the light like diamonds and would pierce your sneakers just as fast. Turning one of those concrete corners you might bump into your older brother clutching dollar bills over a dice game, Cee-Lo being called out like hardcore bingo. It was the seventies and heroin was still heavy in the hood, so we would dare one another to push a leaning nodder off a bench the way kids on farms tip sleeping cows. The unpredictability was one of the things we counted on. Like the day when I wandered up to something I’d never seen before: a cipher—but I wouldn’t have called it that; no one would’ve back then. It was just a circle of scrappy, ashy, skinny Brooklyn kids laughing and clapping their hands, their eyes trained on the center. I might have been with my cousin B-High, but I might have been alone, on my way home from playing baseball with my Little League squad. I shouldered through the crowd toward the middle—or maybe B-High cleared the way—but it felt like gravity pulling me into that swirl of kids, no bullshit, like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.
His name was Slate and he was a kid I used to see around the neighborhood, an older kid who barely made an impression. In the circle, though, he was transformed, like the church ladies touched by the spirit, and everyone was mesmerized. He was rhyming, throwing out couplet after couplet like he was in a trance, for a crazy long time—thirty minutes straight off the top of his head, never losing the beat, riding the handclaps. He rhymed about nothing—the sidewalk, the benches—or he’d go in on the kids who were standing around listening to him, call out someone’s leaning sneakers or dirty Lee jeans. And then he’d go in on how clean he was, how nice he was with the ball, how all our girls loved him. Then he’d just start rhyming about the rhymes themselves, how good they were, how much better they were than yours, how he was the best that ever did it, in all five boroughs and beyond. He never stopped moving, not dancing, just rotating in the center of the circle, looking for his next target. The sun started to set, the crowd moved in closer, the next clap kept coming, and he kept meeting it with another rhyme. It was like watching some kind of combat, but he was alone in the center. All he had were his eyes, taking in everything, and the words inside him. I was dazzled. That’s some cool shit was the first thing I thought. Then: I could do that.
That night, I started writing rhymes in my spiral notebook. From the beginning it was easy, a constant flow. For days I filled page after page. Then I’d bang a beat out on the table, my bedroom window, whatever had a flat surface, and practice from the time I woke in the morning until I went to sleep. My mom would think I was up watching TV, but I’d be in the kitchen pounding on the table, rhyming. One day she brought a three-ring binder home from work for me to write in. The paper in the binder was unlined, and I filled every blank space on every page. My rhymes looked real chaotic, crowded against one another, some vertical, some slanting into the corners, but when I looked at them the order was clear.
I connected with an older kid who had a reputation as the best rapper in Marcy—Jaz was his name—and we started practicing our rhymes into a heavy-ass tape recorder with a makeshift mic attached. The first time I heard our voices playing back on tape, I realized that a recording captures you, but plays back a distortion—a different voice from the one you hear in your own head, even though I could recognize myself instantly. I saw it as an opening, a way to re-create myself and reimagine my world. After I recorded a rhyme, it gave me an unbelievable rush to play it back, to hear that voice.
One time a friend peeked inside my notebook and the next day I saw him in school, reciting my rhymes like they were his. I started writing real tiny so no one could steal my lyrics, and then I started straight hiding my book, stuffing it in my mattress like it was cash. Everywhere I went I’d write. If I was crossing a street with my friends and a rhyme came to me, I’d break out my binder, spread it on a mailbox or lamppost and write the rhyme before I crossed the street. I didn’t care if my friends left me at the light, I had to get it out. Even back then, I thought I was the best.
There were some real talents in Marcy. DJs started setting up sound systems in the project courtyards and me and Jaz and other MCs from around the way would battle one another for hours. It wasn’t like that first cipher I saw: the crowds were more serious now and the beat was kept by eight-foot-tall speakers with subwoofers that would rattle the windows of the apartments around us. I was good at battling and I practiced it like a sport. I’d spend free time reading the dictionary, building my vocabulary for battles. I could be ruthless, calm as fuck on the outside, but flooded with adrenaline, because the other rapper was coming for me, too. It wasn’t a Marquess of Queensberry situation. I saw niggas get swung on when the rhymes cut too deep. But mostly, as dangerous as it felt, it stayed lyrical. I look back now and it still amazes me how intense those moments were, back when there was nothing at stake but your rep, your desire to be the best poet on the block.
I wasn’t even in high school yet and I’d discovered my voice. But I still needed a story to tell.
FIRST THE FAT BOYS GONNA BREAK UP
Hip-hop was looking for a narrative, too.
By the time the eighties came along, rap was exploding, and I remember the mainstream breakthroughs like they were my own rites of passage. In 1981, the summer before seventh grade, the Funky Four Plus One More performed “That’s the Joint” on Saturday Night Live and the Rock Steady Crew got on ABC Nightly News for battling the Dynamic Rockers at Lincoln Center in a legendary showdown of b-boy dance crews. My parents watched Soul Train every Saturday when we cleaned up, but when my big sister Annie and I saw Don Cornelius introduce the Sugar Hill Gang, we just stopped in the middle of the living room with our jaws open. What are they doing on TV?
I remember the 12-inch of Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” backed with “Sucker M.C.’s” being definitive. That same year, 1983, the year I started high school, Bambaataa released “Looking for the Perfect Beat” and shot a wild-ass video wearing feathered headdresses that they’d play on the local access channel. Annie and I would make up dance routines to those songs, but we didn’t take it as far as the costumes. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” came out that year, too, and those three records were a cultural trifecta. Disco, and even my parents’ classic R&B records, all faded into the background. Everywhere we went there were twelve-pound boom boxes being pulled on skateboards or cars parked on the curb blasting those records. DJ Red Alert debuted his show on Kiss FM and Afrika Islam had a show, “Zulu Beats,” on WHBI. The World’s Famous Supreme Team did a show you had to catch early in the morning. Kids would make cassettes and bring them to school to play one another the freshest new song from the night before. I’m not gonna say that I thought I could get rich from rap, but I could clearly see that it was gonna get bigger before it went away. Way bigger.