In early 1964, the Beatles came to America, and they hit the ground running. Three nights of appearances on Ed Sullivan, following a dazzlingly successful American publicity campaign (that led the Herald Tribune to call them "75% publicity, 20% haircut"), stirred up a genuine frenzy of teenage excitement. Seventy-three million people watched the first night of Sullivan, then a record; when George Harrison celebrated his twenty-first birthday at the end of February, he got 30,000 birthday cards from fans. Liverpool had been a center for teenage pop music since the skiffle craze of the late ‘50s, and the Merseybeat sound — three guitarists harmonizing and a drummer in back — had made it to America. The larger "British invasion" of the Kinks, the Who, the Troggs, and the Rolling Stones, would soon follow. The names said it all: this was not American music. The Cleveland punk scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — the Electric Eels, Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu, the Styrenes (the Dead Boys had decamped to New York) — was probably the single most artistically vibrant musical community in the country. The punk explosion hadn’t quite happened, although New York had been rumbling for years (with the Ramones and the New York Dolls) and the LA punk sound of the Germs, the Circle Jerks, and Black Flag (X were weird outliers) was beginning to form grotty little clubs throughout the city.
The fabulously successful Green Day (out of the once tight East Bay pop-punk scene centered around Lookout Records) always sounded like a tribute to the great Manchester punk band the Buzzcocks, and from Green Day, a thousand clones across the country grew. Talking about a "DC punk" or "New York hardcore" band remains at least slightly meaningful, but the regional distinctions of rock and roll have, like Delta blues or the Seattle sound, largely faded into the past.
In the 1970s, a Jamaican-born DJ named Kool Herc brought toasting to New York in the 1970s. New York DJs Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash adopted his techniques, and when the Sugar Hill Gang scored an improbable hit in 1979 with "Rapper’s Delight", New York suddenly broke hip-hop nationally. But it was a New York artform, until L.A.’s Ice-T and N.W.A. — Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E — changed the genre with the invention of gangsta rap. Dr. Dre’s 1992 smash, The Chronic, was a massive success, fueling the rise of Dre’s label, Death Row Records, and its owner, Suge Knight. California resident and former New Yorker Tupac Shakur emerged as Death Row’s biggest star. While Shakur was out of commission — in prison on a rape charge — his one-time friend, Biggie Smalls (aka Notorious BIG) emerged as Tupac’s main rival for the crown of best MC in hip-hop. The two men hated each other; Biggie’s label, Bad Boy, and it’s owner, Sean Combs (then in his "Puffy", pre-P. Diddy phase), had no love for Knight and Bad Boy; slowly, the East Coast/West Coast lines were drawn. Things didn’t stop with beef songs; fights broke out. Tupac had accused Biggie of knowing something about a 1994 robbery in which Shakur had taken a bullet in the head; after his relief from prison, he recorded a song announcing that he had slept with Smalls’ wife. In 1996, a gunman fired into Shakur’s car after a Mike Tyson fight; conspiracy theorists aside, Shakur died on September 13, 1996. In 1997, in what is L.A. to attend the Soul Train Awards. The murky crossroads between gangsta rap millionaires, gangs, and corrupt LAPD cops have never quite been fully mapped out, leading to accusations about coverups. Biggie Smalls died on March 9, 1997. Suge Knight eventually went to jail. Sean Combs went on to date J-Lo.
Today, the Dirty South sound of Outkast, Goodie Mobb, and Ludacris is probably the most relevant regional sound on the radio. The top producers in hip-hop come from Virginia Beach. Wunderkind Dizzeee Rascal is making waves from East London. New York’s monster crossover success 50 Cent is on the label of Detroit’s monster crossover Eminem; Eminem broke into the public eye as a prodigy white rapper under the schooling and production of NWA’s Dr. Dre, still ensconced in L.A. But hip-hop, half the time soppy stern, continues to lap up Biggie and Tupac’s new releases; posthumous 2Pacsploitation merited a category in The Onion‘s least essential albums list last year. As long as people are suckers for martyred superstars, and as long as there are remixes and unreleased barrel-scrapings, we’ll always have New York, Los Angeles, and a beef.