Andy Royston concludes his three part Songs for New York with a look at Millennial recordings featuring this great city.
New York is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village – the visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying this way is up. EB White Here Is New York, 1949
Now you’re in New York, these streets will feel brand new, the lights will inspire you… Jay-Z 2009
My own view of New York’s evolution into the new century came from Spike Lee movies. I caught on early, thanks to an early London showing of his debut She’s Gotta Have It, which followed the live and loves of free-spirited Brooklynite Nola Darling. Lee grew up just south of the Navy Yard near Fort Green Park back when the garbage was rarely picked up and police were never around. Lee’s wonderful ability to capture the tensions in the city, the love and the hate and the fire never fails to amaze – here’s a high water mark of his abilities – Edward Norton’s foul mouthed FUNYC racist diatribe in 25th Hour, cut to a glorious NYC montage as Terence Blanchard’s heavy second line jazz fades up.
Times have changed. The area’s getting gentrified and the city is almost a theme park. The city is changing, changing, changing. You’ve got to run to keep up.
Ryan Adams – New York New York 2001
On September 11, 2001, Ryan Adams released what was expected to be his biggest hit to date. The song wasn’t new, and not one Ryan considered his best. He said “The song was about a lady. It’s a poorly written song, I think, about my supposed time in New York in my early twenties.” The video was meant as a cheap-and-cheerful tribute to the titles of the popular TV show Friends, and used most of the same vantage points.
Then, on the day that the song was released came the 9/11 attacks, and suddenly the video and the song took on a whole new meaning.
What made the song an accidental anthem was the video, which featured the skyline of New York City and the outline of the twin towers as seen from the Brooklyn side of Manhattan. The video had already been scheduled for rotation on VH1 and MTV so Ryan made sure that a graphic was placed at the video’s end, dedicating it to those who lost their lives and to “those who worked to save them”. Profits from the video were donated to a September 11 charity.
It was only a matter of time before Bruce Springsteen would release his own tribute 9/11. The record came out six weeks after the first anniversary of the attacks, and was seen as a major return to form by a rock legend. Critics soon noticed that the album made regular use of the words rise, or rising, giving the work a theme of resurrection.
I’d read in the paper, some of the people coming down talked about the emergency workers were ascending. And you know – that image to me was just what I felt – the idea of those guys going up the stairs, up the stairs, ascending, ascending… Bruce Springsteen
In The Rising the firefighter racing up those stairs takes on historical and religious resonance, with biblical references and a post-death visionary point of view. “There’s spirits above and behind me…” The song also calls for community and solidarity, ultimately giving hope and courage to all kinds of suffering.
Beastie Boys – Open Letter to NYC 2005
From an album dedicated to New York City, The Five Boroughs, this shows a political side of the Beasties, addressing the September 11 attacks and other moments in the city’s history like the famous blackouts of 77 and 03. This was the music that saw the Beastie Boys given respect as hip hop innovators.
The Onion’s AV Club said that “with The 5 Boroughs Beastie boys discover a musical entry way to an earlier more innocent era, affording listeners the exuberance of youth together with the hard-won wisdom that can only come with experience.” Matt Cruz of Drowned In Sound was less impressed “Kind of like punk rock candy floss…” Adrock went explained the change of pace to New York Magazine “At the time [of 5 Boroughs], our usual stupid shit wasn’t that funny.”
The verses are some of the best rapping that the group’s ever done, channeling specific locations and elements of the city that, even if listeners haven’t stepped foot in the Big Apple, hometown pride can be easily emoted. Chaz Kangas, Village Voice.
Green Lantern – NY State of Mind Mixtape
The Beastie Boys helped launch one of the finest mixtapes of the day – a semi-official venture that paired classic Beasties tracks to the new stuff. Green Lantern was Eminem’s official DJ and sparked off the memorable feud between Eminem and Ja Rule. The green remixes were about the best things you could hear in the mid noughts.
Wyclef Jean – Lavi New York 2004
Haitians love, in some sense, beyond comprehension. If there were a group who could walk with angels, then Haitians would be it. Haitians are affectionate and docile people, living with a constant hope for a better tomorrow. We know only peace, we only know love, and ye, in a way, our humanity has been abused by the worst of our nature residing for ever more in our leaders. Wyclef Jean – Haiti
Jean emigrated to New York at the age of nine, part of a second wave of Haitian immigrants looking to escape the increasingly difficult life under ‘President For Life’ Baby Doc Duvalier. 60,000 Haitians landed in South Florida between 1977 and 1981, many settling in La Petite Haïti, Lemon City, Miami.
Until then Brooklyn was at the center of Haitian America, and this is where his family stayed in the early days before moving to Newark, New Jersey. Wyclef Jean addresses the refugee experience in the United States on his album Welcome To Haiti: Creole 101. It is a traditional Haitian pop album, with hints of reggaeton, ragga, soca, salsa, zouk and Haitian compas and rap styles. Its content is serious but the delivery is great fun – a good bridge from Haiti to America.
Lavi New York speaks of creating ‘diamonds from the dust’, hard times getting beaten up in public school and the realities of life growing up Haitian in urban America. Translating from the Kreyol: “However much you tried you couldn’t uproot us, Better learn to respect us Haitians!”
Jeffrey Lewis – Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror 2005
Freak folk icon Jeffrey Lewis is channelling Jonathan Richman on this fast and loose stream-of-consciousness mumble on the L Train. It’s not often a You Tube comment sums things up so well, but Ms Missy Melbourne says it all with “Like a Suzanne Vega song with laughs and more words sung by Owen Wilson”. Er, yes!
It’s an indie Alice’s Restaurant – a song that starts out as a bit of a hipster joke but somehow turns itself around to something hypnotic and profound.
The song moves away from easy sarcasm and becomes a long and affecting rumination on the worth of art. What it means to be an artist. Why so many of us even bother trying when the returns are so slight. It is heartfelt and honest and self-doubting and, yes, funny. But, most importantly, it is so much more than what it appears. Matthew Fiander, Pop Matters.
Charles Hamilton – Brooklyn Girls 2008
Harlem MC and producer Charles Hamilton (aka Sonic The Hedgehog) hit big with Brooklyn Girls when he was barely out of his teens, after a series of knock out mix tapes got him a deal with Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records. A series of gaffs, misunderstandings and death-by-internet videos put him back on the fringes, but Brooklyn Girls comes from that early burst of creativity and still feels fresh.
Gil Scott Heron – New York Is Killing Me 2010
I witnessed the power of Gil Scott Heron way back, when a whole audience simply refused to leave a show in Sheffield until he’d done one more poem. The lights were up, the PA was half out of the door, yet the vibe remained. Gil came out and recited ‘Whitey on the Moon‘ acapella, just like the old days when his work was described as “a proto-rap assault spit out like steam bursting from the strained seams of life.”
New York is Killing Me is different. It (and the album it emerged from) should be filed alongside Johnny Cash’s Hurt as one of the great final statements. It is a portrait of the darker side of New York, and how the city become oppressive to the old and the infirm. Surrounded by the throbbing sounds and electronic beats of modern inner city music – a kind of post-modern blues – his soul shines through.
Sara Bareilles – Manhattan 2013
I know I should be including NY pop hits such as Jennifer Lopez’s Jenny From The Block and Taylor Swift’s Welcome to New York in here, but musical aspartame and sucralose are SO over. This song is as close as I get to mainstream, with Cali girl Sara writing a beautiful New York break up song – “You can have Manhattan/’Cause I can’t have you,” she croons on this tingly piano ballad.
Elbow – New York Morning 2014
One of England’s preeminent post-millenial musicians, Guy Garvey has always made eloquent musical observations, and New York Morning is one of his finest. His recent split from his long term girlfriend saw him relocate to the anonymity of New York
Approaching 40 and re-evaluating your long-term plans, it was great to have somewhere, and to be in the financial situation where I could just fuck off…
It never solves any long-term problems to geographically run away from sadness, but it’s definitely a help to have a sticking-plaster in that wonderful, vibrant, crazy city. I’ve always written love songs to Manchester, but it’s the first time I’ve written a love song to another city. Guy Garvey
Garvey chose to hang out with the bohemian set in Brooklyn, able to make friends on the basis of personality (not stardom) for the first time in ten years. To Garvey “Everybody owns the Great Idea, and it feels like there’s a big one round the corner” – a beautifully optimistic view of New York’s shared community.
Foo Fighters – I Am A River 2014
As part of their 2014 album Sonic Highways Dave Grohl interviewed musicians, recording engineers, record producers, and other individuals from eight different cities, discussing each city’s musical history, which inspired lyrics for the album.
Grohl’s connection with the city are not strong, being limited to his activities as a musician, but his choice of the independently run The Magic Shop studio in Soho was inspired. Steve Rosenthal, an Atlantic Records grad, has been running this boutique studio for over 25 years – from a time when MIDI, synths and samplers ruled the roost. Lou Reed recorded Magic and Loss there, and other New York classics like Sonic Youth’s Dirty and Susan Vega’s 99.9F were created in this basement studio, just blocks from the World Trade Center.
“This song is mostly about that, this river that runs underground through the city. I thought it was a beautiful idea that there’s something natural and prehistoric that runs underneath something as monolithic and futuristic as New York City. And maybe we’re all connected by something like that.” Dave Grohl, interview, Rolling Stone Magazine
Jay Z featuring Alicia Keys – Empire State of Mind 2009
Hands down the finest song out of New York in half a century, Jay Z chronicles his journey from the Mercy Houses projects in Brooklyn all the way to celebrity and business success. Jay captures the whole thing – celebrating the city “where dreams are made of” with a chest-beating “new Sinatra” braggadocio for whom “since I made it here I’ll make it anywhere”. There’s a real sense of the New Yorker’s confidence in this song. Just by virtue of being NYC he’s invincible and indestructible.
The song portays the modern New York, with all its noise, its trash talk, its ego and its eccentricities it has a hunger that just pushes on through. As Bruce Springsteen showed at the beginning of the millennium the city has a redemptive quality. There’s simply no stopping it.
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