In Music , Travels

How Rap Music Guided Me Through NYC


To anyone who grew up listening to rap music, specifically from the mid 80’s to the late 90’s, New York is Mecca. Holy ground. The place where it all began. There’s a universal feeling we get in our stomaches whenever we hear someone say “Brooklyn”. Or “The Bronx”. Or “Queens Bridge”. It’s the same for all of us, and if you’re one of us, you probably just visualized a different but very specific rapper as I named each borough. Biggie, KRS, Nas. That’s how mine goes. Yours may differ slightly, but we all have a rapper who’s name – at least in our heads – has become synonymous with the city in which they were bred. The “hip hop head” has a perception of New York that’s shared only with fellow hip hop heads. Playwrights and stage actors idolize Broadway, while writers and beatnik enthusiasts naturally flock to Greenwich Village. When New York is brought up in conversation, tourists and history buffs alike might think of Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty, while those interested in the history of the mob might think of Hell’s Kitchen. The bridges, the Trade Center, the Empire State Building, Wall Street, Central Park, SoHo, Times Square – they all catch the ear and spark the interest of a different type of person. I’ve been to every one of those places, and while I find them all interesting, none of them jump start my heart the way taking the seven train through Queens past the Five Pointz does. When you unexpectedly turn that corner and see the giant black and white mural of Biggie, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of square feet of graffiti, stretching from the roofs to the concrete, you know you’ve arrived. Country music fans have Nashville. Actors and film fanatics have Hollywood. We have New York City.

New York is so dope, in fact, that the rapper widely acclaimed as the face of gangster rap, a West Coast legend, one of the stand-out contributors to the infamous East Coast/West Coast rivalry, and who’s responsible for such classic songs as “2 Live N Die in LA” and “California Love”, isn’t from LA or California. He isn’t even from the West Coast. He’s from East Harlem, NY.

I’ve never had a sense of direction. A lot of people say that about themselves, but I have yet to meet a worthy competitor. Right now, I’m sitting in my home where I’ve lived for the last three years. I’ve worked at the same business for those same three years. Longer, in fact. Sitting in my living room, I’m unable to point in the direction of my workplace. From my workplace, I can’t point to my home, or even the parking lot. When walking through a mall, I’ll make a right into a store, spend five minutes browsing through shit I won’t buy, and turn left when exiting the store, going back the way I came. I can read maps but I can’t apply them to my physical surroundings. North, South, East and West are just words that make me think of pirates. I was absent the day science handed out this internal GPS system it decided to grant so many others. I never ask for directions, and not because my ego won’t permit me to, but because I know I’ll never retain more than the first few steps. Even if I have them written down, I can usually follow them, but I have an insanely difficult time reversing them for the return trip. Thirty percent of my time behind the wheel is spent trying to figure out where the fuck I am. I have a friend who lives on the same major street as I do, and I’ve literally been to his house more times than I could possibly count, and I still have to ask for directions through his neighborhood every time I drive to his house (shout out to Carl).

This has always driven my mother out of her mind. She’s convinced she’ll be the one to flip the switch and shine light on the dusty map in my head. To this day she’ll get on her hands and knees and draw maps in the carpet. She means well, but it almost always ends with us arguing. It’s the only disability I have, and I’ve learned to accept it. I regularly allow myself extra time to find my destination once I become lost. It’s almost crippling, and always infuriating. It’s even terrifying a lot of times. But I accept it. I don’t let it keep me from going places or experiencing new things. In my circle, I’m known as the guy who never knows where he is, but who’s seen the most places. That part in the last paragraph about riding the seven train passed the FIve Pointz? It’s because I was lost. I accidentally went toward Queens instead of Manhattan. But it allowed me to see something I’d read about a hundred times and never thought I’d see. I’ve learned to love it, and to actually count on it.

To someone like me, a map of New York City’s subway system (see below) might as well be a detailed graph of the central nervous system. You may have gathered that I’m not a brain surgeon. Please know I’m not exaggerating when I say I ended up going the wrong direction eight out of ten times I stepped foot on the subway. And I must’ve rode the subway close to fifty times, so a lot of my time in NY was spent lost underground. This entry isn’t about me being lost as much as it’s about the ways I finally realized I was lost. Most of it involves me simply going the wrong way between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and a lot of it is basic, common-sense navigation to the average person.

NYC Subway System

I had just finished drinking heavily at a few bars in Greenwich Village, located in lower Manhattan. In my drunken spontaneity I decided I’d like to walk through Central Park, which is in midtown. The thing about being in NY, for me, is that I feel free. Where I’m from, if you want to go somewhere twenty miles from home, you have to make sure your car has fuel in it, make sure you know where you’re going, spend anywhere from a half hour to three hours staring at the break lights of the assholes in front of you, find parking which you occasionally have to pay for, lock your car and leave it behind, hoping it doesn’t get towed, stolen or broken into. Basically, it’s a pain in the ass. So when I’m in NY, I think of my little yellow and blue metro card as a portal to relatively convenient adventure, provided you don’t get robbed or stabbed to death. I say to myself, “you know, I’d like to go here.” I need only grab my bag, swipe my little card from which two dollars and fifty cents is deducted, and just like that, I’m off to see the Apollo or Yankee stadium or the Brooklyn bridge. And it really could be that easy, if only I’d been given the internal compass you probably have and take for granted.

So I hop on the blue line, anxious to call my little boy from Central Park to tell him I’m standing in the place where the bird lady saved Kevin from Joe Pesci and the other guy nobody remembers. Twenty minutes go by and still no “Next stop, Central Park West.” “Fuck it,” I think, “I’ll be there soon.” Another fifteen minutes went by before I finally realized the driver had been saying, “Final stop is Jamaica Center.” Once I’d worked passed the automatic visions of Bob Marley, a specific line of a 50 Cent song popped into my head. It’s probably been ten years since I’ve heard the song, and I can’t even remember it’s title, but the line is, “I don’t fight fair, I’m dirty-dirty, I’m from south side Jamaica Queens, nigga, ya heard me…” Shit. I’m in Queens, which is the opposite direction of Central Park in Manhattan. To put it in southern California terms, it’s like trying to go up to Santa Monica from Venice but ending up in Downtown LA.


I figured out where I went wrong after studying the map a bit closer. If you’ve never experienced NY trains, believe me when I tell you that it’s way more goddamn complicated than it sounds. It’s not enough to just trace the squiggly blue line on the map with your finger until it lands on your desired destination. Several trains run on the same line. For example, the blue line has three separate trains on it: the A, the E and the C. There’s occasionally an S in there, too, depending on where you are. Sometimes, all three trains run on the same track. Other times, they all splinter off from each other. The A and C  will continue taking you Uptown and the E will cut across Manhattan and eventually take you into Queens. I was on the E train. Now that we know multiple trains run on the same line, consider the fact that each train moves at a different speed, stops running at different times of night, and only stops in certain stations. Some trains, on the same line, are local trains which stop at every station, while others are express trains that only make major stops, skipping a shit ton of local stops in between. You may take the C train way up into the Bronx, spend an hour doing Bronx shit, and walk back to the subway only to learn it stopped running at midnight. Taxi! (There are 468 subway stations in New York City.) I didn’t know any of this until I got back to my hotel room and really tried to make sense of it all, because at the moment I just wanted to get on whatever train would get me the fuck out of Queens, regardless of said train’s color, letter, number, religion or sexual orientation.

A sign that actually tells people where the fuck they're going. There's about three of these in NYC.
A sign that actually tells people where the fuck they’re going. There’s about three of these in NYC.

I faced another dilemma once I’d finally seen Central Park and was ready to go back to my hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There’s not always a sign that says, “This way to Brooklyn, that way to elsewhere.” Instead, you may see a sign that says, “C and A express to 135-st / E, J, F and 6 to w4th-ave except late nights,” which, being from California, tells me just about dick. Which way do I go? If neither of those stops are in Brooklyn, I at least need to go toward the one that’s in the same direction as Brooklyn. I start to panic as I hear the train approaching, echoing through the pitch-black tunnels of Manhattan’s underground rat maze. The train arrives and the doors open. Moment of truth. I step on it, the doors close behind me and I’m off toward 135th St., wherever that is. After ten minutes or so, Big L lyrics start playing in my head, as if he was speaking to me from the grave. “On 139 and Lenox Ave there’s a big park, and if you’re soft don’t go through it when it gets dark.” Basic math tells me that 139th street, the place Big L warned me about, is only four streets from 135th, the stop I was heading toward. Big L is from Harlem, which is in upper Manhattan, the opposite direction of Brooklyn. I’m going the wrong way.

Since I was in Harlem...
Since I was in Harlem…

Incidentally, whenever NY rappers say “Uptown”, they’re referring to Harlem and sometimes The Bronx. I didn’t realize the terms were synonymous until I’d gotten lost a few times. For example, “Excuse me, Ms., I’m trying to get to Harlem.” “Oh you wanna go Uptown?” “No, to Harlem.” It all became clear after looking at a map while recalling the hook to Mase’s “Take What’s Yours” via DMX: “… Harlem World Uptown Baby, we make wars.” Or there’s there’s that Dipset song where Santana says, “Go Uptown to Harlem, tell em’ that I sent ya…'” Peter Gunz and Lord Tariq help pull The Bronx under the Uptown umbrella with their only memorable song, “Deja Vu”. “Now if it wasn’t for the Bronx, this rap shit probably never would be goin’ on, so tell me where you from – Uptown baby, Uptown baby..” etc, etc. (Side note for anyone under 25: Peter Gunz is the father of current Young Money rapper Cory Gunz.) And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s always KRS-One’s, “… south Bronx, south south Bronx, yo Uptown!

Another one of those signs they need more of.
Another one of those signs they need more of.

Once I’d turned around and was heading back downtown, I realized I had no idea whether I was still in Manhattan or if I’d already crossed over into Brooklyn. The two boroughs are separated by the East River, but it’s difficult to see water when you’re under ground. There’s usually a map or two posted on the walls of each train, but if you’ve ever been in one, you know just how nonsensically crowded they can get, and the thought of squeezing my way through a rickety metal box packed to the seams with angry New Yorkers wasn’t something I was all that stoked about. So most of my time spent in the subway involved me holding tight to a metal pole, squinting at a tiny map from ten feet away while standing shoulder to shoulder with unbathed hipsters, black dudes rapping out loud to the music blaring from their headphones, and crazy old women screaming at shit that wasn’t there. Just as I was building up the courage to make my way to the map, the train began slowing down. “Hoyt Street. Next stop Lafayette.”

Lafayette. I know that name. The song “Stop Shammin” by Big Daddy Kane begins with, “158 Lewis Avenue between Lafayette and Van Buren, that was back durin’ the days of hangin’ on my Bed-Stuy block.” Bed-Stuy. Also familiar. Mos Def told me he’s “blacker than the nighttime sky of Bed-Stuy in July…” Bed-Stuy is short for Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. “Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one, representing BK to the fullest,” Biggie said. Biggie: self-proclaimed “Brooklyn’s finest”. Lafayette, Bed-Stuy, Bedford-Stuyvesant, BK, Biggie, Brooklyn. I’m in Brooklyn.

I exited at Flushing Ave, the street my hotel was on. Well, I knew it was on that street, but I didn’t know how far down that street or even which direction to take that street. So I just start walking and hoping. Again, my hotel was in Williamsburg, a neighborhood which, if you’ve been there, you know has two very distinct ways of letting you know you’ve arrived/departed. There’s really no non-kinda-racist-sounding way to say this, but: it’s filled with Jews. I mean fucking filled-with-Jews. They’re pleasant, occasionally friendly Jews (at least by New York standards) but very Jewish ass Jews. Every sign from the ones on buildings to the one scrolled across the school buses are in Yiddish – or Hebrew(?). And there’s no Starbucks. Not one. If you’re from any major city, you know that when there’s no Starbucks around, it’s on purpose. You’ve crossed over something invisible but very real. People go missing in places without Starbucks. The other way you know you’re in Williamsburg is that it smells like shit. NOT because of the Jews. It smells like shit because of the shit. There’s too many great details I could give you about my time in Williamsburg, so I’ll save it for a future entry.

Malcolm X Blvd

So there I am walking down Flushing Ave at 3am, not fully convinced I’d make it back to my hotel with all my belongings, and without multiple stab wounds. It gets darker in Brooklyn than in other cities. The street lights that aren’t broken are dim and flicker incessantly, eerily illuminating the rows of old brick buildings that surround you. I look up through the flickering light for the approaching street sign: Nostrand Avenue. Somehow, I immediately know where I am as I start remembering lines from Jay-Z’s Blueprint album. “I planted my seed in infertile land, Myrtle Park, Marcy, Flushing and Nostrand…” I must’ve rapped that line out loud in my car a hundred times without ever understanding it. I knew Marcy was the name of the housing projects Jay-Z grew up in, and I was just realizing that Flushing and Nostrand were Marcy’s cross streets. It took a second to register, then – holy shit, that’s Marcy projects. I’d been walking by it for five minutes. It’s a place I would’ve liked to have seen but figured I’d have no chance of finding it with my lack of navigational skills. And there it was. In the end, it wasn’t the gigantic “Welcome to Marcy Houses” billboard that caught my attention, but my desperation to not get stabbed to death that made me look up at the street signs.

I decided to walk back to it the next morning just to be the asshole pointing an expensive camera at the dismal dwellings of the less fortunate ghetto folk. That means I looked like a tourist on a safari taking pictures poor people.

Marcy, son.
Marcy, son.

These are just a few of the times hip hop helped me get through NYC, and there were even times it get me lost. Fat Joe got me lost in Queens for the fifth time with his stupid “Lean Back” song. Fat Joe be like, “My niggas don’t dance, we just pull up our pants and do the Rockaway.” Knowing that Fat Joe’s fat ass is from The Bronx, I figured I could take a train heading for Rockaway, which I presumed was also in The Bronx, and get off  below it in Manhattan. Problem being that Rockaway is in Queens. What the fuck, Fat Joe?

I’ve run into very few people who have the ability to memorize lyrics as well as I do. I’m not boasting, because I don’t necessarily see it as a talent. It’s nothing I worked at or a skill I’ve sharpened. It’s more of a glitch, or a bonus. There are entire albums you can press play on, and I’ll know every lyric, every intro, every skit, every word, every laugh or “uh” or “yeah”, from track one until the batteries die. I usually even remember the track number, but I rarely ever know the song title. Some of my favorite songs for the last eighteen years are songs I don’t know the title of. I’m horrible with directions, people’s names and song titles. That said, I was able to use rap lyrics I didn’t even know I remembered, on the spot, to get around one of the busiest cities on the planet, and one of my favorite places in the world.

People have always told me my problem with navigation is that I never pay attention to detail.


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