The Soundtrack To Our Age of Decay

Both hip-hop and punk bloomed out of the social collapse created by the economic crisis of the 1970s. But where is the music of our twenty-first-century disaster?

Grandmaster Flash, a pioneer of hip-hop, performed in punk clubs. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

Howard Cosell never actually uttered those words. His conversation with fellow sportscaster Keith Jackson during Game 2 of the 1977 World Series was later spun and re-spun into the iconic phrase by other journalists and writers.

Whether intentional or not, these words captured something chilling about the normalization of disaster. As cameras switched back and forth between the game and a blazing apartment building just a few blocks away, devastation could be transformed into interlude, even made a bit blasé.

America was hitting the skids in the 1970s, becoming a place where multiple economic and political crises converged as the post–World War II economic order finally fell apart. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the South Bronx.

Systematic disinvestment and the phenomenon of white flight had left its predominantly black and brown residents facing grinding poverty, increasing joblessness, substandard housing, and dwindling social services. By 1977, the South Bronx was the poorest congressional district in the country — it still is today. To many of its residents, disaster had already become a slow and daily unfolding.

The Bronx, 1970s.

“If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor,” writes Jeff Chang in his magnificent Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, “hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work.” While bootstrap narratives have the people of the South Bronx wallowing in the decay, the realities of hip-hop’s origins reveal young communities reinventing themselves and their surroundings.

They used what they had, which in many cases was very little. They borrowed record players and speakers, jacked them into jerry-rigged lampposts for impromptu street parties, innovating new methods of mixing and MC’ing.

Impacted as much by a memory of the black liberation movement as by soul, funk, and the dub sound systems of Jamaica, hip-hop was fresh and new while also a conduit of the rebellious expressions of other times and places. The oft-overlooked affinities with reggae are particularly enlightening. Meddling by the Global North had led to conditions of instability in Jamaica that often gave way to low-level urban warfare. The tension and “heavy manners” could easily be heard in reggae and dub and, as contemporary Afrofuturist writers argue, reflected a deep desire to transcend the chaos.

This was an ethos that was well-suited as raw material for hip-hop, “rap music’s elder kin” as Chang called it. Toasting — the act of verbally riffing over reggae or dub beats — became rapping. The repurposing of previously recorded sound took on new dimensions and syntheses. Thus, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, all of them the children of Caribbean immigrants to the Bronx.

“Wear the Garbage Bag”

Meanwhile, in the Lower East Side a scene more rockist in orientation — but just as insurgent — was gestating in the clubs and barrooms of Alphabet City and the Bowery. The association of the crude with punk rock does a disservice to the creativity that many put into it, as well as those of its garage rock predecessors. Television, Suicide, Patti Smith and Richard Hell — few could deny the resonance of these artists’ aggressive irreverence and crudity in a city coming apart at the seams.

As with hip-hop, punk had an air of the discarded and verboten around it, of those who had slipped through the cracks in the previous decade finally reemerging, remade into an unavoidable and shocking presence. As the seventies gave way to the eighties, the two scenes would start to meet, collide, and collaborate in New York’s Downtown. Grandmaster Flash performed in punk clubs, a young punk named Rick Rubin would help start Def Jam, and a little-known experimental hard-core band morphed into the Beastie Boys.

Across the pond, punk’s London iteration bore even bloodier wounds of chaos and decline. The global recession had hit the UK hard. John Lydon, formerly of the Sex Pistols, recounts in The Filth and the Fury the absurd scene of people in flares and coiffed hair obliviously walking down the Kings Road as garbage bags piled ten feet high. “Wear the garbage bag,” he says. “Then you’re dealing with it.”

Garbage bags piled up high at Leicester Square in London during the 1978–79 garbage strike. (Getty Images)

The plea to “deal” with the crisis was most notoriously clearly heard when Lydon shrieked of “no future,” but it was far more distinct and magnetic in songs like the Clash’s “1977” or “City of the Dead,” X-Ray Spex’s navigations of teenage identity in the midst of empty consumerism — “Identity,” “Art-I-Ficial” — and in the Ruts’ “Babylon’s Burning.”

The influence of reggae on British punk is far more prominent. This has mostly to do with the UK’s own history of colonialism in the Caribbean and the migration it spurred, but the apocalyptic millenarianism of seventies reggae also applied to a British urban life that was losing its last pretense of imperial pomp. Reggae groups like Aswad and Steel Pulse — most of them the children of Jamaican immigrants — easily heard a place for their heavy swaggering compositions in the British context.

Many punk groups agreed, as the music of the Ruts, the Slits, and the entire two-tone movement reflected. Little wonder that yet another layer of cultural exchange was discovered. The two scenes would end up sharing the stage and experimenting with each other’s sounds frequently.

Recounting all of this is not an act of nostalgia. To hear rap, punk, and reggae all reckon with apocalypse is to remind ourselves that music is not merely for escape. The idea that the arts only exist because we wish to retreat from reality is a bourgeois one and painfully narrow. It is also defeatist, accepting that escape is necessary because the bounds of existence — an existence that atomizes and dehumanizes us — can never be transcended.

“In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay,” wrote the late Marxist art critic Ernst Fischer. “And unless it wants to break with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.”

There can be no doubt that punk, hip-hop, and reggae, in their own respective idioms, reflected the decay. Taken together, they reveal not only that crisis was global, but a common interest between artists across borders of race and nation.

Any sustained engagement with each scene’s artists will also reveal that each was reaching toward showing that same world as changeable. Even the act of making fashion and music that looked and sounded like the wreckage (in the case of punk), or projected defiant flyness in its face (for hip-hop) required an interpellation, an act of reimagining.

Is Pop Music Ever Political?

Can we say that these styles aided in changing the world, though? There are countless pitfalls surrounding that question. Naturally, the simple act of playing a song cannot change the world any more than a novel’s protagonist can jump from its pages and have a conversation with you.

This is not to deny the power that music and shared culture can have in the context of uprising. When Afro-Caribbean youth fought the cops at London’s Notting Hill Carnival in 1976, they were acting in defense of their own lives and a collective cultural experience that provided them with meaning. Boots Riley’s story of housing project residents chanting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” as they freed their injured neighbor from the back of a police car reflects a similar phenomenon. To those involved, art and culture are heavily weighted with what it means to resist and live.

An honest account of music in late capitalism reveals that these moments are fleeting. In fact, under neoliberalism it may be fairer to say that the world has changed music, or at the very least the way we experience it, not the other way around. Capitalism rescued itself from the catastrophes of the 1970s by crushing the potential for a collective fightback in favor of a culture of individualism.

Even the most basic act of musical consumption has been atomized. Where listening to a record was once as easily done with friends as it was by yourself, today’s musical culture leans heavily toward the personalized playlist, your headphones constructing an invisible barrier between you and the world as you move through it. That the streaming service you use is paying artists fractions of a cent per play just sweetens the deal for the very industry urging you to “do (and listen to) what you love.”

There is no point in moralizing over this. Having the entirety of recorded music at your fingertips virtually anywhere and at any time creates possibilities. As always, the sticking point of those possibilities isn’t in the technology itself, or the medium. It is in who owns the technology, who controls the medium.

Scene from the Notting Hill Carnival riot of 1976.

Today, rifling through the endless number of niches and online scenes, it is easy to find incredible artists and musicians trying to make sense of the downfall. It’s no surprise that many of them work within or are unmistakably influenced by genres already well-acquainted with disaster.

Hip-hop acts like clipping. and Air Credits have taken a cinematic approach, weaving together stories that ponder how to hold onto humanity in the postapocalypse. Groups like Parquet Courts and Algiers — both working in the broad “post-punk” milieu — mine the violence of everyday life. Both also, importantly, openly ally themselves with the anti-capitalist left in their music.

These artists for sure play a role in creating a postcapitalist imagination. But the harsh truth is that, as crisis deepens daily, there is no guarantee that such an imagination will grow, let alone flourish. In fact, it is not unlikely that such music can be twisted around and used against itself, quite apart from the intent of the artist. The feeling of listening to rebellious music can easily be made into a substitute for rebellion itself by those who package and sell it, conditioning us for a dismal life by convincing us we are doing what we can. It is, in some ways, the ultimate commodification of dissent.

Can we imagine art, or life, beyond this commodification? More concretely, can we create movements and spaces in which it becomes possible to imagine it? During the catastrophe of the 1930s, the American Communist Party was able to throw folk hootenannies and jazz performances in which people could get close to feeling free, capable of reshaping their lives, even if only for an evening. These are the types of spaces in which cultural exchange becomes possible; new styles can emerge.

But such spaces were impossible without movements in every neighborhood and workplace actively fighting for that freedom. Disaster only becomes a jumping-off point for reinvention if there are enough vying for it.

Today’s culture industry is infinitely more powerful, more capable of worming its way into our art and colonizing our lives. Are we able to pull off what our elder comrades did, against much worse odds? It’s an open question, and a “no” answer comes with dismal consequences.

It isn’t that music or art cannot help change the world, however subordinate that helper role may be. It is that changing the world is a far more monumental task than so many songs would have us believe.