When I returned to New York City in 2010, it was the fourth time I moved to the only city in which I have truly felt at home. But more than any other time I lived here, I noticed the changes, and wondered whether I had fallen in love with the idea of a city that no longer existed.
One of the things that I enjoyed most about New York when I left in 2004 was going out dancing and seeing live music. Now the music and dance scene seemed different. I also returned to an activity that I hadn’t done seriously since 1999 in Manhattan- DJing. But the more I DJed, the more I felt these changes. Was the city really that different, or was it me? Or was it a universal change, that went beyond New York? If indeed the city had changed, were they changes for the worse that I should try to reverse? Should I find a “new” New York somewhere else? Or should I stop being stuck in the past and adapt to the new reality?
Since then I have engaged in many conversations with musicians, DJs, dancers, and other people living in New York about their opinions of New York City, how it has changed, in what ways it has stayed the same, how they remember it, and what they would like it to be. I decided to write about it, and found myself going back to the beginning, writing about when I first moved to New York, my earliest memories of music and how my taste in music developed. I hope to use this as a forum to start a conversation about music, DJing, dancing, performing and New York City.
My father is a true music collector and fan, and he is the first and most important source of musical education in my life. For as long as I can remember he’s had a large and varied music library, and would decompress by playing records, sometimes with headphones on, often singing along and dancing solo. Although my brother and I had a toy record player when we were very little in Ponce, Puerto Rico, I didn’t really become aware of music until we moved to New York in the eighties, when I was six years old.
New York city was like a different planet, there were so many more people from all over the world. All of my senses were on overload: the city was bigger, louder, and there were so many smells that I can still remember. There was also a lot more music all around me. People walked around with boom boxes, b-boys did windmills and backspins on cardboard, 70s and 80s pop played on the radio and my dad went crazy buying vinyl, mostly from Tower records.
In the beginning I didn’t speak English, so I would sing phonetically. At school, my cousin Tina accused me of singing a made up song when she heard me sing “gocha gecha gicha ga ga,” and I, offended, told her it wasn’t made up, that my dad listened to the record all the time. Eventually I learned the real lyrics to the Earth, Wind and Fire cover of “Got to get you into my life.”
One of the first records I remember my dad buying was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” which is probably the album that I’ve enjoyed and consistently listened to for the longest period of my life. I loved every single song, and like everyone else who was around when it came out, appreciated it even more with every music video that Michael released. His dancing was just as inspirational and mind-blowing as his voice.
Dad was also really into Brazilian music at this time, and he bought many albums that I eventually grew to love, listen to countless times, and hunt down as an adult when I no longer had regular access to my dad’s vinyl. One of them is Djavan “Lilas.” It’s an album that sounds and looks unmistakably from the 80s. It brings back a happy melancholy, and transports me to many, many evenings spent listening to that album with my family.
I heard a lot of pop on the radio as well. “Borderline” by Madonna was one of the first songs that I remember listening to and feeling happy when it came on. When I heard “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, I felt like it was different from everything else I had heard. My friends at P.S. 234 talked about it and sang it. We listened to music at school too. We had a record player, which unfortunately only had two records: the Grease soundtrack, and the Rocky soundtrack. The stereo had two pairs of headphones and we’d listen to it in pairs. Listening to the Grease soundtrack with my second-grade crush Maya was a highlight of my early youth.
Hip-hop culture was also taking shape all around me, and it was electrifying. People would break on the streets, and eventually on the screen. I couldn’t get enough of looking at the dancers, and I wanted to be able to break too. I started listening to Run D.M.C., the Fat Boys, and L.L. Cool J. Eventually, my brother and I taught ourselves some of the moves, and brought them with us when we moved back to Puerto Rico the summer I turned nine.
New York had so much energy it blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. Going to school a few blocks away from the Ghostbusters firehouse, it was like living in a movie, I felt like anything could happen.
New York was like a macrocosm of the Star Wars cantina, surrounded by people from all over the planet, speaking strange languages, dressed in so many different styles. That diversity was so fascinating I became addicted to it. I’ve sought it ever since in many aspects of my life, especially music.