We sat down with LeRoy McCarthy to discuss the obstacles and triumphs of honoring hip-hop icons in cities across America.
The Notorious B.I.G. has left an indelible mark on the fabric of New York City’s cultural legacy. Now, there’s a street being named after him, on the Brooklyn block where the prolific rapper spent his formative years.
St. James Place, between Gates Avenue and Fulton Street, will now be called Christopher Wallace Way.
Last week (May 15), the Brooklyn Community Board 2 voted to approve the petition for the re-naming of the borough’s street, 33 to one, with four abstentions. The dedication is expected to be approved by the City Council and Mayor Bill De Blasio as well.
The movement has been helped by hip-hop fan and Brooklynite LeRoy McCarthy, a man who has been fighting to find a way to honor the late legend’s legacy and impact for years. McCarthy’s proposal for a Biggie street was a struggle. He’d launched the initiative for the intersection in 2013. That year, Committee members objected the proposal because of his criminal record, lyrics, and, amazingly enough, because of his physical appearance.
CB2 committee member Lucy Koteen told DNAinfo at the time:
[The Notorious B.I.G.] started selling drugs at 12. He was a school dropout at 17. He was arrested for drugs and weapons charge. He was arrested for parole violations. He was arrested in North Carolina for crack cocaine. In 1996 he was again arrested for assault…He had a violent death and physically the man is not exactly a role model for youth. I don’t see how this guy was a role model and frankly it offends me.
But after those initial barricades, McCarthy was able to galvanize a wave of support in the form of letters from local churches, a mosque, a block association, local businesses, and thousands of comments and signatures from people all over the world in an online petition advocating for the street name change.
We sat down with LeRoy McCarthy to discuss his next efforts and the obstacles and triumphs of honoring hip-hop icons in cities across America.
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What do you think The Notorious B.I.G. symbolizes for Brooklyn?
Well, Biggie embodied Brooklyn. He represented Brooklyn ‘to the fullest,’ as he says. But he actually did. You know, Brooklyn moxie. Brooklyn swagger. Brooklyn dialogue. He embodied that within his persona and also in his music.
The city has undergone gentrification. Brooklyn has been hit really hard. With that immense cultural shift, what do you think Biggie means to the people of Brooklyn now?
Well, that’s part of the reason why I did it, in terms of trying to get the recognition for Biggie and for hip-hop in every borough of New York City. To get some of that Brooklyn moxie back — what I grew up with. I grew up in Flatbush and Biggie grew up in Bed-Stuy area, and I know how Brooklyn used to be. It might never go back to that. But while I’m here, I wanted to at least just share this representation of the history of Brooklyn.
The world’s smaller now because of the internet and social media. and back in the day, when you see somebody with a Brooklyn shirt on, before the [NBA team] Nets came to Brooklyn, you just automatically assumed that they’re from where you’re from. But Brooklyn is around the world now. It’s popular and part of that is because of Biggie and JAY-Z and Mike Tyson. Brooklyn has some very strong international personalities that contributed to its popularity.
That popularity contributed to some of the gentrification; people want to move to this famous place that Biggie and JAY-Z were talking about. So that factored into Brooklyn and [its] worldwide popularity.
But at the same time, I wanted to just share the Brooklyn that I knew, and Biggie represents that. So, I’m glad that the city allowed it to let it pass at the city council.
One of the Brooklyn community members was against this getting approved. They didn’t believe that Biggie was a good role model for the youth of Brooklyn because of his past. What would you say to that person?
This same person and her objections to Biggie— she not only said he wasn’t a good role model. She said that he did not have the physical characteristics to be a role model.
Now, Biggie wasn’t running for a beauty pageant. Biggie was a dope MC, a dope storyteller. I say that’s ignorant. I just kept on pressing on and eventually, the community board, the city council and the powers that be approved it and it’s moving forward. So I can’t really put too much energy into negativity, especially when they don’t know what he talking about.
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And that was the only objection?
Well, eventually. That comment was made from the community board meeting in October 2013. It got postponed and then we eventually got support from the city council representative for this district. Then, from there, we went on to get it passed. But it’s like that in certain ways because I was also responsible for the street name for the Wu-Tang Clan District in Staten Island, which passed and was dedicated on the 4th of May. And I’m working on some others as well, but for the most part, it’s not easy to get hip-hop honored. I’m doing this because I think that it will empower the hip-hop community and give recognition to an art form that hasn’t received too much support from the powers that be.
Are you able to talk about any of the other ones that you’re working on?
My first success was to honor Sylvia Robinson in Englewood, New Jersey— the woman who founded Sugar Hill Records and assembled the Sugar Hill Gang. That was dope. Everything’s been a process but everything else has been lethargic.
I’m trying to honor hip-hop in every borough. Moving forward, I’m trying to honor Beastie Boys in Manhattan. That’s pending. Biggie was successful in Brooklyn, Wu-Tang is successful in Staten Island. I initiated the honoring of Phife Dawg in Queens, and that was successful but I’m also really trying to get them to add to that same street pole, “A Tribe Called Quest Boulevard.” So that’s hopefully in the works. I’m trying to assist the family of Big Pun to have a street named for him in the Bronx.
That’s all exciting.
Right. So with that and Big Pun, there’s no recognition for any Latino hip-hop artists, city-wide. Latinos were there, at the foundation of this whole hip-hop movement. And you can’t have the Bronx without Latinos. They were an integral part so it’s very important to have the cultural representation of Latinos in hip-hop. You’ve got African-Americans, you have immigrants, you have Caucasians. A lot of these people were students in the New York City Public School system and they went on to worldwide fame using vocabulary as their form of expression.
Also, I’m working on honoring the Roots in Philadelphia and Tupac in Oakland. I’m trying to get a dog park named for Snoop Dogg and Tha Dog Pound in Long Beach, California. The street naming has been a work in progress and I do have support for it; it’s just a matter of timing for it to move forward.