Where is the 21st Century Protest Music?

By Gamal Hennessy

I was recently having a drink with a veteran rock musician, discussing the changes in nightlife and music over the past two decades. At one point, she asked me “Is this generation of musicians protesting anything with their songs?” She said it as a rhetorical question but I think it’s a question that deserves attention from a cultural standpoint, especially since there are several factors that influence the music we listen to when we go out.

20th Century Protest Music

Modern social movements are identified with music that captures the spirit of that protest.

  • Various artists including James Brown, Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone and Bob Dylan supported the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
  • Musicians like Gil Scott Heron, Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez and The Doors wrote songs protesting the Vietnam War in the 1970s
  • In the 80’s, the Police, U2, Prince and Bruce Springsteen released protest songs concerning various issues while rap music grew out of protest songs from artists like Grandmaster Flash and developed with groups like Public Enemy, NWA, and the Beastie Boys.
  • Rage Against the Machine, Living Color and the Fugees were three of the most prominent protest groups of the 90’s.

There have been a few other established artists using their music as a platform since then, but the end of the 20th century saw a decline in the socially conscious popular mainstream songs that were present in every other decade.

Reasons to Sing…or Not Sing

It’s not as if American musicians can’t find social and political issues to fuel their music. Ten years of war in two countries, the struggle over same sex rights, bank bailouts, Occupy Wall Street, Trayvon Martin, online privacy invasions, right wing fundamentalism, sexual identity debates…there seems to be plenty of inspiration for protest music.

But does modern culture discourage that type of expression? When many musicians have to be their own PR and marketing department, can they deal with the backlash that might come from a protest song? When so many artists are struggling to get a deal or utilize corporate distribution, can they afford to stick it to the Man? When militant political sensitivity in the media is combined with a 24 news cycle and social media, can any musician or artist afford to hold any strong political or social position? Have we created an environment where every artist has to behave like a politician running for office if they want to sell music on iTunes?

To Sell…or Not Sell

There is still plenty of protest music being made around the world. The Arab Spring, political developments in African countries and drug related terrorism coming out of South America are all the subject of protest music. There is also a strong element of American protest music in underground rap, rock and alternative music. But outside of a few isolated cases, mainstream American music seems to have fully embraced escapism to the detriment of the protest song. Since several social movements once grew out of nightlife culture, does this lack of protest music mean there will be a lack of social change emerging from bars and clubs in the future? If so, nightlife culture can’t be a strong catalyst for social change until the next wave of protest music fills the bars.

Have fun.

Life Beyond Robotz: A Nightlife Culture Interview with Ko-Lition



In spite of persistent claims that both nightlife and hip hop have been ruined by a lack of creativity, there are still artists and operators in the underground pushing nightlife culture to the next level. Two performers who are making a name for themselves in the world of live hip hop are the brothers DeLorean and Karl. We sat down with them to talk about their music before their next big show at the Knitting Factory this week.

• Genre: Hip Hop/Jazz/Electro-Soul

• Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

• Inspirations: A Tribe Called Quest, Kanye West, Digable Planets, Maroon 5, Jay-Z, Lupe Fiasco, Biggie, Tupac, 

• Previous Performances: Ko-Lition TakeOver Santos Party House!

• Latest Project: Debut album 'Love Jazz Robotz'

• Next Local Performance: May 24th, 2012 'Ko-Lition TakeOver The Knitting Factory'

NCI: Talk to me about the philosophy behind your music and how it compares to the current generation of music?

KO: Part of the idea behind the concept of robots is the assembly line model that we all have to subscribe to in our daily life. We go to work every day, we load up our spreadsheets and contribute to the process of making things work. It is an existence that can feel very mechanical, very robotic.

Even when you talk about creating music and being in the music industry, there are methods you need to adopt and things you need to do if you want your music heard. There are elements of it that are very much like a machine. If you don’t conform to that model then getting your music heard is almost impossible. Of course, there are artists like Prince or Radiohead who can challenge prevailing industry models after they have been established. But nowadays even mainstream artists like Drake have to give their music away for free at some point to get their music out there. Part of Must Be Robotz is an exploration of that reality.

NCI: So the song is basically a critique on the forces of conformity in music and life in general?

KO: We don’t dislike current forms of music. Our music is hip hop with a jazz foundation, but we can get into the more electronic forms of rap. We even get down with dubstep and other types of electronic music. There is a lot of good stuff out there.

Our message is more than just a critique. We’re not attacking people’s lifestyles or society or the music industry. Part of what we are saying is that you need to find your way to enjoy the life you have. Maybe the price you have to pay for your fun and your individuality is your job. That’s how you can afford to do the things you want to do. We have to handle our own management, marketing, booking, legal stuff and production to be able to get on stage at places like Santos and the Knitting Factory because that’s where we can share our music.

NCI: What is it about performing that is so attractive to you?

KO: When you are on stage you are at your most vulnerable. When you go up there and pretend to be someone you are not, the audience sees right through that and they will reject you. You have to be willing and able to put yourself out there and expose yourself to really connect with the crowd. It doesn’t matter if you have to open raw emotional wounds in your lyrics, freestyle a few bars because you forgot your lines or work around the fact that the band has spontaneously decided to go into an extended solo jam session. When you’re on stage the rigid predictable life is gone. You are more alive because things are uncertain and unpredictable. 

NCI: Is that why you use a live band instead of a CD in your act?

KO: That is a big reason for it, but that isn’t the only reason. Some of our major hip hop influences like Digable Planets did their shows with live bands and that was a big inspiration to us. There are some sounds that have a special quality when you hear them live and we want those sounds in our show. But the biggest reason is the spontaneous energy that comes from live music. The crowd gets hyped up from a guitar or drum solo in ways that never happen if you just pop in a CD. We call our record company See Music Live because that is one of the best ways to escape the monotony of what we have to go through every day.

Have fun








Nightlife as a Marketplace of Transgression

Every community claims to offer its members different benefits. Fashion offers glamour and self-esteem. Higher education offers preparation for adult life. Religions offer various types of spiritual guidance. Nightlife is similar. At its core, nightlife is a marketplace of transgression and we need that service to advance as a society. 

What is Nightlife Transgression?

Transgression here means deviating from the norms of contemporary society. The environment of nightlife offers us the chance to transgress on a variety of levels that we can’t or won’t do in daily life. 

Forms of Nightlife Transgression 

1) Sexual: As a sexual metaphor, nightlife encourages various forms of sexual expression, pursuit and exploitation as a fundamental activity. On a certain level, the sexual instinct within us that nightlife caters to provides the motivation for all other forms of transgression. 

2) Creative: Driven by sexual energy, the music, fashion and dancing in nightlife is a thinly veiled public expression of indiscretion that has produced enormous amounts of artistic creation.

3) Consumption: In nightlife, food and alcohol are consumed in combinations and quantities that are often frowned upon by polite society. Illegal substances are also found in nightlife and their consumption clearly crosses public norms,. 

4) Social: The subtle and blatant role playing that patrons engage in is an expression of transgressive behavior in modern nightlife. To a certain extent, the racial mixing and subculture creation that nightlife fosters is also a form of transgression even if it is not explicitly rejected the way some other forms of nightlife transgression are. 

Benefits of Nightlife Transgression

Deviating from the norms of society provides the catalyst that a culture needs to progress and advance. The transgression inherent in nightlife has created several sparks that have led to evolution of American life. 

1) Race: The racial and class mixing of the jazz and disco ages supported widespread integration among different ethnic groups.

2) Sexual Orientation: Increased acceptance of the LGBT community was sparked by nightlife persecution and protest several decades ago. 

3) Socialization: The safe havens created in nightlife for various marginalized groups allows for interpersonal bonding that isn’t readily available in day to day life. 

4) Creativity: Finally, nightlife offers an organic environment for artistic and creative progress that cannot be replaced by mainstream or social media. Although not everyone enjoys nightlife’s cultural advancements (because every generation rejects the new music and fashion of the next generation) it is the act of transgression that gives rise to creation. Nightlife is the social laboratory for that creation. 

Detrimental Effects of Transgression

Public discussion about nightlife often focuses purely on its negative aspects. This creates a perception that nightlife is nothing more than a harmful influence on the city. Transgression in nightlife can create malicious criminal, social and health impacts from overconsumption or illegal consumption. Overspending can create financial liabilities as patrons pursue the objects of their transgression. Destructive prejudices including racism, misogyny and homophobia can also be a part of nightlife transgression.  It would be naïve to suggest that all transgression in nightlife is positive. However, it is just as naïve to conclude that all nightlife transgression is negative. Both exist in this environment and one should not overshadow the other.

Another adverse type of transgression is pseudo transgression. This situation is the watered down experience that attempts to create a transgressive feeling but it purely a commercial endeavor that does nothing to move nightlife culture forward. Scenes where everyone wears the same clothes, listens to the same music over and over and sheepishly follows established trends are as harmful to the spirit of nightlife as any other detrimental effect of transgression. 

Checks and Balances

Nightlife operators need to combine two ingredients in order to be successful. On one hand, they need to generate revenue that will pay the bills and satisfy investors. On the other hand, the need to provide an experience that promotes the benefits of transgression while limiting the detrimental effects. Programs like the Nightlife Best Practices and the internal policies of each venue provide a system to ensure transgression does not get out of hand. When handled correctly, the nightlife experience can feel liberating without being dangerous. 

Nightlife is a marketplace of transgression. While there are clear detrimental effects, New York needs the catalyst that nightlife creates to advance artistically, culturally and socially.

Have fun.



Nightlife Culture Review: Flute Grammercy

Flute is a solid component to New York cocktail culture.

One of the best parts of the venue is the way they seat people. This might sound stupid, but it makes a difference. The host sits all the large groups and singles upstairs in the main room and gather all the couples down in the basement. This saves the party crowd from having to suffer through PDA that doesn't include them and lets the couples fawn over each other in peace. I wish more places did that.

The cocktails are quite good as well. Like many cocktail lounges now, Flute focuses on a specific liquor in most of their drinks. In this case champange is the common theme. We tried a few drinks and each one was quite good. The service is good. The dim room and comfortable furniture are good for enjoying crafted cocktails. The music is a random hot mess of an iPod shuffle, but no one is perfect.

If you like cocktails you will like Flute, whether you are in a group or a couple.

Have fun.

21 Essential Websites for New York Nightlife Culture


There are so many blogs and websites for New York nightlife that if you tried to read them all you’d never have time to go out. This list collects some of the best and most up to date writing online. This isn’t a list of sites about the industry side, venue reviews or a list of purely self promotional sites. There are plenty of good ones in both those categories, but this list focuses on the sites with a cultural focus. Some of them will be familiar, others will be new. I hope all of them will help learn more about New York nightlife culture go out and have fun.


Music/ DJing

Ear Drum NYC


New Music Daily

Village Voice Music 


Nightlife Tastemakers

Elite Daily

Good Night Mr. Lewis

Guest of a Guest

NY Nightlife: @NYNightlife (on Twitter)  

Societe Perrier


Bartending/ Drinking

New York Barfly

Shake and Strain

The Truth about Bartending


Restaurants/ Eating

Eater New York

Grub Street New York

Zagat New York


Fashion/ Style/ Photography

The Dandy Project

I Rock the Shot

Paper Magazine

Young, Rich and Faking It  






The Beer Friends


Nightlife changes over time, so this list will change with it. If you think I left someone out that needs to be here, or you think someone is here who shouldn’t be, let me know.

Have fun.


How to be a DJ


One of the current clichés in modern nightlife culture is the idea that anyone can be a DJ. Digital technology has taken an arcane and underground art and opened it up to the masses, leading to very mixed results.

There is a heated debate within the DJ world about technology, skill, celebrity and other sensitive topics. I’m not here to push a particular aspect of those battles. I want to offer some advice on how a novice can actually become a DJ and contribute to the creative aspects of nightlife culture. Whether you use Technics turntables or Numark CD-J’s, Serato or Abelton and whether you carry crates or computers here are some tips to get yourself started.

  • Love Your Music: Being a DJ is very similar to being a musician in the fact that very few of either group ever makes it to the level of Tiesto or Grandmaster Flash. In the beginning at least, you’re going to need something besides fame and fortune to get you through the sometimes frustrating world of nightlife performance. If you don’t love your music you’re going to burn out fast.
  • Learn Your Craft: There are two main ways to learn DJing; classical and formal. The classical method involves learning on your own or under a professional DJ who is willing to work with you. While this method use to take 5-10 years, now with online tutorials,  YouTube videos and books like How to DJ Right you can cut down that time considerably. This can be a stressful way to learn, but if you want to follow in the footsteps of the masters, this is the way to go.

The formal method involves learning DJ skills in a structured classroom workshop setting. There are several DJ schools currently in operation, including Scratch Academy and Dubspot. Because the skills have been synthesized into a curriculum, what used to take years can now take 6-8 months. While it doesn’t have the rebel cache of the classical method, it saves a lot of time and frustration.

No matter which method you use to learn, keep in mind that you will still need to practice to master the art form. You can try to fake it with an app, or software or other shortcuts, but there is no substitute for technique and professionalism.

  • Get Experience: At some point, you’ll have to get out of your apartment, go out in public and play. This could mean playing an open turntable night at a local bar for you, the bartender and a few friends. It could mean being the warm up DJ at a lounge, department store or house party. There is a skill to dealing with unfamiliar equipment and unfamiliar people that you can’t get by making mix tapes at home. Go. Out. and Play.
  • Develop a Sound: If you play the same songs that every other DJ plays, then you can be replaced by any other DJ. Unless you create your own party, most of us will have to deal with the musical styles of the venue, promoter or event organizer. However, you need to be known for something other than just a generic, cookie cutter vanilla DJ. This goes back to loving your music. The key is to be able to play everything but be known for something.
  • Grow: Being a DJ means being an artist. To be an artist, you have to expand your horizons in terms of the music you play, the people you play for and the things you are able to do. It also means not being left behind as the art evolves. Your collection of music, whether analog or digital needs to grow. Your relationship with venues, promoters and other DJ’s needs to grow. Your abilities not just to play music but to promote yourself and express yourself needs to grow. If you can do that, then your interest and love for the art form will give you back far more than you put into it.

This isn’t a comprehensive article, so if any DJ’s out there think I left anything out, or if anyone has a specific question, leave a comment and let me know.

Notice I left out discussions about buying equipment, industry practices and the pros and cons of one type of DJing over another. There are a lot of other people out there with more experience, knowledge and perspective than me if you want to read stuff like that. All I want to do is show you that there is an art and science to being a DJ and that if you put in the effort to become one you can have some fun, try something new and listen to some good music in the process.

Have fun






Celebrity Waitresses, Sex and the Sin Effect: A Nightlife Culture Interview with Steven Lewis


By Gamal Hennessy

Steven Lewis has been a fixture in New York nightlife for more than 30 years. He has gone from managing golden age venues like the Limelight and Palladium to designing venues like Butter and Marquee to writing for the influential nightlife blog Good Night Mr. Lewis to performing as a DJ with the 4AM DJ collective.

NCI: What attracted you to New York nightlife when you started back in the 1980’s?

SL: I went out looking for sex. What I found was sex and characters. When I was working on Wall Street, all the people I met there were mundane. When I went out at night, the people were exciting. They had personalities, vision and creativity. When I started to run clubs I made sure to create a space that would attract those same characters. The clubs I envisioned were like Rick’s from Casablanca. I modeled myself and a lot of what I did based on that concept.

NCI: How do you see the nature of nightlife culture today?

SL: The dominant theme today is the niche market. In the past, a lot of different crowds and scenes came together in one massive space. Each one of them would have their own room or their own section on the dance floor, but there was still a lot of cross pollination between the groups. Now each group tends to discount the other groups. Fewer people go out to meet and hang out with different people. Nowadays, people go out to meet and hang out with their friends or people who are similar to them. There is more focus on your space, your group, your table. You are isolated even if you are out with hundreds of other people.

NCI: What do you think contributed to this change?

SL: 9/11 had a major psychological effect on nightlife culture. We collectively embraced the concept of Safety In Numbers or SIN. Instead of feeling confident about interacting with people who were very different, we began to huddle up with their own kind. Now most of us are more nervous hanging around anyone who isn’t like us in ways we think are significant. The growth of bottle service is a direct by product of people’s need to be separated. It’s not that each group of people is doing radically different things. They are drinking the same drinks, dancing to the many of the same songs and still trying to have sex with each other. They are just less willing to mingle with other people.

NCI: So it wasn’t higher real estate prices, smaller venues, tougher laws and more fragmented musical tastes that were detrimental to New York City nightlife.

SL: All those things had an impact, but they were minor. The SIN effect caused by 9/11 caused a seismic shift that overshadowed all those other things. And keep in mind that in many ways, nightlife culture is as good now as it has ever been, it’s just very different than it was before. If you look at every element of the nightlife experience, you’ll see operators becoming more and more specialized. Each one does their separate job better than it was done in the past. They have to. Patrons feel more and more alienated from their governments, their jobs and their lives. They are looking for more and more distraction and they get that from New York nightlife. More and more tourists are coming to the city for our dance clubs and cocktail lounges. Venues are spending more and more on music, design and food. The stage is set for a new golden age of NYC nightlife.

SL: Who do you see as the next major player in nightlife culture?

The celebrity doorman, DJ, and bartender have all had their time in the spotlight. The cocktail waitress/ bottle service girl is the next big thing. She is the one people interact with the most. She can put on a show and entice people into having a good time. In the past the waitress was a model or an actress waiting to be discovered. Now, the best bottle service girls already know that the job is an end in and of itself. They can make big money, work in any major city and mingle with a very exclusive crowd in the process. Don’t be surprised if schools pop up to teach this skill set, the same way it did for mixologists and DJs. The better clubs are already teaching these skills. Everyone is more specialized now, bottle service won’t be an exception.

Have fun.


Why Do You Enjoy New York Nightlife? The Motivating Factors in Nightlife Culture

By Gamal Hennessy

People usually have reasons for why they do things. We go to work to make money. We eat because we’re hungry. We fall asleep on the train because we’re tired. We may not consciously know why we do certain things, but if we think about it, we can usually figure out the reason.

So why do we go out at night? It can deprive us of sleep, money and the chance to watch reality TV if we don’t turn on the DVR. We put something into nightlife. Do we get anything out of it?

I think there are as many reasons for going out as there are people who go out. But after years of non-scientific, anecdotal, and random observation, I’ve come up with seven broad categories to define why we go out. Six of them can be lumped under the concept of ‘having fun’, and one is almost like work (but much better than being in the office). Take a look and figure out which category fits you best.

Consumption: (The things we take in)
For some people its beer. For others it’s dirty martinis. Some of us want to eat and some of us want substances that are illegal in many states. It doesn’t really matter what your particular poison is, a big part of nightlife is to indulge in eating, drinking and smoking. The reason cocktail lounges, wine bars, micro brew bars and hookah bars do so well is because we are willing to pay to satisfy our hunger to imbibe.

Connection: (The people we meet)
You meet a friend at a bar for a drink when she wants to talk. You go out for happy hour after work with your co-workers to bitch about your boss. You might have girl’s night out once a month. You might cruise the hotels bars for cougars. Humans are social creatures. We have a need to connect with one another. At work and at home, you are constrained in your behavior and limited in the people you can interact with. In nightlife culture, the walls come down. You can talk and act more freely. You can meet people for a minute or forge bonds that last for years. The connection might be intense or shallow, but the energy is different at night.

Entertainment: (The things we see and hear)
The chance to see, hear or feel something is a huge part of nightlife culture. You might be listening to an unknown comic or garage band one night and part of the insane crowds at a Police or Danny Tenaglia concert the next night. You might go out just to see other patrons devolve into a hot mess Jersey Shore style. Entertainment can be something as innocent as watching a baseball game at a local bar or as corrupt as the back room of a swinger’s club. It’s been said that one man’s porn is another man’s art, and no where is that more true than in New York nightlife. What you want to see and hear at night actually says a lot about how you see yourself as a person.

Flash: (The wealth we display)
There are people who want to be seen spending big money on table service. They want you to see their Mercedes SUV. They want to drop a few thousand on membership to a private club the rest of us can’t get into. The idea of a discount service or happy hour makes them cringe. Why? Because they are living the glamorous life and they want you to know it. Consumption here isn’t as important as being able to afford the consumption. If you have the money (or just want to look that way) you want the car, the clothes and the Grey Goose. What better place to display your status than in the New York dance clubs?

Obligation: (The social debt)
There are times that we go out when we don’t really want to. The client is in town from Kansas and someone has to take them out. Tag, you’re it. You’re girlfriend’s brother is having a birthday party. She’s going, so you’re going. Tag, you’re it. You’re friend just got fired, dumped, rejected for the cast of Real World 37. They want you to meet them for a drink. Tag, you’re it. This is the only reason for going out that might not be fun, but compared to being stuck in your office or bored at home, it’s not that bad, is it?

Release: (The temporary escape)
Sometimes you need a break. You can’t sit in your cubical anymore. If your boss calls you one more time about TPS reports, you’re going to cut someone. You’ve tried to like The Voice and its just not working for you. You need to dance. You need to spend time with your friends. You need to get away from the desk and the TV for a few hours. New York nightlife doesn’t last as long as a vacation, but you don’t have to get frisked by Homeland Security to get into the club.

Sex: (The foundation)
Expressions of sexuality can be found in almost every aspect of New York nightlife. The clothing is tighter and more revealing. The conversation has more carnal energy. Inhibitions are lowered with alcohol. The movements on the dance floor don’t leave anything to the imagination. Nightlife is a sexual metaphor on a city wide scale. It can be simple or elaborate, fun or dangerous, satisfying or forgettable, mysterious or revealing, expensive or cheap, all at the same time. Maybe that’s why so many people keep coming back to it night after night.

Of course, many of these categories overlap. Any of us might have several goals on any given night, making any club night an exercise in multi-tasking. But if you think about why you go out, you’ll have a better idea of what kind of place you want to go to and finding the right place for you will be much easier. In short if you know why you go out you will have more fun.

Have fun.