I was birthed uptown in the Bronx in various neighborhoods (Allerton Avenue, Burke Avenue, Pelham Parkway and University Avenue Area). I remember how lively it was; every block had its own vibe, its own soundtrack. The 90’s were rough times in The Bronx, primarily because it was just after the crack epidemic.
Where Hip-Hop was created, Salsa was elevated and Playero was circulated: Music flooded the streets of The Bronx. Depending on your neighborhood you felt the different music run through your soul. Music came from everywhere; cars, apartments, bodegas, dudes rapping on the corner, guys playing dominoes and doña’s singing in there batas in front of their buildings. Those days, I didn’t speak a lick of English until I was six years old. I basically learned English on the street reciting raps verses with my older cousin. So, no Rosetta Stone for me, just straight Yo! MTV Raps.
Walking through blocks I always admired seeing all the street murals of beloved neighborhood residents, the infamous folks, and street legends. These murals were cultural statements and memorials for anyone that left an impact in their community, not like what you see today where gentrifiers produce images of birds or something with no significance to the neighborhood. As a kid, I loved to see the artwork and it fed my curiosity of, “who were these people?”
Another art form was graffiti, a form of expression and a competitive sport that originated in the NYC subways that spread all around the city. I love to ride the trains and see all the tags of people I knew, it’s like them telling me that they were here as well.
Back to the imagery of the time; strolling through the neighborhood was an event and as a kid, you were exposed to everything very early. You would see the neighborhood pusher, the wannabee tough guy(s), the fiends, the ball players, the fly girls that everyone wanted to talk to, the jump-offs, the young cats trying to skip school and all the parents walking their children to school.
Today the vibe is totally different because New York isn’t New York anymore. It’s full of out-of-towners calling themselves New Yorkers — AKA “transplants”. But NYC is not how long you’ve been here, but a common personality that every borough had, and that I-won’t-back-down-to-no-one attitude.
Real Recognize Real (authenticity before social media):
There wasn’t any social media outlets at this time, just your reputation. Back then, if you were trying to be somebody that you weren’t, people pulled your card quickly. Many people got poppin’ and built a buzz without any of the social media (imagine that)! To be someone well known back then, you literally had to be amazing, for example: Nas and Biggie Smalls built a street buzz long before they we’re signed to a major label. The thing that made the 90’s so great was that everyone was themselves, no phony stuff was permitted. Therefore, if you were a goon, you embraced it.
Respect and reputation was everything, therefore you couldn’t let anyone come for it. Funny thing, that people from this era will still base your character from your actions, not how many Instagram followers you have. If you ran from a fight back then, you would always be known for that. Even your kids might get a nickname because of that, so people did not play around with their names. The real only recognized the real ones without saying much, only on the way you moved and how people vibed with you.
Even today with all the gentrified yoga, gluten-free and veggie spots, there are certain blocks I still do not even touch because they didn’t play around back then. NYC was very much territorial, and if you were not from that block, people didn’t greet you like “Hey welcome to our neighborhood”, but instead like “Yo you lost?”, or “where you from?”, so you didn’t take ferries to check out the new sandwich shop at another borough. Nowadays you got tourists asking you for directions because the hood is their tourist destination.
As a kid from the BX, I didn’t go to Brooklyn as much, but I remember as a kid one of the reasons I went to BK was to see my cousin Tommy (Free him) at his PJs. Funny story, I remember when I got into a scuffle in the middle of his PJs because a dude was picking on my little brother. Deadass, you know when you knock somebody out cold in front of your younger brother, he would remember that forever, therefore it’s a moment that I still get props for.
Gangs were very big at in the 90’s, and it was one of the main reason why certain guys didn’t leave or go to certain neighborhoods. For Instance, Harlem was blooded out, Brooklyn was cript out, The Bronx was divided by various gangs. For instance, Soundview and Morrisania were blooded out (SMM), up in White Plains Road you had the Shottas, near the Yankee’s Stadium were various Latin Gangs: Los Bones, DDP (Dominicans Don’t Play), Latin Kings, and 3nitarios. Nevertheless, we all co-existed together. Not glorifying the gang culture in anyway, but just highlighting the reasons why people didn’t just go to places they did not have any relation to.
The city had so much flava and rawness that was amplified into the speakers blasting the New York City rap scene. NYC rappers were the kings of this genre and every borough had their own style and rivalry, which makes me think about a verse KRS-One once spit: “Manhattan keeps on making it, Brooklyn keeps on taking it, the Bronx keeps creating it, and Queens keeps on faking it”.
Harlem: Big L, Mcgruff to Puff, Murda Mase and Killa Cam’ron.
Queens: LL Cool J, Mob Deep, Nas, Nore, Large Professor, E money bags, 50 cent, Ja rule, and the Beat nutz.
Bronx: Big Pun, Fat Joe, D.I.T.C (AG & Showbiz, Diamond D, Buck Wild, Fat Joe, and Lord Finesse), Peter Gunz, Pudgee tha Phat Bastard, Lord Tariq and Etc.
Brooklyn: Biggie, AZ, Jr Mafia, Jigga (Jay-z), Lil Kim, Mos Def, Guru, Special Ed and Big Daddy Kane.
Staten Island: Method Man, GZA, Ghost face Killah and Reakwon (Wu-Tang Clan).
Either you slang, rapped or had a wicked jump shot:
Being one of the few Afro-Latino kids (with an unconcealed accent) in a predominantly West-Indian community. I quickly earned respect with my skills on the basketball court and other sports. You were respected if you were
good at sports, rapped, or were connected to the streets in some way. Basically, the older street dudes would leave you alone, and made sure that no one else messed with the younger cats from your block.
The local parks were always the mecca of the neighborhood. This is where you learned how to speak to people and hold your own against anyone that presses you. The conscious brothers that saw potential in you didn’t allow you to slip through the cracks like they did. Funny, the street guys encouraged more young heads than most of the teachers at the time.
The 90’s is the new 70’s, where people will only look back and just image it as a mystical time.