By the late nineteen-eighties, as the sounds and styles of hip-hop pervaded youth
culture, budding stars jostled for position, and a curious internal debate swept the tristate area—where exactly had it begun? Though South Bronx block parties had long been given the credit, one song inadvertently fed fans the rumor that hip-hop started in Queens. In MC Shan’s 1986 single, “The Bridge,” he raps, “You love to hear the story, again and again / Of how it all got started way back when / The monument is right in your face / Sit and listen for a while to the name of the place.” “The Bridge” was short for Queensbridge, America’s largest operating housing project, located in Long Island City; Shan was simply extolling the place where his Juice Crew “got started.” This erroneous origin story isn’t the complex’s only incongruity. At concerts and in clubs, Queensbridge persists as a misnomer, evoked to represent the entire borough: a rogue symbol of Queens’ scrappy tenacity and opaque borders.
A ghostly image of the Queensbridge Houses appears on the cover of “Illmatic,” the 1994 debut album by Nasir Jones, known to fans as Nas, transposed under a photograph of the then-twenty-year-old rapper as a toddler. On the album’s centerpiece, “The World Is Yours,” Jones brags of aiming guns at all his baby pictures. Scenes like these, jarringly morose and delivered in his throaty monotone, once again rerouted the genre’s devotees toward Queensbridge, where Jones came of age: shortly after its release, “Illmatic” was praised as a benchmark début, and Jones gained clout as a prodigious writer. Compact and glowingly musical, the album reworked silent film scores and nimble kalimba phrases into a humming city tableau, on which the young rapper sulks through his writhing neighborhood with the moral baggage of an Arthur Miller lead. “I need a new nigga for this black cloud to follow / ’Cause while it’s over me, it’s too dark to see tomorrow,” he exhales.
“Illmatic” and its unanimous acclaim have also lent themselves to overzealous fetishizing—the album stalks its creator not unlike that black cloud. Still, he’s grown as a provocative and lucid narrator in the years since, always demanding more of the rap form: on “2nd Childhood” (2001), he examines the emotionally stunting effects of poverty; on “I Can” (2002), he reworks “Für Elise” for an endearing youth P.S.A.; on “Bridging the Gap” (2004), he duets with his father, the jazz cornettist Olu Dara. “I been to Saudi Arabia, Mozambique / Madagascar, Paris, Greece,” Dara riffs. “The Middle Africa is where we lived / Better known as Queensbridge.”
This March, Kanye West tweeted, “I promised Obama Ima do beats on NAS’ next album. . . .” Whether the exchange took place or not, the patently baffling scenario West alluded to speaks to Jones’s cherished stature among his fans, and hints at just how high up that base may go. He’s toured extensively in recent years, including a twenty-year anniversary run in 2014, where he performed “Illmatic” in full. On July 16, he headlines the twelfth annual Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, in a Queens insurgency that Kings County won’t mind supporting.