Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Straight Out of Hollis

March 22, 2009

Straight Out of Hollis

IT was a Friday night earlier this month, and Shokanni McKen and Roy Manson, two of the three members of the rap group known as the Hollis Boyz, were sitting in Mr. McKen’s Nissan Maxima off a quiet street in Hollis, Queens, listening to the group’s new recordings in the CD player.

Mr. McKen, a 21-year-old who calls himself T-Y, and Mr. Manson, a 22-year-old who goes by the name R.Dot, bobbed their heads as the sound filled the car, parked in the driveway of a red-brick house on 204th Street where Mr. McKen lives with his mother. Then they began to rap along to a song about prevailing over a life defined by guns and drug dealing.

“Million-dollar dreams with a welfare check,” Mr. Manson chanted in a mellow monotone.

In a deep, raspy voice, Mr. McKen chimed in, “There’s nothing I’m confined to, anything I put my mind and my grind to.”

Together they sang the refrain:

When I was a young boy coming up, dreams to make it big

and live it up.

I wonder if I’ll make it.

The Hollis Boyz are among several Hollis rappers famous only in their neighborhood and struggling to make it big or, as local residents say, to go “from Hollis to Hollywood.” In this pursuit, they are encouraged by the successes of other Hollis rappers and the neighborhood’s remarkably rich hip-hop legacy.

On April 4, the hip-hop group Run-DMC, which emerged from Hollis in the early 1980s and is regarded as among the pioneers of the genre, will be inducted into theRock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group — consisting of Joseph Simmons, known as Run; Darryl McDaniels, called DMC; and Jason Mizell, the D.J. Jam Master Jay, who was killed in 2002 — is only the second hip-hop act to receive this honor; Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five from the Bronx were inducted in 2007.

Run-DMC was managed by another Hollis native, the hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, Run’s brother, who helped found the legendary label Def Jam Recordings.

Hollis, an enclave of 23,000 people in eastern Queens, not far from Jamaica, is a largely African-American neighborhood with a more recent population of West Indian immigrants and a paradoxical character.

The community has a suburban feel and is home to working- and middle-class families who live in snug one- and two-family Colonials with small front lawns. Yet Hollis has long been troubled by drugs and gun violence, which belie the neighborhood’s tranquil appearance and which became especially severe during the crack epidemic of the late ’80s.

Run-DMC and Russell Simmons are local heroes in a community where a strong sense of small-town pride endures among those who have made good. A notable symbol of this pride is the Hollis Hip Hop Museum, a shrine to the neighborhood’s musical past that opened in February inside Hollis Famous Burgers, a restaurant at Hollis Avenue and 203rd Street.

The museum, whose collection covers the walls of the restaurant, consists most prominently of Run-DMC memorabilia, among which are gold and platinum records donated by Mr. McDaniels. A plastic display case holds the gold chain, black fedora (then known as a godfather hat) and black-and-white Adidas sneakers (or “shell toes”) that were the group’s signature regalia.

“I’m trying to get kids to understand, this is like Motown,” Orville Hall, the restaurant’s owner, said one recent Sunday as he served tilapia and collard greens to a customer, a plastic apron tied around his stomach. “This is one of the most music influential neighborhoods in the country.”

Run-DMC was the first rap group to have a platinum record, the first to have a video on MTV and the first to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. But the rappers were far from the only performers in Hollis in the early ’80s. In good weather, local parks and street corners were routinely transformed into performance spaces, with D.J.’s plugging in their turntables and M.C.’s rhyming over the beats before a crowd of revelers.

Such scenes no longer play out in Hollis. The new generation of local rappers are more likely to take their music to YouTube or MySpace, and many residents speak wistfully about the neighborhood’s bygone musical heyday and lament a lost sense of community.

In some eyes, the restaurant restores a little of that feeling. And for the Hollis Boyz, who can often be found hanging out there at night, it is a shrine not only to the past but also to the possible future.

“These people were like us,” Mr. McKen said one afternoon over fried chicken and pancakes, framed by images of the famous people on the walls. “People just around the corner.”

‘Funky Fresh’

Run-DMC’s first video on MTV, in 1984, was for the tune “Rock Box,” which begins with a professorial-looking man with frizzy white hair asking, “What is rap music?” The following year, an MTV camera crew visited Hollis to film the three as they rapped their way down Hollis Avenue.

Staring boldly into the camera, the three young men in fedoras rapped to a generation of young people, many of whom had never seen or heard anything quite like them. “In case you wonder what all this means,” the group rhymed, “we’re funky fresh from Hollis, Queens.”

Hip-hop, via Hollis, had arrived in America’s living rooms.

Though the group was the first to introduce rap to much of the country, Hollis is not widely regarded as the birthplace of hip-hop. It was in the South Bronx, during the 1970s, that performers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five began mixing and cutting records on turntables while rhyming over the looping beats. The music was performed live at house parties, block parties and parks, where it was recorded on cassette tapes.

But in short order, the sound made its way across the Throgs Neck Bridge into Queens, where teenagers like those who went on to form Run-DMC listened, enamored, and Hollis, too, became a breeding ground for the new music.

“Somebody would bang and everybody would rhyme for hours,” Mr. Hall said as he stepped out from behind the counter at his restaurant. Back then, he had a Jeep that he often parked on the corner where the restaurant now stands, and he and his friends used to sit in the vehicle, rhyming freestyle and creating beats by banging on the top of the Jeep for the bass sound and on the side for a tinnier snare.

“You rhymed, go buy another 40, and then you rhymed some more,” Mr. Hall recalled. Pointing to a record on the wall that he had made with a group called the Showboys, he said, “I made that sitting on the corner.”

“It was just a different time,” he added.

Crime in Hollis has declined considerably over the past decade, but among many longtime residents there is a sense that Hollis never fully recovered from the crack epidemic that later assaulted the neighborhood.

“Right now, you feel like nothing is happening,” Mr. Hall said as he stood at the front door of the restaurant and gazed onto the street. “It looks exactly the same as it used to. And that’s not good. You want to see a neighborhood grow.”

Pointing to a row of mostly abandoned brick apartment buildings across the street, he added, “That doesn’t help with the motivation of a neighborhood.”

Reminders of the neighborhood’s violent street life abound. In the restaurant, a collage of current photos of Hollis residents makes up what Mr. Hall calls “the new school” part of the museum collection. One of those pictured is a young man everyone in the neighborhood called Markie; he was shot dead on a corner of Hollis Avenue in November 2007.

“It’s a rough neighborhood,” Mr. Hall said, “unless something comes to change it, something to distract from the violence. If it’s not going to be the music, it’s got to be something else.”

‘Best D.J. in the US of A’

One afternoon a few weeks before the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, Darryl McDaniels, who still raps as DMC, paid a sentimental visit to Hollis from his home in Wayne, N.J., where he lives with his wife and 14-year-old son.

Cruising around the neighborhood in a chauffeur-driven black Lincoln Navigator, he lingered in front of the Hollis Playground, often called 192 Park by locals because it is close to Intermediate School 192.

Mr. McDaniels, now 44 (“with the rhymes galore!” as he put it), talked about the impromptu performances that took place in the park when he was a teenager.

D.J.’s often removed a piece of the lamppost on the corner of 205th Street, where there was an outlet, to power their turntables. Another option involved running an extension cord across the street to the corner store, where many of the 40-ounce bottles of Olde English 800 malt liquor that fueled the revelry were bought. M.C.’s took turns rhyming while children played basketball or handball against graffiti-covered walls.

“North, south, east and west, soon as you heard the music, everybody would converge on the park,” Mr. McDaniels said that afternoon. “We would play until the police would come and go: ‘What are you kids doing? You can’t have a concert in the park without a permit.’

“The police would pull the plug,” he went on. “Everyone would go home. But then we was back here the next day.”

Leaving the park, the Lincoln Navigator pulled up in front of the two-story house on 197th Street where Mr. McDaniels grew up. He pointed to his bedroom window, where the maroon shutters still bear the horse-and-buggy design he remembered from childhood.

Mr. McDaniels’s father was a boiler worker for the city. His mother was a registered nurse. Like the other members of Run-DMC, he lived in the neighborhood for several years after he became famous.

But the two surviving members of the group are rarely found in Hollis these days. Mr. McDaniels’s visits are infrequent, and Joseph Simmons, an ordained minister now known as Rev Run, lives with his family in Saddle River, N.J., and is the subject of an MTV reality show called “Run’s House.”

Jam Master Jay, who lived not far from Hollis in Queens Village, was fatally shot in a Queens recording studio in 2002. The killing remains unsolved.

A mural honoring the D.J. and others in the neighborhood who have been killed is painted on a wall on 205th Street. Next to the portrait of Jam Master Jay are the words “Best D.J. in the US of A.”

Back in the Lincoln, Mr. McDaniels spoke passionately against what he saw as the glorification of drugs and guns in today’s hip-hop, a subject on which he often lectures at schools and colleges around the country.

“I don’t care if you come from the poorest neighborhood,” Mr. McDaniels said. “There’s some good there, too.”

He donated his gold and platinum records to the museum because, he said, he had “a responsibility to represent something good.” And he added of Mr. Hall: “When Orville did this, it was like a message. You can try to save the world, but you’ve got to take care of your own backyard first.”

Saying No to ‘Gangstering’

The Hollis Boyz are not, to use Mr. McKen’s words, “goody-two-shoes.” They rap about subjects like “standing on the block with a product for the fiends,” but they also rhyme earnestly about how “gangstering” is not the way to go. As Mr. McKen puts it in one song: “I’m not going to make it that way. I’d rather let the plaques hang.”

“See those plaques,” Mr. McKen said that afternoon over lunch at Hollis Famous Burgers, motioning toward the gold and platinum records on the wall. “That’s a whole lot of hard work. That’s years of grinding. Not years of gangstering.”

The Hollis Boyz often visit the restaurant after closing time, when Mr. Hall is invariably mixing a batch of homemade lemonade, or, as he calls it, Hollis’s Famous Lemonade, for the next day’s customers. The Hollis Boyz sometimes taste-test the lemonade, then hang around to watch sports on television.

Sometimes they are joined by a large fellow who goes by Butter Love, or simply Butter. Butter, whose real name is Douglas Hayes, was a member of a group called the Hollis Crew that released a record on Def Jam in 1985. But the record never became a big seller; as Butter put it, “It went mold.”

Butter worked for nearly two decades as a city sanitation employee, and still lives in the house on 202nd Street where he grew up. A friend of the members of Run-DMC, he often tells the Hollis Boyz stories about old times.

“We hang with Butter all night,” Mr. McKen said, laughing.

“You don’t have to call it a restaurant,” he added of Hollis Famous Burgers. “It’s a support house.”

And when it comes to the images of all the superstars on the wall of Mr. Hall’s restaurant, the Hollis Boyz see only one problem.

“Not a whole lot of these people come back,” Mr. McKen said. “They should look at Orville like a superstar. He’s done so much for Hollis. His grind is making Hollis good. That’s crazy, right?”

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