"Spread love, it's the Brooklyn way."
The Notorious B.I.G. shared this sentiment with the world on his lead single, "Juicy," a hip-hop ode to the American dream. From the moment he entered the rap game until his untimely death in 1997 at the age of 24, Biggie proudly repped his birthplace: Brooklyn. In August, LeRoy McCarthy started a petition to have St. James Place and Fulton Street—the corner where Biggie grew up—co-named Christopher Wallace Way in his honor.
Despite gaining the support of both the local and hip-hop communities, the petition was met with horribly predictable opposition from Community Board members in Brooklyn who feel that Biggie's past, lyrics and appearance make him unworthy of an intersection named after him. McCarthy refuses to let this obstacle stop him.
We spoke to him about his reasons for starting the petition, the process of having a corner co-named or renamed in someone's honor and hip-hop's continuous fight for respect in a world that still refuses to acknowledge its positive contributions.
You can sign the petition here.
Interview by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
What motivated you to start the petition?
I’ve lived in Clinton Hill since ‘98. I used to live in Atlanta, and when I lived in Atlanta, I used to work for Bad Boy/Arista. When I moved to Clinton Hill, I didn’t know until like a year later that Biggie lived around the block. [Once I learned that] I said there should be some type of symbol for this great artist that lived nearby. Years went by and nothing happened, so I decided to start the petition. First I discussed it with a few people in the neighborhood to see if they would support it, and they said they would, but nobody had done anything. So I took it upon myself to start the petition.
Can you talk about the struggle you’ve experienced having this petition taken seriously? Specifically by Community Board 2.
Community Board 2 includes Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, parts of Bed-Stuy, Boerum Hill, downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights. Some of these Community Board members are in Brooklyn Heights and Brooklyn Heights is a different tax bracket than Clinton Hill was back in the day, so it’s like a different planet to them. They’re not really comprehending what we’re trying to do. But, at the same time, the community appreciates [Biggie] and respects him.
In your email, you mentioned that you had started petitions to establish a Beastie Boys Square in Manhattan and the Wu-Tang Clan District in Staten Island. Can you describe the process for getting a street or corner renamed or co-named after someone?
For an individual, they have to have been deceased at least three years. For a group or organization, the have to have been an integral part of the community and meet other criteria. With the Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang, MCA passed away from the Beastie Boys and ODB passed away from the Wu and in Queens, Jam Master Jay passed away from Run-DMC. They all fit the criteria to have those things put into place.
Regarding a street name, you need a petition, local support and political support. You need support from a civic association, like a church or a block association too. Different Community Boards have different processes, and even when they say you need "community support" for a petition, it doesn’t specify a number. I have all of the requirements surpassing what is requested.
In reference to Biggie’s lyrics, he was just speaking a language representing where he came from that people in similar situations could identify with. Do you think the people opposed to your petition are really just afraid of hip-hop?
Afraid of hip-hop but also illiterate of hip-hop and the culture that hip-hop is rooted in. They kind of lack the ability to have a clear and concise understanding. If all of your information comes from Wikipedia—
Which can be wrong.
Yeah [laughs]. You can use Wikipedia as a starting point for your research, but you can’t rely on that [as a primary source of information]. But some people don’t think that there’s anything good about people from the ghetto in the first place.
Right. In your email, you also mentioned Big Pun’s sister and her struggle to have a street co-named after him in the Bronx. We see artists like Big Pun and Biggie as cultural icons; they mean more to us because we view them as inspirational figures. Some people simply view them as menaces. It goes back to what you were saying about people being ignorant of the culture. In the essay that I wrote yesterday, a commenter characterized Biggie as a "community menace" and a "repeat offender." This person also questioned what he’s done to have "taxpayer-funded property named after him." What would you say to someone who feels that way?
Let’s go back even further. Let’s go back to 1973 when hip-hop was created in the Bronx. Since 1973—40 years—how much money has hip-hop made for New York City? Where is the representation of hip-hop’s birthplace in New York City and how much respect has been given to hip-hop in New York City? I think that New York City has been suppressing hip-hop and hip-hop culture since the very beginning, yet still taking the money generated from it. All of the popping bottles in the club and all of the fashion that trickles down to New York Fashion Week, a lot of that is influenced by hip-hop culture and there was a lot of money made off of that. So you want to talk about a $100 street sign in honor of someone who hired many people from his own neighborhood and started prosperous careers for individuals and companies including in the record industry, the fashion industry and businesses like record stores.
A lot of negative things have been said about hip-hop, and there hasn’t been a study on it, but New York City has not represented hip-hop in the manner that it deserves to be recognized. That’s contrary to a place like New Orleans, which is the birthplace of jazz. Everywhere you go in New Orleans, they have something that reminds you jazz was founded there. Now to request a street sign for Christopher Wallace—is that such a big thing for New York City to do for an artist or even an artform that has contributed so much to the city? People may not know that there are tours for people who would like to see the places [in New York City] where hip-hop was created. This is already a stop on the tour, so to have a street sign up for it—which generates money and tourism for an area that is not a tourist attraction—this is something that would be beneficial to New York City in that capacity as well.
It’s undeniable that hip-hop has done a lot for New York. Consider this: there’s a Joey Ramone Place in the East Village near where CBGB used to be. If there can be a Joey Ramone Place, why can’t there be a Christopher Wallace Way? Then, on a deeper level, keep in mind that we’re having this conversation the same week that we "celebrated" Christopher Columbus Day. Do you think the opposition goes back to hip-hop’s negative stigma? I feel like misogynistic lyrics often become a bigger deal depending on who they come from.
There are issues where some people get away with everything, and then there are other things that some people can’t get past. Even this summer, you had the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival. A few weeks later, you had the Electric Zoo Festival at Randall’s Island where two people overdosed. If that would’ve happened at the [Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival], it would still be front page news. Sometimes hip-hop does harm itself, but hip-hop has done more for New York City—and I even told one of the Community Board members that she’s benefitted from hip-hop. She said "I can’t see how hip-hop has benefitted me at all." I explained that hip-hop has done so much for race relations in the United States and around the world that people can’t even comprehend what it’s done to unite races. People who follow artists like Biggie Smalls, a lot of them are white people; a lot of them are Indian people; a lot of them are Latinos. They’ve all been unified by music.
Right, it’s the elephant in the room that some people can see, yet others can’t. I’d argue that Biggie was instrumental in helping to make hip-hop culture become popular culture. Everyone knows the lyrics to the "One More Chance" remix; everybody knows the lyrics to "Juicy" and "Hypnotize."
The video for "Juicy" was shot right on that corner [of St. James Place and Fulton Street]. He always represented where he came from, from the very beginning to the very end. Spike Lee is Brooklyn; Mike Tyson is Brooklyn, but Biggie bigged up Brooklyn on a regular basis. He always gave Brooklyn a shoutout, so he needs to be honored.
I know the letter from councilwoman Letitia James is necessary to take the petition to the level, but what else needs to be done to make Christopher Wallace Way happen and how can people help you?They can still sign the petition online to show that there is support in the community, New York City and America from people who think Christopher Wallace deserves to have a street co-named in his honor. I’m not thinking about having people call the offices of these elected officials because I know people that know them personally. Two weeks ago I met Chuck Schumer and told him what I was doing and he said it was great. He told me about how he helped save the rec center that Kool Herc used to spin at. The City Council is largely Democratic, but there’s going to be a new councilmember sworn in [this coming] January. I’m hoping they'll be younger and hipper. Some of them are under 40, so they’ll understand the music, the culture and its influence. Hopefully they’ll understand how hip-hop has deterred the youth from following a path of negativity. I’m also hoping the people behind Big Pun will restart their efforts to have him honored, because the Latino influence in hip-hop is tremendous and Big Pun represents that.
I work in film production as a location manager. Putting this thing together and getting community support behind a project, signatures and the “ok” from the community, this is something I do on a regular basis for films people will never see. To do this for a cultural icon is more meaningful and long lasting, and I think people will appreciate it years from now. Years ago, I worked on the Nas video for "Made You Look," and if you remember, he shot a piece at Queensbridge; he shot a piece at Rucker Park; he shot a piece over in the Bronx by Big Pun’s spot and they also shot a piece by the intersection of St. James Place and Fulton Street. They shot it at Putnam and Fulton Street, and at Union Square. I think Benny Boom directed the video and I liked how four of the five boroughs of New York City were represented through hip-hop. It would be great if hip-hop were represented on the map in all five of the boroughs in New York City. I would love to see the city represent hip-hop’s contributions to it.
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