At its best, music can perfectly capture a moment in time, a location, or the life and surroundings of its creators. In this way, the New Breed tape compilation was completely successful. Like many classic recordings before it which captured the essence of their time, place, and the feeling of the conditions under which they were created, the New Breed compilation captured the New York City of the late 1980s.
New Breed was released on Urban Style Records, a name that perfectly reflected the music and the environment in which it existed. Created in a Do-It-Yourself cut-and-paste style and heavily influenced by graffiti art, the look of the compilation was a far cry from the increasingly commercial “product” that was being churned out by bigger record labels looking to find a “next big thing". This was not a compilation made by and for middle-class white suburban teenagers; it was an expression of the lives and experiences and surroundings of young people from all of NYC’s boroughs, of many different socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic groups, and viewpoints. This was a new generation that had grown up in NYC’s unique melting pot, with all of its cultural achievements and all of its social maladies. This was a generation who had grown up as witnesses to rampant homelessness, the plague of AIDS, the crack-fueled crime explosion, simmering racial tension, gentrification, and unprecedented Wall Street greed, all set against a backdrop of later-Cold War America.
National politics had become less heated with the far less charismatic and controversial George Bush replacing Ronald Reagan, and global politics seemed to be heading in a more positive direction with an end to the Cold War in sight after the Soviet Union adopted a less oppressive stance under the policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika” adopted by Mikhail Gorbachev, leading to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in Europe in 1989 and the demolition of the Berlin Wall. With Cold War tensions decreasing, people’s worries turned toward their more immediate surroundings.
With the increased de-institutionalization of mental patients in the late 1970s, many mental patients (some of whom had been subjected to such brutal treatments as lobotomies and electro-convulsive therapy) ended up living on the streets of large cities like NYC, often alongside Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The crack cocaine explosion of the mid-1980s had drastically increased the problem, leading to unprecedented numbers of street people and the resultant crime associated with that problem, with some of the homeless resorting to crime, while many other homeless people frequently became the victims of violent crime.
The increasing amount of homelessness and crime led to city government (in cahoots with landlords and land developers) to increasingly gentrify NYC. While few would argue that NYC didn’t need cleaning up, the way gentrification was used, with no regard to the inhabitants of the city and with the obvious cynicism of using it simply as a tool to make profits for a small group of people, led to increasing resentment and protests, eventually culminating in the Tompkins Square Park Riot in the summer of 1988.
Racial tension was always lurking beneath NYC life, often rearing its ugly head in violent ways and even receiving national attention with the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting in 1984, the Howard Beach racial attack in 1986, the Tawana Brawley rape accusations in 1987 that launched the controversial Al Sharpton into the national spotlight, and in 1989, the racially-charged Central Park Jogger case and the shooting of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst.
As is common in all cultures, music reflected these times. But much of the New York hardcore scene, which had existed for a decade already, was not adequately doing its part anymore. Many of the older New York hardcore bands had broken up, become side-tracked by drugs, or had fallen under the influence of would-be music business svengalis and their dreams of attempting to cash-in on the then-lucrative heavy metal scene.
With some of the older bands losing touch with the younger members of the scene, that void had been filled by the straight edge “youth crew” sub-genre of bands. Armed with a philosophy of sobriety and clear-thinking, their message was undeniably powerful and impossible to ignore. But despite being well-meaning and promoting a positive message of unity, their message was often misunderstood or came off as excessively self-righteous and judgmental to many, in some ways having the exact opposite effect of its intent and leading to a lack of unity, as many viewed them as exclusionary. When members of prominent youth crew bands began embracing Krishna Consciousness, it brought about an even larger split.
Skinheads, always a significant part of the New York hardcore scene, were being marginalized by society due to the behavior of some of that community’s most extreme members. But despite the negative image of skinheads (spread primarily due to the Nazi skinhead brawl on the Geraldo Rivera Show in late 1988) which had turned them into a new societal boogeyman, NYC skinheads were just as likely to be Latino as white, and were made up of all races.
Amid this, a new generation of bands emerged and were documented on the New Breed compilation. Despite their youth, they had experienced the rapid cultural changes of NYC in the 1980s and their music reflected this. Bonded together by friendship, common experiences, and a desire to express themselves musically, they unknowingly created music that would collectively capture the essence of late 1980s NYC. Their lack of self-consciousness in what they were creating, combined with the unique set of societal, cultural, and musical influences they had grown up with is what enabled them to create such a powerful document of a time and place. More than two decades later, the New Breed still resonates with all the power and energy of its time, and all that NYC was, is, and will be.
-Brian DeMoa, 2011