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African-American Music Crosses Genres #SouthOfUnionSquare

June is named African-American Music Appreciation Month. But insofar as it is hard to conceive of genres of American music that have not been fundamentally shaped or originated by Black musicians, every month should rightfully be African American Music Appreciation Month. Any time, however, is a good time to call attention to a few great musical works that share a connection to the culturally rich but endangered area of Greenwich Village and the East Village South of Union Square, home of (among other great sites) the legendary RPM Recording Studios at 12 East 12th Street (aka 10-14 East 12th Street), where so many noteworthy albums were recorded. 

RPM Studios, which was designed, built, and managed by electronic music composer Rob Mason, was among the first boutique studios in NYC. Its years of operation, between 1976 and 2004, overlapped with an especially fertile period for music and recording in the city. Hundreds of notable recordings in jazz, rock, soul, and R&B were cut there by some of the greatest artists of the time. An overview of those by African-Americans or even an overview of the artists themselves would require a book, not a blog post. To give just a flavor, here are three works, selected for their hybridity across genres and, more prosaically, because we happen to like them. 

First up is James “Blood” Ulmer, a master jazz, blues, and funk guitarist who forged a unique style grounded in African American vernacular music and deeply influenced by rock guitarists, especially Jimi Hendrix. After playing for years in funk bands, Ulmer eventually met seminal jazz figure Ornette Coleman, with whom he recorded and toured extensively. Deeply inspired by Coleman, Ulmer’s early work combines funk rhythm with avant-garde jazz (and specifically Coleman’s “harmolodic” free musical approach) and would become a touchstone in the styles of free funk and avant-funk. Tales of Captain Black, recorded at RPM Studios in 1978, is perhaps his finest work in this vein. 

Musical prodigy and monumental jazz pianist Herbie Hancock had, by the time he recorded at RPM Studios in 1983, already enjoyed an enormously successful musical career, soloing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of 11, joining the band of leading hard bop trumpeter Donald Byrd and subsequently that of epochal jazz chameleon Miles Davis, and ultimately carving his own path as critically acclaimed and best-selling solo artist. Hancock’s music had long synthesized a wide range of musical influences, such as blues, gospel, classical, and funk. At RPM Studios, it took an especially sharp turn toward an eclectic sort of post-industrial, jazzy electronic funk with the recording of Future Shock. The lead single of this album, “Rockit”, became a crossover hit, and the music video for the song caused a sensation during the early days of MTV.

Versatile and award-winning vocalist Cassandra Wilson came to New York City to pursue a career in jazz after spending several years singing in pop and R&B cover bands. Once here, she joined Brooklyn’s M-Base, a collective that worked on improvisation across a variety of genres. Wilson’s early solo recordings continued in this vein and featured musicians from the collective. Her first work for a major label, recorded at RPM Studios in 1993, marked a stylistic departure. Blue Light ‘Til Dawn included covers from a variety of genres, including, among others, songs by Robert Johnson, Van Morrison, Ann Peebles, Johnny Mercer, and Hoagy Carmichael, as well as self-written numbers. This eclectic album became Wilson’s commercial and critical breakthrough.

Click here to take a musical tour of the south of Union Square and learn more about its connection of Africa-American music.

Click here to read the full transcript of Rob Mason’s oral history, or click here to listen to the full audio, as the stories here just scratch the surface of a fascinating oral history. Click here to help preserve this area south of Union Square.

Click here to explore the history of the area south of Union Square on our interactive map.

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