Any music lover in New York with a general curiosity for up-in-coming international music and care to share the same space with legendary performers will have passed through SOBs at some point. This historical venue has been standing strong for 29 years now has the longest running Brazilian music series in New York, which started the year that SOBs was founded in 1982. Larry Gold, the founder of SOBs has created a uniquely home-like atmosphere for live music, where the best Brazilian, Latin, Jazz, R&B, Soul and hip-hop acts have played since their humble beginnings. Few intimate venues have as many legends gracing the stage. The remarkable thing about SOBs is that they have stayed true to their vision of supporting great live music as well as often foreshadowing the next great artists/musicians, including in the past: A Tribe Called Quest, Seu Jorge, Kanye West, and many others.
We’re so grateful to Larry and the SOBs crew for partnering with us on this issue. Here’s an interview that we did with Larry about the origins of SOBs. We hope someone will make the documentary soon.
When did SOB’s open?
29 years ago. We opened on June 4th, 1982.
What was the inspiration for opening up the venue?
The inspiration for why I started it was that I really fell in love with Brazilian music and I really wanted to put up a Brazilian nightclub. I spent time in Europe, and at the time I had a girlfriend from Barcelona when I lived in Paris, who only listened to Brazilian music. In turn, I just totally got into it. What I would do was I would work for my father who was in the sandwich shop business in the summers, and then I would go back to Europe. I was doing that for about 4-5 years, and I got really tired of it. I didn’t want to do the back and forth anymore. The motive was “let me open this Brazilian club.” The space I ended up using, half of it was one my father’s sandwich shops, luncheonettes. We started with very little money and a lot of sweat equity, and converted the sandwich shop into a Brazilian club. It was super successful the first Friday night/Saturday night, Sunday night we ended up doing a music style called Choro, more from the 30s and 40s, and like two people came and there was a heavy rain. It was a great wake up call because Friday/Saturday were packed to the gills.
In the very beginning our marketing strategy was—there was only one major big rock-and-roll club called the Ritz. That club would have Tina Turner, and basically the equivalent of the stones, or every major San Francisco group. It was the place. They took out half a page of the Village Voice. I would take out half a page of the Village Voice, with groups that no one had ever heard of—New York based Brazilian bands. It worked.
The other interesting thing at the time was, back in ‘82, this sort of corner between King Street and Houston Street, was actually the busiest on the weekends because there were two clubs, there was Heartbreak Club diagonally across the street, and there was Paradise Garage. On any Friday or Saturday night, this was the busiest place in the city. That probably also didn’t hurt as well. We learned very quickly that we couldn’t just survive on Brazilian music. I ended up tracing and exploring Brazilian back to its roots, which is Africa, and we started another series called “Africa meets Brazil” and low and behold, timing was everything, it was really the beginning of the whole African music coming to the shores, not only of the U.S. but Europe. We had King Sonny Ade, we had Fela, and we were also blessed with Baba Olatunji who lived in New York, so that series kicked off as well. From there, we just sort of became ironically an Afro-centric club in nature, that sort of traced music as it landed in North America, we ended up doing Zydeco and Cajun, in the early days we also did a lot of the free form jazz, Henry Threadgill, Jaco Pastorius, and as well as music from central America, and simultaneously we were one of the first clubs that was doing hip-hop in the early days: KRS-One, and the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest. The club formed as sort of an urban world music, international venue, and until this day that is who we are and where we are focused. Ironically we have been doing Saturday Brazilian music for over 29 years. We used to do it the entire Saturday, and then we created a Brazilian show. We’d do it from when our doors opened from 7-midnite every Saturday, and once a month we’re going to expand that, once a month we are going to create another Brazilian party to go to, so at least there will be another Brazilian night throughout the entire evening as well.
But Brazilian music has gone—similar to everything else over 29 years—things go up and things go down and changes. We’ve been blessed to have some of the greatest Brazilian artists grace our stage, from the early days Giberto Gil, Jorge Ben Jor, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, and to some of the rock groups, to some of the reggae groups. So to this day, we try to do some of the newer Brazilian artists, like Seu Jorge came the first time, we like to be still in the forefront of the music scene, the Brazilian scene is constantly changing. They’re now influenced more by the whole electronic scene, the techno scene, the house scene, as well as by reggae music. It’s always challenging to bring some of the music direct from Brazil, at the same time keep the quality of music that’s here within the United States.
How do you stay at the forefront?
I think you listen to a lot of music, and you also are selective, where say in New York, there might be 12 or15 Brazilian artists who try to play in the area. If I only think 5 are the quality that I would like to represent, than I would only use 5 of the 15. I think that’s important, the selective process has to always be there. The quality has to always be there. That’s constantly changing as well.
What happened to the other venues?
I think Heartbreak was absolutely a timepiece, and The Garage, the owner had passed away. But I think when we got into what we started—the venue—we were totally about the creative process, and I think that’s what has kept us in it as long as we are, and right now we are still about the creative process, but sadly it’s become, to survive, it’s a business first. We balance out now differently than we did 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago.
You have so much of the young hip-hop groups, and bring attention to it, when did the shift come to focus on that?
I think it happened kind of organically. Since we were doing hip-hop for so many years anyways, which changed within hip-hop, right now, hip-hop up until a decade ago was perceived by mainstream media as being inner city artists of color, and now the reality is hip-hop is no different than pop that yes, it’s roots are inner city, but I would say, 1-2 suburban kids listen to hip-hop, the other half listen to alternative rock. Hip-hop is no longer, it’s also international where in most major African, and European cities similar to the states, it’s become mainstream, and we try to present the best of it. That’s why I think it’s been a natural progress. When anything goes mainstream it changes too. I would still like to do the mixture between international and urban music, and probably a little bit more R&B, classic soul, but in the last year, if you’re not Adele and maybe 2-3 other people, it was not a great year for younger artists who were R&B singer. Outside of Adele, which is great, because she has super talent, to me I’m very happy when an artists like Adele sells millions of millions of records and is successful because it’s real talent, in a lot of situations I still think within hip-hop that the talent is there but it’s a very narrow scope in the sense that it’s fun to talk about the beauty of getting high, but if that’s 80% of what’s behind the music, ok, it’s cool for a summer season, but I don’t think it has longevity.
Would you say that the music that you select at SOB’s reflect your personal tastes?
Reflect the tastes of myself and the people involved with SOBs. Yes. And we’re always on the search for what we believe will be quality music. Obviously that’s an aesthetic decision, so it’s not about right or wrong, but most of the time when we talk about an artist, we don’t disagree that much. I mean, there are certain artists that are extremely popular or commercially popular, and we’ll all look at each other and say “we don’t get it,” it happens more frequently now than I think it’s ever happened.
You’ve been around for almost 30 years, seeing different artists kind of develop over the years?
In some ways it’s sort of on one front, and one perspective. It’s kind of sad, like seeing the Latin world, seeing Tito Puento pass, and Celia Cruz pass, so many of the fine young artists pass away, and not seeing new generation come up, and then not to be too morbid that was sad obviously, it’s sad to see artists who had a great 10-20-30 years, and when they hit the 50s or 60s, or even 70s, just stopping and not performing anymore. Seeing the boxers trying to fight one more fight when they should be retiring, that’s also equally as sad. It’s hard for artists who start out in their 20s and some in their teens, and there are very few artists who are career artists. A lot of the artists, particularly in the urban world, don’t really look at the career perspective. They’ve been blessed, they were successful in their 20s and early 30s. By the time that they are literally in their 40s, they are finished. It’s like an athlete retiring early. Though I think the athletes are much better prepared than the artists in this respect. I think that management prepares them that there’s a short window. I’m not sure that in music business that’s the case.
What other clubs have had such an extensive history, stayed true to their roots, and is still thriving?
The club business, back in the day, everyone had their genres and their areas, and most people stuck to them. And again with the economy turning more or less after the millennia, everybody is just trying to do everything. The one other place besides ourselves that I give a ton of credit to is the Bowery Presents because what they’ve done with the alternative rock scene is very admirable there. They do pretty much what they know and they do it well, and we try to do the same thing. We don’t try to have country western one night and have something else another night. It’s again, chosen within the urban or within the international scope because we feel that’s a huge part of New York. I think SOB’s in many ways is pretty reflective of New York pop culture, at least from the ethnic perspective.
Interview by Boyuan Gao and Nora Ritchie