Friday, March 19, 2010

The Birth of the New York Ska Scene: Interview with Jamie Carse of Urban Blight

As part of my ongoing quest to document the origins of the NYC ska scene of the early and mid-80's, I am profiling key musicians and bands who played an important part in giving birth to one of the most vibrant ska scenes in the U.S. One of those musicians was Jamie Carse who was a member of the 7-piece funky reggae band Urban Blight.

By late 1986 and 1987 what is now considered the core of the old school New York ska scene had quickly coalesced. Urban Blight along with The A-Kings, The Boilers, The Toasters, Second Step and Beat Brigade helped to create one of the most vibrant, creative and important ska scenes in the U.S. which in turn helped to galvanize scenes across the country. Urban Blight were unique in that the band had formed when many of the members were still in elementary school in the early 1970's and went on to become one of the most popular live bands in all of New York City throughout the 80's and early 90's.

Singer, songwriter and drummer/trombonist Keene Carse founded the downtown Manhattan group in the early '70s as "Urban Blight: a rock band of 12 year-olds". In 1978, brother Jamie and friends Danny Lipman (guitar, trumpet and vocals), Paul Vercesi (alto sax) and Tony Orbach (tenor sax) joined Keene and Jere Faison - who would later be replaced by Wyatt Sprague (bass) - to form the line-up that went on to perform their original blend of Funky R&B and Reggae.

Urban Blight headlined all the major clubs in NYC, regularly played throughout the Northeast and did well-received U.S and European tours. Winners of the WLIR-FM and K-Rock battles of the bands, and recipients of a New York Music Award, Urban Blight shared bills with dozens of groups including national headliners like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, UB40, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper and Kid Creole. The band even headlined a performance at The Ritz in New York City on October 26th, 1984 for which the Beastie Boys opened.

According to an interview that bassist Wyatt Sprague did with the New York Daily News in 1995, Urban Blight had its origins in a band he started with elementary school classmate Keene Carse called Black Lightning. "We were the only 12-year-old band playing originals," he said. They were stars of block parties and regulars in their school auditorium. They spent one weekend being driven around the city, helping draw audiences for 1972 U.S. Presidential candidate George McGovern. "We'd get paid, maybe $50, and our parents were the roadies," he said.

Most of the band members, went to Stuyvesant High School and then New York University from which they based themselves in their early years. Weekday nights, Urban Blight rehearsed. According to the New York Daily News article, they weren't like other local bands whose members played in a number of groups or chased studio jobs. "Urban Blight," Sprague said, "we were obsessed by it, like a religion. We thought if we kept at it we'd get what we deserved."

My first introduction to the band was when I saw them open for UB40 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City in March of 1984. I was immediately struck by the fact that the singer was playing the drums and that he was at the front of the stage. Next I was amazed at the pure energy and musicianship on display. What was even better was the band really seemed to be enjoying themselves. The fact that they were friends was clearly evident. This was a band who trusted one another and the performed like a well oiled machine. The crowd was behind the hometown boys and they gave UB40 a run for their money.

I was always intrigued by Urban Blight. While they were considered a part of the New York ska scene, they were also separate from it. They certainly incorporated elements of ska into their sound, but they also brought in more funk, jazz, pop and RnB than their NYC ska contemporaries and they sought to blaze their own trail which took them very close to being signed to a major label record deal. Sadly that opportunity eluded them. Nevertheless, their horn section was considered one of the best in New York City and they featured on several early Beastie Boys LPs including 'License To Ill'.

Jamie Carse was kind enough to take time to answer all my questions and shares his memories and experiences of playing in one of the most popular live bands in New York City in the 1980's and early 90's..

What was it like growing up in New York City in the 70's and how did that influence you musically and artistically?
New York City in the 70s was a lot different than it is now. The city was separated into neighborhoods that had invisible boundaries that everyone knew. If you entered into a neighborhood where you weren’t supposed to be you were subject to whatever happened. In fact, if you got beat up somewhere where you shouldn’t have been and went to the cops, they would just tell you “you shouldn’t have been there”. I grew up in Greenwich Village, which bordered on the Italian neighborhood that sort of centered around Carmine Street and Pompeii church. We were all influenced by that environment and still have strong friendships in that neighborhood.

The other thing was that most of our parents were pretty liberal about our social activities. I was hanging out on the streets from the sixth grade on. I used to take myself to school in the fourth grade. Basically we formed groups of friends that were like family. We looked out for each other and created bonds that were deep rooted.

There was a lot going on artistically and musically. Artistically, we had all started writing graffiti. Mostly led by Keene and Jere (our original bass player, who was best friends with Keene at the time). Musically, there were several different things inspiring us. Jere’s dad was the road manager for Country Joe and the Fish. He and his sister had been at Woodstock and his father used to let Keene and Jere go backstage at the Filmore East and get close to a lot of the best rock bands of the time. That inspired Keene and Jere very early (11 years old) to start a rock band, that eventually got the name Urban Blight.

We all went to the same Junior High school in the seventies and this is really where we became close friends. We all had interest in music in different ways, but at that school there was a jazz band run by Jerry Sheik. It was known as Sheiks Freaks. So many amazing musicians were born out of this band and from this program. It was in Sheiks Freaks where we all had our introduction to Jazz and Latin Music, which Sheik loved. I played Sax at the time and really got into jazz. In fact I originally played sax in Urban, along with Tony and Paul. We started with three sax players and two guitars. Danny also played the trumpet and Keene who started on the drums, also played the Trombone. It was only Wyatt who never played some kind of Horn. I later started playing keyboards and eventually that became my only instrument.

When did you make the conscious decision to be a musician? When did you first begin to play piano and keyboards?
I had taken piano lessons in the 3rd grade and played through Junior High school. It was classical and I liked it, but wasn’t really that inspired by the piano. Then I started playing the Sax in the 7th grade and that is when I really started the path to becoming a musician. It was my first year at Stuyvesant High School, when I started playing with Urban Blight. That was the year when Danny, Paul, Tony and me joined with Keene, Jere, and Wyatt. In high school I played in two to three school bands at a time, besides playing in UB after school. By my senior year at Stuyvesant the band had started playing at CBGBs and I was really loving it.

What were some of your earliest musical influences?
I really liked Average White Band. I saw them live a couple times and used to listen to their albums all of the time. I liked a lot of other music as well. Earlier in my life I listened to a lot of Rock. My first two albums were Jimi Hendrix, Are you experienced and The Beatles, Sergeant Peppers. I also really liked the Who. For a few years I only listened to Jazz. Charlie Parker, Coltrane and Lester Young were some of my favorites, and then I started listening to a lot of fusion. The Brecker Brothers, Ronnie Laws, Weather Report and the Crusaders. In fact, Joe Sample from the Crusaders, is still one of my favorite piano / keyboard players. Keene turned me on to Ska when he brought home a single of Stand Down Margaret, by the Beat. We were blown away by the sound. Then he bought Signing Off by UB40. That was recorded on an eight Track. That really began my love of ska. I listened to all of the English Bands, The Specials, Madness, The Beat, UB40. We saw all of them live, whenever they were in New York. I also liked the Jam and XTC. They were big influences on me and I saw them both several time live. They were unbelievable.

Is it true that Urban Blight got its start when the band members were in elementary school in New York City and that you played all original songs at neighborhood block parties?
Yes. Keene, Jerry and Wyatt played with two other guys, Clay and Andrea. They formed a rock band that used to practice in a club house we had at The Brittany (NYU Dorm), where Keene and I lived for a few years. They were originally called Black Lightening, then got the name of Urban Blight from Wyatt’s uncle. I used to hang out and listen to them play. I was only 9 at the time.

Did you meet most of the other band members at Stuyvesant High School?
No. We met earlier. At IS70. But we started the band there. Keene and Wyatt didn’t go there. Keene went to Erasmus in Brooklyn and Wyatt went to Riverdale in the Bronx.

Whose idea was it to call the band 'Urban Blight'?
Wyatt’s Uncle came up with the name. That was when they were really young . I remember that he promised to make them business cards with the Band name on it if they used it. I didn’t even know what it meant. But it stuck and became more powerful for us as we got older and really identified our music with our home. NYC.

When did things really start to take off for the band?
There were a couple things that happened along the way that sort of helped us grow and identify our sound and also connect more with our following, which I have to say became the biggest success we had. First, we came to a major decision in style in direction when we decided to throw Jerry out of the band. It was really hard, especially for Keene, because they were best friends and had gone through a lot together. But we had decided we wanted to go in a new direction musically. Keene began to sing and write more of the music and Wyatt who had left and gone to College, came back and took over the bass. At that time we really started to get serious and we packed up our gear and went to London and played a few shows there and tried to meet up with some of the ska bands and producers that influenced us. The year after that, which was 1982 I think, we went back to England, then to Holland. We lived there as a band for 5 months, playing clubs and having a blast. That was a big step for us.

The next big step was when we decided to bring Keene from behind the drums and make him a lead singer. That was how the band ended up. I can’t remember exactly when that was, but it was not long after we returned from Holland.

How would you describe the early sound of the band? When and how did you hit on the original Urban Blight sound of funky reggae influenced music?
I think the thing that separated us from other bands was the mix of influences that we had. I also believe that this is what tied us to the New York sound more than anything. New York is a melting pot of cultures and people. All of us grew up here and we all had open minds to everything around us. We studied Jazz, we listened to Rock and Urban Funk. The pop sound of the 70s was really Funky, including James Brown, The Temptations, Sly & The Family Stone, Parliament. All of that added to our sound. We loved the Ska sound because it was positive and was really fun to dance to. That was really important for us. We loved to dance and love to have the audience dance. Even when we played in new areas where no one knew us, we knew we were successful when the few people at the show got up and started to dance.

What was the New York music scene of the early and mid-80's like?
New York was an amazing place to be in the 80s. There were so many clubs and the music scene was great. I remember seeing the Bad Brains destroy CBGBs and that was my first hardcore experience. There were other bands like The Toasters, Second Step, A-Kings, 3 Colors, Beat Brigade and so many other local bands that we used to play with and hang with, but then the other shows were amazing. The Clash, the Jam, UB40, XTC, Madness, The Beat. Everyone played in New York. We played at the Ritz all the time, in fact we were the house band for a while and played every Monday Night. I could see any show there I wanted. I even remember seeing bands like the Thompson Twins and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, I didn’t really like them, but I loved seeing the live shows.

The first time I saw the band was when you opened for UB40 at the Roseland Ballroom in March of 1984. You also played a lot at CBGB's and other NYC clubs around NYC right? I think you were also popular up in Ithaca and down in Washington DC right?
We loved playing a CBGB’s. It was really where we started. But it was also small and the shows were super late and Hilly was a pain in the ass sometimes. We started playing the Ritz a lot and it was such an amazing stage and club that we moved away from CB’s. Once the Ritz closed we played a lot of different places in NY. The Lone Star, SOBs, Tramps and then of course we opened up for and played with so many cool bands over the years. UB40 we played with 4 or 5 times. We played with Bad Manners the Neville Brothers, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the biggest show ever was us opening for Duran Duran at a sold out Nassau Coliseum. That was actually kind of strange. We also played consistently upstate in Ithaca, Rochester, Albany, that circuit. We played in Burlington VT a lot. And at the Paradise in Boston amongst a lot of Colleges and clubs in Boston.

We had a real connection to Washington D.C. and Baltimore. We played some of our best shows at a club called the Bayou in DC that is no longer there. In fact, we ended up with a Drummer, Brandon, who is from DC. He used to play with Chuck Brown and brought a funky Go Go Beat to the band. He was amazing.

Tell me about being part of the N.Y. Beat: Hit & Run compilation that Moon Records released twenty five years ago. Was the song 'Escape From Reality' recorded for the comp?
I don't think we recorded that song for the album, I think we had just recently recorded it when Rob asked us to put a song on the compilation. Rob was amazing. He was always organizing bands and shows and then he put together this compilation. So many bands were always kind of competing for who was better, but he was always bringing bands together. All of us in Urban Blight, really respected him for that.

Did you consider the band part of the NY Ska scene?
I think that we were always unsure if we were a ska band or not. We loved ska and we were certainly one of the first New York bands to play ska, but I think we always looked at ourselves as being a melting pot of styles and sounds. We liked to make good music and liked to see people dance. I think that other bands, like The Toasters and Second Step were more central to the ska scene, but we certainly were part of it and we also loved the styles and the music.

Can you share any unusual stories about any live shows in the 80's and 90's that were particularly memorable?
There were so many great experiences and just playing live with a full house and everyone dancing was an indescribable feeling. But here are a couple good memories.

We opened up for The Chilli Peppers in Buffalo. It was a small club, sold out show, we were not that well known to the audience so most people were just watching us. We starting playing Pick Up the Pieces (our AWB cover) and all of a sudden, Flea comes running out from back stage, goes to the middle of the dance floor and starts dancing like a mad man. The crowd went crazy. Later he told us that was one of his favorite songs and he couldn’t hold back.

We had a show at the Ritz where we played Low Rider and the Beastie Boys (who are friends of ours), came out and rapped and splashed beer all over the place. That was really cool. I still have a recording of it. It sounds great.

We were trying to make a video, but we had no money. A friend of ours was making a Ramones video and he snuck us in an hour before they showed up and recorded us on their set with their film. That was fun and had that feeling of mischief that also was a part of our roots and upbringing. That was fun.

But mostly, we played a lot of shows for big crowds, many that had never seen us before and we always got really good feedback. I think that was my favorite thing. Rocking the House when we were the back up band.

Why didn't the band got sign to a major label? You certainly had the live chops and the following to warrant it?
I think that it came down to our really mixed style and maybe a little of our stubborn New York ways. We had a few offers to sign with management agencies and record labels that had always wanted to control the band and our image. In retrospect, we could have gotten a lot more notoriety and maybe even made some money (ha, ha), if we had conformed a little more, but in the end we are all still great friends. We have amazing memories of our times together and we feel that we never really sold out our roots and our attachment to each other. So none of us are upset about that.

Tell me about recording the 'From the Westside to the Eastside' LP from 1987 which is the quintessential Urban Blight record.
Because we were all so dedicated to our music and the band we always saved our money from shows and we used this to record our own album. We had also made so many connections and friends in the industry that it wasn’t too hard for us to get cheap time in studios or sneak in and out on other peoples time. I think we recorded 'From The East Side to the Westside', in our practice studio. We had a friend, Randy Ezzratti, bring a mobile recording unit to the house and we recorded it all over the house. It was pretty cool. I think the horns were recorded right by the front door in a 5 foot square entrance, because Randy said it had great acoustics….

When and why did the band stop playing out regularly?
For me, I can remember one of the last trips I went on. We went to California to play some shows. I had just had my second kid. I was away from home and I started realizing the type of life I was beginning to lead. We were playing almost every weekend, I was getting home at 5 am and sleeping all day and I knew that as hard as it was, I needed to face some realities in my life. We also weren’t really making money, not enough to live on or raise a family on even though we could play all over the place and entertain almost any crowd. I also had started to get burned out. I left the band about a year before Urban stopped playing shows. I think it was a really hard thing for all of us, but like I said before, we are all still great friends and we all had amazing times playing in the band.

What are your lasting memories of performing with Urban Blight?
The most obvious is playing live. Some of the shows at the Ritz or at the Bayou in DC will always be strong in my mind. But one of the things that may not be as obvious is the memory of the bond we all had as a band. The hours spent driving in vans, sleeping on peoples couches or floors and all of the Red Roof Inns. One of our roadies once said “ on the road, every meal is a feast, every paycheck is a fortune.” I have to say that I really had a lot of fun on the road and being part of a band. I still love music, it is a part of my soul and my essence. That could not be replaced by anything.

Below is video of the band rehearsing for a 30th reunion show they performed in New York City in 2008.

I'm hoping that a few members of Urban Blight will be in attendance at the NY Beat 25th anniversary reunion scheduled for Saturday April 10, 2010 at Dusk Lounge in New York City.


Kames Jelly said...

I hope they'll be there too.

Great interview.

I've loved this band ever since I got the NY Beat comp, and then you told me more about them and inspired me to go out and track down all the records.

Steve from Moon said...

Another fantastic interview, Marc! It's fascinating to know that Urban Blight wasn't sure if they were part of the ska scene or not. They incorporated a lot of ska and reggae into their sound, but also included so many other musical styles--and that's something that (unfortunately) turned off a lot of ska purists (but didn't keep them from attracting a large following).

Urban Blight was one of the few NYC independent (i.e.: not major label) bands to make it on the local airwaves. I remember hearing them on WLIR in '88 or '89 ("House of Gold"?)...

Steve from Moon said...

Also, my copy of "From the Westside to the Eastside" has a photo montage on the back of the band members playing live, etc. Is this an earlier or later pressing of this EP? Anybody know?

Christian S said...

The us pressing on stockman has the montage. The German press has a different back cover and has 2 extra songs. My side of the fence and peace train, I believe

Steve Tozzi said...

Great interview Marco, I loved that album and finally burned it onto a cd a few years back. Had know idea there was two versions of it though. Gotta track that down!

Kames Jelly said...

I never knew there were two pressings either. are the two bonus songs on the German pressing different versions than were on the My Side of the Fence ep and Peace Train 12"?

Anonymous said...

We brought them up to University of Rochester for a free show in the Spring of 1986 and they blew everybody away. I was at the Ritz show when The Beastie Boys opened up as well. Thank you so much for this interview