Something in the Water: A Brief History of Queensbridge Houses and Hip Hop Legend, Marley Marl

J. Wynona
5 min readJun 19, 2020


Queensbridge Houses, named after the Queensboro Bridge and known simply as “Queensbridge,” “The Bridge,” or “QB,” is the largest housing project in New York City and the largest in North America. Before the 1950s, New York City and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) were some of the last few places where projects remained unsegregated, though the majority of residents were lower and middle-class white people. By the 1960s, the racial makeup of Queensbridge shifted from being predominantly white to black and Latinx families.

Queensbridge Houses. Photo by Liz Barclay.


Marley Marl born in Queens on September 30, 1962, was one of them. His older brother was the neighborhood DJ, and after attending talent shows and neighborhood parties, he quickly grew interested in creating music. At age 16, Marl began interning at Unique Studios, where he quickly became known as a talented DJ.

There, while working on a Captain Rock album, he accidentally created what would become known as drum sampling. While trying to get a guitar riff from a James Brown album, he pulled in a snare before the sound started. As he played, he realized the snare from the album sounded better than the drum machine he was using. In a WNYC interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley he recalls that it “smacked me in the face,” realizing he “could take any kick and snare from any record” and create his own music.

Excitement grew as it dawned on Marl that he could play with different sounds from the many records he had at home. This was a game-changer. At the time, raps were mostly recorded via cassettes during live performances. Now, people could recreate that live experience.

Marley Marl and Mr. Magic at 107.5 WBLS. NYC, 1983. Photographer unknown.


At the time, Mr. Magic was a prominent hip-hop DJ on WBLS, who hosted Rap Attack, the first exclusive rap radio show. He recalled being so poor that Mr. Magic would pick him up and take him to the studio. Mr. Magic caught wind of one of his mixes — a “Buffalo Gals” remix — and insisted Marley Marl let him play it over the radio, as it was unlike anything he had ever heard before.

After denying him several times, he finally allowed him to play it over the radio. From then on, he became Mr. Magic’s DJ on Rap Attack. Kids would tune in on Friday nights and record music on cassettes from Hip Hop radio stations WBLS and KISSFM. They’d bring them to school on Monday to compare.

Marley Marl and Mr. Magic then went on to create The Juice Crew, named after one of Mr. Magic’s aliases, “Sir Juice,” which consisted of Marley Marl’s cousin MC Shan, other Queensbridge residents like Kool G Rap, Roxanne Shante, Craig G and Masta Ace, and Brooklynites Big Daddy Kane and Biz Markie. In his sister’s apartment in Queensbridge, Marl created his record label Cold Chillin’ Records, where many of the Juice Crew’s music was released.

Prior to Marley Marl, producers did not have much of a hand in the making of music; they were more likely to fund music projects, often through drug dealing. He became what would be known as a super-producer.

Because of his electronica background (in fact, Marl was not initially interested in rap), he became a pioneer in hip-hop’s use of smooth transitions, which is known as blending. He went on to produce music for The Juice Crew, Nas, LL Cool J — whose “Mama Said Knock You Out” singlehandedly bolstered his career in New York — MC Lyte, and Tragedy Khadafi.

Marley Marl. Utrecht, Netherlands. Photographer unkown.


In the 1980s, this along with Ronald Reagan’s “Trickle Down Economics” lead to soaring unemployment rates, homicide, and mass incarceration. Homicide rates for black males more than doubled, and fetal death rates, low birth-weight babies, arrests for weapons, and children being placed in foster homes wreaked havoc in the black community.

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated that smaller amounts of crack be punished more severely than larger amounts of cocaine, even though it was the same drug chemically. As crack had now been solidified as a black problem, rather than a national epidemic, it was easier to target and police these communities with more incarceration. Black people were eight times more likely to be arrested than whites, which fueled fear and paranoia. When the crack epidemic reached its peak in the late 1980s, Queensbridge produced more homicides than any other projects in NYC.

Since crack cocaine was more affordable than its powdered form, it was easy to attain and sell. With the recession leaving many with few or no job prospects, many turned to drug dealing. Then, the “drug-dealer culture” began to influence hip-hop. Gold chains, medallions, and rings became fashion staples. Many began to see drug dealing as a way to climb out of the situations they were in.

Rikers Island” by DJ Polo and Kool G Rap and “Road To Riches” by Kool G Rap, both produced by Marley Marl in 1987 and 1989, respectively, provided commentary about feeling conflicted about selling “bottles of suicide,” seeing the devastating effects of the drug, being able to afford things that they could have never before attained, as well as getting arrested. These served as cautionary tales about seeing drug dealing as a “step up.” The beginning of “Road to Riches” has Kool G Rap telling a young child on his lap that he “can be a rapper” but not a gangsta.

Marley Marl. England, 1999. Photographer unknown.


But after returning from a London trip, he realized that life existed beyond those six blocks and stopped doing drugs.

As the early 1990s rolled around, things were becoming better. The ills of the crack epidemic were slowly subsiding (despite police ramping up arrests), while the budgets for music videos, jewelry, clothes were becoming bigger and better.

Marley Marl is one of the most influential people in hip-hop history. Without him, we may have never been introduced to sampling, which created a fresh sound for the genre in the 1980s. Marley Marl was never afraid of innovation, and even as he gained fame, he never lost sight of his background.

Originally published on on February 1, 2020.