We All Live in Brooklyn, Baby
The 1972 Roy Ayers hit foretold the collective ownership of New York City’s most populated borough.
When The Notorious B.I.G. asked Madison Square Garden, “Where Brooklyn at?” during his freestyle at a Patti LeBelle concert, I doubt he’d accept the answer, “everywhere.”
At the time, Brooklyn was industrial, rugged. Now, 25 years removed from Biggie’s notorious freestyle, Brooklyn is a husk of its former self (which is probably for the best).
Just 90 people were killed in Brooklyn in 2019, a historically low mark that would make Biggie’s ownership of “seven Mac-11s, eight 38s” and “nine 9’s” out of place. Gentrification has morphed the city’s original demographics while subsequently opening doors for it to become one of the most diverse places in the world. In 2020, Brooklyn isn’t reserved for fly girls and pushers — it’s a metropolis whose place in pop culture places ownership of the city in the palms of the masses.
I’m a native New Jerseyan, but my favorite rendition of Brooklyn released on October 12, 1999. Mos Def characterized and codified his hometown on his debut album Black on Both Sides, in what I hold to be one of hip-hop’s most glowing tributes to the city that birthed it.
Brooklyn — YouTube Music
Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group Brooklyn · Mos Def Black On Both Sides ℗ 1999 Rawkus Entertainment LLC…
Though Mos Def is quick to outline how drugs and violence are stitched into the fabric of New York’s largest borough, he’s also is keen on highlighting the city as a place of style and culture. “It’s off the handle black, with big police scandals that/ Turn into action screenplays sold to Miramax,” Mos rhymes on Brooklyn’s third verse. The bar, which slyly references the 1999 deal that nearly saw Robert De Niro and Miramax films convert Brooklyn Navy Yard into a $150 million film studio, is a reminder that life in Brooklyn informs pop culture.
And while some artists are quick to claim Brooklyn for its natives, Mos Def is quick to understand that even the transients rep BK with pride.
“It’s real yo but still yo, it’s love here/ And it’s felt by anybody that come here/ Out of towners take the train, plane and bus here/ Must be something that they really want here/ One year as a resident, deeper sentiment/ Shout out “Go Brooklyn”, they representing it.”
It’s odd to imagine Soul Cyclists treading the same streets where Biggie saw “all the dead bodies showing up.” But Mos Def foretells the future of the borough some 20 years in advance, recognizing that Brooklyn’s inescapable influence calls natives and transplants to the city alike.
Those Mos Def lines flow fittingly overtop an iconic sample of “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby.” The 1972 Roy Ayers and Harry Whitaker track is a similar ode to the city that speaks to black empowerment in the face of growing gentrification.
Back to the City
Gentrification in Brooklyn began in earnest in the 1970s. The pre-World War II decades saw trickles of people to Kings County, but the 70s boom in education and suburbanization brought new classes of people to Brooklyn.
According to the New York Federal Reserve Bank, the entirety of New York saw an increase in the numbers of young, single and college educated people flock to the city in the 70s. But while 90 percent of the city’s census tracts saw a net decrease in their white population, three tracts in Brooklyn increased by at least 10 percent. These neighborhoods were also the areas that “had concentrations of college graduates two or three times the city wide average.”
Whether or not Ayers’ “We Live in Brooklyn, Baby” was recorded in response to the changing demographics of the city, the track stands as a memento of Afrocentricity and empowerment. It is become a sample staple, making track lists for the better part of the last 50 years. Many of the samples take the Ayers’ backdrop — a leisurely Ron Carter bassline, Whitaker’s electric piano taps and Ayers’ chiming vibraphone — to put a new spin on Ayers’ soulful decree that, “Our time is now.”
“We Live in Philly” — DJ Jazzy Jeff and Jill Scott
The Whitaker, Ayers, Carter trio stole the show on the original, but DJ Jazzy Jeff’s reimagining of “We Live in Philly” puts Selwart Clarke’s strings and Juma Santos’ congas on full display. Featuring a 30-year old Jill Scott with just a single album to her name, the duo takes listeners on a journey from 52nd street to John Bertram High to the since-renamed West River Drive.
Throughout the track Scott has run-ins with Philly legends like Julius Erving, Schoolly D, and Allen Iverson while throwing back city delicacies, including pretzels with mustard and Frank’s black cherry soda. The outing culminates in the defeat of fictional Philadelphia hero Rocky Balboa by the very real boxing champion Joe Frazier, whose 1971 knockout of Muhammad Ali is immortalized at the XFinity Live! Plaza at 11th street.
“We (Used to) Live in Brooklyn” — Skyzoo
As fitting as the Ayers” sample is to Skyzoo’s jazz rap antics, his rendition, “We (Used to) Live in Brooklyn,” is enigmatic. At times, Skyzoo’s bars sit confrontationally towards the same out-of-towner’s Mos Def shouted out on his version. “It’s real yo, it’s real yo it’s love here/ It’s felt by anybody that come here/ unless you ask the new neighbors who was being here/ they might play on entitlement like they is from here,” Skyzoo raps.
Ironically, the Ayers classic is reproduced here by Dumbo Station, a jazz band from Italy. The collective’s instrumentation keeps the track alive by incorporating flowing sax with the largely keyboard and percussion beat. But its success doesn’t change the fact that Skyzoo’s song about Brooklyn is, again, produced by a group not from Brooklyn.
UK rap group Katch 22 similarly caught onto the Brooklyn hype train, sampling Ayers’ track for “Bad Nuh Bumbo,” as did the German duo the Rödelheim Hartreim Projekt for their track, “Kreig.”
Ayers himself being an NYC transplant — he moved to Manhattan in 1970 — speaks to the song’s undying influence. The L.A.-native vibraphonist whose first album was aptly titled West Coast Vibes, is partially responsible for one of New York’s greatest musical tributes the same way Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson weaved their souls into the impactful “We Almost Lost Detroit” despite not being city residents.
Ayers brings to life a musical foundation that has helped create an identity for a city that many now take for granted. If anything, these artists’ non-native roots speak to the original song’s unsung thesis: Brooklyn is more than just time and place. Brooklyn is a way of life.