The answer to that question is both a complicated yes and a simple no.
Yes, long dead are the days from yesteryear when Hip-Hop was an expressionistic lifestyle that consisted of half-dressed teenagers in the South Bronx backs-pining on cardboard while whole-painted train cars of graffiti would roll by overhead making their way uptown. Nonetheless; in its own resilient way; hip-hop is still very much a part of New York City consciousness. This is portrayed by the universal symbolic commitment to wearing Yankees caps that more so serve as a nod to the way things used to be.
The ability to express oneself soon found its way across a variety of mediums; all aiming at raging against the system. That is why genres like rap, break-dancing and graffiti--which today appear separate--are very much lumped together within the conversation of hip-hop.
A cursory review of hip-hop history will lead you to the cult-like obsession of duos like Eric B & Rakim and KRSOne with DJ Scott La Rock. Both aforementioned groups used their reach to put New York City on the map. They rose to stardom because they had the ability to produce beats that the city could vibe to, lyrics that graffiti writers can sketch alongside of while the poetry was expressed in a way that challenged other rappers to elevate their own talents.
Over the decades; while rustos have rusted, for one reason or another; it appears to the naked eye that the close-knit community of hip-hop as a subculture has lost its way. Thus, many have been led to openly ponder if hip-hop is...dead.
Skip ahead with me to present day New York City. The duo that has amassed the eerily-similar cult-like following and pride of those whose feet pound the pavement daily are Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren. Many people, at first glance; write it off to dumb luck as well as favorable promotion. However; is this not the same disdain early hip-hop was viewed with? A closer look reveals something keen into understanding the cult like obsession that Action Bronson and Meyhem Lauren have earned: they represent hip-hop in all of its evolutionary forms present day because (in their own unique way) they have managed to stay true to form. I do not know Action Bronson personally--but I happened to have the fortune of getting to know Meyhem Lauren as I put together this story and so this article will focus on him.
Some weeks ago, I was in Scrapyard NYC with the hopes of purchasing a copy of FLASHBACKS magazine; an iconic graffiti and street-art culture magazine. Of which, I had the honor of contributing and editing the last issue that was published back in 2014. I stood at the counter, essentially pleading with the store manager to check the storage for some leftover copies. As I pushed for the manager to check what they might have in storage a figure entered the shop. I recognized the bearded face and unwavering demeanor--chalked it up to likely being someone I had met at a previous graffiti showcase. I began to explain my credentials to the manager while the figure who was now next to me at the counter--awaited his turn. I glanced over again, the face became more and more familiar as I haggled the manager to check the storage before realizing I likely was not getting what I wanted that day. Finally, in a last-ditch effort; I told the manager that I write for Sold and I would do a write-up on Scrapyard’s presence in the city if he would be so cool as to double check that they did not have any copies of FLASHBACKS.
The manager would not relent. FLASHBACKS is out of print and the last publication was so long ago it would not be logical to expect a copy laying around their store. I took a step back in an effort to gather my thoughts before figuring out how to ask again.
The familiar face who came in a few moments earlier was clearly a friend of the store manager. The gentleman made known his order for spray-paint and the manager turned aside to gather the cans. The face seemed so familiar I had to ask--even if I was wrong:
“Hey bro, pardon me for asking but you look really familiar; do you write?”
“You might have seen me on T.V or Youtube—he is Meyhem Lauren.” The store manager interjected.
I laughed as if he told me a flat joke. My efforts to make the store manager more comfortable as a bad comedian did not really go too far--he kept the same face of flint. The manager placed the paint on the counter and I lost Meyhem's attention for the time being.
I know Meyhem Lauren as in the founder of Smart Crew, arguably the most creative graffiti crew to come out of Queens in the 90’s—still burning to this day. I know Meyhem Lauren as in the occasional sticker that I see throughout the city. I also know there’s a rapper from my hometown of Queens with the name of Meyhem Lauren, who has a cult-like following, but I never managed to put two and two together for one reason or another. Was this guy pulling my leg by just trying to confuse me?
“What show--if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Fuck That’s Delicious.”
I looked over to the Meyhem for some semblance of validation and I got an honorary head-nod of confirmation. I told Meyhem I would love to write a story on him and asked for an email where I could reach his publicist and pitch the idea. Instead, he told me to text him so we could set something up. A few days later, I was sitting with Meyhem in an Indian restaurant on Queens Blvd interviewing him for information regarding this article.
Of course, I talked with him about his most recent album, PIATTO D'ORO. He filled me in on upcoming collaborations with Harry Fraud and DJ Muggs. I asked him the general questions of what inspired him and on the origins of Smart Crew. During our sit-down, I stepped on his sneakers at least six times. And after each incident; he was casual and chill—continuing to rap to me over the recorder as if nothing happened.
A handful of times, for the express purpose of this article, I have been around Meyhem at a show or a meeting to iron out the details of this piece and what he was comfortable with me printing with regards to his career as a writer. Each time, he has been completely approachable, humble and human as he relates to those who draw inspiration from the life he lives.
Return with me to an earlier stated premise of hip-hop icons making themselves accessible to the general public while putting New York City on the map. Take for example, Eric B & Rakim; there are legends about a fight that went down in a skating rink where the two of them defended their honor amongst hecklers and would be thieves of the golden ropes hanging from their necks. In the same way; I have witnessed Meyhem enter a show with a priceless Jesus piece dangling in front of his Cooji sweater--the same way all his fans and friends did. Not one security guard was with him—he was approachable and equal with his supporters. I believe that aspect to his personality is what has garnered him widespread respect from his peers and those who clamor to be around him.
Furthering the point of a parallel to Rakim: in many of his lyrics, Rakim eludes to graffiti as an artform. It is clear; from Rakim’s view, that the action of graffiti is as essential to a writer’s existence as are the lyrics to an MC.
Take these lyrics from Rakim as reference to his thought process with regards to graffiti:
“When I float at night,
I show them new heights I go to write,
They know I strike with new prototypes to blow the mic.”
“Now that you’re here—let me introduce you get ready,
I am hard to read—like graffiti but steady,
The science I drop is real heavy.”
“Write a rhyme and graffiti in,
Every show you see me in,
Deep concentration—because I’m no comedian.”
Lyrics like this state the case of Rakim’s thought process. It is clear that Rakim believes graffiti writing is indivisible to the soul of hip-hop, as far as a true MC is concerned. Rakim’s standing within the community is nothing short of monumental. The aforementioned lyrics have left their mark on the mind of countless individuals—those who support hip-hop as a multi-faceted form of expression and those who have engaged with it at the academic level as a study of culture.
The elusions to which Rakim gets at; Meyhem has lived as the founder of Smart Crew. Take these examples of Meyhem’s lyrics as a statement of his lifestyle in the culture:
“Game of life is trife but due to good advice I'm 'bout to win it
Fuck around with rap but I still run around the map and still get it…”
“Laid make the strip shine, nigga I take mine
Tags on the J-Line, E-train tunnels
Flat black, got stacks, fat caps, by bundles it was like that
Take my spot, I'll be right back
Handstyles are major, stomp blocks in danger, my rusto's in labor about to give birth to flavor…”
Since I just quoted from Meyhem’s “Got The Fever”, take for another example KRSOne and DJ Scott La Rock: KRSOne, while deeply and forever connected to Scott La Rock; continued to produce amazing content after the tragic death of his DJ. In a similar light, Meyhem is in some respects, synonymous with Action Bronson to those of us from Queens. However, in the same way that KRSOne strove and worked hard to distinguish himself as an MC in his own right—Meyhem has been diligent to his hustle of remaining his own personality.
Furthermore, KRSOne has produced arguably the most iconic graffiti culture songs, “Out For Fame.” With that song, KRS showed his pedigree and iconic standing in the community by calling out many of the most legendary writers from the train era of New York City graffiti.
Over the years, that song has taken on a reminiscent and timeless tone. Many people associate the names in that song with the good old days of what graffiti and hip-hop was. The fact that a rapper did not sell-out but stayed true to culture added to its acclaim.
Present day, many people believe graffiti and hip-hop to be dead. In some respects, it is. But through Meyhem Lauren, the essence of graffiti and hip-hop culture lives in lyrics and lifestyle.
This is exemplified in Meyhem’s song, Got The Fever. In those lyrics, Meyhem is explicitly stating graffiti knowledge that one can only know by experience—having lived it. Additionally, the music video features some of the most prolific writers from New York City. Speaking from experience, I know that many graffiti writers can be a very closed off community. The fact that Meyhem was trusted to be in his music video speaks to his pedigree as a writer and his commitment to hip-hop.
Meyhem Lauren is a writer, musician and entertainer. For those of us from Queens, NY, he represents a figure who is committed to staying true to his roots. He currently puts us on the map with his lyrics and stickers everywhere he goes. Outside of Queens, Meyhem represents hip-hop. For the purpose of this piece I focused on some of graffiti relation—but for anyone interested in tracking where rap, fashion and television—his career is a must follow.
In closing, it is worth mentioning that Meyhem Lauren’s work is something that I think goes unappreciated because so few understand the many facets by which he contributes to the hip-hop world. Some know him as the guy on television, others as a musician, while few understand his accomplishments as a graffiti writer who was part of founding Smart Crew—hopefully, you now know him as someone who should be that much more appreciated and recognized in the hip-hop world.
Keep an eye out for Meyhem’s upcoming collaborations that are soon to drop with Harry Fraud and DJ Muggs.