Artist Feature: Howie Abrams and ILL BILL Merciless Radio New York Hardcore
Click here to listen to the New York Hard Core radio show.
Described as the “last great youth movement” by Craig Setari of the band Sick of It All, the incendiary, pulsating second wave of New York Hardcore has left an indelible mark on culture at large. For the most recent issue of our Carhartt WIP magazine, we presented a detailed retrospective of this era, unearthing unseen photos and outtakes, and speaking to those who were right at the heart of it all, such as Pete and Lou Koller of Sick of It All, Hoya Roc of Madball, and documentarian Drew Stone. This month’s Carhartt WIP Radio show expands on this theme, with an exclusive show put together by one of the dossier’s main contributors, Howie Abrams.
A former music business executive, Abrams is engrained in the genetic code of New York’s underground hardcore scene of the late 1980s and early 90s. He initiated his career with a hands-on approach, carrying gear for his favorite bands and managing their tours unofficially. Soon picked up by the predominately death metal label Roadrunner, Abrams opened the record label up to the hardcore scene – a move that, at the time, was predicted to be unlucrative. With bands like Madball, Shelter, Vision of Disorder, Biohazard, and Dog Eat Dog thriving on Roadrunner, Abrams’ auspicious instincts were a catalyst for what NYHC is still known for today.
In recent years, Abrams and his co-host ILL BILL’s weekly radio show MERCILESS RADIO has been steadily championing hardcore and heavy metal on the underground airwaves of NYC. In advance of this month’s WIP x Merciless Radio NYHC special, we sat down with Abrams to discuss the New York scene – then and now.
You can also now print your own copy of our NYHC zine insert, first present in WIP Issue 03, here. Simply download it, print it, and staple it together.
In the modern era of streaming, why is radio still so important?
Howie Abrams: I think that the big difference is that it's live. I grew up with radio where you were hearing somebody who was speaking to you at that particular moment and I think that there was something exciting about that. Because, you know, there were all these moments where somebody would drop an F-bomb on the radio and then have to worry about whether or not they were going to get in trouble. Or, they put the wrong version of a song into the playlist and it wasn't edited. Like with the Who’s “who the f*** are you?” lyric. You always wondered when you heard it played on the radio if that's the version you were gonna hear, or the edited “who the hell are you?” And then, when it slipped in, you were like, “Oh my god they said ‘f***’ on the radio!” [Laughs].
So that is one of the coolest elements of radio I think as opposed to streaming – which is also awesome because it's got this on-demand component to it and you can listen to it whenever you want. For us, what we've done with Merciless is always a combination of the two. We love doing live radio because that's what we grew up on and we like the “on the spot” part of it. I think that makes it more interesting and more exciting. But we also know that four times as many people listen through streaming later as like a podcast than they ever do when we're live. So we see the numbers live and they're good, but then three days later we have four times as many listens.
What radio stations were you listening to when you were growing up?
Howie Abrams: So for me, there were obviously these big rock stations, right? So you had your WPLJ’s and your WNEW’s. I was in Queens so you heard WBAB out on Long Island and they would play rock stuff. But I wasn't hugely into radio because I didn't like a lot of that music. I wasn't the classic rock guy. One of the reasons I got into the music that I got into was because I hated the radio, you know, I hated those bands and the people that liked those bands, the people with f***ing Jim Morrison and Led Zeppelin painted jackets. Also, that music wasn't tangible. You couldn't go see those bands, they’d broken up. These people felt like they were all living in the past, their older brothers and sisters passed these bands down to them. Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, all that stuff.
Later on, I found some merit in those bands and I wound up liking some of their music, but at that time when you're a kid, you want your own thing. And then you found out that there’s college radio, fanzines and ways to find out about other music. Then you started going to record stores, that was probably the biggest thing. You were like “that dude who’s wearing all that weird s***, what did he buy? Oh, he bought a Misfits record? A Dead Kennedys record?” and then you're like, “Oh… I didn't know that stuff.”
What were some of your favorite record shops?
Howie Abrams: Bleecker Bob's was definitely the mecca for me. That was the place I would go to when I was old enough to get on the train from Queens and go into the city. It was also right by the West 4th stop. But everybody knew Bleecker Bob’s, right? So you’d go to Bleecker Bob’s, you’d go to Sounds, you would go to Venus. Then, once I was able to drive there was a store out on Long Island called Slipped Disc, which was a great, great store that had everything. There was one in Queens not too far from me called Ken’s Music Box, and I found out later Sick of It All actually rehearsed in the basement. So, after school we’d get high and go to Ken’s Music Box and he’d be playing Howard Stern when he was on during the day, so you’d listen to that with the guy who owned the store just waiting for what [Howard Stern] was going to do next. And then he [Ken] would be like “Oh, there's this new New Wave of British Heavy Metal band”, or there's a new this that or the other thing, you know, and you’d buy it there, so that was super convenient. But he would also sell all the import magazines, Kerrang, Metal Forces, Maximumrocknroll, so you had access to that stuff there.
But going into the city was cool, you almost felt like you were the suburban kid even though you were from one of the five boroughs. That’s what Queens kind of is - I had to take a really long bus ride and then a pretty long train ride into the city just to do that. You’d go to Washington Square Park and get your nickel bag and then just go to a record shop. It was like a sport, you know? At Bleecker Bob’s the guys behind the counter were involved in the scene somewhat so they would tell you, “if you like this, you’d like this.” Or, if you like the Misfits, check out 45 Grave. There was always something that was next. You didn't know that people from New York were just walking in there and selling records to them on consignment. That’s how I bought Agnostic Front’s Victim In Pain, at Bleecker Bob’s. And that was the game changer.
Back then, those records were few and far between. So to buy an Agnostic Front record, the Cro-Mags demo, or the Murphy’s Law demo – you could buy those things there. If you went to the shows people would sell the demos and things outside, but there weren’t a lot of records. People weren't really selling records. It was just expensive and these bands really didn’t make enough money to press anything so all of these records were very limited run pressings. It was weird, because with Agnostic Front and "Victim In Pain" they were almost on a label – Rat Cage was kind of a label, it was a store that sort of started a label and did Beastie Boys, Agnostic Front, the Neos, and Heart Attack and would put out releases by them. And there was one place to go, there was their clubhouse and then they did mail-order, so if you read Maximumrocknroll or Flipside, there would be ads in there where you could send money away and get it. But we were in New York, so you could physically go buy the records. Roger and Vinnie (Agnostic Front) would actually bring the records to Bleecker Bob’s but they would sell out in like two days, because after people got hip to "Victim In Pain" they’d put 20 more copies there and people would be waiting for them. They'd be gone in a few hours. So you kind of had to know when they were coming in. Like, “When are you getting "Victim In Pain" back in? At 2? Alright, I’ll be there at 1” [Laughs].
That’s how it worked because these records weren’t readily available. You couldn't even go to another borough and buy this stuff let alone outside New York. So it was mail-order or a small handful of places you could physically go.
When you were doing A&R were there any bands you wish you’d signed?
Howie Abrams: Leeway is probably the one I've talked about before. We had In Effect Records going and Leeway was signed to Profile Records, who had started doing what we were doing. So they were doing Leeway, Murphy's Law, Cro-Mags, and they did these reissues later with the Mob and bands like that. So Leeway was a band that I just thought was going to be the f***ing biggest band – gigantic. I loved them as a fan, I had reviewed their demo for my fanzine like four years earlier. So they go do their album Born To Expire and it's just sitting on the shelf unreleased, inexplicably, no idea why that record was just sitting there not coming out. It was done, there was a cover, it just wasn't coming out.
The guys would literally go to matinees in the band’s van and just have a boombox and play the album for everyone. And I’m like, “Jesus Christ, this is so good.” It was amazing. And so it’s sitting there, and In Effect are doing our thing and people are starting to give a s*** about what we're doing. So we approached Profile Records and were like, “Can we buy that album from you?” And they were receptive to it. But then Chris Williamson basically asked for an advance for the band on top of what we would have had to pay Profile back to get the album. We just didn’t have that money, everything we could put together was to get that record out. And he wasn't being truthful with band about that conversation. So the band totally knew that we were trying to get the record but they didn't know that he asked for more money on top. The band would have been perfectly happy, the album would have come out, people would have given a s*** about it. They saw what we were doing with Sick of It All, Killing Time, Agnostic Front and wanted to be a part of it and we just couldn’t get it done. That was a band that I would have been so amped to work with.
If you could pick one favorite frontman who would it be?
Howie Abrams: H.R. of the Bad Brains. [laughs]. He is the greatest there’s ever been, any genre of music. He’s the one that everybody else emulated. It's no secret that when the Bad Brains moved to New York and started playing that's when all the New York kids were like “Let's start bands!” There was just no one else like him.
What is something about the current hardcore scene you think may have been lost in time?
Howie Abrams: Well, I think in a bad way, and by no one's fault, it’s just too big. I don't mean that there's too many people involved, I mean that because of the size it's become more cliquey than ever, and that's something that bothers me. It doesn't seem to be about the music first – it feels very formulaic and it feels very segregated. There are just too many sub-genres, too many people conscious of the sub-genres. The fashion thing is too much about what you look like, what you’re wearing has become too prominent and too important. It's sort of like everything you hope doesn't happen with something that's cool has probably happened. People care about perception maybe more than they care about whether it’s a great band. Are they somebody I want to see over and over again, I want to support, I'm going to go buy their records and the shirts and their stuff? People are thinking too much instead of just enjoying it.
But the good news is there's still new bands, there's still shows, there are still people who want to have independent shows and they don't have to be at big venues because you can't just do that because you feel like it. But I just wish the spirit was a little bit more genuine. I feel like that's kind of missing right now.
What about something from today that you wish existed in the early days of the scene?
Howie Abrams: I don't know if there's anything I wish existed then from today’s aspects of the scene, I think there were a lot of lessons learned by difficulty of all of it – like having to seek out a record, where to go get it. I wish that still existed, I wish it wasn't so easy now. Again, not to sound like an old man, but now the music and stuff is so f***ing accessible that these bands form, and they have a demo two weeks later and everybody can have it, and they have shirts before they have music, you know, all these things. I don't ever remember that being the case. If it's about your band you have to grow your band and be a better band than you were the week before.
Is there a recent record or band that you’ve been stoked on?
Howie Abrams: I really like Mindforce. I think that it's very reminiscent of Leeway and I love Leeway so when I first heard them it caught me. Of the newer crop of bands that’s one that’s really gotten me. La Armada are really, really good, that's another band that I just really didn't know much about and I went to a benefit at Saint Vitus and I thought they were fantastic.
What are some things you have in the works?
Howie Abrams: I just dropped Hip Hop Alphabet 2 with my partner Kaves, he and I did the first Hip Hop Alphabet book that sold out about two years ago and just got reprinted. Then on July 23rd the paperback of H.R’.s biography Finding Joseph I is coming out.
Then working on the "Lou and Pete" book which comes out early next year. It's a very American Dream story. It's not a “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” book like some of these other hardcore books. This is definitely about perseverance.
The Blood And The Sweat: The Story of Sick Of It All’s Koller Brothers releases early next year. You can read more from Howie in New York Hardcore: A Retrospective inside Issue 3 of WIP Magazine, available now at WIP stores and select retailers.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)
David Gagne, Sue Kwon, BJ Papas