Throughout hot summer days and long balmy evenings, friends, families and neighbours gather on the streets of New York. In the stifling heat of the city, residents escape the confines of their apartments and head down to the sidewalk. They share food, music and culture, with cookouts on the street and soundsystems blaring out from the corners. With many different communities residing on a single block, cultures mix and so too do the musical styles and influences.
Take a trip back to Brooklyn in the early 90s. It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in late August and the streets are filled with people. As food cooks on the grills, the smell carries on the breeze right down the block. With it comes the distant sound of music, a DJ plays records outside their apartment, wires trailing down from through a window to the street. As with any good block party, the music is a mix of styles and sounds - from 60s funk and soul records to Latin boogaloo and salsa through to the early hip hop tracks that sampled them.
Block parties rose in popularity in the 1960s in New York, when DJs like Grandmaster Flowers, one of the names credited with the invention of hip hop, would spin funk and soul 45s. People would dance to the sounds of James Brown and the J.Bs, or the drum-break soul of tracks like Harvey & the Phenomenals. At the turn of the 70s, deep R&B cuts like Minnie Ripperton’s Reasons or the Blackbyrd’s Rock Creek Park were also added into the melting pot - these sounds already key to the city’s emerging disco scene.
It was also around the turn of the 70s that the city saw an increase in the number of Hispanic and West Indian immigrants. These communities introduced new styles, genres and influences to the diverse sound of the city and the summer’s block parties. There was the afro-cuban percussion of local musician Willie Bobo, for instance, and the boogaloo of Joe Bataan, also a New Yorker. Still played out at block parties today, these musical styles have gone on to greatly influence not only the city’s own sound but have impacted music in Latin America - it was from the streets of New York that Salsa music first emerged.
It was also in New York, and from the block party culture, that hip hop first appeared. At the turn of the 90s, streets across the city would ring out to the music of artists like De La Soul, Monie Love, Kool Moe Dee and Grandmaster Flash, one of the scene’s first successful pioneers. These artists brought the sounds of the 1960s full circle, flipping samples and breaks from the likes of The Mighty Ryders, The Incredible Bongo Band and The Spinners.
This melting pot of genres, eras and styles could be heard at block parties across New York, a soundtrack to the smell of food cooking, the spray of water from fire hydrants and people dancing into the night.