When: July 19 (also known as yesterday)
Where: Queensbridge Park
Last night I finally managed to hit one of the NYC Parks Department's summer hip-hop shows. As they've done for a few years now, they're putting on a whole bunch of old school hip-hop shows in parks every borough this summer which, if you stop to think about it, is surprisingly astute, because of course, NYC public parks are exactly where hip-hop was born. When Kool Herc and dem came up from Jamaica and got the party started, they set up their speakers in the parks of the South Bronx, jacked some electricity from the light posts and cranked shit up. Or so goes hip-hop's official origin myth - and it's 100% true, if a bit oversimplified.
I was a little surprised at the makeup of the audience last night, in as much as there were very few white people there. I expected more because almost every time I ask a white person if they like rap or hip-hop, they say, "Yes, but only old school," and then ramble on about Grandmaster Flash for a while. (Others have reported similar phenomena.) But then again, it's always Flash and never Kool Moe Dee and Marly Marl, who were on stage last night. Plus, most hipsters wouldn't deign to go to Queens even if they knew where Queensbridge was. Regardless, like a typical white person, I was just as glad to be in the minority. After all, everyone knows a white person's coolness level may increase up to 500% in situations where they are the only white person (not the case for me at this show, but I'd say I hit at least 150%) and conversely, the coolness level of a given event is diminished by each white person in attendance.
What the attendance really amounts to is probably just that the show was in a park in the un-coolest of boroughs, Queens, in a park that's sandwiched between the pristine East River and the country's largest remaining housing project. A large part of the crowd were just neighbors stepping across the street for the free music.
But there's also a reason I bring it up, other than just to smugly let you know how super cool and non-racist I am (I go to housing projects! Oooh!), and that's that there is a history, a community here. The parties started in the Bronx but spread to parks in Queens and East Brooklyn including Queensbridge Park. The Queensbridge projects have been home to a handful of important hip hoppers including Marly Marl himself, Roxanne Shante (who flew in yesterday to perform at the show), Cormega and whathisname, Nas, and back in the day Marl and co. would steal some electricity to perform just yards away from where they stood last night. They referenced that and asked who in the audience had been there with them. (In case you were wondering, the age of the audience was pretty well mixed so the answer, by a show of hands, was "some.")
In addition to the advertised Kool Moe Dee and Marly Marl, audiences got Roxanne Shante (as I mentioned), the entire Treacherous Three, Craig G (another Queensbridge native), Caz from the Cold Crush Brothers and if I'm not mistaken, Doug E. Fresh's son. Of course, I missed most of it cause I suck. What I did catch is hard to review from a musical standpoint because there's nothing to say about music that solid. Kool Moe Dee is an indisputably great MC and was one of the predecessors to hardcore rap and he and Marl both were dead on yesterday, musically as proficient as they were in their heyday. True to the nature of the event, they hit the classics. The T3 were in matching white and busting tightly choreographed moves that didn't show a hint of the fact that they're now thirty years older than they were back when.
Kool Moe did speechify a little and explained to the audience how back in the good old days, MCs could have a rivalry without things turning physically violent, referring to his longstanding beef with LL Cool J. He name-checked LL and even seemed to offer some respect to the man, but still got a dig in there too, saying the whole thing boiled down to a superstar sex icon versus a legit MC. I'm never too keen on musicians who take the whole "gather round children, sit on my knee and let me tell you about the good old days before you whippersnappers messed everything up" approach but then again, what's a rapper to do? The story of rap is the story of a bunch of teenage musicians being thrust, without their consent, into the role of cultural spokespeople and then blamed for everything that went wrong in black America. Which leaves old schoolers like Kool Moe with the option of either seeming to endorse the violence of hip-hop culture in the last twenty years (which would make them both complicit in the violence and poseurs since they really weren't into that stuff) or to give moralistic lectures about fighting with mics and not guns. If I were him, I'd go for the latter option too.
The music, though truly flawless, still takes a backseat to the show as a community event. Forty-somethings reliving their youth, moms and dads and grandmas with kids, teens, twenty-something lesbians, little old men with picnic blankets and of course, a smattering of white folks like yours truly (for some reason, all twenty-something or sixty-something in age) the audience was a motley crew. But for those of us who were not in New York City, nor black, nor alive in 1980, it was a real lesson, a postcard from the past to let us know how little we really know about hip-hop and yet how much there still is to believe in. It's not ours, but the owners of hip-hop hope are willing to let us share.