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Westbeth, Punk, and the Golden Age of Hip-Hop: SD50

Westbeth Artist Housing opened in 1970. It is located in the Far West Village, and spans an entire city block bounded by Washington, Bank, West and Bethune Streets. Westbeth was not only the country’s first project to provide subsidized housing for artists, but is also one of the first examples of the large-scale adaptive reuse of an industrial building into residential use. It is located in a 13-building complex of industrial buildings that were built between the 1860s and 1930s, and were previously used by Bell Telephone Labs. The structure was converted into a residential development between 1968 and 1970, one of the first designs of a young Richard Meier. Long a place of innovations in sound technology, after its transformation to artists housing and creative spaces, it continued to produce innovative sounds, of a musical variety.

Westbeth Artists Housing

Throughout the building, Meier created 383 unique apartment units to house artists and their families. The conversion was funded by a partnership between the National Endowment for the arts and J.M. Kaplan Fund. The conversion also left space for work studios, gallery, performance and commercial spaces. 

Artists began moving into the development in 1970, with many bringing their children along with them. By the end of the decade, this group of children had spent much of their formative years within Westbeth. Many had artists for parents, and were undoubtedly inspired by them and the many other artists who called Westbeth home. Some also went on to pursue the arts on their own, and made significant contributions in their respective fields — including the then-burgeoning genre of hardcore punk, and later, the golden age of hip-hop. 

By the early 1980s, several young people who grew up in Westbeth began to form hardcore punk bands, and took advantage of studio-rehearsal spaces that were located in Westbeth’s basement. One such group was Frontline, which featured band members John Gamble and Geeby Dajani, both of whom were raised in Westbeth. While Frontline is not widely known, their song  “Time for Livin’” was later covered by the Beastie Boys on their 1992 album “Check Your Head.”

Frontline performing at CBGB in 1982. From the Noah Evans Collection.

In 1989, several years after Frontline, Geeby Dajani and John Gamble, along with music producer and A&R representative Dante Ross, went on to create a music production group called SD50. The group utilized the same Westbeth studio space that Frontline had used years earlier. Their name, “SD50” stood  for “Stimulated Dummies”, a name given to them by Busta Rhymes, with the number 50 coming from the number of their studio in Westbeth.

Geeby Dajani at Studio 50 in Westbeth. Source: Dante Ross.

Throughout much of the early 1990s, SD50 produced tracks that contributed significantly to what is now widely considered to be the Golden Age of Hip-hop. This included tracks for groups including Leaders of the New School, Brand Nubian, 3rd Base, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and KMD. Several of these artists had remixes named for the group. The studio was also used to help mix tracks for Everlast, including his hit song “What It’s Like”. 

Much of this information comes from “Son of the City: A Memoir”, written by SD50 member Dante Ross.

Today Westbeth remains as artists housing. It was designated an individual landmark in 2011, following a successful campaign led by Village Preservation.

2 responses to “Westbeth, Punk, and the Golden Age of Hip-Hop: SD50

  1. Thank you for mentioning us, my book and my brothers John Gamble and Geeby Dajani RIP, who both passed away in the last few years. Westbeth and the West Village of our youth were magical places🙏🏼

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