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9. Neo-Expressionism, Punk, and Hip Hop Emerge

Clayton Funk

Neo-Expressionist Painting

Zines posted on a wall

British punk fanzines from the 1970s – Wikipedia Creative Commons

By the 1980s, the idealism of the 1970s seemed to have vanished with an economic down turn in the United States. After inflation set in during the late 1970s and much manufacturing left the Northeastern US, the economy spiraled downward. New York City nearly went bankrupt. Very quickly the attitudes of many middle class American youth became pessimistic. Some young artists went looking for alternatives to the commercialized culture that, in their eyes, had fallen apart. In this way, the scene was set for the Neo Expressionist artists and the DIY scenes of Punk and Hip Hop.

The video below is an interview with the American Neo Expressionist painter, Julian Schnabel. Link to this video at: https://youtu.be/4sajnloTFvU

Neo-expressionism is a term given to an international art movement, which began in the 1960s and 1970s and developed into a dominant mode of art in the United States and Europe in the 1980s.  The movement brought the spirit of painting back to life, although critics and other promoters of the avant-garde had proclaimed earlier that painting had died.

Young artists reacted against the reductive, impersonal character of minimalism and conceptualism, and found new vitality in painting, full of feeling, raw expression, and evidence of the artist’s manual touch. The works were large, aggressive, and took on themes that varied from  familiar imagery to referencing traditions of art history in expressionist modes.  Sometimes, elements of collage and three -dimensional assemblage were included to add a heightened experience and response from the viewer.

Perhaps the nature of the movement was best expressed by a prominent critic at the time, Peter Plagens, when he wrote the following words in his now famous article, “The Academy of the Bad,” first published in the magazine Art in America, in 1981. He began the article with:

There is now a phenomenon abroad in the land called, among other things, “bad” painting, “new image” painting, “new wave” painting, “punk” art and “stupid” art. Although it takes many forms, it is primarily realized in painting, where its trademarks are what looks like inept drawing, garish or unschooled color, tasteless or trivial or bizarre imagery, odd and impractical assemblage, maniacally vigorous or disinterested paint application, dubious craft and materials, and a general preference for squalor over reason.*

Although this may sound negative, or perhaps like the beginning of an article putting down such art, it was in fact a positive article that defined a revolutionary new art movement. Spin offs of Neo-Expressionism continue to inspire and inform young painters in the 21st century, although the original revolutionaries are now viewed almost as old masters.

Anselm Kiefer, George Baselitz, Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, Susan Rothenberg, Eric Fischl, and David Salle are among the artists included in this movement of art.

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Punk Scenes

One of the most important clubs in the New York Punk Scene was the Bar CBGB’s. Here is a recording of the Ramones playing at that location. Link to this video at: https://youtu.be/fX5MJB3SunQ

A popular misconception is that Punk Rock began during the late 70s in London, England. However, Punk was in fact an American creation that grew out of the tangled roots of early Rock and Roll. Punk first emerged from New York’s Greenwich village and eventually surfaced at the small bar in the Bowery called CBGB’s.

It was here in 1975, among the Hell’s Angels, wino’s, junkies, and prostitutes that bands such as the Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Patti Smith Group, Deborah Harry (Blondie), and the Ramones all launched their careers and reinvented the sound, look, and attitude of rock music for generations to come.

The New York Scene emerged earlier than others, but there were also unique Punk scenes in Great Britain, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. Straight Edge scene, Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C. for the Riot Grrls, and the Lookout scene in Berkeley, California. Each city or region had their own flavors of Punk music, all emerging at different times, and evolving into such genres as New Wave, Heavy Metal, and Alternative rock to name a few. For more, see a summary of punk and its legacy in Wikipedia.

One of the driving forces behind Punk Rock, as with most rock music, was rebellion. The general consensus was that the rock and roll industry had become too safe, mainstream, corporate, and therefore no fun. Many of these early punk groups took it upon themselves to express their displeasure with the direction music had taken in the mid-70s and tried make rock dangerous again. Although these attitudes were shared by early punk rock groups, a similar sound was not. Each of these early groups developed their own unique sound that separated them from the others.

The word ‘dirty’ comes up frequently in a discussion about Punk Rock. Often this term is a reference to the discordant sounds produced by guitars amplified to the point of feedback, or white noise. “Dirty” could also refer to the lyrical content that is often considered vulgar. But it also has as much to do with the appearance of the musicians and affiliated community members. In this respect it is important to consider the visual aesthetic of Punk Rock musicians because of the impact these styles had on underground youth culture of the time, and mainstream culture that followed in the 80s and 90s. Additionally, Punk Rock fashion, an oxymoron to some, signified the movement as a more individualistic, and a reaction to mainstream culture.

In New York, Punk Rock might have signified a rebirth of Rock and Roll, but in London an entirely new culture emerged. Like a blowtorch, punk roared throughout the towns of England leaving the charred remains of popular culture in its path. Although Punk was stylistically a world away from 1960s protest music, both shared the same basic goal to inspire change through musical expression.

This was especially true in London where the social climate was one of poverty and frustration. Unemployment soared to record levels while the economy plummeted into the deepest depression since World War II fueling the uneasiness of the younger generation. While 1970s America offered boundless opportunities for the baby boomers, British youth were faced with few choices for their future. In addition to economic despair, increasing division between the upper and lower social classes outraged many  and sparked violence throughout the country.

These factors contributed to the deeply political overtones that Punk embodied once it made its way across the Atlantic. British youth were desperately bored and seeing no future on their horizon sought alternative means of survival. Punk Rock offered an escape from the hopeless conditions of late 1970s London, while also empowering the thousands of young people who had been marginalized by a culture in turmoil.

In addition to the raw musical aggression, Punk embraced an almost primitive fashion aesthetic which featured spiky hair, multi-colored Mohawks, and ripped t-shirts cleverly held together with safety pins that made their way into the noses, ears and tongues of those eager to push the boundaries of acceptable attire. For many, Punk fashion took the gender bending kinkiness of Glam Rock and injected it with a lethal dose of Black Leather and Gothic Barbarism in the form of heavy make-up. To onlookers, the resulting styles were caustic and offensive, however they were also refreshingly inventive, fascinating, and sublimely rebellious.

The abrasive character of Punk was as unsettling to hear, as it was to observe for many, however as it has always been viewed with skepticism by mainstream audiences, it has endured to permanently alter the look, sound and attitude of rock music to this day.

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Hip Hop Culture

While Music videos were becoming a profitable business for big recording companies, individual musical groups in the Hip Hop world were also producing their own videos. These videos were ahead of their time. In this video of The Message – Melle Mel, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, we see the DIY feel of handheld single-camera work, which would become more common in television and cinema. Link to this video at: https://youtu.be/PobrSpMwKk4

The development of Rock and Roll music in the 1950s and aspects of Rock music in the 1960s can be compared to the emergence and development of Rap and Hip Hop music in the 1980s, certainly in relation to the African American communities. If you will recall, Rock and Roll developed from Rhythm and Blues, which had a long tradition among African-Americans.

In the 1950s, white radio stations and record companies wanted to capitalize on and manipulate the a so-called “Black sound” without actually having African Americans perform the music. In the 1960s, record companies including Motown, which was owned and managed by African Americans, tried to capitalize on the appeal that Black music had to the White audience and tailored their music to a largely White group of fans. But by the time that Rap and Hip Hop developed, things in the music world had changed dramatically.

In the 1980s and especially the 1990s, the Hip Hop music industry wanted to have a sound that was entirely their own – with no appropriations or limitations, and certainly no apologies. Hip Hop music was produced by African Americans. Unlike Motown, record labels like Def Jam, Bad Boy, and Death Row did not cater to a White audience at all, although the music eventually found a large audience among White people, and has become one of the most popular types of music in recent years. In fact, in 1998, Rap outsold every other genre of music, including Country, selling 81 million recordings. The influence of Hip Hop on Rock has been intense and some of the most interesting music of the early twenty-first century is either rap, based on rap, or influenced by rap.

Although we use the terms “Rap” and “Hip Hop” interchangeably,  Rap is strictly a form of rhythmic speaking in rhyme, which in the world of music goes all the way back to the rhyming “jive talk” of the Bebop Jazz musicians. But in Hip Hop, the backing music for “Rapping” is often collaged from samples of other recorded songs. Basically, Hip-Hop deconstructs familiar sounds and songs from earlier music, and builds those sounds into entirely new, often unpredictable songs.  James Brown, Sly Stone, and George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic are early influences on Hip-Hop.

Rap began in 1971, in the Bronx, with Kool Herc, who was from Jamaica. At block parties, Kool Herc appropriated two turntables as an electronic instrument, actually moving two turntables by hand and mixing samples from two records to create an entirely new sound, while he rapped the lyrics. The “break”, or instrumental part of the record was played repeatedly and this became his background music. Since he did not think that Americans would receive Reggae widely, he used the break from American Funk musicians, like James Brown. He also employed dancers, who became known as Break Dancers or b-boys.

When another early Rap artist, Grandmaster Flash, heard Kool Herc perform, he set out to prove he was better and he started stretching the break, created new sounds by scratching the records and sometimes playing them backwards. Like John Cage and Jimi Hendrix, he pushed the sounds that a turntable, a needle and a record could make. He could not Rap, so he got together a group called the Furious Five to Rap to his scratching. Eventually, the first Rap group to have a hit record was the Sugarhill Gang.

Afrika Bambaadaa from the South Bronx was an important influence in Hip Hop, as well. In his youth, Bambaadaa was a founding member of the Bronx River Projects area street gang, known later as the Black Spades. Bambaadaa’s life would soon change after a trip to Africa and after seeing the Michael Caine film Zulu. He changed his name to Afrika Bambaadaa Aasim and set out to redirect the energy of street gangs towards positive community roles.

In 1977, Bambaadaa was moved by the reputation of DJ Kool Herc and he began to organize his own block parties in South Bronx neighborhoods. He became known among the best Djs. In 1980, he produced Soul Sonic Forces Zulu Nation Throwdown. By 1982, he led the first Hip-Hop tour with rapper and graffiti artists Rammellzee, DJ Grand Mixer DXT, B-Boy and B-Girl crews, Rock Steady Cre, Double Dutch Girls and a crew of graffiti artists, Fab 5 Freddy, Phase 2, Futura 2000 and Dondi. Bambaadaa and the Soul Sonic Force released a popular single “Planet Rock” on Tommy Boy Records. They mixed the melody from Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” with electronic drumbeats, along with samples from recording from Ennio Morricone and Captain Sky. This combination lead to a new genre called Electro Funk, which included styles from dance, house and techno genres. Significant endorsement came when Afrika Bambaadaa recorded with James Brown on the Song “Unity” and had roles in the international Television series, Kung Faux.*

These early Rap groups are now called “Old School.” As Rap developed, elements from Rock music such as electric guitars and intense drumbeats were introduced by Run-D.M.C., which was the first hardcore Rap group, and the earlier scratching was replaced by sampling, an electronic pulling of sounds from earlier music. Public Enemy developed a very sophisticated sampling technique, which often was based on a blend of white noise, strong beats, and unrecognizable samples. Just as importantly, or more so, they introduced social and political elements from the Black community into their music.

These early Rap forms expanded to the West Coast in the 1990s, into Gangsta Rap, which was originally introduced by NWA. Gangsta Rap emphasized violence, crime and sex, and for that reason, has been the most controversial Rap genre. Among the important Gangsta Rappers were Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac, and the Notorious B.I.G. The first white group to gain acceptance in Rap music was the New York based Beastie Boys. At first called cultural pirates by some critics, the Beastie Boys led the way for a number of White Rap acts.

Later, the Fugees and their lead singer at that time, Lauryn Hill, took Rap in another direction, most recently blending elements of Rap and Hip-Hop with R&B. Eventually traces of Hip-Hop culture could be found in many bands that came later, whose music ranged from Rhythm and Blues to a fusion of Rock genres, as in Red Hot Chili Peppers.

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*Exerpt on BamBaadaa from Contemporary Art Culture, 2009.