Literary Mixtape: Open City by Teju Cole

Here we feature an imagined music playlist inspired by a character from a work of fiction. Each month, a different work will be chosen based on topicality, commemorative celebration or whim, and will serve as the inspiration for our sonic excursion.

This month, I’m featuring Julius, from Teju Cole’s meditative, somber and  introspective Open City, originally published in 2011. Julius is a young Nigerian doctor who spends much of his free time walking the streets of Manhattan, reflecting on the people and city that surround him. Over the course of the novel, Julius’ mind travels from his Nigerian childhood to his time spent in Brussels and back to his life in New York.

open cityHe ruminates over the meaning of life during visits with an informed college professor, as well as the state of the post 9/11 world. Cole does a lovely job of writing his story in deceptively straightforward prose, couching psychological worlds in seemingly simple observations. He also succeeds in making Julius—who is remote, standoffish, and not entirely likeable—a compelling narrator. There are some quietly revelatory moments over the course of the story that have the power to floor readers.

For this edition, I’m putting a slightly different spin on the format. Because so much of the tapestry of the story involves Julius’ travels across the city, the songs that I’m including aren’t necessarily from his personal playlist, but more an amalgam of the sounds that Julius might encounter in his travels. These are songs that can be heard coming from the cars, bars, cafés, stoops, corner stores and pockets of the city. These are some songs of New York.

Listen to some of the songs on this playlist.

*Hard Times by Baby Huey (1971) The big man brings nothing but heart to this aural document of social strife, while his backing band, The Babysitters, lay down a slab of undeniable, funky soul.

The World Is A Ghetto by War (1972) At once swinging and melancholic, War brought a spiritually political brand of commentary to their particular combination of rock, funk and Latin soul. “Walkin’ down the street, smoggy-eyed/ Looking at the sky, starry-eyed”

Check The Rhime by A Tribe Called Quest (1991) Coming straight off “the Boulevard of Linden”, ATCQ helped to inject early-90’s Hip-Hop with both a jazz-inflected sensibility and a reinvigorated social consciousness. “You on point, Phife?/ All the time, Tip” (R.I.P. Phife Dawg)

N.Y. State Of Mind by Nas (1994) Over D.J. Premier’s loping, ominous piano-laced soundscape, “King Poetic” lays down a lyrically intricate, vividly harrowing portrait of inner-city survival. “It drops deep as it does in my breath/ I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death”

*Mariposa by Nickodemus & Osiris feat. Carol C (2001) This jazzy, dreamy Latin excursion features Carol C.’s compelling vocal over a hooky piano riff and flute line.

Ocho Rios by El Michels Affair (2005) This track combines elements of Latin and Jamaican rhythms with stateside funk and soul to cook up an intoxicating, groovy stew.

Loud Pipes by Ratatat (2006) This Brooklyn-based outfit specializes in a particular brand of instrumental electronic rock. On this cut off of their Classics album, muscular guitar work anchors synth washes and a descending keyboard line.

Everybody Likes Something Good by Ify Jerry Crusade (2008) Indeed they do. This unearthed gem of 70’s Nigerian funk wasn’t released in the States until decades later. Criminally groovy.

Pow Pow by LCD Soundsystem (2010) Marrying Wild Style-era breakbeats with Talking Heads-style spoken word and polyrhythmic percussion backdrops, this track from James Murphy & Co. served to carry the torch of New York musical tradition while adding contemporary commentary to the mix.

Milk & Honey by Hollie Cook (2011) Over Prince Fatty’s seductively soulful Roots Reggae sound, Ms. Cook’s incredible voice slithers around every nook in the track, casting a bewitching spell.

* Not available on Spotify.


Greg is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in New York city. He is currently at work on a short story collection, as well as a feature film script.