When it comes to music, no scene was as vibrant and diverse as New York City in the early 80s. The first half of the decade saw the evolution of punk to New Wave, the development of hip-hop and further experimentation within the salsa and jazz scenes, creating new fusion music. All this during a time in which the art scene was in full swing ready to exploit whatever was new and innovative. While all the various scenes mentioned have been discussed countless times individually, it is rare that they are presented in a way showing how they were all but one component of a larger artistic scene in New York.
The newest exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York sets out to tell the whole story of this short-lived era. New York, New Music: 1980 – 1986 presents the city as a hotbed of creativity whose influence would reach beyond city limits and affect the world in culture, art and fashion. The collection compiled by the museum is not only thorough, but incredibly vibrant and eclectic which perfectly conveys the scene.
Entering the exhibit, you are first greeted by a vast display of flyers, newspaper clippings and photographs documenting the punk scene. After its emergence in the 70s through bands such as the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads, the punk movement reached new cities throughout the nation and across the Atlantic. Bands such as Bad Brains from Washington D.C. and The Misfits from New Jersey would all make stops in New York City to cement their legitimacy as authentic punks.
Out of the punk scene grew the more commercialized and palatable New Wave which proved to be much more radio friendly. New Wave would extend far out of New York through the new medium called the Music Video and its primary source of dissemination, MTV. Based in New York, MTV was able to make superstars of Blondie and Talking Heads who outgrew the punk scene and had the term New Wave thrust upon them.
The lack of grit in New Wave would lead to the formation of No Wave. Often ignored in mainstream discussion of punk, the No Wave scene introduced Sonic Youth who become pivotal in the development of alternative music in the 90s. Other bands include Suicide, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks (featuring the poet Lydia Lunch), the Bush Tetras and the Swans. Their inclusion in the punk portion of the exhibit was refreshing since their influence on keeping punk true to its roots cannot be overstated.
Recreated in the museum is a typical American middle class living room. You can sit on a couch and watch an 80s era television set playing music videos and interviews with musicians from the MTV archives on loop. It is amazing to realize since MTV is now more associated with endless marathons of reality shows like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom, that the experience of watching non-stop music on the channel can only exist in a museum setting.
The early years of hip-hop is well represented in the New York, New Music exhibit. Originating out of city parks and house parties, hip-hop was an authentic street art form before it became part of the mainstream music scene today. Those early days are recreated through a collection of records and party flyers alongside photographs of the early hip-hop crews including DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, The Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, Jam Master Jay and Run-DMC. The rawness of this scene is in stark contrast to the overhyped and overproduced rap artists of today living in mansions.
The key component of the New York music scene in the 80s was fusion. Rather than staying segregated from each other, hip-hop and punk would often merge in these early years. The first rap song on MTV was “Rapture” by Blondie with Deborah Harry giving a shout-out to Fab Five Freddy. A band like the Beastie Boys would play a punk set at one show and then do a rap set at another. Hip-hop DJs would spin at clubs such as Danceteria and the Mudd Club to mixed audiences. Run-DMC famously rapped over hard rock albums. On display are posters advertising shows at clubs which help illustrate how incredibly diverse the band line-up at an average night was.
An act such as Kid Creole and the Coconuts perfectly embodies the fusion common in the scene. Of mixed Hispanic and Italian heritage, Kid Creole was a performer who wore a zoot suit and sang a mix of big band, Latin and disco music. All the while he was backed by a trio of singers dressed as jungle girls in leopard print bikinis, he dubbed the Coconuts. Kid Creole’s zoot suit, fedora and leather shoes are now displayed in all its glory at the Museum of the City of New York.
Fusion was most definitely evident in the salsa and jazz scenes in New York. Miles Davis experimented with fusion to great artistic heights before it became watered down by later musicians into smooth jazz. Tito Puente helped add jazz to the mix of influences with the salsa scene. John Zorn would take all music genres in consideration when composing his jazz masterpieces. Salsa and jazz’s place in the New York scene is often ignored in other discussions of the era in favor of the more youthful hip-hop and punk genres, so their inclusion here was pleasant surprise and much needed.
There was even a fusion between the music and art scenes. The art world began to take notice of graffiti and invited street artists to display their work on gallery walls. This is where Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring rose to prominence. As graffiti artists entered the art world, their musical comrades would follow. Graffiti is one of the Four Elements of Hip Hop alongside break dancing, rapping and DJing. Gallery owners would soon throw parties where upper class members of the art world mingled with up-and-coming rappers.
The Museum of the City of New York does a fine job telling the complete story of the scene which involves some not so pleasant facts. MTV’s reluctance in promoting Black artists during the early years of the network is not ignored. The devastating effects the introduction of crack into the urban landscape is examined. The exhibit explains that much of the artistic community New York felt the awful results of the AIDS epidemic. The fatal blow to the scene was perhaps the economic and political polices that led to gentrification pushing out the artist who made New York home. All this is in important context in understanding why this scene basically only lasted six years.
One name that must mentioned when discussing the New York music scene in the 80s is Madonna. Before she become the Queen of Pop, she was a transplant from Detroit. Working hard at the clubs Madonna was able to rise and change the pop music landscape. Her shocking performance at the first MTV Video Music Awards is projected on a screen. While in some ways tame by today’s standards, her raw sexuality and stage presence can still be felt.
Of the various things displayed at the museum, the best artifact in the exhibit is the music itself. Disposable headphones are available to jack into numerous parts of the exhibit to listen to live performances, music videos and interviews. Warning, this exhibit is popular and therefore it may be hard to get a hold of headphones. It is advised you bring your own. That way you can blissfully listen and be transported back to a time where rent was cheap, nightclubs were everywhere, and the music was great.
Get a sample of MCNY’s 80s playlist on Spotify: