Hip hop still lives in Hollis
Hip hop pioneers RUN-DMC create handprints in cement as they are inducted into Hollywood's RockWalk Monday, Feb. 25, 2002, in Los Angeles. Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell, left, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, center, and Joseph "DJ Run" Simmons, produced the first rap album to go gold as well as the first rap act nominated for a Grammy. (AP File Photo / February 25, 2002)
It's been nearly 30 years since Run-D.M.C. rehearsed its early raps at the corner of 205th Street and Hollis Avenue in Queens. But in some ways, it's as if they're still there.
On a recent afternoon, a girl walks by in a Run-D.M.C. T-shirt. Local residents recall chasing the rappers away for making too much noise. And on the side of a bodega (the one where Joseph "Run" Simmons, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels and the late DJ Jam Master Jay used to buy their 40-ounce beers), a lovingly rendered mural of Jay keeps watch over the neighborhood. There's not a mark of graffiti on it.
If Run-D.M.C. are the Beatles of rap, then Hollis is their Liverpool. In the early 1980s, when most rap was emanating from the ghettos of Harlem and the Bronx, Hollis seemed an unlikely place to produce one of rap's most influential groups. Though the neighborhood had some rough edges, it was known more for its tree-lined streets, good schools and homes with lawns and driveways. In a way, Run-D.M.C.'s appearance in Hollis was the first glimmer that rap was moving out of the inner cities and into the suburbs.
"People in Queens have always grown up with this mentality that we're a lame-duck borough," says Charles Fisher, chairman and founder of the Queens-based Hip-Hop Summit Youth Council. Though lacking the street cred of their counterparts in Harlem and the Bronx, Queens rappers wanted their voices heard, too. "Queens tries harder to keep up with the other boroughs," Fisher says, "and in trying harder, it produced stars."
"On one corner there was hard-working people and then on another corner there'd be crime," McDaniels says of Hollis. He recalls hanging out with drug dealers and ex-cons on Hollis Avenue, but also getting straight A's in high school. "We had the best of both worlds, which is why Run-D.M.C. was able to rap about everything and people were able to relate to us."
Hanging out and rapping
McDaniels says his exposure to rap came mainly as a high schooler in Harlem. "I used to take two buses and three trains," he says -- but he also came home with the hottest mix-tapes from friends. Run, meanwhile, was watching his brother (and eventual manager) Russell Simmons hosting local block parties in Hollis. "I saw my brother on a microphone, just kind of talking and riling up the crowd," Run recalls.
Growing up within a few blocks of each other, Run and McDaniels began hanging out and rapping. "After you played basketball, you smoked a little weed, drunk a little beer and you rapped," McDaniels recalls.
Their first live shows -- before they were even called Run-D.M.C. -- took place in 192 Park, a neighborhood park not far from their favorite bodega. "Jam Master Jay and his crew would come and set the turntables up about 6:30 in the evening," McDaniels says. "They'd bust the light post open and plug in and steal electricity from the city."
For the most part, police ignored the parties, says Bugsy, a DJ for WRKS/98.7 "Kiss" FM and a Hollis native. "That wasn't a major crime at the time. Unless people started fighting, which was rare, it wasn't really a problem."
"I was at 192 Park when Run-D.M.C. invented 'Here We Go,'" says Ja Rule, referring to one of the group's songs. "This began as a freestyle. A lot of artists don't get this kind of hip-hop history."
For Ja Rule and others, Run-D.M.C. served as an inspiration. "It gave us the first jump on the belief," he says. "You would think, 'I could be like them.' Then you heard about LL Cool J getting a deal and you're like, 'Todd's [LL Cool J] on too? I know him from the barbershop. Maybe he could get me in.' Then it starts to feel attainable."
Queens has since produced dozens of other rappers, from Nas to 50 Cent, but Run-D.M.C. remains its most famous export. "I get ultimate respect when I walk the streets," Run says proudly. "When I want a pat on the back, I just put on my hat and go out the door."