On Friday I posted a two hour film of the closing party at the legendary Paradise Garage, and mentioned a couple of articles that have been doing the rounds lately asking if this is going to be “the summer of disco”?
Well, as I pointed out, every summer is rightly the summer of disco. Talk of a “disco revival” is irrelevant as disco has never really gone away, but that still doesn’t stop it becoming a media trope every two to three years, or every time a major artist, underground or pop, releases music with a distinct disco influence (in this case, Daft Punk.) It’s boring and ill-informed, but then, so is a lot of land-fill media. Still, it pisses me off. My grievance is not so much with Daft Punk themselves, but the machinery that surrounds them (figuratively) and also my belief that Random Access Memories isn’t going to spawn a disco revival, primarily as it’s not actually good enough, but also because disco doesn’t need a revival. But then again, what would I know?
Actually, quite a lot. From 2002-2008 I ran a radio show/fanzine/website called Discopia that was dedicated to showcasing modern disco, and disco-influenced dance music sounds. I’ve been an alt-disco/nu-disco/disco-house/post-disco/whatever-disco-head since the mid-Nineties, when I first stumbled across Loose Joint’s cornerstone cut “Is It All Over My Face,” as remixed by Larry Levan. That set me off on a path of digging out the weirder and more obscure forms of disco, and also checking out more modern takes on the same sounds and ideals, a path I reckon I share with many producers and fans of this scene out there.
This is where my real grievance lies: the fact is that disco has been on a constant revival for at least the last ten years, it is a vibrant and thriving underground scene, and it has done it all under the radar of oldstream media. In fact, the MSM only ever become interested when pushed by a significantly large PR machine, and as we all know PR machines have an agenda to push and a habit of warping facts to suit their ,arketing narratives.
I’ve seen this revival-meme rear up it’s head at least three or four times now. It didn’t work before, and it’s not going to work now. Disco is the fundamental bedrock that dance music is based on, its reach is huge and its legacy is deep. Similarly, nu-disco is a massive, sprawling scene, so to trying and package it up in an easily consumable “revival” nutshell seems rather pointless. The same would be true for “rock”, “pop” or “dance”. Would anyone take seriously talk of a “reggae revival”? No!
And so, to my “nu-disco” primer. I’m not aiming to do anything definitive here, more point out the various different acts and scenes that have led us to where we are today. To join the dots between the disparate historical pockets of disco love that have sprung up in the last ten to twenty years and to give props to the real originators. To show how diverse and healthy “nu-disco” actually is, and how it’s in no real need of a revival. To point out that Daft Punk aren’t the first to do this, and, in fact, they did all this better years ago. Primarily, though, it’s just an excuse for me to share with you all some really excellent music you might not know.
This is part one of my “Nu-Disco primer” and will focus mainly on acts from the mid-to-late 90s and the early 00s, essentially the roots of nu-disco, the people who were making disco before it was termed “nu,” and those instrumental in shaping that scene in the early days. Nu-disco heads, I know you’re out there, and I hope I’ve done a good job with this. Your feedback is welcome in the comments.
If there IS going to be a disco revival, THESE are the people who have helped make it happen:
In the beginning there was a cock, and it was black. Black Cock Records, to be precise. Black Cock was a not-quite-legal record label founded by Gerry Rooney and DJ Harvey, and which was primarily active from 1993-1998. The limited releases on BCR were mostly re-edits of disco tracks, and some funk-influenced rock. While Black Cock was not the first bootleg disco edits label to exist, it had a huge impact on a generation of house music producers, inspiring many to dig deeper into this at-the-time maligned genre and to add specifically disco-sounding elements to their own house music productions. The legacy of Black Cock has been cemented by the reputation of co-founder DJ Harvey, who was well admired in the 90s for seamlessly mixing disco and house in his sets, and who now stands as one of the most respected, and credible, DJs in the world (his recent return to the UK after years of exile in the States garnered quite a lot of press and blog attention). Original issue Black Cock vinyl now goes for silly money, but bootleg issues of this bootleg label appear on the market from time to time.
Mystic Slot: “Disco Adventure”
At roughly the same time as Black Cock was making an impression in the UK, from across the pond in New York City, the spiritual home of disco, came the Bass Line Hussle. Better known as Balihu Records, Balihu was/is the brainchild of dj and producer Daniel Wang, who made a mark by retro-fitting disco into a more house context, with productions that combined large samples of obscure disco records with fresh synths/keys and live percussion. While there may have been other labels from NYC releasing house music with disco samples at the same time, Balihu stood out for having a very disco feel as well as a disco sound. Wang was (and still is) vocal about keeping elements of a production live, and focussing on melody above thudding kick drums. The debut 1994 Balihu release Look Ma, No Drum Machine EP was an instant cult classic, and is a cornerstone of the increasingly nebulous “nu-disco” genre, particularly the track “Like Some Dream I Can’t Stop Dreaming”. As time has passed, so Balihu has evolved, becoming more synth-based rather than using samples. Now based in Berlin, Wang is an in-demand disco DJ, and the Dutch label Rush Hour issued a huge Balihu retrospective a couple of years ago, which I urge fans of electronic and dance music to check out.
Chroma Oscura (Daniel Wang) “Glow Worms”
Nuphonic Records: Idjut Boys / Faze Action / Raj Gupta / Crispin J Glover
For me and all my disco-loving, house-head friends in the mid-to-late 90s and the early part of the 00s, Nuphonic Records was THE label to check. Seamlessly blending disco with house, dub, electronica and techno, the label was home to the acts listed above, and many, many more. With its distinctive “nu” logo that looked the same either way up (handy on spinning vinyl) the label acted as a hub for the disco/house/electronica/psychedelia axis, and also serving as a seal of approval and guarantee of quality. In fact, it’s quite possible that term “nu-disco” was derived from the name Nuphonic.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the label’s acts: The Idjut Boys, aka Conrad and Dan Idjut, are perhaps best known for pioneering a house music style called “disco-dub”, not to be confused with the pre-existing “dub house” micro-genre, and as the term would suggest, the Idjuts were heavily inspired by the freestyle and dub-influenced, post-disco dance sounds of the early 80s. Faze Action is primarily the work of brothers Simon and Robin Lee, who were one of the first “house” production units to make “all live” productions that insisted on drawing on methods used in disco. Their early release “In The Trees” is still stunning years later, a house production that easily matches anything form the original disco period. Raj Gupta and Crispin J Glover both recorded many tracks for Nuphonic under a variety of names, often collaborating with other producers mentioned in this article, and were both instrumental in defining the Nuphonic sound and aesthetic. Props also to Gupta, who, under the moniker Ray Mang, released the cult classic nu-disco album Mangled.
Idjut Boys “Girth Soup”
The French school: Daft Punk, Etienne De Crécy, Dimitri From Paris
I find it highly ironic that this current wave of interest in “nu-disco”, or even just disco in general, has been sparked by Daft Punk and the hype machine that surrounds their current album Random Access Memories, because, for me at least, Daft Punk delivered their finest, and most genuinely “disco” sounding records in the late 90s and early 00s. Before they were robots, Daft Punk took us “Around The World” with an infectious disco jam that equals anything from the original golden-age of disco. This track on its own can be held accountable for a whole new generation inheriting the disco spirit, a spirit that was refined even further, and taken all the way to number one in the UK charts, with the Thomas Bangalter-led act Stardust’s mega-hit “Music Sounds Better With You”. Stardust set the template for almost a decade of disco-sampling European “summer hits,” acts like Modjo and Groovejet. These acts may have appealed more to the mainstream than the music connoisseur, but they kept that disco flame burning nonetheless. But there is more to French disco house than that, from the spaced out stoner grooves of Etienne De Crécy (Super Discount) to the genuinely disco-sounding productions and remixes of the legendary Dimitri From Paris, a man who has done more than practically anyone to make “nu-disco” a reality. French house may ultimately side more heavily with the “house” than the “disco,” but it’s arguable that without the disco influence, French house would not exist as we know it. For that, and its poppier moments, it warrants a place on this list.
Super Discount (Etienne De Crécy) “Prix Choc”
Re-issue labels: Strut, Harmless, Soul Jazz
Of course, it goes without saying that “nu-disco” could not have existed without actual disco, so in a run down of contemporary disco-sounding music it’s necessary to tip my hat to the labels that have gone to great lengths to preserve and re-distribute the original classics for subsequent generations. The three labels mentioned above are just the tip of the re-issue iceberg, but have been responsible for turning new generations on to the work of Arthur Russell, Walter Gibbons, Tom Moulton, Bob Blank and countless other artists, producers and remixers who pushed the disco boat out and in doing so, laid the foundations for subsequent generations to build on. It was the expansion of “disco” as a genre to encompass more leftfield-forms that has inspired producers in the fields of dance and electronica to incorporate those elements, or even ideals, into their own work. To sample some excellent wares, check out the Jumpin’ series on Harmless, the Disco Not Disco series on Strut, and The World Of Arthur Russell and Hussle! Reggae Disco (and MANY more) on Soul Jazz.
Arthur Russell “In The Light Of The Miracle”
If there is one act that sums up “nu disco” for me, that act would have to be Metro Area. The release of their debut, self-titled album just over ten years ago was the first time I noticed stirrings of a mooted “disco revival”. Well, it may never have fully materialised then either, but Metro Area’s music was still hugely influential for dance music producers and djs all over the world, spawning countless imitators and managing to bring the disco aesthetic to the fore while still sounding distinctly fresh and unique. Metro Area are a duo comprised of Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani, both respected djs and producers in their own right in the fields of house and techno, but Metro Area was a definite attempt to return to a more all-encompassing sound and ideology such as that found in disco and early 80s freestyle. And by god it worked. Without resorting to the usual drug-fuelled cliches, Metro Area manage to make dance music that is functional/funky, but at the same time genuinely moving and at times almost unbearably emotional. Their sound can be spare and minimal, but it always resonates with real heart and the same warmth as original disco classics, especially when combined with the live strings of the equally brilliant Kelley Polar Quartet. It’s been over ten years now since that stunning debut album, and Metro Area have yet to follow it up (though they have released a string of sterling singles) but its reputation and influence is undeniable. In a recent poll run by highly respected techno site Resident Advisor, Metro Area was voted the second best album released during the 00s.
Metro Area “Caught Up”
DJ I-F / Viewlexx Records / Cybernetic Broadcasting System
I-F, or Ferenc to his mother, is the undisputed daddy of modern Italo. Italo, in case you didn’t know, if electronic disco of the early 80s made primarily on synths and in cheap studios in Northerh Italy. “Italo” is also a term that has been used to re-package the slightly more embarrassing genre of “Eurodisco.” Don’t forget that Giorgio Moroder himself is an Italian, so creating beautiful disco melodies on bulky synthesisers is in the Italian blood. In 1997, I-F released the track “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass”, a track based around electro-funk drum patterns, 80s FM synth stabs and big fat vocoder vocal. It’s claimed that “Space Invaders” single-handedly kick-started the Electroclash movement, but more importantly, it brought melodic, European sounding electro-disco back to clubs and DJ sets. In 1999, I-F released the first of his classic Mixed Up In The Hague mixes, made up almost entirely of Italo and Eurodisco, and which became hugely influential to a new generation of electronic music fans. In effect, I-F made Italo cool (I won’t say “again” as that implies it wasn’t cool the first time.) I-F, along with fellow Dutch producers/DJs Alden Tyrrell and Intergalactic Gary have carried the torch of this sound ever since, whether through releases on various labels like Clone or I-F’s own Viewlexx, or through the internet radio station Cybernetic Broadcasting System (sadly now defunct, but whose legacy lives on through Intergalactic FM.) Looking back now, the rehabilitation of Italo was a bit of a turning point for “nu-disco.” Here was a genre that had been completely ignored and derided in the UK and US (outside of select few gay/open-minded clubs) and which was ripe for re-appraisal. In a way it validated the desire to look backwards rather than constantly forward, “future” being the techno norm and something which alienated the genre from traditional disco. It was also responsible for turning a lot of previously very serious techno heads onto something a bit more, how do I say it, fun, and breaking disco out of the mold of white flares and rainbow Afro wigs into something a lot more diverse that had more to offer than people previously suspected.
Parralax Corporation “Crocodiles In The Sky (Fred Ventura & Columbo Remix)”
I couldn’t fit this track neatly into any of the above categories, but I feel it deserves a mention as it’s one of the few house tracks to genuinely capture the freewheeling, anarchic spirit of Arthur Russell’s best moments, and also shows that nu-disco was developing in Germany in the mid-90s, too. Though many came to this track via the Les Rhythms Digitales remix, the original Whirlpool Productions version was a hit in its own right, even climbing to the top of the Italian charts. Whirlpool Productions may have ended a while ago, but founder members Eric Clark and Justus Kohncke have since gone on to have successful solo careers.
Whirlpool Productions “From Disco To Disco (Original Mix)”
So there we have part one, essentially “the roots” of nu-disco. Next time: disco gets gay again, further adventures in Eurodisco/Italo and back to New York, where it all began…