Brooklyn has always been a fixture of hip-hop lyrics — from 1984’s “Do Or Die Bed Stuy” by Divine Sounds to 2009’s “Coney Island” by Marco Polo and Torae. With the “’90s Hip Hop and R&B Sing-Along” taking place at Park Slope’s Union Hall on March 28, we have picked out some of our favorite borough-centric tracks from the decade.
Jay-Z lives in a multi-million-dollar apartment in Manhattan these days, but this 1997 track paid tribute to his childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Marcy Houses. The lyrics cover drugs, violence, and prostitution, anchored by the hook, “Cough up a lung, where I’m from, Marcy son, ain’t nothing nice. Mentally been many places but I’m Brooklyn’s own.”
The late Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, growing up in Brooklyn with his cousins and fellow hip-hop crew members RZA and GZA. This song appeared on ODB’s first solo album in 1995. The track is mostly a tirade against an unnamed nemesis, but the chorus at the end of the song shows some love for his home borough — “Shame on you when you step through to, the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Brooklyn Zoo!”
This native son performed in the group Black Star with Talib Kweli in the ’90s, but released this gem of a track on his first solo album in 1999. The song is a long love-letter to the borough that bred him, and include references to its Dutch roots, Fulton Mall, and many neighborhoods.
One of the kings of ’90s hip-hop, Notorious BIG naturally hails from Kings County. His 1994 album “Ready to Die” helped launch a coastal rap war, and includes many autobiographical songs about BIG’s upbringing. “Unbelievable” starts out with this — “Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one. Representing BK to the fullest.”
Okay, this song technically misses the ’90s mark — it came out in 1989. But we had to include a song from the Beasties following the 1980s borough anthem “No Sleep till Brooklyn.” “Hello Brooklyn” starts off with a reference to the Leonard Bernstein song “New York, New York” — “New York New York it’s a hell of a town. The Bronx is up and I’m Brooklyn down.” It ends with a nod to Johnny Cash — “I ride around town cause my ride is fly. I shot a man in Brooklyn just to watch him die.”