ItsNotYouItsMe Blog: ItsNotYouItsMe "Back To The Future" Edition Continues To Pay Homage To Disco Musique Taking An In-depth Look At The Evolution In Black Music!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

ItsNotYouItsMe "Back To The Future" Edition Continues To Pay Homage To Disco Musique Taking An In-depth Look At The Evolution In Black Music!




ItsNotYouItsMe "Back To The Future" Edition continues to pay homage to disco musique taking an in-depth look at the evolution in black music!

"For years, disco was the black sheep of music genres. Characterized as schmaltzy and over the top, the sound of polyester suits, platform shoes and strobe lights. With this iteration of the dance genre in our minds, it was easy to understand how and why the genre met a swift end 40 years ago.

On July 12, 1969, the Chicago White Sox hosted “Disco Demolition Night,” now often referred to as the night disco died. Disco was the victim of a smear campaign, the effectiveness of which has only been seen again in music when 50 Cent destroyed Ja Rule’s career and Jay-Z’s “Death of Autotune” killed T-Pain’s. But those were artists. This was an entire genre - a culture, ended by 50,000-plus mostly young, straight white men who were tired (and afraid) of something that wasn’t for or about them.

Music fans and historians have had a collective realization over the last couple of decades that the anti-disco sentiment was all spin. Not really about the music, but who the music represented: Black, Hispanic, Latinx and LGBTQ+ people and women – basically everybody except the bros holding onto classic rock for dear life. By the late ‘70s disco had, in fact, become overly formulaic and cheesy, but in the early days the sounds were lush and rich, the “four on the floor” 120 bpm tempo was infectious and irresistible. Disco created new lanes for DJs and producers, pioneered the modern nightclub/lounge scene (for better or worse), and gave fans license to just dance and be free on the floor. Most importantly, disco provided a sonic backdrop for a changing America, and that’s why Chicago DJ Steve Dahl and his fans were determined to kill it.

In the early ‘70s, marginalized communities were gaining voice and visibility. The “end” of the civil rights movement with the 1968 sigining of the Civil Rights Act, the Stonewall Rebellion and subsequent repeal of a NY law forbidding men to dance with each other, and the rise of the women’s liberation movement changed the social conscience first in major cities, and soon the country. The rock and roll and protest music of ‘60s counterculture gave way to something new, especially in major urban metros: dance music.

On Valentine’s Day 1970, DJ David Mancuso threw an invite-only party at his downtown loft which turned into a weekly event, and eventually one of NYC’s hottest nightspots, The Loft. Mancuso’s parties were primarily meant as a safe space gay men, but attendance grew to anyone else who wanted to commune through dance. The Loft was the beginning of NYC disco club culture, and of the guest list-only nightspot. Studio 54 cranked that exclusivity up to create the velvet rope and table service scene we know today. Underground dance clubs like the Paradise Garage followed, niche community havens that served as an escape from the political and fiscal turmoil of the decade. Gay, Black, Hispanic, Latinx and some straight folks partied together all night, literally. The drugs and free love of hippy culture carried over to the scene, but there was usually no alcohol, until 54 opened. These first parties also broke some of the earliest disco hits, before they were called “disco.”

What we overlooked for years in disparaging convos about disco is that it was our music. Disco evolved from black and latin sounds; funk and soul with driving rhythm and layered instrumentation and production. James Brown’s band leader Fred Wesley once called disco “funk with a bow-tie.” It was smoother and more polished than funk, but more complex than straight soul.
The proto-disco sounds that bridged the gap from soul to disco are largely attributed to two sources. The OG Barry White’s "Love's Theme" (which Barry composed and arranged; please put some respect on his name), is considered one of the first “disco” hits. That big sweeping sound he created with the 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra was a trademark of early disco songs. By the time “Love’s Theme” hit radio, it had already been in the clubs for about six months.




Philly Soul architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff are also credited as laying the foundation for the early disco sound. Philly soul was soul with a kick - a little extra percussion. A few more layers on the instrumentation. A little uptick on the rhythm. A bit more bass. It was danceable. You had to move!

MFSB’s “Love is the Message” (on Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International) became a favorite of the early disco set. It was the unofficial theme song of The Loft, a favorite of The Paradise Garage’s famous DJ Larry Levan, and fans of FX’s POSE will remember Pray Tell insisting the song be played nonstop at the balls for weeks, because it reminded him of the simpler, carefree years before the AIDS epidemic hit the community.




In 1972, Manusco found a super obscure import in a Brooklyn record store and started playing it at his parties, then other DJs started bootlegging it to play at their parties. Frankie Crocker, one of the most influential black radio DJs of the 70s, heard Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” and put it on rotation on NY’s WBLS. Atlantic Records - the one label that never missed a black music moment - licensed the song from Dibango’s original label and released a reissue. In the Summer of ’73, the song became the first official disco song to crack the Billboard Hot 100.




Disco wasn’t just Saturday Night Fever moves, especially pre-commercial peak. It was also pop-locking, the bump, roller skating jams - a lot of music we never stopped listening to, but just consider dance music, soul classics, cookout music, Soul Train line joints… We always just called it something else.




Disco also brought back hand-dancing (or couple’s dancing), which had disappeared in popular music after “The Twist” took over dancefloors in 1960. We’ve all seen old heads (or, if you’re my age, tried to get in with the old heads) getting their dance on and just watched in awe of how graceful, effortless and fun it looks. This ain’t nothin’ but the hustle.




Now that we’ve established that disco started as soul and funk with a little extra on it, let’s talk about how disco’s impact endures. Disco is short for “discotheque” - literally translated to "music library." Named as such because records were the focus at discotheques instead of live music. DJs controlled the room, and quickly became crucial to breaking a record. Songs started in the club, not at radio. DJ pools - which later became essential to hip-hop - were created during the disco era to get new songs and mixes out to the clubs as soon as possible.

In NY, DJs started remixing for the first time, extending the best parts (break beats, etc) of the hottest songs to keep the crowd in the moment (I still think NY DJs put together the most cohesive music sets because it’s in their DNA, but that’s another sermon), and eventually the 12” version was born. Or in the case of Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You,” the 16:50 opus.




Disco also elevated the music producer. Rather than pairing one or two people/teams with an artist for the majority of a project, or automatically using label-affiliated producers, producers became sought after talent for their sounds. They were tapped for a song or two, or some had songs ready and just and needed to find the right vocalist. Producers were beginning to break artists, and the vocal stars were overwhelmingly black women. Church-bred black vocalists, to be exact.




Sounds were about agency, freedom, sexuality, belonging, surviving on their own terms, and they became anthems for the gay rights movement.






Disco allowed for a freedom of identity not seen before in popular culture. Androgyny, fluid and open sexuality, excess and camp. The more outrageous, the better, if that was your thing. Only in disco could an openly gay, COGIC-raised black man like Sylvester transcend from drag shows to superstardom.




As big as disco was growing in cities like NY, Philly and Chicago, it was still a somewhat niche culture. With disco came a level of glamour and opulence that the average American joe wasn’t ready to lean into yet… plus many still saw it exclusively as gay culture. Then, in 1977, “Staying Alive” and Saturday Night Fever changed everything.




Saturday Night Fever marked that tipping point all good things hit once the masses come on board. The movie framed disco around a straight, white (Italian) blue collar worker and white artists (the Bee Gees). Now it was palatable. The movie and soundtrack were both massively successful, and by 1979 disco had evolved from a cosmopolitan culture to a national scene. Discos started opening in small town USA, and labels rushed to have any artists who hadn’t dipped their toes into disco yet to record a dance track. Even hard core rock and pop stars - likeDolly Parton, Sinatra, the Rolling Stones - some with less success than others - all tried their hand. Rod Stewart hates disco hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” but it’s one of his biggest songs, so no matter how often he’s tried to take it out of his tours in latter years, fans want it.

What we overlooked for years in disparaging convos about disco is that it was our music.
Disney and The Muppets even got in on the disco craze, probably encouraged by Rick Dees’ 1978 utterly ridiculous, completely novelty No. 1 hit “Disco Duck.”




If we’re keeping it a buck, though, I had the Sesame Street Fever album, and it was a jam. Larry Levan ain’t just hop on any ol’ thing.




Ironically, the Bee Gees never set out specifically to create a disco sound, but they became synonymous with the genre. All of their songs for Saturday Fever had been recorded before the movie was made. But the affiliation defined them for the rest of their careers, and they hated it. "The media made it as if people were afflicted with {disco}," Maurice Gibb told The Washington Post when the group finally reunited to tour a decade later. "And then there were the Village People, 'Disco Duck' and 'Kung Fu Fighting,' all these stupid, silly records that were based on what we were doing but nowhere near it...Unfortunately, it cheapened what we did."

The phase of “stupid, silly records” is what comes to mind when most think of disco, but this was also when disco was at its peak. It was supplanting rock n’ roll as the sound of America, and straight white men started developing that anxiety that straight white men get whenever something isn’t centered around straight white men (see: everything happening in US politics right this moment). The anti-disco movement found an unlikely leader in a Chicago DJ named Steve Dahl. Dahl was a chubby, awkward guy with a baby on the way, when his station manager called him into his office on Christmas Eve 1978 to tell him the station was converting to an all disco format at the top of the year. It was like the moment in comic books when the otherwise normal person becomes a villain.

Dahl got another gig at Chicago classic rock station The Loop, but fed his animosity towards disco with daily segments where he’d “blow up” a disco record on air. He built a following, the Coho Lips: a group of young white men who, according to Dahl, “want(ed) to wear our t-shirts and our jeans. And we (didn’t) want to have to wear white three-piece suits to get laid.” (It’s like “economic anxiety”, but with clothes.)

He started hosting anti-disco events, first clad in Hawaiian shirts and then in full military uniform and helmet, where he’d lead enthusiastic chants of “Disco sucks!” as he broke albums over his head. The Chicago White Sox’s owner’s son was a fan, and suggested a co-promotion for a game: fans would bring a disco record to destroy in between double headers, for a discounted admission price of $0.98 cents. The event at first seemed a huge success - over 50,000 fans showed up with reports of 10,000 more outside trying to get in. But after Dahl appeared in an army jeep to set off the dumpster full of vinyl, things went left.

The firepower was stronger than anticipated and destroyed the field, pieces of vinyl started flying all over the place like missiles. The crowd descended from the stands, first in revelry, but then it became more like a riot. People set seats on fire, lit a bonfire in the middle of the field, threw bottles and albums. Players were barricaded in the locker rooms, staff was ordered to evacuate, and the police came to shut it all down.




People were rightfully horrified at the scene, recalling book-burning and dystopian warnings from Bradbury. But Dahl has consistently maintained that Disco Demolition Night wasn’t homophobic or racial, instead calling it a “joyous heat-and-beer-infused celebration” and “one of the greatest radio promotions in history.”

Chicago house pioneer Vincent Lawrence was a 15-year old usher at Comenski field that night, and remembers it differently. He first noticed that people weren’t just bringing disco records to destroy, but black music period. “There’s Marvin Gaye records. And Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life. Records that were black records,” he recounted on Gimlet Media’s Undone podcast. He tried to enforce a strict disco rule for the discount, but his boss overrode him. Later, as the melee grew on the field, Lawrence found himself confronted by anti-disco folks. “There were just angry people running up to me, getting in my face saying disco ducks, disco sucks,” he shared. “A kid came up to me and took a 12-inch disk and broke it right in my face. It was like a Marvin Gaye 12-inch or something like that. And I didn’t understand it,
until much later, that that was just hate, and that they were directing it at me because I was black and the record was black.”

Disco Demolition Night became a national news story, and by 1980, disco was passe. The anti-disco militia had accomplished their goal; the genre practically disappeared from the airwaves, and punk, new wave and pop took over radio. But disco didn’t really die. It morphed. The underground house music scene immediately started bubbling in Chicago with a sound that was basically strippped down disco. In fact, house pioneer Frankie Knuckles called it “disco’s revenge,” but also thought, as he told music writer Jon Savage, a rebirth was necessary. “Those guys declaring disco being dead actually was kind of like a blessing in disguise, because (the culture) had to turn itself, because it‘d just gotten too much.”

Vince Lawrence, who was working at Disco Demolition Night to save money for a synthesizer, co-wrote and produced what’s considered the first house record, “On and On,” with DJ Jesse Saunders.




Some acts made the seamless transition to boogie music; the mellow, groovier side of disco.




Disco and house are the roots for so much of hip-hop, latin freestyle, techno and electronica, and now EDM. The name may have been tarnished, but the culture simply evolved, even as straight white men continue to fight the advance of anything “other” with all their might. At the core, great disco songs are just great songs. They inspire, they encourage, they speak to you, and they make you dance with abandon. How can anybody hate on that?
Disco legend Gloria Gaynor summarized disco’s legacy for Vanity Fair: “Disco music is alive and well and living in the hearts of music-lovers around the world. It simply changed its name to protect the innocent: Dance music.”


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