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Black Metropolis: Upholding Sugar Hill’s Radical Tradition

The BUP Nationalists

Before moving to New York in late 1982 I re­ceived two prescient pieces of advice on hooking up a crib, a squat, a hovel if you lucky, here in the Scrap­ple. The first was that venerable Manhattan riff “It helps to know somebody.” The second pearl was more arcane and requires an anec­dote: an environmental-artist friend up from Atlanta says he landed on Central Park West proper (just so you know we ain’t talking about those buppy projects across 96th Street) by vibing on CPW as the only neighborhood that could house him and his wife in the manner they were accustomed to. In effect my man had mojoed his way onto CPW, and I took his lore to heart when I could finally afford to discriminate between boroughs and pull-out beds, between rent-stabilized buildings and sleeping bags on floors where friends had set out the welcome mat. But while my friend sought door­men and oft-swept streets, I put my mojo to work on squatting me down in Wash­ington Heights.

My reasoning was simple: That was where I’d found my kind of party people. We’re talking about that 25-to-35-year-­old posse of race-conscious black profes­sionals and community organizers whose politics are Pan-Afrikanist (if not just pro-black) and whose idea of culture with a capital K is Fela, Funkadelic, and later for all the black conservative bullshit. They all went to Howard, Columbia, or City College together and came up ho­meys in Harlem, the Bronx, or do-or-die Bed-Stuy. These folk work in black youth programs or the music or information economies. They sculpt their dreads according to that peculiar interface of fashion, religion, and dogma, the new black aesthetic. They learned to Latin before they learned to reggae and are au courant enough to know the difference between the Wop, the Snake, and the Pee-wee Herman.

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Washington Heights is also a Domini­can colony, with the bulk of small-busi­ness ownership split between that coun­try’s immigrants and Asians. The sound of merengue from bodegas and record shops on Broadway between 135th and 165th reduces even L.L. Cool J to a whimper along certain stretches of the Heights. My Washington Heights, though, is the 500th-block of Edgecombe Avenue, formerly known as Sugar Hill. It’s populated by a melange of race-con­scious bohemians and buppies, black working-class and middle-income fam­ilies, brownstone owners, by Americans, Jamaicans, and Dominicans. The tourist books recommend the Morris-Jumel mansion and the Sylvan Terrace compound. I recommend Town Foods, Wilson’s salmon cakes and grits, and the Amazonian overgrowth and outback rock formations that we on Edgecombe have in place of your nosy neighbors across the street.

The mojo that got me my apartment was my embrace of the milieu. The who­-ya-know was Flip. Flip and I go back to the yard at Howard, where he first dug me blowing John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on a ghetto blaster and I dug him carting a trumpet case to the School of Communications. Flip favored black berets like Diz was still bebop’s most styl­ish response to the Left Bank. Our post­graduation dream was to waltz up to Miles’s former 77th Street asylum with the Moorish architecture and become court biographers to the Prince of Darkness. Flip graduated the year after I got there and I wouldn’t see him again for seven years, but the bond had been made. Our shared passion for black music had made us cutbuddies for life.

Flip has integrated more of black cul­ture’s oppositional modes into his being than most folk can even intellectualize. We’re talking a regular churchgoer who embraces Rasta consciousness, a serious trumpet student who revels in what Har­ry Allen would call hip-hop dopidity, a Greek letter man (Alpha) with Pan-Afri­kanist politics, a career buppy with no desire to own a Mercedes-Benz, a former atomic dog who counts black lesbians among his best friends, a Black Rock Coalition cofounder and Washington Heights Area Policy Board member, a devoted family man who’d still like to be a full-time musician. Where does one Flip begin and another end? Don’t even try it: The man is a continuous loop. The only way to describe the flip side of Flip is as a Mobius strip. The Flip who empathizes with why Rastas no check fe politicians is at one with the brother who’ll tell you he feels it’s his responsibility to vote in ev­ery election because “cats like Medgar Evers got blown away so we could pull those levers, man. I’d vote on a new ordi­nance for dog catcher if they mailed me a notice. Guess it’s my southern upbringing.”

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Flip is the nouveau black culture’s ver­sion of a model citizen, a radical-bup par­agon if you will. Flip is a sales rep for a major black monthly and lives with his Jamaican wife, Patricia, a registered nurse, and her five-year-old son, Alex, from a previous marriage at 555 Edge­combe Avenue, that stately white brick plum of Sugar Hill architecture. Among former tenants the building can boast Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, and any num­ber of Cotton Club chorines. Among its present distinguished residents are Andy Kirk Sr., the swing bandleader whose orchestra launched the careers of Mary Lou Williams and Fats Navarro, and Flip’s next-door neighbor, Clarence Holte, a black pioneer on Madison Avenue who in 1952 began a 20-year career as a market­ing executive with Batten, Barton, Dur­stine & Osborn. Holte is also owner of one of the largest private collections of books about blacks in the world — a portion of which is now the Clarence L. Holte Collection of Africana housed at Kashim Ibrahim Library, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria — and an au­thor of scholarly articles on such unlikely topics as “The Black Presence in Pre­-Revolutionary Russia.”

As 555 has long been home to such race-conscious and culturally hip black professional family men, Flip is obviously about upholding the tradition. His per­sonal history begins in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born an only child into a two-parent situation. The nuclear unit moved to Harlem when baby was one and the South Bronx when he was four before settling into the Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights, a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhoods fast on its way to becoming black and Latino. They lived there until Flip’s parents divorced in 1969. He reminisces about his old neighborhood as a place where mom and dad were on a first-name basis with the winos who “looked out for you until your parents came home from work.” Flip was raised in what black folk call a Southern household, meaning “our house was more disciplined than others in the neighbor­hood and rudeness to older people was not tolerated.”

Flip’s mother worked as a receptionist for Zebra, one of the first black ad agen­cies; his father was a security guard in a juvenile home before becoming a U.S. marshal. Shortly before the divorce he moved the family back to Virginia, where he was one of the first black marshals in the state’s history. After the split Flip’s mother moved to Virginia Beach, where busing provided him his first exposure to American racism’s classic vernacular­ — “Virginia Beach was lily-white except for this one little black neighborhood where my grandparents lived. Blacks bought their own property, built their own houses, and weren’t thinking about integrating with white folks.

“There was a chain separating the black neighborhood from the white and the iro­ny was the houses on the black side were better. We were shipped off to these pre­viously all-white schools and the white cats would jack us up the wall talking about what they were going to do to coons, niggers, and jungle bunnies and the only time I’d ever seen that was in In the Heat of the Night. All I could think of was how I wished some of my boys from the Black Spades were with me.”

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Midterm Flip’s mother trekked cross­-country to the San Diego area, where he became the only black student in a La Mesa junior high school. There he experi­enced more alienation than racism, ex­cept for epithets hurled his way by surf­ers and a dark-skinned Mexican student who “taught me something about the dif­ferences between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans when he got mad once and called me a nigger.”

Flip doesn’t recall his parents talking much about race issues except when they had trouble finding housing. Flip’s moth­er moved back to Virginia Beach after a year in San Diego and married an Annap­olis realtor. This unit became, in the lit­any of Flip’s first-black-to episodes, the first black family in a formerly all-white ward, but they experienced no hostility. Things were different at Annapolis High, where forced integration and the black consciousness movement had even politi­cized Flip’s varsity basketball team, the first all-black team at the 75 per cent white school, and probably the last to paint “red, black, and green liberation flags on our white Converse sneakers.”

Flip chose Howard after visiting the campus and being overwhelmed by its progressive black cultural environment and “all these beautiful black women who were friendly and didn’t seem to have attitudes.” While he regrets not pressing himself more academically he feels he got a decent education there and, more im­portant, “stopped thinking of blackness only in terms of being a black American. I came to understand that being of Afri­can descent meant that you were part of a worldwide black community.”

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After graduation Flip found that his media arts degree didn’t mean diddly-­squat to local broadcasters. Frustrated, he took his first job in sales at Balti­more’s black newspaper, the Afro-Ameri­can. When an uncle told him IBM in New York was hiring, he landed a job on Wall Street selling office equipment. Flip de­scribes his introduction into white corpo­rate America as an awakening in terms of both assimilation and alienation. “You had to act ‘white,’ dress conservatively, and shave. I didn’t even know how to dress for the corporate setting. My uncle had to say look, this is what it is: no more pink and green shirts and wearing your handkerchief all fly out the pocket. You’re not dressing for the disco, you’re dressing for this job.” Flip lasted two years with the multinational, “and when I quit my father thought I had lost my mind giving up all that security.” Flip went to work for the aforementioned uncle, who had his own sales firm and repped a black monthly newspaper insert. For Flip the decision was partly ideological, as he felt black families should work in business together as whites always had — though another virtue of sales and advertising was that “it wasn’t monotonous, and it meant I got paid to do something I could always do well, which is talk.”

In 1984, Flip’s uncle turned the busi­ness over to him to pursue a new venture in the northwest. Shortly thereafter the company’s major client tried to replace Flip with one of its own executives, and he resigned. Soon he went to work for the monthly that employs him now. He sees his work as having political content at least to the extent that he’s “always having to justify the existence of a unique black marketplace and legitimize the buy­ing power of the black consumer.” Flip says some marketers play a numbers game to prove blacks couldn’t possibly afford their products or try to pretend their products aren’t big sellers among blacks even when research proves other­wise. This he attributes to the racist atti­tude that since blacks already buy the product why go out of your way to appeal to them? “We’re the invisible people to corporate America and they only think of us when it’s useful to them.” Flip doesn’t get into politics too deeply on the job, but every now and then does manage to get a broadside in edgewise. “I was having a tough time with this guy at one of the multinationals who kept saying he didn’t think blacks were familiar with his company. Finally I said, sure blacks know about your company and how you offed that cat down in Chile. Man, you should have seen his face turn red.”

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At 555, Flip is active in his tenants group, which prodded him to join the Washington Heights Area Policy Board “because people felt we needed English-­speaking representation on the board. It’s primarily Dominican and that communi­ty has its agenda and problems, particularly around the issue of undocumented residents.” Flip thinks of Washington Heights and Harlem as the last frontier for white developers and a kind of last stand for black/Latino New Yorkers who want to build a beneficent community and future. The owner of 555 is a black who’d like to keep the building predomi­nantly black. Flip hopes this inspires the other tenants of 555 to have greater con­cern for the upkeep and upgrading of the building.

Flip and Pat met three years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party. She spent her first 14 years in Kingston, oldest fe­male in a family of six children. Her father was a tailor in Jamaica who did farm work in Florida for several seasons before migrating to New York for piecework at a Dupont textile factory. When that plant moved, be became a cab driver. Her mother was a housewife in Jamaica, became a nurses’s aide in the States and now works as a medical secretary. Pat spent her adolescence in the Bronx, where her parents now own a home near the Westchester border, attended City College, and works at the Bronx’s Ein­stein Hospital, in the Cardiac care unit. Patricia beams levelheadedness, speaks in a lilting Jamaican lisp, and carries herself with a radiantly self-possessed el­egance that would come off haughty in a lesser Nightingale. Although she dreams of returning to the stage-acting and Afri­can dancing she had to abandon after high school, careerwise her goal is to su­pervise a public health clinic. Like Flip, she’s less interested in the corporate lad­der (hospital-administration version) than in using her job to create financial independence for her family. Her field is no less racist than any other and she laments for qualified friends who’ve pur­sued positions and suffered rejection time and again.

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Flip and Pat’s home is decorated with her antique furniture and modern Turk­ish rugs, his jazz, reggae, and Brazilian record collection, coon art ads, and (by way of the Studio Museum and the Schomburg) Romare Bearden posters and Jacob Lawrence paintings. Unlike Flip, Pat is not partial to Washington Heights or 555 as the ideal place to raise a family and looks forward to seeing changes in the neighborhood. She prefers Riverside below 125th, Convent Avenue or Hamilton Terrace. The population over in the crack district, the 150s be­tween Amsterdam and Broadway, she sees as “dangerous and devastated people with no culture and no respect for any­body else’s.” Sometimes she wishes they could be “dissected” from the area and “placed in an intensive rehabilitation center.” Her son now attends a private preschool in the Bronx. She’s investigat­ing the multiracial Barbara Taylor School on 160th Street for first grade because it stresses putting children in touch with their culture. At one point her son came home from school believing that Flip and Pat were white, that because he was darker than them he was black and there­fore bad. They realized they’d better start reinforcing his blackness. “Now if you ask him what be is, he’ll tell you he’s an African or an African-American. At his preschool he’s not taught about black he­roes, he gets his ideas about himself from cartoons and the toys he plays with and other kids at school. The school he goes to will be important in shaping his ideas about himself because he’s going to spend more of his life there than with us.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Not long ago Flip introduced me to a neighbor of his named Playthel Benjamin who had read my writ­ing on black music and was inter­ested in my reading his. I had seen him around the neighborhood, a bearish, bullheaded brother in a Stetson hat toss­ing a foam football in front of 555 with his son or taking son and daughter to the playground. In our brief first meeting Playthel delivered an abridged version of an essay about Charlie Parker, Albert Einstein, the nature of genius, and the fraudulence of abstract expressionism as an extension of “the great tradition of Western painting.” As it turns out, this is the kind of thing Playthel has spent his adult life doing for pleasure. Filling the gaps in between is one of the more varied and remarkable lives you’ll ever encoun­ter. In the course of 46 years Playthel’s been a merchant marine, a top-security combat defense officer guarding the Stra­tegic Air Command’s Arctic Circle nucle­ar bomber base, developer of the Minor­ity History Motivation Program for Opportunity Industrial Centers, a profes­sor of history at U. Mass., bandleader and percussionist for Jean Carn, publicist for Michael Spinks, and almost-promoter for the Leonard-Hagler bout derailed by Sugar’s detached retina in 1982. Present­ly Playthel is a working member of the Master Painters and Plasterers, a partner in a Brooklyn real estate management and development company, and director of education for Harlem Fightback, the action-oriented coalition of black and Latin blue collar workers known for shut­ting down construction sites where con­tractors refuse to meet affirmative action requirements. Playthel is a longtime stu­dent if not scholar of both African and Marxist-Leninist history who admits to having once been a Stalinist and a Maoist and who now describes himself as a “worker-intellectual, cosmopolite, and democratic socialist.”

Playthel’s generation of bebop-loving black activist-intellectuals (typified by people such as Paul Carter Harrison, A. B. Spellman, Larry Neal, Michael Thelwell) are the ones who brought their civil rights and black power backgrounds to the Ivy League 15 or 20 years ago. Boasting a dual interest in activism and theory, they brought scholarship to the black consciousness movement and grap­pled mightily with the conundrum of making an American socialist revolution from a black nationalist base. In contrast with Flip’s (and my) generation, they had a clear sense of continuity with the black leftists of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They didn’t limit questions of culture, identity, and politics to a close circle of friends, always considering their relationship to the black working class and later the so­-called underclass. In reflecting upon that generation’s accomplishments I always realize how much homework my contem­poraries must do to progress beyond be­ing bups with a hip sense of community and self. As admirable as it might be for the times, it’s not much of a moral or radical platform to stand on — or to fight and organize from. Playthel is a man of ideas, a family man, and a man of the people.

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This is after all someone who left the university to take up a trade because he felt himself “in danger of becoming one of these comfortably bourgeois black in­tellectuals.” So instead he’s become a comfortably bourgeois worker-cosmopo­lite. The walls of his airy five-room apartment have gold trim, but he did the painstaking work of putting it there. There is an extremely modest library dominated by black historical tomes. Af­rican masks adorn the living room and a Benin bronze sits on a Greek pedestal by the front window. On a glass coffee table there is a jade plant and a sepia portrait of Stetsoned and stogie-smoking Playthel set in an ancient braided bamboo frame. As I enter the radio is tuned to a classical station, another of Playthel’s lifelong pas­sions — “there is no Slav who loves Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto more than I or no German who derives more pleasure in Beethoven’s Appassionata.”

Out of his broad social experience, Playthel offers reminiscences about ev­erything from hanging out with Harold Cruse while he was writing The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual to the business savvy of prostitutes in Saskatchewan. An eclectic freethinker who doesn’t play fa­vorites, Playthel is as likely to proclaim his ace boon Stanley Crouch “a gifted writer and critic but a novice when it comes to political discussion” as take on leftist slavery-historian Eugene Geno­vese’s praise for the ethics of the antebellum Southern gentleman. Not long ago, Playthel had a train-station debate with Harvard’s touted black neo-con, Glenn Loury. There he harangued the rotund “pootbutt professor for his uninformed and sophomoric notions about affirma­tive action for women and blacks in the building trades. I cited three affirmative-­action cases now in court and the man hadn’t heard of any of them. Finally he said, ‘Enough, enough, how can you ex­pect me to have this information at this time of night.’ I said, ‘Sir, it’s late for me as well, and I’ve probably had a much harder day than you. Do you think I’ve been standing here preparing for this en­counter’? He turned then and literally ran, trotting, away from me.”

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Interestingly enough, Playthel’s spa­cious apartment in 555 — where he lives with his wife, June, and his twin children, Makeda and Samori — once housed Paul Robeson, a fact Playthel didn’t discover until after he’d moved in. That sort of coincidence, extraordinary to you or me, is routine for Playthel, as you realize once he begins reciting the tall tale of his life. Playthel is a natural storyteller whose primary yarns digress into secondary tales where autobiography, family histo­ry, and major historical figures and events converge. A typical Playthel anec­dote, like the story of why he dropped out of Florida A&M in 1959, begins with him getting arrested in one of the first South­ern sit-ins, dovetails into disillusionment with black academia in the face of white power, details how he joined the air force a patriotic American, became “a SAC-­trained killer,” and left a pacifist, nucle­ar-age nihilist, and black nationalist.

Following these yarns Playthel an­nounced plans to use his Arctic background to apply for a North Pole expedi­tion led by a former Playthel student who now teaches at Harvard. Case you’re shal­low in basic black history, Matthew Hen­son was the African-American member of Admiral Peary’s expedition who many believe was robbed of recognition as the true discoverer of the North Pole. Point­ing to a magazine article debunking Pea­ry, Playthel says the expedition will use dog sleds and honor Henson by planting an African-American flag on the Pole, “reclaiming the legacy stolen by this motherfucker here Peary.”

Playthel looks upon himself as “the consequence of the two major cultural traditions among black Americans, those E. Franklin Frazier [author of Black Bourgeoisie, among other milestones in black sociology] defined as the ‘colored genteel’ tradition and the ‘black peasant’ tradition.” Playthel was born in Philadel­phia, but grew up in St. Augustine, Flori­da. His father was a descendant of slaves who worked as a welder by day and a barber by night while attending Temple University, and “had two children and his own house before he was 25.” His mother was the descendant of free blacks and mulattoes. One of his maternal grandmother’s brothers owned a fleet of limousines in Harlem in the ’30s chauf­feuring rich whites, another was a pimp who “threw a cracker off a bridge in Florida, had to get out of town, came up here, dressed himself like an Indian ma­haraja with a turban and a beard, started hanging out in places like the Stork Club, and ended up pulling this millionaire white woman. He spent all her money and used to drive Duesenbergs.” Playthel is a self-educated man, a process begun with fervor while he was in the air force. There a race-conscious black officer gave him a copy of J. A. Rogers’s One Hun­dred Facts about the Negro — with Com­plete Proof. Rogers’s frequent citing of the Schomburg led Playthel to that insti­tution. In this period he also came under mentorship of Revolutionary Action Movement founder Max Stanford, Queen Mother Moore, and an entire coterie of older black Marxists who’d left the CPUSA because it abandoned its Black Belt Nation program, during ’50s re­forms. To them he owes his theoretical undergirding.

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“Here’s a pedagogy I believe a black person who is interested in becoming a critical thinker should study. They should study the regular humanities cur­riculum simultaneously with an Afrocen­tric perspective on our position in history and the world, read that simultaneously with John Hope Franklin, Benjamin Quarles, Ivan Van Sertima, Lerone Ben­nett, Walter Rodney, Franklin Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity about blacks in Gre­co-Roman civilization, and of course W.E.B. Du Bois is an absolute must. They should read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and the major thinkers of those revolu­tions that grew out of those traditions in the Third World — Nkrumah, Fanon, Ca­bral. But then we also need to read George Padmore’s Pan-Afrikanism or Communism, and various of his other 12 works, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and the works of C. L. James, the most orginal radical thinker of the 20th century in my opinion. And they should read the work of black American radical thinkers, like Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, and James Boggs’s The Ameri­can Revolution, Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, Racism & the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution & Evolution in the Twentieth Century, written with his wife, Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs is one of the most original American economic thinkers out here and that rarity among leftist thinkers, an actual worker. He was an assembly-floor worker in the automobile industry who went through the party experience. He’s writ­ing about capitalism from the perspective of a worker in one of the major modern capitalist industries. He was the first that I know among American radical thinkers to talk about the role of technology in changing the relationship between class­es, the first to talk about the conse­quences of the cybernation of the American economy, the first to talk about structural unemployment, about a class rendered obsolete by technology. He was the first to see that contrary to the classic Marxist model that saw conflict emerging between the working class and the ruling class that the major conflict was going to emerge between the employed and the unemployed.”

From his own position as a worker­-intellectual in New York’s building trades, Playthel has seen first-hand the necessity for affirmative action programs — and, he emphasizes, activist-advocacy groups like Harlem Fightback — to insure that work­ing-class blacks, Latins, and women are given equal employment opportunities. “You have these black neo-cons running around now talking this bullshit about how teenage pregnancy is the cause of our economic condition. Our economic position in this country is the result of our being denied full participation in the economic system. For you to be black and employed you have to be either an intel­lectual, a professional, or in the public sector. The black working class is up against a world of exclusion in the build­ing trades. The American worker is a highly skilled individual and that ac­counts for why so many buildings can go up in New York with so few disasters. But this doesn’t require genius. Any ordinary person, any of these young brothers out here could learn these trades. I’ve talked to Irish and Greek immigrants who came here and didn’t know any trades and got in the union. I’ve had foremen who were so illiterate they could barely fill out their paysheets who are making $40,000 a year, own stocks and bonds, and are putting children through college. Even with affir­mative action you need a Harlem Fight­back to get blacks on construction sites and people want to talk about how our young people don’t want to work.”

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Playthel told me all his adult life he’d been consumed by three questions: Where did we come from, how did we get in the mess we’re in now, and how do we get out of it? The latter is the question he expects to be grappling with, along with the rest of us, for the rest of his life. And if you got to grapple with that mutha, 555 ain’t a bad ebony tower to be holding court from. The building lost its doorman and awning a few years ago and, no, Washington Heights isn’t what it used to be — but with people like Flip, Patricia, and Playthel up here now, no one can say the modern black condition suffers in silence up on Sugar Hill. ■

Research assistance by: Crystal Weston  

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Run-D.M.C.: It’s Like This

Run-D.M.C.: It’s Like This
June 17, 1986

You can almost see her now, accepting her award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement — Sylvia Robinson, that is, president of Sugar Hill Records — thanking “all the little people who made this possible.” By which she’ll mean folks like Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel and the Funky Four Plus One and the Treacherous Three. She couldn’t have done it without them.

Robinson founded the rap industry by creating little people. As the first important rap producer, she reformulated a street phenomenon that had been booming citywide since the early ’70s; with the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979 she dictated what a rap record was. It must have been a shock for the first groups to go into the studio and emerge with a goddamn band behind their rhymes. After all, they were already neighborhood stars using turntables and microphones, building crews around DJs who became mere titular heads once the studio tape started rolling. But the lean funk of the Sugar Hill house band suddenly redefined the sound of rap music, just as the recording process redefined success. The old methods no longer cut it, anymore than being number one in the park applied as the measure of success. Overnight, rappers became dependent on producers. Sugar Hill ruled the new industry by being able to reproduce its sound. And the rappers’ formulaic boasts only made it easier for Robinson to reduce them to beneficiaries of her hit-making machine.

Following Sugar Hill’s lead, producers built machines to duplicate hit records. Left-field flukes like Schoolly-D’s “P.S.K. — What Does It Mean?”/”Gucci Time” notwithstanding, virtually all hit rap records either come out of or generate production machines. If you follow the machines — or their interlabel equivalents, sequels and ripoffs — rather than the artists, it’s easy to see why records become hits. Doug E. Fresh didn’t get a machine going after “La-Di-Da-Di,” another fluke, so Dana Dane moved in with “Nightmares” and Just-Ice with “Latoya,” both blatant imitations that the core hip hop audience embraces without reservation. Full Force and Hitman Howie Tee stamp their golden pop imprint on UTFO, the Real Roxanne, and Whistle. Mantronik’s chilled beatbox methodology produces interchangeable hits for Mantronix and Trickee Tee. Larry Smith’s electrofunk is the essence of Whodini. Rick Rubin will continue to build the Def Jam catalogue by remaking “Sucker M.C.’s” until people stop buying it. And the Roxanne saga (and to a lesser extent, the current Pee-wee craze) proves that if you have a winning formula, you can plug any rapper into it.

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Take away that formula, however, and even successful rap acts founder. The Sugar Hill roster for the most part disappeared after the label abandoned its system to copy Tommy Boy’s; that is, after Robinson answered Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” with “The Message.” For all its groundbreaking impact, the song marked the end of Sugar Hill’s machine. House drummer Keith LeBlanc had already left the label, and the rest of the rhythm section followed, to be replaced, along with the Chops horn section, by one-man-band Reggie Griffin. In turn, the Tommy Boy acts, particularly Bambaataa, faded when the label stopped using Arthur Baker and John Robie, the builders of its machine.

Run-D.M.C. are the first rappers to dominate their production system. Even when they worked with Larry Smith, Run (Joseph Simmons), D.M.C. (Daryll McDaniels), and Jam-Master Jay (Jason Mizell) always poked their heads outside the machine. They talked about how cool they were (anonymous machine fuel), but also about who they were: where they lived, why they wore those glasses, where they went to college. On their first 12-inch, “It’s Like That”/”Sucker M.C.’s,” they stripped their sound of all music, which was the producers’ handle on hip hop. With just beats and rhymes, they brought rap closer to its original state before the producers took it out of the reach of ordinary schmucks. The single demystified the recording process. A rapper needed access to another world — and a horn section — to make “That’s the Joint,” but anyone with the conviction could have made “Sucker M.C.’s.” By denying the trappings that the machine postulates as the essence of recorded rap, they vanquished the myth of the rapper as an elevated being.

Run-D.M.C.’s myth was like Rocky to everyone else’s Apollo Creed. It had to be a myth; no one could possibly be that square. But like Stallone’s (or Mellencamp’s or Springsteen’s), their myth was more relevant for its roughness, as they offered regular-Joe visions of sex appeal (“If you’re looking for a pet I’ll buy a kangaroo,” from “30 Days”); advice (“Try the school or the church,” from “It’s Like That”); integrity (“Calvin Klein’s no friend of mine/Don’t want nobody’s name on my behind,” from “Rock Box”); and glamour (“Cold chill at the party in a b-boy stance,” from “Sucker M.C.’s”). They were the first rappers to embrace the nobility of the common b-boy. As three middle-class college kids from the suburban Hollis, Queens, they romanticized the street character that other rappers rejected. Message MCs condemned the street. Boastful rhymers conquered by Cadillac. But Run-D.M.C. aligned their image with their street audience. By comparison, the Fat Boys, Whodini, L. L. Cool J, the Sugar Hill Gang, UTFO, Doug E. Fresh, and even Melle Mel all stand above or beyond or somehow apart from day-to-day b-boy life. Run-D.M.C. force you to confront them as people, not as fantasies.

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Their career has taken off from two last-minute decisions. The first was to put raps on the bonus beat to “It’s Like That,” which became “Sucker M.C.’s,” the most influential record in second-wave hip hop. The second was the move by Russell Simmons — Run’s older brother, group manager, and Def Jam cofounder — to replace a synthesizer line on “Rock Box” with heavy metal guitar. “Rock Box” tempted them with a new sound, and they took the bait. They made last year’s King of Rock, a producer’s album and a transparent attempt to cross over. Before this album, they’d equated ambition with artificiality, and the excesses on King of Rock, an album they’ve since disavowed, reaffirmed their conservatism.

On their new LP, Raising Hell (Profile), co-produced by Run and Jay with Simmons and Rubin, the group again cuts the crap. Raising Hell is their least ambitious and best record. It’s like their ’84 debut, with a few important differences. Run-D.M.C. was a reactionary aesthetic coup that Raising Hell could never be, because Raising Hell doesn’t advance a new way to make music. It simply finishes what the first album started by making the beats a little harder, a little louder. The rhythms are still mostly electronic, but they swing more like a human drummer. It’s as if, having effectively killed off Sugar Hill-style r&b-based rap, the group is now letting some r&b back in.

Raising Hell is startlingly raw. It cracks along seams, wild dynamic convulsions that are common in shows with scratch DJs, but never make it onto record; production machines traditionally replace DJ’s in the studio. Raising Hell nearly captures the sonic collisions of Run-D.M.C.’s live performance; it stutters, hesitates, and explodes with the jerky rhythm of a DJ. And the seams are the best part — anyone can make a beatbox keep time; it takes inspiration to know how and when to fuck up.

They’ve also found a new way to fuck up on their lyrics. In place of the awkward sermonizing of the debut, Run-D.M.C. hang their quasi-populist lack of ambition on deliberate dumbness. “Peter Piper” weaves a string of nursery rhymes; “It’s Tricky” is about how hard it is to make a rhyme; “My Adidas” is about sneakers; “Walk This Way” is an Aerosmith cover; “Perfection” talks about pet insects; “You Be Illin’ ” revels in someone else’s stupid behavior; and “Dumb Girl” is a cautionary view of the female libido that’s best left alone. It’s disappointing that the group has never matched the one-liners of the first album, and that Raising Hell’s best (“It’s McDaniels, not McDonald’s/These rhymes are Daryll’s, the burgers are Ronald’s”) appears twice. The exception to the stupidity is “Proud to Be Black,” the one forceful indication that Run-D.M.C. can see beyond its middle-class orthodoxy. For once their stay-in-school aphorisms won’t solve the problem, and Run-D.M.C. turn their crunch into the rebellion of a yes-man betrayed.

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You can make a lot out of the Aerosmith collaboration (their record company certainly hopes to) but the song merely echoes the album’s conservatism. It’s safer to remake “Walk This Way” than to write an original, especially after the failure of most of the guitar songs on King of Rock. Rubin suggested the collaboration after reading Chuck Eddy’s Aerosmith review in the Voice [January 7]; this anecdote for a future episode on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous illustrates why Run-D.M.C. were right to insist that rappers are just plain folks. The album’s other guitar song, the title track, is like “King of Rock” done as AC/DC instead of Spinal Tap.

Guitar tunes aside, Raising Hell isn’t a star’s vehicle. As hard as it hits, the album is workmanlike, without indulgence or flamboyance. Run-D.M.C. don’t allow themselves the latitude they had on King of Rock. No Beatles or Michael Jackson references, no reggae — just rap, like a repentant sinner returning to the fold. The only new additions to the Run-D.M.C. lexicon are established b-boy fare: the scratch dynamics, the “La-Di-Da-Di” homage in “Perfection,” the human beatbox on “Hit It Run.”

Like Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell is more a purgation than a breakthrough. But that’s what Run-D.M.C., like all good conservatives, do best. For all their success, and this album is going to sell loads, they still deny the temptations of escape and upward mobility (they sound like they’re bullshitting about their fancy cars, telling the truth about their sneakers). This is a matter for celebration and concern: the album’s triumph is that it fulfills their promise and seemingly leaves no room for improvement. How can it get any harder? Raising Hell is the pure b-boy aesthetic, without apology. Without the machine.

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Kool Keith Remains Defiantly Warped

Kool Keith is in a midtown diner reminiscing about his days walking around 42nd Street bumping funk from an oversized JVC boombox during the early ’80s. He’s supposed to promote his new album, Love & Danger (Junkadelic Music)—”It was pretty good,” he sums up while fondling a copy of the CD—but he’s happy to go off on tangents.

“Dudes would be looking at me crazy ’cause I’m not playing some early hip-hop that came out on a record from Sugar Hill,” Keith says. “I used to make cassettes of Cameo.”

Times Square has come up in conversation because of a tweet Keith sent out saying that it has been “watered down” from its vice-drenched heyday. As he slathers mustard on his turkey-and-Swiss sandwich (ordered on “the softest bread you have”), he holds court like a neighborhood old-timer who has seen the scene around him shift. He remembers the late ’70s, when he traveled down there from the Bronx to catch a movie with his father. (“Superfly or something,” is as specific as he gets.)

The “3-D action” all around him surpassed anything on the screen. Settling back in his booth, Keith describes a bustling menagerie of guys in Fila sweat suits hanging on Eighth Avenue, pinball spots and arcade parlors, and someone cruising around in a car made of fused-together parts from Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen models. The whole scene was flanked by a line of Jheri-curled pimps looking to ensnare girls who’d just arrived at the bus station, and illuminated by the glare of kung-fu-flick-touting marquees and LED-lit boomboxes that made the guys carrying them “look like they’re carrying some big spaceship.”

But the ’90s brought the big cleanup. “They started to water Times Square down,” Keith says. “The Howard Johnson’s was gone. You started to see stores close and places like Benetton getting ready to come in. You started seeing McDonald’s. You started seeing all the porno spots being moved off of Eighth Avenue to, like, the side block.” Then the kicker: “You started seeing little kids on 42nd Street. I was like, ‘Wow, little kids are not supposed to be on 42nd.'” With that, Keith decides to focus on finishing his sandwich.

When Keith talks about Times Square’s pornography stores being shoved down side streets, he could be drawing a parallel with his own brand of hip-hop. The characters that inhabit his songs, and the many personas he takes on, come across like a warped version of the strip he recalls. He has rapped about hurling a rat with mayonnaise on it at a car’s headlights and taken on the role of an inappropriate gynecologist; he appears on the cover of Love & Danger wearing a cape with a shark’s fin on his back. Keith is a product of hip-hop’s late-’80s golden era, but as that music has become increasingly tolerable to the masses, he has kept faith in his seedy and often abstract lyrics and unfashionable, warped-synth-based beats.

Keith picks up the thread as we enter a dive-ish bar a couple of blocks away. Standing in the corner with a glass of chardonnay in his hand—”Do you have wine that’s soft?” he asked the bartender when ordering—he spends a good hour explaining the how and why of rap becoming watered down. Keith’s take is based on people rapping over the same-sounding beats, in the same style, using the same slogans, and concentrating on hooks instead of verses. To demonstrate his point, he makes up a song that repeats the word “Lemonhead” 12 times as the chorus, accented by a curt verse based around the phrase “sweet juice.” It’s a to-the-bone parody, and it sounds not all that dissimilar to some of the songs that have become summer hits recently. “The people are taking it in, they are gobbling it up, then the artists make another one right after that,” he says. Then he breaks into a new song called “Peanuts.”

The way Keith explains the homogenization of rap mirrors the way parts of the city have changed over the years. Times Square is now home to big-box stores, and the most commercially successful hometown anthem of recent times, Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” sounds like it was cut for a schmaltzy tale of big-city redemption. The rappers and the record labels, he says, are equally culpable. “The artists created it, but the labels love it ’cause people get drunk, and they love those TV dinners like Swanson. It’s like Domino’s Pizza—you order 10 of those songs for Monday Night Football.” He mimes working in a pizza spot and adds, “But it’s funny, they’re cooking ’em right now—put them in the closed boxes and load ’em on the trucks.” In a world of saturated sounds, it’s reassuring to know hip-hop still has one guy who’d prefer to drive a bespoke car to pick up a turkey-and-Swiss on soft bread. The secret must be in the mustard.

Kool Keith plays solo at Brooklyn Bowl on June 14 and as part of Ultramagnetic MCs at Music Hall of Williamsburg on June 17.

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NYC’s 10 Best Bargain Seafood Restaurants, 2012

The catfish sandwich at Taste of Seafood (#10 in our countdown) is abundant, cheap, and delectable, especially smeared with tartar and jerk sauces.

For those who think omega-3 fatty acids mean longevity, fish is the new meat. For the rest of us, seafood is a just another delightful option for dinner, providing clean and briny flavors, and an elemental connection with the very sea our ancestors crawled out of.

And while we now realize that seafood is not as infinitely abundant as we once thought, leading us to concerns about sustainability, water-borne organisms are still one of the best things to eat in NYC. Relished locally since Indian times, crustaceans such as oysters, clams, and lobsters, and fish like whiting, flounder, and bluefish, remain iconic New York foods.

Here are our choices for NYC’s best bargain seafood restaurants, including cheap and mid-priced spots, but not the most expensive ones. These are places for everyday dining, often with an informal flair. Go for the fish, not the décor! We’ve only included places where seafood forms the predominant part of the menu — which leaves out, for example, most Hong Kong-style restaurants, despite some very good seafood. We’ll save those for a future list.

10. A Taste of Seafood — This long-running Harlem treasure used to be called “Servants of God — A Taste of Seafood,” but God wandered off somewhere, and now the place is located across the street from the original, with a pair of dining rooms decorated in nautical themes. The expansive menu features — in addition to uptown standards such as fried catfish and whiting, in sandwiches or with chips — shrimp with linguine, steamed lobsters and scallops, and the plumpest fried chicken wings you’ve ever seen. 59 East 125th Street, 212-831-5584

9. Uncle Nick’s — Located off the beaten path for a Greek seafood spot, Nick’s Chelsea location is the most comfortable, done in tones of buff and teal and decorated with immigrant memorabilia. The grilled octopus salad can’t be beat, and the best bargain fish here is the flounder — perfectly grilled, while most places choose to fry it. Appetizer salads in a Greek vein are lush and well-dressed. 382 Eighth Avenue, 212-609-0500

8. Mermaid Oyster Bar — Though the original Mermaid Inn in the East Village is also commendable in prices and quality, Greenwich Village’s Mermaid Oyster Bar has a special sparkle, and a collection of oyster offerings that runs to six East Coast and six West Coast per day. War of the oysters! With oyster po’boys, fish tacos, and steamed mussels, this could be your new seafood-themed drinking spot. Check for happy-hour oyster deals.79 MacDougal Street, 212-260-0100

7. Grand Central Oyster Bar — The city’s last remaining example of the lobster houses popular a century ago, and with a landmarked Gustavino interior, the sainted Oyster Bar in Grand Central is really two restaurants in one — a dining room with high-priced seafood for the swells, and an old-fashioned lunch counter and barroom for the rest of us. In those precincts (or at the actual oyster-shucking counter, if you’re lucky enough to get a seat there), you can enjoy splendid chowders and pan roasts at bargain prices, and graze the city’s longest list of raw oysters, clams, and urchins. 89 East 42nd Street, Grand Central, Lower Concourse, 212-490-6650

Sitting at the Grand Central Oyster Bar’s snaking lunch counter is sublime.

6. Devin’s Fish & Chips — This humble and long-running Sugar Hill fish shack offers some of the best and crispest fried whiting sandwiches in Harlem, but the list of seafood doesn’t stop there. They also broil and fry excellent red snappers and porgies, and steam snow-crab legs, and the french fries are of very high quality — no frozen chips here. A range of soul-food sides provide accompaniment, in a small dining room with counter-only seating decorated with historic photos of the neighborhood. 747 St. Nicholas Avenue, 212-491-5518

At Devin’s, a pair of whole fried porgies with a plethora of good french fries will set you back $9.80, including tax — enough for two!

5. Yiasou Estiatorio — Hey, this is Sheepshead Bay, so this Greek place also makes Italian baked clams. And are they ever good, better than Randazzo’s just down the bay. Don’t miss soft but ropy charred octopus tentacles dotted with capers in a red-wine vinaigrette. Sold by the pound, your charcoal-grilled selections run to branzino, royal dorado, sea bass, and red snapper, while an excellent whole fried flounder holds down the bottom end of the fish menu, price-wise. 2003 Emmons Avenue, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, 718-332-6064

4. Mary’s Fish Camp — Though nominally a Florida-themed seafood spot (conch chowder was one of the early menu signatures), the real specialty of this comfy West Village mainstay is simple seafood, pristinely prepared. On a menu that varies by season, there are often lobster rolls that put others to shame, seared scallops, flounder tacos, pickled shrimp, and other unexpected quirks from the deep presented for your delectation. Go at odd hours to avoid lines at this no-reservations establishment. 64 Charles Street, 646-486-2185

3. Littleneck — Clams have always been a Brooklyn passion — much more so than oysters — and this new informal Gowanus seafooder offers several permutations, steamed, stuffed, and raw. The clam roll achieves excellence, the beer list features local draft selections, and a chalkboard often surprises you with its seafaring specials, such as cockles and chorizo, razor clams steamed in Pernod, or a seafood choucroute. The charming dining room is decorated with — rope! 288 Third Avenue, Gowanus, Brooklyn, 718-522-1921

Razor clams steamed in Pernod at Littleneck

2. Liman — A rustic and off-price Turkish seafood spot, Liman is charmingly located on the lip of Sheepshead Bay. Whole-fish selection runs to red mullets, porgy, smelts, sea bass, St. Peter’s fish, branzino, royal dorado, and flounder, while fried oysters and an herby octopus salad hold down the crustacean part of the menu. And mezze like flute-shape sigara bureka, arugula salad, and fried cubes of liver make perfect landlubbing starters. 2710 Emmons Avenue, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, 718-769-3322

The clear night air on the edge of Sheepshead Bay is fortifying.

1. Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna — This rustic Greek restaurant turns out some of the best and cheapest seafood in town, much of it from local sources and sustainable. Varying in size from the smallest smelts to briny sardines to whole fish caught in Long Island waters and grilled, we’ve never been disappointed by a dish at Gregory’s. And the feta-dotted salads, bargain bottles of retsina, and garlic-laced scordalia are an added plus. Outdoor dining in summer, too. 26-02 23rd Avenue, Astoria, Queens, 718-777-5511

Salt-cod fritters with scordalia, the potato and garlic dip

Lovely, sustainable, and inexpensive — grilled fresh sardines

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moe.

This brainy yet well grounded improv-rock quintet had the outside-guitars-meet-Americana thing down to a fine science years before Nels Cline was a twinkle in Jeff Tweedy’s eye, which perhaps explains how Sugar Hill ended up releasing their upcoming album, What Happened to the La Las. They boast not one but three mind-bending fretsmen as well as a percussionist who doubles on the marimba.

Fri., Nov. 25, 8 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 26, 8 p.m., 2011

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Liquid Liquid Haven’t Lost Their Edge

When Liquid Liquid take the stage at Madison Square Garden April 2 as the opening act for LCD Soundsystem’s last show, they will, at some point in their set, launch into a tune featuring the Most Famous Two-Note Bassline Ever. Whereupon some percentage of the crowd will bob their heads and think it’s really cool that these older guys are covering Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines.”

Which will be ironic, because not only is “White Lines” not Grandmaster Flash’s song (it’s Melle Mel’s), but it won’t be “White Lines” at all, but rather Liquid Liquid’s own “Cavern.” The story of how “Cavern” became “White Lines” (resulting in the demise of two seminal New York labels, Sugar Hill Records and 99 Records) is one of the more fascinating tales in NYC musical history. But it’s only part of Liquid Liquid’s remarkable and still-evolving tale, with the long-dormant art-rock-punk-funk pioneers only recently emerging from hibernation to enjoy even more critical acclaim than the first time around.

Liquid Liquid’s first act virtually defined the early-’80s sound of downtown New York—that heroic era in nightlife history when you didn’t have to choose between going dancing and going to a rock show, because they were the same thing. Using a distinctive lineup of bass, marimba/percussion, drums, and vocals, the band’s sound mixed minimalist percussion, dubbed-out vocals, and punk-edged funk riffs. It reflected the cultural collision of the downtown scene, where the same crowd went to punk shows at CBGB’s, danced at discos like Paradise Garage, and stopped by the gallery openings of young graffiti artists. “There was a lot of crossover,” remembers vocalist Sal Principato. “Especially ’79, early ’80s, there was this sense of exploration and cross-pollination and experimentation, and you’re just getting all these influences from all these different directions.”

The band caught the ear of Ed Bahlman, who ran 99 Records out of his record shop at 99 MacDougal Street. Liquid Liquid quickly became something of a flagship act for the label, which also provided a home for ESG, Glenn Branca, and the Bush Tetras. “Now everybody calls us punk funk, and I guess that makes sense,” says Principato. “But I don’t know what we thought of ourselves—we thought of ourselves as a rock band, but making music to make you move by.”

The band recorded three EPs for 99; 1983’s Optimo was the last and the best. From the furious punk-samba of the title track to the snarling “Out,” this music today sounds astonishingly contemporary, a precursor to bands like the Rapture, !!!, and, not coincidentally, LCD Soundsystem themselves.

Optimo also had “Cavern,” which evolved, says bassist Richard McGuire, “like everything, out of a group jam.” Almost unfathomable in our era of corporate-controlled radio playlists and Balkanized nightlife scenes, the track, underpinned by McGuire’s minimalist-funk bassline, made Liquid Liquid favorites on black radio stations like WBLS, and got them regular gigs at discos like Paradise Garage and Danceteria. But within months of Optimo‘s release, WBLS and other stations began playing a new, almost identical track called “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” released by Bronx-based Sugar Hill Records. Credited to Melle Mel + Grandmaster (allegedly a ploy to trick record buyers into thinking it was a new Grandmaster Flash release), the record didn’t technically sample “Cavern,” instead featuring the Sugar Hill house band replaying it note-for-note, adding only Mel’s verses and the “Get higher, baby” bridge (while also turning Principato’s original “slip in and out of phenomena” vocal hook into the now-iconic hip-hop phrase “something like a phenomenon”).

Bahlman sued Sugar Hill as “White Lines,” whose writing credit listed only Melle Mel and Sugar Hill co-owner Sylvia Robinson, became a huge hit. Though he eventually won a lengthy court case and set an early precedent in the still poorly defined realm of sampling law, the results were disastrous for all involved. Sugar Hill declared bankruptcy rather than pay the ordered $600,000 settlement; faced with enormous legal costs and disillusioned with the music business, Bahlman folded 99 Records. McGuire left Liquid Liquid to pursue an art career, and the rest of the group disbanded after recording another 12-inch, Dig We Must, as a trio.

And that’s where the story would have ended, except that Duran Duran’s insipid “White Lines” cover in 1994 prodded Liquid Liquid to reissue their entire oeuvre as a joint Mo Wax/Grand Royal release in 1997. (“That’s when we realized, ‘OK, this shit isn’t going away,’ ” says Principato.) Which led to more interest in the group, triggering an on-again/off-again rebirth that first began in 2003 and has seen them play a handful of international dates, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and now, LCD Soundsystem’s MSG farewell.

It’s been a circuitous but beneficial route, as the guys now say that this extended second act—with set lists that mix reworked classics with new material—is musically their best. “The funny thing is,” says Principato, “that it seems to have taken us 30 years to really come to fully understand our own material, its strengths and vulnerabilities, and to proudly display both when we perform.”

Liquid Liquid will open for LCD Soundsystem March 28 and 29 at Terminal 5 and April 2 at Madison Square Garden