|Originally a piece run in Collusion (Sept 1983 issue), an underground magazine of the 80s edited by David Toop, Behind The Groove details the New York City disco scene of 1983. Steven Harvey and Patricia Bates spoke with many of the DJs/producers at the helm of the 'sound of the city'. Since then a lot has changed but the tunes and the people that played and made them still remain truly inspiring.|
Walter Gibbons | Francois Kervorkian | Larry Levan | David Mancuso | John 'Jellybean' Benitez | Shep Pettibone
The brief 10 years of disco history have provided popular music with one of its most creative periods - one too often passed over by critics. Even the faddish embrace of things danceable has failed to encourage critics to muster the same seriousness for the synth-anthems of Brooklyn duo D Train, as they do for Soft Cell or Yazoo. While much of this can be ascribed to racism, disco has never cultivated the same personality cult inherent in rock. The concern has been more with good records than concepts.
From the mid-70s disco heyday through to the present there has been a shroud of illegitimacy cast onto the music. As a field of small independent labels releasing numerous one-offs and buying completed tapes from producers rather than cultivating artists' careers it was seldom seen as the legitimate heir to the Black R&B tradition. Despite its means of production being the same; despite its embrace of great BIack voices like Loleatta Holloway, Aretha Franklin, Bettye Lavette, Gwen McCrae and many others, disco has been branded with 'killing off' funk (to paraphrase both Grandmaster Flash and Kool And The Gang's Kool). Too often the whipping post for everyone from BJack political progressives, b-boys, White pop music fans and even dance music afficiandos themselves, it's not surprising that it's practically Impossible to find informed reference books on the subject of disco.
The first discos to open in New York were Le Club in 1960 followed by Arthur and others in 1965. These were the earliest manifestations of the disco as upper-class watering holes where the rich could see and be seen in a colourful setting. This syndrome continues through Studio 54 and Xenon. Under these circumstances the music has to be considered secondary - a backdrop. It was not these clubs that sustained the new music, even with Studio's major impact and the great DJs who played there. Rather it was the underground clubs which catered to Blacks, Latins and gays. The first of the underground clubs was Salvation, in 1969, where Terry Noel played followed by The Haven, where Francis Grosso worked with Steve D'Aquisto and Michael Cappello. From there, three DJs moved to Sanctuary in 1970. Sanctuary was located in a former church in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood, evolving into a wild frenzied scene of druggy abandon. The DJ, Francis Gross, was the first DJ-as-auteur/artist/idol. To quote Albert Goldman in his 1978 book Disco:
"He invented the technique of 'slip-cueing' holding the disc with his thumb whilst the turntable whirled beneath, insulated by a felt pad He'd locate with an earphone the best spot to make the splice then release the next side precisely on the beat... his tour de force was playing two records simultane- ously for as long as two minutes at a stretch. He would super the drum break of 'I'm A Man' over the orgasmic moans of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' to make a powerfully erotic mix... that anticipated the formula of bass drum beats and love cries now one of the cliches of the disco mix."
Francis was extremely influential with his mixture of soul, rock n roll and percussion tracks like Olantunji's. He taught Steve D' Aquisto and Michael Cappello who alternated at Tamberlaine, a crucial uptown club. David Rodriguez was playing at The Ginza and David Mancuso starteQ to have parties in his home on Lower Broadway, The Loft. By the early 70s the new culture of discos as underground social clubs was in full swing. In those days White gay clubs still played R&B seven days a week. DJs played constantly and without the influence of record pools and radio, an oral tradition developed -storytelling with whatever songs they could dig up. The sound track was changing from Motown and soul obscurities towards Gamble and Huff's Philly Sound. The fast instrumental section of MFSB's 1973 'Love Is The Message' has remained to this day perhaps the ultimate NYC club anthem. When in 1975-76 the first disco releases per se on Salsoul came out they were recorded in Philadelphia at Sigma Sound. Producers like Norman Harris, Ron Baker, Earl Young and Vince Montana utilised the same cast of instrumentalists for the Salsoul Orchestra as MFSB. Records likes Manu Dibango's 'Soul Makossa', Barrabas' 'Hijack' and the crossover hits 'Rock Your Baby', 'Rock The Boat' and 'Never Can Say Goodbye' (George McCrae, Hues Corporation and Gloria Gaynor respectively) initiated the industry's infatuation with disco.
In 1975 Mancuso moved The Loft to his current location in Prince Street and created the first DJ record pool, an organised format for DJs to receive new releases from record companies. The first promotional 12inch singles began to circulate in 1975 - while nobody seemed to know which one came out first, 'Dance Dance Dance' by Calhoun is mentioned as one of the earliest. The first commercially released 12inch single was '10 Percent' by Double Exposure on Salsoul. It was appropriately revolutionary for a genre that had just found its own medium. Walter Gibbon's extension of the three-minute album track into a musical landscape In excess of nine minutes defined the possibilities for a DJ/club influenced and oriented music. The next two years saw the peak and decline of disco as mass-market enterprise, with Saturday Night Fever as centrepiece. By 1978 record companies were retrenching and purging their growing disco promotion departments.
In 1979-80 the music went back underground to the cult status which has nourished it through its current resurgence. The Garage had opened; b-boys were rapping to the slow funky drum tracks that were beginning to take hold, Patrick Addam's production of 'Weekend' by Phreek in 1978; Kenton Nix's production of Taana Gardner:s 'When You Touch Me' and 'Work That Body' as well as Jimmy Bo Horne's 'Spank' in 1979 and Loose Joint's 1980 'Is It AllOver My Face?' are examples of the underground classics that continue to reverberate in today's clubs. 'Weekend' was redone this year by Class Action (using the original vocalist, Christine Wilshire, on Sleeping Bag Records) due to the lack of availability of the original - a hard-to-find promo and import. Kenton Nix has just returned to producing for the first time since his work with Gwen McCrae on 'Funky Sensation'.
1980-81 was a turning point for street music. Both 'Rappers Delight' and Taana Gardner's 'Heartbeat' sold outstanding amounts by independent standards. 'Heartbeat' (on which mixer Larry Levan had a larger centre label billing than producer Kenton Nix) was rumoured to have sold around 100,000 copies the first week of its release in New York. At a little over 100 beats per minute it revamped the pace of dance music - the dense druggy sound the perfect foil for Taana's metallic vocal plea. 'Rappers Delight' has sold 2,000,000 copies to date (the highest of any 12inch) and has propelled the new rap language around the world. In 1982 NYC disco expanded its perimeters to include dub, electronics, jazz, Latin, afro, new wave - a cauldron capable of melting down any ingredient. Records by The Peech Boys, Sinnamon and D Train allied the Black R&B tradition with high-tech mix/electronics. The emergence of labels Tommy Boy and Streetwise under Arthur Baker and John Robie pushed the hard electronic/beat box edge to the fore. To turn on one of the city's three dance radio stations and hear a DJ mixing three records together at once seemed like an impossible dream of the avant garde infiltrating the market place.
Over this extraordinary resurgence hovers the spectre of 1978. Will the major labels, now practically insatiable in their quest for new dance music, retract as they did before? Will the formularisation of production styles and techniques eliminate inspiration? Will the gentrification of disco by dance rockers and Flashdancers effect the same loss of visceral soul as it did before?
In the following interviews I chose to focus on the DJs and remixers rather than the artists and producers (though many of the best DJs are fast going into production). Further writing is necessary on the artists as well as longtime industry people, yet the DJs are in the unique position of being the medium of disco (literally in between producer and consumer). Their extraordinary power in getting the music across to their audience makes them the mirror for a music's history, Who else can actually remember the 1000s of one-off releases except the DJs charged with wading through and creating with them? In addition, DJs as artists are working in one of the newest art forms -playing records. What more modernist criteria can there be than the collaging of found materials? It is a wonderfully nascent field, where young DJs come up fast and styles change with the development of the medium, What started as storytelling with songs has moved toward a technically oriented sonic overlaying of elements. Disco has always revolved around the cult of the DJ and the club and, as such, record spinners have shaped the music in a way that is unique.