In the 80s and 90s, New York was a blistering hotbed of gritty music, thumping through the alleyways and manhole covers, telling brazen tales of the streets. Much of it came via hip-hop pioneers like Grandmaster Flash, EPMD and Public Enemy. Much of it was also told by the emerging hardcore scene including Agnostic Front, the Cro-Mags and of course, Sick of It All.
"It was cool because a lot of the messages in hip hop are similar to those in punk rock," says Sick of It All/Cro-Mags bass player Craig Setari (aka Craig Ahead) in a light Queens accent. "Like, slightly different, but with the same underlying message of fighting oppression…of fighting and seeing the injustices in the world and not closing your eyes."
He pauses, pondering the similarities a bit more.
"It was definitely a parallel movement and even though it was a different genre of music, the message was ultimately the same," he adds. "Yeah, they had a lot in common."
Just after some grocery shopping at an Asian vegetarian market in the Flushing neighbourhood of Queens ("Sorry, can you hold on for a sec? I have to pay"), Setari spoke to Punknews interviewer Gen Handley about the legendary New York hardcore scene and the yet-to-be-named Sick of It All album coming out (hopefully) this fall.
Why did you first get into hardcore?
When I first started playing, I was going to school and went through that typical stuff as a kid – I didnât fit in, I had my own ideas that were a little different from the mainstream. I got into this music because I was an angry kid and wanted to express myself. So I started going to shows and it turned out that some of nicest people, the most open-minded people, were at these shows. You could never tell my looking at them because they looked a bit scary, but they were the nicest people you would ever meet.
How old were you when you first started playing?
I first picked up the bass when I was about 11 and I started playing shows by the time I was 13 – the first time I played CBâs (CBGB) was about 14.
Was it a little surreal playing CBâs when you were 14 years old?
I mean, it was big deal, donât get me wrong, but back then, the scene was really small. Shows would only have 100 or 200 people at mostâ¦it wasnât like a worldwide phenomenon like it is now. It was just a small, local thing. There were scene pockets all over the country and all over the world and sometimes touring bands would come through, but really, you just dealt with the New York sceneâ¦a small, underground sort of thing. Hardly any shops even sold this type of music, it was basically tape trading or buying 7-inches and demos from one or two spots in the whole area.
Is it kind of crazy to see how far hardcoreâs come since those days of 7-inches?
In a way, it is, but it was also a pretty powerful movement. People were really into itâ¦people were really drawn to the sound and not so much for the sound, but for the real social message. Thatâs what gives it its staying power is the fact that itâs about people standing up against oppression, which, to me, is much bigger than the sound. Particularly, as I mature, I see it more as a philosophical and social movement.
When Sick of it All and hardcore were getting popular in New York, so was hip hop and that whole scene. What was it like?
It was cool because a lot of the messages in hip hop are similar to those in punk rock. Like, slightly different, but with the same underlying message of fighting oppressionâ¦â¦of fighting and seeing the injustices in the world and not closing your eyes. It was definitely a parallel movement and even though it was a different genre of music, the message was ultimately the same. Yeah, they had a lot in common.
Weâve collaborated with a few hip-hop guys along the way and people like Kris, KRS-One, is as hardcore as they come, you know what I mean? Heâs talking about some serious stuff, heâs breaking out of the ordinary and going beyond just social commentary – he goes into philosophical stuff. Guys like that, guys like Public Enemy were real pioneers.
You guys have been around for close to 30 years. How does a band maintain that real, tangible intensity for that long?
I think the secret to that is thereâs no secretâ¦you donât think about it too much. You donât think about how the times have changed and do something different – you just continue to do what originally got you into it. Itâs a pretty basic thing. We all sit there with a guitar, strum out a few chords and come up with an idea and throw it together – there hasn't really been much evolution in Sick of It All in the sense of how we write songs. It stays the same because weâre not looking to really change that muchâ¦weâre just looking to continue to speak our piece and play music.
Our music is more from the gut, itâs more of a pounding type music than melodic and pretty. We donât really serve up melody too well – weâre better at rhythmic pounding and things like that to get our point across.
Thatâs got to be funâ¦maintaining that intense rhythm as the bass player.
Yeah man. The way I play is pretty rhythmic. I have melody too, learning to play like Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath, John Entwhistle from The Who. So guys like that were a big influence on me as a kid and I understand the instrument very well. But through hardcore and stuff like that, I have a very rhythmic tendency, Iâm very right-hand dominant. Playing in the Cro-Mags, when Iâm not doing Sick of It All, with a guy like Mackie (Mayson), the drummer, itâs veryâ¦.you can really feel it, he really lays it down. Heâs played with Bad Brains and all of these other groups and heâs developed a good strong sense of aggressive rhythm over the years.
Why do you think such a strong hardcore scene has come out of New York? What is it about the city, do you think?
Before New York, America and the world became all PC, gentrified and spoiled by fake image and convenienceâ¦it was a very gritty place and it's reflected in the music made by the people who lived life in that underbelly of New York. Musically speaking, and even in the punk-rock world, New York was always looked upon as a second-class citizen. When you come from New York, you can only reach so high, youâre always the underdog, youâre always talked down uponâ¦.the music isnât as pretty or sweet as what others considered to be "legitimate" music, even in the punk rock world, which is supposed to be a home for the downcast. New York hardcore is looked upon as a bastard stepchild.
The deal with New York hardcore is the people that make the music, for the most part, are real street people. When I say "street people," I donât mean criminals and trouble makers, I mean people who arenât media darlings. I really feel thatâs who we appeal to – the outcasts and underdogs. When you feel like one of the undercastâ¦ the underclass, you can hear it and more importantly, feel it in the music that's created, you know?
So you guys are working on a new album right now?
Yeah, yeah weâre putting together some new material. Right now, we have about half of it written and it sounds pretty good.
Any album name yet?
No, we have a few ideas weâre kicking around, but nothing to speak of yet. Right now weâre just working on new material and weâve got some good philosophy, lyrically, going on. I think that itâs getting more desperate in the times weâre living in and we touch on a lot of topics regarding corruption and the direction the worldâs heading in.
So lyrically a lot of it will be about political discontentâ¦
A lotâ¦a lot about political discontent and about social responsibility.
Do you have a producer yet?
Weâre going to use the same producer we used on the last two albums as well as that Retakes album, a guy named Tue Madsen and heâs out of Denmark – heâs done a lot of European, crossover stuff. Heâs a really good guy and he really knows how to bring out an aggressive sound with us.
Weâre not trying to reinvent the wheel and make it sound pretty. Weâre going to come out again as pretty straightforward aggressive so he can capture that. Itâs more about making the fire hotter than trying to clean it up.
When do you think itâll be out?
Well, weâre going into the studio in the second half of May so hopefully itâll be out in the fall sometime. I hope it comes out good and Iâm pretty excited. I just love doing this. I recognize my fortune, I always did. Particularly in this stage of my life, I recognize how fortunate I am to be playing music that people have had a real interest in for decades. To actually be able to say something, to meet friends from all over the world and meet people with similar ideas as me, I couldnât have asked for a better life. Itâs funny, usually people donât recognize their fortune and Iâm lucky enough to recognize it while Iâm still alive.
That kind leads into the next question. Itâs pretty clear youâre grateful to have the opportunity to impact people including other bands. What did you think about Rise Againstâs cover of "Built to Last" last year?
I thought it was great. I mean, those guys are a great band and Iâm so happy to see the success theyâve had because theyâre guys that really has something to say. And even with the success, theyâre still speaking about important subjects and theyâve maintained their integrity, totally. To be honoured by them was a definitely an honour – weâve known them for years. For them to show us that respect, even with all the success, itâs really nice to know that there are other people who are in the fight and can take it to such a level while maintaining their integrity.
Are you working anything else? Anything new with Creep Division?
Well, with Creep Division, we were talking about doing the B and B Bowl, the Black and Blue Bowl this year in New York, but Iâm going to be actually tracking in the studio at the time so canât do it – we came very close to saying we could, but at the last minute I realized I couldnât unfortunately. (Chuck Plattâs) been calling me about a Creep Division reunion, for a string of shows, and nothingâs set up yet, but thatâll probably end up taking shape sometime this year. Iâd be excited to do that because I really enjoy doing that.
And then Iâm playing with the Cro-Mags whenever I can, time permitting, and I love doing that. Theyâre great guys, great friends, a classic band. You know, Iâm just keeping going. Iâm talking about writing some of my own material and maybe putting out my own record. I donât know, Iâd need a lot of down time for that, but itâs just an ideaâ¦who knows.
Always moving, eh?
Yeah, trying. Iâve been playing the bass a lot lately, more than usual. Every day, at my house, I pick up the bass and play for an hour or two – I just have a strong urge to play these days.
Why do you think that is? Why the second wind now?
I donât know. Thereâs just stuff in the basement that still needs to come out – I have still clean out the basement, you know? [Laughs] For a while, it was a bit dormant, but I think it was because of the amount of touring we were doing. When youâre so busy touring, you just want to relax in your home during down time, but weâve been home for a little while and stuffâs been coming up.
But Iâm just loving the bass too. As crazy as it sounds, Iâm getting much better as a bass player and learning new things. Iâve been playing for over 30 years and for some reason, from just tinkering around, Iâm learning new things and understanding the instrument more. Iâve been working on a lot of old Motown stuffâ¦those old James Jamerson bass lines and figuring that out. He was the best bass player that ever lived and Iâm pretty inspired to learn his line – itâs pretty nice stuff.
How many more albums do you think Sick of It All as left?
As many as we want. The good thing about keeping things in house for this many years and having a following the way we do and having a scene behind us thatâs grown is that it can keep going forever as long as we want to tour and as long as people still care about this type of music and this type of message. I have friends of mine that donât really know this kind of music and theyâre like, "How come you donât write a hit?" and blah, blah, blah and they donât understand itâs not that kind of party, it doesnât work that way. Thatâs how it is in conventional music, which is completely different – there is not hit.
So you still have a lot to sayâ¦
Yeah, I do, yeah. And the other guys in bandâ¦nobodyâs slowing down, theyâre still chomping at the bit. Youâd think we would slow down, but it hasnât really happened to us for some reason. Weâre pretty blessedâ¦weâre pretty lucky to operate in this medium. Itâs forged a lifetime of doing what you want to do and thatâs a rare thing to say in this day and age.