NYC in the ’80s changed music — and launched Madonna, Run-DMC and more
How did disco sound when it died? In 1980s New York, it disappeared in a melodic revolution of hip-hop beats and rock riffs that helped fuel the rise of contemporary music.
Now, a just-opened museum exhibit explores the peak years of this musical renaissance, which changed the local cultural landscape — and eventually found its way to a global stage.
“New York, New Music: 1980-1986,” on view at the Museum of the City of New York, shows visitors how it all happened — thanks to emerging genres, new collaborations and the power of television. Another factor: a slow transition out of the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, which meant that New York was still affordable.
“That allowed a lot of artists to be freely creative and not have to also worry about making music as a career — and so people could be a little more experimental,” said Sean Corcoran, 47, the exhibit’s curator. “In the end, what we see is a lot of meeting and sharing of ideas across different communities … we thought that was a very New York story.”
Those communities included uptown Manhattan and The Bronx, where hip-hop thrived. Downtown, the rock scene ruled. Soon, thanks to adventurous artists and cutting-edge NYC clubs, they started mixing.
The exhibit uses photos, video clips and more to focus on this era, highlighting 14 moments that changed music forever.
One of them — accompanied with group photos and a concert flyer — recounts Bronx hip-hop group Funky 4 + 1’s performance on “Saturday Night Live” on Valentine’s Day 1981.
Not only was it the first time hip-hop artists appeared on national television, it was also made possible by Blondie’s Debbie Harry. That evening, as the show’s host and musical guest, she ceded some of her screen time to the group, introducing them as “her friends from The Bronx,” and “among the best street rappers in the country.”
It helped propel the hip-hop genre, which originated in New York, from local block parties and clubs to a much wider audience.
“That illustrates the idea of a downtown group, a rock group, being interested in the music that was coming from uptown and The Bronx,” said Corcoran.
As a huge proponent of hip hop, Harry didn’t leave it just there. In 1977, she went to The Bronx to see the DJ Grandmaster Flash do a set. After meeting him, she reportedly told him, “I’m going to write a rap about you on my next record.” Her 1981 “Rapture” single kept that promise, which Corcoran refers to as an example of the “cross-pollination that’s happening in the studio at the time.”
“Fab Five Freddy told me everybody’s fly,” rapped Harry, “DJ spinnin’ I said, ‘My my.’ Flash is fast, Flash is cool.”
It wasn’t just hip-hop and rock defining music in the 1980s. Another underground sound — electronic, Bronx-originated “freestyle” — launched one of the world’s biggest stars.
Madonna was big in the downtown club scene, and she introduced freestyle to more ears as she rose to fame in the early ’80s. The Michigan native held her debut performance at the Danceteria club on Dec. 16, 1982 — another featured moment in the exhibit — which soon helped her become a household name.
“It speaks to the idea of this young woman coming from Detroit to New York to make it, and make it she did,” said Corcoran.
All the while, New York City artists found a friend in a new network that began spreading their distinctive sounds even farther. The exhibit’s opening comes two months before the 40th anniversary of MTV’s premiere, and acknowledges its part in catapulting emerging ’80s New York names — Madonna among them — to global fame.
Blondie’s “Rapture” was the 48th video aired on the Aug. 1, 1981, MTV launch — the first to include a rap portion. In 1984, Run-DMC, (formed in Queens three years earlier) had its “Rock Box” debuted as the network’s first hip-hop video by a hip-hop group. As an homage, the exhibit includes rare early network interviews with both Madonna and Run-DMC.
“What I want people to come away from the exhibit with is a greater sense of how important the music that was created at this time was,” said Corcoran. “This moment of the early ’80s was truly groundbreaking and had a global impact on music for the next 30 to 40 years.”
Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave., at 103rd Street; MCNY.org