Queens reigns supreme

Queens reigns supreme

In The Bridge is Over, rapper KRS ONE issued a fatwa against fellow MCs from the borough of Queens: “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on takin it, Bronx keeps creatin it and Queens keeps on fakin it.”

The question of street cred — who has it and why — is still an integral and problematic part of hip hop today. It haunts the events chronicled in Ethan Brown’s Queens Reign Supreme, an engaging if exhausting book about the confluence of such Queens hustlers as Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols and “Tony Montana Mickens” and rappers old-school and new, from Run DMC to 50 Cent.

Brown’s book offers a wildly interesting account on the evolution of the drug trade in southeast Queens. From the world of drugs, Brown transitions to hip hop and the rise of Def Jam records. Many of Queens’ early rappers ran with people in the drug world. Others grew up on the ensuing folklore.

The results of living in such a world are devastating, as Brown shows through the story of Tupac Shakur. Despite the “Thug Life” tattoo, Pac was such an incompetent hustler he had to return supply to his distributor. Pac’s hunger for the thug life hastened his demise.

Then there’s 50 Cent, who slung his share of rock, and whose own mother died from her habit. His rise was the result of circulating mixtapes in the underground network of New York that tainted his better-known rivals as “studio gangstas.”

Hip hop is often used as a springboard for moralizing politicians, and it’s a welcome relief that Brown doesn’t condemn his subject. Yet his reluctance to challenge its prevailing assumptions is troubling. Rap has long been rooted in an ethos of “keeping it real.” But how many real people have to get killed before the fallacy of “street cred” gets laid to rest? It’s ironic that the primacy of the gangsta rapper with a beef coincides with a shift in the music audience from urban black to suburban white. Maybe one day bullet wounds and prison bids will no longer be a requisite for a rap star. And if the exurban audience doesn’t like it, well, maybe they never really did.

John Dicker reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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