In the late 1970s and early ’80s, New York City was destitute, dirty, and dangerous, especially within inner-city slums and immigrant neighborhoods. It was in these marginalized neighborhoods that three new musical genres came into their own (punk, salsa, and rap/hip-hop) that went on to shake and rattle Western culture for more than half a century, radically altering the rhymes and rhythms that would follow.
New York City’s slums were long among the most densely populated and diverse working-class neighborhoods on the planet. And the crush of human beings from all over the world living within a complex web of social relations creates a hotbed for cultural evolution. To survive in the belly of the beast, large immigrant communities from the Global South and the long-standing African American working-class neighborhoods have created self-sustaining economic and cultural ecosystems, with educational and cultural institutions to support the work of young creative talents. These neighborhoods have their own political and cultural histories, their own languages or dialects, as well as particular styles, attitudes and rhythms, distinct from the American mainstream, which they passed down to the artists and musicians within their communities.
New York City has always been divided socially by strict real estate borders. For example, 14th Street is a straight line that stretches from river to river, dividing Downtown from Uptown Manhattan. Historically, this street separated working-class immigrants who had come from the Old World or the Global South — as well as minorities, gays, socialists, anarchists, and radical artists living and working downtown — from the mainstream, conservative, wealthy arbiters of high culture uptown, typically of Northern European descent. On the other side of the island, 110th Street was historically the border between upper-class uptown and the black, Latino, and other working-class immigrant neighborhoods of Harlem and the South Bronx.
The distinctive subcultures of New York’s heavily immigrant and working-class neighborhoods were responsible for the birth of vital punk, salsa, and hip-hop scenes. The profound economic transformations of these neighborhoods directly affected the possibilities for the music being produced there.
The Birth of Rap
Rap, or hip-hop, is undoubtedly one of the greatest musical styles to emerge in the twentieth century. Although the South Bronx takes most of the credit as its place of origin, the other boroughs had their own DJs and MCs laying down beats at parties before hip-hop was ever heard on the radio, and the syncopation and delivery of rap and its in-your-face lyrics were heard in different musical styles within the inner city.
What hip-hop from across the city shared was the fact that it was being produced in low-rent public housing projects. These projects were quite diverse and housed families from all over the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Both recent and long-standing immigrants, especially Jamaicans, contributed their own rhythms and rhymes, their sophisticated but lo-fi recording techniques, and their love of sound systems and open-air dance parties.
By the early 1980s, rap was to be seen in Manhattan parks, high-school auditoriums, improvised clubs, and even roller-skating rinks. While ice-skating rinks in NYC at the time were all-American institutions catering to ice princesses and hockey jocks, the Roxy, which opened in 1978 in Chelsea, was inner-city culture at its finest. The young DJs in the club got everyone skating and dancing to the new hip-hop sounds, which they played along with disco, funk, soul, rock, and early electronic dance music.
The Roxy was one of the first venues in Manhattan to showcase rappers: Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Kurtis Blow all performed there live, and the Rock Steady Crew, a group of black and Latino breakdancers, would often host dance competitions. From there, rap and hip-hop spread throughout the country and overseas, eventually becoming a global culture.
The Lower East Side and Salsa
New York salsa might have been born in the South Bronx, but from early on it was being played in barrios all over the city, including the Lower East Side, or “Loisaida,” as locals called it — a neighborhood that had as many burnt-out housing projects and tenements and boasted nearly as large a Puerto Rican and Dominican population. In Loisaida, Latino music was to be heard blaring from boomboxes day and night on the streets and stoops, in the bodegas, Dominican and Chino Latino restaurants, and the local supermarkets.
The Afro-Latino beats pumping away all day, every day were ingrained in the bodies and minds of all those who grew up there. Much of the quality and the success of this salsa music came from the fact that it emerged from tight-knit families within a community that straddled two very different cultures, NYC and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and which danced to dozens of different Latino musical styles.
Although salsa may seem to many people to be a single genre of music sung in Spanish, its roots are quite diverse. Many Latino bands associated with salsa began recording in English and in genres other than salsa.
Willie Colón’s first album, El Malo, recorded when he was only sixteen years old, features songs sung in English and with boogaloo rhythms popularized by black R & B musicians. Los Hermanos Lebrón were born in Puerto Rico but grew up in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They recorded their first album, Psychedelic Goes Latin, in 1967, and their second, Brooklyn Bums, in 1968. While the band started out as a Motown-inspired soul group, in 1970 they recorded Salsa y Control, one of the first songs to use the term “salsa,” which became a hit throughout Latin America and solidified their career. In the 1970s, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Nuyorican musicians, started the radical collective Harlem River Drive, which brought together Latin, soul, and free jazz.
Henry Fiol, one of the greatest salsa singers, was born to a Puerto Rican father and Italian American mother and grew up in the Jacob Riis Houses on Avenue D. Built in 1949 as working-class housing, the Jacob Riis Houses (named after the photographer who documented downtown slums and tenements at the turn of the twentieth century) are composed of thirteen buildings, many as high as fourteen stories tall, stretching out along seven blocks. This massive housing project is one of the only reasons that Latino culture still survives on the Lower East Side, keeping the white wave of gentrification from reaching all the way to the East River.
Punk Comes on the Scene
To many people, punk emerged fully blown out of a single NYC bar. CBGB, originally established on the Lower East Side in 1973 as a biker bar (just around the corner from the Hell’s Angels’ headquarters), began as a music venue for country, bluegrass, and blues — hence the bar’s initials. One year later, however, the bar began booking local rock bands, and then shifted toward the new cultural scene that punk music represented. Suicide, the Ramones, the Cramps, Television, Mink DeVille, Richard Hell, and Patti Smith became house acts, making CBGB famous as the home of punk.
But no single bar, or even group of bars and music venues, provides a musical or cultural ecosystem of its own. The neighborhood of the Lower East Side, rich in history and culture, did, however. In the early 1970s, punk musicians lived in the neighborhood’s low-rent tenements, ate cheap Eastern European, Caribbean, and Asian immigrant food, drank at cheap Old World bars, and educated themselves in local used book and record stores and revival cinemas.
Anarchistic and aggressively countercultural from the start, it might seem that, unlike salsa and rap, punk didn’t grow out of any real community, and especially not from any ethnic culture. In fact, though, the early punk scene was deeply indebted to historical Lower East Side culture — which is to say, the culture of working-class Jewish immigrants.
Many of those responsible for the angry, grating new sound and wiseass working-class attitude of what was to eventually be labeled punk were of Jewish heritage. Lewis Allan (Lou) Reed, Alan Vega (Boruch Alan Bermowitz) of Suicide, Joey (Jeffrey Hyman) and Tommy (Erdélyi) of the Ramones, Richard (“Secret Weapon” Handsome Dick Manitoba) Blum of the Dictators, New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (Sylvain Mizrahi), the guitarists and musical composers Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group and Chris Stein of Blondie, and CBGB’s owner, Hilly (Hillel) Kristal were all Jewish. Lester Meyers, aka Richard Hell, the author of the punk anthem “Blank Generation” and the man who popularized the torn T-shirt, safety pins, and spiky hair as symbols of punk, was half-Jewish.
For over a hundred years, the Lower East Side represented the world’s greatest concentration of Jewish artists, playwrights, actors, comedians, writers, and musicians. Punk rockers were the new generation of the neighborhood’s Jewish social misfits, scandalous poets, alcoholic comedians, illuminated junkies, and beautiful losers, with many living in the same dirty old tenements as their forebears. Rather than any religious or genetic tie to Jewishness, it was local musicians’ inheritance of smart-aleck downtown Jewish sarcasm and ironic humor, as well as the radical working-class Jewish cultural history of the neighborhood, that gave rise to punk music and culture.
At the start of the twentieth century, the rabble-rousing anarchist Emma Goldman, with her ideas of free sex and workers’ rights, and the revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who published his magazine Novy Mir in the neighborhood, both moved within the Jewish social and cultural circles of the Lower East Side. In the 1960s and early ’70s, the Yippies (Youth International Party or Youth in Protest), led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; Tuli Kupferberg, the poet-anarchist member of the musical group the Fugs and publisher of the magazine Fuck You; and the gay, anti-imperialist poet Allen Ginsberg (a mentor to many punk musicians and a bona fide poet-rapper) all lived and worked in the neighborhood.
Many working-class Jews from the Lower East Side and other Jewish neighborhoods around the city became famous worldwide as stand-up comedians, specializing in wiseass humor and scathing irony. Just as the sexually explicit comedians Pigmeat Markham and Rudy Ray Moore influenced a whole generations of rappers and hip-hop musicians, many Jewish comics, like foul-mouthed social critic Lenny Bruce, were an important influence on early NYC punk rockers. Like the Jewish comedians before them, punk musicians gave themselves non-Jewish names that were cool and street-tough and opened up the possibilities of a wider, whiter audience. And also like many of the old-school Jewish comedians, many punk musicians struggled with substance abuse and died young.
Early rap, salsa, and punk musicians were among the most countercultural, anti-corporate artists around, nurturing their ties to the tough streets and neighborhoods where they grew up long into their careers. Not surprisingly, gangs played an important role in the emergence of much of the best music from NYC in the 1970s. The early hip-hop musician Afrika Bambaataa was a member of the Black Spades, a gang that began in the late 1960s in the Bronx public housing projects and expanded to other states, and many members from the gang would go on to form part of Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation collective of graffiti artists, breakdancers, rappers, and DJs.
Early NYC salsa musicians cultivated street credentials and ties with gangs (as can be seen in Willie Colón’s early albums, El Malo, The Hustler, and Lo Mato). Joe Bataan, a black and Filipino artist who grew up in East Harlem and sang boogaloo, soul, and salsa for Fania Records, was for a while the leader of the Dragons, a Latino street gang. Many salsa musicians came up in the ranks of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican and Latino community organization modeled on the Black Panthers and the largest Latino street gang in NYC. One of the founders of the Young Lords in NYC was the musician, poet, and journalist Felipe Luciano, who was also a founding member of the protorappers the Last Poets, and a major promoter of salsa music with his weekly radio show City Rhythms.
Several early punk musicians came from rough working-class neighborhoods of NYC. Like Jewish mobsters and criminals, such as those of Murder, Inc., who once operated on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn, punks brought with them an aggressive, in-your-face street look, and attitude, often adopting the tough-guy greased-back hair and leather jackets of 1960s Italian, Jewish, and Latino gangs (Alan Vega would often wear a large bike chain as protection).
Early salsa, hip-hop, and punk fought against mainstream corporate control of culture. Rap and hip-hop artists were often sued for violations of copyright; salsa musicians were accused of stealing Son and other Latin rhythms that had become very commercially prominent in the US music industry; and punks made a point of spitting on the corporate idea that musicians had to be professional (or even know how to play); most never fit in with the major music studios.
The NYC music genres assaulted the consumer complacency of the mainstream music industry. Many early rap acts, like Public Enemy, continued the radical tradition of African American public speakers, political agitators, and revolutionary writers such as Malcom X, the Black Panthers, the Last Poets (who grew out of a writing workshop established in East Harlem in 1967), and Gil Scott-Heron.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many radical Latino poets and writers had made NYC their hometown. José Martí, the great romantic poet and Cuban freedom fighter, lived in NYC for most of his adult life, as did Daniel Santos, the Puerto Rican singer, anti-imperialist, and independista, and their words were scripture for young musicians in the city. The Nuyorican Café was founded on the Lower East Side in 1973 by, among others, the filmmaker and writer Miguel Piñero (Short Eyes) and the poet Pedro Pietri, and became a center for Latino theater and poetry slams.
Gentrification Leaves Its Mark
As the 1970s gave way to the ’80s and the US economy rebounded from recession, higher-end real estate development began to penetrate deep into the old immigrant and African American neighborhoods of NYC. The historic border of 14th Street was breached, and the Lower East Side was rapidly gentrified by transplants. Skyrocketing rents made it almost impossible for musicians and artists to live there anymore, and global tourists flooded into the formerly mean streets of the neighborhood.
Just as the revolutionary rhetoric and rhythms of salsa duro gave way to the syrupy sweet commercial sounds of salsa romántica or salsa de alcoba (bedroom salsa), and ghetto-conscious rap morphed into hippie hip-hop or commercial “gangsta” music, the original punk movement became overshadowed by the quirky sounds and commercial success of New Wave music.
Bands like the Talking Heads, the Cars, and Devo, as well as English recording artists Elvis Costello and the Police, had shared the stage in CBGB in the mid-’70s with early NYC punk bands. New Wave music, however, had little to do with the rough, noisy, aggressive sounds of punk, and almost nothing to do with downtown NYC. Unlike jazz, funk, disco, rap, salsa, or punk, the New Wave scene was created mostly by middle- to upper-class white musicians from the suburbs, Middle America, or Europe who came to New York City after graduating from private art colleges that had prepared them to work in the culture industry. Many New Wave musicians went on to enjoy international success with corporate record labels that most of the antisocial, drug-abusing, working-class punk bands never managed to achieve.
Music provides the identity of many cities. Fifty years after their emergence on the streets of the city, salsa, hip-hop, and punk still represent and define NYC to much of the world. The Bowery at 2nd Street has been branded Joey Ramone Place, 205th Street in Queens is now Run DMC JMJ Way, East 110th Street and 5th Avenue is Tito Puente Way, and most recently, Ludlow and Rivington Streets is now Beastie Boys Square. Unfortunately, these are largely empty signs of a cultural heritage and working-class history that have been lost almost entirely to real estate speculation and gentrification.
Without its working-class neighborhoods to nurture it, New York City music culture has lost its roots in the streets and communities that gave it its rhythms, rhymes, attitude, and raw power. The widespread displacement of working-class Jews, Latinos, and African Americans, the immigrant and minority communities most responsible for New York’s artistic and musical identity in the late twentieth century, has severely damaged the city’s cultural ecosystem. And urban musicians must now fend for themselves in the free market of global corporate products and platforms, an increasingly soulless, cityless world where hits come and go so quickly they can barely coalesce into a new genre — let alone a tight, community-based, DIY musical counterculture.