Praised for its rich and diverse live music scene, Brooklyn has long been a hub of musical ingenuity. From jazz and reggae to hip-hop and new new wave, the borough’s fingerprints can be found on a host of classical and contemporary genres. Here’s a look at a few pivotal moments and movements in Brooklyn’s musical history that have influenced what people listen to around the globe.
Before jazz music was enjoyed in lounges across the country, it could be heard in just about every corner bar in Brooklyn. Betty Cater, Billie Holliday, Max Roach and Cecil Taylor are all associated with the earlier days of Brooklyn’s jazz heyday. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Brooklyn remained a center of jazz activity and innovation. Three of the genre’s biggest names—Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery—even created and lived together in a communal house in Fort Greene. The house served as something of an incubator for musical genius.
With the largest Caribbean population outside the Caribbean, Brooklyn is a bastion of the region’s culture and heritage. Numerous reggae bars can be found in the borough, and clubs and record stores in the Flatbush neighborhood are said to have given the genre critical support during its infancy. Renowned reggae artist Chuck Fenda hails from Brooklyn, and dub reggae sensation Top Shotta Band is based in the borough.
Mid Century Brooklyn Has its Day
Some of America’s most iconic mid century musicians hail from Brooklyn. “Queen of the Divas” Barbra Streisand, jazz and pop musician Lena Horne, legendary singer-songwriter Carole King and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Neil Diamond are among them. These artists’ recognizable voices have inspired more than a generation of budding musicians in Brooklyn and around the globe.
East Coast Hip Hop Makes Its Mark
The Notorious B.I.G. and Jay Z, two of the biggest names in hip hop history, hail from adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods. Big Daddy Kane, Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim have also had their share of influence on the hip-hop scene. Brooklyn is the heart of the East Coast hip hop subgenre, which has heavily influenced the genre’s scene at large.
1990s Williamsburg Rock Scene and the Electroclash Movement
Williamsburg was one of the most prolific contributors to the 1990s rock scene. Many of the genre’s greatest influencers were among the first members of the “Creative Class,” who left Manhattan for Williamsburg when rents in the West Brooklyn neighborhood were still relatively low. Some of these artists have since relocated further east in Brooklyn, but many still remain. Williamsburg today is home to many of NYC’s hottest underground music venues.
At the same time that indie and psychedelic rock were reaching the pinnacle of their popularity, the electroclash movement was born. The first Electroclash festival, attended by the likes of Fischerspooner and Peaches, was successfully held in Williamsburg in 2001.
Afropunk is Born
Celebrating the sound and soul of African-American music, Afropunk Festival is another Brooklyn-born music phenomenon. Since first being held in Brooklyn in 2005, Afropunk has expanded to Atlanta and Paris, with an Oakland expansion looking likely in the near future. Past performers include iconic performers Lauryn Hill and New York son Lenny Kravitz.
You don’t have to travel to Brooklyn to understand how influential the borough’s music scene is. But if you have plans to visit soon, keep your ears open for the rich sounds of live music at restaurants and concert halls you pass. Conveniently located in Central Brooklyn, the NU Hotel is just a short walk, cab, or subway ride from Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a host of other great live music venues.