New York is Red Hot
Back in Blighty after an all too short week in NYC. I came, I saw, I ate my own body weight in Popeye Chicken and Peanut Butter.
As this is supposed to be a music blog I usually try to steer clear of the “Today I went shopping, here’s an MP3 of the Pet Shop Boys “S.H.O.P.P.I.N.G” type posts. Sadly I haven’t listened to any new music for over a week now, so shamelessly its time for “Last Week I went to NYC, here’s an MP3 of the Pet Shop Boys “New York City Boys“
MP3: Beastie Boys – “An Open Letter to New York City” (MP3)
Amateur Night at the Apollo
Fantastic stuff, and the unexpected highlight of the trip. Wednesday’s Amateur night has been a fixture at the legendary venue since 1934, with everyone from Billie Holiday to Alicia Keys braving the raucous crowd. I spent most of the day undecided over whether to go, but an hour before the curtain raised I took a punt on it being a good night, and handed over my 24 dollars.
The atmosphere was superb with the locals out in force and a smattering of wide eyed tourists. Ray Chew and his house band started by well and truly warming up the venue. He bantered and took the mickey out of the crowd, sang, pitted the women against the men, and plucked unfortunates from the audience for a entertaining dance off. The band laid down a beat, and on Ray’s count 6 contestants had to shake their rump with as much funk as they could summon. A 12 year old girl, and a 50 year old bloke were impressive, others less so, but the winner was a granny who must have been 60+ but suddenly on the beat of a drum morphed into Beyonce. The crowd not for the last time were on their feet hollering as she… well I believe the terminology is “well and truly worked her booty”.
Next up Capone, comedian and main host of the night took over with the amateurs waiting nervously in the wings. From the off he slayed the audience, instantly putting down any hecklers with a razor sharp wit. Over the course of the evening more than a dozen amateur acts rubbed the lucky tree stump fearful of both the audience and a ruthless mocking from Capone (this is after all a venue that booed Luther Vandross off 4 times).
The performers ranged from rappers, dance troupes, pianists, diva’s, and acapella vocalists giving plenty of variety and material for the crowd and Capone to get their teeth into. At the slightest sign of weakness booing would quickly swell, sometimes countered by cheering from more appreciative parts of the crowd, while on stage the performer desperately tried to hold it together amid the noise. Should the boo’s get too loud a siren would start up and out swirled another Apollo institution “The Executioner” C.P Lacey dressed perhaps as a policeman ready to arrest, or a cleaner whirling on broom in hand ready to sweep the “rubbish” off the stage.
An unfortunate rapper who was the wrong side of 30 (maybe 40) was yanked off stage and mercilessly mocked by Capone for having his shirt open at his age, questioning exactly how old you had to be before you gave up and took a factory job. Another hapless loser had his own song reworked and reworded in a brilliant parody. The audience were probably as important as the acts, friends and family of the performers were on their feet yelling encouragement often incurring the good natured wrath of Capone. A church group were labelled as gangster Christians, while Hispanic and in particular an African family were impersonated (I’m not sure a white comedian would have gotten away with some of the voice impressions).
At the end of evening those that made it through in one piece were put before the crowd one by one, and a noise meter judged the winner according to how much noise was made for each one. I shouted myself horse for the singer who ended up third, with the winner a very lanky white lady who performed an admittedly cracking version of a Whitney tune. A massive dance troop roared on by half their church in the crowd scooped second place.
Quite simply the best 24 dollars I spent in America. If you visit get down to Harlem.
Listen to a facinating BBC 1xtra documentary on Amateur night at the Apollo here.
MP3: James Brown – “I’ll Go Crazy (Live @ The Apollo)” (MP3)
Hush Hip Hop tours
If my trip had been Tennessee rather than NYC, I’d have visited country music haunts and Dollyworld, so while in New York – birth place of hip hop it seemed only natural to explore a little bit of musical heritage. On the recommendation of a friend and fellow 30 something honkey old school hip hop anorak I took a “Legends of Hip Hop Hush tour” of Harlem. I’d wanted to do the 4 hour Saturday bus tour of the Bronx, Manhattan and Harlem, but unfortunately it finished a bit to close to the time of my flight home to risk it.
In common with the longer tour the 2 hour Harlem walk features a tour guide who was actively involved in early hip hop. Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush brothers, DJ Red Alert and the man credited with inventing Hip Hop Kool Herc are all regular guides on the tour. Its luck of the draw who you get, and so careering to the New York Museum 10 minutes late for the start of the tour I met Rahiem of Funky Four plus one, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five fame who was in the process of phoning us in as a no show.
Rahiem turned out to be a friendly, and engaging guide even if his love and first hand knowledge of hip hop was occasionally sidetracked by his equal admiration for the female form. “Damn look at that girl”, “Whooah oh my god” he’d exclaim as he watched or stopped to chat to a shapely local. You only need to look at his hilariously bootilicious Myspace friend list to see he dedicates as much time to the ladies as he does to hip hop history, but as he pleaded in his defence “I’m sorry, what can I say I’m a single man”.
The short tour is slightly handicapped by the fact that hip hop started in the Bronx, but Harlem is still home to much from 30 plus years of hip hop heritage. The tour begins in the museum and an exhibition of black fashion from the 60’s through MC Hammer to the current stars. After that we move on to a school playground where kids are playing tag football against a back drop of the Graffiti Hall of Fame, which unfortunately had been vandalised. Each year the leading lights in the graffiti world such as the Tats Krew repaint the schoolyard walls. As we meander through the streets of Harlem, Rahiem recounts tales of the early years from video shoots, Kool Herc’s 1973 groundbreaking party to explaining how early block parties were powered by tapping the street lamps. Moving up past Bill Clinton offices – jokingly referred to the first president of Black America – to Bobby’s Happy House record store, owned by Bobby Robinson of Enjoy Records. As Rahiem explained how import Bobby had been to him, showing faith and releasing his first record, unbeknownst to him a white haired Robinson appeared with shopping trolley shooing one of the tour out of his way so he could enter the shop.
Just up the road there’s Malcolm X’s mosque, and a Conway store (a bit like Primark) formally the Harlem World club, that gave birth and a name to the areas hip-hop and r&b scene. Like all musical tours, this is more than just an explanation of the particular genre, its also a history of immigration, poverty, race, and religion.
All that remained were a few cheesy hip hop posed photos with Rahiem, and he was on his way, leaving me to look forward to taking the full tour next time i’m in NYC.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “Superappin'” (MP3)
Kool G Rap & DJ Polo – “Streets Of New York (MP3)“
More than just an excuse to post my favourite Ellis Island Soundsystem remix (off their classic debut album) Ellis Island was a fascinating and surprisingly moving trip. Sailing past the Statue of Liberty its impossible not to imagine the emotions of millions of immigrants for whom it was the first sight of a new land they were to make their home. A free tour by an engaging Ranger eloquently gave an impression of what it must have been like in the grand hall where processing took place. Displays of the possessions of some of the immigrants, and recordings of some that actually made the journey made for an afternoon that should really have been a day to properly take in all there was to see.
MP3: Ellis Island Soundsystem – “Ocean Spray (Ellis Island Soundsystem remix) (MP3)“
I didn’t make it to the Dakota Building or the Strawberry Fields memorial, but on getting back I dug out this odd track from someone who scanned the radio stations on the night he was killed. An interesting listen that takes me back to when as a child I went through to my parents bedroom to find my mum in floods of tears at the news.
Matson Jones – “New York City Fuck Off (MP3)”
Failed to see a single gig while I was there despite New York hosting the CMJ Music festival all week. Those kind people at Apple did however give me a card for 100 free downloads of CMJ artists. Now if only I could work out how to get a US itunes account?!?!