Thu April 5, 2012
Rock Hall Inductees Offer Two Takes On New York Attitude
Originally published on Fri April 6, 2012 12:01 am
A new batch of performers will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month. In the weeks leading up to the induction ceremonies, Morning Edition is visiting the cities that gave birth to the inductees. The Beastie Boys and Laura Nyro both emerged from New York — and though the artists couldn't be more different, what both have in common is a love for music from the streets.
As a girl growing up in the Bronx in the late 1950s, Laura Nyro listened to a lot of AM radio. She loved singing along with doo-wop groups like The Chantels, who also hailed from the Bronx. Felix Cavaliere, a close friend of Nyro's and lead singer of The Rascals, says the nighttime New York streets had dozens of similar groups harmonizing on corners and down in echoey subway stations.
"In those days, the norm was just to get on a street corner and sing," Cavaliere says. "The thing that you remember the most about that was the quality of the voices that were around."
Classical music and jazz joined Laura Nyro's playlist. She attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, where singer Janis Ian was a year behind her. Ian says both of their families shared roots in progressive politics.
We were surrounded by the civil-rights movement, by the women's-rights movement, by the gay-rights movement," Ian says. "All of those things were flourishing in New York."
Laura Nyro reflected them in her music. In the wake of the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Nyro wrote a gospel-tinged number calling for peace and understanding.
Nyro knew how she wanted her songs to sound, and Cavaliere says the Bronx native was tough in the studio when he produced a record for her.
"She would talk with a cigarette in her mouth dangling, like you see in the movies. If she didn't like something I said, she'd hit me," Cavaliere says. "She'd punch me in the friggin' arm like a guy: Wham!"
Cavaliere says Nyro was fond of unusual song structures and tempo changes. But the complexities of her music didn't endear Nyro to broadcasters, who pretty much dictated what a record needed to sound like if it was to get airplay. And, Cavaliere says, that's why other artists such as Blood, Sweat & Tears and The 5th Dimension had more success with her songs.
"All they did was, they took all those little nuances out. They took those things out and made them more palatable to the program directors," Cavaliere says. "Seriously, that's all they did, because her voice was fine. It was certainly good enough to be on the radio."
In 1971, after producing five albums in five years, Laura Nyro began easing off of her recording and performing schedule. She died of ovarian cancer in 1997, at the age of 49.
As Nyro's career started winding down, three Brooklyn teens were starting to make some noise with a very different kind of music. Music critic Robert Christgau says he didn't think much of The Beastie Boys at first, though he developed a fondness for them and the other New York punks.
"Hardcore is a variant of punk, which is based on the Los Angeles interpretation of British punk," Christgau says. "One of the things that I liked about the punk movement is how many of the people were really funny. You could see they were funny, even when they were being completely destructo-anarchistic."
Adam Yauch, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz were trying to develop a New York version of hardcore. But, in a 2006 interview with WHYY's Fresh Air, Yauch said another kind of music, born on the streets of the Bronx, started attracting their attention.
"We were listening to a lot of hip-hop, even when we were a punk band, back in those days," Yauch says. "Even in the small punk clubs, they used to play Sugarhill Gang and Funky Four Plus One, when it was just called rap."
Since the late '70s, rap had been filtering out of black neighborhoods and across the city. But in order for The Beastie Boys to bring their version to the stage, they needed a DJ. They found one in a New York University student named Rick Rubin, who went on to produce their first single, "She's On It."
That song added a hard-rock sound to rap rhymes — a technique Rubin had used with Queens rappers Run-D.M.C., and would continue to use on The Beastie Boys' debut album, Licensed to Ill. It was the first rap record to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, partially due to the party anthem that remains The Beastie Boys' best-known song.
"(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)" reached a frat-boy audience far beyond the streets of New York. Adam Yauch says that's a cross the group has had to bear ever since.
"It was just one of those 'Smokin' in the Boys Room'-type things," Yauch says. "You just thought it was kind of funny. I don't think we realized it was going to be the main focus of the album."
If The Beastie Boys remain a bit ambivalent about the song that launched their career, "Fight for Your Right" still can tell you a lot about the place it came from, with its sense of humor — and New York attitude.