My favorite RUN-DMC song isn’t “Walk This Way,” “Run’s House,” “My Adidas,” or any of the classics that are often associated with the Kings of Rock. It’s an album cut off of their last album and I don’t know many who even know a song with RUN-DMC, Nas, and Prodigy of Mobb Deep exists…but I love it.
“We all glow. And I’m proud to be all I know. Q, B-O-R-O…”-Nasir “Nas” Jones
Whenever someone asks me where I’m from I quickly respond “Queens.” It may not have the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the rich history of Harlem, be as cool as Brooklyn, or be the home of the most famous and winningest franchise: the Yankees in the Bronx. However, it is the largest of the five boros-or counties-and is the most ethnically diverse place on the planet. More than likely if you are flying into New York, you are landing at LaGuardia or JFK airports which are both in Queens.
Queens’ largest contribution to society as we know it has been through the arts; black music in particular. Many notable jazz artists called Queens home because it was a place of refuge while most of New York City was segregated. There is a neighborhood in southeast Queens called Addisleigh Park, which is one of if not the first affluent black place of residency. Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Count Basie, James Brown, Lena Horne, John Coltraine as well as other famous blacks such as W.E.B. DuBois and Jackie Robinson lived in the enclave on the western side of a place called Saint Albans. Saint Albans is where I am from.
While many jazz legends at one time called Saint Albans and neighboring Hollis, Queens their place of residency; the neighborhood’s largest input into culture as we know it has been in hip hop. A young entrepreneur named Russell Simmons managed his brother’s rap group, Run DMC and made them a household name. He started a record label with NYU student Rick Ruben and the first artist that they signed was a sixteen year old from Saint Albans named LL Cool J. This ultimately set the stage for what is hands-down the most influential culture across the world. Other notable residents of this area are A Tribe Called Quest, Young MC, Ja Rule, Ed Lover, Razel formerly of The Roots, sports journalist Stephen A. Smith, and Al Sharpton.
From 1985-1998, I lived at 114-25 Francis Lewis Boulevard. We lived in the upper level apartment of a two-family home right on the border of Saint Albans, Hollis, and another neighborhood Cambria Heights. It was and still is a lower-middleclass area that is by all means what we colloquially call “the hood.” I often stared out of our large window facing Francis Lewis Boulevard wondering what it was that I observing. I would contemplate what life was like outside of there and what would I become once I was able to venture into this world when I was old enough.
What were those young guys doing in front of the bodega all day? Listening to rap music and slapping a low-five to many people walking by without losing a stride? Why would there be a bunch of police cars in front of the bodega or at Andrew Jackson High School on the next block? Why couldn’t my twin sister and I play on our block with the other kids our age?
My parents did a great job not letting the place that we called home infiltrate and eventually influence us. I remember being a young child in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s seeing these little plastic vials with colored tops littered all over the street. My mother said that my sister and I used to like to jump and crush them. While this was something that we enjoyed, I didn’t know those little bottles held crack cocaine until I was much older. We only played outside on the much quieter blocks that our maternal and paternal grandparents lived on which were both in Saint Albans.
I played basketball and started taking the bus to different gyms and courts for practice and some of what was in the hip hop I listened to more and more began to make sense. I recall it being 1998 and I was around twelve years old. All I listened to was hip hop at the time: on the radio and on my disc man to the bus as I headed to school. In my head I was beginning to become a rapper but didn’t quite have the words just yet. The more aggressive the content that would be blaring in my ears began to manifest itself in how I talked and how I dealt with things.
One night my father was sitting at our computer and I must have said something along the lines that reflected the music I listened to and a lifestyle he was well aware of as a musician and growing up in Queens himself. He looked me dead in the eyes and said “Get out the hood!” It was a quick moment; however it was one I’ll never forget. My father made a loaded statement in which he was telling an impressionable black mind to watch how I listened to music; but as long as we lived there to not become a product of my environment.
“In some cases the only thing that father and son have in common, is their love for Run.”-Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons
With the exception of kindergarten and first grade, we never went to school in St. Albans. As a teacher, my mother was adamant about us not being in the neighborhood public schools. In 1996 my sister and I enrolled into I.S. 227 or Louis Armstrong Middle School. It was located on the other side of Queens in East Elmhurst; the place where the jazz great our school’s namesake used to live in when he was alive. It was a magnet school that accepted some of the brightest-or well connected-kids all over Queens and bussed them there.
As a collective, my childhood friends are an anomaly. I am the only one out of us who was able to leave Queens for the suburbs and yet the whole gang is intact. No one is in jail or dead. Professionally we’re teachers, bankers, work for the NAACP, musicians, barbers, actors, and mentors to youth who were very much like us. Many didn’t grow up with fathers in their household; yet many of us are husbands and fathers who take care of our children. In fact, I’m not the only single father who has custody of their child.
I was telling my friend Boogie that I was writing about everyone and how we didn’t become products of our environment. He said “I think we are products of our environment. A product could be a tool or weapon that has forged through fire and is still a product. Since we fall in the category of tools we choose to build and make things better.” I couldn’t have said it any better. We-until last night including me-usually associate being a product of one’s environment coming from a deficit perspective. We say this like “This is the best that they could become given their circumstances.” A person from neighborhoods like where we came from are written-off to become the b-students of life. Nah. As a tool, Boogie’s iron sharpened my iron and here I am sharing it with you. Hell, I should know better than that because I started this essay off mentioning people who came from the same streets as I did who became prominent in their respective fields.
“Been the illest since day one, too advanced to ever be caught. Who’s more legendary than me? That’s what I thought.”-Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons
My parents moved us to Freeport in Nassau County in September, 1998. It’s about ten miles from St. Albans but was a different world. It was quiet, you could hear crickets, and we had raccoons. Our next door neighbors were white. We went to high school in neighboring Baldwin, which was an ethnically diverse neighborhood.
It was a place I never fully adjusted to living in until I became a father. I made some really good friends at Baldwin; but I just never felt that I completely fit in. My best friend Brandon who I went to Morehouse with, my high school best friend Tre, and maybe one or two other people are all I keep in regular contact with. Truth be told, Brandon and I became best friends because of Morehouse and not high school. In a diverse school, there were many blacks who had recently moved out there as well. Many coming from Brooklyn and Queens and pretended they were hard because they did. I thought most of these people were corny. Some had come from neighborhoods where I was from and places where I had known people; but they didn’t know any of the people I knew. I made the best of those years and couldn’t wait to get far away from it.
I am a father, now. I wouldn’t want Cydney living in a neighborhood like where I grew up. If I had the money I couldn’t see myself living in some swanky loft in Manhattan, either. I would want to live in a quiet suburban place like where I currently call home so she can ride her bike in the street. I want her to be able to make friends in her neighborhood, and as she’s older look back at her upbringing not put two plus two together and go “wow!” My parents did a great job raising my sister and me. They moved us out because that was something they thought was best for their children. I want the same.
“And if somebody want to test mine, yo watch this: Peter Piper picked pepper…[and Run rocks rhymes]. See, I knew you knew the next line, and I bet you said it. It’s been a minute, I’m still the king of the world, so don’t forget it.”-Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons