There is a house in Bed-Stuy that hums with music.
On certain days, you can hear the sound blocks away, on Nostrand, even on Fulton. Some days it’s the blast of a megalithic homemade sound system rigged up for a block party. Other days, it’s the sound of a nine-piece band grooving through a never-ending rehearsal. Sometimes it’s a chamber quartet; sometimes it’s actors rehearsing in the den. But there’s rarely a day where the house is silent, and never a day where the house is still.
If you follow the sound to its source, on Herkimer Street, you come to a massive, two-lot brick building with a veranda under an elegant inlaid wood canopy. It is a remarkable house for a remarkable family: Broadies and John Byas, and their children, Jazmine, Kenya, and Matthew. Broadies, the matriarch and a former sound engineer and teacher, grew up in this house. John, called Jay by his family and almost everyone he knows, keeps his studio in the basement. He is better known by yet another name: DJ Jazzy Jay, member of the Soul Sonic Force, compatriot of Afrika Baambaataa, and one of the founders of hip-hop. Jazmine and Matthew are musicians, and Kenya is a dancer and actress.
The music of the Herkimer house — the sound of a family working and thriving — has been a part of Bedford-Stuyvesant for two generations. The neighborhood’s rise, decline, and renaissance has been an epic drama. And the Byas family has provided the soundtrack.
On a chilly night in March, Broadies Byas leads me on a brief tour of the house she has lived in almost all of her life. A slight woman with light brown skin, high cheekbones and a strong Brooklyn accent, she apologizes for the mess (the family has been renovating recently), but not the noise. A horn section is warming up in the basement while Jay listens to a beat in his studio. The sound fills the house. If any of the tenants who share the house have complaints, they don’t voice them. “We tend to pick our tenants based on their tolerance for noise,” Broadies says.
The Byas house is decorated with music, but very clearly wrought through hard work. It’s filled with careful touches: oak paneling, stained glass, crown molding. Equipment for musical and home-improvement projects fills the hallways. The house has been this way ever since Broadies’ father, Thomas Key, bought it for $20,000 back in the fifties.
The Bedford-Stuyvesant that Broadies grew up in was a neighborhood undergoing one of the most dramatic demographic changes in American history. The extension of the A train to Rockaway Avenue in 1936 provided a natural conduit from Harlem to Bed-Stuy; during World War II and after, the Brooklyn Navy Yard lured black workers from Manhattan into Brooklyn. But as the black population of Bed-Stuy grew, white residents fled. The neighborhood went from being 75 percent white in 1940 to being less than 18 percent white in 1960.
Life in Bed-Stuy in the decades after the war was not easy. Many residents were desperately poor — by the late sixties, almost 30 percent of households lived below the poverty line. In 1966, one out of every three residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant was unemployed.
Yet the residents of the neighborhood were dedicated to building a community: in a 1966 report on the neighborhood, New York City’s Planning Commission referred to Bed-Stuy, in the impolitic language of the period, as a “well-organized ghetto.” Many residents were professionals; others like Broadies’ parents, who both migrated from South Carolina, had moved north seeking greater opportunities. Dozens of homegrown activist groups — Youth in Action, the Unity Democratic Club, The Apostles of Truth, a particularly active chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality — militated for equal employment, improved city services, and political representation. Their efforts led to the establishment of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first community development corporation. They elected Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, to represent Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1968. They did what they could to give their children’s generation a chance to make it.
Broadies’ father, Thomas Key, arrived in New York in the late thirties. He taught himself how to sew and became a bespoke tailor. For extra money, he moonlighted shifts at a local foundry. Her mother, Marie, worked as a seamstress. When Broadies was six, her parents went back to night school. While still holding down multiple jobs, they earned their high school equivalency degrees, bachelors’ degrees, and masters’ degrees — credentials that allowed them to get jobs as special education teachers.
“When my parents met,” Broadies says, “They said, ‘We’re going to save all our money because we want to live the American dream. We don’t want to just have an apartment or whatever. We want a nice house.’”
The Keys eventually saved up enough money to buy the house on Herkimer. Built in 1856, when Bedford-Stuyvesant was mostly forest, the house had been converted into a boarding house around the turn of the century and later abandoned. When the Keys first ventured inside, it was in total disrepair. “When they came into the house, they literally saw thick, thick cobwebs,” Broadies says. “It felt like a haunted house.” Somehow, while balancing work and school, the Keys managed to renovate that house into a home.
An only child, Broadies shared her parents’ drive. But she had different dreams. “I wanted to play piano all my life,” she says. “I kept bugging my parents and bugging my parents. I remember asking them, when I was four: ‘Can I get a piano? I want a piano!’” Her parents were not musical, but, after incessant lobbying from their young daughter, they agreed to provide for Broadies’ musical education, sending her for lessons in piano and flute.
“I spent my whole life from five, seven years old to eighteen years old, practicing anywhere between three to seven hours a day. I would practice until four in the morning,” Broadies says. “I didn’t go to any movies. Throughout my whole childhood, I only went to two movies. I did nothing but practice. I didn’t mind it; I wanted to do it.”
The work paid off. Broadies won acceptance to the High School of the Performing Arts, alma mater of Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, and Ben Vereen, among many other famous actors, musicians and dancers. For Broadies, Performing Arts and the music world offered a bohemian, nonconformist alternative to the environment provided by her non-musical parents in Bed-Stuy. The house was for sleeping and practicing; when she wanted to have fun, she would hang out in the East Village with her music friends. “At one point, I had shaved my hair into a mohawk and had a green mohawk,” she says, gesturing to her multiple ear piercings. “All of these holes had safety pins going in them. When I went to college, I looked like Madonna and Cindy Lauper threw up on me.”
It was at Performing Arts that Broadies met Jonathan Strasser, a teacher at the school and later, the music director for the InterSchool Orchestras of New York, an orchestra for some of the most talented young musicians in the city. Both Jonathan Strasser and his late brother Conrad taught Broadies; Jonathan would eventually go on to teach Broadies’ daughter Jazmine and her son Matthew. “Broadies was talented,” Strasser says delicately, “but also a little bit of a free spirit.”
The Keys were materially supportive of their daughter’s musical dreams, but never, according to Broadies, emotionally supportive. They had always viewed music as a passing phase. When Broadies got into Performing Arts, Marie pushed her to go to Sheepshead Bay High School instead. She wanted her daughter to become a doctor or a lawyer.
Broadies won the battle to choose her high school, but come senior year, when she auditioned and was accepted to Juilliard, her parents put their feet down. Nothing was going to come from pursuing music as a career. Instead, they sent her to St. Francis, a tiny liberal arts college in Downtown Brooklyn run by Franciscan friars. The free-spirited Broadies lasted one semester.
The abrupt end that her parents had put to Broadies’ music career left her unmoored. “They didn’t realize how hard this was and how much work I put into it,” Broadies says, with evident bitterness. “I didn’t play my music anymore because something had snapped. After I graduated, and since I wasn’t going to go to a musical college, I was like, ‘Well, why do I have to practice?’ I stepped away from my music and it was really hard. Every song I listened to I dissected; it took three years before I could stop dissecting songs.”
Liberated from her grueling practice schedule, Broadies started frequenting parties and nightclubs. “Here I was, eighteen, nineteen years old, and I’m discovering parties. And New York City in the eighties was really the time to discover parties,” she says.
It was at one of those nightclubs, The Roxy, where she met her future husband. But even before she met Jay, she knew who he was. Everybody at The Roxy knew Jay. He was DJ Jazzy Jay, resident DJ at the Roxy, occasional DJ on KISS-FM, member of the Soul Sonic Force and the mighty Zulu Nation, one of the originators and trailblazers of a new art form: hip-hop music.
Late into a long winter’s night, Jay is where he almost always is when he’s not on the road: his studio in the basement. “My father is just able to stay up working for days,” Jazmine says. “I don’t know how he does that.”
The walls of Jay’s studio are lined with gold records, family pictures, and photos of famous MCs. Two turntables and a mixer lie next to a large monitor and a state-of-the-art digital mixing board on neatly built racks. The opposite wall holds only a small chunk of Jay’s massive record collection. All together, Jay owns somewhere in the area of 400,000 recordings.
A union carpenter as well as a DJ, Jay points to his studio with pride. “Everything in here I built: all the racks, all the components, all the shelves. I can build practically anything out of wood, and I can prefabricate metal up to a certain point,” he says. “Instead of me going out and paying a mechanic, a builder, an electrician, a plumber, these are all things I took upon myself to learn, so I could have that knowledge. That way, even if I do hire somebody, it’s going to be done my way, and done correctly, or else, you know what? Hit the road, Jack!”
Jay comes from a people who always did it themselves. He is descended from the Gullah or Geechee people, a black community on the Georgia and Carolina Sea Islands notable for its history of relative autonomy and common origins on the West African coast. Until she passed away a few years back, Jay’s grandmother lived on a piece of land that the Byas family owned and farmed for generations. The land remains in the family.
In the sixties, Jay’s parents moved north to New York City, where they settled in Harlem; soon after, Jay was sent to join them. When their cramped tenement burned to the ground, they moved across the river to the Bronx River Houses public housing project in the South Bronx.
The South Bronx they arrived in was a desperate place. In the mid-seventies, per capita income in the neighborhood was 40 percent of the national average. Officially, youth unemployment was 60 percent, but many who worked within the community suspected that the real figure was closer to 80 percent. Gangs were everywhere. An epidemic of arson raged, spurred on by unscrupulous landlords who burned their buildings to the ground for the insurance money. In 1974 alone, more than 12,000 fires were recorded in the neighborhood.
The close bonds of the Byases, and their intense religiosity, shielded the family from some of the harshness of life in the South Bronx, but they still struggled. “We weren’t just poor,” Jay says. “We were po’. Couldn’t afford the -or.”
Growing up in an often-forbidding environment, Jay made the most of the talents he had. He had always loved music: he grew up drumming in church. And he had always been good with his hands. “I was always taking stuff apart and trying to either make it better or taking it apart, putting it back together, so I learned the intricacies and mechanics of different things,” he says. “The real thing that catapulted me into carpentry was seeing all these guys with these speakers, shit I couldn’t afford. So I took a look at it and said, ‘Hey, listen, I’ll learn how to build them!’”
The first speakers Jay built were little more than two plywood boards slapped together with a magnet, but through repeated dissections of radios and speakers and obsessive experimentation, his designs became more and more sophisticated. He learned to wire his own equipment, to build capacitors so that the tweeters wouldn’t blow out, to build crossovers and mixers, and, as was required for the South Bronx block parties of the time, to hack into the wiring of a lamppost so he could plug in his massive homemade sound systems.
In the technological arms race of early hip-hop, where a better sound system or more reliable equipment gave you a definite edge over competing DJs, Jay and his technical prowess soon caught the attention of Afrika Bambaataa. Bambaataa was a well-known and much admired figure in the Bronx River Houses: a pioneering hip-hop DJ and a founder of an ambitious new movement, the Zulu Nation, which sought to end gang violence and unify the youth of the South Bronx and beyond with its simple philosophy — “Peace, Unity, Love, and Having Fun.” One night, Bambaataa’s turntables broke just before a gig, and Bambaataa, knowing the quality of Jay’s equipment, asked to borrow Jay’s turntables. Jay came running down from his family’s apartment. That night, Bambaataa not only used Jay’s turntables, but he allowed Jay to spin as well. Jay proved himself on the decks, and from then on, Jay was DJ Jazzy Jay, Bambaataa’s right-hand man.
One can get a glimpse of a young Jay exhibiting his skill on the turntables in footage from an old Nickelodeon show. In the early days, a DJ needed to have immense coordination. Turntables were made simply to play back recordings, not to produce music, so the DJ needed to reverse-engineer the equipment in real time, turning a transmitting needle into an electronic plectrum and volume dials into guitar slides. In the video, Jay’s motions are smooth and confident, and he manipulates the record around the beat with a natural, seamless instinct. His hands jumping from mixer to tables to record, Jay works with an intense, totally absorbed focus. He looks up only when the tables come to a stop and the crowd begins to applaud.
The eighties saw hip-hop grow from a local phenomenon into a global culture. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, which included Jay, cut a record called Planet Rock. According to Tom Silverman, who released the record on Tommy Boy, it cost eight hundred dollars to make, and sold 650,000 copies. The record established a genre — electro — and served as a blueprint for techno, house, and much of the dance music of the eighties and nineties.
As Bambaataa’s lieutenant, Jay was at the forefront of the hip-hop movement. The Soul Sonic Force toured the world. Jay landed a film role, playing himself in the 1984 picture Beat Street, which introduced hip-hop to much of America. He was the DJ for one of the first hip-hop radio shows in the world, on KISS-FM. He found himself playing regular gigs at the hottest nightclubs in the city: at Negril, at Danceteria, and at The Roxy. Jay had attended school for carpentry, and had worked in the building trades, but when Planet Rock took off, he temporarily put his day job aside. “Now my hobby was paying me good money,” he says.
The night Jay met Broadies at The Roxy, he was manning the turntables and Broadies was keeping the guest list. “I remember one night, a fight broke out and people were running all over the place, and I remember just holding my head like, ‘Oh, God, why am I here tonight, why are these people wilding?’ And I looked up and Jay was doing the same thing. So we started out as very good friends, sitting in the corner, bitching and moaning about people,” Broadies says.
They began dating one night at Danceteria, the massive four-floor nightclub featured in the Madonna vehicle Desperately Seeking Susan. “It was easy to transition into the dating thing,” Broadies says. “We both secretly hate the same people and like the same things. It’s really fun to be around somebody that has the same likes, especially when you’re a geek. He’ll come upstairs at 4 o’clock in the morning because he finally got some speaker to work. Most women would be like, ‘What the, who cares?’ Me, I’m like, ‘Really, you finally got it to work? I gotta hear this!’”
In the mid-eighties, as Jay toured the world, Broadies began to realize that there were ways to make a living and stay close to her music without working as a professional musician. She interned with a series of recording engineers, and managed to talk her way into a job at Rawlston Recording, a calypso studio on Fulton Street. “One day I walked in and very arrogantly asked this man for a job, and in that West Indian world, women really aren’t welcome,” Broadies recalls. “I wowed them by playing the piano. I got the job.”
Broadies moved to Los Angeles and began freelancing as a recording engineer for jingle houses and soundtrack studios. She dated Jay off and on, and she found herself frequently flying back and forth between New York and LA. In the fall of 1988, Broadies was preparing to take a job as an assistant at Phil Collins’ studios. She was about to fly off to Europe when she made an unexpected discovery — she was pregnant.
“I said, ‘Motherhood, let’s try that for a while,’” she says.
On a recent Saturday, Jazmine plays with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights. An ornate church built in a filigreed, more-gothic-than-gothic style, St. Ann is a crown jewel in a neighborhood rich with architectural treasures. Beneath the magnificent stone vaults and the famed stained glass windows of William Jay Bolton, Jazmine joins the orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor. Her oboe tone is smooth, a subtle flavor filling the hall, setting the mark for the rest of the orchestra. The softness of her touch fits the delicacy of the Mozart piece — one of the few Mozart pieces in minor — exactly.
St. Ann is only a few miles from the house on Herkimer Street, but the church — and Brooklyn Heights — is a world away from the Bedford-Stuyvesant in which Jazmine was raised. The Bed-Stuy of 1988 was not the neighborhood her mother had grown up in.
While the incomes for black Brooklynites had increased steadily from the end of World War II to 1960, it stagnated during the sixties. The Navy Yard closed in 1966, putting thousands of black workers out of a job. Unemployment in Bed-Stuy soared to a rate of nearly 50 percent.
Meanwhile, white flight had taken its toll on the neighborhood. White families sold their houses for almost nothing, as soon as they could. In a story recounted to the sociologist Mary Manoni, one family simply walked out the door and never returned, leaving their furniture and everything they owned behind. Realtors capitalized on the chaos — and on housing discrimination, which limited where black families could buy — by snapping up houses and reselling them at exorbitant rates.
If they couldn’t sell right away, the realtors were content to let houses lie vacant. According to Horace Morancie, then director of Central Brooklyn Model Cities, around 60 percent of the housing units in Bedford-Stuyvesant were considered “dilapidated.” The city had little interest servicing a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly poor and black: a 1970 survey of several hundred Bed-Stuy residents revealed that 40 percent were unhappy with garbage collections, 60 percent with street cleaning. The neighborhood was hollowing out, and there was only so much the community could do to preserve what little they had.
Broadies remembers the ’77 blackout as the point at which the bottom fell out of the neighborhood. “I was practicing the piano, we were watching ‘Kojak’ or some nonsense, and the lights flickered, once, twice, and then went out. Within eight to ten minutes after that, you could hear all on Nostrand and Fulton glass breaking,” Broadies says. “When that riot hit, and they tore down their own community, the community didn’t build back up, and now you were stuck with nothing.” The few white businesses left in the neighborhood, Broadies recalls, closed down, and nothing opened in their stead.
The crack epidemic sundered what was left of the neighborhood’s social fabric. In 1990, at the peak of the violence, New York City had 14.5 murders for every hundred thousand residents; Bed-Stuy had 86 murders for every hundred thousand residents.
“Twenty years ago, Bed-Stuy had hookers on the corner over here, it was riddled with crackheads. You couldn’t get into your house and out of your house without bumping into some of that element,” Jay says.
Aware of the dangers of the neighborhood, Broadies was determined to make sure her children achieved. When she saw a sign of talent, she seized on it. As soon as Jazmine could walk, she started climbing up on the piano bench and began to bang on the keys in a musical way, so Broadies began teaching her daughter piano. She kept up the lessons until Jazmine was old enough for a piano teacher.
When Jazmine entered grade school, Broadies encouraged her to pick up the flute. Jazmine did not take to it. “My mom could tell I just didn’t like the instrument at all, so she was like, ‘Eh, why don’t you play the oboe — you get scholarships on the oboe,’” Jazmine says.
Although Jazmine is inclined to cast the decision in terms of the Byas family’s customary pragmatism, becoming an oboist is no casual undertaking. The instrument is expensive and temperamental, often cracking from the pressure of air blown forcefully into the tiny bore.
“The ill wind that blows,” Jonathan Strasser says of the oboe. “The oboe has a particularly pungent sound. In the hands of an artist, it can be very beautiful and exquisite. In the hands of people who don’t play it very well, it can be downright unnerving. When a child is first playing the oboe, you have to put up with an awful lot at the beginning for them to get beyond the point where they’re just making ugly noises.”
“We used to have a cat and every time she would play the oboe, the cat would scream,” Broadies recalls. “I knew she was getting better when the cat stopped screaming.”
But Broadies, who grew up with music, could at least fall back on her own experience. Her second daughter, Kenya, posed another challenge altogether. Kenya was born epileptic, and a doctor recommended she take up a strenuous activity to exhaust the brain. “When she was about two, she would walk around on her tippy-toes, and whatever music was playing, she would dance to in rhythm,” Broadies says. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a dancer.’” She put Kenya in classes with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Dance was not Broadies’ world, but she did whatever it took to make sure Kenya’s talents were cultivated. “My mother was always there for my shows. She helped me out picking out different outfits,” Kenya says. “She made me feel special. She tried to understand me more because she didn’t know how to dance. But she didn’t make me feel different about it. Because she made me feel powerful about it, I felt good about it.”
Broadies quickly realized that it was impossible to balance raising children with the grueling schedule of a recording engineer. She searched for more flexible options. She took a job at a nursery school down the block, where she worked as a teacher, just like her parents. She found tenants for her massive house — in a way, turning it back into the boarding house it once was. As many as seven people at a time have taken up residence above and alongside the Byases.
In return for all she put in — working to pay for music and dance lessons, shuttling her kids about, going to performances — Broadies demanded dedication from her children. “My mother was strict on our creativity because she didn’t want us to end up like some people on this block,” Kenya says. “She wanted us to have a dream, and go far, and do something with our lives.”
Clyde Daley, a trumpeter who has known the family for years and who has played with both Jazmine and Matthew, describes Broadies’ parenting style as supportive but firm. “Broadies has always been about letting her kids do what they love,” Daley says. “But, you know, they have to be sure that’s what they want to do, or she’s going to steer them in a different direction.”
When the family financial situation tightened, Kenya reevaluated her priorities, and decided that dance was no longer something to which she felt absolutely devoted. She is now enrolled at the College of New Rochelle, a small liberal arts college with a campus in Bed-Stuy, and she plans to become a teacher — inspired, in part, by the lifelong support of her mother. “I thank her for always wanting more from us,” Kenya says. “Because now I can actually pass that on and teach that on to somebody else, and let them know what they can do.”
Of the three Byas children, Jazmine followed most closely in her mother’s footsteps. For high school, she attended Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art & Performing Arts, the arts high school created by the 1984 combination of the School of Performing Arts, which Broadies attended, and the High School of Music & Art.
Like her mother did before her, Jazmine kept a punishing schedule as a teenager: three hours of rehearsal twice a week, concerts on Thursday and Friday, music school on Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., New York Youth Symphony on Sunday from 2 to 6. “I had no time to do anything else,” she says. “Did I sleep? I didn’t sleep.”
Jazmine possessed a drive typical of her family. By the summer before her senior year, she had already begun preparing materials for her college applications. “I had a list of schools, what to do to get into them, a list of pieces I was going to prepare,” she says. “I had all my applications done at least three weeks before the deadline.” Jazmine applied to nine schools and got into all nine, eventually deciding to attend the Eastman School of Music, a prestigious conservatory at the University of Rochester.
Broadies’ dream had come true — a generation later.
The week before Jazmine performs at St. Ann, Phony Ppl, Matthew’s band, plays Brooklyn Bowl, opening up for a DJ set by Roots drummer Questlove. A large, boisterous crowd gathers in front of the stage by the bowling lanes; some fans seem to know the words to every song. Phony Ppl plays what the band calls “Brooklyn soul” — a blend of neo-soul, hip-hop and funk. Three charismatic MCs — Elbee Thrie, Dyme-A-Duzin, Sheriff PJ — whip the audience into a fever pitch, pacing back and forth on the stage, beckoning to the crowd. Matthew is ensconced in the back, where he steadily leads the band through a flawless, supernally unified performance. Matthew has a precise touch: every snare hit sounds exactly like a hip-hop beat should. In the back of the stage, his face reflects cool, strenuous focus. Only once, after he manages to successfully lead the band through a treacherous breakdown, does he crack a smile: his father’s familiar grin.
When Jazmine was born, Jay made the decision to settle down. He had taught Rick Rubin everything he knew about hip-hop, and was the DJ on the first few Def Jam records. But he was cut out of the subsequent business partnership, which would come to define hip-hop for the world and which would make many others wealthy, some spectacularly so.
Determined never to be cheated again, Jay opted, once again, to do it himself. After he stopped touring in the mid-eighties, he built a studio in the Bronx, where he founded the label Strong City Records and recorded early work by groundbreaking hip-hop artists Fat Joe, A Tribe Called Quest, and Brand Nubian, among others. After moving from studio to studio in the Bronx and Queens, he eventually decided to build a studio in the basement of the Herkimer house.
So Matthew, the youngest child, grew up alongside his father in the studio. “We put him on the side and tried to keep him occupied. He actually programmed a beat for Big Punisher one day,” Jay recalls. “He had rhythm. When I closed my studio in the Bronx, I brought the drums here. Jazmine tiddled on it for a little bit. Matthew started coming down and playing around with it, and it’s like, good!”
Like his sister, Matthew was musically precocious. Broadies taught him to read music before he could read the alphabet. At the tender age of four, he played Lincoln Center as a percussionist with ISO. The bass drum was bigger than he was.
Although Matthew studied classical percussion at his mother’s behest, his heart was always with pop and hip-hop, the music his father loved and the music with which he grew up. Broadies says Jay was thrilled when his son chose to pursue his kind of music.
“He was kind of sad when both Matthew and Jazmine were into classical music, because that wasn’t his world. He would go to the shows, but you could see that he was sitting there like, ‘When is this going to end? I’m hip-hop!’” Broadies says. “When Matthew decided that he wanted to leave the classical world alone and get into this world, you could see the pride. I mean, he’s proud of Jazmine too, but this is something he can see and feel and touch.”
Matthew lives and breathes Phony Ppl, constantly rehearsing, writing, recording, and touring. The band has seen some modest success — booking shows at Brooklyn Bowl, getting airplay on the BBC.
The group is very much a collaborative project, to which Matthew is only one of many contributors. But they have, without a doubt, been shaped by the Byas musical legacy. They rehearse and record in the basement of the house on Herkimer, which they refer to as the “Casa De La Phony.”
“Just the echo, the ambiance, the dryness of the room. We record in here all the time and we rehearse here. This is our natural ear,” Matthew says.
The house also has Jay, whose store of knowledge is a tremendous musical resource. “He’s always offering input, and we always take it, because you know, DJ Jazzy Jay has a lot to offer,” Matthew says. “We at least try his suggestion once.”
Jay is eager to offer musical advice, but he also wants to help his son avoid the pitfalls of the music business. “I tell Matthew a lot, because basically I don’t want to see him run into a lot of the walls I ran into,” Jay says. “I tell him, ‘Yo, you gotta keep abreast on what’s going on with your music: inside the studio, inside your head, as well as in the business world.’ It’s hard. When you’re talent, you just want to get your embodiment of music out there, but you have someone else going, “Don’t worry, just do your thing in the studio, we got it when it gets out.’ Yeah, they’ve got it all the way to the bank!”
He has no illusion about the future his son faces in this world; he, more than anyone, knows that music is a fickle business. “We broke ground for a lot of cats who are making money today. We got jerked. We got sacrificed. The Sugarhill Gang, for example: Big Bank Hank went back to being a doorman, while Sylvia Robinson [the head of Sugar Hill Records] had Greek statues lining her driveway,” Jay says.
Still, Jay is happy to see Matthew pursuing music.
“I’d like to see my kids doing things they love doing, and eventually moving that into a career,” he says.
“There’s nothing worse than going into work every day at a job you can’t stand, saying, ‘Goddamn, I hate my job, I hate my life, I hate my boss.’ Me, I love my boss — every time I look in the mirror, I’m like, ‘Thank you!’”
All three Byas children remain in the big house on Herkimer Street, but the neighborhood has once again transformed around them. In the past decade, the neighborhood has gone from 75 percent black to barely 60 percent black, with the white population increasing by some 600 percent.
“I noticed on the train. I’d be coming home from school on the A, so first you’d see a lot of hipsters getting off at Jay, and then at Hoyt, one stop at a time until, eventually, they started getting off at my stop and beyond,” Jazmine says.
Since 1989, the median income in Bed-Stuy has jumped by some 60 percent. Housing prices have soared — to almost five times what they were in 1991. The storefronts of Nostrand Avenue, abandoned after the riots, are once again occupied, some by the wine shops and French cafés that have popped up along the avenue.
Yet the gains of the neighborhood are not distributed equally. According to the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant remains among the poorest in the city, with the percentage of children growing up in poverty increasing over the last decade from 39 percent to 47 percent. The recession has also taken its toll: at the height of the crisis in 2008, Bedford-Stuyvesant had the second-highest rate of foreclosures in the entire city.
Broadies, though, seems happy with the direction of the neighborhood. She welcomes the newcomers, and the changes they bring. “I’m looking forward to having a lot of artsy-fartsy people moving in,” she says. “These are my kind of people.”
Neither she nor Jay is romantic in the least about the way things used to be. If anything, they seem frustrated with the rougher parts of the neighborhood, and with some of their neighbors.
“Do you know, our house was shot up a couple of years ago by these jackass young little drug dealers who, as they say, were ‘holding down the block,’” Broadies says. “‘Holding down the block’ when you don’t even own anything! You’re still living at your mother’s apartment or your grandmother’s apartment, rent-stabilized apartment, and everyone’s on welfare. And then you get angry at the people who are moving in and have jobs, who are pretty much your age, and are building little gardens on the block.”
Jay speaks in slightly gentler terms, but his message is the same. “It’s a shame that us and our community — being black, Hispanic, Asian, whatever — can’t unite and get together and keep some of our community ourselves and fix it up ourselves,” he says. “We gotta wait until the whole demographic starts changing. People start moving in, moving you out of your community, and they take better care of your community than you did, when you’ve been here for generations.”
The Byas children, like their parents, have embraced the new in their neighborhood. But they see that it comes at a cost. “There’s a loss of culture,” Jazmine says. “You know how you go into certain neighborhoods in the city and you get a vibe, like something’s weird and right? That’ll change, and that’s just something I’ll have to get used to.”
However the neighborhood changes, though, the Byases will be a presence in Bedford-Stuyvesant. For two generations, they’ve kept their family together and built lives for themselves, through love and through sweat. And, now that they’ve established themselves and survived, they’re prepared to help those around them do the same.
“We’re rooted,” Jay says. “If anything, I’m going to start expanding, you know, let’s go over here and buy another building over here, let’s do this, let’s do that. We need to build so that everybody ain’t scattered. Come together and start owning some of this community. That’s what I would like to see change. I would like to see a lot of these people that deserve to live together pull together and save their community for themselves.”
It’s the old Zulu credo: build the community and heal the world through music. But it starts with the love of one family, in an old house on Herkimer. “It was my mother who pointed out to us, this is it, we’re here. We need to be a unit. We need to be strong. At the end of the day, it’s just us, in this house, this is who we should love and care for — love ourselves first,” Kenya says. “And then we can start spreading it to everyone else.”
Correction (April 8, 2013): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the youth orchestra Matthew and Jazmine Byas played with. It is the InterSchool Orchestras of New York, not the Inter-Schools Orchestra.