(Semi) Final Thoughts America’s Dance Through the 90’s

As I begin to study the transition of American Dance Music from the 90s to the 2000’s, I think it may be worth giving dance music’s trajectory from disco until the millenium one final look. I recently read Kai Fikentscher’s history of Underground Dance Music (UDM) in America and I particularly like the way he succinctly phrases something I may have been implying without mentioning it outright: the “disco concept”.  For Fikentscher the “disco concept” refers to how “in the context of the discotheque playback equipment becomes a musical instrument capable of both musical mediation…and of musical immediacy.” In essence, he is referring to the beginnings of the “cult of the DJ” which refers to the audience’s acceptance of the DJ’s means of performance as an authentic live act.  As time progressed, especially since the seventies, it is somewhat easy to see how the initial acceptance of the DJ as some form of live performer transformed into the total acceptance and, even lust for, the DJ/Producers’ current live performance.  The lust for the so-called “live performance” evolved as in the 80’s DJ’s moved from being curators of other producer’s songs, to composing their own “tracks” live which relied heavily upon MIDI technology, hardware such as synths, and sequencers like Ableton Live (112).  Whereas rock music always played to human notions of an “authentic” live performance–just a man and a guitar–dance music for years was weighed down by the idea that its beginnings, those of disco, was entirely inauthentic, something that led to it “killing itself”(29)  However, with the rise of technology in popular music, the line between a singer singing along to a vocal tape and a DJ composing MIDI notes live gradually blurred, bringing us scenes today, where artists such as Pretty Lights control all aesthetic aspects of their performance, maniuplating sound and light through custom built controllers:

Another point Fikentscher makes in regards to the evolution of American dance music concerns its relationship with the AIDS epidemic.  As pointed out before, even before the glitzy “materialism” of disco, dance music was a music primarily enjoyed by racial and sexual minorities, particularly the gay black and hispanic crowds in New York City.  Coupled with many early gay clubs and bathhouses’ tendencies to mix music and sexuality, the outbreak of AIDS, coupled with the lack of information that about the disease  helped destroy the group of hardcore clubbers that kept the subculture going after the “disco sucks” movement brought it out of the mainstream.  Ironically, while Fikenschter spends some time discussing the similarities between being black and being gay (marginality, conceptions of community, etc.) he doesn’t mention the inherent homophobia present in a great deal of hip-hop culture.  While he talks about disco music as part of the process of the “Africanization of America” it was an “Africanization” undertaken by minorities even within the African-American community. Perhaps one might argue that the real Africanization of American culture, especially its music didn’t occur until the rise of Hip-Hop as the predominant form of rhythmic music in America in the 90’s…


Dance Music in Pill Form

Now let’s talk about drugs. Specifically, let’s think about methylenedioxymethamphetamine, more commonly known as MDMA, a psychoactive drug synthesized from sassafras oil.  While not yet invented to have played a role in New York’s disco scene, MDMA was (and perhaps still is) undoubtedly one of the most important factors in explaining the popularity of modern dance music.  In Class of ’88, Wayne Anthony, one of the early organizers of the British Rave Scene, described his first experience with MDMA or “molly”:

My jawbone was shaking rapidly, making my teeth clatter as the noise vibrated throughout my body. This powerful effect was unlike anything I’d experienced before. My whole body felt tender and my mind felt intensely stimulated. The ill feeling soon passed, and in no time I was wandering around the club smiling at everyone. You could tell the people who were on E because they’d come up and give you a hug. The other punters just looked at us as if we were mad, or gay. But no one gave a shite what anyone else thought, or if it put a black mark against their credibility (Kindle Locations 537-541).

The link between MDMA and modern dance culture has been noted by nearly every student of dance culture including Luis-Manuel Garcia who, in his dissertation, describes the importance of MDMA’s affect on our sensory perception, facilitating platonic touching which “can also provide a conduit between sound and intimacy, between moments of musical intensity and the affective experience of closeness (110).”  When Sarah Thorton took the drug as part of her work in researching Club Cultures, some academics may have been shocked, but many regular “punters” or clubbers likely viewed this as nothing more than a rite of passage. Just two weeks ago, Good Morning America ran a segment concerning the steady increase in overall MDMA usage, paying particular attention to the twenty percent jump in usage of “this generation’s cocaine” amongst teens over the past year, a fact not exactly advertised on official US government websites.  So what makes MDMA different than the many other drugs identified with musical subcultures? Besides its lack of popularity outside of the club, the story of MDMA’s ebbs and flows easily parallels with the various trends in American Dance Music.

If you’ve been following my progress you may remember that in a couple of my previous posts I mentioned some “pre-MDMA” DJ’s such as Frankie Knuckles, of the Warehouse—the origins of that “house” music—in Chicago, and Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage in New York, and Juan Atkins in Detroit.  As disco decreased in popularity across the states, these two artists, amongst some others, were still drawing large crowds with their inventive new style of spinning–mixing a bass line from one song with an acapella from another, using equalizers to cut frequencies, essentially treating vinyl not as a finished product but simply sound that could be shaped live.  This practice of stripping down disco songs, foreshadowing the modern “mash-up” as well as composing original music using cheap synthesizers and drum machines continued through much of the 80s, developing into Chicago house, and Detroit techno.  While having similar roots, Chicago house music tended to emphasize soulful vocals, reverbed pianos and often disco-influenced bass lines whereas Detroit techno often focused on unique electronic sounds, aiming for a “spaced out vibe”, experimentation which likely eventually led to the development of Acid House (Silcott 27).

A clearly DIY video for one of the early popular tracks of Chicago House.

In 1986 a group of Midwest producers unknowingly changed the direction of dance music while playing around with a Roland TB-303, eventually creating “Acid Trax,” which would spawn an entire genre of music.

Phuture’s Acid “Trax”

While the term, Acid, as in “Acid Trax” and eventually Acid House, may sound like it has something to do with LSD, MDMA was still the drug of choice amongst adherents of the UK’s Acid House.   Nearly following the geographic story of modern dance music, in the early 80’s MDMA was being sold legally at Dallas area gay clubs (just south of the Midwestern roots of house) to serve as a stimulant for losing inhibitions, as well as being prescribed by psychiatrists to treat a variety of psychiatric disorders (this research is actually now ongoing especially amongst those studying PTSD).  Eventually a jet-setting American party crowd, who became familiar with the drug in some American clubs, brought Ecstasy, as MDMA was now being called, to the Spanish island of Ibiza where a group of British DJ’s, including the now famous Paul Oakenfold were spinning.  After witnessing the drug’s effects on dancing crowds, the club drug eventually was brought back to the UK, before it was re-exported along with rave culture to America in the early 90s (Silcott 30-32).

With the introduction of MDMA and American house and techno music, a subculture gradually began to develop in England at a time when, “No unifying sound brought different races of people together under the equal banner of hope. Each group had their own preferences and stuck to them like glue (Wayne 229-230).”  In a country that contained somewhat stringent laws concerning club closing times, a group of entrepeneurs eventually realized the potential market value of the crowds, many of whom were on MDMA, and would spill into the street at 2:00 AM with no where to go.  Although there were after-hours clubs, young party goers such as Wayne Anthony came up with the idea to simply throw a party that lasted all night, with few rules and no closing time.  This marked the start of the Second Summer of Love which continued to the chagrin of the authorities essentially until more mainstream venues were allowed more operating leeway.

Paul Oakenfold Still Rocking Ibiza

Carl Cox spinning at an early rave

Eventually, this model for MDMA crazed clubbing would make it to the states, where it all began with disco, in New York City.  At the time an experienced club owner named Peter GAtien, who had opened successful clubs in Orlando, Miami, Atlanta and New York was looking for someone to fill the Friday or Saturday night slots of his flagship club, the limelight.  In came Lord Michael, an American from Staten Island who recently had been exposed to the post-rave culture of the UK, one still heavily dependent on MDMA. Lord Michael started throwing UK inspired parties, soon after returning, though rather than attracting a hip crowd, they were dominated by a bridge and tunnel group, something unlikely to garner much hype.  Eventually a partnership formed between  Gatien, Lord Michael, and  party promoter Michael Alig, one of the leaders of the Club Kids movement in NYC, who were known for their outrageous dress and behavior constantly appearing in the tabloids and talk shows.  This partnership, fitting into Gatiens so called 20% rule, that you need 20% of everybody to make a successful party lasted until the 21st century when Gatien’s empire, once pulliing in an estimated 30 million dollars a year collapsed after constant pressure from the Giuliani investigation

The Limelight in the early 90’s.

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:

Forcing the Mainstream

Although both Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day and Alice Echols’ Hot Stuff spend a fair amount of time discussing the rise of New York City’s disco scene, today I’ll keep it short, and focus only on some of Echols’ other ideas, while in the coming weeks I’ll drop some other posts on New York disco.  The arguments of Echols’ that interested me most concern both the idea of “disco” as a movement of corporations/advertising as well as its part in the (then) ongoing sexual revolution.

While the term “disco” is thought to have originated from the French word “discotheque”, simply referring to a place of drinking and dancing, it somehow became associated with not only a style of music, but femininity, homosexuality, commercialism, etc., connotations that would cause a backlash that seems to be still unmatched in popular musical cultures.  Although today, amongst young people, “disco” as a genre of “dance music” is likely thought to be a funny fad our parents went through in the 70’s and eighties, many saw it as an embodiment of everything wrong with popular culture.  While some arguments against disco, such as those primarily developed from homophobia, had little to do with the economics behind disco many of disco’s other criticisms did.  What started out as an underground movement in New York City became the target of a gold rush in which businessmen started branding and even franchising their idealized discos selling “cigaretts, T-shirts and necklaces” (198).  And entrepreneurs were by no means the only ones trying to cash in on the “disco fever”.  With the growing popularity of the “Philadelphia sound,” films such as Saturday Night Fever, which was merely another “vehicle for Travolta”, forced a media-constructed image of disco, glossing over some of its “authentic” elements, particularly its core fan base of gay black men (185).

The idea that disco had “correct dances” was entirely an industry invention, leading to what we could now call goofy videos such as the one above.

In fact, Echols recalls an interesting anecdote that the Village People, a creation of French producer Jacques Morali, and first thought of as a band for gay men, were suddenly so transformed by the record company advertising machine that they were able to film “In the Navy” on actual US Navy ships. Although arguments that through incorporation, what were once subcultures always become inauthentic are common, it would seem to me that America’s idea of disco was never even really a subculture.  There were discotheques in New York, yes, but as Echols points out, once disco “collapsed” nothing really changed amongst the members of this scene.  Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, hugely important parts of the “authentic” disco scene stayed relatively unknown and arguably became most popular in the 80’s well after the “death of disco”.

As an almost sidebar, it’s also important to note the treatment Echols gives to sexuality’s role within disco culture.  She saw the dance floor as a space  in which “sex wasn’t free it was an exchanges…disco was a culture of getting down…” (111).  While other researchers might debate these claims, as many early adherents of the movement noted parties, such as those held at the Loft, for their distinctly asexual vibe, I found it to be an interesting point of contrast to disco’s modern resurgence.  In the video below, taken at New York’s Webster Hall, one can clearly see the reaction of the (predominately heterosexual) crowd to this modern disco music.

Now again look at what could perhaps be called an idealized image of the club experience when hip hop was the dominant form of rhythmic music in America:

Ironically, it would seem that if anything, the dance floor has become less sexual.  Just as Sarah Thorton argues that in the 90’s the use of MDMA popularized rave culture amongst women looking to avoid drunken advances, perhaps today a similar shift could be seen in the rise of clubs where dancing again becomes an individual activity. More on popular musical reasons for this shift from partnered to solo dancing are yet to come…..

Vinyl to the World Wide Web: Why Music Technology Matters

In the preface to her seminal work about the youth club cultures of London, Sarah Thorton enunciates her desire to focus primarily on the composition of the various groups involved in the scene.  However, in the first part of the book, she goes to great lengths to discuss, and one might even argue, legitimize, the study of club/dance music.  To make the case that dance music and the DJ are only on more stage in the evolution of musical culture, rather than bastardized offshoots, she relies primarily on the perceived notions of authentic and inauthentic.

Just as rock and roll originated in part with the invention of the electric guitar, dance music also arose out of technology rather than innovation in musical form—think romanticism or atonal. On page 29, she cites Firth, arguing that technologies, once foreign, are “naturalized by enculturation,” basically saying that once something beings widely used it “becomes natural,” offering “natural” a different meaning than something that arises from natural world.  She goes on to discuss the early opposition to recording artists, that is singers and musicians who made a living playing, for records in a studio rather than for an audience live.  Thorton continues this train of thought with a discussion on pg. 38 about the attempts by the National Musicians Union to pass stricter copyright laws prohibiting the public playing of records.  This debate largely boiled down to the idea that a “live performance” was more “authentic” than a recorded one, an argument also made by purists who thought the electric guitar was a negative influence on rock and roll as it pushed rock away from it’s folk roots.  However, as we now know, perhaps for economic reasons as well as changing tastes in how we like to hear music—the idea that the authentic piece is that on the record and live performances are only imitations—records replaced live bands in many public spaces.  From here, it’s somehow easy to see how the person manipulating and shaping the records in a public space, the DJ, eventually became to be seen as a valuable and worthwhile artist. As we enter the 21st century, we see a further expansion of these ideas of authenticity.  In just this past week’s column Resonant Frequency, Mark Richardson discusses the role new designer headphones have played on our conceptions of authenticity.  Dr. Dre’s new immensely popular Beats headphones are known to shape an original sound into one that places emphasis on the low frequencies common in various types of dance music from electro to hip-hop.



Hence to many, their authentic picture of a song has become not the one played in the studio, but the one they hear through their sonically sculpting headphones.