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New American Songbook

Shaping Our World Through Hip Hop

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Ninety percent of what I know about New York City comes from hip hop. My personal map of the Big Apple bears very little resemblance to the Rand McNally accordion—in the place of the orderly and angled streets and avenues are lanes and grooves carved by a DJ’s stylus. Brooklyn is called Bucktown, and the Bronx is oversized, spilling over into Queens and Manhattan. Staten Island is always Shaolin, with the great tower of the Wu-Tang Clan casting shadows across the entire scene.

Hip hop’s New York City is familiar to many people by now: it’s the gritty concrete jungle, portrayed by artists like Nas and Rakim; it’s the vibrant and wild South Bronx of KRS-ONE; or it’s the bohemian chill of Digable Planets. Or, it’s all of these things wrapped up in one verse by Mos Def.

More than any other music, hip hop is concerned with what is happening where it happens. It’s a peculiarly Romantic framework, recalling in some ways the vision of Wordsworth and Coleridge—one that stands in contrast to much of the standard pop-narrative that centers itself solely on an inner dialogue, isolated from environment.

But, so much of who we are is shaped by where we are. Giving a voice to place also gives the characters in hip hop a place in the world. And, on occasion, a home.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Wu-Tang's Shaolin as Long Island. Wu-Tang is associated with Staten Island.