Think Tank : Daft Punk and the revival of disco in the mainstream
Daft Punk are number one all across the world with their Get Lucky single.
harking back to the golden age of disco it re-examines a misundersttod form
argues Greg Wilson (one of the key DJ’s in Manchester and writer of his own
great music blog which we urge you to follow):
Daft Punk are sitting pretty at the top of the UK singles chart for the first time. The track in question, ‘Get Lucky’, taken from their forthcoming album, ‘Random Access Memories’, came as something of a surprise, for instead of hitching itself to the current EDM juggernaut that’s sweeping America, the French duo have completely bucked the trend by drawing their influence from Disco, featuring its most celebrated guitarist, the great Nile Rodgers of the Chic Organisation (as well as R&B vocalist, Pharrell Williams). A media sensation, it’s everywhere at the moment – on the radio, on the TV, in the clubs and, of course, all over the internet, becoming the most streamed new release in Spotify history. It’s already been re-edited by a whole host of DJ’s, myself, via Richard Lee, included (www.gregwilson.co.uk/2013/04/just-plain-daft/), and is pretty much nailed on to be the single of the summer.
It’s been a shrewd move to say the least, befitting of artists who have continually innovated since they burst onto the scene back in 1995 with ‘Da Funk’, pushing at the electronic boundaries ever since. Now, 18 years on, they’re viewed as an inspiration to the current EDM movement, but instead of embracing it they’ve distanced themselves from it, even criticising the direction it’s taken during recent times. Thomas Bangalter, one half of the duo, said, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, that electronic music “is in its comfort zone” facing “an identity crisis”, and stated his desire to return to the ethos of the pre-digital age. The main focus of ‘Random Access Memories’ is on the use of live instruments, with Bangalter explaining; “we wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers, but with people.”
This move towards live instrumentation, coupled with available technology, is something I anticipated soon after I’d made my DJ comeback. When I’d stopped at the end of ‘83, the music I was playing was cutting-edge Electro-Funk, mainly out of New York, which was experimenting with sequencers, samplers and drum machines, heralding the digital age on the horizon. What struck me on my return, 2 decades on, hearing this music from a fresh perspective, is that many of these futuristic records, as they sounded at the time, still included live elements, a real bass or guitar, or maybe percussion, and even those that were completely electronic were generally being programmed by musicians, and not, as was the case later down the line, by DJ’s. There was a musicality about them that I wasn’t hearing in most contemporary tracks, the majority of which lacked, to my ears, that certain something, be it spirit or emotion. Yes, DJ’s have made great dance tunes sat at their computers, but there’s no substitute for real musicianship – you can’t replicate that kind of magic. So, with this in mind, I spoke in interviews about my belief that the way forward involved a retrograde step in effect, back to how dance music was being made in that anything goes atmosphere of the early 80’s, with a more of a marriage between technology and musicality.
This is exactly what Daft Punk have done, collaborating with people who understand the old ways for this new album. One of these is the legendary producer Giorgio Moroder, whose greatest contribution to dance culture was the seminal ‘I Feel Love’, a future shock of a tune which electrified dancefloors in 1977 and is regarded as one of the most inspirational club tracks of all-time. Although the record itself sounded like it had been beamed down from outer space, what mustn’t be forgotten is that it was the genius juxtaposition with a sensational vocal performance by Donna Summer that provided the alchemy – the mechanical fused with the natural to create a third force, something that, on that incredible piece of plastic, transcended the two. So, as someone all too aware of the fine balance required, Moroder’s words come with added weight; “it’s time to have something new in the Dance world. I love Disco, or Dance, anyway, but this is a step forward. They (Daft Punk) had to do something which is different – still Dance, still electronic, but give that human touch back”. Fellow producer Todd Edwards added; “when the music becomes focused on the effects that are being used or the pre-sets of sounds, there’s no soul there – it’s kind of ironic that two androids are bringing soul back to music”, whilst Nile Rodgers, whose guitar riffs epitomize human touch, perfectly summarized the situation; “they went back to go forward”.
As with any bold stroke, not everyone approves. ‘Get Lucky’ has been met with both plaudits and rebuke, with the DJ community pretty much split down the middle – it seems to be a track people either love or hate, and this has created much debate on forums and Facebook.
What’s for sure is that this isn’t just another release, but a whole event in itself – a real zeitgeist moment. Disco is now about to become a buzzword for a younger generation of clubbers to whom this ‘new’ direction will be viewed as an exciting development. If Daft Punk have made a Disco record, especially a madly successful one, it’s clear that a lot of other people will follow suit. Vice Magazine’s recent piece, suggesting that this could be ‘the Summer of Disco’, certainly has a point:http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/could-this-be-the-summer-of-disco.
The Guardian has gone even further, suggesting we’ve embarked on ‘a second golden era of Disco and Dance’: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/apr/27/daft-punk-nile-rodgers-disco
Disco’s underground profile was significantly raised here last year. Key moments included Todd Terje, once revered for his edits of other peoples tracks, unleashing a killer tune all of his own, the infectious ‘Inspector Norse’, which would, and still does, tear up dancefloors wordwide, whilst in October, DJ Harvey, whose reclamation of Disco at his club nights in 90’s London had helped ignite the current movement, made his long-awaited Red Bull sponsored return to the UK, after a decade long US exile. These have been the appetizers, but when Daft Punk, one the biggest ever names in electronic music, not only issue a Disco single, but score what may well be the most talked about hit of the year in the process, you know you’re onto the main course.
‘Get Lucky’ has dropped at just the right moment. At a time of recession and austerity, the uplifting nature of Disco is at its most potent, as proved in the past. What must be remembered is that this was a movement that flourished in New York at a point when the city was on its knees, only just avoiding bankruptcy. Disco thrived through the hard times, the release it provided from the stresses and strains of the everyday can’t be understated – the whole thing goes much deeper than the surface decadence of a Studio 54, the venue that caught the media’s attention and, along with the movie ‘Saturday Night Fever’ (1977), became a defining factor in how the era would be presented in retrospect. It’s only more recently that the underground venues, like Paradise Garage, The Gallery, The Sanctuary and The Loft, and the alternative narrative they represent, have been properly brought to our attention.
With this in mind, it’s as good a time as any to look at Disco in both a historical context, and with regards to its contemporary emergence. Daft Punk may have put it back on the top of the charts, but they needed to tap into something that was already there, and which has been gaining momentum throughout the past decade, with the seeds sown in the decade before that. This Disco resurgence has been at least 20 years in the making, but we need to look back to the original era, before considering its more recent rise via the underground.
In 2010 I was asked to provide the sleevenotes for the Disco compilation Ministry Of Sound released as part of their popular ‘Anthems’ series, and, recognising its importance in potentially converting people to the cause, I saw it as an opportunity to touch on the history, as well as its re–emergence in more recent times. It was a collection of club classics from the 70’s and early 80’s, which, although not something that would appeal to the already initiated, provided an entry point for younger clubbers only just discovering the music of the original Disco era – in describing it as a “catalyst for further investigation”, I hoped the album would inspire some to dig deeper. I wrote:
“Disco is no longer a dirty word. Here in 2010 it’s very much enjoying a renaissance with a younger underground club audience, not just in the UK, but in dedicated pockets of varying depth and size worldwide. The dance music of the 70’s and early 80’s has become a serious passion for many people who weren’t even born when these records were played the first time around. This is not a revivalist movement though – contemporary releases, which compliment the vibe, pepper things up, whilst re–edits of older tunes often play an important role in tailoring the music to now.
But Disco never really went away – it’s just that it’s always meant different things to different people in different places at different times, and has slipped in and out of favour depending on which aspect is highlighted. Having lost its cool following the post ‘Saturday Night Fever’ feeding frenzy of the late 70’s, a bandwagon which, unfortunately, has provided the mainstream symbolism ever since, it was always on the back foot. For many years its cheesier connotations were emphasised whilst its sheer creativity and versatility was circumvented. The ‘Disco’ the media portrayed and, to a large extent, still portray, isn’t the Disco I knew and loved.
When I started out as a club DJ, at the end of 1975, Disco wasn’t a specific genre as such, but referred to the type of music played in discotheques and nightclubs, which was predominantly by black Soul & Funk artists. So, when I personally think of Disco it’s The O’Jays, not the Bee Gees that spring to mind. However, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ was such a phenomenal success that the perception of Disco was changed forever, culminating in the inevitable backlash, including the racist and homophobic ‘Disco Demolition’ at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in July 1979, where many of those in the 50,000 crowd participated in a ritual record burning, whilst chanting ‘Disco Sucks’.
Disco was soon declared dead by the triumphant rock establishment, but it simply went back underground and, throughout the early 80’s, flourished away from the mainstream glare having re–invented itself as ‘dance music’. This was a real hybrid age from which all the subsequent club–based music fermented. Rather than abate, Disco mutated, and when Frankie Knuckles made his famous quote about House music being ‘Disco’s Revenge’ the term reclaimed some of its former credibility, at least in more underground circles, with its rehabilitation completed during more recent times.
As the years passed many people discovered that lots of the samples in contemporary dance tracks came from Disco records, some of which feature here, including Chicago ‘Street Player’ (The Bucketheads ‘The Bomb!’), Loleatta Holloway ‘Love Sensation’ (Black Box ‘Ride On Time’) and Gary’s Gang ‘Let’s Lovedance Tonight’ (Soulsearcher ‘Can’t Get Enough’). Having identified the samples used, many younger DJ’s began to dig deeper, looking for the original recordings. Their detective work was made so much easier a little later down the line with the emergence of the internet and its search engines, not to mention the various DJ forums that sprung up, some of which focused primarily on Disco, where they could discuss the music with other enthusiasts.
With authors like Tim Lawrence (‘Love Saves The Day’ – 2003) and Peter Shapiro (‘Turn The Beat Around’ – 2005) documenting, in such depth, the emergence of Disco in the 70’s, whilst DJ’s and aficionados devour authentic US club playlists from the period via Vince Aletti’s ‘The Record Files’ (2009) and any other sources they can find, Disco is nowadays regarded with respect rather than ridicule.”
Disco wasn’t the name I would have personally chosen as the term for what I play now. I felt it came with too much baggage, given previous associations and prejudices, and besides, I was drawing from a much wider palette. However, now it has been named as such, I fully embrace the term in its original spirit – not as a specific genre, but, as I said in the sleevenotes, as music made to be played in clubs and discotheques, in all its splendid diversity, and spanning an entire history. The music I personally feature goes as far back as the 60’s, but is mainly centred on the period when I was originally a DJ, the mid–70’s to mid–80’s – spanning its original emergence right through until the underground Electro–Funk era. Moving on from there, I cherry pick my way around the years, right up to the contemporary tunes that have fitted into my particular vibe, by artists including Atlantic Conveyor, Metro Area, Chicken Lips, Crazy P, 40 Thieves, Groove Armada, Simian Mobile Disco, Sugardaddy, Martin Brew, Escort, Nick Chacona & Anthony Mansfield, Soul Mekanik, Social Disco Club and 1gnition, the majority of which I’ve had the opportunity to mix or edit along the way (in recent years the ‘Future Disco’ compilation series has helped highlight many current artists, and has included a number of my mixes).
What I play are classic and cult–classic tunes, largely re–edited, with a sprinkling of current stuff that I can work in. I’m not about digging deep for obscurities, there are plenty of DJ’s doing a great job in this area – I’m already time served at the cutting-edge, that was a different point in my career. Here and now my role, as I outlined in my first blog post of 2013, ‘The Movin’ On Up / Move On Up Mantra’ is that of ‘bridge builder’ between present and past.
I’m now into my 10th year as a DJ, which is longer than my original stint. Much of the media we relied on in 2003 is no longer here in 2013 – and although I think of my DJ past as the 70’s and early 80’s, there’s now a more recent past to reflect on. A decade ago there were labour of love magazines here in the UK, notably Keep On, Grandslam, and, later down the line, Faith Strobelight Honey, which brought the history to life, whilst reporting on contemporary aspects of the scene. There was also representation in the Jazzier publications, Straight No Chaser and Shook, whilst over in the US, Wax Poetics was a cultural godsend reverently excavating the history of black music. However, it wasn’t the magazines that people looked towards in order to keep their ear to the ground, but the then thriving online communities that had evolved, exchanging knowledge and opinion from different points of speciality – Disco Music, DJ History, Brownswood, Southport Weekender, Deep House Page, Electriks, Faithfanzine and Electro Empire were all daily stop offs for me at one point or another.
Back in 2007, when the DJ History forum was the essential gathering place for DJ’s on the side of the club scene I’d gravitated towards, with Disco, Boogie, Cosmic, Space, Balearic, Italo, Electro–Funk and Re–Edits providing the music of choice, I kicked off a discussion on what I referred to as ‘The Scene Without A Name’. This is now included in the site’s ‘classic threads’ and provides a real insight into how a schism was beginning to open up between those who wished to push things further, bringing in new enthusiasts, and those who wanted to keep things more exclusive:http://www.djhistory.com/forum/the–scene–without–a–name
I’d started with a quote from another thread by producer Red Rack’em, who’d said; “I would like us to get to play our kind of music to people under 30 – in a club environment”. This reflected how the audience back then was largely devoid of youth, something which was obviously detrimental to the longevity of this nameless scene. I was very much of the opinion that we needed to reach out to a younger demographic, and in order to do this we had to let them know what was on offer – I was on the side of finding a suitable name ourselves, before someone on the outside named it for us, but others were dead set against any naming at all. The debate would rage through 10 pages, but the scene remained unnamed, although throughout the coming years it would increasingly be described in the media as ‘Disco’ – and that’s how it ended up.
Disco and Re–Edit are 2 terms that go hand in hand, I was extremely fortunate to plug straight into an already existing movement, which had its own edits labels, like Better Days, Big Bear, Creative Use, Ugly Edits, Automan, Moxie and GAMM, with others including Disco Deviance, Instruments Of Rapture, Mindless Boogie and KAT to follow. Since that time I’ve been beholden to so many of my fellow DJ’s who have enhanced my playlist with an ever ongoing supply of outstanding edits, reworks and mash–ups to feature alongside my own. Particular props to those who’ve provided multiple examples, including Todd Terje, The Revenge, Situation, Duff Disco, Chopshop / DJ Agent 86, Hawk, Late Nite Tuff Guy, Leftside Wobble and Psychemagik, with the next wave currently building momentum, and people like Fingerman, The Reflex, Derek Kaye, Daz, Peza and Henry Greenwood doing consistently strong re–constructions, which help make my job so much easier. People are editing away literally everywhere – there’s Beaten Space Probe in Japan, V in Russia, Chris Reed in New Zealand, Onur Engin in Turkey, the list goes on and on.
For me, edits enable tracks from a different era to be enjoyed in a whole new context to when the original versions appeared. No longer confined to the past, to be wistfully revived from time to time, they become contemporary once again. In this way club music, as with music in general, continues to evolve into the future, finding a new appreciation as a younger audience discovers these tunes for the first time. The trick is in presenting the past in a new way, rather than serving it up in a purely nostalgic manner, which would alienate most of the younger heads who aren’t about re–living their yesterdays, but exploring the next phase.
I’ve found that some of the people most resistant to re–edit culture are those who, like myself, would be termed middle–aged / 40 something DJ’s, ex–DJ’s and wannabe but never really were DJ’s. This can stem from more purist leanings, believing the original vinyl is the true format and any further tampering is unnecessary, but also just a general negativity about younger people utilizing the internet to gain knowledge it took them years of hanging around and digging about in record shops to acquire. There’s a body of opinion that it’s come too easy to this new generation, and therefore it isn’t as valid as their own experience.
I’ve never held those views – things are as they are, and we can’t go back to what they were. In order for this music to remain relevant it needs to be re–imagined, and this is why the re–edit has been such a crucial part of this whole process – it makes this previously old music accessible to those who weren’t there to appreciate it first time around. It’s a simple equation, great music is great music, but if we hold that our own experience is the only experience, the music becomes stuck in time, with the mildew of nostalgia growing over it.
Whilst some DJ’s play their cards close to their chest, refusing to disclose what they play, I’m of a different school, I want people to know what I’m playing and if other DJ’s play it as a consequence that works to the greater good as far as I’m concerned – it helps move things forward and connect something I obviously believe in to a wider audience. I maintain that if you’re hearing great tunes on the surface, it’s going to benefit the underground – they’re 2 sides of the same coin.
When I re–entered the DJ fray, almost a decade ago, there were some great underground nights in various parts of the UK flying the Disco flag, including those sadly gone, like The Electric Chair in Manchester, Jigsaw in Birmingham, Basement Boogaloo in Nottingham and Whistle Bump in London, as well as those still going strong, such as Melting Pot in Glasgow and London’s Horse Meat Disco and Low Life. There was also the Nu Disco direction, a European variant which, amongst others, helped bring the Norwegian Disco trinity, Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas and Todd Terje, to wider attention. The diversity of the DJ’s meant that the music was wide–ranging – there were those that excavate the rarer nuggets, Sean P and Al Kent included, seasoned black music selectors like Kelvin Andrews, Phil Asher and Maurice Fulton, as well as glorious mavericks like Daniele Baldelli, the Idjut Boys, Moodymann, In Flagranti, The Glimmers and Daniel Wang, not forgetting Chris Duckenfield, Kelvin Brown, Domu, Ray Mang, Foolish Felix, Mark Seven, Mark E, Optimo, Pete Herbert and all those others that played their part (and who I apologise to for forgetting here). Across the pond, props are due to DJ’s including Derrick Carter, Theo Parrish, Masters At Work, DJ Spinna, Rahaan, Rub & Tug, Soul Clap, Mark Farina, plus the NYC OG’s who are still out there doing their thing: John Morales, François K, Timmy Regisford, Danny Krivit, Dennis ‘Citizen’ Kane, Justin Strauss and NJ’s finest, Tony Humphries, included. Then, of course, at the top of the tree in terms of overall influence and longevity, there’s the man who set the foundations with his seminal Loft parties, starting way way back in 1970, the incomparable David Mancuso.
Whilst House, Hip Hop, Techno and Drum & Bass provided the main club soundtrack for the 90’s, there were DJ’s who’d continued, against the tide, to keep the Disco flame alight, including Joey Negro, Dimitri From Paris and Harvey (who, with Gerry Rooney, launched the Black Cock edits label in the early 90’s), whilst the likes of Norman Jay, Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson and Ashley Beedle, with full knowledge of its Soul / Funk past, helped keep the roots watered.
In 90’s Manchester, DJ’s including the Jam MC’s, John McCready, Moonboots, Dave Haslam, Justin Robertson, Greg Fenton, Jason Boardman, Elliot Eastwick and Adrian, Mark & Mike Luvdup, along with the inimitable funkster Mr Scruff, helped create the musical conditions from which The Unabombers, Justin & Luke, were able to evolve what I believe to be the most important club night in the city since the Haçienda days, the Electric Chair, which anyone who went there, and any DJ who played there, will tell you was something pretty damn special – often seeming like an oasis of authenticity in a corporate age of superclubs and superstar DJ’s. When I appeared there for the first time, in February 2005, I felt like my comeback could now be deemed complete – that I was no longer a DJ from the past that someone might want to tick off their to see list, with the limited shelf life which that suggests, but a DJ who was relevant in a contemporary sense. That was my objective, and being asked to play at the Electric Chair was the measure of its achievement.
The Electric Chair was also indebted to Sheffield, the home city of Luke Unabomber, a veteran of Winston & Parrot’s Jive Turkey nights, which were hugely influential in the 80’s, not least with regards to the formation of Warp Records in the city. Winston & Parrot were, in turn, part of a lineage going back to the specialist black scene in the earlier part of the decade, where Soul, Funk, Disco, Jazz, Jazz–Funk and Electro–Funk provided the soundscape for the more discerning dancefloors. Nothing develops in isolation, there’s always what went before to inform what follows on – scenes and cities have continually cross–pollinated since UK club culture began to flourish back in the 60’s.
Numerous people started their own nights in their own towns and cities, to varying degrees of success, having experienced the unique atmosphere of the Electric Chair, where The Unabombers and a who’s who of monthly guests, including some of the US DJ’s who were active during the original Disco period, played an eclectic selection of Dance music spanning the eras. The Chair may be no more, but its spirit lives on via one–off ‘Riots’ and, of course, the annual Electric Elephant Festival over in Croatia: http://www.electricelephant.co.uk/
As I found my feet as a DJ once again I was fortunate to also find a sub–culture of passionate people promoting parties in places like Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham, Liverpool, Dublin, Southampton, Portsmouth, Bristol, Brighton, Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, Manchester and London, all cities in which I appeared before my first ‘Credit To The Edit’ compilation moved things up a few notches for me, bringing in overseas bookings and making me aware of how this Disco renaissance didn’t have any borders, with clusters of enthusiasts everywhere – from Sao Paulo to Bucharest, and from Auckland to Istanbul. Everywhere I went the appreciation of music past was a pre–requisite for the nights I played – I could never have rebuilt my career otherwise. I was also fortunate to find an early champion in Sav Remzi, whose label, Tirk, released ‘Credit To The Edit’ – Sav had previously partnered Dave Hill, and their Nuphonic label was key in spreading the Disco gospel, not least (with the assistance of Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy) via the 2 volumes of ‘David Mancuso Presents The Loft’ in 1999 and 2000. There’s also been a wealth of Disco re-issued on compilations by BBE, Strut, Azuli, Soul Jazz, Harmless, Suss’d, Claremont 56 and Z / ZR.
Prior to the the Nuphonic albums, David Mancuso was viewed as little more than a marginal figure in Disco’s past. ‘Disco Sucks’ had done such lasting damage in the US that major players from its New York pomp, including Mancuso, Francis Grasso, Nicky Siano and Larry Levan, DJ’s who affected real cultural change, had been all but left out of the history books in their country of origin, although European authors Ulf Poschardt (‘DJ Culture’ 1995) and Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton (‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ 1999) highlighted their legacy, before Tim Lawrence’s ‘Love Saves The Day – A History Of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979’ (2004) left nobody in any doubt of their full cultural contribution.
In a way which echoes how the US re–discovered its rich Blues legacy as a result of the ‘British Invasion’ of the 60’s, America owes a debt to Europe when it comes to the painstaking documentation of a vital part of its cultural heritage. Back then, bands like the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and The Animals, worshiped by American teenagers, were quick to tell anyone who cared to listen that the people they worshiped were old bluesmen like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson, artists that had been pretty much discarded in their country of birth. The current Disco movement, which has built a thriving infrastructure of club nights and parties throughout Europe, is much more evolved on this side of the Atlantic, and also in Japan and Australia, than it is in the United States. Despite the efforts of those DJ’s there who I’ve previously mentioned, a large swath of the country still regards Disco with disdain, rather than the respect it merits – the damage caused by Steve Dahl, the Chicago shock jock whose Disco Sucks crusade served to belittle a whole genre of music, still, sadly, reverberates into now, with it derided, in certain quarters, as ‘faggot music’ right through to this day. A whole chunk of the nation’s musical history has been largely negated as a consequence, which is both tragic and shameful.
Good old straight / white American Rock re–asserted itself following Disco’s demise, radio stations and record companies having limply capitulated, finding it easier to climb aboard the ‘Disco is dead’ bandwagon than continue to support the music that had sustained them for the past 5 years, with many great artists seeing their careers nosedive as a result. The MTV age was upon us, but hardly any black artists were invited to the party during the first few years – that was until Michael Jackson redefined the pop video, and the station was forced to relent what many regarded as a blatantly racist policy.
Reports of Disco’s death was, as is said, greatly exaggerated – the survivors of the cull had been forced underground, where, arguably, its most creative era was about to unfold, with Hip Hop, House and Techno able to ferment beneath the surface. It’s ironic that it was Chicago, the same city where Disco was supposedly laid to rest, that House music was born, and Disco began to extract its revenge. But Hip Hop and Techno were also Disco’s revenge, for to limit it to House would do a disservice to the sheer breadth of Disco, which took on many forms, having originally been moulded from mainly Soul and Funk. What House and Techno did was set the tempo, bar the odd exception, at 120+ beats per minute, but that was only half of the story – Disco wasn’t just uptempo, many of the greatest club records of the pre–Rave era were downtempo grooves. Hip Hop knew all about this of course, but its association with Disco became increasingly marginalised (especially given the desecration of the term by Disco Sucks), even though Funk was its main sample source as it gradually became the most powerful music form of the late 20th century. When you consider that the most legendary club in the South Bronx, the very place of Hip Hop’s birth, was called Disco Fever, where DJ Hollywood (from whom, according to Fab 5 Freddy, the term Hip Hop is said to have originated) rocked the house, with the likes of Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Kurtis Blow and Run–DMC cutting their teeth there. Nile Rodgers highlights Disco’s fundamental role in the emergence of Hip Hop; “A lot of artists, who were maybe 20 years younger than myself, explained that ‘before we did Hip Hop what do you think we were listening to? There was no Hip Hop we were listening to Disco!’ That’s why the first big Hip Hop record is a sample of one of my records – ‘Rappers Delight’ comes from ‘Good Times’”.
Disco is very much a broad church – to repeat myself, it wasn’t originally a genre as such, but an umbrella term for the music played in clubs and discotheques. When I was asked to provide a mix for the Silent Disco installation at The Tate Gallery in Liverpool in 2009, this was the theme I explored, selecting only tracks from ’72–’75, before the Disco era really hit its stride with the introduction of the 12” single, and the full elevation of the DJ into sonic innovator via the remix, or ‘Disco Mix’ as they were once called. These were the tracks that were being played by local DJ’s like Terry Lennaine and Les Spaine during the years before I started out, and are representative of the roots of Disco, not only as we experienced it on Merseyside, but as it was also experienced elsewhere in Britain. You can hear the full 2 hours, and read more about it, here:
It was over in Disco central NYC during this era that Danny Krivit (who counted Nile Rodgers as a childhood friend) began to DJ at his father’s clubs, The Ninth Circle and Ones. Danny is as New York as they come – the music he plays seeps with the city’s history. So when East Village owner and The Date promoter, Stuart Patterson, put forward the idea of the 2 of us playing back to back at Loft Studios in London, emphasising our shared history, both as DJ’s who started out in the 70’s and old school re–editors who learnt our craft on tape, it was obviously something that appealed to me, having huge respect for Danny, his legacy, and the inspirational city of his birth, which had such a major influence on my career, despite never having crossed the Atlantic until 2005.
Nowadays it’s Brooklyn where you’ll find the action, Manhattan, once the centre of the Disco universe, long overgrown with gentrification. The recent RA / RBMA short, ‘Real Scenes: New York’, touches on this, featuring, amongst others, Eamon Harkin & Justin Carter, who promote Mister Saturday Night, and Bryan Kasenic who promotes The Bunker, both of which I’ve appeared at in recent years, more recently at Steve Rogenstein’s wonderful loft space, 12–turn–13 (which inspired a track I recently put out of the same name). Also interviewed is Tim Sweeney, an important figure on the scene via his Beats In Space radio show. Check it out here:
By way of contrast, here’s a trailer for the documentary film ‘Downtown Calling’, still frustratingly unreleased on DVD, which focuses on the 1977-1985 period, particularly that hybrid early 80’s era:
A week ahead of the Loft Studios gig Vincent Montana, Jr. the lynchpin of the 2 greatest Disco orchestras – MFSB, out of Philadelphia, and New York’s Salsoul Orchestra, had died. I’d paid tribute on the blog earlier in the week, and the first 4 tracks I played at Loft Studios were in homage to Montana. Further to this, the opening track was the classic Danny Krivit edit of ‘Love Is The Message’ by MFSB. I’d wanted to kick things off by tipping my hat to him, for Danny is pretty much the godfather of the current re–edits movement, his take on ‘Love Is The Message’ setting the standard in 1985. You could go back to Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons in the mid–70’s, whose early ‘mixes’ were actually extended edits, but they were quickly given access to multitrack recordings in order to work their magic. Danny, via ‘Love Is The Message’, showed just what’s possible when it’s only the stereo track you have to work with (or tracks in this case, for he incorporated parts of ‘Ooh, I Love It (Love Break)’ by the Salsoul Orchestra, which had borrowed from ‘Love Is The Message’, hence the ‘Love Break’ sub–title).
It would turn out to be an auspicious night for Disco in the capital, illustrating just how far things have come during recent times, for this was a major London party where House played a supporting role to Disco, rather than the vice–versa norm. The relevance of this wasn’t lost on Tim Keenoy, the event’s co–promoter; “To date, the Loft space has always accommodated our House headliners with Disco being in the downstairs studio. So putting Greg & Danny on together meant it was a great opportunity to switch things round. A lot of parties in London have house in the main room & Disco in the 2nd room but this showed how Disco can challenge that format as it worked perfectly and made for a very unique & special evening … a moment in time. One of our favourite parties in fact, since we started the series”. That’s really saying something when previous guests have included such luminaries as Tony Humphries, Timmy Regisford and Kerri Chandler (with Frankie Knuckles next up in November).
I recorded my full 3 hour slot at Loft Studios – it provides an example of Disco, circa 2013, in all its diversity, with twists and turns aplenty. From my own personal perspective, I like the way re–edits enable me to play, for example, a track from the 80’s, followed by something from the 70’s, then a 90’s classic, before a contemporary release – all sorts of different moments knitted together in a way that, thanks to all the re–editors out there busy ploughing the past, makes perfect sense now. We live in a cut & paste epoch – this is a natural state for younger people who’ve always had computers around them, and to whom the manipulation of sounds and images is second nature. The digital domain is their playground or, with a bit of focus applied, their laboratory, their studio – if this is what we’re doing now, I can’t begin to imagine what’s around the corner when the next generation, having hopefully become more culturally aware, make their statement.
Disco is both ancient history and living history, providing a vital link between past and present. Dance culture is to this generation what Rock & Roll was to the 60’s and 70’s – it’s something that came before, but which they’re re–shaping now – the same thing, but not the same thing. It offers a limitless source of inspiration, which only becomes limited if you narrow things down to the cul–de–sacs of sub–genre and nostalgia.
Daft Punk know the score. They don’t want to be labelled the godfathers of EDM, to be patted on the back by young pretenders who’ve allowed the music, as they believe, to slip into a comfort zone. They don’t want to endorse this direction, or cash in on it so they have a nice nest egg when they’re eventually put out to pasture – for this is what will happen if they take their eye off the ball and cease to innovate. They’re one step ahead, and that step is summed up by the wise old phrase ‘to know the future you must first know the past’.
‘Get Lucky’, this catchy pop song in a Disco style, is one of the most important singles in a very long time because it unlocks history, bringing then to now and now to then, immediately inspiring not only DJ’s and musicians, but artists and illustrators, writers and revellers. It’s remarkable what a good vibe tune can do, and even if you hate it, it still affects you, tweaks your own vibrations, and every time you hear it in the long summer to come it’ll give you a little volt.
Positive vibes, I say, should be welcomed when we’re offered them, and just the fact that the name Nile Rodgers will now be known (and respected) by some people young enough to be his grandchildren, makes this record worth its weight in gold. I for one want to live in a world where people know who Nile Rodgers is, or who Giorgio Moroder is, who Vincent Montana Jr. was, who Danny Krivit is, who David Mancuso is. If you profess to love Dance music, these are iconic figures you need to know about, for I can guarantee they’ll enrich your lives with the music they’ve made or the records they play, and help you join the dots from now to then and back again.
Other Disco related posts in past 9 months:
Vincent Montana, Jr.:
Danny Krivit – Roller DJ:
Return Of The Prodigal – DJ Harvey:
How Clubbing Changed The World:
Terje (Not Terje):