The Semester in Review

The last six months have been a whirlwind of activity, finally culminating in this overarching post.  I’ve read book, essays, listened to countless new tracks, traveled and explored scenes in New York and Miami, conducted casual interviews for the sole purpose of attempting to discover both American dance culture’s history as well as the reasons behind its resurgence in popularity.  In the following post, I will cover new ground, as well as reiterate some of my previous points, with the goal of creating a brief roadmap dance music’s trajectory in America, from disco to the present, when it would seem to be the soundtrack for an entire generation.

A Young David Mancuso

If there is a person or place that can be held responsible for the rise of dance music in America, at least in its first days, it is David Mancuso, a true product of the 1960’s and student of Timothy Leary’s (Lawrence 9). Hosting some of the first underground dance parties in his SoHo loft, aptly named “The Loft” Mancuso threw some of the trendiest parties in Manahttan in the late sixties and early seventies, eschewing many of the racial and sexual divisions of the time, hosting a wide variety of future tastemakers from Frankie Knuckles to Larry Levan to Nicky Siano, Studio 54’s first resident DJ.  At the “Loft”,  Mancuso created one of the first spaces that crafted the dance floor:

as a site not of foreplay but of spiritual communion where, thanks to the unique combination of decor, space, music, drugs, lighting, and dance, as well as Mancuso’s guiding party ethos, sensation wasn’t confined to the genitals but was everywhere-in every new touch, sound, sight, and smell. (Lawrence 25)

Although, in the 21st century, it may seem rather conventional for one to throw a dance in party in a loft space, dancing in clubs was still a regularly rare event in the early seventies, due to an outdated club model, as the venues “didn’t charge at the door so you had to encourage people to drink more… [and] play music that people could dance slow to, and if they wanted to drink then they could drink (37).”  If one wanted an experience like that which Juan Garcia describes as one where “touch often takes the form of gestures of social warmth, of engaging with others on the dancefloor in a way that is non-verbal but nonetheless meaningful,” he or she would likely be required to go to a gay, or at least partially gay club, a trend that continued, especially outside New York, until freelance writer Nik Cohn published an article in New York magazine (Garcia 87).

A recent reincarnation of David Mancuso’s classic Loft party.

Entitled “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”,  the article followed the exploits of a young heterosexual Italian-American named “Vincent” and his rituals at the club 2001 Odyssey, one of many new disotheques in the tri-state area that did not cater to a gay/black crowd.  Eventually, “Tribal Rites”  became Saturday Night Fever, another ”vehicle for rising star John Travolta”, and a real mark of the beginning of the disco craze that swept through America in the late seventies (Lawrence 185). What started out as an underground movement in New York City in the Loft, and then in countless gay and partially gay clubs, had now become the target of a gold rush in which businessmen started branding and even franchising their idealized discos selling “cigarettes, T-shirts and necklaces” (Echols 198).

Disco entrepreneurs used the popularity of their venues and the genre to sell nearly everything.

However when studying “disco”, as well as American’s conception of “the discotheque,” it  is important to remember that all the mirrored balls, bell-bottoms, and tall blondes  are based largely on a fictionally constructed narrative, and one that the public willfully accepted as many couldn’t accept the idea of a space where women, gay men, and African-Americans had a greater role.  Although Cohn, when writing the article that would spark a phenomenon, never admitted that his guide through the disco world was black, or that Vincent wasn’t real (he later confessed that he was a composite character), the image he created of a straight white disco, playing white music, was the one that stuck (Lawrence 228). Of course it didn’t help the original disco scene that the record labels, as well as the businessmen most profiting from disco, had made a cold calculation

that straight consumers didn’t want to know [about the real disco] and were fully capable of kidding themselves that they didn’t know-a nimble-footed version of what D. A. Miller calls an “open secret,” which is “reminiscent of Freudian disavowal” inasmuch as “we know perfectly well that the secret is known, but nonetheless we must persist, however ineptly, in guarding it.” (332-333)

Perhaps the best example of this pervasive and willful ignorance on the part of the American public in regards disco’s gay and black associations was the rise of The Village People,  a creation of French Eurodance producer Jacques Morali. In an interview with the Village Voice, the head of marketing for major disco label Salsoul Records commented that:

“The Village People is the first gay-to-straight `crossover’ group, a group with an originally gay image and following that’s made it in straight discos.” So what did the straight audience make of it? “The funny thing is that straights don’t really believe the group is gay. (331-332)

In fact keeping the illusion of the nation’s straight/white identity was so important to Americans that even the US Navy, which at the time banned homosexuality, allowed The Village People to film the music video for In the Navy on actual US Warships staffed by real sailors.  However, disco, as well as the apparent commercial appeal of gay tropes, became popular at a price, one paid primarily by the gay community that started the movement and by the end of the seventies, disco’s popularity had begun to suffer under increasing homogeneity, becoming something described by  writer Andrew Holleran as

the fast, mechanical, monotonous, shallow stuff that is being produced for a mass market, light years away from the old dark disco, which did not know it was disco, which was simply a song played in a room where we gathered to dance (333).

What Holleran hints at but does not explicitly state is that “disco”, specifically the stuff we think of when we think of disco, was less of a musical or cultural movement but more of a clever brand that media companies could use to generate revenue.  The “old dark disco,” the stuff played at the early gay clubs, is still in many ways the foundation of modern dance music.  These early disco records are the ones Frankie Knuckles churned into “house music” in the early eighties, not the songs topping the billboard charts like “Disco Duck” . While there were still successful  clubs in the late seventies, Studio 54 being the most prominent, they were largely different breed of venue, not a dance club, but what Timothy Lawrence refers to as the “mediatheque” (19).

By the late seventies, it seemed that even disco’s earliest fans had lost their interest.  The music and the image of disco were both becoming more and more shallow, despeartely still try to gloss over disco’s real origins.  While popular versions of the “death of disco” never fail to mention Steve Dahl’s burning of the disco records at the White Sox stadium, in many ways disco had already run its course, becoming so far removed from its original creators, that it’s brand became completely diluted .  Although Dahl describes his disgust for disco as pertaining to the fact that “the whole lifestyle seemed to be based on style over substance,” Tim Lawrence points out that “ superficial and artificial had, after all, become derogatory euphemisms for gay (377).”   Although it would appear to many in the media that “disco was dead,” “the dark stuff”, the stuff of real disco music never went anywhere.  In fact if not for this backlash, there might never have been The Paradise Garage or The Warehouse.

Inside the Paradise Garage. Doesn’t exactly seem to fit in with popular notions of who was going to discotheques in New York….

From the ashes of disco, the roots of modern dance music began to form.  The Paradise Garage, opened in 1976, was supposed to essentially monetize the hardcore dance crowd that frequented David Mancuso’s loft.  Larry Levan, who previously had played at The Baths, a popular NYC nightclub that mixed a bathhouse and dance club, was hired to DJ.  The rest is largely history: the Garage packing dance floors into the eighties, with Levan’s eclectic style of not only mixing a wide range of genres but using equalizers for the first time to mash together songs. But,  perhaps the Garage’s most important contribution was that it “cultivated the cult of the DJ,” a process that would become hugely important in the later development of dance music (359).

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a new scene was brewing when entrepreneur Robert Williams decided to open a nightclub in Chicago called the Warehouse or the House for short..  After failing to persuade Larry Levan to come play the opening party, Williams persuaded Frankie Knuckles, another frequent face in the NYC underground scene, to DJ and the night was an overwhelming success with the club completely filled to capacity.  Eventually, Knuckles agreed to move to Chicago to become the full time DJ at The Warehouse, however, when he arrived, it was a far different scene than what expected with nobody showing up on most nights.  Rather than the Warehouse, which had floundered in his absence, the majority of the Chicago club-goers went to the Bowery, another local venue.  Seeing an opportunity, Knuckles started visiting the Bowery and eventually started DJing there as well. So impressed with his skills as “conductor”, Knuckles eventually was able to bring the entire Bowery crowd to the Warehouse, forcing the Bowery group into bankruptcy (299-300). After time, the popularity of the Warehouse spread and people began asking what to call the weird mix of European electronic music with old R&B, disco and funk that Knuckles was spinning.  The common response: “Oh that’s ‘house music”.

Really interesting interview with Frankie Knuckles on the history of DJing.

In 1986 a different group of Midwest producers unknowingly changed the direction of dance music while playing around with a Roland TB-303, an early bass synthesizer, eventually creating “Acid Trax,” a simple song that would spawn an entire genre of music.   Since I have previously covered the means through which the sound was exported to Europe—the route of travel was nearly the same as that of MDMA—I will simply say that from the American Midwest, the origins of modern dance music were born.  What is important here, since we are primarily concerned with American dance music, is the reimportation of nearly this same dance music in the nineties.

NY Club kids posing.

By the late eighties, the New York club scene was largely stagnant. Canadian entrepreneur, Peter Gatien, who had opened successful clubs in Orlando, Miami, Atlanta had one property in New York that he wanted to really revamp.  By this time, the “club kids” phenomenon had already gained attention in the New York nightlife scene, with young kids in elaborate costumes, and often under the influence of copious amounts of drugs, would dance all night–creating a fun atmosphere that attracted attention, and theoretically customers.  However, the crowd turned out to often bring in unpaying customers, leading Michael Alig and his cohorts, to ”bankrupt nearly every club they touched” (Limelight).  Eventually, Michael had come to know Peter Gatien through his Disco 2000 parties and mentioned a new group of bridge and tunnel guys that were throwing these huge parties and listening to European techno music, a drastic shift from the disco and rock that dominated the upper-echelon of the NYC nightlife scene at the time. Lord Michael, an American from Staten Island heavily involved in these events and who recently had been exposed to the post-rave culture of the UK, one still heavily dependent on MDM, eventually was given the opportunity by Gatien to try a night at the Limelight.  It was an astounding success, increasing the Limelight’s attendence to threefold what it was before the techno parties.  However, with the crime rate in New York soaring, and Bill Bratton’s “no crime goes unpunished” strategy to clean up the city, New York had lost its tolerance for the free-spirited atmosphere that allowed scenes such as disco to flourish.  The hedonistic atmosphere, coupled with the drugs literally being dispensed from the stage eventually would spell Gatien’s downfall, as an overbearing DA office was able to pin one small count of tax evasion on Gatien, leading to his deportation and the end of the legal New York Rave Scene (Limelight).

A video from The Tunnel, one of Peter Gatien’s many clubs.

While the world danced to ever-more evolving types of music, there was always the specter of Rock and Roll lurking in the shadows. Even as disco became the dominant music in America:

There was always anger in the music business…Radio DJS liked having the power of being able to say, `If we don’t play it it’s not a hit.’ The clubs brought them down a peg or two, so they were the first ones to put a nail in disco’s coffin. (Lawrence 374)

By the end of the seventies, rock had lost so much attention both on the radio and off that straight white males such as Chicago radio host Steve Dahl began to feel that “rock music was threatened as a species (373)”. While the initial backlash against disco was ostensibly due to its “superficiality,” Lawrence notes that in nearly every narrative, some homophobic and/or racist element always would arise (379).  Although the movement against disco was certainly racially and sexually motivated, Lawrence tends to miss the fact, that in many ways, disco was also musically departing from the white/male traditions of rock, placing rhythm in the foreground and guitar and vocals in the back.   According to Gilbert and Pearsonk’s history of dance music, rock n roll was once a dance music but stopped being so once critics started taking it seriously. They saw rock ending its classification as a “dance” music with the entrance of Bob Dylan using the electric guitar mixed with Western literature, thus becoming a “sanctioned art form” rather than the EDM which “valorized…pleasure” a value that has historically been looked down upon by Western critics. In many ways, dance music is diametrically opposed to our modern conception as

House, Techno and the kaleidoscope of sub-genres gave birth to the most significant change in popular music since the 1960s heyday of psychedelic rock…not only did they change the way people made music..they also radically altered the way people listened to it…they moved the focus away from its creator towards the  listener (Prendergast 367)

Whereas rock revels in the idea of a superstar, a brand to sell to the public, disco, at least in its early days centered more around the music, as

This lack of personal identity…allows unawed dancers to assert their own … such a dance-floor democracy has been alien to white rock, which promotes a superstar elite and generally subordinates the music to the mystique of its makers. (177)

Not only did this shift from creator to listener rearrange the power structures of the dance floor, it also “presented the major labels with an apparently irresolvable conundrum: how to sell faceless music (371)”.  Whereas rock relied upon branding, the LP and radio play, all revenue-generators for the record labels, disco was dependent upon local scenes, DJ’s and the 12 inch, undoubtedly one of the economic reasons why record labels weren’t crying over the death of disco. Invented by accident, the 12-inch was loved both for its potential to increase the volume of a recording–as the individual grooves could be spread out allowing for more bass–as well as the record companies’ belief that they could now sell single tracks, without having to worry about producing the b-side filler (212).  However, this strategy eventually backfired as Americans’ appetite for a single that cost nearly as much as an LP started to wane towards the end of the disco boom.  While it made plenty of sense to market singles to DJ’s, as the would only play one song from a record at a time, singles were never craved by the general public–a trend that would continue until 2001.

From the 1970’s to 2001, the idea of a record stayed largely the same even as the medium evolved: from record to tape to CD, allthough the latter may soon disappear.  Although the mp3 was invented in the nineties, it wasn’t really until Apple launched its iTunes store, with the blessing of the major labels, that the technology became widely adopted.  Although the 99 cent single has undoubtedly hurt record sales, not to mention forcing many stores into bankruptcy it has also launched a revolution in how the modern consumer can listen and produce music.  In many ways, everyone can now be their own personal DJ.  Granted this does not mean people are mixing and beat-matching tracks to form extended sets, but it certainly strips radio DJ’s and the like of their power as services such as spotify and ipod playlists become more widespread.

By dissolving dichotomies such as Performer-Audience, Record-Label-Consumer, Educated Listener-Uneducated Listener, dance music has reshaped our current understanding of our relationship to music.  Since it is music that is perhaps best felt rather than analyzed, it is no surprise that the critical establishment largely shunned it, while accepting genres such as hip hop, which has “lyrics”, something “intellectual” about it. However, as both major record labels have slowly been replaced by download stores, and critics by bloggers, it woud make sense that dance music has recently emerged out of its shell.  Connected by the internet, a new generation of musicians–something I covered in my posts “Everyone’s a DJ”–has been created less likely to fall into the structures that have dominated pop music for the last fifty years and more likely to do something different, put it on Soundcloud and hope for the best.

At 1:25:10 DJ and producer Maceo Plex remixes famed classical composer Steve Reich, seamlessly incorporating post-minimal classical music into his modern set.

While far from being a complete history of American dance music, I hope that this has provided some account for the ways in which dance music reemerged recently on the American scene.  While it’s perhaps easy to think that disco died because it actually was superficial, or only because of a racial and sexual backlash, when we look deeper it’s clear that there were a lot of people with primarily economic reasons for wanting disco to fail.  The decentralization of an industry historically dominated by straight white males, has not only changed the way music is produced but also created an opportunity for formally disenfranchised individuals to voice/sing their story.  Although dance music DOES mark a massive shift away from the melodies composed by “fourteen-year-olds on guitar,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be another backlash. In classical music, Erik Satie was writing background music, or as he called it “Furniture Music”, in the early 20th century, where the goal was simply music fit for an ambient space, one similar to techno producers today, some of whom even incorporate works by composers such as Steve Reich in their sets.  It is said that high culture often eventually makes it way down to the lowest of forms, and it would seem time in America, that music takes a different route than verse-chorus, verse-chorus.

Works Cited

Echols, Alice. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. Print.

Gilbert, Jeremy, and Ewan Pearson. Discographies: Dance Music, Culture, and the Politics of Sound. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. Durham: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Limelight. Dir. Billy Corben. Perf. Moby, Michael Alig, Edward I. Koch. Rakontur, 2011. DVD.

Prendergast, Mark J. The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby : The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age. New York: Bloomsbury, 2003. Print.

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Artist Profile: Harvard Bass

For our second Providence event, we will be bringing in Harvard Bass  to be playing our inaugural Senior Week party.  In the current electronic music world, Harvard Bass certainly fits in more within the underground than the mainstream world I discussed a couple of posts earlier.  Described in his bio as a “combination of elegant, smooth and sophisticated minimalism on one side and bad ass dirty jacking ghetto house grooves with filthy drums and simple, obsessive riffs on the other,” Harvard Bass represents an interesting cross-section of the dance world. His first single, “Caked” offers us a glimpse into the world of “ghetto house”.

While not really a common genre today, “ghetto house” once to referred to the practice of putting sexual lyrics of class Chicago house beats.  Although most of his songs lack lyrics, we can see the influence of Chicago House in his early productions.  The kick drum is somewhat distorted, a sound that developed from the use of cheap samplers amongst early hip-hop and dance producers, and the vocal sample and bass line maintain a steady rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in a late 80’s warehouse. However, today, Harvard Bass has made quite a shift exploring a sound that has more in common with techno than early chicago house.  Some of his latest releases are his collaborations with Green Velvet, aka Cajmere, the 90s house star, and they go in a very different direction.  Their first single “Techyes” immediately draws a sharp contrast with Harvard Bass’s earlier production work with it’s heavy use of high quality reverb and large round kick drum.  The synths are omnipresent creating a massive sound space with a groove that is much more indicative of European techno than Chicago House’s urban roots.

However if looking for a common thread between his early and more recent work, we can take a look at his latest single “Juicy” which has both a techno groove but digital synths reminiscent of his earlier works.

While originally from Mexico, there doesn’t seem to be much of a direct correlation and the dance styles that have originated from Tijuana such as Norteca, as he seems to stick with house and techno grooves and digital sounds.  However, in the future there’s no telling what direction he could head.  So if you’re in Providence this Friday, stop by the Colosseum and check out his latest offering.s

Start of a Scene

At some point over the course of the last few months I didn’t necessarily become “tired” of  “objectively” analyzing the world of dance music in America, but there certainly did become a point where I felt the desire to form some sort of my own controlled experiment.  From my brief research, it would seem that many scholars of contemporary dance music also play some role in participating in or planning events–Wayne Marshall’s “Beat Research” parties are a prime example. So about a month ago I decided to test how Brown University would react to an event where the music was of the variety that would not appear on the pop dance charts. The first event we put on was the Spring Weekend Party, three weeks ago at the Colosseum in Providence, RI.  To the best of my knowledge, it was one of the first independently-run events at Brown that took a club in Providence and attempted to turn it into a space one might find in a much more global city such as New York or London.  My last several blog posts, to varying extents, have attempted to chart a shift, from hip-hop to what I like to refer to as “ambient-influenced” dance music.  Hence, at this event, I attempted to create a night in which modern, more ambient music played a more prominent role. Starting around 11:30, myself, Christopher Joseph, and then Nicolas Jaar played against a backdrop of LED’s, haze, and twin 15W RGB lasers.

There wasn’t a pop song played for three hours, yet the response was overwhelmingly positive.  Whether this was a result of the copious alcohol and ecstasy use amongst the crowd may yet to be seen, but what is certain however, is that students stayed for over 3 hours dancing to music most of them were unfamiliar with. Even though there was a somewhat tangential interest in the performative aspect of the “spinning” most people seemed to either accept the unfamiliar, yet omnipresent beat, or at least use it as a backdrop to socialize.  At no point, however, was the party ever about singing along to that song that has been blaring over the radio for the last few months. In essence, the party seemed to be a prime example of how this new form of electronic music lends itself to simply being used.  For example, if the music was of the more popular variety it is likely that party-goers would be singing along to it, enjoying the way in which pop music creates a communal experience amongst those who have similar experiences with the music itself.  However when, the music is structurally unfamiliar–that is impossible to sing along to as it fails to follow the verse-chorus-verse structure common in pop music–it seems to simply pump energy into the room whether its casual dancing while holding a beer or full-body gyrations.  What remains to be seen, however, and what we will be examining in the future is how much this newly found audience is willing to pay and how willing they are to commit this experience.

Everyone’s a DJ Part II

Although my somewhat insular environment in university oftentimes excludes me from more popular trends it would seem that the amateur DJ has finally arrived in Providence.  This phenomenon of part-time party starters would seem to be a somewhat recent occurrence due either to EDM’s complete shift into the mainstream of pop music, the falling cost of DJ equipment that has virtually no learning curve such as products like Native Instrument’s Traktor S4, which can be had for under 1000 dollars, or perhaps a combination of the two.

Traktor S4

Compare this DJ in a box setup to the cost of what is still the club standard, the CDJ-2000 with a mixer and software which combined totals around $5000, not to mention the time spend learning how to beat match and transition and DJing would seem to  become not just easier,  but more affordable than ever.

The much lower barrier to entry, both in time and money, has brought forth a new breed of DJ from the video game generation.  Whereas the DJ was once a member of the gay New York party scene, an underground house aficionado, or a music nerd who had the time to learn the requisite skills–which often included much time spend crate digging–the new DJ is an everyman. The new DJ is a banker by day, an artist by night. In the current world of underground dance music led by artists Maceo Plex, who will blend everything from techno to deep house to Steve Reich in an hour-long mix that has unique ebbs and flows the primary goal of this new form of DJ the artistry amongst this new crop of DJ’s seems to be focused on delivering the maximum amount of energy in the shortest time possible.  The focus on high energy, commercial dance parties has led to sets that are often filled with pop mashups and the omnipresent four on the floor beat.  As an example of this let’s take a look at 3Lau’s Chicago opening for Porter Robinson and Sebastian Ingrosso. When, only a few years ago, the opening DJ’s job was primarily to warm up the crowd for the headliners, the DJ would often play less recognizable songs with the primary goal of building anticipation for the main act.  However now as can be heard below, 3Lau jumps right into big room house, popular dance songs with heavy, in your face beats so the party is pumping the instant the audience walks through the door.

Although it is still a somewhat recent phenomenon, the rising popularity of the “video game DJ” already seems to chart a shift from the way in which dance events are curated.  Before this new crop of younger DJ’s, events were often created to be almost public exhibits of performance art in which each DJ crafted a progression not only in his own set but within the overall arc of the night as a whole.  Now, it would appear that EDM events, at least the mainstream ones, primarily consist of DJ’s playing relatively similar sets, with each DJ’s branding and light show creating the night’s progression.

Just as this new crop of DJ’s are changing the face of EDM events they are also charting a shift in how the electronic music industry works. Whereas before up and coming artists would be drawing attention because they were on to something a new, or had an original sound, now it would seem artists are being discovered not  for having an original sound, but rather a “current” sound, something related to a topic I have previously discussed the ubiquity of Avicii.  While in pop music, it is a well known fact that many artists don’t write their own songs whereas in dance music, the producer/dj often was the artist that handled every aspect of the production.  In the majority of Avicii’s popular songs including “Levels”, the writing credits are shared almost always with his manager, Ash Pournouri, who would appear to be in many ways “the man behind the curtain”.  The fact that many of these “up and coming producers” are clearly following his lead is interesting, as his music certainly has at least some design for commercial appeal, in contrast to the harsh sounds typically favored by EDM producers.   To understand how Avicii is helping lead this new legion of artists let’s examine his single as well as those by the aforementioned 3LAU and Fareoh both young producers, the first with 45,000 fans on facebook, and the latter withdd about 10,000.  If we are to look at Avicii’s latest single, “Sillhoutes” and then look at the the latest singles of the other two artists there is a remarkable similarity in styles.

Considering that both young artists are signed and doing quite well, it is interesting is how a style created in part by a businessman, has spread not only so prolifically amongst younger producers, but also the promoters who book shows, leading to a transformation in EDM events around the world.