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CALLIOPE STUDIOS, 265 West 37th Street

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In the early 1900s, the rapid expansion of the city's fashion industry drove a construction boom in the Garment District -  an area between Sixth and Ninth Avenues, from 34th to 42st Street.

 

The American Union Building at the corner of 37th Street and Eighth Avenue was constructed in 1925. American Union Bank was on the ground floor, while the upper floors were open lofts leased to cutting and sewing businesses.

 

The Stock market crash on Black Monday, October 28, 1929, brought The Roaring Twenties to a screeching halt. The city’s banking system descended into chaos as anxious depositors tried to withdraw their money before banks collapsed, causing widespread bank runs.

 

On August 5th, 1931,The New York State Superintendent of Banks declared the American Union Bank “unsafe to continue in business”, leaving a crowd on 8th Avenue unable to collect their savings before it closed.

American Union Bank, New York City. August 5th, 1931. © National Archives

De La Soul in Calliope Studios. © unknown

After World War 2, the  Garment District declined as production moved overseas. By the 1980s, many buildings open lofts were being carved into smaller spaces, and small businesses moved in, attracted by cheap rent.

 

Calliope Studios opened in 1984 on the 17th floor of 265 W37th Street. It was one of the cheapest studios in the city at the time, charging $24 an hour for overnight sessions.

 

"Anytime you want to find what new music is bubbling up under the scene, go to the cheapest studio in town,” says engineer Bob Power.

 

Power came to New York in 1986 determined to become a Jazz guitarist, but quickly found himself playing in wedding bands and taking the subway home in his tuxedo. He eventually found work producing television jingles at Calliope Studios.

 

He was soon producing breakthrough sessions for Stetsasonic, the founders of the “Native Tounges“ collective that started the conscious hip-hop and jazz-rap movements.

 

His willingness to experiment in the studio made him the go-to engineer for groups like Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul who were using primitive sampling technology to blend hip-hop with jazz, soul, and funk.

De La Soul in Calliope Studios. © unknown

“The way of constructing music with sampling was fairly new to me,“ says Power, “If I had known what I was doing, I probably would have been one of the people who say, ‘Oh, that’s not the way we do things,’ or, ‘That shit’s not music.’ Those guys are selling insurance now.”

 

“I started to think of engineering as creative problem solving “

 

“We'd take records along to the studio,” says De La Soul’s Prince Paul “and say: ‘We need you to loop this portion of Magic Mountain by Eric Burdon and War. We're going to rap over it and add a bunch of sounds’. And that ended up being “Potholes In My Lawn.” 

 

“You have to remember how incredibly primitive MIDI and sampling technology was at that point,” says Power, who was sequencing on an Atari 1040. “You had to pop in a floppy disc, boot up the operating system, take that floppy out, pop in another floppy with the software, and leave that in there for the whole time you were sequencing.”

 

“If there was a loop that was longer than a second-and-a-half, we had to lay it down in pieces to different tracks on 2-inch, and then work like hell to make sure they lined up and sounded good together.”

 

“It’s a great example of technology informing art.”

A Tribe Called Quest, 1991. © Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives)

Calliope was instrumental in hip-hop’s changing of the guard, producing breakthrough hip-hop records that offered positive-minded, good-natured Afrocentric lyrics with jazz, soul, and funk-influenced beats in stark contrast to the ‘gangster’ sound and image prominent in rap music at the time.

 

“We weren't trying to be tough guys,” says Ali Shaheed Muhammad “It was about having fun, being lighthearted, being witty, being poetic. Just being good with one another.”

 

When A Tribe Called Quest released People's Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm in 1990, NME said “This is not rap, it's near perfection".

Calliope Studios closed in 1994.

 

Today the building still houses many businesses serving the garment industry, providing pattern making, textiles, screen printing, embroidery, sewing machine repair, and custom glove manufacturing.

Other tenants include Bellydance America, Mission Escape Rooms, Antigravity Lab Yoga Studio, The New York Jazz Workshop.

 

The 17th-floor space Calliope occupied is now Studio Arte, a 4000sq.ft. open-plan event space used for “social gatherings, media events, corporate meetings, and receptions.”

Hidden behind the steel grey doors of the building's freight entrance is an Ecuadorian restaurant, El Sabroso. Alongside porters wheeling hand trucks and garment racks, a small kitchen with five stools serves stews with rice, beans, and homemade hot sauce - a throwback to when lunch counters served cheap meals to garment industry workers at the turn of the century.

Bob Power is currently a Professor at the Clive David Institute of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Brooklyn, where he teaches the art of music production.

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