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Lost in Music: An Oral History of Disco

The Dancing Machine: An Oral History
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1993

GLORIA GAYNOR: I started out singing jazz, singing top 40 in clubs, and between sets, disc jockeys would come in to play and I knew that was the next storm coming; I saw that we were going to be phased out. We saw disco coming and decided we were going to furnish music for that.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Disco was the greatest time ever, and I am happy that I experienced it. When they went out, they went out with one thing in mind, and that was to party. Today it seems like there’s always a lot of fights. People had no hard­ness or no bad thinking on their mind, and everything was free. And it seemed like the peak to me.

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BARRY WHITE: The ’70s was very glamor­ous — the very first time I ever saw regular jeans go from $5 to $250. The consumers dressed up like they were the stars.

FELIPE ROSE: Disco was like a sense of youthfulness and decadent innocence that the era had. It was just a hot, hot, hot time.

KATHY SLEDGE: I honestly saw it happening but I wasn’t allowed to go out dancing. We were minors at that time period.

BARRY WHITE: It was a freedom time­ — more people experienced things and tried new things, whether it was drugs or whatev­er. It wasn’t about sex but love and sensual­ity, communicating, relating. There’s a world of difference between making love and having sex, and the ’70s was ap­proached as if it was a woman being ro­manced and made love to.

FELIPE ROSE: You wanted to look your hottest, and damn if you forgot your tam­bourine when you got that hit of acid. (I stole that from David Hodo who says it in the show.) You were going to meet fabulous people and you were going to party not just for that night, you were going to party for days.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco snowballed the way it did because it got to be not just music, it got to be peoples’ social lives. People got to be stars and shine on their own.

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FELIPE ROSE: Every night was a different club, one after another, and there were real­ly no barriers in the clubs. There were blacks and whites, gays and straights — it was really more a harmonic thing. You never felt threatened when you went to a club. It’s not like today when you have to wonder who’s carrying a gun or something.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were very fond of disco because every artist needs some sort of movement to make them larger than they really are, and disco did that for us. It sort of gave us a niche, if you will, and a place in history. Some radio stations were calling us Dr. Buzzard’s Original Disco Band, and we never had a problem with that because we were all disco children. We used to hang out at Studio 54 so much that we should have been paying rent.

KATHY SLEDGE: When our song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” came out, it was after the Saturday Night Fever trend and everybody thought they were the greatest dancer. We literally had people come backstage and say, “I am the person you’re singing about.” They were definitely not introverts.

RAY CAVIANO: With disco, you were not an observer, you were a participant. You weren’t going to the party, you were the party.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: In a word? Drama.

RICHIE RIVERA: Party.

AUGUST DARNELL: I’d describe it as pas­sion or, better, neopassion — a passion for the modern times.

BARRY WHITE: Explosive, mystical, magi­cal. Disco brought a lot of smiles to peo­ples’ faces and I saw it everywhere in the world.

RAY CAVIANO: A disco record doesn’t let you dance, it makes you dance.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: The producers, like Norman Harris, took the music and stressed it in the studio; when they started playing they never stopped. When I put down the vocals on “Hit and Run,” they told me to come back the next day and just work out on the break and I thought, This is the longest song I ever sang in my life. The music just went on and on.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco music to me was musical elation. I think people forgot who they were for a minute: it had a way of lifting you, making you forget about your worries or your problems — almost like mesmerizing you. It was another way of reaching out and feeling like you’re a part of or belonging to the crowd.

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AUGUST DARNELL: Hurrah’s was one of the first clubs I went to, but I frequented Danceteria, the Mudd Club, Studio 54, the Continental Baths, Electric Circus — and there were at least a dozen after-hours places that  we used to hang out at. I’d have to look into my diaries to find out their names.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The first club I ever went to was in downtown Brooklyn, called COCP; it was all black and I snuck out there on the weekends. I was like 16. Then there was Salvation, Sanctuary, Tarot across from Max’s, and Max’s for a minute. The Loft, 12 West, Flamingo once or twice. The Gallery, the Garage, Better Days, Infinity, Le Jardin, Studio 54, but those were work-related — the other places I lived at. I was a Loft baby.

RAY CAVIANO: The first club I can remember going to was the Firehouse, early in the ’70s. It was the first place where gay people could get together in an uninhibited way away from the bar scene.

RICHIE RIVERA: The first club I played at was the GAA Firehouse, on Wooster Street. Then Footsteps, Buttermilk Bottom, the Anvil, the Sandpiper on Fire Island, Fla­mingo, the Cock Ring, the Underground, 12 West (which became the River Club after the Saint opened), Studio 54, and back to the Cock Ring.

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FELIPE ROSE: We were like G.I. Joe action dolls under the strobe lights. The intensity back then was stronger, the volume was bigger. We were one of the only groups to go live with a band into the clubs, and when we appeared in stadiums, we brought motorcycles, a tepee, a Jeep, and Portosans — for the construction worker — on stage.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were a band with a mission — to bring dance music back to the world — and we felt like the crowds almost lived by a credo that dance is everything. In England now they have all these rave par­ties, but when people say there’s nothing like a rave, I say I saw all this in 1976 at Studio 54. Studio 54 was like ritual escap­ism to the max.

RAY CAVIANO: There was no question about it: the DJ was in full control — almost mind control — of the dance floor, and he had the capacity to take you on a trip. In some cases people felt it was a religious experience of sorts. It was almost a physical thing too — quasi-sexual. The DJ was ma­nipulating the dance floor through a whole steeplechase of sounds. I wanna take you higher.

RICHIE RIVERA: People got to trust me and we bounced off one another. I had a feel for what they might like so I’d go two or three degrees further, and they usually went along.

DAVID MANCUSO: Rule number one: Don’t let the music stop.

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RICHIE RIVERA: It was difficult for me to accept [Donna Summer’s] “Last Dance” when it came out. It was such a drastic change. For years, everybody had been refining their style so the music flowed non­stop. And all of a sudden here came a song where it stopped — and people needed that. They’d been dancing nonstop for years at that point.

RAY CAVIANO: Never speak to a DJ when he’s got the earphones on and mixing. Know when to talk to the DJ, not to inter­rupt his artistic flow. You’re talking to him during his performance.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: A DJ should always pay attention to his dance floor and entertain­ — that’s his job, to read the audience and react to what they want. Make them scream when they’re good and punish them when they’re bad.

DAVID MANCUSO: A night at the Loft was like three bardos. There was the coming together, calmness. In the first two hours, it starts out very smoothly, gathering. Second bardo would be like the circus: music, lights going, the balloons. Third bardo would be the reentry — going back to where you came from, maybe not the same person, but you land back on your feet gently, a little wiser and a little more sociable.

RAY CAVIANO: Every club was different. At Flamingo the DJ was like the Svengali of the dance floor, the maestro. Funhouse was a little more casual; Jellybean was looser.

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RICHIE RIVERA: At Flamingo, it was like Moses in a scene from The Ten Command­ments. At the Anvil, the booth was right in the middle of everything and people’s faces were like three or four feet away from me, so it was really like being in the heart of the whole proceedings.

RAY CAVIANO: The most famous booth in the industry was at the Paradise Garage. It was literally a who’s who of the music business in New York — from Frankie Crocker to any number of record company promo people. If a hot new record got played, word would spread like a bullet from that booth and within 48 hours you’d have a hit.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: At the Garage, I was the godmother of the booth. As the evening progressed from midnight on, there was a pattern as to who showed up. Early on, it was members of the music industry who came to promote their records but not necessarily to dance. They’d try to set up the DJ, Larry Levan, with a test pressing. After two, those people would disappear and the serious record people would show up. That’s when the party would start. After four or five, the booth would be void of anybody who wasn’t there to seriously dance or listen to music, and those people stayed until closing, sometimes until noon the next day.

RAY CAVIANO: The Infinity booth was famous for DJ groupies. The booth was high above the floor at one end of the room and Jim Burgess ruled. But the groupies had a certain amount of influence; they could get the records they liked played when some promo person didn’t have a chance.

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AUGUST DARNELL: I’d have to say my favorite club was Studio 54, it was so deca­dent and so exciting in that period to be part of something you knew was a world movement. It was a bit magical and the music was devastatingly loud. I was never into the alcohol or the drugs, so the appeal of the club was different for me from its appeal to other members of Savannah Band who will go nameless here. I went primarily for the glamor of it — so many beautiful women hanging out in one place. Steve Rubell did make it ridiculous after a while. He could stagger around higher than any­one I ever saw and still be coherent.

RICHIE RIVERA: In the course of a night, the tempo would generally curve downward, but sometimes the manager thought it was too gradual. People needed a remind­er when it was time to take the downs. They told me, You’ve got to do something to make them realize it’s time to start com­ing down — something dramatic. Some peo­ple showed up at four because they wanted to hear all that down stuff, what came to be known as sleaze music. They didn’t blend in with the earlier crowd, who were like Saturday Night Fever and just wanted to take speed and fly.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Leaving the club, we’d hit the streets looking terribly ugly because we were all very worn out and soiled and everybody out there was fresh. We’d go out to breakfast and talk over the records, the show, the dish of the night, then go home and try to sleep. Come Sunday night, you were fried but not ready to call it a week­end, so Better Days was the dessert when Larry Levan had been the appetizer and dinner.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: I was working this gay club, right? And I talk a lot before I start to sing. And I said I want a lady to come up onstage that don’t mind being a bitch. I told her to look around for whatev­er man she wanted and I’d bring him up. And then I brought a guy — he was gay — up and instructed him to call up whoever he wanted and put his tongue way down their throat. He looked around for a minute and then grabbed me and turned me way over — you know how you do — and kissed me! The audience went crazy, but I never did that again.

FELIPE ROSE: In different clubs they would throw different things on the stage. Girls would throw bras, and guys would jump on stage and take off their shirts and flex for “Macho Man.”

KATHY SLEDGE: We did the club circuit in New York, and during the Son of Sam period, I learned how much people looked forward to going out at night and when they couldn’t how much they missed it. I re­member so clearly Disco Sally was at one of our shows. I saw her in the bathroom with this long brown fall on. They said Son of Sam was preying on women with long brown hair, and when I told her that, she just whipped it off and put it in her bag.

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BARRY WHITE:  I loved the people, the attitude of the people. The consumer participated not only listening to the music but dressing to the music.

GLORIA GAYNOR: I kind of liked trendy and funky clothes. I don’t like women showing more of their body than is really necessary, but I like fun clothes — sparkle blouses and all.

AUGUST DARNELL: The thing about the style of disco, in retrospect it was quite ridiculous and laughable. To be quite hon­est, I didn’t think much of the clothing, but the Beautiful People who came to 54, they did have style. The good thing was it gave people a reason to say “Let’s get dressed up and go out.”

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The downside was monotony — how a certain style of music I would be totally driven into the ground before a change would come. Like the whole Eurodisco thing: no change, no growth.

RICHIE. RIVERA: It did get a little repetitious. It became so “in” that everybody did it, or thought they could. I mean, Ethel Merman doing a disco album?

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KATHY SLEDGE: There was less pressure then. People came out to dance and have a good time, but it was kind of a double­-edged sword. Especially when the hustle came out, you could feel the cohesiveness on the dance floor, but it was also a lonely time. Like the place would be crowded with people, but a lot of them would be dancing alone.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: My best memory is standing in the middle of Paradise Garage in the early evening before the club filled up. Larry Levan was playing the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and I was totally straight and just about totally alone and dancing by my­self and actually got lost in the music, trav­eled with the music and within the sound system — just me and the club.

DAVID MANCUSO: The night of the black­out, people stayed over all night. We had candles and played radios and people were sleeping over, camping out. It was very peaceful, a little Woodstockish. The party still went on.

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GLORIA GAYNOR: Disco started out as a sound and unfortunately evolved into a lifestyle that Middle America found dis­tasteful — and that was the demise of disco. It got into sex and drugs that really had nothing to do with the music but that was the lifestyle that identified with disco.

AUGUST DARNELL: The most decadent I got was dancing with two girls simulta­neously, but the decadence of it was great to observe. In the bowels of Studio 54, there was a higher high. But I was like an observer more than a participant. I was like a journalist witnessing a national event.

DAVID MANCUSO: If people were using drugs, they were mild and recreational, where today it’s all about economics. But three-quarters was purely spontaneous energy.

RAY CAVIANO: In hindsight, the experience was exhausting and the lifestyle was obvi­ously way beyond the call of duty. We were going to have a good time even if it was going to kill us. We wanted to take the trip as far as we could take it.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: What killed disco? The people behind the desks. They do what they wanna do. They changed disco into dance and they changed dance into house. But when you listen to it, it’s still all the same.

AUGUST DARNELL: I would imagine what happened is the same thing that will kill every innovative form: greed — people who don’t have the heart and soul of the music but just want to cash in on it. They think they have the formula without realizing that disco was much more than that at the beginning.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Disco killed disco. The word disco killed disco. Like pop will eat itself, disco ate itself. Anything that be­comes too popular is apt to be destroyed by the same people who gave it the name.

AUGUST DARNELL: The music today — I call it disco part five.

BARRY WHITE: Disco was a sexy smooth era, very chic era. Now things are mechani­cal, more raw, closer to the streets. The attitude in America is distrust and disillu­sion. Now it’s time to rip, take the money and run, sell the country, sell your mother.

AUGUST DARNELL: It was a good period to go through because it was exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you find your balance eventually. ♦

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THE PLAYERS

RAY CAVIANO: Parlayed his success as disco’s most persuasive promo man into a high-powered but short-lived deal for his own RFC label at Warner Bros. Al­though cocaine abuse left him broke and in jail (and landed him on the cover of the Voice in 1986), he bounced back to become a perennial promotion man of the year, most recently with MicMac, the New York freestyle indie, which let him go in March. Since then, Caviano’s dropped from sight.

AUGUST DARNELL: Cofounder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, lead­er of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, whose 1992 album, You Shoulda Told Me You Were… was their last for Columbia; since being dropped by the label, the group’s been without a deal. Darnell spends much of his time these days in Manchester, England “playing daddy” to two children, Ashley and Dario.

GLORIA GAYNOR: Crowned the first Queen of Disco after “Honeybee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Gaynor orig­inated one of the most imitated disco formulas but faded from the American scene after “I Will Survive.” Her recent work has been in Italy (where her Gloria Gaynor ’90 album went gold), the Middle East, and Asia, but she says,”I think I’m ready to come home.”

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: One of the clubs’ fiercest ruling divas with “Hit and Run” and her Dan Hartman duet “Re­light My Fire.” She still rules, both as sampled wail and featured vocalist, most famously on Marky Mark’s “Good Vi­brations.” She’s currently preparing a second single for the Select label, due early fall.

DAVID MANCUSO: Mancuso turned his lower Broadway loft into a balloon-filled private party once a week in 1973, play­ing both DJ and host. One of the earliest New York membership clubs, the Loft has moved twice and shut down periodi­cally since then but remains a fixture, with Mancuso in full effect.

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RICHIE RIVERA: One of New York’s most popular and powerful DJs during the disco boom, Rivera last played at a club in 1983. He’s currently working in the chart department at HMV’s Upper West Side branch.

FELIPE ROSE: Discovered dancing on platforms in New York clubs by French producer Jacques Morali, Rose, a Puerto Rican Native American, was recruited to play the Indian in the Village People. Still wearing a feathered headdress, still singing “Macho Man,” he’s among the original People celebrating the group’s 16th anniversary this year.

KATHY SLEDGE: Thirteen when Sister Sledge was formed, Sledge “grew up in the business.” “We Are Family” remains the group’s anthem, but Kathy, now mar­ried with children, went solo last year with the album Heart.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The cofounder of New York’s influential For the Record DJ pool in 1978, Weinstein is partners with DJ/remixer/producer David Mo­rales in Def Mix Productions which rep­resents Frankie Knuckles and Danny Madden.

BARRY WHITE: His “Love’s Theme” was the first disco single to top the pop charts in 1974. White continues his reign as king-size pillow talker with a retrospective boxed set on the market to be joined by a new album, Love Is the Icon, in September.

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Beat Connection: Five Essential DJ Sets

Nine years ago, I began a column with the same name for the A.V. Club (archived here). What started as a look at new dance music recordings quickly rerouted somewhere more interesting once I started including my favorite online DJ sets. Those who love dance music are often dismissed as merely responding to real-space epiphenomena, but the best online mixes give the lie to that sort of you-had-to-be-there. They don’t simply bring the club home; they occupy a third space between club and home, a space that rewards active listening. 

In my case, a lot. DJ sets are my primary listening. (That’s DJ sets, not live p.a.’s or electronic performances — sorry, Jeff Mills and NASA.) Those that jolt my attention and keep it you’ll find in this monthly roundup of five mixes — four new, plus an older set tied to an upcoming New York date. (You can tweet suggestions to @matoswk75.) I think they’re worth your time because I know they were worth mine. Welcome.

Ben UFO: Dekmantel Podcast 154B (January 2, 2018) 

Hessle Audio co-founder and Rinse FM host Ben Thomson is often dubbed a DJ’s DJ, which is generally shorthand for someone who plays records no one else would dare to and whose individual selections are off-kilter enough to ID the DJ without knowing who did what. His two-part set for Amsterdam’s Dekmantel Festival constitutes a case in point. Podcast 154A, which dropped on Christmas Day, is akin to an elongated spritz of perfumed air, climaxing around minute 47 with an un-ID’d track that’s engorged, almost irradiated, flitting in a dozen directions, especially on headphones.

I love bell-toned tintinnabulation that just keeps building as much as the next boffin, but there’s a difference between fitting together a bunch of records that basically sound alike and finding the logic between a bunch that don’t — and doing it so well you can’t imagine wanting to hear them differently. That’s why 154B gets the nod. Rather than a misty build to a blissy peak, this one triggers surprise upon surprise — here spring-sprong electro from Drexciya, there a rough kick-drum stomp so sideways it threatens to topple itself (unidentified, around minute 31). A Kirk Smith track from 1993 is ravey without evoking an aural glow stick; a Kode9 track from 2004 makes early dubstep seem positively jumpy in a way almost none of the period’s actual sets do. The enormous, flat synth layers of Caribou’s “Julia Brightly” nearly upend the sound picture; naturally, it slides into the pseudo-tribal stomp of CultureClash’s “Sultan Groove,” recorded in ’92 but not made available on vinyl for another 25 years. Ben UFO’s weirdo side is more fruitful than his tone-poem side, and his keep-shit-moving side is most fruitful of all.

Lone: Essential Mix (February 3, 2018)  

The best tracks by Lone, born Matt Cutler in Nottingham, England, transmit a sense of pure agog. His Emerald Fantasy Tracks, from 2010, is my favorite album of the decade so far, though it differs greatly in temperament than the early-Nineties rave classics that inspired it. Once, while driving through Los Angeles with a friend, I played EFT back to back with a 1992 breakbeat hardcore set by Jumpin’ Jack Frost, and the latter was manifestly nuttier. Despite the wide-screen vigor of Lone’s tracks, there’s a fundamental modesty, even homeyness, about his music, and the same is true of his DJ sets — that’s part of their charm.

But there’s nothing modest about his edition of BBC Radio 1’s weekly, two-hour Essential Mix, and that’s why it’s the best set he’s ever made. It begins mellow-ish and starts to hurtle in its second hour. The moment of liftoff comes around minute 45, with an amazing Alicia Myers edit (and there’s no shortage of killer Alicia Myers edits) juddering into Scan-7’s “The Resistance,” a Mad Mike joint from 1993 with a title phrase that’s, you bet, absolutely au courant here in Trumplandia. With the selector giving himself seven evenly paced tracks out of thirty, this is the strongest argument for Lone’s place in the floor-filler pantheon rather than the tune-making one, even if you want to hear every tune again ASAP.

Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy: Boiler Room London DJ Set — The Final Night in Paradise Closing Party (November 26, 2017) 

DJ’ing doesn’t automatically equal mixing, never has — not even in dance music, since the guy who more or less kicked the whole thing off, David Mancuso, didn’t mix at all. Mancuso, as Barry Walters put it in his Voice obit, “didn’t even like being called a DJ. He considered himself…a ‘musical host.’ ”

The founder of the Lucky Cloud Sound System, which put on Mancuso’s Loft parties in London in the last years of his life, Murphy arrived in New York in 1986 and spent the early Nineties “going to charity shops, buying Larry Levan remixes for a dollar,” as she told Love Injection. She got to know Mancuso in that period as well; in the Love Injection interview she describes their tastes as being near telepathic. Both were/are serious gearheads as well, as the Boiler Room announcer notes: “You brought some ridiculous audiophile equipment that I don’t even want to touch.”

Murphy plays less like a host and more like a DJ than her old friend, though her higher ratio of blended segues still places stock in older verities — no coincidence that, following an NYC Peech Boys a cappella, she hits us with D Train imploring, “Where would you be without a song?” Whereupon she unleashes a veritable ’78-to-’84 pantheon of late disco, post-disco, synth-funk, electro-boogie, potayto, potahto. If you’re above a certain age (I turn 43 this weekend), you’ll know every one of these tracks — Sylvester, Inner Life, Sister Sledge, Ashford & Simpson — by heart; if not, you’ll recognize the source of at least half a dozen samples. As Murphy plays them, their placement sounds immediately definitive — like you’re home, just how Mancuso wanted it.

Noncompliant: Discwoman 37 (January 18, 2018)

Born Lisa Smith, Noncompliant spent many years playing and recording as DJ Shiva; this newer moniker is less a signal of rebirth than of consolidation. (And, of course, protest, as a perusal of her Twitter account makes plain.) But though she’s always played hard and deep, the sets she’s issued since the switch have been especially focused and invigorated. This one — recorded live at a femme-centric party thrown in Pittsburgh last July 29 by promoters GirlFx at the club Hot Mass, which resides beneath a bathhouse and whose capacity is under 200 — lets Smith show off her, and techno’s, full range. Right, a live set tends to lose something in the transition to earbuds, especially considering the original setting; and right, even I get sick of nonstop techno over four hours. But this set transmits the humidity of the original room. I keep waiting for things to flag, and for 221 minutes, nothing does. Instead, rooms open up to more rooms. And as a colleague put it, “Just when I’m about to give up, ‘Energy Flash.’ ”

Dense & Pika: Boiler Room London DJ set (May 14, 2014)

I first got to know these two when they were releasing tracks on Hotflush Recordings, a floor-focused but rangy label. More recently, they’ve been keeping company with Drumcode, the Swedish techno label, founded by Adam Beyer, known for head-down, hard-charging stuff with the occasional glint of mischief. But Dense & Pika (Alex Jones and Christopher Spero) are so much friskier than the Drumcode norm — powerful as Beyer can be, he’s never going to make me cackle in my living room the way these two jokers do around minute 36 by dropping in a friggin’ Technotronic a cappella. Better yet, the music earns it — it’s densely reverberating warehouse techno that’s ridiculously simple, ridiculously propulsive, and even when it’s obvious it slams so hard that it beats your resistance down.

Dense & Pika play Output on Thursday, March 1, at 10 p.m. Pig & Dan open. Tickets here.

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Vince Aletti’s Disco Diaries

On my way to interview former Village Voice art director (and current New Yorker photography critic) Vince Aletti, I happen to pass a poster proclaiming, “Disco Is Back! Now playing at Bloomingdale’s.” This is strangely appropriate, as I’m meeting Aletti for lunch to discuss the publication of his first book, The Disco Files 1973-78: New York’s Underground Week by Week, which, as its title attests, collects five years’ worth of articles he wrote about the burgeoning disco scene as it happened.

So with this mighty new tome of his, is Bloomingdale’s right? Is disco back? Aletti laughs at the notion: “I feel that disco never really went away, as much as it was declared ‘over’ as the spotlight of the media moved somewhere else.” Seated across from the sixtysomething scribe in a St. Mark’s Place café, we are but a stone’s throw away from the Ukrainian National Home, which, every few months, hosts David Mancuso’s still-extant Loft parties. First reported on by Aletti in these very pages (June 16, 1975, to be exact, as part of a news story entitled “SoHo vs. Disco” and reprinted in the book), he was the first writer to address disco and the first to pen a story about Mancuso, the inscrutable DJ and consummate party host universally hailed as the genre’s founding father.

Aletti first started going to the Loft in 1972—”David is such an institution,” he says. “It doesn’t surprise me that he would still have a following. Back then, it was very casual, with balloons and streamers, just like a kid’s birthday party.” In the intervening decades, that evergreen party’s vibe has matured, along with its host and audience: “Now I love that it has whole families there, middle-aged people, kids, all these Japanese kids—just this broad range of the kind of people who always flock to his party, but also people who grew up with him.”

Such broad inclusiveness is what first drew the young writer to disco, just as its earliest practitioners and DJs drew on obscure soul, hard funk, Latin music, left-field rock, and fusion jazz to make dancers move, before a more rigid “disco formula” descended upon dance floors across the country. Aletti’s weekly column for the nationwide industry mag Record World provides the bulk of The Disco Files‘ content and illuminates this point. “It was a constant processing of what’s new in music, week by week,” he recalls. “What was interesting to me about doing the column was being in touch with all of these DJs in every city that I could rely on to be awake at a certain hour, who could tell me what they were playing night in, night out.” Each page runs down four DJs and their selections, as well as Aletti’s own favorites, making it invaluable to crate-diggers the world over. It’s no wonder that The Disco Files (originally printed by White Columns gallery for an Aletti retrospective in early 2008) has now been published by the zealots at the DJ History website, who were also responsible for the classic book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.

From such a privileged vantage point, it’s remarkable to re-investigate what’s often perceived as a flat music-scape consisting of little more than Saturday Night Fever, “Play That Funky Music,” and Larry Levan (who first crops up in late ’77). Instead, Disco Files reveals a much more nuanced and surprising topography. Club names run from Mind Shaft in San Francisco to the Poop Deck in Fort Lauderdale. Flipping randomly to Aletti’s column from August 16, 1975, we can see recently deceased Times scribe William Safire lauding “The Hustle” as a “return to discipline and responsibility” on the dance floor. That same week, Boston moved to the Boogie Man Orchestra, while in L.A., they dug “Chinese Kung Fu” and “Do the Choo-Choo.” Sure, the Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing” infiltrates every single playlist in 1976, but you also find out that crowds at one New York hot spot went crazy for Loggins & Messina.

On the strength of Aletti’s ear, he ultimately quit his column to do A&R for RFC/Warner Bros., the label responsible for post-disco (but
still totally disco) singles like the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” From there, he nurtured his passion for art and photography into a position at the Voice for over two decades before leaving in 2005. Today, he curates shows for the International Center of Photography, writes for The New Yorker, and listens to Mary J. Blige, Madonna, and the Junior Boys. But he has never abandoned his first love: “I loved the idea that disco could be so many things and didn’t have to be Donna Summer. And I loved Donna Summer.”

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Big Night

While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognizes dinosaurs of a bygone era, the Dance Music Hall of Fame honors living legends. François Kevorkian, Jellybean benitez, and Frankie Knuckles were among the artists, DJs, producers, and label managers inducted at DMHOF’s second annual ceremony last week.

Kevorkian, whose history in dance music stretches back to the disco era, nabbed two honors—for Remixer and DJ— so it was only fair that he gave the longest speech, in which he thanked everyone from Kraftwerk to David Mancuso to Larry Levan. Since dance music will never get respect in America (as host dj cousin brucie noted in a speech), it may be the only time you’ll hear people like Detroit techno artists Derrick May and Jeff Mills and Kevorkian’s former Body & Soul colleague Danny Krivit getting props from someone on a podium. After Kevorkian was finished, Brucie cracked, “He mentioned everyone in the goddamn room!”

The awards show, held at the considerably tonier Grand Ballroom at the Manhattan Center, was all grown up this year. Fancy banquets and glitzy big-screen TVs, coupled with a more professional production than last year’s seat-of-your-pants show at Spirit, led Danny Tenaglia to quip: “I feel like I’m at an Italian wedding!” He surmised why he wasn’t getting inducted just yet. “I’m not old enough!” Then we high-fived.

Before the show, Randy Jones—known as “the Cowboy” from the Village People and wearing a cowboy hat to make sure you knew that—hung out with his lawyer. “I trusted him with everything!” he said, to which his lawyer added, “And I took it all!”

A large man later stopped me and insisted that I take his picture. “I’m very important.” I didn’t recognize him. He was Patrick Adams, whose name didn’t ring a bell, but whose songs did. He cited “Push Push (In the Bush)” to jog my memory. Say no more. I took his picture.

You know how during normal awards shows you fall asleep during the musical performances because they suck so badly? This was not a problem. The music was so good I wished they’d skip the speeches altogether. Ray Chew and the Crew, the Apollo Theatre’s house band, was unbelievably good—turning out medleys of popular disco hits and backing performances by the Trammps, Kathy Sledge leading Sister Sledge‘s “We Are Family,” and a tribute to Sylvester, featuring Martha Wash, Byron Stingily, and Alyson willia ms.

Disco was barely a twinkle when I was born, but Gloria Gaynor‘s “I Will Survive” was one of the first songs I remember. Her performance had everyone on their feet, including producer inductee Nile Rodgers, who was also celebrating his birthday. (“How’s everyone know that?” he wondered earlier. I told him they probably planned the whole event just for him.) Rodgers watched the Chic reunion with a Cheshire cat–sized grin, as original Chic singer Fonzi Thornton, along with Sylver Logan Sharp and Jessica Wagner, ran through a medley of the band’s monster hits, “Le Freak,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and “Good Times.” Rodgers, when accepting his induction, said, “People always ask me what the proudest moment of my life is, and that’s when ‘Good Times’ was No. 2 for weeks after ‘My Sharona.’ And people said dance music was dead.” Funny, they’re still saying that. And disco really sucks too.

What doesn’t suck: hurricane benefits. The “NY Loves NOLA” benefit at the Ace of Clubs, ACME Bar & Grill, and the Culture Project—in an all-day cabaret and theater performance marathon featuring a hilarious performance from
Mr. Miyagi’s Theater Company
—raised $4,291 for the Red Cross.

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Disco inferno: From unifying safe haven to creepy dystopia

Music critic Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around opens with a graphic depiction of New York in the ’70s that could make even the most hardened city dweller cower behind the nearest gentrified storefront. The Bronx is getting leveled by flames; all five boroughs are being torn by racial and social unrest; Son of Sam is on the loose. Add devastating municipal cutbacks, stagflation, and a crime rate galloping faster than any Giorgio Moroder bassline ever could, and you have the recipe for total meltdown. Or disco. Or both.

It’s tempting to cast disco as the ray of light in this grim urban dystopia and the discotheque as the safe haven where all the bitterly divided races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities could gyrate under a single unifying beat. Shapiro certainly offers that democratic point of view—and his book, which gives equal ink to “The Hustle” and to underground party-starter David Mancuso, is wholeheartedly populist in its approach. But Shapiro is quick to point out disco’s less-than-utopian aspects too. It could be a force for exclusion (look no further than the A-list-infested confines of Studio 54) and for creepily nihilistic excess (see the mechanized coke spoon at 54, the life-size Donna Summer–shaped cake transported via ambulance).

Turn the Beat Around will inevitably draw comparisons to Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day
. Although they cover several of the same characters and events, they’re wildly different. Lawrence’s finely tooled passages are flecked with technical details, like the specific placement of Mancuso’s beloved Klipschorn speakers. Shapiro bypasses most of this for another kind of audiophilia— rapturous passages describing the way songs feel, including a dazzling reading of “I Feel Love.” That particular tidbit, which takes up almost an entire chapter, is worth the asking price alone.

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Siano the Times

In the early ’70s, a teenage DJ named Nicky Siano traveled the space-wise dancefloor of David Mancuso’s Loft, before launching his own Gallery. (Gallery kid Larry Levan later levitated Paradise Garage.) Despite acid, balloons, and the food bar, the Gallery wasn’t always totally blissed-out. In the booklet included with his new Soul Jazz Records compilation Nicky Siano’s Legendary the Gallery, Nicky describes an innovative sound design, logically based on and evolving with the rooms and scenes he performed in as the feast moved around NYC.

The Gallery opened in the summer of ’73. Couch-potato arena rock ruled. Not waiting for a “new” radio hit formula, club DJs and dancers (especially blacks, Latinos, gays) were among those who chose to carve fresh heat from the vinyl beast. And The Gallery, despite some mid-’70s copyrights, is mercury still rising, through scientifically selected, crosstown funk, soul, and one gospel song (as such): Gloria Spencer proclaims: “I got it! I don’t understand it! I got it!” A jet blasts (like, “Amen!”) out of Exuma’s “Obeah Man.” The Temptations lay down the “Law of the Land”: “You might not like who you are, but you better start. ‘Cause you sure can’t be nobody else.” But the music spins like a roulette wheel. Meanwhile, turns out that Bonnie Bramlett’s “Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” is crazy like a tambourine and a fox, shaking in wait for that slowhand dobro.

Other adepts, like Loleatta Holloway, Bobby Womack, Bill Withers, the Isleys, and Undisputed Truth, also make the most of prior knowledge and surprise. Without waiting for the remix: These are original (full-length) LP tracks and seven-inch singles. Yet great breaks burst out of (and roll through) good grooves, good songs. Often.


See nickysiano.com and timlawrence.info.

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King of Clubs

The party space, with its huge mirror ball and DNA strands of multicolored balloons, combines Alice in Wonderland with astrophysics. “City, Country, City” percolates through five stacks of Klipschorn speakers and sounds so live that, if you close your eyes, War could be playing in the same room. As the percussive tempo builds, dancers regress, screaming and whooping as they execute spinning-top turns and syncopated jazz flicks. It could be 1974, but it’s 2004. After an agonizing hiatus, the Loft is back. And party host David Mancuso is refusing to change with the times.

The Loft began life in 1970 as an unnamed, one-off rent party when Mancuso, an antiques dealer, decided to put on a Valentine’s Day bash in his ex-industrial home to supplement his irregular income. In a reference to universal love and psychedelic enlightenment, the party invites were inscribed with the words “Love Saves the Day,” and Mancuso ended up spinning records from midnight until six in the morning. “The idea of being a DJ never crossed my mind,” he says. “I only did it because I was with my friends and we were all into the same music.”

At the end of that first night, Mancuso’s guests—a definitive cross-section of New York’s displaced citizens—made it clear that they wanted more of the same, and within a couple of months the host had succumbed to the inevitability of a weekly party. By the middle of 1971, the events were being referred to as the Loft. “I wasn’t looking for a name,” says Mancuso. “But people started to refer to my space as David’s Loft. It was a given name and I accepted it.”

Mancuso’s subsequent influence on the dance underground is hard to overestimate. The Tenth Floor, the Gallery, 12 West, Reade Street, the Warehouse, and the Paradise Garage were modeled on his private-party template. Club kids such as Nicky Siano, Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries, and David Morales fell under his aural spell before they proceeded to embark on their own turntablist adventures. Even fellow DJs treated Mancuso’s venue like a place of worship.

Mancuso broke unconventional records like “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” and “Soul Makossa,” yet he was always more of a party engineer than a DJ. He put together the best sound system in New York, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on audiophile technology. He treated his dancers to a sumptuous buffet of energy-enhancing food and fruit punch. He decorated his post-industrial living spaces in the style of a make-believe children’s party. And he defended his house party setup as if his life depended on it, defeating the Department of Consumer Affairs in a precedent-setting battle over his right to party without a cabaret license.

The party host also demonstrated a sixth sense for pioneering new neighborhoods in which to throw a party. Noho had yet to receive its designation when Mancuso moved into 647 Broadway in the mid ’60s, and when the collapse of a neighboring hotel forced him to look for a new space in the summer of 1974, he moved to 99 Prince Street, overcoming the vociferous objections of once bohemian locals en route. “Soho vs. Disco” is how Vince Aletti, writing in the Voice, framed the clash. Disco won.

Mancuso’s next move was calamitous. As his 10-year lease on Prince Street drew to a close, he decided to swap the cobbled climes of Soho for the virtual war zone of Alphabet City, hopeful that outright ownership of his new building on 3rd Street between avenues B and C would help him “leave the landlords behind” and ensure the future of his beloved party. Die-hard devotees—especially Loft women—balked at the area’s notoriously heavy drug traffic and endemic crime, however, and even Mancuso became edgy when federal and city plans to rejuvenate the area evaporated. “I lost 65 percent of my attendance overnight,” he remembers.

Mancuso struggled in his 3rd Street venue until he was forced to close in 1994. The itinerant host then tried his luck on Avenue A, followed by Avenue B, where a shimmering 28th-anniversary celebration contained the promise of rebirth until a fractious landlord forced him into yet another move—this time into rented accommodations that were too tiny to hold a house party.

The onset of AIDS, the inexorable rise of the drum machine, and the hostile tenure of Mayor Giuliani contributed to the impression that Mancuso had fallen out of sync with history. But then David Hill, co-owner of London-based Nuphonic Records, offered to release a compilation of Loft classics, and Mancuso, who needed the money and was impressed by Hill’s perfectionist drive, agreed. The album, David Mancuso Presents the Loft, became Nuphonic’s bestseller and triggered a wave of publicity for the club.

As Mancuso’s legendary status came into focus, invitations to play in Japan, the U.K., Italy, and France poured in. On each trip, the roving “musical host” (Mancuso’s preferred description) broke with conventional DJ’ing practice by agreeing to work with just one promoter and play just one party per city. “Most DJs walk into a gig and do a one- to three-hour slot, and that is it,” he says. “To me that is a fart in a windstorm. I like to help build a party from scratch and create a musical direction.”

Mancuso recently started to put on parties in what has oddly—given its history as the international capital of disco—become the toughest terrain of all: New York. Hiring out a hall near St. Marks Place, he has been attracting the young (mainly Japanese kids) as well as the old (veterans of the Broadway Loft). His 34th-anniversary party in February was a sellout, and last weekend’s Memorial Day party was equally successful.

Loft babies believe that Mancuso is once again putting on the best party in the city. “The best dancing experiences I have ever had have been at the Loft,” says DJ-producer Nicky Siano, who, having drifted away from the New York dance scene in the early 1980s, has made a fairly astonishing comeback himself. “The atmosphere at David’s parties is second to none.”

For some, the Loft has begun to show its age. “I admire David’s active avoidance of the spotlight, and his parties still have an underground feel because of that,” says a comparatively young DJ. “But the majority of the crowd is the same as it was 20 years ago, and they want to hear the old favorites.” Others wonder if Mancuso’s refusal to use a mixer is anachronistic—and if it would be possible for him to pump the sound system just a little bit harder.

But if so many new records don’t measure up to the old, if mixing technology encourages spinners to focus on the micro-detail of how two records blend together rather than the broader canvas of the dancefloor journey, and if clubbers are suffering from unprecedented levels of tinnitus as a result of repeated ear beatings from second-rate sound systems, what is Mancuso to do?

The Loft host’s obsessive pursuit of the perfect party has emerged as a precious antidote to the increasingly stagnant status quo. “The Loft is unique and irresistible,” says veteran DJ-dancer Danny Krivit, whose 718 Sessions are one of the hottest parties in the city at the moment. “It’s about good friends meeting in a homey setting and listening to excellent music on a great sound system. The Loft is timeless.” Mancuso has become not so much an idiosyncratic dinosaur as a prophet from the past who is pointing to a new-old future. Just by standing still.


Tim Lawrence is the author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79 (Duke).

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Books

Tim Lawrence’s disco culture tome is one of the sharpest books on dance music to date, striking a balance between you-are-there club descriptions, socioeconomic analysis, and musical critique. The U.K. author conducted over 300 interviews with early DJs like Francis Grasso, label owners like Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records, and journalists (including the Voice‘s Vince Aletti), for insight into the world he was not a part of, but nevertheless makes vivid.

Lawrence reveals David Mancuso’s Soho Loft parties as the genesis for numerous dance music prototypes: the DJ as shaman, the expertly rendered sound systems, the record pool, and the private invite list. He also adeptly navigates the social split between New York downtown’s underground (as epitomized by the Gallery) and uptown’s mainstream (Studio 54), which continues today.

The book’s one fault is a lack of suspense. Love Saves the Day, like the clubs and records it covers, is cyclical. The stories of each club mirror each other, often differing only by name. He describes the short life spans of ’70s nightclubs, noting that “Venues almost invariably attracted and then lost their core crowds . . . sometimes because a better alternative opened up in another part of town.” Or they were shut down “because city governments decided that enough was enough”—bringing to mind the late-’90s cabaret law scuffles with Giuliani.

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Disco Double Take

Bang the Party prides itself on being “the last real underground house party in New York.” Held upstairs in Frank’s Lounge, a Fort Greene, Brooklyn, bar, it’s an unpretentious and intimate affair. The lighting and decor are minimal, and there’s free food laid out in a back room. The crowd, mostly black and Hispanic, includes many people who look old enough to have been clubbing for two decades or longer. Likewise the music: The beats kick with a contemporary sharpness, but most of the tracks played by resident DJ E-Man sound like they could have been made in the mid ’70s, exuding a played-not-programmed feel and brimming with warm textures that feel “organic” rather than computerized. Most importantly, that crucial intangible “vibe”—the thing that makes or breaks a party—is fully present. When a fuse blows, temporarily cutting the sound dead, the audience claps and hollers to maintain the absent beat, with one patron rhythmically chanting, “We don’t need no music!”

Bang is one of a number of New York parties directly modeled on the Loft, a legendary dance party of the early ’70s hosted by David Mancuso in his own apartment. Fascinated by the futuristic, dance culture feels an equally potent tug toward the past: It’s obsessed with roots, origins, and all things “old school.” In the last few years, interest in this pre-disco era of New York nightlife—during which the Loft and similar clubs like the Sanctuary and the Gallery thrived—has grown dramatically. Partly this is a response to a sense of malaise in the city’s contemporary dance culture, which some identify with slick corporate superclubs like the recently closed Twilo and others attribute to the Giuliani-sponsored crackdown on clubland. Reinvoking the “original principles” of the New York dance underground, nights like Body & Soul, Together in Spirit, Journey, and Soul-Sa appeal both to disenchanted veterans of the original scene and to neophytes who feel the romance of a lost golden age they never actually lived through. With clubbing tourists coming from all over the world to experience “the real thing” as a sort of time-travel simulacrum, New York’s ’70s-style dance underground has become a veritable heritage industry similar to jazz in New Orleans.

Stoking the interest in this period during the past year were a spate of books (ranging from the disco memoir Keep on Dancin’ by Mel Cheren, financial backer of the Paradise Garage, to histories like Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life) and CD compilations (like the ongoing series David Mancuso Presents the Loft and Disco Not Disco, a collection of the “mutant disco” played by the late Larry Levan at the Garage). There’s even a documentary movie, Maestro, due out this fall and featuring interviews with all the major players of the era. “We have rare footage of the Loft, the Gallery, Paradise Garage—stuff that no one’s ever seen,” says producer-director Josell Ramos. Excerpts will be previewed at Body & Soul’s annual July 22 birthday bash for Levan, which is hosted by the Maestro team this year.

Some of the most diligent curators of this era of New York club culture are actually foreigners. The first academic treatise on this subject, You Better Work!, is by a German, Kai Fikentscher. And it took a London label, Nuphonic, to honor David Mancuso’s legacy by organizing the Loft compilations. Right now, Nuphonic is about to issue a trilogy of anthologies that pull together the hard-to-find output of avant-disco auteur Arthur Russell, creator of quirky “Loft classics” like Dinosaur L’s “#5 (Go Bang)” and Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face?” The Russell project is a labor of love that has taken Nuphonic founder Dave Hill six years to complete. Nuphonic is also home to contemporary U.K. outfits like Faze Action and Idjut Boys, whose music is steeped in the ’70s New York sound. Listen to Faze Action’s debut Plans & Designs, and you imagine the brothers Simon and Robin Lee fanatically studying the orchestral arrangements on old Salsoul 12-inches, like the Stones once did with Muddy Waters records.

What exactly is the allure of this period? “It’s that whole mythic aura thing,” says Hill. “None of these people went to the Loft in the ’70s or the Garage in the ’80s, so the spell can’t be broken.

It’s like some mad idyllic party that they can’t ever have attended. Who knows if these clubs were really that great, but they certainly yielded some fascinating stories, and some fantastic records.”

Pretty much anybody who’s anybody in the New York house scene, from David Morales to Danny Tenaglia, was a “Loft baby” (or claims they were). Although the Sanctuary’s Francis Grosso—who died this year—invented DJ’ing in the modern sense (long sets “beat-matched” to sustain a nonstop groove), it was Mancuso who pioneered the we-are-family vibe central to house culture and the idea of the club as total experience, with every aspect—audiophile sound system, lights, decor, free food—micromanaged for your pleasure.

[

“I started doing the Loft regularly in 1970, as an invitation-only rent party at my Soho apartment,” says the bearded and big-bellied Mancuso between mouthfuls of Italian sausage at his favorite East Village restaurant. A few blocks away is his 6th Street office, where Mancuso keeps the remnants of the Loft’s legendary sound system. Keen to demonstrate the importance of what he calls “Class A audio,” the 56-year-old DJ treats me to a private performance.

Tracks like Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” shimmer with lustrous detail—the crisp, clear sound gives me goose bumps. Suddenly, it’s easy to understand all those stories of people being brought to tears by Mancuso’s DJ’ing.

One record Mancuso plays—Van Morrison’s 1968 classic Astral Weeks—reveals the crucial, underacknowledged links between the proto-disco scene and the rock counterculture. Today, disco is often celebrated for its camp and kitschy plasticness. But the pre-Saturday Night Fever dance underground was actually sweetly earnest and irony-free in its hippie-dippie positivity, as evinced by anthems like M.F.S.B.’s “Love Is the Message.” And the scene’s combination of overwhelming sound, trippy lighting, and hallucinogens was indebted to the late-’60s psychedelic culture. Mancuso still uses the Timothy Leary catchphrase “set and setting” to describe the art of creating the right vibe at parties.

Part of the fascination for the Loft era is that it’s about as far back as you can trace the roots of today’s dance-and-drug culture. But it was actually another DJ—Nicky Siano, cofounder of the Gallery—who took the Loft’s synergy between sound, lights, and drugs and turned it into a full-blown trance-dance science. “I had this brainstorm—no one was eating the free bananas, so we dissolved LSD in water, borrowed a syringe from a junkie friend, and injected the fruit,” says Siano. Larry Levan, then learning DJ’ing under Siano’s tutelage, was given the job of spiking the fruit punch. With much of the Gallery crowd buzzing on acid, “the vibe was electric; people were having seizures on the dancefloor,” says Siano. Another popular substance was Quaaludes, which created a touchy-feely “love energy” similar to Ecstasy.

The New York dance underground described by Siano—clubs with house dealers, audiences hyped on a polydrug intake, trippy lights synchronized to a hypnotic beat, DJs working the crowd into mass hysteria—was essentially rave culture in chrysalis. More immediately, clubs like the Gallery inspired Studio 54, where Siano DJ’d for a few months. When disco went mainstream, the original scene bunkered down in the underground. The Paradise Garage, founded in 1976, was a members-only club with resident DJ Larry Levan playing to a mainly gay, black and Hispanic crowd. That same year Levan’s friend Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago to take up a residency at the Warehouse, transplanting the New York underground ethos and in the process fathering house music.

With the Paradise Garage era ending with the club’s closure in 1987, and the Loft in difficulties, New York’s dance underground survived into the ’90s thanks to enclaves like Better Days, Tracks, Shelter, and the Sound Factory Bar. But at these clubs, the underground’s sensibility became gradually more conservative. DJs venerated Mancuso and Levan (who died in 1992), but few emulated their openness to left-field artists like Jah Wobble and Holger Czukay, Nina Hagen, and Liquid Liquid. Instead, “garage” solidified as a genre term referring to soulful New York house characterized by organic textures, Latin percussion, and a jazzy feel. By the mid ’90s, the city’s dance culture was divided between the traditionalist house scene and the more future-leaning rave, which arrived here as an exotic U.K. import (but was actually a mutant form of Chicago house). On one side, white glow-stick warriors stoked on E rally to superstar DJs from Europe. On the other, it’s Europeans who flock to worship at the shrine of all things authentically old school—the largely gay and black dance underground, where the DJs are local.

Since Twilo went wholesale into the Euro-trance sound, there’s been a real divide in New York between drug clubs and what you could call soul clubs or ‘vibe’ clubs, like Body & Soul,” says Adam Goldstone, a local DJ-producer who records for Nuphonic. Body & Soul—founded in 1996 by two veterans of the ’70s underground, François Kevorkian and Danny Krivit, and their friend Joe Claussell—almost single-handedly sparked the renaissance of interest in New York’s pre-disco club culture. Harking back to the approach of Mancuso and Levan, the trio DJ together round-robin style, and generally play tunes from start to finish rather than mixing. Echoing Mancuso and Levan, they believe the real art of DJ’ing is “programming”—the selection and sequencing of songs—a reaction against the cult of DJ virtuosity where jocks like Sasha and Digweed show off their seamless mixing by picking compatible samey-sounding tracks.

[

Another aspect that Body & Soul revived is the old-school ethos of playing healing, redemptive music. “Back in the day, the talented DJs really spun to tell a story with their records,” says Krivit. “At Body & Soul, we are conscious that the music’s talking, and you can’t just play nonsense, or go to a song that contradicts the message in the previous song.” Like the Loft, Body & Soul is dedicated, says Kevorkian, to “cherishing and perpetuating” a gay urban tradition that’s over 30 years old and that survived both the disco backlash and the decimation of AIDS.

The party—hailed by U.K. dance magazines as the best club in the world—draws party animals and purist house scholars from Britain and Europe, immaculately retro-styled Japanese waifs, and bored New York hipsters who want a taste of what things were like “back in the day.” “Dance music had become too technical, people were missing the soulfulness,” says Richard Costecu, another member of the team behind the Maestro documentary. “That soulful house sound never went away; there were always people who lived for it. But maybe more people are ready for it now—they’re sick of hearing disco loops all night long, they want ‘real music.’ And the new recruits are really interested in the history of the scene. It’s still a more mature crowd at Body & Soul, not annoying suburban kids who are popping E’s and want to hear fast music.”

Not everybody is happy about the newcomers, though. “Some people say that the vibe at Body & Soul has deteriorated as the composition of the party has changed, and I’m one of them,” says Fikentscher. “So I’ve looked for other parties that are more ‘underground.’ ”

This is a vital contradiction running through house culture: The overt ideology is one of love, unity, and inclusivity, but in reality this is limited to insiders, “those in the know.” “Body & Soul was initially a secret you passed only on to your best friends, just like the Loft and the Garage,” says Fikentscher. “To this day, you see parties advertised that say, ‘If you have a Paradise Garage membership pass from way back, you get in for free.’ ” The most positive spin on this exclusivity is to see it as tribal rather than elitist. To maintain the right vibe, clubs need to control access. But even the best-kept secret can’t stay on the down-low for long, and clubs have an in-built mortality. By the time they’ve established a killer vibe, it’s only a matter of time before outsiders arrive to alienate the “true believers.” Hence the post-Body & Soul rash of small underground nights like Bang the Party, Journey, Together in Spirit (like Body & Soul, a Sunday-afternoon party), and Deep See, an after-work club DJ’d by veterans like Andre Collins and sometimes kicked off by Kai Fikentscher’s irregular series of lectures on the history of house.

Clubs like these are glorious proof that New York’s disco-house tradition is a living thing. But there’s a downside: The keep-the-faith attitude often translates into a kind of cultural protectionism (typified by the snobbish disdain of most New York house purists toward 2step, London’s radical twist on garage). Worse, the excessive sense of heritage ensures that the scene evolves very slowly. In truth, New York dance culture hasn’t delivered the shock-of-the-new in well over a decade. Despite the rhetoric of open-mindedness and eclecticism, the fusions that occur—Afro-Beat, Brazilian music, the lighter side of electric jazz—are rather predictable, and hidebound by the scene’s premium on old-fashioned notions of “musicality” and “soulfulness.” The underground’s refusal to break with the past has effectively denied it the musical breakthroughs that have occurred in other cities: Detroit, Sheffield, Ghent, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Berlin, and, repeatedly, London. There’s a fine line between honoring the past and living there. The solution? A little less reverence, maybe.