HIP-HOP 'HOODA look at the neighborhoods that have influenced hip-hop
In 1986, when Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew came to the Park Hill section of Staten Island, it was a big deal for the borough's hip-hop fans.
New York's smallest borough didn't have the hip-hop pedigree of the Bronx, the genre's birthplace, or even Brooklyn or Queens, where many of hip-hop's major players were born. And rap stars didn't perform at Staten Island nightclubs like they did in Manhattan.
"The ritual for hip-hop back then was going from project to project to go to a jam. Cats would throw their records out there, and speakers, and throw little jams. But we didn't get stars on Staten Island," recalled Lamont Hawkins, who grew up in the Park Hill Apartments. "[The Get Fresh Crew] wanted love on Staten Island and they were putting a face to the music. That was a moment."
Seven years later, Staten Island wouldn't need to import stars. The borough would have nine homegrown rappers of its own.
Hawkins, who would adopt the rap name U-God, met aspiring rapper RZA at that Doug E. Fresh concert. The two would join seven others from the neighborhood -- GZA, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, Method Man, Ol' Dirty Bastard and Raekwon -- to form hip-hop super-group the Wu-Tang Clan.
The group's 1993 debut, "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)," would introduce Staten Island to those who didn't give the fifth borough a second thought.
"These guys were voices in the wilderness ... no one really knew anything about the black community in Staten Island," cultural critic Nelson George said. "Compared to Brooklyn or the Bronx, it felt very far away."
The Wu-Tang showed that Staten Island wasn't just a distant suburb. It also had an urban enclave -- Park Hill, dubbed "Killa Hill" -- that was wrestling with poverty, violence and drugs.
"When the crack epidemic hit, it got wild out here," Hawkins said. On a typical day there was "gambling, crack selling, police driving by, shootouts, fights, fiends getting beat up, robberies," he said.
Hawkins recalled neighborhood kids gathering at the arcade across from the Park Hill Apartments to trade break-dance moves and mix tapes.
Others would escape into the world of martial-art movies on TV. (The group's name comes from a mythical kung fu sword used by a posse of versatile warriors. In songs, the crew dubbed Staten Island "Shoalin," after the ancient Chinese temple and martial-arts style.)
"We watched karate flicks as a getaway. We just absorbed that and made it our own," he said. "We would kick it in the crib ... do freestyles, then freestyles turn into songs, next thing you know, we got a catalog."
The Wu-Tang borrowed imagery from martial-arts movies and merged them with beats reminiscent of early hip-hop to rhapsodize about the chaos of ghetto life. Listening to the dark and grimy world of the Wu-Tang was "like entering a secret society," George said.
"It was a kind of sound that no one had ever heard and the combination of sound and talent made them instantly one of the most important groups in hip-hop," he said.
Today, the Wu-Tang Clan has proven to be as versatile as those warriors who wielded the sword. Method Man has a successful movie career and a sitcom on Fox.
RZA composes movie soundtracks, including the Quentin Tarentino flick "Kill Bill Vol. 2." Ghostface, the GZA and other members have released solo albums.
Ol' Dirty Bastard (or whatever name he goes by this week) is still a sideshow with a singular style. Hawkins is working with local rappers Hillside Scramblerz. Earlier this year, all the members of Wu-Tang performed together for the first time in years.
The result was the new live album "Disciples of the 36 Chambers: Chapter 1," which hit stores last month.
Though the Wu-Tang no longer live in Park Hill, Hawkins keeps an apartment across the street from where he grew up because the neighborhood remains his muse.
"I come out here because this is where the source of the power comes from," he said. "This is where we got our inspiration ... these -- -- -- hallways, the staircases, the cops, the gates. It was nuts."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times