New York 1980s music was eclectic. The underground scene drove the continued evolution of hip-hop, the creation of garage house, no wave, electro and everything in between.
We share the story behind this unique time and place in music's history and rediscover the artistes that embraced experimentation while defying expectations.
1980S NEW YORK: A DIY CULTURAL SHIFT IN NIGHTLIFE
National Museum of African American History and Culture. Credit: MIke Von/Unsplash
By the early 1980s, New York City's subway had a higher crime rate than any other transit system. With a general feeling "that the war on subway crime was failing", those who could afford to, swapped city living for crime-free suburban sanctuaries.
In turn, New York rents plummeted, making it more affordable for artistes, musicians, DJs and bohemians to live in the city. The influx of younger and less economically privileged people resulted in a DIY cultural shift, partly expressed via the nightlife.
As uptown NYC's Studio 54 hosted a who's who of celebrities with enough excess cash for a hedonistic time ordinary people could only dream of, something rebellious bubbled underground.
The people who appeared to be “making do” were actually making something new from the old and affordable.
The nightlife of 1980s downtown New York transcended the bloated glamour amassed uptown throughout the previous decade.
While uptown was for the rich and famous, downtown NYC was a melting pot of creative disciplines, hosting multiple subcultures in one place.
THE MUDD CLUB
Like Studio 54, Downtown NYC's Mudd Club had a strict door policy. But in place of "uptown chic", Mudd Club-ers were required to represent "poor chic".
The Mudd Club said no to pretence and yes to a new wave of artistes, intellectuals, musicians and other creatives with a DIY approach to culture.
The Mudd Club itself was the perfect home for the experimentally minded. Not only was it the first venue to function as both nightclub and art gallery, but the musical genres played were manifold: new wave, punk, disco, jazz, hip-hop and subsequently no wave, noise rock and electro, all under one rough.
Meanwhile, in the SoHo neighbourhood, Paradise Garage became the birthplace of "New York house" or "garage house" music.
Unlike the Mudd Club, admission was for members and guests only. Still, like the Mudd Club, they avoided the pomp and circumstance of Studio 54.
The no-frills approach favoured sweatpants and sneakers over glamour: "Nobody dressed [up] to go out dancing. We would go in shorts, T-shirts, sneakers."
And like the Mudd Club, many records were played from across genres, not just house or disco. The only condition was that the music was danceable.
THE BRONX: DJ HOUSE PARTY SCENE
Throughout the 1970s, hip-hop luminaries like DJ Kool Herc hosted house parties. Like downtown NYC's nightlife, they represented the underrepresented.
Another far cry away from Studio 54, the parties provided an outlet for impoverished youths and kept them away from gang culture.
The events laid the foundations for hip-hop subculture, and as their popularity increased, they moved outdoors into public parks. And by the early 80s, hip-hop subculture was also represented downtown, at venues like the Mudd Club and Paradise Garage.
1980S NEW YORK HIP-HOP: OLD SCHOOL, NEW SCHOOL, GOLDEN
The presence of 1980’s hip-hop in New York drove three significant shifts in the genre.
The decade continued the hip-hop party scene of the 70s, with DJs sampling funk and disco tracks. Then as the 80s progressed, the hip-hop-electro infusion continued to push the old school to new heights.
By 1983 hip-hop was becoming more abrasive while featuring innovative DJ-ing techniques and rock samples: new school hip-hop had arrived. Meet the New York artistes who took the genre from old to new.
Grandmaster Flash. Credit: Krists Luhaers/Wikimedia Commons
Grandmaster Flash was a crucial component in the evolution of 1980s New York hip-hop, specifically the DJing element. As a teenager growing up in 70s NYC, he was involved in the burgeoning DJ-party scene.
Taking influence from underground legends like "father of hip-hop" Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flowers, Flash too became an innovator.
Modern DJs have him to thank for the backspin technique, punch phrasing and perfecting scratching.
"The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel" (1981) was a highly influential live DJ mix composed entirely of samples. The track featured samples from fellow New York 80s music contemporaries Blondie, The Furious Five and The Sugarhill Gang.
Meanwhile, 1982's "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five played a pivotal role in conscious rap's origin story and is one of the earliest examples of this hip-hop subgenre.
Sha-Rock "Mother of the Mic" started as a Bronx-based emcee in the late 1970s and early 80s and is cited as the first female rapper.
She was part of the hip-hop group Funky 4 + 1, the first from the subculture to perform live on national television, have a female MC (Sha-Rock) and earn a record deal.
Sha-Rock's rapping influenced DMC (from Run-DMC), who later made her "echo chamber" style famous. Funky 4 + 1's "That's The Joint" (1980) was later sampled by other NYC hip-hop groups like De La Soul and Beastie Boys.
Afrika Bambaataa, Credit: Mika Väisänen/Wikimedia Commons
Afrika Bambaataa was one of the main hosts and DJs on the NYC house party scene and was vital in hip-hop's evolution throughout the late 1970s and 80s.
After being invited to play downtown's Mudd Club by Fab Five Freddy, Bambaataa gained more notoriety. His sets garnered crowds so big that he had to move to larger venues.
Inspired by Kraftwerk, Bambaataa's 1982 track "Planet Rock" was one of the first to introduce electro into hip-hop. An electro-hip-hop fused subgenre "electro-boogie" emerged as a result.
That same year Bambaataa and his entourage staged the first hip-hop tour, taking the genre outside of the US and onto the world stage.
Bambaataa also formed the Universal Zulu Nation, which uses hip-hop culture to sway teens from joining gangs. However, he later stepped away from the Zulus due to allegations of child sexual assault.
Like Bambaataa, sci-fi-inspired hip-hop group Warp 9 were pioneers of electro hip-hop music in 1980s New York.
Warp 9's first single, "Nunk" (1982), was used in an ad by radio station WKTU to showcase their focus on New York City's flourishing hip-hop scene. The track features what would become signature motifs of electro, the Roland TR-808 drum machine and the Casio keyboard.
The success of "Nunk" in NYC garnered the band a global record deal.
RAMMELLZEE AND K-ROB
Rammellzee and K-Rob were part of the graffiti and music scenes associated with 1980s New York hip-hop.
Their 1983' slow jam' "Beat Bop", is considered one of the most collectable hip-hop records of all time.
“Beat Bop” is an example of the Downtown experimental music scene, taking motifs from bebop, funk, disco, the avant-garde and new wave. The track was also influenced by dub music, highlighted in its use of echo, reverb and instrumental space.
Run-DMC were critical in developing the new school of hip-hop that appeared in New York City throughout the 1980s. The old school (from around 1979 to 1983) came from the house party scene and usually focused on feel-good themes.
New school hip-hop was more abrasive with a street b-boy attitude and took inspiration from rock, punk and heavy metal.
Like "electro-boogie", the new school also incorporated the drum machine. Run-DMC's 1983 debut single "It's Like That" is a signature example of the new school and an early prototype of rap rock.
LL COOL J
LL Cool J at CNET Las Vegas 2012. Credit: Marc Flores/Wikimedia Commons
LL Cool J was another early innovator of new school hip-hop and one of the first artistes to break the mainstream. His first commercial success came with his 1985 debut album Radio (released by Def Jam Recordings and produced by Rick Rubin).
Radio was heavy on DJ scratching, and LL Cool J's lyrics expressed through his powerful rapping style focused on NYC street culture.
Muhammad Ali's lyrical and rhythmic boxing promos also heavily inspired his early freestyle improvisations.
"I Need A Beat" (originally released as a single in 1984 and then included on Radio) is an example of this approach.
Beastie Boys. Credit: Maddy Julien/Wikimedia Commons
Beastie Boys were another new school NYC hip-hop innovator signed to Def Jam Recordings during the 1980s. Like their label mates Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys were at the forefront of rap rock.
They released their debut album, Licensed To Ill, in 1986, and it was the first rap record to reach number one on Billboard's top 200 charts.
One of their most recognisable songs, "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)", was the fourth single released from Licensed to Ill.
Public Enemy in Hamburg, Germany (2000). Credit: Mika Väisänen/Wikimedia Commons
The 1980s New York hip-hop took the genre from old school to new school, and the next evolution came with groups like Public Enemy.
Hip-hop's golden age started in 1986 and saw the often looked down upon genre achieve previously unimaginable commercial success.
Public Enemy first gained notoriety as the opening act for the Beastie Boys during their Licensed To Ill success circa 1986.
By 1987 Public Enemy had released their debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show, and by 1988, their second album. It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back included their hit single "Don't Believe The Hype".
The song featured politically inspired lyrics and was an early example of political hip-hop. It reached number 18 on the R&B chart in the US. By 1989, Public Enemy reached number one on the same chart with their single "Fight The Power".
At the start of the next decade, Public Enemy released Fear Of A Black Planet, with the album selling a landmark two million copies in the US. Their success paved the way for hip-hop to become the most popular music genre of the 90s and dominate the Billboard charts for the next two decades.
1980S NEW YORK HOUSE MUSIC: FROM POST-DISCO TO GARAGE
In the early to mid-1980s, New York was among the few American cities to resonate with house music. Contrary to Chicago and Detroit's futurist sound, New York's "New Jersey house" or "garage house" took more obvious inspirations from R&B and soul.
These New York metropolitan area subgenres were first developed in NYC's Paradise Garage nightclub and Newark's Club Zanzibar.
They gradually became distinct from other American house music movements due to New Jersey's gospel roots.
Meet the DJs behind New York house music in the '80s.
Larry Levan was a crucial proponent in the post-disco movement that gave rise to house. For a decade, Levan was the resident DJ at NYC's Paradise Garage club. His sets became known as "Saturday Mass" by his cult-like followers.
Levan's 1980 remix of "Is It All Over My Face" by Loose Joints is an example of disco's early transition to post-disco, which fed into house music.
It also highlights this technology lover's experimentation with drum machines and synths.
"The Godfather of House Music", Frankie Knuckles was more associated with the Chicago scene. But he was born and raised in The Bronx and discoed in the Big Apple before relocating.
Knuckles began his DJ-ing career in NYC clubs like The Continental Baths, where he spun R&B, disco and soul records – genres that directly inspired the evolution of house.
Frankie Knuckles' 1983 remix of "Let No Man Put Asunder" by First Choice includes the acapella and gospel elements that became synonymous with house music.
In the mid-1980s, New York DJ Todd Terry moved away from Italo disco and hip-hop to focus on house music. His approach included "breaks" inspired by hip-hop to produce a more mainstream-friendly and energised sound.
In 1988, Terry infused Class Action's "Weekend" with new school hip-hop motifs, laying the foundation of what house would become during its '90s peak.
1980S NEW YORK AND EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC
From punk to new wave, then post-punk to no wave and noise rock: 1980s New York was the place to be for experimental music.
Here's a cross-section of bands that prospered in an environment of mixed countercultures and genre-defying experimentations.
Jean-Michel Basquiat is the perfect example of the art and music crossover synonymous with 1980s New York.
Basquiat was first a street artist-come poet, heavily involved in hip-hop culture. He also frequented the Mudd Club, fraternising with artists and musicians across mediums and subcultures.
He and musician Michael Holman formed the experimental noise band, Gray, during this time. Their track "Drum Mode" was featured in Downtown 81 (which also starred Basquiat as the film's protagonist).
The film encapsulated the experimental feeling of downtown New York in the early 80s with a focus on music.
KID CREOLE AND THE COCONUTS
Kid Creole and the Coconuts intentionally defied (and continue to defy) categories and expectations.
The band takes inspiration from disco, Latin American and Caribbean music, and swing jazz: a true representative of the melting pot of 1980s NYC music. Kid Creole and the Coconuts performed "Mister Softee" in Downtown 81.
DNA was a New York-based no wave band that came up in the late 1970s. After a few line-up changes, they developed the signature Lindsay-Mori-Wright sound, making them legends of lower Manhattan's underground art crowd.
And you guessed it, as a true testament to their impact on the experimental music scene of 80s New York, the song "Blonde Redhead" was featured in Downtown 81.
FEMALE MUSIC ICONS FORGED IN 1980S NEW YORK
New York was the place, and the 80s was the era that our favourite weirdos journeyed from underground to mainstream success. Here are three of the most notable female music icons forged in 1980s NYC.
Blondie in 1977. Credit: Private Stock Records/Wikimedia Commons
During the mid to late 1970s, iconic frontwoman Debbie Harry and her band Blondie were at the forefront of new wave. With the release of Autoamerican (1980), Blondie drew from an even more diverse pool of references, adding elements of rap, disco, Europa, jazz and reggae into the mix.
Their 1981 single "Rapture" was archetypal of 80s downtown NYC. It became the first track with a rap (notably mentioning Fab Five Freddy) to reach number one on Billboard's Hot 100.
It was also the first music video with a rap to air on MTV – and featured (then) underground icons like Fab Five Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Cyndi Lauper at State Theatre (2011). Credit: Eva Rinaldi/Wikimedia Commons
It wouldn't be the 1980s without the colourful New York native and new wave icon, who earned her stripes playing in cover bands across the metropolitan area.
An almost overnight success, Cyndi Lauper's debut solo album She's So Unusual (1983) achieved four top-five hits on the Billboard Hot 100. ("Girls Just Want To Have Fun", "Time After Time", "She Bop" and "All Through The Night").
Madonna live at Rebel Heart Tour, Paris (2015). Credit: chrisweger/Wikimedia Commons
Before Madonna was officially anointed the "Queen of Pop", she moved to New York City with only US$35 to her name. She lived in an apartment in the East Village, attended the Mudd Club, briefly dated Jean-Michel Basquiat, and performed at Paradise Garage: a quintessential 1980s New York start.
The release of the lead single "Like A Virgin" (1984) from her second studio album of the same name saw her rise to superstardom. The track stayed at number one for six weeks.
In the true spirit of New York 1980s music, Madonna continued to push the boundaries and limitations of pop throughout the decade.
For more on New York's music scene, read
- Hip-Hop, A Pillar Of New York – Circa 1970s
- Jean-Michel Basquiat's Music
Cover Credit: Bhargava Marripati/Pexels
Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.