"Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant", begins "Marcy Me," the penultimate track on Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter frequently stellar new album 4:44. The line is a tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G., and the song is an ode to Jigga's youth in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a neighbourhood that has long been a bulwark for Brooklyn's black community and has spawned an all-star team of African-American musical talent, from Biggie himself to Lena Horne to Lil' Kim and Yasiin Bey to Big Daddy Kane, but was also once seen as ground zero in black American's battle with the crack epidemic. Many of the lyrics of 4:44, Jay's 13th album that was released last week on Tidal, takes us right back to the era of the rapper's coming of age, before Bed-Stuy was among the fastest gentrifying neighbourhoods in New York.
In the brisk track, which features one of the album's simplest and most satisfyingly rhythmic arrangements, and at 2:54, is its second shortest, Jay-Z revisits his teenage years in Bed-Stuy, announcing in the first verse "I'm from Marcy houses, where the boys die by the thousand." The surrounding environs of that stretch of Brooklyn around the Marcy Houses – back when "ratchet was a ratchet and a vixen was a vixen" and "Rodman was a Piston" and "Pam was on Martin" –weren't yet a place to buy million-dollar apartments, as those streets have now become. The violent, crack-riddled streets and project corridors, the ones conservative journals such as The Weekly Standard foolishly claimed were full of "Super-Predators" during Carter's youth, have become, if not universally prosperous, much less riven by shootings and robberies as crime, all over the city and the industrialised Western world, dropped. In the song however, Carter seems to pine for those dangerous streets:
Old Brooklyn, not this new shit, shift feel like a spoof
Fat laces in your shoe, I'm talkin' bustin' off the roof
Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke
Y'all flirtin' with death, I be winkin' through the scope
Shout out to all the murderers turned murals
Plural fuck the Federal Bureau
Shout out to Nostrand Ave., Flushing Ave., Myrtle
All the County of Kings, may your ground stay fertile
Shout out to Big Poppa, Daddy Kane, heroes
Thus concludin' my concerto; Marcy me
At 452 Marcy, on roughly 30 acres that were once the site of an old Dutch windmill, the projects where Carter grew up remain, as disempowered as ever, if less riven with deadly violence than at the height of the crack age. "Bed-Stuy was my country, Brooklyn was my planet" Jigga via ghostwriter Dream Hampton wrote in the second paragraph of his autobiography, Decoded, which is a fascinating read in light of Carter's new work. In Decoded, Carter/Hampton call the 27 six-story buildings that make up the majority of the property "huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives," spaces that kept the struggles of the urban poor "invisible to the larger country." Yet so much of Carter's career, and those of other rappers who came to prominence in the era of the genre's global ascendance, has hinged upon building an audience for stories of the black urban poor in the conscience of the mainstream, which is usually another way of saying among middle class whites.
In his own testimony, the Bed-Stuy of Carter's preteen years consisted mostly of the inner workings of the Marcy Houses and the streets surrounding the complex. Constructed in 1949, the Marcy Houses are named after former the New York governor, US senator, and secretary of state William Marcy. Despite presiding over the Empire State during its first full decade of abolition in the 1830s, he was a Jacksonian Democrat, one who sympathised with southern slavery, a "doughface" in the parlance of the times. The projects bearing his name are a fitting tribute to his sentiments.
The intentional, state-mandated segregation that greeted the construction of New York's public housing stock, enacted a century after Marcy's time, has borne many strange fruit. Surely no system has arisen since the end of the "peculiar institution" to ensure black bondage with more effectiveness than the low-income, exclusively black urban housing project. Carter recalls having to dodge the glass shards that lined the "grassy patches that passed for a park" while playing touch football, and tipping a benched, unresponsive heroin addict as you would a cow sleeping on a pasture. He discovered rapping as a preteen, walking those same corridors after coming upon a circle of young ashy kids spitting rhymes in a cipher. He began writing his own verses that very night.
As the 80s wore on, hip-hop, an invention of the Bronx, was transforming the youth culture of the country Carter lived in. Speakers and subwoofers eight feet in height would be set up in the courtyards of the Marcy Houses for epic MC battles that would "rattle" the windows of the families, new and old, desperately poor or solidly working class yet unable to get out, that lived in the projects above. Yet hip-hop wasn't the most profound thing altering the landscape of the Marcy Houses and the surrounding area in the 1980s. When the crack epidemic reached Bed-Stuy, or at least the clutch of buildings that dominated Carter's vision of it, "what had been was gone, and in its place was a new way of life that was suddenly everywhere and seemed like it had been there forever."
Unlike cocaine users, crackheads would use publicly, in those very Marcy corridors and playgrounds, inside apartment hallways and on the stairs leading to the Myrtle-Willoughby G train stop perched on the southeastern end of the complex. People whom Carter had known as authority figures were suddenly part of a new zombie class, "worse than prostitutes and almost as bad as snitches." Aunts and uncles, neighbours and older relatives, members of his parents' generation, many of whom had come of age during the heyday of the civil rights movement, were lost to addiction. It wasn't long until a teenage Carter began to sell crack himself.
"Fuck waiting for the city to pass out summer jobs. I wasn't even a teenager yet and suddenly everyone I knew had pocket money," he explains in the first of many rationalisations for the allure of being a drug-pushing hustler, a life he claims not to have given up until the eve of the release of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt (1996). "Guys my age, fed up with watching their moms struggle on a single income, were paying utility bills with money from hustling," Carter continues, before acknowledging that, as the money from the crack game exploded with the epidemic itself, the courtyards of Marcy were soon populated by kids his age who "wore automatic weapons like they were sneakers." Carter claims to have been on the streets hustling over half the time during his 13th year.
In the book Carter frequently admits to not believing his own good fortune. "Inside, there's a part of me that expects to wake up tomorrow in my bedroom in apartment 5C in Marcy, slide on my gear, run down the pissy stairway, and hit the block, one eye over my shoulder." Like many kids who grow up in dense collections of poverty, Carter didn't know he had little. It wasn't until a sixth-grade field trip to a white teacher's Manhattan brownstone, one that provided a view of nearby Central Park, that he realised he came from humble beginnings. For this kid reared in what he describes as a modern killing field, trappings of success became doubly powerful once the realisation of his own unfortunate circumstances took hold. "We talked about how rich we were going to be and made moves to get the lifestyle we aspired to by any means we could," Carter recalls of himself and his school peers. "And as soon as we had a little money, we were eager to show it."
The proliferation of guns and gun violence in the inner cities during the 80s, a trend Carter describes in some of his best songs with aplomb and firsthand in Decoded's most salient passages ("Kids were as well armed as a paramilitary outfit in a small country"), is no accident of history. "There are no white people in Marcy Projects," Carter acknowledges, before pointing fingers at a government he calls "almost genocidally hostile" for the "crack explosion" and the increased presence of lethal weaponry that sullied the environment of his childhood and adolescence. A lucrative drug market thrived in spaces where little other economic opportunity was being encouraged, not by the state, not by private individuals of means. The stakes were high and most careers ended unsuccessfully. Dee Dee, the dealer who had initially put a young Carter on as a dope pusher, was murdered, shot in the back of the head before or after having his balls cut off and stuffed in his mouth.
A lucrative drug market thrived in spaces where little other economic opportunity was being encouraged, not by the state, not by private individuals of means. The stakes were high and most careers ended unsuccessfully.
Such grisly violence wasn't enough to keep Carter's 15-year-old self out of "The Game." Crack led him as far south as Virginia and as far west as Trenton, New Jersey. Even while still just a boy, untapped new markets – in front of grocery stores and nightclubs, on dead-end streets and within tattered urban parks – were there for the taking, all in pursuit of the glory that comes with a fly ride and some new Patrick Ewing sneakers.
In the first of a series of close calls, Carter was arrested for trespassing at a local high school with crack on him, but it was his first arrest and, being a minor, he was released with a record that was sealed until his 18th birthday. Around this time, Carter's musical interest was simultaneously intensifying. He recalls writing rap lyrics on the backs of brown paper bags and occasionally appearing on a friend's mixtape, but he wouldn't see hip-hop as a potentially lucrative career until later. Carter was still too busy getting into turf wars in Trenton with other crack dealers who felt he and an associate were crowding in on their sales by undercutting their price. In his story of the criminal mainline that became a sideline and then fodder for his continuing street cred as a wildly popular rap artist and global brand, guns were often drawn but rarely fired, near misses piling upon one another.
Whenever Jigga returned to Marcy to score more dope for his Trenton exploits, he would link up with Jaz, another MC from Marcy who had first begun to push a young Carter to explore his musical proclivities. They would wile away afternoons working on tracks, an activity that began to take up all of Carter's spare time as he'd cut rhymes while subsisting on little more than sugary breakfast cereals and ice cream. Jaz got a record deal before Carter did, with EMI, and invited his protégé to London with him to record. That album tanked after a poorly chosen first single, and, given how his mentor had been treated, Carter temporarily gave up his dreams of rap superstardom and rededicated himself to hustling, expanding his crack game farther south, to new territories in Maryland. But his first big break wasn't far.
The future Jay-Z got the chance to tour with Big Daddy Kane in the early 90s after Kane heard Carter's rhymes on a mixtape he had completed with Jaz. A few years later, "J.Z." as he was then known had become a full-blown protégé of Kane's and appeared on the single "Show and Prove" from Kane's 1994 album Daddy's Home. The only ex-Marcy resident to dine with multiple presidents was, simultaneously, still dealing crack and still living in Marcy.
Crack made it a lot harder to get by in a place where all the weak and poor had to prey on were, for the most part, other weak and poor people. "No one's going to help us," Carter suggests his generation of black people felt, "so we went for self, for family, for block, for crew," before suggesting that the criticism of rappers as "hyper-capitalists" conceals a "rational response" by most imperilled young men who went into hip-hop to the culture within which they were being bred. "People who looked just like us were gunning for us," Carter writes. "Weakness and dependence made you a mark, like a dope fiend. Success could only mean self-sufficiency, being a boss, not a dependent. The competition wasn't about greed – or not just about greed. It was about survival."
That mindset has been reflected in many ways throughout Jay's career. The contemporary Jay-Z reflects on his rise from waiting around in building lobbies to taking meetings with Saudis. He brags about his clean record, the way he "came through the bushes smellin' like roses – I need a trophy just for that." Jay's story has always been a parable of complicated success, an embodiment of his city's qualities at both their grimmest and most inspiring, but never has it rung out with the quite the same graceful authority as "Marcy Me," where he raps, as if anyone could question him, "Streets is my artery, the vein of my existence / I'm the Gotham City heartbeat."
This essay has been adapted and updated from material in Making Rent in Bed-Stuy: A Memoir of Trying to Make It in New York City, out now via Amistad Books. Find more information about the book here.
Brandon Harris is a professor, documentary filmmaker, and writer based in New York. He is also pitcher for the VICE softball team and author of the memoir Making Rent in Bed-Stuy . Follow him on Twitter.