From Berlin’s warehouses to London’s estates: how cities shape music scenes

2 months, 25 days ago

Cities dont get a songwriting credit or a royalty cheque. But from grunge in Seattles garages to hip-hop in New Yorks community centres, urban design has profoundly influenced musical genres across the world

Most modern music is an urban animal. Cities regularly birth music scenes, and artists often claim to be inspired by the streets, or by their neighbourhood. Yet the actual is connected with the music they make and the make environment where they do so is generally underplayed spoken about as a matter of mood, or information sources of lyrics. Music historians generally quote a critical mass of musicians as being crucial to the birth of a scene: classical composers in 18 th century Vienna, for example, or modern metal bands in Helsinki. But the city itself? Well thats principally just credited as a convenient place for the musicians to hang out though David Bowies residency in Berlin, for one, took that relationship to particularly intimate levels.

But what if a citys role isnt quite so one-note? Washington Post journalist David Maraniss became obsessed with that topic, particularly in respect to Motown. I was fascinated by the idea of why the musical magic happened in Detroit, he says. What is it about some cities and civilisations that bring about these creative explodes?

While writing his recent biography of Detroit, Maraniss came across the usual reasons cited for the rise of Motown in Detroit. First, the migration of African Americans from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana for factory undertakings, bringing with them the oral traditions of church music, jazz and blues. Next, the entrepreneurial genius of one family, Berry Gordy Jr and his four sisters, who generated Motown and induced it flourish.

But Maraniss also dug into the citys economic geography, and became aware that the vast majority of Motor City residents in the 20 th century lived not in high-rise apartments, but in two-storey, single-family homes which induced it easier for the local piano producer Grinnell Brothers to deliver pianos to families, including Gordys. The particular construction of homes in Detroit, unlike many other predominantly black mill cities in the US, meant that they were crucial to the development of the Motown sound.


Motown founder Berry Gordy plays the piano as Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder sing together at Motown studios. Photograph: Steve Kagan/ Time Life Pictures/ Getty Images

I had no idea about the role of pianos, specifically Grinnell Brothers, Maraniss writes, until I started interviewing Motown musicians, singers and local historians, all of whom constructed the connection and said they had pianoes in their homes.

You can hear how important the piano was to the Motown sound in, for example, Earl Van Dykes passioned, pounding keyboards on to Aint Too Proud to Beg, My Guy or For Once in My Life. The affordability of the pianos, the disposable income of Detroits working class, and the fact that it was a city of single-family homes mile after mile of sturdy brick two-storey homes with commodious first-floor rooms into which pianos could be moved easily all played roles, Maraniss says.

Which got us thinking: if Motown owed its life to easy ground-floor access, where else has urban design shaped musical genres?

The garages of grunge

The cradle of creation for the 1980 s band Screaming Trees, considered one of the godfathers of grunge, was a garage in the back of a video store. The store was owned by the parents of Van and Gary Lee Conner, in Ellensburg, a small city outside Seattle. The young Conner friends painted the walls of the garage, pinned posters to the ceiling and hung up Indian tapestries and psychedelic bedspreads. For a while, Gary Lee lived in it. When the latter are joined by singer Mark Lanegan and drummer Mark Pickerel, the new band played got a couple of small shows there, too.

The best thing about the garage was that it was totally isolated, like another world we had created for the band, recalls Gary Lee, who played guitar in Screaming Trees. Since it was downtown, we could make noise all night long and not have to worry about bothering anyone.

Garages might be built for parking vehicles, bikes or household junk, but their spiritual intent, we know now, is to kickstart creativity, whether youre inventing a Mac or starting a band. Yet for the Screaming Trees, the garage wasnt simply a place to practice: it physically shaped their sound.

Like most garages, ours had a concrete floor and drywall, with boxes of junk stored around the place, Gary Lee says. But the echoes and reflections from that stuff created a audio different than, say, a club or a studio. Just listen to the soaring screeching of his guitar on the bands 1986 debut album, Clairvoyance: that scuzzy, distortion-laden sound. The garage helped to reinforce the rawness and the energy of the music. We never had another place like that after we moved over to Seattle, but the spirit of our music never truly changed.


Nirvanas Kurt Cobain plays guitar in his childhood home in Aberdeen, near Seattle, Washington. Photo: AP

Moreover, 25 years on from Nirvanas Nevermind, musicologists still wonder why the grunge scene including with regard to coalesced around the cities of the Pacific Northwest. Surely, geographical isolation was a likely factor: Seattle in the 1980 s wasnt the cosmopolitan Starbucks-Microsoft-Amazon city slicker of today, and it was all very far away from the music industry hives of New York and Los Angeles. There was a culture of innovation and experimentation, a what do we have to lose? position, says Dr Tom Bell, an expert on the geography of American popular culture at the University of Tennessee.

But in those west coast cities, the committee is also rains a lot. Not merely did that damp marine climate probably persuade bands to stay in their garages and practise more, but its also somewhat temperate, meaning the garages were warm enough to hang out in without needing to be heated separately unlike, say, Minneapolis, where an unheated garage is a miserable place in wintertime. Is it any coincidence that, long before the grunge, the Pacific Northwest was also home to the first garage boulder bands like the Fabulous Wailers, Sonics and Trashmen?

The tower blocks of grime

The gleaming skyscraper of One Canada Square in east Londons Canary Wharf business district was a provocative inspiration for the 17 -year-old Dylan Mills, who grew up two miles away, on the Crossways estate in Bow. Its in your face. It takes the piss, he said after winning the 2003 Mercury prize for Boy in Da Corner, his debut grime album as Dizzee Rascal. There are rich people moving in now, people who work in the city. You can tell theyre not living the same way as us.


Dizzee Rascal was born in east London. Photo: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

The tower blocks of east London estates like Crossways also, however, stimulated ideal transmission sites for the pirate radio stations promoting grime, such as Rinse and Deja Vu, because they were tall enough to broadcast far and wide: a 40 W transmitter on a tower block can reach listeners up to 40 miles away.

The places of these mobile radio stations were closely guarded secrets, but were usually to be found in council estates. Station managers were locked in a non-stop game of conceal and seek with police: scaling balconies, leaping between rooftops, concealing transmitters inside rooftop ventilation ducts.

These tower blocks were labyrinthine, says photographer and film-maker Simon Wheatley, who expended more than a decade documenting the lives of grime musicians. What were the police going to do? Search in every flat where a radio station might be? It was all very hush-hush. You had to make a phone call before someone would come down and let you in. Often the station was in someones home, sometimes in their kitchen, microphone and decks next to the sink.

While he remembers friendly beakers of tea with grime musicians mums, Wheatley also noticed how the urban scenery and geography of east London influenced the darker themes and sounds of grime. The hour of grime was time of postcode warfare and stabs, he says. Territorialism meant some of these young person were scared to get a bus that would go through certain neighborhoods. Estates had a fortress-like physical appearance, and I was able to see my photograph when I heard the dark beats of grime.

The warehouses of techno

It may not have been invented there, but there is perhaps no other city where techno has flourished as much as it has in Berlin a city perfectly suited to big electronic dance parties due to its deserted spaces, empty warehouses and underground bunkers. When the Berlin Wall came down, 30% of houses in east Berlin were empty, says Der Spiegel journalist Tobias Rapp, the author of a book on the citys clubbing scene. Techno in Berlin happened in ruins, he says. E-Werk was an empty energy mill. Tresor was the empty bank vault of a former shopping centre. Planet was an empty warehouse.

DJs enjoyed the liberation of making music in places where previously they might have been incarcerated or even shot for trespassing. But in a book by journalists Felix Denk and Sven von Thulen, Detroit DJ Robert Hood describes how the dark and murky clubs of post-Wall Berlin, such as Tresor, transformed techno from a fantasy-based electronic audio to a more reality-based audio more brutal and assertive as local DJs began intensifying the velocity and abrasiveness of the voice into something harsher, more hardcore.

The 100 cm concrete walls at his subterranean club Tresor also played their part, supposes founder Dimitri Hegemann. The sound was really hard and deep. The room was not too big and the ceiling not too high, so that the sound waves had no time to distort, he says. It voiced clear, but everything was analogue. Other club proprietors began checking our sound systems to do the same.


David Bowie at Hansa studio, Berlin. Photo: Christian Simonpietri/ Sygma/ Corbis

The big warehouses of cold war-era Berlin also became spaces for artists and musicians to convert into studios. Much of the recording of David Bowies Berlin trilogy Low, Heroes and Lodger was completed at Hansa studios in the Kreuzberg district of west Berlin. Just a stones hurl from the Berlin Wall, Hansa was an nearly neighbourless build, pockmarked with shell-holes, most of its windows bricked up. From the control room, Bowie and his producer, Tony Visconti, could see over the Wall to the Red Guards in their gun turrets, who stared back through binoculars. Marooned inside east Germany, west Berlin was, for Bowie, a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution.

When Visconti returned to Hansa last year, he described how the city can be heard in those records. The hazard made the voice, he said. Ive heard records constructed here afterwards, and they didnt have that impending doom. When we came here[ to record ], we knew what we were doing. When you record a group of musicians, youre not only recording the music, youre recording the environment. And Berlin was the perfect place.

The community centres of hip-hop

No other music genre hollers louder about its indebtednes to the streets than hip-hop but the surprising truth, according to Mark Naison, professor of history and African American examines at Fordham University in New York, is that hip-hop was chiefly a product of community centres.

New York was the one city where public housing was not abandoned or knocked down or allowed to deteriorate even during the worst years of arson, disinvestment and deindustrialisation, Naison says. And more of the early hip-hop jams took place in community centres than on street corners.

Every housing project had community centres staffed by social workers. Many sponsored dances and talents indicates where bands and DJs could perform. These centres served as a bridge between generations and communities, allowing young artists rhyming over beats to perform with R& B singers or Latin and funk bands who kept alive older traditions of instrumental and lyrical virtuosity, argues Naison.

DJ Kool Herc, for example, held his first jams in the community centre of Sedgwick Avenue of the west Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa held his first parties in the Bronx River Community Center, jump-starting hip-hop in his section of the Bronx. In a borough where many people lived in five-storey tenements or high-rises where air conditioning was unaffordable, public spaces were a more comfy place to hang out. In the summer months, with doors and windows thrown open to counter the heat, whatever music they played or performed in the community centres was heard and shared by the whole neighbourhood.

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