Rappers Take Back the Streets

One fervent hip-hop fan wants New York City’s street signs to shout out the genre-busting music that was born here. Not everyone thinks that’s such a good idea.

Rappers Take Back the Streets

In the last summer days of 1973, Clive Campbell and his sister, Cindy, needed money. School was starting soon, and everyone knew the best place to shop for the coolest gear, like flashy pants and high-tops, was at the discount clothing stores on the Lower East Side—not the streets of the South Bronx. So, to raise funds, Clive convinced his father to buy him a few James Brown records, which was rare for kids his age to listen to, and throw a listening party or two.

With his blaring sound system in front of him, Clive, seventeen, would play the Motown and funk of his parents’ generation, adding breaks or pauses in the music where “b-boys” and “b-girls” would dance, and “MCs” would rap over the beat. His parties soon became a hit in the area, popularizing the styles later known as “break-dancing” and “freestyling.” While the crime and poverty endemic of New York City in the early seventies rattled outside, a fresh sound was born inside.

Clive donned the name DJ Kool Herc, and many historians agree that his parties were where hip-hop — a movement that is now the age of Clive’s parents at the time — was created.

To LeRoy McCarthy, hip-hop is New York. It’s as much a chunk of the Big Apple as the Empire State Building, a slice of cheesecake from Junior’s, or a pastrami sandwich from Katz’s. And it’s the place many of rap’s legends call home. LeRoy will tell you all about Kool Herc. And Jay-Z, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Afrika Bambaataa, and A Tribe Called Quest. And he’s just getting started.

LeRoy McCarthy at home in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

McCarthy is an avid devotee of hip-hop. He’s made the genre his career as a location manager in the past for Bad Boy Records, the label that birthed the careers of the Notorious B.I.G., Lil Kim, and Ma$e. His household serves as a shrine to the genre. With old school rap blasting from the speakers when I entered, vintage vinyl records decorated the wall and a stained glass painting of the Notorious B.I.G. stood in the corner. The music is McCarthy’s life.

But McCarthy likes to tell people New York treats hip-hop like a rental car. And that’s what he has a problem with.

“They’re not nurturing it, they’re not taking care of it,” he says, referring to City Hall, not the city’s denizens. “New Orleans shares with everyone that this is the birthplace of jazz. You go to Nashville, they hoot and holler about country music. Where is New York City’s recognition of hip-hop?”

A stained glass panel in LeRoy McCarthy's apartment features an image of Notorious B.I.G.
A stained glass panel in LeRoy McCarthy’s apartment features an image of Notorious B.I.G.

That is why he has made it his mission to co-name a block in every borough of New York after its hip-hop representative. As we speak, there is only one block in New York City that does so: Jam Master Jay Way in Queens, co-named for the Run-DMC star after he was murdered in 2007. McCarthy’s plan goes four steps further: Christopher Wallace Way in Brooklyn; Big Pun Place in the Bronx; Beastie Boys Square in Manhattan; and Wu-Tang Clan District in, of course, Staten Island.

But he’ll soon discover that, even with a new freshman class of politicians in office, many of whom are young enough to have grown up listening to hip-hop, this is much easier said than done.

“Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten, from the Battery to the top of Manhattan.”

The Beastie Boys, “An Open Letter to NYC.”

Sitting at a small table in an East Village coffee shop, McCarthy looks exhausted and frustrated. It has been a long evening in mid-January, much longer than he thought it would be. As I have come to learn, this feeling is expected after a New York City community board meeting.

Two hours earlier, I met him for the first time on East 4th Street and Bowery, inside the Manhattan Community Board 2 offices. It was crowded. Television cameras surrounded the room and microphones lined the committee desk, all pointed at McCarthy. The media had heard about his efforts—to have the corner of Rivington Street and Ludlow Street renamed “Beastie Boys Square”—and they were out in full force.

The intersection was made famous on the cover of the critically acclaimed Paul’s Boutique, the Brooklyn trio’s 1989 follow-up to their breakthrough album, Licensed to Ill; a record The Village Voice recently listed as #3 on the “Most NYC Albums Ever.” Without context, the panoramic shot is nothing special: just a vintage New York corner with a few simple stores selling sportswear and shoes. But to hip-hop fans at the time, this was the spot—the Lower East Side of lore, where Clive and Cindy Campbell and thousands of other Generation X-ers growing up in New York City came to shop for what was cool.

The photograph by Jeremy Shatan was an ode to hip-hop’s roots, “a time capsule of the Lower East Side and what it used to be,” McCarthy told the committee. After a long-winded hip-hop history lesson, including the fact that the album went double-platinum in 1999 and that the group lived in nearby Chinatown, he rested his case with a simple plea: “They’re from New York. They shared their life and times in New York.”

Next up: the fans. Following McCarthy, Shannon Sacks raised to present her case in Beastie Boys Square v. Manhattan Community Board 3. A life-long Beasties fan, Sacks recalled a night in the late ’80s she spent getting dinner with MCA, Mike D, and Ad-Rock—“these lovely men who cared so much about New York”—at Veselka, a famous Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue. Years later, she left Staten Island and moved to Rivington Street, close to the Paul’s Boutique landmark. “The fact that I live on Rivington Street and walk by it on a daily basis, it warms my heart,” she told the Board.

“I have friends worldwide who come into New York who say, ‘Show me where it is. Show me where the cover of the album is,’” she told the committee. “[The Beastie Boys are] true New Yorkers and they deserve this.”

The corner photographed for the cover of the Beastie Boy's album, Paul's Boutique.
The corner photographed for the cover of the Beastie Boy’s album, Paul’s Boutique.

Then came Nessim Halioua, another Beastie fan for life, who met Shannon on an online forum called Beastie List “in the early days of the Internet in 1993 and 1994.” He told her then that he’d move from Virginia to New York one day and see what Paul’s Boutique really looked like. Now, he lives alongside her on Rivington Street, in proximity of their shared shrine.

Every community board has different requirements to co-name streets. For this one in particular, the applicant has to collect signatures from over seventy-five percent of the businesses and residents on this particular street. And you have to prove that the honoree had a strong connection to Community Board 3, which covers the Village, the Lower East Side, and Chinatown, through “an extraordinary and consistent voluntary commitment and dedication to the community.” If it is an individual, he or she has to be deceased; if it’s an organization, it has to be at least thirty years old.

But where does a trio of white, Jewish rappers fit into all of this?

The line blurred, and so did the arguments. Once the fans sat, David Crane, the chair of the Board’s Transportation and Public Safety Committee, hit McCarthy with some questions.

Why didn’t he get signatures for 126 and 132 Rivington? Is he sure he got signatures from everyone on the blocks adjacent to the proposed corner? Where is the strong connection to the Lower East Side, if any? What did the Beastie Boys do for the community? Does MCA’s death from cancer two years ago change the situation at all?

This skepticism set the tone for the rest of the meeting. The committee members went back and forth for another hour, as McCarthy watched his efforts fall into a web of technicalities. He arrived with thirty offline signatures from residents on Rivington and 1,445 signatures from an online petition, but the board wanted to see “a significant amount” before it even considered his application. In other words, McCarthy had much more work to do.

Eventually, McCarthy’s motion was tabled. For the time being, at least. He was asked to wait another month before resubmitting the Beastie Boys Square application. Outside, Shannon, Nassim, and McCarthy talked strategy, mapping out the amount of signatures they could gather over the next few weeks.

Only one committee member, Chad Marlow, supported the measure. “Despite the fact that New York City invented hip-hop and the fact that it is quintessentially New York City, we have one street in Queens named after Run-DMC. And that, to me, is a little surprising,” said Marlow. He popped his head out after the meeting to provide words of encouragement to the determined fans.

LeRoy was just happy someone on the board was listening to him.

“Live from Bedford-Stuyvesant, the livest one, representin’ BK to the fullest.”

Notorious B.I.G., “Unbelievable.”

LeRoy McCarthy takes out a prototype of a street sign for Christopher Wallace Way.
LeRoy McCarthy takes out a prototype of a street sign for Christopher Wallace Way.

This story really began a few months earlier near Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, one of, if not the, most quoted neighborhoods in all of hip-hop.

In October of last year, McCarthy submitted a petition to Change.org. The goal was simple: rename the corner of St. James Place and Fulton Street to Christopher Wallace Way, after a man you probably know better by his noms de guerre: Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, or, as Source Magazine called him before his untimely death in 1997, “The King of New York.”

Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, McCarthy moved with his family to the Bronx when he was five, and spent his childhood moving around different parts of Brooklyn. After working jobs across the country, he finally settled into Clinton Hill in 1998, a small sliver of a neighborhood between Bed-Stuy and Fort Greene, where one can now find wide avenues with restored Victorian-style townhouses and trendy restaurants. But that’s the current day, of course. In the ’90s and earlier, there was little gentrification here and most people, like Biggie, just called it all “Bed-Stuy.”

After moving in, McCarthy soon discovered he lived around the block from Biggie’s birthplace on that corner; something he had never known because “there’s no symbol for his legacy in Clinton Hill or Bed-Stuy, besides some murals.” And, to him, it was personal, having met Biggie several times when he worked with him as a location manager on shoots for Bad Boy Records down in Atlanta throughout the 1990s. “He was real cool—you know, a Brooklyn cat,” McCarthy says.

Within days, the petition had gone viral. McCarthy began to collect hundreds of fans’ signatures online, as media outlets across the city picked up the story, quoting local businesses and residents with praise for this tribute to Biggie Smalls. He soon made the campaign his full-time gig, freelancing as a location manager, his main occupation, on the side.

After the petition went live, McCarthy arrived at the Brooklyn Community Board 2 meeting with signatures and letters of support in hand, ready to deliver his presentation on Christopher Wallace Way in front of the board’s Transportation and Community Safety Committee, which meets on the third Tuesday of every month. He hoped it’d be passed by the time the meeting was adjourned.

LeRoy McCarthy addresses Community Board 3's Transportation Committee to advocate for the co-naming of Beastie Boys Square.
LeRoy McCarthy addresses Community Board 3’s Transportation Committee to advocate for the co-naming of Beastie Boys Square.

Instead, he discovered the two biggest hurdles to his commemoration efforts: the headache that is local politics, and hip-hop’s obscenity issue.

First, the petition was not enough. Unlike Manhattan Community Board 3, he was missing the only letter of support he needed: that of then-Councilwoman Letitia James. Once he obtained the letter, the panel would hear his case, and then, if passed, it would go to the City Council, which votes on co-naming efforts twice a year. At least, that’s how it usually works.

As the presentation ended, Lucy Koteen, a member of the committee, raised a list of grievances she had with Christopher Wallace Way. This included: Biggie’s lyrics and attitudes toward women, his start as a crack/cocaine dealer, his violent death by gunfire in Los Angeles, and his weight. She would later tell 1010 WINS, “He does not seem like the kind of role model that we would want to emulate.”

“It’s throwing spaghetti at the wall: she tried to get something to stick,” McCarthy argued, bringing specific attention to the weight charge. “She said he didn’t have the physical appearance for being a role model, which is outlandish. With that, at the very end, I wasn’t angry because I knew what she said was totally out of line and that everyone else can hear that.”

McCarthy believes the backlash against Biggie is rooted in the difference in cultural perspectives. The Community Board here also covers Brooklyn Heights, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in New York City, and McCarthy posits that the residents there might not be able to relate to the struggles of those living in Bed-Stuy. “The rate of unemployment in Wallace’s community in the late ’80s is different than that which the jury was in,” McCarthy says. “They equate it to their own life, but there’s a whole drastic difference, even if it’s only two miles apart.”

Even in Clinton Hill, this may be the case. Since Biggie’s passing, the enclave has drastically changed, with realtors using the neighborhood’s name as a distinction for higher rents when the area began to gentrify. Even the very apartment Biggie grew up in was recently listed for $750,000.

Regardless, Koteen’s criticism evokes something else. Everything about hip-hop—its pace, its words, its rawness—is a product of our liberalized time, continuously bending and morphing to address societal issues and sensitivities. As a culture, we’ve moved towards this openness, but hip-hop, of course, still faces criticism for this, and McCarthy’s efforts to commemorate it naturally run right into what makes hip-hop so unique.

In New York City, there are a handful of streets dedicated to jazz artists, like Miles Davis Way and Duke Ellington Circle, who, at the time of their heydays, were not received positively by all. So, McCarthy explained, the matter could be considered cyclical.

“Jazz was considered race music, so it was segregated. But it was also considered juke joint music, so the church and communities did not listen to it. They thought it was too fast and rambunctious,” he says. “So it wasn’t readily accepted back then, but now it’s very pleasant to those people. Society has a way of shifting the margins, shifting the goal lines of what’s considered controversial.”

But this, by no means, is slowing him down: “Does hip-hop have to wait ’til it’s old enough to be in a position of power, to be recognized and celebrated and given a street name? That shouldn’t be the case.”

“I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side.”

Wu-Tang Clan, ‘C.R.E.A.M.’

“Hip-hop will have a new, promising stage happening by the end of spring!” McCarthy declared in early February. As warm weather returns to New York, his campaign is back at square one. But, as always, he’s optimistic, especially since he’s learned a few things this time around.

In late January, the full Manhattan Community Board 3 went ahead with a vote on McCarthy’s proposal. They struck down a motion on Beastie Boys Square, twenty-six to one. McCarthy was not there because he had been told the application was temporarily withdrawn, which was true. But what occurred was simply a matter of parliamentary procedure: no matter if a resolution passes or not, the subcommittees need to send it to the floor for the full body to vote on.

McCarthy soon discovered in the press what happened. “I guess CB3 is what the Beastie Boys meant by ‘Sabotage,’” he wrote to me in an email. He immediately informed the Manhattan Borough President’s office of the confusion. The motion was soon reversed by the Community Board, and McCarthy was allowed to present his case again. So, in mid-March, he did.

At the University Settlement in the Lower East Side, just a few blocks from the proposed home of Beastie Boys Square, McCarthy arrived at the meeting, this time with the backing of the Students for a Free Tibet, an international organization headquartered nearby that Adam “MCA” Yauch was heavily involved in before he passed away in 2012.

A member of Students for a Free Tibet spoke in support of the co-naming of Beastie Boys Square at a Community Board 3 Transportation Committee meeting.
A member of Students for a Free Tibet spoke in support of the co-naming of Beastie Boys Square at a Community Board 3 Transportation Committee meeting.

“I can’t think of a better way to honor Adam and the Beastie Boys,” Tenzin Dolkar, the executive director of New York City’s Students for a Free Tibet, said, “than by approving this gesture and giving back to a group that gave so much to this community.”

On hand, McCarthy had 637 signatures—421 offline, 216 gathered in-person—and made his presentation yet again on the group’s presence in the neighborhood, their charity work, and the worldwide recognition Paul’s Boutique has achieved. Still, the Community Board was not budging. Tensions flared when McCarthy brought up the January vote to kill Beastie Boys Square, arguing that some neighbors on Rivington Street didn’t want to sign his petition after reading in the newspapers that the proposal was already dead.

“Would you rather make your case again, or keep going over this?” David Crane, the chair of the Transportation Committee asked, angrily. “I know what your opinion is; if you’re trying to change mine, it’s not gonna happen.”

The vote to kill Beastie Boys Square was five to one, with one abstention. The only supporter, Vaylateena Jones, said the signatures proved Beastie Boys Square was wanted in the neighborhood. Once again, the reasons against varied: the Board still didn’t see a solid tie between the Beastie Boys and the Lower East Side, and New York is home to a lot of musicians and artists, but the Board cannot honor all of them. The 637 signatures McCarthy had collected were secondary to technicality and opinion.

“I’m just sharing what the community wants. It was a brick wall from the start,” McCarthy said frustratingly outside after the vote. “They lack the vision of how beneficial this could be in the long run. Visitors could hit up Katz’s Deli and then check out Beastie Boys Square. Imagine that.”

But, because of the way parliamentary procedure works, not all was lost: the committee voted four to two to not support the co-naming procedure because, to them, it didn’t meet the co-naming criteria. Now, the full Community Board will vote on that motion again on Tuesday, March 25. Except this time around, McCarthy knows about it, and speakers are allowed at the full meetings to present their case one last time. So, until then, McCarthy plans on assembling a bigger force, and Dolkar confirmed the Students for a Free Tibet would be back for the fight.

Elsewhere, McCarthy’s efforts are still in early development. Since October, New York City politics have been in electoral reset mode, bureaucratically halting the co-naming a bit. This is most apparent in Brooklyn: Letitia James was busy running a successful campaign for Public Advocate, a citywide office, and was never able to provide the letter McCarthy needed to move forward with Christopher Wallace Way. Now, Laurie Cumbo is the Councilwoman he needs to speak with.

McCarthy is in the process of obtaining a letter of support from her office, and has already met with the Councilwoman on the issue. Otherwise, he has a stack of signatures to back his case up, should she say no.

The same goes for the proposed Wu-Tang Clan District at the intersection of Targee Street and Sobel Court in the Park Hill section of Staten Island. Councilwoman Deborah Rose must first sign off on the co-naming effort to honor a group that made Staten Island their signature spot. According to McCarthy, her office seems willing to support the measure. (This writer has reached out to both Cumbo and Rose’s offices for comment, and is still waiting to hear back).

And, finally, in the Bronx, the sister of Big Pun, Nicole Rodriguez, has recently been in contact with McCarthy. In 2011, she submitted a co-naming request on her deceased brother’s behalf, but was told to gather more signatures and resubmit the proposal, which McCarthy plans on helping her with in coming days. But this didn’t stop Shane Rossi, a Bronx real estate agent, from putting up a fake “Big Pun Place” sign just last month, only to see it taken down by the city a few days later. “I think that he did more than people give him credit for. I just want [the city] to know that there is still interest and people haven’t forgotten,” Rossi told the Daily News a few days later.

The corner of Ludlow and Rivington Streets appeared on the cover of Paul's Boutique, the 1989 Beastie Boys album.
The corner of Ludlow and Rivington Streets appeared on the cover of Paul’s Boutique, the 1989 Beastie Boys album.

Strangely enough, the support from higher levels of government is a completely different story. McCarthy’s co-naming campaign has received endorsements from Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, State Senator Daniel Squadron, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Councilman Robert Cornegy, Jr. As of this article’s publication, his online petitions for Christopher Wallace Way and Beastie Boys Square have respectively topped 3,500 and 1,500 signatures. The only major New York City player missing is newly minted Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“I’m gonna try and get the de Blasio administration in support of this as well,” he said. “Their response has been: ‘Please get back to us.’ Because they just started. They’re new to the offices. They’re still getting acquainted.”

Still, he pointed out, de Blasio is the first mayor who grew up alongside hip-hop: “He went to high school with Patrick Ewing, when Sugar Hill Gang was coming out. He was around when the Fat Boys, the Beastie Boys, and Run-DMC were all doing their thing. He was before Public Enemy, but he knows who Public Enemy is.” In other words, this is not Bloomberg we’re talking about here.

Going forward, McCarthy has his eyes set on a chain reaction for his five-borough plan. “I’m hoping that Brooklyn helps Manhattan, and Manhattan helps Staten Island, and they all help each other with moving forward. A domino effect would be great.”

“What about Harlem?” I asked, floating some ideas aloud for a Tupac Shakur Place (the late rapper was born in East Harlem).

“I’m not going past five,” he laughed. “At first, it would be great if hip-hop is recognized in its birthplace. Then, other things can come into fruition.”