Latasha Alcindor's 'Teen Nite at Empire' Preserves a Fading Brooklyn
The Brooklyn rapper remembers a now-closed skating rink and talks being a voice for young women of color.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Gentrification is a nationwide crisis that many with roots in inner cities are facing at alarming rates right now. Localized cultures that have attracted the adulation of outsiders are in jeopardy of being wiped away because those who now want to experience them are often unaware of the fact that their migration is gradually and successfully stomping them out. For that reason, this is what most of the conversations surrounding the topic are focused on: native communities trying to preserve what they have left and using what resources they have to resist a change that feels inevitable.
This has also sparked a wave of heartfelt tributes in all forms of media; In a time of fearful uncertainty, people across the country are making efforts to document what their communities once represented and are giving voices to those who would be permanently unheard otherwise. Brooklyn rapper Latasha Alcindor is one of the latest artists to take on that responsibility. Earlier this year, the Flatbush native released B(LA)K, a project about navigating a Brooklyn that is new to her where loved ones are being gradually pushed out. Her most recent take on her home borough is one that goes deeper than what is currently surrounding her.
Earlier this month, Alcindor released her second project of the year with Teen Nite at Empire. The tape is a fond look back on the old Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights and the teen nights it regularly hosted. Just like many other cultural inner city landmarks have ended up, the venue is now closed and functioning as a shell-of-itself storage facility. But when Latasha was a teen starting to venture out into the world, Empire was the epicenter for black Brooklyn youth. It's where kids like herself who grew up in multicultural Caribbean families were able to congregate and hear the music played in their households at blaring volumes. It's where young people learned the ins-and-outs of courtship. It's also where some kids fell victim to early 2000s New York gang violence.
On the project, Latasha raps with a powerful vigor, not unlike the rap that she absorbed during her many trips to Empire every other Friday as a teen. That delivery, she says during a recent conversation, is an intentional ode to the music that soundtracked her adolescent years. In between tracks she reenacts routine encounters she had then: getting invited to parties by guys yelling out of car windows, conversations with her cousin prior to heading to the skating rink, and current exchanges looking back at the now-closed space. When Latasha stopped by VICE Headquarters in Brooklyn shortly after the project's release she spoke about the motivation to create Teen Night at Empire, what it feels like to see Brooklyn change, and wanting to be a voice for young women of color growing up in inner cities.
NOISEY: Your project is a tribute to the old Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights. What did that place mean for kids growing up in Brooklyn when it was open?
Latasha Alcindor: For me personally, it meant a sense of freedom. I was a weirdo ass kid growing up from Brooklyn and my parents were both hustlers. My dad was in the drug dealing scene and my mom was also was affiliated—she was a dancehall queen. She didn't want me going outside because she saw all of this crazy shit happening. I had a lot of shootouts around my hood and shit like that so going to Empire was like my first time like having some sort of freedom. I couldn't go to parties so that was my party.
Well skating rinks for black kids are basically parties anyway.
Exactly! But you know it was different than a regular skating rink. You go to skating rinks down in Atlanta and everybody's actually skating. At Empire, nobody was skating. Everybody was just dancing on each other. It was like having like a prom every other Friday (laughs). Everybody would get fresh with their new J's. It was a scene.
What was your best and worst moment there?
Oh, man. I think my best moment at Empire was probably the first time ever going there. I think DJ Jazzy Joyce from Hot 97 was playing. Yo, the party was so packed I was like, "Oh my God this is the most amazing party ever." A good 800 people could fit in there. That night everybody was just together and during that time, all the reggae dances was the scene and all the dudes was doing all the moves together.
I think the worst was probably my last time going when there was like a really big shootout outside and my cousin Sharika—like you heard on the project—loved trouble so she was always like "There's a shootout. I'm about to get in there." You would hear about little boys passing away from those kinds of situations and I had a lot of homies in gangs, especially the Bloods and Crips during that time.
Hearing these kinds of stories is special because it feels like so much of that Brooklyn is gone. From an outsider's perspective, Flatbush seems fairly untapped in comparison to the rest of Brooklyn. How does it feel to experience that change? Do you think about how much longer it has? Do you think about it at all?
It's funny you say that because I go to Flatbush now and be like "What the fuck?!" There's so many things that are so different but obviously there's a lot still the same. My last project was called B(LA)K . It was telling my story about growing up in Brooklyn and Teen Night was like an excursion. I deal with the dilemma of wanting things to progress but also wanting things to still have a legacy. I think that's the biggest problem I and a lot of my homies are facing. I can't lie, I like the Connecticut muffin on the block sometimes (laughs). We all fuck with it, but the biggest thing is people can't afford it no more. If you're a white person and you live in a building where you see people getting pushed out, figure out how to help them if you have some resources to help them.
Did you have any people in your family that encouraged you to pursue music?
No. I'm so Caribbean and Latina that when my family heard I was rapping, it was like "What the fuck are you talking about?" My mom didn't support me for a long time. She supports me now but nobody was doing music or art. Everybody was hustling or working the 9-5. My mom wanted me to be a lawyer. I was a smart kid. I went to Wesleyan University and I graduated well enough. But when I came out like I was like "I don't wanna do any of this shit!" I ended up working for bank for a little while. I hated that shit.
I worked at a bank for like a year.
I did it on-and-off for four years then started doing music out of the blue. Niggas was hearing my spoken word and they were like, "Yo i think you could rap." I denied it, then I did some cyphers and the shit went viral. After that, I did a mixtape just for fucks called The Presentation and used old Kanye West beats. Then I ended up opening for Big Sean, and Kanye, and Q Tip. But when you're a woman in hip-hop it's a different ballgame; I needed some support and I didn't have any. I paused for a bit, was going through some depression, and came back. Now, here I am.
On Teen Nite , there are bits and pieces that really place the listener inside of the experience of Empire. On one song there's a guy trying to get at you. At others points, you have friends hyping up how live the rink and the bashments were about to be.
Yeah, I think the strongest thing on the project is the relatability. I felt like a lot of around-the-way girls and a lot of homies from the block understood exactly what this was. People hit me up like, "Yo this shit took me right back home nigga!" I was such a nerd compared to everybody else so those reactions made me happy because I wanted them to see that.
This project feels like it could be a crucial reference point for girls who are coming of age and are starting to navigate their own social scene. Especially ones who grew up similarly to you; Young people who grow up super sheltered with parents that don't let them do shit tend to fly off the handle by the time they hit their teen years. Hearing this album could help.
I would hope what this does for young girls is definitely to make them feel like they have someone to rely on, to speak to, or hear from. I don't feel like there's a lot of women telling their story in their music. A lot of women are going ham just because they feel like they have to prove something. Fuck all that. Let's talk about what's going on with ourselves. I feel like I did that in the song "Glow Up." Little girls hit me up about that song and that's what I want. Beyond that, I would love if this project just captivated a lot more people in the sense of like, just understanding who women of color are in those kinds of spaces. I feel like we forget those stories. That's really what this whole shit is about: transcending. I'm gonna be like one of the only ones that, at this point in time, is telling story about being a woman of color in the inner city. Noname does it really well too and there's a couple of others.
There's not enough getting the platforms for a mass group of people to hear, though.
Exactly. If I'm gonna have this platform, I wanna make sure that I'm doing that for women. They need that right now, you know? There's days where I'm Lil' Kim and there's days where I wanna be Queen Latifah. I wanna show that.
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