9 Iconic Artists Who Got Their Start In New York City

April 4, 2019

By Mark G. McLaughlin/Alaina Brandenburger/Jacqueline Runice

New York City has long been one of the music capitols of the world. Starting long before the days of Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw, New York has given birth to dozens if not hundreds of memorable bands. New York is the incubator and the proving ground, and if a band can make it here, well, then they can make it anywhere. Here are just five iconic bands that got their start in NYC.

The New York music scene is one of the most vibrant – and unforgiving – in the world.  It has been the birthplace and the graveyard for musicians, artists, and groups since before the Jazz Age and the Big Band Era. From the Apollo to CBGB to Madison Square Garden and even Central Park, New York is also the place where a band is put through the test of fire; it is the city that separates the wannabes from the greats. As any artist who has played in New York knows, if a band makes it there, well, then they can make it anywhere. Here are just nine iconic artists & bands that got their start in NYC.

Debbie Harry of Blondie
(Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Mondrian Park Avenue)


Debbie Harry has been and remains an unstoppable force of nature, and it was New York that first recognized her talent.  As the lead singer, co-founder, face of, and inspiration for the name of Blondie, Debbie Harry and her band of that name are one of the greatest of all of the rock and roll bands – and helped pave the way for other punk rock bands to break into the mainstream.  Blondie proved that a band did not have to stick with a single genre and that punks could do reggae, pop, and disco and still stay true to their roots.


Lou Reed
(Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

The Velvet Underground

Brooklyn-born Lou Reed formed and played in his share of garage bands before launching The Velvet Underground in 1964. The band paid their dues and struggled to grab gigs all around town, but their sound didn't really catch on until they caught the ear of Andy Warhol. The pop art icon drove the Village and underground culture of New York in the 1960s, but not just with his paintings. Warhol was a canny music producer whose sponsorship could make an obscure band into the sound of cool. His “discovery” of Reed's Velvet Underground may not have propelled them to the heights of the top 40, but it gave them a solid cult-following, the remnants of which have kept their sound alive long after the band dissolved – and helped get them recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.


The Ramones
(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Ramones

If you ask fans of the Ramones where the band is from the answer won't be New York City but Queens. Fuggetaboutit that Queens is one of the boroughs of New York City, and that the bridge from Long Island to Manhattan is a hard one for bands to cross, but The Ramones did it – and are as New York as they come. Joey, Johnny, Richie, C.J. and Dee Dee Ramone began playing music together as kids in their Forest Hills neighborhood in 1974, but shortly after making their debut at CBGB in the City that same year they hit it big. Hailed as the standard bearers of punk, the Ramones went on to play more than 2,200 gigs over the next 22 years and made 14 hit albums before finally disbanding in 1996.


(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)


Although Madonna hails from Michigan, she began her career in New York in 1978. Following a brief stint as a modern dancer, she blew onto the radio in 1983 with the release of her self-titled debut album. After finding initial success in dance music, she burst onto the pop scene with the release of “Borderline.” Madonna never looked back, serving as a staple on the radio in the decades that followed. Her influence on current pop acts is still going strong, and she continues to release music.


Donald Fagen - Steely Dan
(Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images)

Steely Dan

Annandale-on-Hudson in Dutchess County may be an hour or so drive from Manhattan, but Steely Dan is as New York as any band from the boroughs. Walter Becker and Donald Fagan began playing together at Bard College in that sleepy upstate town in the 1960s, then moved to Brooklyn where they worked as musicians in other groups and eventually formed Steely Dan in 1972. Their jazz-rock sound was a unique mix of genres that sparked the interest of ABC Records, which released the group's first album that same year.  As the band's fame grew, so did their music evolve, as they eventually blended elements of funk and R&B with their own, distinct sound. The band broke up in 1981, but reformed in 1993 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. They released their final album, ironically titled “Everything Must Go” in 2003.


Beastie Boys
(Photo by Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

The Beastie Boys

Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch and Adam Horovitz proved that three white guys from New York could make it in hip-hop. They got a rough start as members of the hardcore punk-rock Young Aboriginies, but after a two-year struggle, they broke off to form The Beastie Boys in 1981. With John Barry on guitar and Kate Schellenbach on drums, the Beastie Boys won three Grammys (and were nominated for another seven) as well as seven MTV awards until finally calling it quits in 2011 when they learned they would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Formed in Hollis, Queens in 1981, Run D.M.C. is known as pioneers of the early hip hop scene in New York. Founding members Joseph "Run" Simmons (now known as Reverend Run), Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels, and Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell began their careers DJing and performing with various acts in hip hop, but their careers took off when they met and formed Run D.M.C. The band paved the way for many hip hop acts to follow, getting national airplay and even becoming one of the first to win a Grammy award. They also collaborated with rock band Aerosmith on the single “Walk This Way,” introducing a broad new audience to the genre.


Mary J. Blige
(Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Mary J. Blige

With 10 number one hits and 18 top 10 singles, Mary J. Blige cemented her status as one of the best selling female R&B artists of all time. She is known for pouring her emotions into each and every song with a powerful voice that is soulful and strong. In 1992, she collaborated with producer Sean “P.Diddy” Combs (formerly known as “Puff Daddy”) on her debut album “What’s the 4-1-1,” and has produced a number of successful albums since. Blige is still popular with listeners, because after nearly 30 years, she still bares her soul on every track, connecting with listeners on a deeper level.


Julian Casablancas of The Strokes
(Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)

The Strokes

The indie rockers were darlings of the critics from the get-go with their 2001 debut, Is This It, stacking awards from Rolling Stone to Time Magazine. And the accolades didn’t wane: by 2009 New Musical Express (NME) named it "The Greatest Album of the Decade." To whom does lead vocalist, Julian Casablancas, point as an undeniable influence on his vocals and lyrics?

See number two above: Lou Reed.