What do Rakim, EPMD, PE, De La Soul, and Biz Markie all have in common? In addition to being golden era giants who exerted a huge influence over the artform and culture they all hail from suburban Long Island, otherwise known as ‘Strong Island,’ NYC’s unofficial sixth borough. As far as the 516 area-code is concerned, you can add to that list such luminaries as Busta Rhymes (and Leaders of The New School), KMD, Keith Murray, K-Solo, Son of Bazerk, Freddie Fox, Roc Marciano, Grand Daddy I.U., Original Concept, R.A. The Rugged Man, Aesop Rock, and producer and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin.
One usually associates the ‘burbs with green lawns, single-family homes, quiet cul-de-sacs, and good schools--all the trappings of middle-class life. Long Island embodies all of these positives, for sure, while also being segregated. It goes back to 50s-era redlining, when the government subsidized homes in the suburbs as a means to address post-war expansion—provided, of course, that deeds were not sold to African Americans. Despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968, drafted to combat such obvious discrimination, the sting of segregation persisted into the 70s. By this time, a “Black Belt”—straddling the two closest counties to the city, Suffolk and Nassau—had solidified, encompassing such towns as Hempstead, Wyandanch, Amityville, Brentwood, Uniondale, Central Islip and Newport. While Hempstead, the home of PE and Roc Marciano, for example, claimed a 90% Black and Hispanic population, neighboring towns like Levittown were 90% white.
Thank God for the ‘Black Belt,’ however, as it positively affected the growth and evolution of hip-hop, allowing middle-class black kids from two-parent homes like William Griffin (aka Rakim Allah) some distance from the chaos of the gritty city so they could develop their craft. College grads like Carlton Ridenhour (aka Chuck D) and Paul Huston (aka Prince Paul) were able bring intellect and an expanded outlook to the table and put their own spin on the burgeoning artform from the Bronx. While underprivileged kids in the projects perhaps struggled to afford a set of turntables or even records for that matter, the same was not true for their suburban counterparts. In short, after hip-hop had conquered The Big Apple, it spilled over into its closest suburbs. For this reason, you see a lot of artists from Long Island making a huge impact on the music between the late 80s and early 90s.
Though Rakim, PE and EPMD released records before them, one of the first acts to put this sixth borough on the map was a short-lived group called J.V.C. Force. The trio of Jerry “AJ Rok” Woodson, Bill “B-Luv” Taylor, and DJ Curt “Cazal” Smalls met at a house party in their hometown of Central Islip, immediately displaying the chemistry that connected them as a group. Though AJ had already gone off to college, the independent B-Boy Records dangled a record deal in front of them after hearing a demo. Their first release, a memorable 12-inch called “Strong Island” (B-Boy, 1987), focused more on braggadocio rhymes. But, regardless, it was a certified underground hit in the same vein as “South Bronx” or “The Bridge,” adding legitimacy to Long Island’s rep. With thumping tracks and talent to spare, the ‘burbs, or at least, L.I. would never be considered soft, allowing hip-hop the room to grow and diversify on its path to conquering the planet.