When author William Jelani Cobb was an eighth-grade student at IS 238 in Jamaica, he had a classmate who wrote his name down on a sheet of paper and told him, “This is my autograph. You should keep it.”
Cobb thought the gesture was ridiculous. He crumpled up the note and threw it away. That 13-year-old fellow pupil would go on to become a very famous rapper, known to most of the world by the stage name LL Cool J.
“The one thing I remember about him is that he would never stop rapping,” Cobb said. “He was rapping at the beginning of class. He was rapping after school. He would say ‘Listen to this rap song I just made. I’m going to be famous.’”
That was just one of several anecdotes Cobb shared with attendees at a discussion held at the Hollis Library on Thursday, where the writer was promoting his latest book, entitled, “To the Break of Dawn,” which explores the cultural and literary elements that are at the core of rap music.
“As hip-hop culture begins to develop in the South Bronx, upper Manhattan and Harlem — there are people who are passing these tapes around the city,” Cobb said. “They are listening to this music and asking ‘What is this? I really like this. I want to do this,’ and it’s associated with these areas.”
Where a rapper comes from is often an integral part of who he is and forms the basis for a lot of his rhymes. To demonstrate the point, Cobb asked those in attendance if they could name the hometown of various hip-hop stars such as Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. In all cases, the attendees got the answers correct.
“People made fun of Queens,” Cobb said. “People kind of thought that Queens was suburban and soft and these people can’t rap. How can they be good rappers? They have back yards. If you’re going to be a good rapper, you have to live in the
projects. So all of these things would go on in people’s minds.”
When rap first began with groups like the Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the albums were popular among a small niche audience who lived in New York, New Jersey and to a smaller extent, Pennsylvania. But in 1983, that all changed with the emergence of Hollis-natives Run-DMC and their debut single “Sucker MCs.”
“It is tremendously popular,” Cobb said. “It sells lots and lots of copies and all of a sudden there were these rappers from Queens, but not just Queens, from Hollis, Queens, who were talking about their community and where they’re from and talking about Queens with pride.”
Run-DMC was not only instrumental in putting their neighborhood on the map, but they took rap music into the mainstream, opening up the genre to a much larger and more diverse audience.
“Run-DMC opened the door for other people to become bigger rap stars than had ever been possible before,” Cobb explained.
Since then many other prominent rappers have emerged from the borough. They include Salt N’ Pepa, A Tribe Called Quest, Naz, 50 Cent and Ja Rule. However, Cobb, a history professor at Rutgers University, said that Jamaica’s Nicki Minaj is the most talented hip-hop artist to come out of Queens lately. Known for her colorful stage attire, bright wigs and unique facial expressions, Minaj has taken the rap world by storm with her debut album, “Pink Friday.”
“There are women in the genre who try to sell just based on sex appeal, but she’s creative, unorthodox and funny. You never know what she’s going to say,” Cobb noted. “She has a lot of charisma.”