On August 11, 1973, a crowd congregated in the recreation room at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the nondescript Bronx walls playing host to history. DJ Kool Herc, playing his sister’s birthday party, linked breaks using two different turntables and a mixer: it was this development, paired with the lighthearted toasting from either Theodore Puccio or Coke La Rock, that has since been considered the birth of hip-hop.
In the years since, 1520 Sedgwick Avenue has become hip-hop’s most hallowed site. DJ Kool Herc once called it “our own little Bethlehem,” an undeniably self-serving analogy that stops just short of christening himself God, but an apt comparison nonetheless. What happened in that rec room almost half a century ago elevated the once-innocuous space into a landmark, and in 2007, the building was recognized by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
It only took them 34 years.
Slow though it may have been, much of hip-hop history has fared far worse. Seven years after Sedgwick, hip-hop made the leap to wax, spreading beyond block parties and park gatherings and into the homes of Americans everywhere. The sound, once endemic to neighborhood communes and local nightclubs, was transported to the studio where it underwent another transformation. While emcees and producers pushed technical and artistic envelopes, there’s no doubt that studios, the technological hub throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, helped facilitate even the most ambitious and progressive artistic visions.
Whatever became of some of NYC’s most prominent recording studios, amongst the most significant spaces in hip-hop history?
Any exploration of flagship hip-hop recording studios must begin in New Jersey. Sugar Hill Studios, so named for the famed label it represented, was founded by Joe and Sylvia Robinson in the ‘60s. Years later, deep in the disco era, Sylvia overheard the manager rapping at a local Englewood pizzeria. She asked the man—Henry Jackson—if he’d be interested in recording a rap song and, as Sylvia told it, he left the store, apron on and covered in flour. Jackson, who took on the name Big Bank Hank, was joined by two other local emcees for “Rapper’s Delight.” The trio would become the Sugar Hill Gang, representing their town, their label, and their studio.
Over the next half-decade, seminal artists such as The Sequence, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky 4+1, Spoonie Gee, and Melle Mel passed through Sugar Hill Studios. This made it the first truly storied hip-hop recording venue, a fitting property of the first truly storied hip-hop label. At their 1985 shuttering, competition was in full swing, and by 2002—when Sugar Hill Studios burned down—the game had all but changed.
As a consumable, commercial art form, hip-hop arguably found its feet on Greene Street in SoHo. It was at Greene St. Recording that Kurtis Blow recorded his self-titled debut, the genre’s first gold record, buoyed by single “The Breaks.” Blow collaborators Russell Simmons and Larry Smith recorded Run-DMC’s debut there just four years later, and soon enough, Greene St. fixture Philip Glass was joined by a curious crowd including Lovebug Starski, Salt ‘N Pepa, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Rakim, and Heavy D.
In 2014, Chuck D unearthed the Greene St. tape containing “Fight the Power,” one of the many Fear of a Black Planet cuts laid at the studio. The Bomb Squad were simultaneously working with Ice Cube, the West Coast legend who skipped town post-N.W.A. to record Amerikkka’s Most Wanted.
Though Greene St. dominated the mid-’80s, it wasn’t without competition. Deep in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, a coveted new space emerged: Chung King Studios. Founded by John King and helmed by engineer Steve Ett, Chung King played host to a swathe of legendary hip-hop names, none more integral than Rick Rubin. It was Rubin who, after working at Greene St. for years, moved to Chung King to produce hip-hop’s first Platinum record, Run-DMC’s Raising Hell.
The one-room studio was quickly abuzz: LL Cool J laid Bigger and Deffer (for which engineer Ett co-wrote “I Need Love”), Public Enemy captured the fury of It Takes A Nation, and the Stop The Violence Movement—an early hip-hop advocacy supergroup—recorded part of “Self Destruction.” MC Serch, recording at Chung King as a member of 3rd Bass, brought in mentees such as KMD and Nasty Nas, the latter of whom recorded his debut single, “Half Time,” in the once-upon-a-time Chinatown restaurant.
The rest of the decade saw figures such as Kurious, Method Man, Biggie, and AZ take to the mics and, following their 1995 location move to a multi-studio setup at 170 Varick Street, acts like Big L, ODB, and Lauryn Hill helped inaugurate the new home. Even far-flung artists such as The Pharcyde and OutKast recorded elements of their mid-’90s classics in the company of King.
At the same time, three miles uptown, D&D Studios became a bastion of boom-bap exceptionalism. Originally a favorite of The Fat Boys, the West 37th Street studio played a pivotal role in launching the careers of artists such as Ultramagnetic MCs, Deee-Lite, Jay-Z, Gang Starr, and Mobb Deep.
In the mid-’90s, the studio facilitated some of the Illmatic sessions. Nas released his classic debut the same year as Ready to Die, The Sun Rises in the East, and Hard to Earn, all of which were partially recorded at D&D. It’s where Biggie laid “Juicy,” where KRS-One warned us about the “Sound of the Police,” and where Havoc and Prodigy told tales of “Shook Ones” before coming back again for the second go-round. In case that wasn’t enough, the entirety of Reasonable Doubt was recorded at D&D Studios, and the Garment District studio continued to play a role in Jay’s subsequent three-volume trilogy.
Finally, Calliope Studios, initially popular with electronic artists, welcomed the so-called “first hip-hop band,” Stetsasonic, in 1986. Ultramagnetic MC’s soon followed and by the time the ‘90s rolled around, the Garment District lab—a mere 350 feet from D&D—had a hand in releases from De La Soul, Tribe, Jungle Brothers, and Queen Latifah, all members of the soon-to-be-revered Native Tongues.
“That was like, definitely the Native Tongue home,” recalled Jungle Brothers’ Mike Gee in an interview with 247HH. “We worked there, De La worked there, and Tribe worked there, we all worked there on our first albums… I mean, the list was ridiculous of artists who came through there.”
De La recorded their first two records in the space—presumably at the behest of their producer and onetime Stetsasonic member, Prince Paul—but the Calliope is perhaps most legendary for hosting Tribe records “Description of a Fool,” their first single, as well as “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” “Bonita Applebum,” and “Can I Kick It?”
Though these studios engendered fealty amongst producers and artists—Native Tongues to Calliope, DJ Premier to D&D, Rick Rubin to Chung King—such bonds are only so strong. The original Chung King complex closed in the mid-’90s, seemingly pushed from the modest surrounds by sheer success. The Varick Street location, which housed a handful of studios, closed in 2010 and, in 2015, so too did the subsequent W 37th Avenue location. Thirty years and three locations later, Chung King finally shuttered for good.
“It’s the finest sounding studio I’ve ever worked on in my life,” King recalled. “The problem is that the mentality of the music business has changed: people are not willing to pay the rates for a big room. The record companies have no money. I didn’t get a single record company PO in the last year.” Still, the space itself—now christened Reservoir—perseveres into its fifth year.
Indeed, gentrification is an ever-present threat to the Garment District. The NYC studios discussed herein aren’t spread quite as far and wide as you might think: D&D was perched on West 37th Street, later joined by the third and final incarnation of Chung King; Calliope was, according to Mike Gee, “right off 34th Street, on 8th Avenue,” a mere three streets down; Greene St. was just under three miles downtown. Despite being convenient when it came to securing a booth at short notice, the popularity of the Garment District locales might have had a hand in the studios’ downfalls.
D&D Studios went on the market in 2003, only to be bought by DJ Premier, who renamed it HeadQCourterz after his late friend. The studio endured for another 12 years and, in January 2015, Premier himself stood amongst the storied walls and tore down the pieces of history that lined them. The decision was not his own. “The building was sold in order to change it from commercial business to residential,” he told OkayPlayer, “and our leases would not be renewed.”
“This is a chapter that will never go away,” Premier told The Observer in those final days. “It’s a huge chunk of history.” Indeed, some of the history came in chunks: Nas once told Preemo, “If you ever move from here, you gotta tear it down piece by piece,” and so he did. A wooden panel, laden with original Gang Starr lyrics, was sawn out and turned into a table, while the studio door was taken off its hinges. Doug Grama and David Lotwin, the initials behind D&D, also took some souvenirs.
Ultimately, the death of New York City studios is symptomatic of a much larger paradigm shift. The accessibility of commercial-grade music technology has made long hours in-studio an unorthodox approach, more artistically motivated than technologically necessitated. Now that an artist can affordably cut a half-decent track in their own house, why hole up for weeks on end?
As John King tells it, “I did sessions for Fergie, Prince Royce, Busta Rhymes—all my old clients—but they came through for a day, not a month like they used to.” In-studio work has been abbreviated, and while it’s done something to re-democratize hip-hop, it’s quietly slain the studios of eras past.
Perhaps that’s the real issue: for a whole host of reasons, studios are, by their very nature, ephemeral. There are certainly examples of longstanding institutions—Sunset Sound, Battery Studios, Abbey Road—but they’re the exceptions to the rule, legendary by virtue of their resilience and consistency; propped up by acclaimed records and longstanding rapports.
For every legendary studio, there’s a score of less-recognized venues, each with their own unique histories. Some of them undoubtedly turned out hits and others provided a crucial stepping stone for young aspirational artists, but not every space can be sanctified. Buildings are themselves fleeting, and what was once a Chinese food joint might end up a recording studio. In turn, the recording studio might end up a Stella McCartney store—just ask Steve Loeb of Greene St. Recordings.
Still, the records do more than just capture place. They suspend time, creating a snapshot of the months spent poring over knobs and levers, writing and rewriting lyrics, shopping and reprogramming sounds, with all the back-and-forth that process entails. There’s no isolating the studio in this equation, and nor should there be: the space was but one of a thousand different variables that, though essential, remains impermanent. In each gatefold vinyl pressing of Ready To Die is the spirit of D&D Studios, irrevocably imprinted on Biggie and his art and, by consequence, the fabric of hip-hop itself.
The unassuming walls of inner-city studios played host to history, and in turn, history shall play host to them.