Perfectly Imperfect

Although its influence has fluctuated in recent decades, New York City occupied the epicenter of progressive party culture during the 1970s and 1980s. It did so for a reason. Back then, the city was the home to what must have been the most diverse mix of people on the planet, many of them viewed as outsiders, misfits and outcasts by mainstream society. As the postwar boom ran into the ground, and as fresh waves of immigration led many white middle-class residents to head to the suburbs, the city went through a transformation as industrial warehouses emptied out and large parts of the East Village became unoccupied.

In other words, the ideal petri dish for new venues to grow within. The result was a set of spaces that were rough around the edges and nowhere near pristine, yet perfectly imperfect for these exact same reasons.

It was against this backdrop of economic decline and social marginalisation that a coalition of queers, women, African Americans, bohemians and countercultural activists started to innovate forms of community-based partying. Led by the music and the dance, this put civil rights, gay liberation, feminist and anti-war principles into action.

At the same time, artists and musicians gravitated to the city’s semi-abandoned downtown terrain, drawn by the cheap cost of living and the chance to collaborate with peers, and combined to produce a cultural renaissance of epic proportions. The maelstrom resulted in the groundbreaking sounds of disco, punk and hip hop. It also produced a series of parties that cultivated these sounds; and provided participants with new ways of experiencing music, community and ultimately the world in the process.

Welcome to a period in the life of New York City when the margins seized the center.


THE MUDD CLUB 

Downtown scenesters Diego Cortez and Anya Phillips were diehard regulars at CBGB, but also wanted to be able to head to a spot where it would be possible to dance to something other than disco – and CBGB didn’t have a dance floor. They put the idea of opening a punk discotheque with art-oriented add-ons to Steve Mass, a businessman who also happened to be a CBGB regular. Mass ran with the idea, settling on a dilapidated textile warehouse located on the border of industrial China Town — the last place artists would have expected to find a cutting-edge artist hangout. Opening the Mudd Club on Halloween 1978, Mass curated a whirlwind programme that included DJing, live music, video and film screenings, and Situationist-style happenings. Klaus Nomi, Debby Harry, Chris Stein, Patti Astor, Arto Lindsay, John Lurie, Andy Warhol, Amos Poe, Anna Sui, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy and scores of others turned it into a restless hub for subterranean creativity and outré dancing.

THE LOFT 

Starting out as a “Love Saves the Day” party held by David Mancuso in his NoHo loft space on Valentine’s Day 1970, the Loft tore up the rulebook of 1960s discotheque culture. Fuelled by LSD, a definitively mixed crowd that included a significant proportion of gay men, an audiophile stereo system and an expansive range of music that complemented the three bardos of the acid trip, the Loft was the first weekly party to run into the early hours of the morning, long after licensed venues were required to close. The combination enabled Mancuso and his crowd to enter into a uniquely sensitized and energetic communicative plane that – in tandem with Francis Grasso’s efforts at the Sanctuary – inspired the rise of contemporary DJ culture, or the practice that requires DJs to respond to, as well as lead their crowds. Future DJ legends Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were regulars on the dance floor.

THE ROXY 

Bronx-style party culture percolated away in relative isolation during the 1970s, with Disco Fever the primary location for its DJs and MCs. Graffiti unfolded as a largely separate phenomenon and while even breaking (one of a number of styles popular with Bronx dancers) started to fade as the decade disappeared. But then downtown scenesters Fab 5 Freddy and Charlie Ahearn decided to make a film that conceptualised the “four elements” as forming a cohesive thing called hip-hop. Around the same time, Malcolm McLaren employee Ruza Blue turned over her reggae night at Negril to Bronx performers, including Afrika Bambaataa. When the fire department closed the spot, Blue took her party to the Roxy, a gargantuan rollerskating rink. There was no reason to believe the move would work but Blue’s party soon started to attract “a big mash-up of b-boys, downtown trendies, punks, famous people, musicians, painters, gays, trannies — everything you can think of,” she remembers. Hip-hop was gathering momentum in a city where all things hybrid, inclusive and dynamic seemed possible.

DANCETERIA 

Drawing on the city’s art-punk, fashion, dance and experimental traditions, gay liberation activist Jim Fouratt and professional hedonist Rudolf Piper opened Danceteria on 37th Street in the spring of 1980 as the first location where partygoers could experience everything at once. One floor showcased cutting-edge bands, another meshed together the contrasting selections of punk DJ Sean Cassette and disco DJ Mark Kamins, and a third housed the city’s first dedicated video lounge. Fouratt curated performers who combined the avant-garde and the popular, mindful that participants needed to be “open to a range of experiences.” Piper focused on interior design, special parties, social engineering and building a staff team that included artists Keith Haring and David Wojnarowicz. Authorities closed the after-hours spot some six months after opening but a new form of partying had come into being. Fouratt and Piper would return.

PYRAMID 

Drag queens tended to head to specific drag bars and above all drag balls until Bobby Bradley and Alan Mace took over a struggling spot called the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge. Located on the outer edges of Alphabet City, which rivalled the Bronx for poverty, the setting enabled the owners to cultivate a form of community-oriented partying that offered anti-clone queers the chance to dance to new wave and participate in the wilder end of alternative performance. Even if they formed a minority within the venue’s diverse East Village crowd, larger-than-life drag queens danced on the bar and ran the door, instilling the venue with acerbic wit, radical politics and unfiltered emotion.

Paradise Garage

Inspired by the Loft, Michael Brody ran a private party in an old egg and butter storage plant on Reade Street in TriBeCa until authorities closed the spot for breaching an array of fire regulations. Aware that Mancuso had re-opened in a larger space in SoHo, and convinced a market existed for an even larger version of the Loft, Brody took out a lease on a gargantuan parking garage located on King Street. As it happens the building’s acoustics were terrible while the idea of dancing in a garage wasn’t immediately appealing, but Brody embraced the tension by naming his spot the Paradise Garage and set about turning the venue into the ultimate shrine for all-night dancing. It was here that Larry Levan established himself as the most influential DJ and remixer of his generation--and perhaps any generation.

This article originally appeared on Boiler Room. Click here for the original article. 

"I Was Born on the Dance Floor: A Playlist for Pulse” Tim Lawrence contribution to article edited by Ann Powers

"I Was Born on the Dance Floor: A Playlist for Pulse" Tim Lawrence reflects on Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang!)” in the aftermath of the Pulse/Orlando massacre. Introduction by Ann Powers with contributions from other authors, NPR, 18 June 2016.

We asked eleven writers to share the songs that helped them make the dance floor home.

We asked eleven writers to share the songs that helped them make the dance floor home.

In the week since the bloody and obscene disruption in Orlando's Pulse nightclub challenged the spirit of hope the LGBTQ* community has so determinedly cultivated for decades, many beautiful words have been burnt into computer screens, offerings to the sacred dance floor. These eulogies have been personal and political, lauding club life as a source of personal awakening, activism and community building. The distant thump of dance music has run through all of these accounts. Different varieties of beats bounced against each other — the salsa and reggaeton played at Pulse that night; the house music that helped people cope with the decimation wrought by AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s; the disco that first shaped the physical experience of post-Stonewall liberation, putting bodies together to sweat and cry out in joy.

To honor that music, we've asked eleven writers who've realized essential elements of themselves on such dance floors to share the songs that meant the most to them within that process. This is a playlist for Pulse, for the 49 dead and 53 wounded who each had their own song, the one that pulled him or her out of her perch at the bar, grinning and shaking that thing, that body that holds the soul; grasping the hand of a friend or lover while looking for a new smile to catch out, to keep growing the circle until it felt like it extended everywhere.

"People talk about liberation as if it's some kind of permanent state, as if you get liberated and that's it, you get some rights and that's it, you get some acknowledgment and that's it, happy now? But you're going back down into the muck of it every day; this world constricts," wrote the novelist Justin Torres in his own remembrance of such moments. The Pulse tragedy reasserted the cruel fact that liberation is a fragile right in a society still making its fitful trudge toward genuine tolerance. The mourning process reminds those who love to dance together of something else, too: Liberation is a practice, an insistently loving one, advanced every time people gather to shake off judgment and open their arms to life. The songs enable the practice. They are the conduits through which a superordinary current travels. To reclaim the religious language too often used to justify hate: The songs are the mantras, the beads dancers use when they pray. We present this playlist as a form of witness and of participating in the practice. Be free.

A Playlist For Pulse

CeCe Rogers and Marshall Jefferson, "Someday" (1987)

The day after the massacre of so many queer people of color in Orlando, I kept returning to CeCe Rogers and Marshall Jefferson's "Someday" from 1987. It was a house anthem that I had heard over and over at the End Up in San Francisco when I was an underage go go dancer at Club Uranus, fresh out of the closet and fresh out of Kentucky. The pain and politics of "Someday" were oddly resonant in the late eighties, as the devastation of AIDS stalked our partygoing, and its references to oppression, prejudice, racism and fear indexed the very obstacles that made its lyrical promise of living as one family and making the world a Paradise so alluring, and, still, so distant. Absorbing the awful news from Florida, I played "Someday" over and over, and then dragged the file into Ableton Live editing software and just looped those gospel chords, listening to that cascading riff, trying to extract some balm. In doing so, I was replaying something that has already been replayed and re-used countless times, notably by Liquid for their rave homage/take off "Sweet Harmony" from 1992, which sped up the tempo and soldered breakbeats and rave stabs to the churchy chassis of the Chicago original (a process taken even further for the Concrete Jungle remix of Urban Shakedown's "Some Justice", which also raids "Someday" for vocal loops). In the wake of Orlando, I could hardly bear to hear the pain in Rogers' voice as he modulates upwards to sing that "It doesn't have to be like this".

Tragedies are tragic because they are avoidable. The force of this song confirms something essential to me: The pleasure and joy of gay dance music and gay dance spaces draw their fire from political imagination and political demand. Here it takes a radically counterfactual form, one cruelly apt to the question of gun control in America. The message is simple: We don't have to keep repeating ourselves. We could have a different world. House can be an escapist narcotic, an inert and formulaic placeholder for pious citations of long exhausted historical moments, but it can also sneak up on clichés and make their dry bones live. On the dance floor, you learn these things in your body. Rogers' reference to apartheid in South Africa is a case in point; in the wake of the end of apartheid, the meaning and valence of the song has been transformed within his own lifetime. But it's harder to measure the time it will take to get to where this song is going. "If we could just open our eyes / we could make our world a Paradise." If there's pain, it's the pain of waiting, of deferral, of counting our losses. As queers, how long will we have to wait for someday? DREW DANIEL

Diana Ross, "Love Hangover" (1976)

"Ahhhhh" was the sultry opening to "Love Hangover," disco's "it" song during the spring of 1976. With ex-Supreme Diana Ross singing dreamily, languidly, lustily, "Love Hangover" begins like a slinky seduction. By the time the song shifts into high gear, the dance floor where I most often danced, Ann Arbor's Rubaiyat Disco, was mobbed, and no one, even the most exuberant dancer, could do more than dance in place. Maybe we were responding exclusively to the infectiousness of this track, which Ross herself once described as not quite a song. But I suspect that for early adopters of disco like myself there was a joy in having this maligned genre affirmed by Ross. No singer that famous had yet ventured into our glitterball world. But there's something else about that song that I think explains why we so crowded the dance floor whenever it played. "If there's a cure for this, I don't want it" was Ross's first line. Sure, the song was about love, but for us — the sexual outsiders, the gender rebels — "Love Hangover" was about our love, queer love, and we weren't looking for a cure either. When I think about those disco days, and how queer people used the club, making ourselves over in the process, I flash back to that song, the feeling of brushing up against strangers, and the sensation of feeling free. ALICE ECHOLS

Jennifer Lopez, "Waiting for Tonight" (1999)

When I started the process of coming out around 1999, I was 19 years old and, shall we say, inexperienced. The all hours, 18-and- up club I frequented with my Gap co-workers was a dingy, druggy place in a scary part of town, a metaphorical world away from where I'd grown up. Needless to say, I loved it. Hearing "Waiting For Tonight" reminds me of nothing so much as the sensory confusion and heightened arousal of those first club experiences — making eyes with handsome strangers, awkwardly misreading signals and surrendering myself to the tangled mass of bodies on the dance floor while J. Lo torched the place with her vivid, breathless fantasies and those naughty conga drums. Closing the deal rarely exceeded the thrill of the chase for me, but "Waiting for Tonight" could always convince me that I just needed to try harder. JON FREEMAN

Armand Van Helden ft. Duane Harden, "You Don't Know Me" (1999)

In the early 1990s, I used to rent a room in New York's Flatiron district, right around the corner from the Sound Factory Bar at 12 West 21st street. Sleep was not an option while 4 a.m. dancing to DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Louie Vega; after a few sunset hours of puttering around the apartment, I'd hop the subway to honor my nine to five. By the mid- to late-'90s, The Octagon, Escuelita, Café Con Leche, Phab, Brooklyn Sensation and Langston's were among the trans-borough black and Latino gay clubs (or club nights) that formed my crew's weekly going-out ritual; these spaces were something of a contrast to the decidedly more mainstream (and much paler) megaclubs like Palladium, Twilo and Arena.

For a transitional '90s moment, the idea of a hip-hop night in a gay club was still decidedly left-curve, so much so that I can recall lining up outside The Warehouse in the Bronx, waiting to get in, wondering if any of us might be mowed down by a drive-by shooter with a phobic axe to grind. I wonder if in our rush to mourn and find logic in the midst of the Orlando catastrophe we've managed to conflate the concept of the commercial, transactional gay nightclub as a safe space with the ideal of the gay nightclub as a convivial space. To attend an LGBT club in a straight-supremacist world used to mean — and in many places still means — that you're necessarily exposed in some way; there was always a bit of risk, and safety was rarely guaranteed (particularly if you weren't cisgender). And still, we flocked to spaces like Escuelita and Crash, hell bent on having a kiki-ing with friends, hot in pursuit of a date or a hook-up, dressed to the nines in stylized outfits, determined to see and be seen, awestruck by voguing mavericks battling it out and kinetically dancing the night away until our feet turned sore.

Even more than Ultra Naté's 1997 "Free," "You Don't Know Me" is the track that most reminds me of the inspirational anthem pop that 1990s NYC underground house made possible. Duane Harden's impassioned bleat surging atop Armand Van Helden's looping Carrie Lucas disco sample and Jaydee beat was the pre-9/11 zenith of transcendent dance floor pride. The sassy, clapback lyric — fusing self-esteem sentiments borrowed from ditties as diverse as La Cage Aux Folles' "I Am What I Am" and Billy Joel's "My Life" — rides along on a "don't judge me" message so in-your-face-potent you wish the Orlando shooter had heard it, internalized it and made much smarter, less lethal choices. Nearly two decades later, I've spent a fair amount of time in queer nightlife spaces in pockets of the world where homosexuality has yet to be decriminalized. There, like everywhere else, the pursuit of conviviality and personal liberation continues; even in the midst of resurgent attempts to repress the marginalized, we find a way to keep dancing. JASON KING

Dinosaur L, "#5 (Go Bang!)" (1982)

Thoughts spring to "That's Where the Happy People Go" by the Trammps, the first song to acknowledge the pivotal role played by the LGBTQ community in the formation of disco, and a sweet number to offset this bitterest of moments. They also turn to M.F.S.B.'s quintessential underground disco classic "Love Is the Message," because the desire to confront hatred with love has suffused responses to the massacre. Then there's Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)", a near-mandatory selection given that so many partygoers realised their queer selves at Pulse, and also Joe Smooth's Chicago house classic "Promised Land" in the hope that "One day we will be free / From fighting, violence / People crying in the street."

Not for the first time, I need a DJ to capture the layered complexity of what I'm feeling, to lead a dialogical journey that weaves together all of these records and so many more, because this form of extended conversation enables us to discover where we are and where we want to go, expressing our connectedness as the exchange unfolds. But if no DJ steps forward, I'll pick out for Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang!)."

First released by Arthur Russell on the album 24  24 Music in 1981 and remixed by François Kevorkian in 1982, "Go Bang!" gives the impression of doing everything at once as it meshes disco, funk, jazz, dub, new wave, opera and spoken-word chanting in a pulsating groove marked by high drama. The track captures New York party culture at its most mutant and vibrant, for just as nobody had a name for the wild range of sounds that fueled the city's definitively mixed crowds of the early 1970s, so the post-backlash period of the early 1980s witnessed the culture casting genre to one side as musicians captured the kaleidoscopic diversity of the city's dance crowds. "Go Bang" expresses not only male pleasure (listen to Julius Eastman's three-and-a-half octave organismic rendition of the title line) but also the the better-than-sex moment when an entire dance floor screams as a sublime record reaches its peak (captured in the line "I want to see all my friends at once go bang"). Whenever I hear this record played at a party, I and others enter into a circus of sounds, movements, gestures, expressions, touches and screams as the floor becomes a space of openness and expression that exceeds standard definitions of who we are, allowing us to become collectively who we want to be. If only the record never stopped. TIM LAWRENCE

Aquarian Dream, "Phoenix" (1976)

This gem, produced by jazz fusion drummer Norman Connors, embodies the sanctified feeling of gospel, a sound that suffused so much of early disco.

I first heard this cut about 25 years after it was first released and had drifted into obscurity. I had just graduated college and moved to Philly for a music critic internship. Soon after moving there, I became something of a club head. There was virtually no gay club life in my native Little Rock, Ark., and Philly back then still had several hot joints. This one spot, whose name I've long forgotten, played a mix of new and classic dance cuts and drew a beautiful, intergenerational, mostly black and brown crowd. The night the DJ threw on "Phoenix," the older queens whooped and filled the floor right away. Younger ones joined, too. Usually the wallflower, I couldn't resist and ended up dancing with a slim, flirty older guy who sang the lyrics as he danced, hands lifted. After the song segued into another cut, I leaned into the guy's ear and asked him the title of the song.

"'Phoenix,' baby," he said."Aquarian Dream."

It took me almost a decade to find a copy of that song, which transformed that narrow, sweaty space into a righteous sanctuary. Named for the mythical bird that rose strong and glorious from ashes and flames, "Phoenix" celebrates the resiliency of the human spirit, something to remember as we grieve the tragedy at Pulse. And as we grieve, perhaps the spirited horns, strings, percussion and churchy vocals will help us imagine a better place for the 49 gone. Their spirits dance on as the song evokes the flight metaphor found in many gospel songs: "Fly, fly away." RASHOD OLLISON

Jeanie Tracy, "Time Bomb" (1984)

I hadn't experienced sex yet, but when my pointy-toed boots hit the dance floor of the Lost & Found in Washington D.C., my teenage body throbbed with lust, passion and desire. Those same sensations pile up in climax upon climax on this lost classic by Jeanie Tracy, the Houston-born singer that stepped in as Sylvester's primary backing vocalist after Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes graduated to fame as the Weathergirls. (I've never been able to find complete credits for this track, but I choose to believe that's Sylvester, the Queen of Disco, wailing away behind Jeanie throughout this gem.) I blasted "Time Bomb" in my suburban Virginia bedroom and on my first Walkman to sustain me during long, lonely weeks at school, but it never sounded as full and alive as it did in those fleeting moments when I dared to detonate into my true self, one among many, on Saturday nights at the L&F. KURT B. REIGHLEY

Paul van Dyk ft. Saint Etienne - Tell Me Why (The Riddle) (2000)

The beat and sequencer matrix is familiar to fans of the German DJ whose trance productions were all the rage in big cities during the Y2K era. But the synth strings cresting over those beats? Impossible by himself. Collaborating with the British dance pop trio coaxed out the best from each other: Saint Etienne got sinew and muscle, van Dyk got pastels and melodies. Thank Sarah Cracknell, the Holy Spirit of Wistfulness, repeating, "When the morning comes/and the snow is falling" after wondering if she could open her heart again. Tweaking and peaking, months after the ebb of my own unrequited crush, I danced to this 2000 British hit at a defunct Miami club's gay night, aware that several hundred damp strangers and my three friends had known nothing better than this moment but would know much better moments when the morning came and the sun was rising.ALFRED SOTO

Aly-Us, "Follow Me" (1992)

I owe so much of my life, interests, salvation to vogueing — its execution, its specter, its soundtrack — that very specifically black and Latino and gay and trans and New York subculture that has quite literally depended upon the club (or community center, or VFW, or high school gym) as a sanctuary for survival. I owe so much to its practitioners, its DJs, its participants, for teaching me new ways to be free by example, and for exemplifying transcendence through dance, and for expanding and illuminating ingenious new avenues for femininity to me, a straight, cis Latina from Wyoming. Voguing is a space where words like "soft" and "cunt" and "pussy," often derogatory in less open spaces, are compliments of the highest order, particularly when accompanied by unwavering displays of athleticism that equate them with physical power, too.

Adjacent to this is "Follow Me," the 1992 New York City anthem by house trio Aly-us, and one of the most generous songs I've ever heard — a song that, 24 years later, still has the capacity to uplift me more than 30 years in the church ever did. Specifically anti-racism, its gospel (and gospel influences) resonates for any time and place. Its essential openness and light even now encourages the best possible scenario: a dancefloor of hands lifted in ecstatic prayer, the physical sensation of being truly free. It explicitly imagines the club as a site of inclusivity and the body as its own locus of worship. Follow me... why don't you follow me... to a place where we can be free. This is as plainspoken a mission of house music as there's ever been, an enduring staple of the queer dancefloor that can still elevate the club to a higher place. There's love to share. Can you feel it? It's in the air. JULIANNE ESCOBEDO SHEPHERD

Deee-Lite, "Good Beat" (1991)

I met David Diaz on the parched, scraggly playground for "upper graders" at our Inland Empire elementary school in Southern California, within months of my arrival to the States in 1983. We were both 10, and as he describes it, "Karen was playing soccer with the boys, and I was playing Chinese jump rope with the girls." When we were on a class field trip to the murky, man-made Lake Perris, David rode with me and a few other kids in my folks' conversion van, prompting my mom to think wishfully that we were "an item." I suppose we were. How we were became increasingly apparent as we matured awkwardly into our teendom, trying slyly to fit within whatever acceptable parameters of gender-bending the late '80s and early '90s afforded. At one point we both had hairdos resembling Mario Lopez's mullet in Saved by the Bell, though I could never achieve the lustrousness of David's, since he has naturally curly hair, and like most Asian girls of the era, I needed a "body wave" just to get mine to take any sort of shape. It was in our senior year as theater kids and members of the Thespian club that David — who, in a rehearsed cosmopolitan accent, I started calling "Dahv" — brought Deee-Lite's World Clique album to our protoqueer (but really already totally queer), theater dork cast parties.

While our hetero-confident peers were gregariously practicing their prom night grind to the album's highest charting hit, "Groove is in the Heart" (portending its subsequent popularity at many of the straight weddings we'd end up going to years later), Dahv brought us to the house with the nonchalant, cumulative build of "Good Beat." We'd ease into the song with simple, pulsating movements of the head and chest, nodding our assent to the beat that would eventually animate our flesh as if we were elastic, ecstatic windsocks. We sang along with our priestess, Lady Miss Kier (from New York City via Youngstown, Ohio): "Everything will be alright when you feel it tonight." "Good Beat" propelled those of us piled into my grandma's Ford Escort station wagon across the full 55 miles of freeway that led to Arena, in the eastern part of West Hollywood. Arena was the 18-and-over queer Latino club where we could do everything for real with other brown queers like us: the intimate strangers who knew when to break out in a tight, rhythmical unison with "zoo wah zoo wah zoo wah da da...zoo wah...zoo zoo wah...." We came to the rest of our lives together there to the "Good Beat," to the promise of things getting better, blissfully oblivious to our future worlds in which such scenes of becoming are so easily annihilated. KAREN TONGSON

Sarah Dash, "Sinner Man" (1978)

I'll never forget dancing to Sarah Dash's "Sinner Man" because I heard it for the very first time at my very first gay disco. My friends Jim and Julie and I had just graduated from high school in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y. and I was about to leave for college in New York City. I wasn't out even to myself yet, but this was 1979, and we already knew the hippest and most urbane version of ANYTHING was gay. So we went to a downtown gay club called Jim's, and right away spot two of our English teachers. Then this song comes on, about an otherwise strong-willed woman's attraction to what's forbidden. It's sung by one of the ex-members of Labelle, so she really belts, and it's got one of Tom Moulton's classic mixes that breaks down as the background vocalists chant, "Holding me, touching me, sinner man" while the track builds more powerful than ever — as if surrendering to what's supposedly bad for you can make you stronger if you're able to learn from it. That, for me, was the gay experience in a nutshell. Soon after, Jim, Julie and I all came out, and a few years after that, our social studies teacher Tim Mains became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in all of New York State. I'm sure there are people in our hometown who still think we're all sinners, but I wouldn't have made it out alive if I'd believed that. BARRY WALTERS

This article originally appeared on NPR on 18 June 2016. Click here for the original article.

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"How Grace Jones Became a Disco Diva"

Disco started to go mutant before the backlash of 1979 compelled its producers to quit their exploration of punk, new wave, funk and dub combinations. As disco outsold rock for the first time during 1978, for instance, figures such as Arthur Russell, Michael Zilkha and Walter Gibbons were carrying dance music into dissonant territory as they added their left field touch to releases like Dinosaur’s “Kiss Me Again,” Cristina’s “Disco Clone” and Love Committee’s “Just As Long As I Got You.” But the shake-up arguably started even earlier, when Grace Jones recorded “I Need a Man,” “Sorry” and “That’s the Trouble” for the French label Orpheus between 1975-1977. Admittedly, Jones didn’t set out with any radical intent, her main concern being to switch from modelling to music. Yet these releases stand out as early studies in disco juxtaposition thanks to the way her stiff, gravelly voice combines so uneasily with the standardized disco-backing track. DJs and dancers could start to freak out in a different way.

Jones went on to release three disco albums with Island, Portfolio (1977), Fame (1978) andMuse (1979), all of them now reissued as part of an elaborate box set. Given that pioneering disco remixer Tom Moulton produced all three, and given that Jones is now widely regarded as one of disco’s definitive divas, it’s easy to assume they amount to a landmark trilogy, with Jones now deemed by Island to have been a “natural choice” for Moulton following his work with The Three Degrees, MFSB and The Trammps. But whereas the gospel-R&B tradition produced what seemed like a small army of African-American divas who were able to connect with New York’s predominantly gay dance crowds through a sense of shared emotional hardship as well as a relentless will to survive, Jones cultivated an inverted diva persona that combined affectlessness, dominance and drag. And while dance crowds loved her stage persona and style, relations with Moulton soon turned strained. “Grace became very grand when it was time to do the album,” Moulton told me. “I guess the success went to her head. I finally got so mad I said, ‘Grace, it’s amazing that with so little talent you can please so many!'”

Chris Blackwell of Island picked up Portfolio once it had been completed and went on to release Fame and Muse, having heard about Jones through writer Nik Cohn, author of the article that inspired the making of Saturday Night Fever. “He was a friend of mine,” recounts Blackwell. “He said, ‘There’s this unbelievable looking Jamaican girl in New York, you should check her out, she wants to be a singer.” Ready to enter the disco market after making his name in ska, reggae and rock, Blackwell was all set to sign Jones based on her image. So he was pleasantly surprised when he listened to “La Vie En Rose,” a new track from the first album, and deemed it “unbelievable.” But the triple dose of musical covers that took up the whole of the first side were sonically insipid as well as ill-suited for Jones, whose voice seemed stiff when faced with the melodic-emotional demands of the form. “Do or Die” turned out to be the standout track on Fame yet fell short of Moulton’s finest work; the sequence of French language covers seemed to be made for lounge listening rather than dance floor play. Musesank because of the backlash and also because it was the weakest of all three albums.

While Jones fans and disco collectors will rightly welcome this reissue, history suggests that the releases were somewhat out of time, delivering an instrumental backdrop that was already beginning to sound generic and presenting an artist whose sense of discord was a little ahead of its time. Jones would find her ultimate expression on her next three albums, the Compass Point trilogy, when Blackwell took control of the studio. Dub, rock, soul, funk and disco swerved and clashed to create a new form of cacophonous bliss. Whether other disco artists struggled to survive the backlash, Jones would relax into her mutant self.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.

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"How Loleatta Holloway Became Disco's Most Sampled Artist"

Tim Lawrence, author of 'Loves Saves the Day', recounts the life and legacy of Loleatta Holloway, who has been sampled in house music over 300 times.

The lead single on Loleatta Holloway’s 1978 album Queen of the Night, “Catch Me on the Rebound,” featured a Norman Harris production, a 12-inch mix by Walter Gibbons and lyrics that displayed emotional strength in the face of adversity. The stellar lineup, combined with Holloway’s swashbuckling entry into disco during 1976–77, gave her reason to believe the track would carry her from local to national notoriety. But instead, it carried the kernel of a prophetic message that defined the artist’s career as she belatedly crossed over into pop not through her own recordings, but in the phantasmic form of a sampled and uncredited vocalist whose lyrics were lip-synched by a model who didn’t speak English. When other producers and remixers started to sample Holloway’s disco tracks rather than invite her into the studio, it became clear that most listeners would only catch Holloway on the rebound—distressed by the breakdown of the old recording certainties, upset that a facsimile was deemed to be better than a performance. To her added dismay, Holloway ended up becoming one of the most sampled artists of the disco era.

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The artist made her way into disco through classic roots. Born in Chicago, she sang gospel alongside her mother in a 100-strong choir and joined the gospel group the Caravans before recording two categorically secular R&B albums with producer, manager and future husband Floyd Smith. In 1976, label head Ken Cayre signed her to Salsoul, a vibrant independent label intent on landing a star who could match Donna Summer’s West Coast rise at Casablanca.

Holloway’s first effort, Loleatta, included “Hit and Run,” which DJ remixer Walter Gibbons transformed into an 11-minute exploration of groove music and vamping. Vince Montana went on to invite the vocalist to sing vocals on the Salsoul Orchestra’s “Runaway,” handing her a featured artist credit for her contribution. When Holloway appeared at downtown private party the Gallery to promote songs like “We’re Getting Stronger,” “Dreamin’,” “Is It Just a Man’s Way?” and “Hit and Run,” she found herself strangely lost for words. “I was really surprised that the gay crowd was so into me,” she told me in a 1997 interview. “I didn’t have to build them up. They were already there.”

To Holloway’s surprise if not shock, the multicultural gay crowd that formed such an important bloc within the 1970s dance movement felt a natural affinity with black female vocalists who sang about relationship troubles in defiantly resourceful and emotionally articulate ways. Yet her huge popularity on the New York party scene didn’t translate into national pop stardom, and with the 1978 release of Queen of the Night, she became entangled in Salsoul’s temporary loss of form as Cayre chased the easy buck in the slipstream of Saturday Night Fever’s tearaway run. Holloway blazed back with Loleatta Holloway, a 1979 album that included “The Greatest Performance of My Life,” and her barnstorming contribution to Dan Hartman’s “Vertigo / Relight My Fire.” Released the following year, Love Sensation didn’t let down either as the title track tore up the city’s floors. Holloway recounted later that Hartman made her sing the song 30 times before her voice—supported in the final, successful take by Vicks VapoRub and coffee—reached the hard, deep tonality he wanted for the track. But disco was beating a commercial retreat by the time these records came out, and the Chicago artist reconciled herself to the possibility that a once-in-a-career opportunity had not quite been taken.

For reasons hard to pinpoint, Holloway struggled to adapt to the post-disco era. She had always counted herself among the disco divas that appreciated how the 1970s dance sound had boosted their careers while maintaining that ballads were important as well, because it was on the slower songs that they could properly stretch out vocal range and expressivity. Yet while the likes of Taana Gardner, Grace Jones and Donna Summer rode the transition to the post-disco era by embracing elements of rock, dub and funk within a slower tempo, a new generation of breakthrough divas—including Jocelyn Brown and Gwen Guthrie—confirmed that there was still space for African-American vocalists to record full-throttle dance music. Holloway released only one more record with Salsoul, “Seconds,” a 1982 track mixed by Shep Pettibone. She lost her husband that same year. “In need someone,” she sang on her next track, “Crash Goes Love,” an Arthur Baker production issued by Warlock in 1984.

Lacking the kind of monster hits that someone like Gloria Gaynor could convert into a celebrity appearance career, Holloway slipped out of the musical zeitgeist until Junior Vasquez’s “My Loleatta.” The track laid a recording of a rare Holloway live performance at Better Days over funkified electronic beats, sampled effects and keyboard lines. Vasquez reproduced resident DJ Bruce Forest’s deployment of the original tape, which he laid over house tracks and disco instrumentals such as MFSB’s “Love Is the Message.”

“The speaking part was in sections and lasted about 40 minutes in total,” Forest recalled in 1998. “The crowd went nuts for it and it became my trademark.” Vasquez got hold of the vocal track via Shep Pettibone after the remixer  helped himself to the tape against the resident DJ’s instructions, because he had promised Holloway he would never give it out. “He gave this copy to Junior Vasquez, who promptly took my idea, laid the vocal over a house track and made a record called ‘My Loleatta,'” added Forest. “It was a mild success and he made a few more. He also actually put the a cappella on a 12″ and sold it. I was furious, and so was Loleatta.”

If Holloway felt a degree of comfort that she appeared as the credited artist on “So Sweet,” a 1987 release by Chicago house label DJ International, her relationship to the onrush of sampling technology degenerated sharply when Black Box sampled her entire vocal for “Love Sensation” on Italo house track “Ride On Time.” Not only did the production outfit not have permission; it also employed a French model to lip-synch over the Chicagoan’s vocals. Traumatized by the episode, and resentful at the way Black Box were warmly received in the United States by people who knew she had delivered the original vocal, including Soul Train’s Don Cornelius, Holloway found no solace in the record’s international chart success. For sure, sales helped her settle out of court for an undisclosed sum, but given the choice, she would have preferred to have been fully credited as well as paid through a regular contract.

“I thought I was gonna lose my mind,” Holloway told writer and DJ Bill Brewster in 2005. “Seriously. I almost had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t talk about it without cryin’. I’d spent so long tryin’ to be an entertainer, and I’m not even getting a credit for it? It was like, ‘How dare they?’ Someone’s just taken something from you, right in front of your face.” She added: “For years it destroyed me.”

Producers and remixers have gone on to sample Holloway’s vocals more than 300 times, or more than double the number clocked up by Donna Summer, disco’s highest-profile vocalist. Among the most prominent, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch led the way, inserting a couple of lines from the chorus of “Love Sensation” into “Good Vibrations,” a join-the-dots house-rap track that doubled as a faux duet. This time around Holloway received a credit on the individual tracks where her vocal appeared, although didn’t get name-checked in the artist title and remained skeptical about her clipped video appearance on what turned out to be her second vicarious number-one record. Cevin Fisher drew on the same source in his pumping house track “You Got Me Burning Up.” Ricky Martin teamed up with a virtual Holloway to deliver a fresh version of “Relight My Fire.” In an altogether stranger exchange, Whitney Houston sampled Holloway’s “We’re Getting Stronger” in “Million Dollar Bill,” lip-synching to vocals she apparently couldn’t deliver as effectively as the ex-Salsoul artist. The phenomenon led to some fresh commissions, as was the case when the UK dance outfit Fire Island turned to Holloway to sing a cover of Paul Weller’s “Shout to the Top.”

I got to speak with Holloway in 1997 after Ken Cayre put in a word for me. I knew her music from purchasing the first couple of volumes of Classic Salsoul Mastercuts, and for the longest time had obsessively mixed an a cappella of the artist vamping on “Stand Up” onto everyone instrumental house track I bought. I should have grasped that it was always going to be a tough interview from the sheer length of time it took Cayre to persuade her to talk, but was still taken aback by the speed at which it stalled after I introduced myself by mentioning some of the people I’d contacted while researching my first book. Holloway clammed up as soon as I mentioned Louie Vega, perhaps because Vega had invited India rather than Holloway to deliver the vocals to “Runaway” on the Nuyorican Soul album. “Louie Vega and the whole lot of them, let them do the talkin’!” she said. “They seem to be getting the better of the steak anyway.”

I spent the next half hour failing to persuade Holloway to talk about the sunnier side of her recording career. “Music didn’t do anything for me,” she retorted at one point. “I would probably have did better staying in the gospel and getting me a nine-to-five job. I probably would have been better off than trying to make a career out of this because my career was destroyed, starting with Black Box.” She maintained that “Loleatta Holloway is not even a person,” adding that “you can cry, cry, cry so much and the it’s like, for what reason?” She had suffered more than most. “I know I’m one of the most sampled women there is,” she added. “It’s one thing with the sample if you give someone credit, but when you take the sample and take the credit and you are them, it’s another thing altogether. There’s so much they’ve done to me to just knock me out completely, like I never existed.”

In some ways it was the same old Holloway, speaking her mind, vamping the world to rights, but now the emotion was cold rather than gushing, despondent more than defiant. It was reassuring, then, to read the artist telling Brewster she was over the Black Box period. “You know the other day Marky Mark was on the TV talkin’ about that record and he never even mentioned my name,” she observed. “I’m so used to people like this that it doesn’t even phase me anymore. I remember a time that would’ve hurt me. I’ve come a long way!”

A solidly-built woman who wore her heart on her sleeve, Holloway was always likely to clash with the reckless end of the digital era, uncomfortable with the ease of immaterial recording, the mutability of identity and the ephemerality of relationships. Yet the digital era hasn’t produced its own Loleatta, because vocal chords aren’t whipped into shape the way they used to be, and vocalists along with their producers have come to prefer clean to guttural. Meanwhile the raw feeling and ardent emotion that drove the recording studios and dance floors of 1970s has dissipated into something more provisional and dispersed. Another slice of that era slipped away from us when Holloway died of heart failure in 2011. The 300-plus reworkings of her songs testify to the enduring appeal of her voice, even if they can’t match the original efforts.

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“Lucky Cloud Loft Party in London”, Electronic Beats, Autumn 2014

The Lucky Cloud Loft Party began with David Mancuso, who has been running private parties in downtown New York since Valentine’s Day 1970. I met David while I was researching my book on the rise of DJ culture in downtown New York. He became the key figure of that book, and as it was going into production David said to me, "How about we start putting on parties in London?" Since June 2003, Colleen Murphy, Jeremy Gilbert and I have been running the party according to the principles of David’s New York parties, which aim to enable people to dance and relax in a physically and socially comfortable setting. For the first 11 years we held the party in a converted power station with springy wooden floors. We decorated the room with hundreds of balloons, just like we were putting on a kid’s birthday party, to evoke a time of joy and freedom. We put on a spread of food to give guests energy for the marathon dance. And we set up the room so that the first thing a dancer would see would be the party room and not the booth, because the dance floor is the focus of the party, not the person selecting records.

Photo by Jo Kemp

Photo by Jo Kemp


David has never called himself a DJ. Instead he prefers to call himself a “musical host” because he is a party host who also happens to select music that he thinks his friends will enjoy. The sound system is almost entirely analogue and is made up of high-end stereo equipment that is highly efficient and sensitive, including Klipschorn speakers and Koetsu cartridges. It only supports vinyl playback because vinyl is the warmest and most detailed medium. The overall aim is for the system to reproduce the original recording as accurately as possible because the energy of the party will rise in correlation to the musicality of the experience.

Whether the role is taken up by David or by someone else, the musical host will play the entire party, from 5pm to midnight, drawing on a wide range of sources that stretch from acid rock to disco to house to minimal techno--because the world is diverse and magical so why restrict the music to a single genre? Records are also selected according to an arc of intensity that matches the arc of an acid trip, because LSD was the drug of choice when David held his first dance party on Valentine’s Day 1970—he wrote the words “Love Saves the Day” on his party invites for a reason. David learned from the acid guru Timothy Leary that the acid trip is comprised of three stages, or three “bardos”, so he selected his selections so they would match the intensity of these phases: the gentle, playful beginning; the deeper, more introverted transcendental circus that follows; and the more open, more social, more uplifting experience of the re-entry. David was the first person on the downtown party scene to take dancers on a musical journey and although that’s become something of a lost art in contemporary club culture the remains important to us, whether we chose to take LSD or not.

Whatever the stage of the party, the musical host won’t take the sound system above 100dB because anything above that can start to tire or even damage the ear. That might not sound terribly important but if the ear starts to get tired it’ll need to have the volume turned higher in order to get the same kind of impact from the music and this process quickly follows the law of diminishing returns. Early on we found that quite a few people would come up to us and ask if we could encourage David to play the music louder—because we’d all become used to hearing loud bass music played at 120dB and above. What’s interesting is that we no longer get anyone asking us these questions. Instead we have this very clear experience where the music comes through very powerfully but we can also have a conversation on the dance floor without having to shout. Our have adjusted to a new way of listening.

Another distinguishing feature of the parties is the absence of a mixer in the sound system. David decided to get rid of this piece of equipment after he concluded in the early 1980s that a musical signal becomes more powerful if it has to pass through the least number of electronic stages possible as it passes from the vinyl to the ear. He decided that the musicality of the experience was more important than his ability to mix records or, as he put it, interfere with the intensions of the recording artist. Getting rid of the mixer also enabled David to shift the attention of the party from the booth to the dance floor. Of course it’s become mandatory to have non-stop mixing in contemporary party culture and people assume that any gap between records would lead to a decrease in the energy of the party. But what we’ve found in London is that the pause has become a moment of heightened intensity, when people can clap, scream and whistle, showing their appreciation of the music. It’s really quite thrilling.

David had to stop traveling to London a few years ago and at that point Colleen stepped into the role of musical host. Since then Simon and Guillaume, two members of Lucky Cloud Sound System, the collective of friends who make the parties happen, have also selected records at parties. It’s a testament to the soundness of principles of David’s set-up that the parties have continued to go from strength to strength.

For more information, www.loftparty.org

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