When authors and journalists talk about the sound of New York City, they’re usually referencing current bands with un-Googleable names, or an over-romanticized era most humans are tired of hearing about. No one would dare define NYC by its two longest standing music cultures: Rap and hardcore punk. That’s way too bold and far less profitable. Why would you champion actual New Yorkers and go against the efforts to make Manhattan a tourist friendly Billboard?
In his latest book, NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990, published by Bazillion Points, author Tony Rettman has done what a punk should do: Say ‘fuck you’ to what’s cool and tell you the real deal. Rettman has compiled a ten-year oral history of NYHC — told by mostly New Yorkers and Tri-State transplants — many who still actually live here and were influencers before it was an overused marketing term.
Rettman will be celebrating the release of his work tonight at powerHouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn, complete with a panel featuring some NYHC luminaries. We asked him some questions about this resilient culture, that grinded out urban hymns at CBGB and New York venues and still do, long after the ‘77 punk’s leather jackets stopped fitting their middle aged-plus bodies.
With all folklore associated with NYHC, how difficult was it to know what was real and what was fiction?
Tony Rettman: I trusted my gut most of the time. I did my best to avoid the typical stories people associate with NYHC. A story about someone beating someone to death with their own shoes might be a lie and I really wouldn’t know it. Someone telling me M.O.I. kicked ass live was something I would believe to be true.
’77 CBGB or whatever, pick a romantic music scene in New York, but NYHC covers a full decade. It’s certainly NYC’s longest standing actual scene, is hardcore the real voice of the city?
I believe it’s the voice of the true New Yorker. People like Richard Hell and Patti Smith moved here to “find” themselves and become poets or whatever the fuck. The majority of people who started NYHC bands were from the boroughs or had roots uptown and downtown. They didn’t schlep here from somewhere else.
When a venue is shut down or priced out now, we get weepy online obits and outrage, how has NYHC survived all the closings etc for two decades?
I think Hardcore has always been a resilient culture no matter what place on earth it exists. From the beginning, there were shows in VFW Halls, basements, church basements, etc. You worked with what you could and when you have that attitude, you persevere. NY’s Hardcore scene started in the back room of an after hours club, so there you go right there!
NYHC survied so long and documents so many eras of New York, yet it happened without a “flagship label.” Why do you think there never was a Dischord type label for the city and its bands?
No one from that early NYHC scene was living at home like the people who started Dischord or X-Claim. No one could put aside money from gigs for recording time, etc. Also, I think most people involved would rather have enough money for another six pack then ‘document’ their ‘scene’. When you really think about it, we’re lucky any of those crucial early NYHC 7”s’ (Heart Attack, The Mob, Urban Waste, Antidote, The Abused, etc.) even fucking existed. The flagship label thing for NY had to wait until the later part of the 80’s when labels like Rock Hotel, Revelation and Blackout came around.
You’re obviously a witness and student of NYHC, but what did you find the most surprising in conducting all your interviews?
Certain people wanted to warn me about how difficult some were going to be. But the people who I was ‘warned’ about were the nicest people to interview and easiest to deal with. Funny enough, the people who wanted to warn me about those people in the first place were the ones who were the biggest pains in the dick to deal with. Go figure.
Five NYHC records that go into the Library of Congress and why?
Bad Brains, ROIR Cassette
To quote the ever quotable quote machine Paul Bearer: ‘I don’t give a shit what the fuck Ian MacKaye or all these other jerk-offs say: The Bad Brains wouldn’t have been shit if they didn’t move to New York. No one would know who the fuck they were if they stayed in D.C. They would have been fuckin’ unknown. That’s the fuckin’ truth’
Nihilistics, Nihilistics LP
I really think this group of Long Island fuck-ups don’t get the recognition they deserve in regards to laying the groundwork for what people perceive as NYHC. A realistic outlook on the world with a brutal delivery that’ll knock your dick in the dirt.
Agnostic Front, Victim in Pain
When you’re talking straight up unrelenting sonic catharsis, this is up there with Sonny Sharrock’s Monkey-Pockie-Boo, John Coltrane’s Ascension,’ and the Void side of the Faith/Void Split LP. Anyone who doesn’t agree can go choke themselves with their own ascot.
Cro-Mags, Age of Quarrel Demo
In my tiny universe, this totally surpasses the Rock Hotel LP. The compression of the sound and the speeding up of the tape is like a cinder block to the face. You wanna cliché? Ok…how about ‘GAME CHANGER’
Youth of Today, We’re Not In This Alone
I guess the eternal debate is whether or not YOT was an authentic NYHC band. You can debate it ‘til your nuts turn blue. While you’re doing that, I’ll be listening to this and getting the same goosebumps I got from it when I was 16.
Abrasiveness aside, why do you think NYHC was never viewed as the next big thing and didn’t get commodified?
Chris T from the Nihilistics had a good point when I interviewed him. Most of the people associated with this scene came from blue collar or lower middle class families. If he had come home to his car mechanic father and said ‘Dad, my band just pressed up 300 records and we want to get in a van and go to California to promote it’ his dad would have responded ‘The hell you are! You’re getting a job at the post office with a pension!’ Whereas, kids from other parts of the country were coming from well-off parents where they wanted their offspring to ‘express themselves’ before going off into the real world.
In the 90’s, it seemed like Sick of it All, Madball, Agnostic Front etc really took it in the direction with their relentless touring. That’s when it bubbled outside of the people who knew about it.
Why does NYHC keep going on?
I think it’ll always be relevant because it goes beyond being just a scene. People grew up in this. Even if they step out and come back in, it’s still part of their lives. You have bands like Sheer Terror and Sick of it All still putting out kick ass records. You have new bands like Brain Slug, In School and Backtrack coming in delivering potent shit too. That cycle of old blood and new blood mixing together will make it go on forever.
NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980-1990 will be having its official book launch tonight at powerHouse Arena in Dumbo, Brooklyn at 6PM