Public Enemy, De La Soul and the Golden Age of Long Island hip-hop
Bill Stephney was standing in the lunchroom of Hempstead High School when he first heard the sound of hip-hop. The year was 1978, well before Stephney launched his influential hip-hop radio show on Adelphi University's WBAU and went on to become president of the pioneering rap label Def Jam Recordings. A DJ was spinning records for the school’s Valentine’s Day dance, Stephney recalled, when suddenly, someone began rhyming over the music.
“I’m 15 years old,” Stephney said, a sense of wonder still in his voice. “I’m looking at him, going, ‘How is he doing that? Is he reading something? Is there a book around?’ That was my first direct connection to experiencing hip-hop.”
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop — born, according to lore, at a Bronx recreation-room party where Clive Campbell, known as DJ Kool Herc, mixed two copies of the same record to create an extended percussive loop. What began as a makeshift entertainment in the neglected Black neighborhoods of New York City quickly spread across the country, but its first major stop was nearby Long Island. Here, suburban Black musicians absorbed the new urban sound and created some of the most innovative, influential and enduring music in hip-hop history.
Roosevelt's Public Enemy turned what once was party music into protest music. The Brentwood duo EPMD pushed sampling to new levels. Amityville’s De La Soul helped launch a genre of “alternative” rap that valued smarts and humor over machismo. Biz Markie, raised in Patchogue, became rap’s beloved clown prince. As for the Wyandanch rapper Rakim, of Eric B. and Rakim, he’s still worshipped as a god in the rap pantheon.
In interviews, the Long Island rappers and DJs who helped define hip-hop’s golden age — roughly the mid-1980s to the early 1990s — describe a network of Black communities where hip-hop music lived and thrived. Mobile DJ crews played parties at nightclubs and VFW halls. Roller skating rinks held hip-hop nights where break-dancers held battles. And just about everyone, it seems, tuned into WBAU, which became a focal point of Long Island’s hip-hop community.
“It’s quite simple,” said Carlton Ridenhour, 62, better known as Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, whose new four-part documentary, “Fight the Power: How Hip Hop Changed the World,” premieres Jan. 31 on PBS. “We all listened to the same things, the same radio stations. The signals caught us, and we all traveled back and forth with our relatives. So when hip-hop was happening in Manhattan and the Bronx, we got it maybe six days later.”
According to Stephney, “We think of hip-hop and rap as either on the East Coast in the housing projects or on the West Coast in South Central Los Angeles. But at least for that era in the 1980s and 1990s, Long Island, for the most part, ruled hip-hop.”
HOW HIP-HOP CAME TO LI
As seen in “Fight the Power,” hip-hop’s story begins in a New York City reeling from the high crime, garbage strikes and blackouts of the 1960s and ‘70s. The perils of urban living famously drove white flight to Long Island, but Black families, too, wanted their slice of the American dream. Between 1960 and 1980, Long Island’s small Black population more than doubled to 162,484, according to U.S. census figures.
Within that miniboom were families with children — and those children would pioneer a new musical art form.
“They were kids of parents who had good educational backgrounds,” said David Byer-Tyre, historian of African American History and popular culture and former director of Hempstead's Joysetta & Julius Pearce African American Museum of Nassau County. “Their parents were of a certain socio-economic background, which allowed them to move between the urban and the suburban experience.”
Rapper Kelvin Mercer, 53, better known as Posdnuos of the hip-hop trio De La Soul, said his was one of the first Black families to move to East Massapequa, from the Bronx, when he was in the 4th grade. “And then it just became more and more people migrating there,” he said. “The Long Island cats were nothing but immigrants from the inner city. We all had cousins who were still back there. So we weren’t cut off and caught on late. We were on it early.”
Parrish Smith, 54, half of Brentwood’s EPMD, said he had grandparents living in Brooklyn while he was growing up, “so every holiday, you go visit. Easters, birthdays, Christmas, we was in Brooklyn.” He added: “Everybody’s story is a little similar.”
THE EARLY YEARS
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Long Island hip-hop was still in its infancy, said WildMan Steve, 65, a veteran radio host from Uniondale who has worked at WBAU, Party 105.3 and WBEA on Long Island. “There was nobody on the mic, it was just music,” said Steve. “Back then, everybody was amazed that you could take a record and scratch it. People would crowd around just to see that.”
Meanwhile, DJ crews such as The Concept (featuring Westbury’s Andre "Doctor Dré" Brown, who would go on to host “Yo! MTV Raps Today”) and Spectrum City (which included Chuck D and his future Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee) roamed the region, playing at parties for hire or staging their own events.
White rock clubs, however, wouldn’t book them, according to Chuck. “There was definitely a closed door,” he said. So the DJ crews played anywhere they could: colleges, Polish halls, little clubs like the Dolphin’s Cove in Uniondale and Roxy’s in East Meadow.
'God forbid you pick up a microphone and start rhyming. They’d pick up a chair. We’d do call-and-response, but if you dropped a real rap record? Boy, you’re putting your pay in jeopardy.'
— Doctor Dré
Early rap tracks like 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang and 1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five introduced the music to a wider audience. At the same time, though, rap gained a reputation as disreputable and disruptive. Dré, 59, whose DJ crew frequently spun records at weddings, said he was frequently warned by white and Black families alike: No rap music.
“God forbid you pick up a microphone and start rhyming. They’d pick up a chair,” Dré said. “We’d do call-and-response, but if you dropped a real rap record? Boy, you’re putting your pay in jeopardy.”
Meanwhile, local roller rinks began catering to the new generation of hip-hop fans. The Levittown rink is where Johnny “Juice” Rosado — whose scratching can be heard on some Public Enemy tracks — said he first met fellow Uniondale break-dancer Trevor Smith, later known as Busta Rhymes. “I named him Kid Craze at the time,” Juice said, “because he was just full of energy.”
The Roosevelt Roller Rink, which opened in 1978, also served as a communal hip-hop hub, according to Andre “Andreaus13” Guilty, 57, a former rapper and independent filmmaker who is working on a feature film about the now-defunct venue. “They would have sneaker parties, where there was no roller-skating,” said Guilty. “When there was a snow blizzard, the roller rink would be open, so you could still go there.”
THE ‘HIP-HOP INCUBATOR’
By most accounts, hip-hop had virtually no radio presence at all on Long Island until Stephney arrived at WBAU. In 1980, Stephney won a $22,000 college scholarship from an unusual partnership between Adelphi University, the Urban League of Long Island and the Hempstead-based rock radio station WLIR.
“It was a full four-year ride to Adelphi and a paid internship job at WLIR,” said Stephney. “And because I started early, I had a little bit of an edge on the students at Adelphi who were working at the campus radio station. I got my own radio show at WBAU and I said, ‘I’m going to play hip-hop.’”
Starting in November 1982, Stephney broadcast “The Mr. Bill Show” Monday nights from 10 to 1 a.m. from the WBAU studio on the third floor of the University Center. The show quickly became a magnet for the school’s other hip-hop heads, including Doctor Dré and future Public Enemy leaders Chuck D and William “Flavor Flav” Drayton. It also hosted what Stephney believes is the first radio interview with Run-D.M.C.
According to Chuck, the show also gave Long Island its now-famous hip-hop identity as Strong Island thanks to listeners who called in and used slangy nicknames for their hometowns — Uniondale was “The Onion,” mid-Hempstead was “Termiteville.”
“One day, I’m answering the phones,” Chuck recalled. “This guy calls up: ‘Yo, man, I want to hear “Buffalo Gals,” World Famous Supreme Team.’ I said, ‘Who’s calling?’ He said, ‘Yo, it’s Nick … from Strong Island.’”
Even after Stephney graduated from Adelphi and went on to join Def Jam Recordings (founded by another Long Islander, Rick Rubin of Long Beach), WBAU continued to serve as Long Island’s hip-hop beacon. There, Dré launched his show “The Operating Room” in the mid-1980s, followed by WildMan Steve’s “The Hip Hop Spot” in the early 1990s.
“From Roosevelt to Freeport, Hempstead and Westbury, we create what’s known as the greatest hip-hop incubator in history,” Dré said. “Because when we were at BAU, we changed the listening habits of local radio.”
'We started this thing called ‘shout-outs.' Nobody said it before that. People knew it was kind of a ‘street’ term. But now, the most conservative person in the world says it easily.'
— Ralph McDaniels
Meantime, on television, “Video Music Box” provided an outlet for the hip-hop and R&B music videos that MTV was ignoring. Co-created and hosted by Ralph McDaniels on the local PBS station WNYC-TV, the show was often filmed on location at hip-hop spots throughout New York City. Like Stephney, McDaniels encouraged fans to take part in the show and boast about their hometowns.
“We started this thing called ‘shout-outs,’” said McDaniels, 63, who now produces the show from his home studio on Long Island. “Nobody said it before that. People knew it was kind of a ‘street’ term. But now, the most conservative person in the world says it easily.”
In the mid-1980s, Long Island’s local hip-hop talent finally made the jump to vinyl.
Thanks to a cassette made by Chuck and Flavor Flav to promote WBAU — titled “Public Enemy No. 1” — a new group was born. With help from Stephney, Public Enemy signed to Def Jam. Their politically-charged second album, 1988’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” cemented the group’s place as hip-hop’s version of The Clash (a comparison Chuck sometimes chafed against) and became the first hip-hop album to top the Village Voice’s influential Pazz & Jop poll.
Around the same time Public Enemy was forming, a young saxophone player from Wyandanch named William Michael Griffin Jr., better known as Rakim, was rapping with a DJ from Queens, Eric Barrier, known as Eric B. Influenced by both jazz and R&B, Rakim came up with internal rhymes and complex cadences new to hip-hop, while Eric B. laid down a hard-edge groove. As Eric B. and Rakim, the duo released 1987’s “Paid in Full,” expanding the possibilities of a still-new art-form.
“Every time I would hear a jazz record, it was always different timings,” Rakim, 54, explained. “So you have to learn to count, and learn where the one is. So listening to that, and then going back to R&B, it gave me a profound sense of time and space.”
The following year came another seminal record, “Strictly Business,” by the Brentwood-based duo of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith, known as EPMD. On the title track and others, EPMD sampled classic rock and disco — from Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” to Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” — to create a swinging, funkified brand of hip-hop.
Smith credits the album’s wide-ranging sounds to his time on Sonderling-Brentwood High School’s multicultural football team. “In the locker room, I was hearing Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Genesis, Billy Squier,” he said. “Our main objective was to win. Nobody saw the color.”
In 1988, De La Soul formed in Amityville, the result of a friendship between three eccentric rappers: Posdnuos, Trugoy (born David Jolicoeur) and Maseo (Vincent Lamont Mason, Jr.). Together, they broke from hip-hop’s tough, inner-city vibe and rapped about suburban living on tracks like “Potholes in My Lawn.” Their 1989 debut album, “3 Feet High and Rising,” produced by fellow Amityviller Paul Huston (better known as Prince Paul), was a critical and commercial hit that also inaugurated the between-song skits that would become a hip-hop tradition for years.
The Long Island trio “had something to prove” to New York City, according to Posdnuos. “All of our friends were like, ‘Y’all live out in the forest now,’” he said. “And we had different visuals in front of our face. It’s not an elevator that don’t work or gangsters burning down our building.”
Also at the tail end of the decade, the cuddly rapper Biz Markie, born Marcel Theo Hall and raised in Brentwood and Patchogue, released his 1989 single “Just a Friend,” a comedic ballad about being unlucky in love. The song became a Top Ten hit and spawned a video that prominently featured Long Island University — Post Campus.
'I think Long Island’s hip-hop scene is actually a microcosm of how hip-hop resonated through the rest of the country.'
— David Byer-Tyre, historian of Black popular culture
“The majority of it was shot on Long Island,” said McDaniels, the video's producer. “He wanted to do it out there because he wanted it not to look like anywhere else.” Biz died in July 2021; a few months later, the village of Patchogue renamed the intersection of West Avenue and South Street as Biz Markie Way.
“I think Long Island’s hip-hop scene is actually a microcosm of how hip-hop resonated through the rest of the country,” said Byer-Tyre. “Even though we look at New York as the Mecca, we discount that what started in New York transformed every little suburban enclave around the country.”
As the 1980s became the 1990s, rap’s geographical center shifted west to California. Artists like N.W.A. and Ice-T began focusing on stories of urban violence, launching a genre that — fairly or unfairly — became known as “gangsta rap.” De La Soul’s neo-hippie vibe was out; Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life” tattoo was in.
“When you start to get Death Row [Records] and N.W.A. and Ruthless Records and Suge Knight, you’re presented with hip-hop as a subset of gang life and drug-dealing,” said Stephney. “That’s distinct from the Long Island experience in the ‘80s.”
'To have artists like that from Long Island, that made that kind of contribution, it lets the world know that we played a very important part in hip-hop.'
Still, it’s impossible to imagine rap’s evolution without its early Long Island innovators. Public Enemy’s confrontational albums paved the way for current outspoken rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Killer Mike. De La Soul’s misfit pride pushed aside stereotypes and made room for rappers of all stripes.. .And rappers from Jay-Z to Eminem owe a debt to Eric B. and Rakim.
“To have artists like that from Long Island, that made that kind of contribution, it lets the world know that we played a very important part in hip-hop. And it’s still relevant today,” Rakim said. “I’m definitely proud to be a part of where I’m from and what we did.”
STRONG ISLAND'S GREATEST HITS
Eric B. and Rakim: “Paid in Full,” “Eric B. Is President,” “Microphone Fiend”
Public Enemy: “Fight the Power,” “Rebel Without a Pause,” “Night of the Living Baseheads”
De La Soul: “Me, Myself and I,” “Say No Go” "Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)".
EPMD: “You Gots to Chill,” “So Whatcha Sayin’” “Strictly Business”
Biz Markie: “Just a Friend,” “Vapors,” “Nobody Beats the Biz”
Busta Rhymes: “Don’t Cha,” “I Know What You Want,” “Break Ya Neck”