Lou Reed might have declared himself “The Original Wrapper” on 1986’s Mistrial, but his fondness for hip-hop didn’t fully manifest until he signed with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records and released New York, which was released 30 years ago today (Jan. 10, 1989).
“Lou Reed always loved hip-hop and rap,” explains Reed’s longtime bassist Fernando Saunders, who co-produced Mistrial with Lou. “As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I got the job with him was he’d heard I played bass for [renowned disco bandleader] Hamilton Bohannon, who was sampled on a ton of rap songs [and famously name-checked in Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”]. And he was like, ‘You played with Bohannon? We used to listen to him all the time when we were out in the disco clubs.’ And New York was raw; it was more like hip-hop.”
Released in the dead of winter in January ’89, New York was a jagged snowball of street corner slush thrown in the face of expectations of what a Lou Reed album should sound like. Whereas Bon Jovi called their then-latest album New Jersey as an endearing homage to their tri-state roots, Reed named his 10th LP after his region not in salute but out of scorn for a city struggling with its own inner rot that had more in common with Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back than Transformer or Berlin.
“Lou had been more or less clean for close to a decade by the time he made this record,” explains Anthony DeCurtis, veteran rock journalist and author of the acclaimed 2017 biography Lou Reed: A Life. “And I think he was really feeling his power — the kind of strength that you feel when you have greater concentration. He wanted to make a big statement and bring his best to it. This isn’t the New York of the docks and the afterhours bars, that subterranean world he moved in and made his career chronicling. This is an external world, and that journalistic impulse to cover the world around us was an important transition for him. It was a different type of songwriting for Lou.”