The World’s Greatest Living Rock Critic

flipper&houndStrangely, you won’t find him on wikipedia, but if you spent any time hanging around the New York City music scene, you’d already know that James “the Hound” Marshall (left) is the undisputed king of living rock critics, a mantle he inherited from Lester Bangs.

I didn’t become aware of Marshall’s talents until I bounced into the East Village Eye soon after the SoHo Weekly News folded. I’d left the Village Voice in disgust and had a special contempt for their rock critic Robert Christgau, who’d torpedoed my piece on the first rock diva, Arlene Smith, because her manager didn’t like the tone of my piece. Marshall had recently resigned as the rock critic at the Eye, but was still writing a column called The Real American Underground. Actually, he resigned as Music Editor after the editor (Leonard Abrams) refused to give a column to Lester Bangs, who, like me, had shown up and was offering to write for free due to lack of any counterculture journals left standing. That would be one of many mistakes made by Leonard and before long, Lester would pass on without receiving his proper due.

Right away, I noticed Marshall paid zero attention to what was happening in popular music, while seeking out the best combination of the old originators of R&B and country, people who never got their due, along with the current under-appreciated rock bands of today, bands like the Seekers and the Fleshtones.

At the time, I was the first journalist documenting the history of hip hop, which had been going on unnoticed for many years. Marshall was not a big fan of the music, and why would he be, since many early records contained a lot of trash, like the Sugarhill Gang, an over-the-hill bunch of fake rappers soft-talking over a mainstream disco hit. I’m sure if he’d gone to any of the real South Bronx jams I attended, he would have had a completely different take on the music. Let’s just say, he preferred Hank Ballard to the Sugarhill Gang. Flick Ford was the art director at the Eye at the time, and I was really impressed with his work.

It was around this time that I decided to return to my roots in the original garage band movement, and I convinced Flick and the assistant art director at High Times, Brian Spaeth, to join me in creating a garage band super group. See, I knew one of the drummers for the Finchley Boys, the greatest garage band in Central Illinois history, had recently arrived in New York. His name was Brian Moorse. I also knew one of the greatest R&B guitar players from my town was also living in New York. His name was Bob Brandel. When I heard Brian Spaeth had been an original member of the Fleshtones, the reigning champions of New York City garage rock, I felt we had the makings of something really special. Flick had so much charisma and creative energy he seemed like the perfect front man. Much to my surprise, Marshall showed up at one of our earliest gigs, and came backstage after the show to tell us how much he liked our sound. That’s when we knew we were for real.

The Seekers also loved us, by the way, and we played a couple of gigs opening for them. We never opened for the Fleshtones, but they came to our shows as fans and really dug our dueling guitar sound since we were one of the few garage bands around at the time with two guitars.

Around this time, I commissioned Marshall to write a feature on the worst things in rock history, and I also commissioned Flick to illustrate the article. It would be the first of many collaborations between them.

The result became one of the most notorious articles ever published in High Times. You can download it off the new High Times Hits smashwords site for 99 cents (see link below). And please check out Marshall’s entertaining blog at: thehoundblog.blogspot.com.

And will somebody please do The Hound justice with a decent wikipedia page?

Birth of the Assassinettes

Our first gig (a High Times Christmas party) was a huge success, drawing a standing-room-only crowd of over 500 to the restaurant on the first floor of the McGraw Hill Building. We couldn’t wait for our next performance. The success, I knew, was at least partially due to distributing free mushrooms to the crowd. We resolved to continue that tactic for all future gigs. The great thing was we got people dancing at a time when people didn’t dance in New York. The only band I knew that created an instant dance scene was The 52’s, so we were in good company. I also knew that in order to build our fan base, we needed female fans. Guys show up in force at gigs where they know hot girls can be found. How were we going to attract a bunch of hot girls, I wondered? I soon came up with a plan: we would form a sister organization for the Soul Assassins called “The Assassinettes.” My girlfriend at the time, Claudia Cuseta (who I’d met working the front desk of Tommy Boy Records) was the first one to be inducted and she quickly recruited her best friend, Helena, to join as well. Flick came up with the third girl, Mean Jean, who was going out with his hairstyling buddy from high school, Romeo. That’s them in the photo, from left to right: Claudia, Helena, Jeannie. Hot, eh? Yes, they added quite a lot of pazazz to our second show, even though they only performed on three of our ten songs. Flick had booked us a gig in a bar downtown and Captain Whizzo, who had recently dropped by High Times to introduce himself, agreed to add his psychedelic light show to the festivities. I think we paid him $50 and all the mushrooms he could eat. Of course, we also brought shrooms to hand out to the crowd a half hour before showtime. Much to my surprise, East Village Eye rock critic James Marshall showed up. I wasn’t sure if James liked me at the time; I knew he was extremely hard-to-please musically-speaking. Imagine my surprise when he comes down to the dressing room in the basement after the gig to tell Flick and me how much he enjoyed the show. At that point, I knew nothing could stop us. The crowd, needless to say, had gone berserk cheering us on. I remember getting eye-contact with Flick during a peak moment and both of us smiled as if to say, “It’s working, man!” Problems would soon emerge, however, as the Assassinettes began to squabble. Jeannie and Claudia were clashing, and inexplicably, Helena was taking Jeannie’s side against her best friend.  I was head-over-heels in love with Claudia at the time, and I couldn’t take the stress of refereeing the disputes. This conflict was also affecting my relationship with Flick, so I disbanded the original Assassinettes. We needed to look for three new Assassinettes, I told Flick. And the number one rule next time around is nobody from the band sleeps with any Assassinettes! This would solve the problem, or so I thought.

You can listen to the Soul Assassins for free, or download some of our best tunes for 99 cents at our Bandcamp site.

The first history of Hip Hop

Long out-of-print and with copies selling for upwards of $500, the original hip hop history written by the first journalist to document the scene is now available. When the book first appeared in 1984, here’s what some of the press had to say:

“…extremely well-written…”

Rock&Roll Confidential, #16/September 1984: HOME XEROXING PROSPECTS…Hip Hop by Steven Hager is an intelligent, vividly illustrated and extremely well-written account of the rise of hiphop culture. It begins at the beginning, that is to say, with James Brown and details the destructive policies of New York planner Robert Moses that created the South Bronx in the first place. By the end of the book you’ll feel close enough to many of the graffiti writers, breakers, djs and rappers that they’ll seem like old friends. —Dave Marsh

“…sets the record straight…sorted out fact from fiction…”

Paper Magazine: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop attempts to set the record straight on the endlessly argued questions of who did what first where. On the case for years, interviewing anyone and everyone, Hager (who also came up with the idea of Beat Street) has sorted out fact from fiction and written as “true” a story as we’re likely to get. — David Hershkovits

“…the best and most reliable history…”

Penthouse October 1984: Within a few months time the Hollywood films Breakin’ and Beat Street were huge summer hits. A half-dozen books on break dancing are on the market, not to mention more movies and instructional aids. In Hip Hop,  the best and most reliable history of the break-rap-graffiti subculture, author Steven Hager reveals that break dancing actually started around 1973 amid the urban devastation of New York’s South Bronx and had all but disappeared by 1978, supplanted by newer dances like the “freak” (ritualized dry-humping) and robotic “electric boogie,” What saved breaking from disappearing into the limbo of great lost dances? Mostly the growing popularity of disk jockeys like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash, who encouraged competitive dancers at club and community-center functions.—Robert Palmer

“…thrilling intricate story…”

Artforum: Did Keith Haring’s use of found frames make his work something other than graffiti, which defines its own field? Did the Funky Four + 1s “That’s the joint” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” speak separate languages? Such questions don’t come up in this fine book; Hager is stronger on sociology than art, more acute on the secret history of the scene than on its spectacular emergence. The prehistory was really secret: budding graffiti writers seeking the new Bronx Kilroys, would-be DJs looking for the right party to crash, cops chasing guerrilla artists, turntable wizards stripping the labels from their records to out-fox the competition. Hager makes it all a thrilling, intricate story, all set against the heroic opposition between master-builder Robert Moses, destroyer of the Bronx, and Afrika Bambaataa, tribune of a new culture built on the ruins of the old. But Hager loses his tale once it becomes public, as perhaps it has lost itself. His claim that hip hop “has the potential to infiltrate and subvert the mass media, energizing them with a fresh supply of symbols, myths, and values” doesn’t define hip hop: it defines America’s ability to recuperate the idea of subversion itself. Still, Hager talked to the right people—better yet, they talked to him.—Greil Marcus

“…thorough job of research…”

Pulse: New York City always seems to be at the cutting edge of trends in pop culture. Recently, breakdancing, hip-hop and rap records, and, to a lesser degree graffiti art have broken out of their Gotham origins, gotten picked up by the media and—as a result—have become important movements in ’80s pop culture. Steven Hager’s Hip Hop is a fast reading history of how these movements started—and developed —that focuses on the many personalities that made it happen. Hugo Martinez and Keith Haring, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash—from street-gang origins to recognition by serious art and music critics—they all come alive here in Hip Hop. This is a quick read—you can knock it off in an evening—but don’t get the idea that Hip Hop is one of those quickie exploitation jobs cranked out to cash in on current fads. Hager—whose original newspaper article inspired the film Beat Street—has done a thorough job of research, tracked down many obscure artists, breakers, and DJs for some cool interviews, and tied everything together in beautiful style.

“…Hager is an ace reporter…”

Village Voice  January 14, 1986: Hager offers a good helping of relevant data, bringing us through the two phases of graffiti’s art world acceptance, pinpointing crucial journalistic moments (though not his own Voice profile of Afrika Bambaataa, which is where Beat Street began), and devoting an epilogue to the fallout from the biggest of all hip hop’s breakthroughs—the crassly out-of-context  appearance of the Rock Steady breakers in the crassly pop-populist Flashdance. But Hager is an ace reporter, not a critic or social historian. —Robert Christgau

“…for those who wonder how it all started…”

The Palm Beach Post October 26, 1984: Most of us have probably seen enough break dancing to last us several lifetimes. For those who still wonder how it all started, a new book has come out called Hip Hop by Steven Hager, who tells us, among other things, that the graffiti sprouted on subways and walls were started by a young Greek named Taki, who put his first tag on an ice-cream truck in 1970.

“…formidable job of reporting…”

Knight-Ridder News Service March 30, 1985: Hip Hop takes its title from the street term for the entire urban subculture of rap music, break dancing, and graffiti art. The book comes packaged as if it were a bit of fluff intended to capitalize on the break dancing craze. The text, however, is a formidable job of reporting. Hager, a former reporter for the New York Daily News, tracked down many of rap’s most elusive figures, like the South Bronx disk jockeys who played the first rap records on turntables set up on street corners, and the earliest rappers, whose performances were given a parties and on inner-city playgrounds. The result is a description of a vibrant subculture.—Ken Tucker

“…fine investigative report…”

Voice of Youth Advocates: New York journalist Hager, who followed the hip hop scene for years before mass appeal set in, does a fine investigative report here. His sources: the horse’s mouth. The book is full of quotes of original New York hip hoppers he has interviewed: graffiti artists such as Futura 2000 who began “writing” on subway trains and now commands thousands of dollars in commissions, deejays such as Grandmixer DST who reveals here the secrets of his “scratchin'” technique, rappers who record their staccato rhymes now but whose tradition extends back to prisoners composing rhyming fables called toasts, and break dancers in hit films who began as street gang warriors. Their voices give Hager’s account authenticity.—Cathi Edgerton

“…explains how hip hop happened…”

The Boston Herald December 9, 1984: Hip Hop was written by Steven Hager, a longtime reporter on the musical and artistic subculture that’s rocked the world after busting out of New York’s slums. This serious but not heavy-handed guide explains how hip hop happened and what it’s all about.

“…it’s impressive…”

New York Daily News: Steven Hager’s Hip Hop isn’t a definitive study but, considering how hard it is to get information on the street culture of the South Bronx (few written sources, many reluctant or self-serving informants), it’s impressive.—David Hinckley

“…hits home with little-known facts…”

Billboard Sept. 15, 1984: Hager hits home with some little-known facts: that blacks were performing a form of break dancing in the mid-70s and at some point abandoned it, to be revived by Latin males, that graffiti artists often collect in “gangs” to study each other’s technique and avoid police while utilizing their favorite canvasses, New York City subway cars, and that a Bronx DJ named Kool Herc played a crucial role in the development of hip-hop music. —Nelson George

“…excellent book…”

KLIAT January 1985: This fascinating book is not a how-to manual, but a discussion of the evolution of Hip Hop, that subculture of dance, art and music that started in the South Bronx. He doesn’t romanticize Hip Hop, but he doesn’t treat it condescendingly either. An excellent book Hip Hop is worth owning. —F.L.

“…the best read on the subject…”

East Village Eye: Steven Hager’s new book Hip Hop is certainly the best read to be found on the subject. Hager was the first major writer to pick up on the movement, and he remains the best. His book encompasses the entire spectrum. —James Marshall

“…messy, ego-obsessed scrawls…”

New Musical Express September 22, 1984: There seems to be an inability to ridicule the more ridiculous aspects (like the graffiti artist who arrived at a rival’s house with a shooter threatening to use it unless he changed his pen-name). He also shares the age-old white critic’s fallibility of reading more importance than is necessary into black man’s art—most of the illustrations herein show street graffiti to be messy ego-obsessed scrawls. —Gavin Martin

“…obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker….”

Heavy Metal Feb/March, 1985: The walk from the South Bronx to the Lower East Side is long, and Hip Hop is like the view from a Greyhound bus. Encompassing break dancing, rapping, scratching, and street fashion, spanning from the present day New York back into the beyond, Hip Hop is a lot to digest. Even worse, the bleached-out black-and-white pages lack the visual beauty of their subject. Writer Steven Hager has renovated his Soho News and Village Voice articles to dissertation length, and even tacked on a glossary and bibliography that will, if we know Hip Hop, be obsolete as last month’s Magic Marker. —SM

“…formidable job of reporting…”