Nas did more than just shake up hip-hop with Illmatic, he turned the Queensbridge Houses into a monument.
Twenty years ago, Nas raised the bar for hip-hop with the release of his seminal debut, Illmatic. Working with the finest producers of the era, the young rapper created an extraordinarily vivid account of life in the projects, describing his surroundings with detail and sagacity well beyond his 20 years. Released to instant acclaim, Illmatic is hailed as arguably the greatest hip-hop album ever made, while the Queens native was exalted as the second coming of Rakim, hip-hop’s chipped-toothed savior with an uncanny ability to turn his words into lucid images worthy of 35mm film. For just under 40 minutes of brilliance, Nas served as the narrator, walking listeners through his habitat: the Queensbridge Houses. His scenic account of urban residency has earned Nas praise as possibly hip-hop’s greatest storyteller, all while turning the projects that raised him into a place of hip-hop folklore.
Located in Long Island City, the Queensbridge Houses are a massive complex located just south of the Queensboro Bridge, for which they’re named. With over 3,142 units home to nearly 7,000 people, it’s the largest public housing development in all of North America. The colossal structure is divided into two Y-shaped buildings: the South Houses on the 41st Street side and the North Houses on the 40th Street side, where Nas grew up.
His scenic account of urban residency has earned Nas praise as possibly hip-hop’s greatest storyteller, all while turning the projects that raised him into a place of hip-hop folklore
A 2012 WNYC feature revealed that less than a decade after their 1940 opening, the number of white and black residents adjusted, as the white community shrank while the black population increased every year since the city began keeping records in 1946. As WNYC points out, until the 1950s, the NYCHA and the city in general were among the few places in America where the projects weren’t segregated. However, the 1944 G.I. Bill that offered low-cost home ownership options in the suburbs was rarely an option for blacks, who were often subject to discrimination.
As the 1960s arrived, it became increasingly easy for the poor to enter public housing, and the Escalera decree of 1971 made it difficult for the NYCHA to evict tenants who violated rules. Crime, specifically the drug trade, ripped through the projects during the 1970s and 1980s, setting up the enclosed world that produced Nas and other Queensbridge talent.
Since the 1980s, Queensbridge has been hip-hop’s unlikely Garden of Eden. No other NYCHA project has manufactured a larger aggregate of hip-hop talent, but while Nas’ name will always be synonymous with Queensbridge, others came before him. Marley Marl and MC Shan surfaced during the decade, founding the legendary Juice Crew, which featured fellow Queensbridge natives Roxanne Shanté, Craig G. and a young Tragedy Khadafi. Marley Marl and MC Shan penned the first Queensbridge anthem, "The Bridge," but suffered a resounding loss after battling the Bronx’s Boogie Down Productions. Still stinging from KRS-One’s star-making taunts on "The Bridge Is Over," Queensbridge hip-hop retreated back to the projects, quietly waiting for a worthy pundit to restore its glory.