I got an unexpected musicology lesson from the New York Times today, circling back to an article published a few weeks ago on the musical history of Morrisania, a South Bronx neighborhood more famous for its decay in the 1970s and 80s than for its musical heritage. But the interaction of Latino and African-American musicians in the neighborhood just north of Harlem helped shape bebop, latin jazz, hiphop and now reggaeton and bachata.
Activists, historians and scholars are documenting the history of the neighborhood, a task that’s complicated by the fact that many of the key buildings in the neighborhood’s history have been destroyed or burned. One of these historians is Dr. Mark Naison of the African-American Studies department at Fordham University. A white boy (the title of his memoir) from Brooklyn, Naison has emerged as a major hiphop historian, referred to by some of his students as “the Notorious PhD”.
Naison narrates a tour of Morrisania through eleven tracks, ranging from 1949 through 2003. The highlights, for me, are the story about Herbie Hancock sitting in with Mongo Santamaria, turning Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” into a latin jazz standard, and the birth of hiphop in the schoolyard of PS 63, where Grandmaster Flash started to DJ and near where Scott La Rock and KRS-One formed Boogie Down Productions.
The fifteen-minute audio tour – as good an education as many of the musicology courses I took at Williams so many years ago – put me in mind of two very different types of media. I immediately wondered if Jonathan Lethem, author of “The Fortress of Solitude” – a remarkable novel about a white kid growing up in Brooklyn during the rise of punk and hiphop, in love with a city that keeps kicking his ass – had read Naison’s memoir. And I wished that “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”, Jeff Chang’s ambitious and sometimes excellent “History of the Hiphop Generation” had come with a CD narrated in the style of Naison’s production with the NYTimes.
But it also made me think about Michael Liebhold’s presentation at the Metaverse Roadmap summit and the idea of a “blanket of data” that could overlay physical reality. How does walking through a neighborhood change when you know its rich musical history from half a century before? What if your cellphone buzzed to let you know you were passing by the block where Melle Mel recorded “The Message”? Would access to this layer of historical data make people more likely to explore parts of cities they don’t know about and have never explored?
Thanks, metafilter, for taking an hour out of a workday as I think about music, data, and the physical and virtual universes…