Disco, Nu-Disco, What’s the difference?

Considering this is a blog primarily focusing on the history of dance music in America, I figured I would take some time to break down a bit of the jargon used to describe the various styles of music.  Because after all, could a casual listener really discern any audible difference between disco and “new” or “nu” disco?  In fact, yes.  Much of early disco, and by that I am referring to the dance music popularized through New York in the 70’s and early 80’s, like any other genre, shared certain sonic characteristics with some of the most basic being an emphasis on generally major chord progressions, a female vocalist, etc.  Let’s look at an example:

As you can probably tell, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” easily assumes many of the aforementioned qualities.  Like many of its modern counterparts in dance and pop styles, it contains relatively little harmonic movement, with much of the harmony centered around the guitar 7th chords and the female vocals.  Ward’s voice is front and center, and excepting some of the “HiNRG” works of the time, the instrumentation is largely acoustic rather than electronic.

Produced 5 years earlier than “Ring My Bell”  Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” also was a chart-topper in the dance, soul and pop worlds, and though is instrumental, again we hear a noticeable absence of electronic instruments, and instead are treated to the use of a full orchestra that became the archetype of the “Philadelphia Sound”–one that would go on to inspire the likes of ABBA and countless others.  To understand where the electronic component of dance music really began to enter vogue, one can look at either the works of Giorgio Moroder, or Patrick Cowley who produced Sylvester’s chart topping hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

Noticeably more upbeat, this work kicks off immediately with a heavily syncopated and heavily synthesized, up-beat electronic bass line that drives the entire work forward, a trait that would spawn not only the genre of “HiNRG” music but also contributed to the rise of famous 80’s dance songs such as New Order’s “Blue Monday”.  Not only do they share some chords, but also have melodic similarities which the lead singer of New Order freely admits.

Now that we have explored a variety of “traditional” disco genres, what could be considered “Nu-Disco”?  Although it’s difficult to tell when exactly the term “nu-disco” began to be used, a recent example of what would be considered “nu-disco” would be London band Oliver’s “Dirty Talk”.

Upbeat, and minor (though it has a few major chords), it is entirely electronic while structurally, it clearly plays homage to older styles of disco.  However, a common characteristic of “Nu-Disco” that Garcia describes as indicative of French “electro” is the strong emphasis placed on the arpeggio.  Though used in traditional disco, the syncopation between an arpeggio and a chord stab is something that is definitely a more recent trend.  While Oliver uses the arpeggio more in the context of other musical elements, the lone synthesized arpeggio, once heard almost exclusively HiNRG, is again making a comeback featuring predominately in one of “Indie” dance’s hottest new artists, Todd Terje:

Although we have what appears to be either a sampled or acoustic drumbeat the synth line that comes in around 1:10, could easily be from any late 70’s disco song.  However, a key difference with older disco arrives here through the modern song structure. Rather than the more traditional verse-chorus-breakdown-chorus structure used in disco, we now have breakdowns that are heavily influenced by the rise in affordability of audio filters, devices that allow producers to easily drop out high or low frequencies which can add elements of suspense.  But how did we go from disco to this?  If we were to skip a few highly influential genres of dance music we are left with the French–notably in the 90’s with Daft Punk

Produced in 2000, “One More Time” is certainly one of the French duo’s more pop music influenced works, though if we think about the sampled horns, diva-like vocals and simple refrain it is not hard to think that clubbers in the 70’s would be comfortable to hear this style of music, though the Auto-Tune might be somewhat shocking.  Four years later another French duo, Justice, largely marketed as their successors, burst into fame with a remix of Simian’s Never Be Alone, which was nothing short of a disco jam, one still popular in clubs today:

Both this and Daft Punk’s work obviously take elements of disco, but they also both borrow the heavy emphasis on repetition favored both by the house artists of the 80’s as well as the classical post-minimalist composers that gained popularity in the latter half of the 20th century.  However, when looking at the evolution o I find to be one of the best transitionary works is their original song “D.A.N.C.E”.

Here we have nothing short of a modern disco master peice.  The verse chorus structure, a choir singing, sampled “acoustic” instruments from the bass to the orchestral stabs… However if we look at how justice remixed their own track, we start to gain a feel for how these arpeggios became so popular

What was once a more traditional pop song became transformed into a work clearly intended for the club offering the first hints of those arpegios that not only became popular with nu disco artists but also in the new, and much more popular “complextro” scene:


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