Well, here it is. Ever since I wrote my first Dystopian Road Mix exactly two years ago, I’ve known in the back of my mind that eventually I’d be writing about New York City. New York is impossible to ignore: its cultural history is so immense, so all-encompassing, that writing a history of the city’s music is like writing a history of American music in general. For someone like me, growing up in the rural-suburban Midwest, New York was always a kind of vague ideal, the place where musical heroes from Lou Reed and Johnny Thunders to Eric B. & Rakim were allowed the cultural environment to truly thrive. I used to want to live in New York when I grew up, until I realized that the New York I had in my head was a very different place than the one that currently exists on the Hudson Valley. But when I finally visited for the first time earlier this month, even my cynical thirtysomething self couldn’t help but be seduced.
So this is my tribute to a city that has always existed more for me in my imagination and aspirations than in the real world. Even more so than the other installments of this series, it’s a quick gloss over New York’s musical history: boiling it all down to even the 50 tracks on the playlist below was a challenging task, and I’m sure I left some people out who I’ll be kicking myself over later. But I hope this post demonstrates just how closely the history of popular music in New York City represents a microcosm of the history of popular music writ large: both the good things (constant change and innovation) and the bad (rampant cultural appropriation and inequality). New Yorkers are often guilty of thinking they’re at the center of the world, but when it comes to pop music, they’re actually kinda right. I just wonder how much longer that will be the case.
Much like that of Washington, D.C., New York’s musical culture significantly predates what we now think of as popular music. In the 19th century, institutions like the New York Philharmonic orchestra were at the center of efforts to establish an indigenously American classical music, alongside parallel movements in visual art and literature. Indeed, works like George Frederick Bristow‘s 1855 opera “Rip Van Winkle” attempted to kill two birds with one stone: crafting American (albeit heavily European-influenced) music around the 1819 tale by Washington Irving.
But in the end it was the commercial songwriting industry, based largely around the West 28th Street blocks known as “Tin Pan Alley,” that truly succeeded in establishing an essentially American style of music. And they did it in the most essentially American way possible: by stealing it from Black people. Irving Berlin‘s 1911 hit “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”–praised by George Gershwin as “the first real American musical work” and recorded by, among others, pasty-faced “King of the Ragtime Singers” Arthur Collins–was cultural appropriation long before such a phrase was in common currency; hell, some scholars even accuse Berlin of literally stealing the melody from an early draft of “A Real Slow Drag,” submitted to the same publisher by a true ragtime innovator, Scott Joplin. But then, racialized artistic theft was a legitimate genre in New York’s early music scene: from the charmingly-named “coon songs” of the late 19th century to the vaudeville minstrel tradition made wildly popular by Al Jolson in the 1920s.
Fortunately, however, late 19th and early 20th century New York wasn’t just a breeding ground for music by European immigrants crudely mimicking African Americans; it was also an important locus for real, live African American music. On the more academic side, there was Henry Thacker Burleigh: a graduate of the National Conservatory of Music whose knowledge of “Negro songs” profoundly influenced the conservatory’s then-director, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák. Burleigh went on to publish his own arrangements of both art songs and traditional African American spirituals: including “Deep River,” his arrangement of which was famously recorded by theatrical singer Paul Robeson.
Robeson was of course closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance: an explosion of African American cultural and political expression centered around the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance incorporated not only theater but also visual art, literature, and music–particularly jazz. The “Harlem Stride” piano style of artists like James P. Johnson helped define the sound of what novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the “Jazz Age,” with Johnson’s 1923 composition “Charleston” sparking one of America’s first dance crazes to “cross over” from Black to urban white culture. Soon, Harlem was also at the center of the burgeoning “big band” genre of jazz music played by large orchestras like Fletcher Henderson‘s.
But the neighborhood’s most infamous venue, the Cotton Club, was emblematic of the troubling racial politics and segregation that continued to affect Harlem in spite of its “renaissance.” Despite offering a stage to mostly Black entertainers, its clientele was limited to whites only, and its performers were often presented using broadly stereotypical, racist imagery. Even the orchestra of Duke Ellington, a D.C. transplant whose genre-shattering work in New York earned him a reputation as one of America’s greatest popular composers, was sometimes billed as “the Jungle Band” during their long residency at the Cotton Club.
Institutional racism certainly played a role in the fact that it was not Ellington, but the aforementioned George Gershwin who ultimately received credit for blending the genres of jazz and classical music, thanks in large part to his groundbreaking 1924 composition “Rhapsody in Blue”; it’s still a great piece, though, so I guess we’ll give it a pass. Gershwin premiered “Rhapsody” at Manhattan’s Aoelian Hall, billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music” and accompanied by the aptly-named bandleader Paul Whiteman (who commissioned the piece) and his Palais Royal Orchestra. While Gershwin intended his opus to be a “musical kaleidoscope of America,” it remains indelibly associated with New York City in particular, thanks in large part to its iconic use in such films as Woody Allen‘s Manhattan, Disney‘s Fantasia 2000, and, um, Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
The influence of Harlem’s jazz scene also made its way into another major New York institution: Broadway musical theatre. Songwriters like the aforementioned Berlin and Gershwin, as well as Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and Vincent Youmans, filled often-forgettable musicals with the jazz-inflected pop songs that would come to be known as the Great American Songbook. Perhaps most celebrated of all, from today’s perspective, is Cole Porter, an Indiana-born composer and lyricist who brought a trenchant wit (and an undeniable whiff of New York’s barely-underground gay culture) to his Broadway hits. Also, racism–as can be heard in this 1928 recording of Porter’s classic “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love)” by the Dorsey Brothers with Bing Crosby, featuring the original lyrics: “Chinks do it, Japs do it / Up in Lapland little Laps do it.” How droll!
Though the cultural influence of New York’s jazz scene in the 1920s and ’30s was undeniable, it wasn’t until the following decade when it produced a style that was truly indigenous. Created in part as a reaction by young, Black musicians against the whitewashing of big band/”swing” music, bebop emerged as a modernist, defiantly undanceable take on jazz out of jam sessions at venues such as Minton’s Playhouse on West 118th Street, Harlem. But the experimental form quickly took hold among hipsters and tastemakers, setting a blueprint for contemporary jazz that exists to this day and resulting in performances like the one included here: an excerpt from a landmark show at the Town Hall on June 22, 1945, bringing together bop giants Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Don Byas, Al Haig, and Max Roach.
New York continued to support a thriving bop and post-bop scene well into the 1960s, including such luminaries as East Harlem native Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet (John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke). As elsewhere, however, the place of jazz in African American youth culture was rapidly being eclipsed by the more accessible forms of Rhythm & Blues and doo-wop. Among the city’s most successful practitioners of the new style were Billy Ward and his Dominoes, a vocal quintet that launched the careers of both Clyde McPhatter (later of the Drifters) and Jackie Wilson. Later, acts like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers gave the genre a more commercial sheen, thanks in large part to their promotion by the influential (and well-compensated) WINS New York DJ Alan Freed. Even later, Bronx boys Dion and the Belmonts scored the greatest crossover pop success of all. I’m not sure why, exactly; there was just something… different about them. Something…less threatening. Something…lighter? Okay, fuck it, they were white. Are you happy now?
By the 1960s, Black Rhythm & Blues had become a pervasive influence on the commercial songwriting industry, just as jazz had in the 1920s. The new era even had its own “Tin Pan Alley” equivalent in the Brill Building on Broadway and 49th, a veritable hit factory for professional songwriter-producers including Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and of course, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Husband-wife duo Goffin and King penned hits heavily influenced by the vocal group sound, but with massive crossover appeal, including 1960’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by “girl group” the Shirelles. Meanwhile, their Brill Building office-mate George “Shadow” Morton cultivated a messier, more eccentric take on the same style with his pet project the Shangri-Las: two sets of sisters (Mary and Betty Weiss, and Marge and Mary Ann Ganser) possessed of a deep grasp of teenage melodrama, not to mention some of the strongest Queens accents in the business.
At the same time, in Lower Manhattan, a very different kind of music scene was taking shape. Today, the Greenwich Village folk revival is best remembered for its biggest star: Hibbing, Minnesota’s own Bob Dylan. When Dylan arrived in New York in early 1961, however, he was just an ambitious kid entering a community that already had its local successes and internal hierarchies. Dave Van Ronk, whose prominence in the Village earned him the nickname “the Mayor of MacDougal Street,” was a major influence on Dylan in the early years; it’s Van Ronk’s arrangement of “The House of the Rising Sun” that Dylan would use on his self-titled debut album in 1962. And reigning “Queen of Folk” Joan Baez was instrumental in clearing the way for Dylan’s meteoric rise to fame, often sharing the stage with the up-and-coming songwriter for performances like their renowned version of Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
New York in the first half of the 1960s was also home to several musical movements that fell further to the margins of conventional pop/rock history. In the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities of Spanish Harlem, artists like Tito Puente were crafting American takes on Latin and Afro-Caribbean dance music such as mambo, bomba, and sol cubano; these styles would later coalesce–not uncontroversially–into the hybrid genre known as “salsa.” Experimental music also flourished, with minimalist composers like La Monte Young incorporating elements of Fluxus performance art and drone music into classical composition.
In a way, the Velvet Underground–arguably the definitive New York band–was the sum of all of these 1960s-era influences (well, except for Latin music). Guitarist Lou Reed‘s frenetic solos directly emulated the New York-based “free jazz” of artists like Ornette Coleman; co-founding member and viola player John Cale played for a time with La Monte Young’s and Tony Conrad’s ensemble the Theatre of Eternal Music. There was even a none-too-subtle Brill Building influence in Reed’s songcraft: he’d famously worked as an in-house songwriter for budget label Pickwick Records, where he’d recruited Cale to play on his arch dance-craze parody “The Ostrich.” And of course, the band’s early association with Andy Warhol gave them a clear connection to the city’s art, gay, and drug subcultures, which they transmuted into the fiery, primitive rock’n’roll of songs like 1967’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”
But not every New York band in the 1960s was the Velvet Underground. Much more popular at the time was the Lovin’ Spoonful, a.k.a. the anti-V.U.: a group of beatific Greenwich Village folkies who rode a more palatable vision of the counterculture to the top of the charts with lite-psychedelic pop hits like “Summer in the City.” Meanwhile, a 16-year-old piano player from Long Island was gigging around town playing British Invasion covers while also recording on sessions for Shadow Morton and Kama Sutra Productions. In just a few years, he’d be selling gajillions of records singing his own interminable story-songs, ushering in the dark time in popular music known as the Billy Joel Era.
Fortunately, the early 1970s would also bring some much-needed grit back to New York rock. Park Avenue nightclub Max’s Kansas City was home base for the American glam rock scene–and a favorite haunt of the Warhol camp–hosting shows by the likes of David Bowie, Iggy and the Stooges, and Alice Cooper, as well as homegrown heroin(e)s the New York Dolls, who combined the Velvets’ streetwise edge (and more than a touch of Rolling Stones swagger) with hefty doses of Shadow Morton-style camp. Within a year, in a rare case of white-on-white cultural appropriation, the Dolls would see their schtick stripped of nuance and blown up to the level of absurdity by a crew of ambitious cultural outsiders called KISS.
Even as the local rock scene grew in Manhattan venues like Max’s, Black dance music was continuing to evolve in Brooklyn. The so-called “Brooklyn sound” embodied by groups like B.T. Express mixed raw funk with the slicker disco style then emerging from Philadelphia. As the 1970s progressed, disco spread through the five boroughs like a proverbial inferno, with Midtown’s Studio 54 attracting a clientele of celebrity hedonists alongside the usual Black, Latin, and queer club-goers. But it’s the ever-flamboyant Village People who truly embodied New York’s disco era, bringing the thriving gay community of Greenwich Village right into Middle American homes in what must surely be one of the most surreal success stories of a very surreal decade.
Disco wasn’t the only insurgent musical movement to emerge from New York in the mid-to-late 1970s; during the same period, East Village dive bar CBGB served as the incubator for an unvarnished, subversive genre called punk. The Ramones, a self-styled gang of juvenile delinquents from Forest Hills, Queens, established the basic formula: buzzsaw guitars, breakneck tempos, and a semi-ironic love for ’50s and ’60s kitsch straight out of the New York Dolls playbook. But what made New York punk so special was its eclecticism. The CBGB scene also supported everything from Patti Smith‘s post-Beat poetry to Talking Heads‘ angular art-funk, to Suicide‘s razor-tense synthesizer throb.
As influential as the New York punk scene was, however, it was also highly volatile. By the end of the decade, punk and its poppier twin New Wave were already experiencing a counter-insurgency in the form of “No Wave”: an even more abrasive and eclectic sub-subculture, born out of a series of shows at Tribeca‘s Artists Space. My favorite No-Wavers, without a doubt, are James Chance and the Contortions: a freakish deconstruction of James Brown-style funk fronted by a conservatory-trained white boy whose stage persona alternated between manic shrieks, violent assaults on audience members, and blasts of free jazz-inspired saxophone noise.
On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, session musicians turned disco innovators Chic were reinventing funk in their own way: by polishing it until it was shiny enough to snort coke off of. Under the leadership of guitarist Nile Rodgers, Chic turned out hits not only for themselves but also for Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, effectively setting the stage for the dance-pop music of the following decade. But their single most important contribution to music history was probably Bernard Edwards’ bassline for 1979’s “Good Times.” That infectious riff provided the backbone for “Rapper’s Delight” by Englewood, New Jersey’s Sugarhill Gang, which in turn introduced a wide audience to the most important musical and cultural movement of the latter half of the 20th century: hip-hop.
The precise origins of hip-hop have been debated vociferously between the boroughs, but of this at least we can be sure: with “Rapper’s Delight” and a slew of other early singles, Sugar Hill Records was the first to successfully sell the art of rapping over beats to a Top 40 audience. Along similar lines, Joseph Saddler–better known as Grandmaster Flash—wasn’t the first DJ to mix together prerecorded samples, but he was probably the first one most listening audiences could name (and, it’s worth noting, he also sampled “Good Times” on his 1981 turntable showpiece “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”).
A few more pieces of the puzzle were provided by Kevin Donovan, a.k.a. Afrika Bambaataa, whose Kraftwerk-sampling 1982 single “Planet Rock” effectively created the subgenre of electro–and whose organization the Zulu Nation laid the groundwork for a traditionalist hip-hop culture that remains alive to this day. Unfortunately, in the depressing tradition of people who accomplish great things being pieces of shit in their spare time, Bambaataa has recently been engulfed in controversy after being accused by multiple sources of child sexual abuse. His actions are inexcusable and a tragedy, but I like to think that if you still want to listen to “Planet Rock,” you’re allowed.
Hip-hop also spawned a small but fascinating offshoot with elements of electronic music and post-disco R&B, focused primarily in the Latin communities of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. The genre, known as freestyle, produced its first hit in 1984 with “Let the Music Play” by D.C.-born singer Shannon. At the same time, hip-hop proper was getting harder and heavier, with Def Jam Records founder/producer Rick Rubin crafting minimalist, rock-influenced beats for rappers like LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Run-D.M.C. Soon, another generation of producers such as Public Enemy‘s Bomb Squad were building from Rubin’s hard-hitting blueprint to create dense, assaultive collages of sound like 1987’s “Rebel Without a Pause.”
Much like in Los Angeles, influences from New York’s hip-hop community steadily crept into the city’s alternative rock scene: most obviously in direct homages like Blondie‘s 1981 single “Rapture” or the Talking Heads spinoff Tom Tom Club, but also in more subtle ways. Queens-based metalheads Anthrax–the only members of thrash metal’s “Big Four” to hail from the East Coast–found kindred spirits in Public Enemy’s visceral walls of sound, to the point that the two groups would eventually record a rap-metal version of P.E.’s “Bring the Noise” in 1991. And while the stylistic roots of neo-Bohemian noise rockers Sonic Youth can be traced more directly through No Wave to the early Velvet Underground, they did feature a guest appearance by Chuck D on their major-label single debut “Kool Thing” in 1990.
The 1980s and early 1990s also saw a resurgence in New York’s dance scene, with local DJs and producers creating their own variation on the house music coming out of Chicago. Perhaps the most important locus for this scene was the members-only Paradise Garage on King Street in Hudson Square, where DJ Larry Levan spun dance records seamlessly from a wide swathe of genres. Among the regulars at “the Garage” before it closed in 1987 were Robert Clivillés and David Cole, who you may know better by their joint name as a professional enterprise: C+C Music Factory. Later, multicultural pop-house trio Deee-Lite strove to embody New York’s “Global Village” aspirations with the quasi-psychedelic camp of singles like “Groove is in the Heart.”
Deee-Lite’s “Groove” famously featured a guest rap by Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, representing yet another permutation of New York’s hip-hop scene: a loose collective of Afrocentric rap crews, closely tied to the Universal Zulu Nation and known as Native Tongues. Other notable names in the collective included the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah, and Monie Love–all of whom, conveniently enough, appear on the former’s 1989 “Doin’ Our Own Dang.” But the Native Tongues represented only one aspect of New York hip-hop at the turn of the decade–and, it must be said, not the one that would ultimately achieve mainstream dominance. Instead, the slick, commercial, yet grim-minded street rhymes of Sean Combs‘ Bad Boy Records were ubiquitous throughout the 1990s, with the Notorious B.I.G. serving as the label’s chief M.C. and, after his tragic murder in 1997, its martyr. Then there was Staten Island’s Wu-Tang Clan, whose blend of hardcore beats and rhymes with underground, kung-fu movie weirdness didn’t really fit in anywhere, but made up for it in numbers with their ridiculously sprawling roster.
By the end of the 1990s, New York’s dominance over the rap game was well-established (albeit short-lived; the city would soon be overwhelmed by unexpected challengers from, of all places, New Orleans and Atlanta). Eternal hustler Jay-Z crowned himself “King of New York” in the wake of Biggie’s death, though not without controversy–his longtime rival Nas, for example, had a few things to say about it. Then, in 2002, a newcomer called 50 Cent came out of nowhere (read: South Jamaica, Queens) and proceeded to make millions from his hyper-violent street fantasies based on his own experience of being shot nine times at close range–and also, his beverage investments!
We’re now closing in on 50 tracks on the playlist, and quite frankly, I’m tired. So let’s just give a quick shout-out to New York’s resurgent rock scene in the early 2000s, where venues like Arlene’s Grocery in the Lower East Side played host to up-and-coming acts like the Strokes. The city obviously continues to be a major player in pretty much every genre imaginable–to the point, indeed, that it’s gotten tricky to point to any current musical movement as intrinsically “New York.” Perhaps the ultimate symbol for this new, oddly homogenizing hegemony is 19-year-old rapper Desiigner, who hails from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and has achieved major local radio success, but bought the beat for his viral hit “Panda” on the web from a producer based in Manchester, U.K., and copped his flow almost entirely from Atlanta rapper Future.
And maybe that’s the lesson to take away from all this. Maybe what we’re really seeing here in mid-2016 is the final death rattle of regional distinctions in music, which have been steadily eroding since the 1980s. Or maybe it’s just the decline of New York as a center for the truly new and revolutionary: now that it’s turning into a high-priced playground for yuppies and gentrifiers, it’s hard to imagine anything like the late-’70s punk or hip-hop scenes getting the opportunity to thrive.
But let’s not end this short history with a proclamation of doom. At the very least, New York City continues to spread its cultural influence through sheer brute force: whatever happens to its indigenous culture, any metropolis with such a massive concentration of people and such a rich, storied history will always be impossible to ignore. I just can’t help continuing to hold out hope that in 20 years, it will still be more than blocks upon blocks of high-end retailers and upscale dining experiences. Even if that does happen, though, we can take comfort that the imaginary New York will stick around for as long as we need it to–and that, in the end, is probably more important than the “real” one.