From the Muddy Banks of the Gowanas
Is Brooklyn the New Seattle?
By Bill Reese, infrequent contributor to OfficiallyAYuppie.com
Vienna, 1780s. New Orleans, 1900s. Harlem, 1920s. Memphis, 1957. England, 1962. San Francisco, 1967. Detroit, 1968. Bronx, 1977. Athens, Georgia 1983. Compton/Long Beach, 1989. Seattle, 1991. Omaha, 2002. Montreal, 2005. Brooklyn, 2009?
This thesis asks the question of whether or not the current Brooklyn music scene is on par with the musical scene in Seattle in the early 1990s. The answer is complicated, somewhat contradictory, and surely to rile up emotions that need not be further stoked by this analysis.
In order to determine if Brooklyn is a “Seattle,” we must first describe what exactly a “Seattle” is. I have come up with several criteria that a scene must possess in order to qualify for “Seattle” status. I will also compare Brooklyn’s hipster renaissance to the other musical movements of the last century to establish a pattern of boomtowns and boomsounds.
PART ONE: Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Bushwick
The Leaders and the Pioneers
In each of the musical scenes listed above, there is at least one—and in some cases, seven or eight—artists or bands who are forever associated with the scene in which they emerge from. It can—at times—pigeonhole a group, forever associating them with other artists whose only commonality is their hometown.
It starts innocently enough. Some promising young artists begin playing shows with the same group of bands and for the same group of fans. There is typically one talent who excels above the rest, (Mozart in Vienna, Ellington in Harlem, N.W.A. in Compton) and that talent either inspires the other acts to want to be greater, or it inspires enough jealousy and resentment that their contemporaries attempt to one-up the competition.
Before long, you have a groundswell of talent. The scene begins to operate in a manner similar to a sports league. Each band competes against each other for influence, fan base, dominance, and of course, cash; while simultaneously promoting the entire scene as a whole. They work with and against one another.
It didn’t begin with Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, there were pioneers and unsung heroes of the Seattle grunge scene that allowed those groups to stand on the shoulders of giants and achieve mainstream success. A scene also needs these pioneers to provide a foundation. The foundation establishes the scene as a true culture, not just a fad. They promote the core philosophy of the genre and represent the music in its most basic and unadulterated form. Once the genre goes mainstream, the cynics will point to groups like Mother Love Bone, Tad, The Melvins, Screaming Trees, or Mudhoney as the true pioneers. This helps if the pioneers never achieve anything similar to the mainstream success of their protégés.
Eventually, one group pushes through the door to the mainstream, allowing others in the scene to sneak in—either on the merits of their music or by popular music’s tendency to latch onto a fad and promote any look-alike, sound-alike band and say “If you like X, you’re gonna love Y.”
What about Brooklyn?
So if a “Seattle” needs a Nirvana, who would the Brooklyn equivalent be? MGMT? The Hold Steady? TV on the Radio? Those three answers say a lot about the scene because all three could be argued to be the borough’s leader, yet all three are vastly different in what kind of music they make. One is synth-pop, one is bar rock, one is post-punk. Now, you could argue that Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden have big differences between in their sounds. But even if they aren’t from the same species, they are certainly from the same genus. (grungus pearjamus) Now, having multiple stars in different musical genres is not a bad thing, Los Angeles has been producing pop stars, rock bands and rappers simultaneously for two decades, but L.A. is not a “Seattle,” mostly because it’s not a place where people are “from,” it’s a place where people venture to in order to achieve fame. (We’ll touch more on this in Criteria #4).
When Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden broke into the mainstream, Nevermind was released on Geffen, Ten on Epic, Louder than Love on A&M. But one of the key components to the scene was a leading label. Sub Pop signed Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and most notably Nirvana, (and even received royalties for Nevermind after Cobain and Co. left for Geffen/DGC). There were dozens of micro and indie labels that propelled the scene, but Sub Pop has often been credited for being the one stamp that moved it to a new level. In order for a new scene to be on par with a “Seattle,” you need a label like this. There was a Sub Pop in Seattle, a Motown in Detroit, a Saddle Creek in Omaha, a Death Row in L.A., a Sun in Memphis, a Def Jam in New York, an IRS in Athens.
What about Brooklyn?
It’s hard to blame BK for this one, especially because the last decade has seen the complete disintegration of the once-mighty record industry. There used to be five major labels, now there are just two (essentially, just one). Whereas labels like Saddle Creek and Sub Pop led their respective cities and scenes, Brooklyn is the home to dozens, if not hundreds of indies and micros—and in this case—this criteria is rendered bogus. Brooklyn’s music scene does not flounder for lacking a scene-leading label, it excels because individual members of the scene have the power to build a basement studio in their Park Slope brownstone and make records that sound indistinguishable from ones made at the now-defunct Hit Factory on 54th Street in Manhattan.
1990s Seattle—more so than any of the other scenes—is synonymous with grunge. It happened there, and no place else. The city owns the genre—and if possible—would trademark it (as it has the Space Needle). So, if any scene is going to be comparable to Seattle’s grunge, the genre of music they develop must be absolutely synonymous with the town. It needs to be their chief export, like champagne from the Champagne region of France—anything called by that name not from France is just sparkling white wine. None of the other cities mentioned earlier have such synonymous correlations. Detroit in the 1960s is just as synonymous with cars and riots as it is with Motown. L.A. in the early-1990s is just as synonymous with Bloods and Crips as it is with Dre and Snoop. San Francisco in the 1960s comes close, but the culture on Haight/Ashbury in the summer of love was much bigger than just the music.
What about Brooklyn?
Brooklyn has a scene, and it’s a potent one at that. But in no way is its music synonymous with its location. It’s just been around too long—nearly 400 years—and to say that it’s synonymous with indie-hipster rock would be ignoring a significant portion of its history. Does the city’s name evoke Kyp Malone’s beard, or does it evoke visions of a stony bridge so well built that its cables never needed to be replaced? Does it evoke Technicolor memories of a Dan Deacon show at the McCarren Pool or black and white footage of Jackie Robinson slugging his way through baseball’s color barrier with courage and class? Is it home of famous actors or Nathan’s Famous? Do you think of skinny jeans or Biggie Smalls?
From the Muddy Banks
Once the scene breaks into the mainstream—or sometimes even before it breaks— there is a migration of artists to the epicenter of the burgeoning scene. This happened in the 1920s during the exodus. Jazz musicians like Louie Armstrong ended up in Chicago, later in New York. There was a big scene and big money to be made playing jazz there. There was no reason for anyone to move to Omaha in the mid 2000s, except for the fact that a label called Saddle Creek—run by a couple of friends of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst—were in the middle of a short-lived indie revolution. It happened in Seattle, just in unexpected ways. Being from Seattle allowed other bands to pile into the grunge vehicle like clowns in a circus car. The unintended consequence is that it took several years for Seattle bands to shed the stigma of Criteria #3, the synonymous nature of grunge and Seattle. It took nearly a decade for a new crop of groups, most notably Death Cab for Cutie (Bellingham, WA) and Modest Mouse (Issaquah, WA), to break through and not be known simply for being “Seattle bands.”
What about Brooklyn:
Brooklyn—and New York City as a whole by extension—is just too big, vast, complex, and old to let anything new dominate it. Big things happen here and big people come here, but that’s been happening since 1607 and we’re kind of used to it. Just like the inscription on the base of that green lady in the harbor reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” We want them all. We will lure in the highest priced free-agent centerfielder and we will lure in the most shy, misunderstood musical genius from Iowa who has the next big idea and doesn’t think he can be taken seriously anywhere else.
PART TWO: Shame on a Hipster who try to run game on a Hipster
New York was Seattle in the 1990s. It had the big-name acts. It had the label. It was synonymous with the scene—shit, it invented the scene. It started there, then spread outward.
New York’s grunge was hip-hop—the biggest musical renaissance of our time—one that has had a larger global effect than any other form of music since the birth of rock n’ roll. There is hip-hop in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Latin America, and if they had a club somewhere in Antarctica, DJ Penguin would be spinning there.
Heroes and innovators? The list runs as long as an uptown #4 train. If Seattle had Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, hip-hop in New York had Grandmaster Flash, The Sugar Hill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, RUN-DMC, and—if the author is allowed to begrudgingly extend the territory to include his birthplace of Long Island—Public Enemy, De La Soul and Eric B and Rakim, amongst others. If Seattle had Nirvana and Pearl Jam, then New York produced The Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Beastie Boys, Wu Tang Clan (and eventually the spin-offs of RZA, GZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, and most importantly Ol’ Dirty Bastard), Jay-Z, and about a dozen more.
It’s label? Def Jam started in 1984, and caught the attention of future producer-extraordinaire Rick Rubin, who was living in an NYU dorm. Rubin partnered with hip-hop godfather Russell Simmons and the duo created more than just a label that produced rap music. They created a global empire. Def Jam went national, then international, and it took hip-hop with it all the way. While Def Jam isn’t uniquely or exclusively a New York label, one of its early successes was propelling a home-grown product—Public Enemy—to notoriety and critical acclaim, especially with 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back and 1990s Fear of a Black Planet. Def Jam was eventually incorporated within the umbrellas of Polygram and Universal. It was helmed by Jay-Z during his brief “retirement” in the mid-2000s.
Hip-hop was as synonymous with the South Bronx in the late-1970s and much of the 1980s as it was with crime, graffiti, burning buildings and break dancing. Sometimes the best cultural and artistic movements are born in eras of great turmoil. It wasn’t until the early 1990s when hip-hop began to expand westward and evolve with Tupac, Snoop, Dre, N.W.A. (and its various offshoots Eazy-E, Ice Cube, etc.) in the gangsta rap movement. That still gave the five boroughs and Long Island exclusive ownership of the genre for a solid decade. It only took two years for pseudo-grunge bands to begin emanating from Los Angeles and London (::cough:: Gavin Rossdale). Unlike grunge—which was quickly accepted by throngs of young, disillusioned white kids—hip-hop was slowly co-opted into the culture, an Aerosmith duet here, a Blondie song there. It survived through Senate subcommittee hearings, “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” (a song which Professor James E. McElwaine once said “set hip-hop back 10 years.”), and the pointless blood feud that brought down icons on both East and West coasts. In contrast, grunge was pretty much dead the moment Cobain pulled the trigger on that April morning in his Seattle greenhouse.
New York didn’t need to attract rising talent to join its burgeoning hip-hop scene. That’s some Hollywood bullshit. New York no longer has the biggest rap stars, but it is still the unquestioned birthplace of the genre. It provided a home base, a headquarters where its identity could be forged, then reflected. Hip-hop moved outward, first in L.A. in the early 1990s, then in Atlanta and the south in the 2000s, and—as stated earlier—there is a hip-hop presence in just about every corner of the globe. Being from New York means nothing in hip-hop anymore, (though, count the Yankee hats in an hour of “Sucker Free Sunday” and tell me otherwise.
Brooklyn is not the new Seattle. It can’t be.
For one, New Yorkers are by no means modest. This is the city that dubbed itself “The Greatest City in the World” without conducting a thorough poll. (Though, to date, it has never failed to defend its title when challenged, be it by terrorist attack or flock of geese.) The fact that Brooklyn is a part of New York means that any scene that’s booming here will be blown out of proportion like a Mike Piazza/Sam Champion gay sex rumor.
Seattle, in contrast, is a big city, but it prides itself on being a hidden gem. The locals scare away scenesters with stories of how much rain the city gets, (though anyone from the area will tell you that Seattle does get lots of rain, but it doesn’t rain with sudden, torrential downpours every afternoon in the summer, as my beloved metropolis does.) New York simply cannot have a true underground scene because anything remotely avant-garde and experimental gets exposed before the scene has a chance to grow, causing its development to be stunted by the corroding gaze of the media spotlight. Brooklyn—and for that matter, any future music movement in The United States from now until the end of the empire—cannot be a true subterranean movement because Rolling Stone and Spin are like headphone-clad hawks, circling above the musical landscape, waiting for a young, vulnerable scene to appear, just so that they can swoop down and corrupt it.
Brooklyn’s indie scene does not have a central sound, a central leader, a central label or an overwhelming attitude besides the general attitude of elitism, pretentiousness and the idea that they are cool because they live where the cool people live. Nobody wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s, or Liverpool in the 1950s, but Nirvana and The Beatles emerged from those places and used their feelings of isolation and desertion to create their iconic sounds. Most people from Brooklyn grew up in someplace other than Brooklyn.
What’s happening is great, and you can hear that when you walk down Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg or spend a week at Bar 4 in Park Slope. What’s happening would be the perfect environment for the genesis of a true scene if we, as New Yorkers and we, as the music press, weren’t forced to write articles like this and jump the gun on these eggs before they hatch. When the next scene emerges, it’ll come out of nowhere. It’ll come from the persons we least expect. It’ll come with the force of a tornado, and it will flatten the shaky musical institutions that have served as our temporary living quarters while we wait for the new musical empire to be built.
Most importantly, I’ll know when the scene arrives. Like generations before me, I’ll hold my hands to my ears, furrow my brow, and shake my head with disgust and mutter, “What is it with you kids today and your loud music…?”
Bill Reese is an infrequent contributor to this blog and has written for Skope, Good Times, Prefix, Hello Stranger and The Purchase Independent. He is an editor with Playbill and has never been cool enough to live in Brooklyn, instead basking in the souvlaki decadence of Astoria, Queens.