Rolling up to a sandwich joint in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, Nick Hook jumps off his bike and starts talking a mile a minute. Powered by espresso from the East Village café Ninth Street and a session at Sixth Street Pilates, as well as his daily three-mile run, the red-haired Hook bubbles over with energy and enthusiasm.
He has every reason to be: Azealia Banks, whom he worked with when she was just a young unknown from Harlem, is quickly becoming one of the hottest indie rappers around, and Hook is in the process of building out his studio so he can create more hits. He’s also doing production work on a number of other tracks and working on his own solo album -- later in the afternoon, he’ll take to Twitter to ask for title suggestions.
After grabbing a salad and sparkling water, Hook heads to his studio, which he warns is “still a work in progress.” A large, light-filled room on the fifth floor of a converted industrial building, the studio is filled with synthesizers, mixing boards, and computers -- ground zero for what could be the next indie sensation.
Hook settles in, first playing a handful of tracks he’s heard about from various sources to check them out, then getting down to work on the production for a track by Villa, an upbeat indie dance number that sounds like it could be a cut from the latest Passion Pit album.
When you live in a city where investment bankers complain about feeling poor, it can be tough for a working musician to pay the bills.
A few hours in, Hook takes a break and heads up to the studio’s roof, settling in under the scorching-hot sun and gazing out over a panoramic view of Manhattan. “I don’t think I could be anywhere else,” he says. “I was just in L.A. and I felt like I wasn’t getting anything done. Part of it was that I was with Azealia and she was hanging out and having fun, and part of it was that it takes so long to get anywhere. I can just jump on my bike or the train and be almost anywhere in New York in 20 minutes.”
A city of superlatives in many respects, New York happens to be one of the best cities in the world for music at this moment -- sending forth an army of DJs, rappers, singer-songwriters and indie rockers to the wider world and the pop charts. There are hundreds of live-music venues, from the iconic Hammerstein Ballroom and Madison Square Garden to 285 Kent Ave., a ramshackle space that hosts indie rock and noise bands and makes up in charm for what it lacks in air conditioning.
If you need a drummer, or a singer, or a collaborator, New York is full of them, and if you want a record label, all four majors and hundreds of indies are right here waiting. An artist doing press can swing by Rolling Stone’s office in midtown, or Billboard’s in the East Village and still have time to grab a drink with some bloggers in Bushwick before making it home for dinner.
But there’s a lot of competition for a few slots here. And when you live in a city where investment bankers complain about feeling poor, it can be tough for a working musician to pay the bills.
“I love the weight of New York,” says Tiombe Lockhart, Hook’s partner in the band Cubic Zirconia, who also performs as a solo artist. “I like the idea of hustling and the fact that everything is so dense -- it propels me to work harder and dig deeper. And it’s not just New York; the Internet also makes it possible for anyone to create and upload music or videos. But I don’t think I could make the type of music I make anywhere else -- I get so much just living in the city. I live in a Dominican neighborhood and I hear things just walking around that I wouldn’t hear if I lived in another place.”
An Atlanta native, Lockhart started singing after her mother noticed her talents, performing in churches as a kid and eventually attending a performing arts high school after moving to Los Angeles as a teenager. She went to the New School and studied jazz, and got signed to Elektra Records shortly after graduation -- only to be dropped from the label a few months later.
“I was ready to give up, but my mom kept pushing me,” she says. “I wound up meeting a producer who asked me to do some vocals and sent me a track and a check -- I didn’t want to be unethical so I did the work, and wound up working with a group called Platinum Pied Pipers. Then I went back to doing the solo thing, and was even on the cover of [bimonthly music mag] XLR8R, but nothing felt right.”
One night, she went to a sake bar with a mutual friend of Hook’s. She met Hook, who was working as a waiter at the time and was eager to have her join his band. The two bonded over booze and DJ Quik, and Lockhart credits her work with Cubic Zirconia for revitalizing her interest in music -- though she came close to going down another path. “I worked for two years as a secretary at an investment firm,” she says. “At one point, someone told me I would make a great banker.”
New York, like the stock market, is fantastic but fickle -- bands fall from the top of the scene just as quickly as they rise. Hook’s New York experience has had its fair share of ups and downs -- starting with his journey to the city.
As a high school student in St. Louis, he played guitar but found himself in “shitty” bands; a chance encounter with a friend of a friend led him to learn early digital music production programs like Fruityloops. Still, he never thought of music as an actual career, and took a job at an ad agency after college, working with funeral homes, among other uplifting clients.
Eventually he got a call from Todd Weinstock, leader of the post-punk band Glassjaw, and headed to New York to spend 10 days recording with him. Together they formed a band -- called Men, Women & Children -- and inked a deal with Warner Bros. They scored opening slots for groups like Panic at the Disco and Metric, but things never quite gelled; album sales were slow, and after a few years, he found himself in debt and without a label.
He took the job at the sake bar to pay the bills. “I’ve been living a meager existence for sure,” he says. “For a long time my focus was just surviving.” Still, he kept at it, working with Lockhart and on his production career. His output was good enough to secure a spot in the Red Bull Music Academy last year.
“I describe it to people and they think it sounds like Burning Man,” says Hook of the Academy, a month-long schedule of workshops and nightly gigs. “It’s like summer camp with music and alcohol. But you meet all these amazing people from all over the world and work with legends -- I got to write a song with Bootsy Collins.”
Applicants to the program span the globe, and upon completion, participants become mentors to the next wave. Hook’s been able to secure DJ gigs in Tokyo and New Zealand from his contacts in the Academy. One of his classmates, Andrea Balency, guests on his forthcoming album.
Music, art, and culture aside, New York can also arguably lay claim to another title -- the city with the most visually intriguing people. The version of New York that exists in the show Law and Order, where the bartender can remember exactly what time the guy in the red shirt left, and what he had to drink -- that’s a fantasy of utter fiction.
So it says something about Jesse Boykins III that his look stands out in the city, especially in the hipster-saturated neighborhood of Williamsburg. His hair makes Angela Davis’s legendary Afro look like a military crew cut. He wears bright shirts and platform shoes, and long sleeves in 90-degree weather.
A Miami native, Boykins (who has released an album and two EPs and is planning on releasing another album in October) moved to New York to attend college at the New School and never looked back. “I was always working when I was there -- I sang backup in a couple groups and taught music to elementary school students, and worked as the night clerk at a hostel on the Lower East Side.”
Luckily for Boykins, he’s been able to support himself with music since finishing college -- although he’s had to rely on the kindness of friends to make it happen. “I slept on my friend’s couch for a year,” he says. “He’s my best friend and totally believed in me; he designed my logo before I even started performing solo.”
His sound is best described as moody electro-soul, part of a new indie R&B movement that is spawning stars like Frank Ocean and bringing new life to a once moribund genre. He’s a crooner and a charmer, with an almost academic approach to figuring out how to seduce the ladies.
Hook tells the story of the first time he and Boykins hung out, while attending the Red Bull Music Academy last year in Madrid. “Jesse and I were at a sushi bar, and he got up on the table and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ By the end of the song, all the women in the bar were making it rain for him.”
When he’s not probing the female mind, Boykins spends his days working out of his home studio in Secaucus, New Jersey. While living in a gritty industrial town might not seem like a New York rock ’n’ roll dream, Boykins doesn’t seem to mind. After all, he’s only in town one week out of every month. (He toured Europe in July, and he’s got dates scheduled for Tokyo and South Africa.) “It’s impossible for me to budget here,” he says. “I like to experience things; not anything crazy or fancy, but I like to go to museums and go to shows, and it all adds up.”
Still, he wouldn’t live anywhere else. “You can’t be lazy in New York,” he says. “You always have to be on your toes, always creating, always moving.”
Back in his studio, Hook is hard at work creating -- or at least altering someone else’s creation. Although he has no formal training in production (he picked it up while playing in bands and helping out around the studio), he’s becoming increasingly pro, including in the more emotional areas of the job. “I swear, half my job is being a shrink,” he says. “You have to learn how to get good stuff out of people while not being critical. People get really attached to their tracks and freak out when you change things.”
While production pays the bills, one of Hook’s biggest gigs thus far started out as a favor to a friend. “A buddy hooked me up with Azealia and I really liked her, so I helped her out,” he says. One of the tracks they worked on, “Jumanji,” became a viral sensation, and Banks ended up signing with Interscope.
Hook says he spends most of his afternoons in his studio; at night, he’ll spin at clubs throughout the city, including Le Bain at the Standard Hotel. His own musical projects have been varied. Cubic Zirconia, which was signed to A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold label, was described by Lockhart as “ethnic disco,” an experiment they undertook because they both felt boxed in by the genres they usually record in.
He also performs with the DJ collective Drop the Lime and is working on a solo project that he describes as “sounding like my ADD little brain,” featuring guest appearances from El-P, Daryl Palumbo and Zebrakatz, to be released September 14.
After leaving the studio, he heads home for a nap and a bite before hitting the club to play music into the wee hours. His night is eventful; one of the promoters has a seizure at the club before Hook even goes on (luckily, he makes it through okay), and Hook doesn’t get to bed until the sun is coming up. The next day, he’s right back at work in the studio."
Check out the October 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands September 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.