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New York hip-hop, an oral history source within architectural scholarship


‘Cough up a lung, where I’m from, Marcy son, ain’t nothing nice…’ – Jay-Z. Author’s own photograph, 2013.

A subculture created by Black and Latino men and women in late 1970s New York, Hip-hop from the very beginning has been closely related to the urban environment.[1] Space has various functions in hip-hop music, and its potential to express a group identity is central to its importance and power. Hip-hop artists have used lyrical narrative to illustrate the relationship between culture and music and the built environment. Accordingly, Hip-hop music provides one of the main sources within popular culture for a sustained analysis of the diverse experiences of living in these urban environments. The aim of this dissertation is to analyse hip-hop music as an oral performance of written word that becomes material evidence of an architectural historiography. My dissertation focuses on New York City’s built environment, artists and music from 1980 to 2000.




Marcy Public Housing comprises twenty-seven low-rise, six-story cruciform brick buildings. Hip-hop artist Jay-Z often references his childhood experiences growing up in this part of Brooklyn during the 1980s and 1990s. Hip-hop Historian and author Murray Forman explains that 'part of what was at stake during this period of recorded rap was not merely a retelling of ghetto stories, but recuperation and recasting of the meaning of black life in ‘the hood’. Physical space takes on human form and social import.’[2]  To Forman’s point, Jay-Z’s social relations were clearly carved in the permanence of concrete and brick, as he explains:


The shadowy bench-lined inner pathways that connected the twenty-seven six-story buildings of Marcy Houses were like tunnels we kids burrowed through. Housing projects can seem like labyrinths to outsiders, as complicated and intimidating as a Moroccan bazaar. But we knew our way around.[3]


The ‘orientalist’ reference to the exotic impenetrable labyrinth of the ‘Moroccan bazaar’ in relation to Jay-Z’s own built environment in Brooklyn is very striking. Especially in the ‘othering’ of the spatial organisation of Marcy Houses through its comparison with an unfamiliar cultural space. Projects like Marcy Houses were built partially out of goodwill and as an affirmation of the potential for renewal of the capitalist system and order along liberal humanitarian lines. However, by the time these Le Corbusier ‘tower in the park’ inspired buildings were open for public use they were already seen as obsolete.[4] In Jay-Z’s ‘Where I’m from’ he interprets living in projects like Marcy as a struggle between survival and death:


“I’m from where the liquor stores and the base dwell/ And government? Fuck government! Niggas politick theyselves/Where we call the cops the A-Team/'Cause they hop out of vans and spray things/And life expectancy so low we making out wills at eighteens…

I'm up the block, around the corner and down the street/From where the pimps, prostitutes and the drug lords meet/We make a million off of beats, 'cause our stories is deep…

…Cough up a lung, where I'm from, Marcy son, ain't nothing nice”


– Jay-Z – Where I'm From. [5]


‘Where I’m from’ confirms that young black and brown New Yorkers were acutely aware of the way they and their neighbourhoods were viewed by mainstream society. Social theorist Michel Foucault observed that space does not possess an inherent capacity to dominate, but spaces may be invested with power and thus become part of an apparatus of domination.[6]  This is made evident when Jay-Z alludes to the same Foucauldian ideas of governmentality by saying,


We’re aware of the government from the time we’re born. We live in government-funded housing and work government jobs. We have family and friends spending time in the ultimate public housing, prison...From the time we’re small children we go to crumbling public schools that tell us all we need to know about what the government thinks of us.[7]


To this Jay-Z further raps “And government? Fuck government! Niggas politick theyselves”, highlighting decades of abandonment from city officials assigned to make these spaces more habitable for its citizenry. Jay-Z’s lyrics also show how Brooklyn locals had given up on the government’s so-called positive intervention policies, rendering them obsolete  to their own social and economic organisation. Communities of colour in projects like Marcy House resorted to trying to resolve socio-economic problems internally by creating their own informal economies through Hip-hop culture. Jay-Z explains how ‘housing projects are a great metaphor for the government’s relationship to poor folks: these huge islands built mostly in the middle of nowhere, designed to warehouse lives.’[8]


Jay-Z’s ‘Where I’m from’ illustrates how the American housing project is a technology of power. It can be perceived as a disciplining enclosure, as Jay-Z alludes to its similarities to a prison. Jay-Z’s narrative shows how spatial practices which are invested with political or ideological values, are affected in the social realm through a myriad of institutional regulation systems. Hip-hop songs like Jay-Z’s ‘Where I’m from’ give Architectural History a new opportunity to research and critically interrogate the political and socio-economic interrelationships forged within these built environments.

[1] Jeff Chang and D. J. Kool Herc, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: Picador, 2005), 67 – 68.

[2] Michael P. Jeffries, ‘Hip-hop Urbanism Old and New: Debates and Developments’, Int J Urban Reg Res 38 (2014), 707.

[3] Shawn Carter, Decoded (New York: One World, 2011), 13.

[4] I. P. Prentice and Douglas Haskell eds., ‘PUBLIC HOUSING, anticipating new law, looks at New York's high-density planning innovations’, The Architectural forum (June 1949), 87-9.

[5] Jay-Z, ‘Where I’m from’ In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 (Def Jam Records and Roc-A-Fella Records, 1997),

Track 13

[6] Michel Foucault and Colin Gordon, Power, Knowledge: Selected Interviews And Other Writings 1972-1977, (Harlow: Longman, Pearson Education, 2008)

[7] Carter, Decoded, 89.

[8] Ibid,.

Copyright of images: © Malcolm Msika

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