“Party Time with David Mancuso and the Loft”. Placed, Germany, September 2007.

Introduction reprinted in Loops, 2, 2010, 85-91.

Introduction and interview published in Italian in Nero, 15, February/March 2008.

 

Like a soup or a bicycle or Wikipedia, the Loft is an amalgamation of parts that are weak in isolation, but joyful, revelatory and powerful when joined together. The first ingredient is the desire of a group of friends to want to get together and have some fun. The second element is the discovery of a room that has good acoustics and is comfortable for dancing, which means it should have rectangular dimensions, a reasonably high ceiling, a nice wooden floor and the possibility of privacy. The next building block is the sound system, which is most effective when it is simple, clean and warm, and when it isn't pushed more than a fraction above 100 decibels (so that people's ears don't become tired or even damaged). After that, the room should be decorated, with balloons and a mirror ball offering a cheap and timeless solution. And because the party might last a long time, and because some friends might be hungry, a healthy spread of food and drink should also be prepared. Finally ¾ and this really is the last thing to get right, and can only follow once everything else is in place ¾ the friends will need someone to bring along some dance records. After that, it's party time.

All of these parts were assembled at 647 Broadway, in the abandoned NoHo district of New York City, when David Mancuso hosted a Valentine's Day party in his loft in February 1970. That party, which soon became known as the Loft, wasn't so much a moment of inception, or the point from which all subsequent events can be traced, as a moment of synthesis in which a number of practices and experiences, some of which can be traced back to a much earlier period, came together in a new form. The children's home where David was taken straight after he was born suggested that families could be extended yet intimate, unified yet different, and precarious yet strong. Sister Alicia, who took care of David and put on a party with balloons and food and records whenever she got a chance, suggested the Loft from another time and space. The psychedelic guru Timothy Leary, who invited David to his house parties and popularised a philosophy around the psychedelic experience that would inform the way Mancuso selected records, was another resonant figure. Co-existing with Leary, the civil rights, the gay liberation, feminist and the anti-war movements of the 1960s were manifest in the egalitarian, come-as-you-are ethos and rainbow coalition demographics of the Loft. And the Harlem rent parties of the 1920s, in which economically underprivileged African American tenants put on evenings to help fend off their landlords, established a template for putting on a private event that didn't require a liquor or cabaret license (and could accordingly run all night because they lay beyond the control of New York's licensing authorities). These streams headed in a multiplicity of directions before meeting at 647 Broadway in February 1970.

The February party didn't have a name, but the homemade invitations carried the line "Love Saves the Day". A short three years after the release of "Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds", the coded promise of acid-inspired things to come was easy to unpick for those in the know, although in this instance Beatles gobbledygook was exchanged with a commitment to universal love. The invitations also reproduced an image of Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Memory", which now looks like another cryptogram, but didn't resemble one at the time because David hadn't yet had his latent childhood memories of Sister Alicia jogged into Technicolor revelation. Of course the image of Dali's melting clocks wasn't simply random: David was offering his guests the chance to escape the violence and oppression of everyday life, and the idea of entering into a different dimension of time, in which everyone could leave behind their socialised selves and dance until dawn, was intended. "Once you walked into the Loft you were cut off from the outside world," says David. "You got into a timeless, mindless state. There was actually a clock in the back room but it only had one hand. It was made out of wood and after a short while it stopped working."

When David's guests left the Valentine's Day party they let him know that they wanted him to put on another one soon, and within a matter of months they had become a weekly affair. Inasmuch as anyone knew about the events ¾ and few did because they were never advertised, being private house parties ¾ they acquired a reputation for being ultra hip, in part because 647 Broadway was situated in the ex-manufacturing district of downtown New York where nobody but a handful of artists, composers, musicians, sculptors, video film makers and dedicated bohemians had thought about living. They moved in because the district's abandoned warehouses offered a spectacular space in which to live, work and socialise, and the inconvenience of having to hide the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom from view (in order to avoid the punitive searches of the city's building inspectors) turned out to be an innovative way to free up space in order to do things that weren't related to cooking, sleeping and washing. Outside, the frisson of transgression was heightened by the fact that there was no street lighting to illuminate the cobbled streets, and because David didn't serve alcohol, he was able to keep his parties going until midday, and sometimes even later, long after the city's bars and discotheques had closed. "Because I lived in a loft building, people started to say that they were going to the Loft," remembers David. "It's a given name and is sacred."

From the beginning, David looked for ways to improve his sound system because he was convinced this would result in a more musical and intense dance floor experience. He began to invest in audiophile technology and asked sound engineers to help him build gear, including tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements, which David would tweak during the course of the party, sending shivers down the spines of revellers. Yet by the time they come to dominate the increasingly popular discotheque scene of the 1970s, David concluded such add-ons interfered unnecessary with his audiophile set-up and resorted to purchasing increasingly esoteric equipment, including Mark Levinson amplifiers and handcrafted Koetsu cartridges, which he combined with his Klipschorn speakers. "I had the tweeters installed to put highs into records that were too muddy but they turned into a monster," explains David. "It was done out of ignorance. I wasn't aware of Class-A sound, where the sound is more open and everything comes out."

Like the space, the legal set-up and the buffet, the sound system was introduced in order to assist the party dynamic, and as David relentlessly fine-tuned his set-up, the dancing became more free flowing and intense. "You could be on the dance floor and the most beautiful woman that you had ever seen in your life would come and dance right on top of you," says Frankie Knuckles, a regular at the Loft. "Then the minute you turned around a man that looked just as good would do the same thing. Or you would be sandwiched between the two of them, or between two women, or between two men, and you would feel completely comfortable." Facilitating a sonic trail that was generated by everyone in the room, David picked out long, twisting tracks such as Eddie Kendricks "Girl, You Need A Change of Mind" and War "City, Country, City"; gutsy, political songs like the Equals "Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys" and Willie Hutch "Brother's Gonna Work It Out"; uplifting, joyful anthems such as Dorothy Morrison "Rain" and MSFB "Love Is the Message"; and earthy, funky recordings such as James Brown "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose" and Manu Dibango "Soul Makossa". Positive, emotional and transcendental, these and other songs touched the souls of dancers and helped forge a community.

The influence of the Loft spread far and wide. At the end of 1972 a Broadway regular set up a similarly structured party for an exclusive white gay clientele called the Tenth Floor, which in turn inspired the establishment of Flamingo, the most influential white gay venue of the 1970s. Objecting to the elitist nature of Flamingo's so-called "A-list" dancers, another Loft regular founded 12 West, which was intended to create a more democratic party environment for white gay men. As all of this was unfolding, another Loft regular, Nicky Siano, set up his own Loft-style venue called the Gallery where he mimicked David's invitation system, hired David's sound engineer, and also borrowed a fair chunk of David's dance crowd when the Broadway party closed for the summer of 1973. Richard Long and Mike Stone's SoHo Place along with Michael Brody's Reade Street also drew heavily on David's template. And when both of those parties were forced to close, Brody opened the Paradise Garage, which he positioned as an "expanded version of the Loft", and invited Richard Long, considered by some to be New York's premier sound engineer, to build the sound system. Meanwhile Richard Williams, another Loft regular, moved to Chicago and opened a Loft-style venue called the Warehouse. Having grown up on the dance floor of the Loft, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles went on to become the legendary DJs at the Garage and the Warehouse, where they forged the contours of what would come to be called garage and house music. Other spinners such as Tony Humphries, François Kevorkian and David Morales look back on the Loft as an inspirational setting. The Loft, in other words, was an incubator.

Like any party host, David has had to face some unexpected hitches during his thirty-eight year journey. In June 1974 he moved into 99 Prince Street after he was pressured into leaving his Broadway home, and ten years later he bought a promising building in Alphabet City, only to see the neighbourhood slide into a virtual civil war instead of receive moneys promised for regeneration. By the time David was forced to leave a space he was subletting on Avenue B towards the end of the 1990s, things were beginning to look inescapably grim. But before he was vacated that particular space, David received invitations to travel first to Japan and then to London. Initially reluctant to put on a party outside his home, David accepted both offer, and although he experienced some problems, he ended up returning to both Japan and London in order to team up with other groups of friends who wanted to put on regular events. As he went about this work, David stuck to the principles that have driven him from day one: be faithful to your friends, find a good space for a party, seek out the best sound equipment available, and say "thank you" when you're invited into someone's home. In the process, David drew on the life shaping experience of his orphan childhood to realise a profound philosophical lesson: homes can be built wherever you put down roots and build relationships. Returning again and again to Japan and London, David realised his own universal vision, which was previously constricted to New York, but has now captured the imagination of partygoers across the globe.

Shortly after making his first trips to Japan and London, David also hit upon a hall in the East Village that has become the new home of the Loft, and although the parties are now held on holidays rather than a weekly basis, David is convinced the dance floor is as vibrant and energetic as ever. The fact David doesn't live in the space is a little inconvenient in that he has to set up his sound system each time he plays, but even though he doesn't sleep in the hall, he's also more comfortable in his current space than any of his previous homes. "It's in the heart of the East Village, which was where I always used to hang out," he says. "I might have lived on Broadway, but for the other five or six days I was in the East Village. This is where I've been hanging out since 1963. My roots are there. My life is connected to the area." Forging new roots and connections, grandparents have started to dance with their grandchildren on the floor of the New York Loft.

Thanks to David's longevity and belated recognition as a seminal figure in the history of New York dance culture, it has become easy for partygoers to assume that the Loft has come to resemble a nostalgia trip for the halcyon days of the 1970s and early 1980s. Since February 1970, however, David has always played a mixture of old and new music, and he continues to mix it up in a similar way to this day. New faces in Japan and London might arrive expecting a trip down disco alley, but that's not what they get, because the party isn't a fossil-like impression of what it used to be. Throughout, David has remained committed to selecting records that encourage the party to grow as a musically radical yet never musically negative community. This sonic tapestry can sometimes sound strange to dancers who have become accustomed to a political climate in which communities are dismantled in favour of materialistic individualism and capitalist-nationalist wars, but the countercultural message is persuasive. "After a while the positive vibe and universal attitude of the music was too much for me, but this moment of hesitation and insecurity only lasted for a few minutes," commented a dancer after one party. "Then all the barriers broke and I reached the other side. Like a child, I stopped caring about what other people might think and reached my essence, through dancing."

Confronted by the tendency of partygoers to worship at his DJing feet, even though he has never considered himself a DJ and is resolute that this kind of attention detracts from the party, David positions the turntables as close to the entrance as possible so that dancers see the floor and not the booth as they enter the room. In a similar move, he also arranges the speakers so they will draw dancers away from the booth and towards the centre of the floor. Yet in London (much more so than in New York) dancers tend to face David, even though the effect is the equivalent of sitting with one's back to the orchestra at a concert. And at the end of these parties dancers applaud as if he's some kind of saviour, when in fact he's a guy who helps put on parties and tries to read the mood of the floor as the "sonic trail" unfolds. Reinforced by a cultural environment that encourages crowds to seek out iconic, authoritative, supernatural leaders, the adulation makes David deeply uncomfortable. "I'm a background person," he says.

Even if utopias can't be built without a struggle, and can never be complete, the mood at all of these parties is thrilling to behold. The floors outside New York might benefit from believing more in themselves, yet much of their applause is directed towards the music, as well as the surprisingly rare joy of being able to dance among friends in an intimate setting. That feeling has come about because, after years of dancing together, people now recognise each other to the extent they are entirely comfortable about welcoming in new faces. "It's unbelievable," said a female dancer who came to her first London party with her two daughters. "The people here ¾ they make eye contact!" Eye contact might not be very fashionable, but then the Loft isn't about fashion. Rather, it's about putting on a party with friends. And because it doesn't follow trends, it's been able to outlast every other party in the ephemeral (yet eternally hopeful) world of dance.

 

Download the article here

“Big Business, Real Estate Determinism, and Dance Culture in New York, 1980-88”. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 23, 3, 2011, 288-306.

Despite the late 1970s national backlash against disco, dance culture flourished in New York during the first years of the 1980s, but entered  a period of relative decline across the second half of the decade when a slew of influential parties closed. Critics attribute the slump to the spread of AIDS, and understandably so, for the epidemic devastated the city’s dance scene in a way that began with yet could never be reduced to numbers of lost bodies (Brewster and Broughton, Buckland, Cheren, Easlea, Echols, Shapiro). At the same time, however, the introduction of a slew of neoliberal policies—including welfare cuts, the liberalization of the financial sector, and pro-developer policies—contributed to the rapid rise of the stock market and the real estate market, and in so doing presaged the systematic demise of dance culture in the city. In this article, I aim to explore how landlords who rented their properties to party promoters across the 1970s and early 1980s went on to strike more handsome deals with property developers and boutique merchants during the remainder of the decade, and in so doing forged a form of “real estate determinism” that turned New York City into an inhospitable terrain for parties and clubs.1 While I am sympathetic to David Harvey’s and Sharon Zukin’s critique of the impact of neoliberalism on global cities such as New York, I disagree with their contention that far from offering an oppositional alternative to neoliberalism, cultural workers colluded straightforwardly with the broad terms of that project, as will become clear. 

The dance culture that I want to discuss can be traced back to the beginning of 1970, when parties such as the Loft and the Sanctuary pioneered the weekly practice of all night dancing that would go on to be labeled (somewhat problematically) “disco.”2 Initially off the radar, the movement became highly visible following the opening of Studio 54 in midtown Manhattan in April 1977 and the release of the movie Saturday Night Fever later that year. Disco achieved mainstream saturation across 1978—thousands of discotheques opened and the genre outsold rock—only for the combination of the overproduction of the sound and the slowdown in the US economy across 1979 to generate a homophobic, racist, and sexist backlash against the culture. Led by the Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl, the anti-disco movement highlighted the angst felt by white straight men about their increasingly uncertain future, and their perception they were losing ground to gay men, women, and people of color (or the alliance of dispossessed citizens that lay at the heart of the 1970s dance network). The “disco sucks” campaign, then, captured the crisis that enveloped the United States as disillusioned citizens sought out scapegoats to blame for the exhaustion of the postwar settlement, and picked on discophiles along with 1960s countercultural activists for leading the country into a cycle of supposedly unproductive hedonism.3 However, while the consequences of the backlash were far-reaching in terms of the number of dance venues that closed down nationally, as well as the cuts that were executed in disco departments across the music industry, New York City’s dance network was largely unaffected, and the independent record company sector that served it only temporarily troubled.

Downtown’s private parties survived with ease. “I read about ‘disco sucks’ in the paper and that was it,” comments David Mancuso, host of the Loft, the original downtown private party. “It was more of an out-of-New York phenomenon. New York was and remains different to the rest of the States, including Chicago. Out there they had this very negative perception of disco, but in New York it was part of this mix of cultures and different types of music.”4 Opened in stages across 1977 and 1978 as an expanded version of the Loft, the Paradise Garage thrived alongside Mancuso’s spot, especially when owner Michael Brody turned Saturdays into a gay male night (with a female and straight presence), and maintained the already successful Friday slot as a mixed night. Flamingo, which catered to an elite white gay male crowd, and 12 West, which attracted a more economically diverse gay male membership, also prospered until the theater and bathhouse entrepreneur Bruce Mailman opened the Saint on the site of the old Fillmore East at the cost of $5,000,000 in September 1980. Sporting a spectacular planetarium dome above its dance floor, the Saint started to attract 3,000–4,500 dancers every Saturday from opening night onwards.

Public clubs proliferated across the same period. Among the new spots, the Ritz opened as a rock-oriented discotheque that showcased live bands, the colossal Bonds switched to a similar format when its original owners become embroiled in a tax scandal, Danceteria operated as a supermarket-style entertainment spot that dedicated separate floors to live music, DJing, and video, and the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge took off as bar and dance venue that prioritized new wave, performance art, and East Village drag. Forging a more overtly multicultural aesthetic, the Funhouse caught on around the same time when Jellybean Benitez was hired to DJ at the spot, and drew in a huge Italian and Latin crowd. A short while later, Ruza Blue’s Wheels of Steel night at Negril and then the Roxy offered a mix of funk, rap, electro, dance, and pancultural sounds. Meanwhile the Mudd Club continued to integrate elements of punk and disco in its mix of DJing, live music, art exhibitions, and fashion shows, and Club 57 maintained its spirited combination of whacky parties, performance art, and film screenings. A number of these spots displayed the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura 2000, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and other young artists who could not find a way into SoHo’s already sedimented gallery scene, and gave them jobs if they needed to supplement their income.5 As such, they operated as inclusive, self-supporting communities that forged a cooperative ethos that contrasted with the neoliberal logic of exploitation, division, and maximum profit. 

Liberated by the decision of the major record companies to withdraw from dance along with the loosening up of audience expectations in the postdisco period, independent record companies such as Island, 99 Records, Prelude, Sleeping Bag, Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, and West End also thrived across the early 1980s. Together they reestablished the position independent labels enjoyed in the mutually supportive network that defined the relationship between dance venues, dancers, and recording studios across much of the 1970s, and although few of their releases went on to achieve a national sales profile, the independents were able to thrive on locally generated club-based sales that would often run into the tens of thousands. Paradise Garage DJ Larry Levan enjoyed his most prolific and creative period as a remixer between 1979 and 1983, and along with figures such as Arthur Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, François Kevorkian, Shep Pettibone, and John Robie, Levan contributed to the creation of a chaotic, mutant milieu that drew the sounds of postdisco dance music, rock, dub, and rap into a sonic framework that was increasingly electronic. 

While late 1970s disco producers recorded within the constraints of an increasingly demarcated and rigid format, early 1980s dance producers conjured up cross-generic combinations that drew explicitly from rock, dub, and rap. In the case of “Don’t Make Me Wait” by the Peech Boys, bandleaders Michael de Benedictus and Larry Levan introduce cluster storms of echo- heavy electronic handclaps around which a thick, unctuous bass line splurges out massive blocks of reverberant sound, vocalist Bernard Fowler channels soul music’s routinized theme of sexual attraction through the erotically charged, transitory environment of the Garage floor, and guitarist Robert Kasper plays hard rock. On another contemporaneous release, David Byrne’s “Big Business” explores the connections that ran between new wave, funk and dance while delivering elliptical lyrics that appeared to warn against the country’s rightwards shift. “Over time disco became less freeform and more of a formula, and the arrangements also became less interesting,” notes Mancuso of the shifting sonic terrain. “There were fewer and fewer good records coming out. It was obvious there would have to be a change. People didn’t want a set of rules. They wanted to dance.”

 

Neoliberalism and Downtown Culture 

The shift to a neoliberal agenda can be traced back to the moment when the banking sector began to exert an explicit grip on New York in the mid-1970s. Unable to repay its short-term debts as a result of the decline of its industrial manufacturing sector and the flight of white taxpayers, New York’s government was compelled to strike a harsh deal that led to 65,000 redundancies, a wage freeze, welfare and services cuts, public transport price hikes, and the abolition of free tuition fees at the City University in return for a bailout (Newfield and Barret 3). In the eyes of free-marketeers, the city that had come to symbolize the intractable waste of the 1970s became a model of neoliberal adventure. “The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s,” comments David Harvey in A Short History of Neoliberalism. “It established the principles that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of f inancial institutions and bondholders’ returns on the one hand, and the well-being of the citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged. It emphasized that the role of government was to create a good business climate rather than look to the needs and well-being of the population at large” (48). 

A committed Carter supporter, Mayor Ed Koch had little choice but to accept the environment of extreme financial restraint when he assumed office in 1978. Yet rather than emphasize his opposition to the settlement, or seek to introduce policies that would support the poor rather than the interests of large corporations, Koch embraced the fiscal restraints imposed on New York City with the zeal of a born-again bank manager. As Jonathan Soffer notes in his biography of Koch, the mayor’s inaugural speech “reflected a neoliberalism that was far more concerned with ‘business confidence’ than with aff irmative action,” and concluded that the “city had been too altruistic for its own good, leading to mistakes ‘of the heart’” (146). Koch made gentrif ication “the key to his program for New York’s revival,” adds Soffer (146), and went on to construct a governing coalition of “real estate, f inance, the Democratic Party machine, the media, and the recipients of city contracts,” comment Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett (3). Struggling with the burden of a $1.8 billion debt in 1975, the city went on to produce a budget surplus ten years later thanks to strong economic growth. “At the same time,” note Newf ield and Barrett, “the poor were getting poorer, for the boom of the 1980s bypassed whole chunks of the city” (4). 

At the national level, Jimmy Carter preempted Reagan’s embrace of neoliberalism by introducing deregulation into not only the gas, oil, airline, and trucking sectors, but also the increasingly powerful banking sector (this via the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980). Adding electoral positioning, revisionist history, the conviction of class interests, and affective reassurance to the mix, Reagan delivered a series of speeches and policy statements that aligned him with the so-called traditional voting constituencies that Carter had failed to favor: he characterized the countercultural coalition of the late 1960s as the cause of the country’s demise during the 1970s; he seized on policy developments around deregulation and welfare cuts not as a requirement but as an opportunity to unleash market-driven wealth at the expense of greater equality; and he embodied a form of brill-creamed 1950s conservatism that reassured many that these radical economic and social changes would help reestablish the country to its supposedly golden past.6 William K. Tabb maintains in The Long Default that the Reagan administration became “merely the New York scenario” of the 1970s “writ large” (15), the main difference being that Reagan lacked Koch’s progressive instincts around healthcare, gay rights, and other so-called liberal issues. 

Along with the wave of artists, choreographers, composers, ex- perimental video filmmakers, musicians, performance artists, sculptors, and writers who gravitated to downtown New York during the 1960s and 1970s, the party hosts and promoters who operated in the East Village, the West Village, and SoHo appeared to be threatened by these developments. After all, they moved to the area because space was cheap, which in turn meant they could live in a community that was organized around creative work that put a low value on commerciality. As a result, they pursued unlikely interdisciplinary and cross-media projects, exchanged favors around performances, valued ephemeral art over the production of objects that could be sold, and forged a network that was notable for its integration and level of collaboration. “Artists worked in multiple media, and collaborated, criticized, supported, and valued each other’s works in a way that was unprecedented,” notes Marvin J. Taylor in The Downtown Book . “Rarely has there been such a condensed and diverse group of artists in one place at one time, all sharing many of the same assumptions about how to make new art” (31).

If the probusiness, progentrif ication policies of Koch and Reagan broke up that network, it would have made sense for politicians and cultural producers to be strategically opposed to one another. However, Sharon Zukin argues in Loft Living: Cultural and Capital in Urban Change that in fact the cultural producers forged an alliance with real estate investors and the city government in order to drive out industrial manufacturers from SoHo and other loft-rich areas. “Before some of the artists were chased out of their lofts by rising rents, they had displaced small manufacturers, distributors, jobbers, and wholesale and retail sales operations,” Zukin writes. “For the most part, these were small businesses in declining economic sectors. They were part of the competitive area of the economy that had been out- produced and out-maneuvered, historically, by the giant f irms of monopoly capital” (5).7 Zukin adds: “The main victims of gentrif ication through loft living are these business owners, who are essentially lower middle class, and their work force” (6).8 Of the 1975 amendment to the Administrative Code of the City of New York, Zukin argues: “With J-51 [the amendment], the city administration showed its irrevocable commitment to destroying New York’s old manufacturing lofts” (13). And in the postscript to the UK publication of the book, published in 1988, Zukin concludes: “With hindsight, and with the bittersweet taste of gentrif ication on every urban palate, it is not so diff icult to understand the ‘historic compromise’ between culture and capital that loft living represents” (193). 

David Harvey develops the argument that cultural producers and capital colluded across the 1970s and 1980s in A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Indeed, Zukin notes that Harvey’s 1973 book Social Justice and the City inspired the analytical approach of Loft Living, and having written the introduction to that book, Harvey expounds on its central thesis; that far from being politically progressive, cultural workers became inseparable from the neoliberal project across the 1970s and 1980s. “The ruling elites moved, often factiously, to support the opening up of thecultural field to all manner of diverse cosmopolitan currents,” he writes, “The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic licence, promoted by the city’s powerful cultural institutions, led, in effect, to the neoliberalization of culture. ‘Delirious New York’ (to use Rem Koolhaas’s memorable phrase) erased the collective memory of democratic New York.” Harvey adds that a conservative distrust of the demographic make-up and outlook of artistic types caused ripples of dissent that were usually drowned out in the pursuit of prof it. “The city’s elites acceded, though not without a struggle, to the demand for lifestyle diversif ication (including those attached to sexual preference and gender) and increasing consumer niche choices (in areas such as cultural production),” adds Harvey/“New York became the epicentre of postmodern cultural and intellectual experimentation” (47).

Harvey’s and Zukin’s analysis is reasonable insofar as a number of cultural workers purchased their loft apartments and went on to make signif icant prof its on selling their properties, having contributed to the gentrif ication of the area. In addition, some went on to prof it from the market-led rejuvenation of New York’s economy through the sale of their works and the receipt of sponsorships from the benef iciaries of the neoliberal boom, from Wall Street brokers to public institutions that were charged with the role of marketing New York as a global center of cultural tourism. However, both Harvey and Zukin overstate the collusion inasmuch as only a tiny proportion of cultural workers could have moved downtown in order to participate in a self-conscious project of gentrif ication, while many lived in small apartments in the East Village because even the low rents of SoHo, TriBeCa, and NoHo were prohibitive. In addition, Harvey and Zukin underemphasize the experience of the vast majority of those workers, who were carved out of SoHo’s gallery economy from an early moment, and were compelled to leave the area in signif icant numbers when rents went up.9 While some of the work of the downtown artists was suitable for co-option by the sponsors of neoliberalism, a far greater proportion was grounded in collaborative, noncommodif iable practices that could not be sold in any straightforward way. Along with Harvey, Zukin mourns the shift from industrial to postindustrial capitalism, yet inexplicably attributes this to the existence of cultural workers when she argues that they “displaced” industrial manufacturers, or ousted them forcibly, even though the artists moved into empty lofts that had been evacuated by industry, either because those businesses had moved to areas that were more favorable than downtownNew York, or because they had succumbed to the national decline in the industrial sector. That could hardly be attributed to a relatively small group of cash-poor creative types. 

New York’s downtown dance scene might have been post-Fordist in its co-option of ex-industrial buildings, yet its core ritual was anything but neoliberal, rooted as it was in the anti-individualist ethos of the dance floor, where dancers abandoned the self in pursuit of collective pleasure, often in settings that encouraged the kind of “inter-class contact” advocated by Samuel R. Delany in his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (111). Indeed owners and promoters disregarded the prof it motive consistently, with David Mancuso and Michael Brody notable for spending huge sums of money in pursuit of perfect sound, Jim Fouratt and Rudolf Pieper for reinvesting Danceteria’s takings into risk-taking programs and costly interior redesigns, Bruce Mailman for seeking a degree of experiential perfection that left his investors dissatisfied, and so on. Moreover, whereas the arrival of artists contributed to the regeneration of SoHo and other downtown neighborhoods, the existence of dance venues, and in particular those that attracted a heavily gay and ethnic presence, was deemed to counter the gentrification process by local residents (who opposed Mancuso’s move from NoHo to SoHo, for example). Nor did neoliberal wealth trickle down to the protagonists of the New York dance scene. “All this money came into New York, and it was like, ‘Give all the money to the rich people and it will trickle down to the little guy.’ But that never happened,” notes Ivan Ivan, a DJ at the Mudd Club and Pyramid. “Money was coming into New York, but it was being enjoyed by a bunch of Wall Street guys doing blow, drinking champagne, and going to really fancy restaurants. It wasn’t really trickling down. Maybe some of the art world was getting some of that money, because these people had money to spend on art; but overall it was a pretty hairy time.” 

Opposing Reagan, the Mudd Club staged an ironic inaugural party, Danceteria mocked the bland conservatism of the government’s domestic vision, and venues such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage positioned themselves as safe havens for dancers who lived at the hard-end of economic, sexual, and ethnic discrimination. These and other spots were profoundly aware of the way their practices existed in relation to wider economic and political developments. “The Pyramid was an amalgam of glamour and the grungy surround that we lived in in the East Village,” explains Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, a drag queen who worked and performed at the Pyramid. “We also had a very strong 1960s influence that ran through everything; we were hippyish, if you will, idealistic. But of course we were living in the age of Reagan, so I don’t know how long our idealism lasted. After a couple of years the timbre of the shows became very sarcastic.” Ann Magnuson, who performed regularly at Club 57, Danceteria, and the Pyramid, comments: “At the time, it was, ‘Well, [Reagan’s election] that’s fucked up, but we’re going to keep on doing what we do. People were still saying, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down, or change who I am. But the anger kept on brewing and brewing, and the anger informed everyone’s work and performances. There was a lot more ranting and a lot more screaming and frustration and darker imagery.” 

Most pointedly, party hosts and club promoters along with noncommercial creative workers were forced to confront the consequences of Koch’s drive to turn Manhattan into an oasis for property investment. “Between 1982 and 1985, sixty new off ice towers went up south of 96th Street,” write Newfield and Barrett. “Real estate values in gentrifying neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn went soaring, and the exodus of major corporations from New York was stopped. A new convention center was built, a half- dozen luxury-class hotels were financed with tax abatements, and tourism increased, injecting revenue into the Manhattan economy of theaters, hotels, and restaurants” (3–4). Concurrent property price inflation, which rocketed by 125% between 1980 and 1988 in New York City, priced many party hosts and club promoters out of large swaths of Manhattan, while tax abatements that totalled more than $1bn in “corporate welfare” left them full of resentment, as the following examples illustrate.10 

 

Real Estate Determinism, AIDS, and Social Division 

The Loft became a site of embattled struggle when David Mancuso left his 99 Prince Street location in June 1984 because his lease was about to expire and the building’s owner wanted to cash in on the rising value of the property market in SoHo. Mancuso could not afford to meet the landlord’s price, and, as a countercultural radical who was deeply committed to running an integrated and ethical party, would not have wanted to anyway, thanks to SoHo’s shift from a zone that encouraged artistic and social experimentation to one that was embedded in boutique consumerism and real estate mania. Mancuso had prepared for his exit by purchasing a building in Alphabet City, which was due to receive a significant government subsidy, but maintains that the move hit problems when the plans to regenerate the neighborhood were abandoned and the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid-1980s began to take hold. Mancuso lost a signif icant proportion of his crowd immediately, with many of his female dancers concerned about venturing into an area where it was so hard to catch a taxi home. Moreover, the very forces that persuaded Mancuso to move encroached on his ability to engage in activism. “It took a couple of years to see what damage Reagan was doing,” recalls the party host. “In 1982 I knew I had to move, and when I moved from Prince Street to Third Street a lot of things changed in my life that meant I couldn’t focus so much on politics. I was just trying to survive.” 

Danceteria was also priced out of the real estate market. For three years, the promoters just about met their expenses as they showcased fledging bands, helped pioneer the staging of art-oriented events in a pop setting, and reinvented the interior of the third and fourth floors at a furious rate. But in mid-1985 Alex Di Lorenzo, the property mogul owner of the building, who doubled as part owner of the venture, decided to rent his space out for more money than Rudolf Pieper and manager John Argento could afford. “Our lease was up and the owner of the building had partners who were not part of Danceteria, and were making money from real estate,” recalls Argento. “We rented the whole building for $1.20 per square foot and he [Di Lorenzo] was getting offers of $25 per square foot. His siblings pressed him to rent the building for more money.” A realtor purchased the lease for $600,000, and Pieper and Argento were among the benef iciaries, yet Pieper had no control over the outcome and took little pleasure from the development. “When Danceteria opened, 21st Street was in an abandoned neighborhood,” he recalls. “You could walk for blocks and not f ind anything open at night. Then, gradually, the excitement of New York brought in hordes of moneyed bores from the rest of the country and real estate prices went up. The club would have continued where it was had not some speculator come up with an offer. Now it’s a residential building with ‘apartments of unsurpassed luxury.’ How exciting.” 

The Saint closed a little under three years later, apparently due to AIDS, which struck the venue’s membership with particular force because the balcony area doubled as a feverish zone for promiscuous and often unprotected sex; indeed, early on AIDS was nicknamed “Saint’s disease” because the virus was so prevalent among the venue’s members (Shilts 149). Initially, the dance floor dynamic was not affected, largely because the venue’s long waiting list meant that sick and deceased members were replaced seamlessly, and also because the venue offered those who were sick or knew people who were sick with a chance to “dance their troubles away” (as the Saint DJ Robbie Leslie told me). But when turnout began to decline around the middle of the 1980s, Bruce Mailman opened the club to straight dancers on Thursdays and Fridays, and numbers caved in on Sundays as well during the venue’s f inal years.11 “The Fridays stopped and then Sundays became very, very thin towards the end of the 1980s,” comments dance floor regular Jorge La Torre. “I didn’t want to stop going, but when there weren’t enough people to get the party going and f ill the dance floor it wasn’t the same.” 

The AIDS epidemic placed signif icant emotional and economic pressure on Mailman, who became involved in a public dispute with Koch as he fought to maintain the right of gay men to regulate their own sexual practices in the Saint and the St. Mark’s Baths (which he also owned). “Because the circumstances have changed, because political opinion makes us bad guys, that doesn’t mean I’m doing something morally incorrect,” Mailman told the New York Times in October 1985 as the tussle unfolded. “In my own terms, my behavior is correct and I’ll do what I believe as long as I can do it” (Jane Gross). However, according to Terry Sherman, a Saint DJ who was close with Mailman, the Saint closed only when a real estate developer made Mailman an eight-f igure offer that would have at least doubled his initial investment, and the owner accepted, in large part to satisfy his investors, who had long expressed their frustration that the immense costs involved in running the club meant they had not seen a return on their outlay. “Bruce was very ambiguous about selling the club because he loved it so much and the last season (1987–88) was actually crowded again on Saturday nights,” says Sherman. “He did say to me, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t sell it this year.’” Although numbers dropped from the mid-1980s onwards, La Torre conf irms that “Saturday nights always had a sizeable crowd,” and the ensuing success of the Sound Factory, which opened in 1989 and attracted a huge white gay male crowd, illustrated that AIDS did not amount to the teleological, retributive conclusion of queer pleasure on the dance floor and beyond. As devastating as the AIDS epidemic was for the Saint community, the venue was sold in the final instance because Mailman also needed to satisfy a set of investors, and those investors wanted to see a return on their money that embroiled the venue in the neoliberal turn. 

For its part, the Paradise Garage became entangled in a perfect 1980s storm of gentrification, AIDS, and drug addiction. First the freeholder of the King Street location made it clear to owner Michael Brody that the venue’s ten-year lease would not be renewed when it expired in September 1987—because the empty parking lot that lay next to the Garage was about to be developed into an apartment block, and the new owner of that block along with the neighborhood association insisted that the club close down. “When Michael f irst got the lease there was no one living near the club,” notes David DePino, the alternate DJ at the Garage, and a close conf idant of Levan’s and Brody’s. “On the corner was a parking lot. Eight years later the lot was gone and in its place was a very big and expensive apartment building. The developer and the local neighborhood association wanted the club gone so they persuaded the landlord not to renew the lease.” DePino adds: “Neighborhood associations are powerful. It’s not something a landlord wants to have problems with.” Brody responded by searching out possible new sites, but contracted AIDS soon after and resolved he would not attempt to continue. Brody’s deteriorating relationship with Levan, his totemic DJ, helped him make his decision; always demanding, Levan had become extremely difficult to work with after he became addicted to heroin. 

The independent label sector also lost momentum across the mid- 1980s, in part because its representatives were squeezed out by the major labels, which were emboldened by the economic recovery, the commercial success of the CD format, and the marketing bonus provided by MTV. The majors proceeded to cherry pick dance acts such as D Train and France Joli, rip them out of their integrated networks, and mismanage them into producing albums that did not work locally or nationally. Across 1983 and 1984, the majors also started to offer remix commission to cutting edge dance figures such as Arthur Baker, Franc¸ois Kevorkian, and Jellybean, who found themselves working on an increasing number of rock and pop tracks that did not translate in a club context. At the same time, the closing of Danceteria along with the Mudd Club, Tier 3, and other spots that showcased live bands alongside DJs deprived labels such as 99 Records and ZE of their principal means of promotion. Both ground to a halt across 1983–84, and although this could be put down to a mix of exhaustion and misfortune, the mid-1980s did not produce a new wave of danceable punk-funk acts to replace the likes of the Contortions, ESG, Konk, and Liquid Liquid. Nor did a towering f igure emerge to replace Larry Levan when his heroin addiction hardened, or Shep Pettibone after he went on sabbatical in 1984. When Chicago house music started to arrive in the city during 1985, dance DJs embraced it hungrily, in part because by then the majors had succeeded in reclaiming control of dance music, which they flooded with a pop sensibility (Shepherd, 1984a, 1984b). 

The mid-1980s New York club-music milieu also fragmented as record companies and club owners attempted to target their offerings with greater precision. Whereas 1970s and early 1980s disco and dance had operated according to the principles of integration and assimilation, mid- 1980s rock and rap shifted away from polymorphous rhythm in favor of a heavier, more aggressive, more masculine aesthetic. The shifting terrain made it difficult for integrationist parties to survive, and Ruza Blue was ousted from the Roxy when the venue’s owner concluded that her vision was not sufficiently prof itable; soon after the venue along with rap music became more tightly def ined and heavily commodif ied as the MC-rapper displaced the DJ-integrator as hip hop’s emblematic f igure. “The management at the Roxy were clueless, and didn’t get what I was trying to do there,” comments Blue. “They started to book a lot of MCs and groups, and the scene became one-dimensional instead of three-dimensional. It became a bit violent and troublesome. There were mostly men in there. Not very exciting.” 

Across the same period, the pluralistic sound that could be heard in white gay venues across the 1970s and early 1980s congealed around a beautiful disco/Hi-NRG aesthetic, in part because the high cost of membership and entry to the Saint encouraged its regulars to reimagine themselves as individual consumers rather than participants in a fundamentally collective ritual, which in turn led a significant number to write hostile letters to Mailman when they felt less than overwhelmed at the end of a night. The flurry of letters appears to have contributed to the drug overdose that killed the venue’s most established DJ, Roy Thode, and it also led the sacking of George Cadenas, Wayne Scott, and the venue’s most unlikely DJ, Sharon White, a black lesbian who liked to “play outside the box” (as she puts it). These and other developments encouraged many of those who held onto their positions to eliminate risk from their selections, which in turn led to an aesthetic stasis. The venue’s most popular DJ, Robbie Leslie, acknowledged as much when he told the New York Native in March 1984: “Music has evolved but New York’s gay market has faithfully held on to the romantic period of disco, which was 1978 through 1980. While we’ve all been dancing to that, we haven’t noticed that there are a lot of records being produced that over the past couple of years we’ve ignored because they haven’t f it into the mold that the audience has demanded” (Mario Z). When house music broke into New York in 1985, Saint DJs (with the partial exception of Terry Sherman) rejected it outright. Looking back, Leslie comments: “Overall we were walking on a cliff edge musically at the Saint and product was running scarcer by the week. I felt a feeling of imminent disaster.”

Meanwhile the Garage, the Loft and successor parties continued to espouse a pluralist ethos, but the heightened segmentation of the market, which witnessed rock and rap shift away from dance, and Hi-NRG targeting female pop and gay male dance audiences, left them with little to play beyond house music. Some outfits attempted to blend the sounds of house and rap, but the experiment was short-lived. Politicized by the inherently divisive consequences of neoliberalism and the effects of the crack epidemic on the black community, black rappers, such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, came to see house as “elitist” and objected to the way it tried to “separate itself from the street” (in Chuck D’s words). Back in 1987, the perception that house music’s followers were not interested in addressing the most urgent concerns of the black community led Chuck D to address the issue in more incendiary terms and label the genre as “music for faggots” (Reynolds 49). In so doing, he drew attention to the broader failure of the black community to address the question of homophobia as well as the threat of AIDS, and he also gave expression to the corrosive effects of neoliberalism, which encouraged groups that had once sought out common ground to see each other in terms of opposition and even betrayal. 

“In the early ’80s, everything was progressive,” Bambaataa commented in an interview in 1994 (Owen 68). “People listened to funk, soul, reggae, calypso, hip hop all in the same place.” But by the late 1980s, continued Bambaataa, club culture resembled a form of “musical apartheid.” “If you wanted house music, you went to this club, reggae another club, and hip hop yet another club,” he added. In the early 1990s, significant proportion of the “gangsta” rap scene would go on to embrace the Hobbesian trajectory of neoliberalism, or the argument that the world was made up of individuals whose natural mode was one of warlike competition. “Reagan appealed to that American sense of individualism that was really tailor made for the hip hop generation,” comments Mark Riley, a regular at the Loft and the Paradise Garage who worked in the news department of WBLS and LIB. “I am therefore I am; greed is good; the accumulation of wealth is a worthy goal in life; to hell with everyone else.” 

The demographic make-up of New York’s clubs shifted in line with the times, with Area a case in point. Opened in the autumn of 1983 by four Californians who wanted to place the idea of art production at the center of their venture, the venue attracted a mix of creative and for the most part hard-up partygoers who were drawn to the ingenious revamping of the club’s interior theme every six weeks. The cost of this work was so expensive the downers are said to have never made a prof it, but a year or so into its existence Area started to attract a new kind of preppy club-goer, and within a couple of years this new type had taken over the space. A dominatrix doorwoman, barwoman, performing artist, and promoter whose boyfriend Johnny Dynell DJed at the club, Chi Chi Valenti notes: “At Danceteria there were one or two of them—they were hideous geeks with a tie. But by the end of Area there were so many of them they weren’t just an irritant, they were a threat, and I took it very personally.” The shift mirrored changes that were taking place in the demographic make-up of downtown, where many low-earning cultural workers were forced to leave due to the cost of rising rents. “When I got to New York [in 1978] my feeling was the most uncool thing you could be was rich,” recalls Ann Magnuson, a performance artist who ran Club 57. “Then what started happening was the most uncool thing you could be was poor, and it sort of switched like that very dramatically. It shifted for me when Reagan got into off ice for the second four years.” 

Koch introduced social policies that contributed to the city becoming a more stable and profitable investment prospect while making it much harder for clubs to operate. Falling in line with Reagan’s National Minimum Drinking Age Act, ratified in July 1984, the mayor raised the legal drinking age to 21 in December 1985, ostensibly to prevent college students from drinking and driving. Whatever the intent, the effect on clubs was regressive, because young dancers injected bodies and energy into the culture; interviewed in 1985, Rudolf Pieper referenced the drinking reforms as “the final nail” (Michael Gross). Feeding the panic that surrounded AIDS, Koch also rounded on the city’s gay sex clubs and bathhouses in the name of public health, closing the Mineshaft and the St. Mark’s Baths in rapid succession, even though public health would have been supported much more effectively by backing the numerous organizations—including the St. Mark’s Baths—that were educating vulnerable groups about the disease. 

In broad terms, capital fed off club and music culture while offering little in return. When party promoters and musicians sought out cheap spaces in nonresidential areas in order to go about their work in affordable ways, they paved the way for young, smart, cash-poor populations to experience the area, only for that movement to function as the precursor to gentrification. In a parallel development, the government started to highlight New York’s cultural legacy in an attempt to promote the city as a tourist attraction, only for this to lead to the spread of expensive hotels and restaurants that made New York a less livable place for the core populations most likely to contribute to the city’s cultural life. Cultural workers might have contributed to the process of gentrification and tourism, but their involvement was often unwitting given that they were simply seeking out affordable space thanks to their lack of income. Moreover, their presence did not cause gentrif ication to happen, but simply enabled those with more money to move into the area and escalate property prices. Party hosts and club promoters were caught up in the same stream of developments, and their radically reduced presence in downtown New York across the 1980s speaks to the way rising property prices benefited owners and investors at the cost of those who wanted to undertake the simple act of congregating on a dance floor. 

Buttressed by the introduction of socially conservative policies around zoning and other policing matters, the further embedment of neoliberal policies supporting the deregulation of the banking sector and property investment across the 1990s and 2000s has reduced the number of places where dancers can head out to such an extent that the regressive period of the late 1980s now resembles a period of wild opportunity. Indeed, the city’s retail, property, and corporate interests have become so embedded that even the dip in the real estate market that followed the banking crisis of late 2008 failed to augur a mini-revival in dance culture. As a result, a generation of teenagers and adults has grown up with few opportunities to dance beyond the comparatively constrained environments of social dance forms such as ballroom and the tango. Within this context, the highlighting of an era when collective, freestyle dance parties were numerous and vibrant reveals not only what New York once was, but also what it can become. The critique of the role played by neoliberal economics and politics in the culture’s collapse brings to the fore the sometimes-obfuscated business and policy agenda that surely must be challenged if an alternative urban environment is to flourish once again.

 

Notes 

1. I am indebted to Jonathan Sterne for suggesting the phrase “real estate 

determinism” after hearing an earlier version of this article at the EMP Pop Music 

Conference at UCLA on February 26, 2011. My use of the “determinism” moniker 

is not intended to suggest that the economic dictates everything around it, including 

the cultural, but instead to draw attention to the way the cultural occurs within the 

milieu of the economic. 

2. Disco historians, such as Alice Echols and Peter Shapiro, refer to 1970s 

dance culture as “disco,” but the culture was motored by private parties as well 

as public discotheques, from which so-called disco culture got its name in 1973.

Indeed, the private party network was arguably more influential than its public 

discotheque counter part for much of the 1970s, which is a case I make in Love 

Saves the Day (Lawrence). In addition, the DJs who helped forge disco began their 

work in 1970, some three years before the “disco” term was coined, and during 

this pre-disco period and after drew on a wide range of danceable sounds that 

included but was never reducible to the generic style that came to be known as 

disco. Therefore, while “disco” works as a neat description of 1970s dance culture, 

it obfuscates its richness. 

3. I outline the relationship between the slowdown in the US economy, 

the backlash against disco, and the rise of the Republican right in Love Saves the 

Day (Lawrence 363–80). An equivalent argument has been made by Peter Shapiro 

(227–32) and Alice Echols (205–15). 

4. All interviews conducted with the author unless otherwise stated. I am 

grateful to John Argento, Ruza Blue, Brian Butterick/Hattie Hathaway, Chuck D, 

David DePino, Ivan Ivan, Jorge La Tor re, Robbie Leslie, Ann Magnuson, David 

Mancuso, Rudolf Pieper, Mark Riley, Ter ry Sherman, Chi Chi Valenti, and Sharon 

White, all of whom I quote in this article. In addition to these interviews, this 

article is based on interviewing and archival work (car ried out for a forthcoming 

monograph on New York dance culture in the f irst half of the 1980s) that is too 

extensive to cite here. 

5. By default, they also provided these employees, their friends and their 

peers with a premobile phone, preinternet space in which they could congregate, 

exchange ideas, and plan projects. 

6. Regarding the importance of affect, Laurence Grossberg (253, 268) 

maintains that Reagan was able to popularize a new conservatism because he 

“embodied the sentiment, passion and ideology of the new conservatism,” and 

“placed himself within the popular” both “rhetorically” and “socially.” 

7. My emphasis. 

8. My emphasis. 

9. Indeed even larger numbers did not live in a loft in the f irst place, because 

apartments in the downtrodden East Village were considerably cheaper. 

10. The inflation figures are sourced from http://www.forecast-chart.com/ 

estate-real-new-york.html. Accessed Feb. 26, 2011. Soffer (259) provides the tax 

abatement details. 

11. The introduction of straight nights is noted in “Saint Says ‘No’” 1. In 

an interview with Dar rell Yates Rist published in May 1988, Bruce Mailman noted

that Saturdays were attracting something closer to 1,200–500 a week rather than 

the regular “3,000 week in, week out,” rising to “6,000” at some special parties 

(Yates Rist 18). 

 

Works Cited 

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 1999. 

Buckland, Fiona. Impossible Dance: Club Culture and Queer World-Making. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2002. 

Cheren, Mel. My Life and the Paradise Garage: Keep On Dancin’. New York: 24 Hours for Life, 2000. 

Delany, Samuel R. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York UP, 1999. 

Easlea, Daryl. Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco. London: Helter Skelter Publishing, 2004. 

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

Gross, Jane. “Bathhouses Reflect AIDS Concerns.” New York Times 14 Oct. 1985. 

Gross, Michael. “The Party Seems to Be Over for Lower Manhattan Clubs,” New York Times 26 Oct. 1985, 1. 

Grossberg, Laurence. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. 

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 

Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–79. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. 

Newf ield, Jack, and Wayne Bar rett. City for Sale: Ed Koch and the Betrayal of New York . New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 

Owen, Frank. “Back in the Days.” Vibe (Dec. 1994): 66–68. Reynolds, Simon. “Public Enemy.” Melody Maker, 17 Oct. 1987.

Reprinted in Simon Reynolds, Bring the Noise: 20 Years of Writing about Hip Rock and Hip-Hop. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. 47–55. “Saint Says ‘No’ to Straights on Saturdays.” Nightclub Conf idential 1.1 (May 1986): 1. 

Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.

Shepherd, Stephanie. “The 12′′ Single Is Here to Stay.” Dance Music Report (30 Nov. 1984a): 3, 12–13. 

Shepherd, Stephanie. “1984: Conservative Consciousness Reigns Supreme.” Dance Music Report (29 Dec. 1984b): 3. 

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1987. 

Soffer, Jonathan. Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City. New York: Columbia UP, 2010. 

Tabb, William K. The Long Default: New York City and the Urban Fiscal Crisis. New York: Monthly Review P, 1981. 

Taylor, Marvin J. (ed.). “Playing the Field: The Downtown Scene and Cultural Production, An Introduction.” The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974–1984. Ed. Marvin J. Taylor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2006. 

Yates Rist, Dar rell. “A Scaffold to the Sky and No Regrets.” New York Native 2 May 1988, 18. 

Z, Mario. “Robbie Leslie: The Pat Boone of DJs.” New York Native 12 Mar. 1984, 21 24. 

Zukin, Sharon. Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change. London: Radius, 1988.

 

 

Dowload this article here (pdf

“Mixed with Love: The Walter Gibbons Salsoul Anthology”. Suss’d Records, 2004.

This tale begins with a skinny white DJ mixing between the breaks of obscure Motown records with the ambidextrous intensity of an octopus on speed. It closes with the same man, sick with Aids and all but blind, fumbling for gospel records as he spins up eternal hope in a fading dusk. In between, Walter Gibbons transformed the art of DJing and marked out the future co-ordinates of remixology.

Gibbons was born in Brooklyn on 2 April 1954. He grew up with his mother, Ann, his sister, Rosemary, and his two brothers, Robin and Edward. Nothing is known of his father -- friends say he never spoke of him -- and little more is known of his young adult life save that he subsequently moved to Queens, dated men and collected black music.

Gibbons was easy to miss. An innocuous white boy with an unconvincing moustache and carefully combed brown hair that was parted right to left, he stood at approximately five foot five and, thanks to his pencil thin build, looked like he would need help carrying his records to work. Shy and softly spoken, he kept himself to himself. He preferred cigarettes to chatter.

But when Gibbons stood behind the turntables at Galaxy 21, an after hours venue on Twenty-third Street owned by black entrepreneur George Freeman, he was hurricane articulate. It was almost as if he kept his daytime thoughts to himself because he knew he could articulate them with so much more force through the Galaxy sound system at night. Why talk when you can DJ?

Fiery and passionate, Gibbons was too much for Freeman, who asked soundman Alex Rosner to introduce a secret volume control so that he could lower the volume when the DJ got a little too excited. "I told George that it was a bad idea but he insisted," says Rosner. "It didn't take Walter long to figure out what was happening, so on a busy night he just walked out and most of the crowd followed him." Freeman backed down.

It was from the makeshift yet intimate habitat of his DJ booth that Gibbons established a radical new framework for spinning and, inadvertently, remixing records. Drawn to the mystical properties of musical affect, the Galaxy spinner approached his nightshift with the mindset of a nuclear physicist, aware that the process of splitting the nucleus of a song into smaller nuclei could produce a significant release of energy. And as he went about his work, he deduced that drums lay at the atomic heart of dance music.

Because there was no way for Gibbons to isolate the drum track from the rest of the multitrack, he began to hunt down songs that included a long drum intro or, alternatively, a break -- the technique transplanted from gospel and jazz into soul, funk and early disco whereby the vocalists and musicians stop playing, often instantaneously, in order to let the drummer "give it some".

Other disco DJs, most notably Nicky Siano at the Gallery, were also passionate about the potential of the break, but Gibbons acquired an unrivalled reputation for his ability to unearth these beat fragments in the most unexpected places. Rare Earth's "Happy Song", "Erucu" by Jermaine Jackson from the Mahogany soundtrack and "2 Pigs and a Hog" from the Cooley High soundtrack became trademark records. All of them were released on Motown in 1975. All of them contained an extended drum solo.

Gibbons specialized in stretching these and other percussive gems beyond the horizon of New York's tribal imaginary and, to achieve his goal, he started to purchase two copies of his favourite records in order to mix between the breaks. Tracks like "Happy Song" soon became unrecognisable. "You would never hear the actual song," says François Kevorkian, a Galaxy employee. "You just heard the drums. It seemed like he kept them going forever."

Performing in parallel yet unconnected universes, DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx and John Luongo in Boston started to play back-to-back breaks around the same time as Gibbons, but neither of them could match the Galaxy mixmaster's razor precision. And while spinners such as Richie Kaczor and David Todd were beginning to perfect the art of extended beat mixing, many of their blends were rehearsed.

Gibbons, however, combined precision and spontaneity. "Walter was making a lot of flawless mixes," says Danny Krivit, who started playing at the Ninth Circle in 1971. "He would go back and forth, very quickly, which made it sound like a live edit. It was very impressive." Kevorkian, who was hired to play drums alongside Gibbons, much to the irritation of the DJ, was also blown away by his deftness. "He had this uncanny sense of mixing that was so accurate it was unbelievable."

The fleeting identity of these drum solos also meant that it was exhausting to mix between them. "Some of these breaks only lasted for thirty seconds, if that, so these quick-fire mixes were work," says Barefoot Boy DJ Tony Smith, who became a tight friend of Gibbons during this period. "After a while Walter started to put his beat mixes on reel-to-reel at home." Everyone confirms that Gibbons was doing reel-to-reel edits before anyone else. "Walter was still doing live mixes," says Galaxy lightman Kenny Carpenter. "But if there was a mix that went over well he would perfect it on reel-to-reel."

Originally released as a one-minute-forty-second record, "Erucu" became a celebrated example of the Galaxy DJ's reel-to-reel prowess, and when Motown included an extended three-minute-twenty-four-second version of the song on the re-released album an affronted Gibbons returned to his domestic editing studio. "Walter had to do something to make his 'Erucu' be the one that everyone still wanted so he added in breaks from 'Erotic Soul' by the Larry Page Orchestra and 'One More Try' by Ashford & Simpson," says Smith, who listened to the new edit on the phone before Gibbons took it to Galaxy. "After that everyone wanted his 'Erucu' again."

Gibbons also rearranged soul records such as "Where Is The Love" by Betty Wright and "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind" by Eddie Kendricks, and in a typical set he would generate tension and drama on the dance floor with a drum edit or a live mix of drum breaks before switching to an ecstasy-inducing soul cut, often from the gospel-influenced Aretha Franklin or a Motown artist such as the Supremes. Drums, drums, drums forever followed by a vocal crescendo, this was nothing less than the house-oriented future sound of dance music.

The fact that Gibbons developed his aesthetic at a run-of-the-mill public discotheque rather than a cutting-edge private venue made his achievement all the more remarkable. "Walter was doing things other DJs wished they could try in their clubs, including me," says Smith. "The amazing thing was that Walter did what he did for a predominantly straight crowd when it was thought they weren't as musically progressive as the gay crowds."

Galaxy's after hours status, however, presented Gibbons with an opportunity that wasn't available to most midtown DJs. "You could get away with things at an after hours venue that you couldn't get away with at a regular club night," adds Smith. "After five hours people would have heard most of the things they wanted to hear and they would be ready for something new. You could go to Galaxy 21 at seven-a.m. and the club would still be packed."

Gibbons didn't acquire the cult status of David Mancuso or Nicky Siano, who were able to develop intense, almost spiritual relationships with their dancers thanks to the private status of the Loft and the Gallery, which helped create an environment that was both intimate and frenzied. That kind of rapport was impossible to establish in a public club, where crowds were transient and, more often than not, less committed to the dance ritual.

Yet Gibbons, against all odds, still became a DJ's DJ. "Everyone was going to hear Walter," says Smith, who would go down to Galaxy once he had wrapped up for the night at Barefoot Boy. "Most DJs finished at four so we could hear Walter from five until ten." After that, Gibbons and Smith would go for breakfast and, weather permitting, a trip to the beach, where they would talk about music. "DJs couldn't go and listen to too many people because we had played all night and didn't want to hear the same thing all over again. But we knew Walter would turn us on. Everyone showed up."

Everyone included Jellybean, who thought he was the "greatest DJ in the world" until he went to Galaxy. "Walter would play two records together, he did double beats, he worked the sound system and he made pressings of his own edits. I said, 'I've got to practice!'" Carpenter was also blown away. "Walter knew how to set a mood. He would take you up and bring you down. He was fierce." Smith, too, realised he was in the presence of an exceptional talent. "I heard every DJ, straight and gay, because I wanted to know what was going on in the music world. Walter was the most advanced."

All witnessed an uncompromising performer who, from the very beginning, was passionate about his music to the point of zealousness.

* * * * *

Walter Gibbons didn't just electrify fellow DJs and suburban dancers. He also electrified Ken Cayre, head of a newly formed label called Salsoul, which had created a minor tremor in Nightworld with the release of the Salsoul Orchestra's debut album. The Salsoul boss proceeded to sign Double Exposure and realised soon after that Gibbons could help him market the group's first single. "Walter was very aggressive when it came to searching out new records," says Cayre. "He became friendly with Denise Chatman, our promotions girl, and we went to hear him play. I was very impressed with his skills."

Cayre was particularly taken with the way the DJ worked "Ten Percent", which had been released as a non-commercial promotional twelve-inch test pressing that consisted of the standard single plus a longer version. "We knew the DJs wanted longer records so we told the producers to get the musicians to jam for a couple of minutes after they had recorded the regular song," says Cayre. "I had to release the promotional twelve-inch single because the seven-inch wasn't doing well." Having laid his hands on two copies of the test pressing, Gibbons worked up a whirlwind. "He did this fantastic edit and the reaction in the club was phenomenal. I said, 'Can you do that in the studio?' He said he could."

Salsoul gave Gibbons and engineer Bob Blank three hours to complete the remix at Blank Tapes Studios. That meant the duo had one hour to put up the mix and channel the sound, one hour to break down the recording and one hour to cut up tape with a razor blade. "Walter was prepared but he couldn't prepare everything," says Blank. "He had to be ready to do 'brain work' on the spur of the moment. The session was very intuitive. Walter was a real genius."

By the end of the session the diminutive DJ had transformed a dense four-minute song into a nine-minute-forty-five-second roller coaster. He was paid $185 for his efforts -- $85 to cover a night's work at Galaxy, plus $100 for the blend -- and he started to spin an acetate of the remix, which was effectively a readymade version of the lightning-quick collages he had already been concocting at Galaxy, in late February/early March 1976.

"'Ten Percent' was one of the best mixes anyone had ever heard," remembers Smith. "Walter turned a nice song into a peak song." The remix became an instant classic. "I heard it on an acetate in the Gallery," says Mixmaster editor and downtown connoisseur Michael Gomes. "It sounded so new, going backwards and forwards. It built and built like it would never stop. The dance floor just exploded."

Salsoul released the twelve-inch -- the first commercially released twelve-inch -- in May, much to the chagrin of the Philadelphia-based songwriter Allan Felder. "The mixer cut up the lyrics and changed the music," Felder told me shortly before he passed away. "It was as if the writers and producers were nothing."

Gibbons didn't set out to offend. Blank notes the DJ-turned-remixer was "very, very, very concerned" the artists, producers and writers would feel he had done the record justice. But DJs were widely regarded as musical parasites and the idea that they should be given carte blanche to remix an original work of art was doggedly opposed by music-makers. The development was seen as being nothing short of scandalous and Gibbons lay at the centre of the action.

Cayre stayed calm and kept his focus. "Walter was the first DJ to show the record companies that they should be open to different versions of a song," he says. "They were in the club night after night so they knew what worked and what didn't work. Walter was pivotal. He convinced producers and other record companies to give the DJs an opportunity to remix records for the clubs. And he showed us that these records could be commercially successful. People didn't believe that was possible before 'Ten Percent'. Walter was a pioneer."

Gibbons remixed "Sun… Sun… Sun…" by Jakki around the same time as "Ten Percent" -- maybe just before, maybe just after. Produced by Johnny Melfi and released on Pyramid as a twelve-inch in 1976, the record contains no reference to Gibbons, but Chatman, who was nicknamed "Sunshine" because of her ultra-cheerful personality, remembers Gibbons phoning her up to tell her he was remixing the record. "Walter called me and said, 'Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine!'" she remembers. "Then he told me the name of the record."

"Sun… Sun… Sun…" hit the Record World disco charts in July, a good two months after "Ten Percent", which suggests the record was remixed after "Ten Percent". Then again, the omission of Gibbons' name suggests "Sun…" was released first: the "Ten Percent" twelve-inch was such an overnight sensation that no label head in his right mind would have dreamed of omitting the remixer's name from the label. The roughness of the mix adds further weight to the theory that it was put together before the much smoother "Ten Percent".

As for the record, "Sun…" is divided into three parts: the regular song (which was released as a single), followed by a looped break (which was snatched from the beginning of the second side of the original seven-inch), followed by a mix of the A and B-sides of the seven-inch. The break -- highly percussive, with trippy vocal bites fading in and out -- was typical of the drums-for-days reel-to-reels Gibbons was compiling for his dancers, and it was this section of the record that his contemporaries loved.

"It was a really bad song and Walter turned it into a nine-minute mix," says Smith, who received an acetate of the remix and remembers that it was slow to attract attention thanks to the fact that Pyramid was a small company and the song was so off-the-wall. "The twelve-inch was very long and included this three-minute break. We would just play the break and after a while we grew to like the rest of the song. The record got no play until it was mixed by Walter."

Whatever the relationship between Gibbons and Pyramid, however, it was Cayre who formed a landmark affiliation with the remixer, and the Salsoul boss further demonstrated his faith in the Galaxy DJ when he agreed to let him remix "Nice 'N' Naasty" and "Salsoul 2001" by the Salsoul Orchestra -- which was headed by the notoriously touchy Vince Montana, of Philadelphia International fame.

The remix of "Nice" included a trademark thirty-second percussive break, yet it was the B-side that came close to giving Nightworld a collective seizure. "Salsoul 3001" -- a the remix of "Salsoul 2001" was renamed -- opened with jet engines, animal whoops, congas and timbales before soaring into a powerful combination of orchestral refrains and synthesised sound effects that were played out against a backdrop of relentless Latin rhythms.

"This has got to be one of the year's most extraordinary products and although it may be too overwhelming and bizarre for some clubs, others, like New York's Loft, turn to pandemonium when the record comes on," reported Vince Aletti in his highly regarded "Disco File" column in Record World. "Experiment with it if you haven't already." If Tom Moulton had set out the fundamentals of remix culture with reworkings of "Dream World", "Do It ('Til You're Satisfied)", "Never Can Say Goodbye", "Make Me Believe in You" and "Free Man", "Salsoul 3001" confirmed that Gibbons was taking the new artform to a freakier level.

"Walter did this weird, off-the-wall stuff with '3001'," says Moulton, who also entered Salsoul's remix fold in 1976. "I said, 'Walter, what was going through that brain of yours for '3001'?' It was nothing like '2001'." Moulton concedes that he "couldn't understand" the aberrant angles of the revamp. "It was like Walter wanted to come out with an album that was tripping. But I didn't like Vince anyways so I thought, 'Serves him right!' Walter was the first radical one."

That militancy was given its fullest expression on the DJ's remix of Loleatta Holloway's "Hit And Run", which was recorded at Sigma Sound in April 1976 and released on Holloway's album, Loleatta, in December. Gibbons asked Cayre if he could remix the song and the Salsoul chief, taking a deep breath, decided to entrust his little prince with the multitrack. "'Hit And Run' was the first time that a studio let a DJ completely rework the song," says Cayre, "and Walter, the genius that he was, turned it into a twelve-minute, unconventional smash."

Having been restricted to carrying out a cut-and-paste reedit of the half-inch master copies for "Ten Percent", Gibbons was now able to select between each individual track, and he dissected and reconstructed the six-minute album version in the most sweeping manner imaginable: a swathe of strings and almost all the horns were sliced out in order to emphasise Baker, Harris and Young's exquisite rhythm track, and, in a high-risk move, the remixer shifted the focus of the song by cutting the first two minutes and all of the verses of Holloway's vocal.

Gibbons' motives were clear. Any song that began "Now I might be an old-fashioned country girl, but when it comes to loving you, honey, I know what to do" was never going to inspire the urban dance floor. Yet the second, improvised half of Holloway's performance, which consisted of an extended series of lung-busting repetitions, screams, tremors and sighs, was quite extraordinary and, having filled up three minutes on the album, Holloway's vamps were now run for a long five minutes on the twelve-inch.

"She was always wailing or moaning or singing and we just reintroduced the stuff that had been cut or buried," says Chatman, who hung out with Gibbons in the studio during the remix. "Walter just took the multitrack and said, 'Ooh, did you hear her do that!' He was like a child in a candy store. There were so many choices. He wanted all of them and it just became long." Eleven minutes seven seconds long.

Salsoul's bigwigs were aghast. "When Walter played me his mix I initially wanted to choke him," says Cayre. "Loleatta wasn't there anymore. Walter just told me that I had to get used to it." Always up for a party, the mogul went to listen to Gibbons play the twelve-inch in its intended setting and "after hearing it a couple of times" he knew that Gibbons "had done the right thing."

Producer Norman Harris was even more concerned than Cayre. When he sent a coy of the recording to Moulton, he included a note on the reel that asked, "Does this have any musical merit?" "I told Norman, 'You're looking at it as a song whereas Walter is trying to get the most out of it for the dance floor,'" says Moulton. "If it was down to Norman the remix would have never seen the light of day."

Moulton reviewed the record in his "Disco Action" column in Billboard at the beginning of May 1977. "Many of the breaks on this record are unpredictable, and convey the impression that the mixing deejay was working with a full floor of dancers and was going out of his way to 'do a number' on the audience," he wrote. "This version is really so different from the original that it must be classified as a new record."

Backed with "We're Getting Stronger", "Hit And Run" caused a sensation in the clubs. "I remember every DJ just loving it," says Smith. "I heard it everywhere I went and the crowds just went crazy." The newness of it all was hard to quantify. "Everyone was used to the uniform Tom Moulton mix of the intro, the vocal, a little instrumental part and then a fade-out on the vocal," adds Smith. "But Walter changed the whole sequence of the song. He did it a bit with 'Ten Percent' and he did it even more with 'Hit And Run'. To think that he was just this kid."

The twelve-inch of "Hit And Run" went on to sell some three hundred thousand copies -- more than both the "Ten Percent" twelve-inch and the "Hit And Run" seven-inch -- and by all accounts the sales went a long way towards placating Harris. It was a significant development. A DJ had revised a leading producer's work beyond recognition, the remix had outsold the single, and the producer was happy. The balance of power was shifting within the music industry, and Gibbons lay at the centre of the transition.

* * * * *

"Ten Percent" and "Hit And Run" established Salsoul as the favourite label of New York's insomniac DJs, and for the first half of 1977 Walter Gibbons continued to be its most prolific remixer. True Example's beautifully tender "Love Is Finally Coming My Way" (backed with "As Long As You Love Me") contains a classic Gibbons break and was considered by many to be one of his strongest mixes to date, while Love Committee's "Cheaters Never Win"/"Where Will It End", a sweet-sounding falsetto recording, was restructured in a similar vein.

During this period, Gibbons also remixed Anthony White's "I Can't Turn You Loose", a rather mundane cover of an Otis Redding classic that contained a radical instrumental edit on the B-side, which was renamed "Block Party" -- and intriguingly credited to Baker, Harris and Young. Barely pausing for breath, Gibbons also remixed "Magic Bird Of Fire", upon which he stretched out the Salsoul Orchestra's slightly demented strings around various layers of shifting percussion. In all likelihood these mixes were completed before Gibbons segued and looped a selection of Salsoul releases, Disco Boogie: Super Hits For Non-Stop Dancing, in the summer.

The DJ, however, had no time to get carried away with his studio success, having quit Galaxy 21 towards the end of 1976 when he discovered that his sets were being secretly recorded. If that had been the end of the story, Gibbons might have stayed, but it also became clear that tapes of his prized reel-to-reel edits (which he would only hand out to his closest friends, and then only reluctantly) were being taken to Sunshine Sound. From there they were being reproduced and sold on the black market. It was as if his genetic code had been ripped out of him for a fistful of dollars. Gibbons had left Galaxy before, but this time there could be no going back.

Galaxy 21 closed around the beginning of 1977 -- the after hours venue was never going to survive without its star spinner -- and Gibbons spent the next six months bouncing from undistinguished club to undistinguished club, notching up Crisco Disco, Fantasia and Pep McGuires along the way. "The business had changed and it wasn't Walter's era anymore," says Kenny Carpenter. "He couldn't play at places like 12 West because he didn't play raving faggot music. Walter was too soulful for that."

To a certain extent Gibbons had already tasted the experience of being a DJ vagabond, having failed to hold down alternate spots at Limelight, Better Days and Barefoot Boy, three of the most popular clubs of the early to mid-seventies. In each instance his tenure proved to be short-lived because he wasn't prepared to compromise his style and adapt to the demands of a new crowd.

"Walter was too experimental and too creative," says Tony Smith, who handed Gibbons the Monday and Tuesday-night spots at Barefoot Boy. "Most DJs trained their crowd to know them, but Walter was known for being Walter and he didn't want to change." Smith tried to tell his friend that he had to modify his style for Barefoot Boy, which wasn't an after hours club, but he got nowhere. "Walter was not good at compromising. He was steadfast in what he wanted to do. He could be so stubborn."

When Galaxy closed, Gibbons was left in the lurch. The Loft, the Gallery and the newly opened Garage were impregnable thanks to the hallowed presence of David Mancuso, Nicky Siano and Larry Levan. The white gay private party scene, which was dominated by Flamingo and 12 West, wanted a sweeter sound than Gibbons was willing to deliver. And the major public discotheques, which included Studio 54, Xenon and New York, New York, were on the lookout for jocks who were willing to keep the dance floor moving to a smooth and steady pop-oriented tempo.

In search of a new DJing home, Gibbons travelled to Seattle and worked in a new George Freeman discotheque, the Monastery, in mid-1977. "He worked with George in Seattle because he couldn't get anything in New York City," says Smith. However his relocation to the upper reaches of the West Coast evidently didn't work out because the discontented DJ returned to the East Coast some time during the first half of 1978. Then, in July, he re-entered the Salsoul fold to deliver a remix of Love Committee's "Law And Order" and "Just As Long As I Got You".

For "Law And Order" Gibbons dissected the cluttered-up original, grabbing a series of instrumental phrases and vocal hooks, which were weaved around an elevated, insistent bongo-driven percussion track. Stripped down and driving, the result was nothing less than a blueprint for the decentralised future of electronic dance.

Yet the remix of "Just As Long" caused even more of a stir thanks to the three minutes of discordant drama added to the end of Tom Moulton's original remix. "I said, 'Walter, what you've done with the keyboards is spectacular,'" remembers Moulton. "The keyboard was there, but I didn't pick up on it. I said, 'Walter, you did a fantastic job on that!'" Moulton openly acknowledges that Gibbons took his remix to the next level. "I complimented him and he was taken aback."

The "Just As Long" release was an event -- the first time that a remixer had remixed a remixer -- and inevitably attracted comparisons between Moulton, who was confident, gruff and impossibly handsome, and Gibbons, who was withdrawn, soft and quirkily odd-looking. Yet it was their studio work that counted, and in this respect Moulton was conservative and melodic, while Gibbons was avant-garde and discordant.

"Walter always said he liked what I did but thought I was very tame," says Moulton. "I told him, 'My aim is to eliminate everything that is a turnoff so that I will have a hit record.'" It was this mindset that persuaded Moulton to develop a standard seven-inch mix with a short intro whenever he went into the studio. "I wanted to get radio play. I said, 'Walter, I'm coming from a totally different place -- retail, wholesale, promotion.'"

Gibbons had an alternative objective: to remix records for the underground. "He didn't think in commercial terms," adds Moulton. "He thought of himself as a jazz musician who didn't want to sacrifice his craft to the system. I always thought that attitude was bullshit." Gibbons didn't shy away from the confrontation. "He told me, 'Tom, you're not drastic enough. You stay too close to what's there.'"

The two remixers were finally driven by contrasting aesthetic preferences. "I wanted stuff to sound real, like a live performance," says Moulton. "The more live it was, the more your body could react." Gibbons came from another place. "He was into drugs and developed weird sounds. It was like he wanted to make music you could trip to. I couldn't understand his sounds and I still can't because they don't make sense to me musically. I wasn't on his level, whatever that level was."

That level, however, wasn't organised around drugs: Smith notes that he and Gibbons would occasionally take blotter acid and smoke pot when they DJed or went to hear other DJs ("usually Larry Levan") but insists the drugs were always secondary to the music. "It was all about enhancing and expanding our creative juices," says the Barefoot Boy spinner. "We wouldn't do anything that was overpowering because that would stop us focusing on the music. The drug wasn't the high. The music was the high. Walter and I would get a rush many times without drugs."

Indebted as they were to Moulton for pioneering the disco mix, New York's DJs regarded Gibbons as their reigning remix deity. "Tom was first and he was consistent all the way through, but Walter's mixes were outrageous and quickly got a lot of attention," says Danny Krivit. "Tom was by no means out of the picture, but Walter was much more irreverent and very much the remixer of the moment."

That irreverence found its fullest madcap expression on two relatively obscure Gibbons releases -- "Moon Maiden" by the Duke Ellington-inspired Luv You Madly Orchestra (the B-side of the more conventional "Rocket Rock") and Cellophane's "Super Queen"/"Dance With Me (Let's Believe)" -- which were evidently part of Salsoul's ill-judged decision to release as many disco acts as possible in 1978 in the belief that everything the label touched would be transformed into disco gold.

The vocals on these tracks are middle European Abba on a cocktail of amphetamines, acid and helium. Instead of smoothing out the strangeness, however, Gibbons accentuated the effect, intertwining the contorted voices with a series of modulating synthesisers and stabbing strings, all laid over an insistent and shifting bongo-driven beat track. Neither record received much attention, but Gibbons was probably having too much fun to worry about that.

During the same period Gibbons mixed Loleatta Holloway's "Catch Me On The Rebound" (for Salsoul), Sandy Mercer's "Play With Me" backed with "You Are My Love" (for H&L), and Bettye LaVette's "Doin' The Best That I Can" (for West End). The Holloway, a professional mix of strong if uninspired song, was notable for its extended break, during which Holloway vamped over thumping drums and bouncing bongos. The Mercer, for which the late Steve D'Acquisto received a co-mixing credit, was noteworthy for the B-side mix, which was a favourite of Ron Hardy in Chicago and Larry Levan in New York.

Yet it was the LaVette remix that shone through this little cluster of releases. "Doin' The Best" amounted to a stirring eleven-minute epic remix that encapsulated Gibbons' aesthetic of trance-like-build-to-emotional-release, segueing from an instrumental build to the vocals before setting off on a disorienting rollercoaster ride of bongos, handclaps, tambourines and shimmering instrumental interludes. As the music critic David Toop later remarked, the remix "opened New York dance to the potential of dub deconstruction."

Gibbons also received an unprecedented level of album work during 1978: he blended the first volume of Salsoul Orchestra's Greatest Disco Hits and the second volume of Disco Boogie, and he was also co-credited, along with Tom Moulton and Jim Burgess, with compiling Salsoul's Saturday Night Disco Party. For all of his problems holding down a spot in Clubland, the ex-Galaxy DJ, was on top of the remix mountain. Everything was going swimmingly.

* * * * *

Then something mysterious happened.

Either Walter Gibbons was handed the task of remixing Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up", came close to completing the mix, but then became a born-again Christian and said he would only finish the job if Ken Cayre recorded some new vocals, at which point the Salsoul boss asked Larry Levan to finish off the remix -- for which the Garage DJ was wholly credited.

Or Gibbons was never handed the Instant Funk remix, which was given straight to Levan, who went into the studio on 4 December 1978 and did what he had to do. Having completed just one other mix -- "C Is For Cookie" by Cookie Monster & The Girls, which came and went without causing much of a stir -- Levan came out with one of the most mesmerising, earth-shattering remixes of all-time.

Ever since the release of "I Got My Mind Made Up", the first version of the story has been nothing more than a flickering rumour familiar to a handful of New Yorkers -- plus Colin Gate, a Glasgow-based dance producer and record collector who, having travelled to Manhattan in the mid-nineties to work for Will Socolov and Todd Terry, was given the opportunity to purchase Gibbons' record collection following the DJ-remixer's death in 1994. When Gate told me about the story, I asked the key parties what had happened.

"I worked for weeks on the record," remembers Bob Blank. "Walter started on the mix but then refused to carry on because he became very religious. I remember him saying very specifically, 'I really don't think I'm going to be working on this record anymore.'" Blank and Cayre subsequently worked on the remix for almost a week in Studio A. "We worked on it after Walter left the project. I brought in a lot of stuff and I have to credit that to Walter. He was the ultimate arbiter."

Blank says that he and Cayre never intended to finish the remix, and that Levan came in at the very end. "Larry was brought in after we had worked on this record forever. Larry basically had very little input on 'I Got My Mind Made Up'. All the groundwork had been done and he only came in for a few hours. But it was Larry who made the nine-minute version. It was never nine minutes before he came in."

Cayre has a different memory of the remix. "Walter never went into the studio with 'I Got My Mind Made Up'," he says. "Larry was playing the record at the Paradise Garage and loved it. We went to see the edits he was doing and we asked him if he wanted to do a remix. We asked Larry because he was getting the best reaction of all the DJs." Cayre says the Garage mixer was a sensation in the studio. "Larry really took the record to a different level. He was very comfortable and really tore into the song."

However Denise Chatman, who was tight with both Gibbons and Cayre, remembers Gibbons being involved, too involved, with the Instant Funk track. "Walter's whole being was taken over by something else during the remix of 'I Got My Mind Made Up' and that made Kenny very, very nervous," she says. "Walter became very judgemental of everybody around him -- he was against any kind of cursing -- and he became very uncomfortable with the material."

Having stretched the boundaries of remix culture to breaking point, Gibbons went a step too far. "Walter asked Kenny to change the lyrics and there was no way that was going to happen," says Chatman. "I told Walter he was being totally unrealistic. Kenny then went with Larry." Chatman adds a cautionary note. "Did I witness these conversations? No. But I was in touch with Walter for quite a while and I remember as clear as can be that the lyrics to Instant Funk made him very uncomfortable."

Chatman insists that Cayre was acting with the best intentions. "Kenny was more than willing to let Walter finish the mix. Kenny is a stand-up guy. If he believes in you he will stand by you through everything." According to Chatman, Cayre was absolutely crazy about Gibbons and Gibbons thought the world of Cayre. "There is no way in the world Kenny would have ever taken the mix away from Walter. They had a real bond. Walter just became uncomfortable with the material. What can you do in a situation like that? The music is what it is."

The events of the "I Got My Mind Made Up" remix happened some twenty-five years ago. Since then, memories have faded and seeped into each other to the point where absolute clarity over what happened when and why has been lost, or at least put on hold. History isn't always a blur, but it can be, and, for the time being at least, the truth behind Instant Funk must remain suspended, especially as Gibbons and Levan are no longer around to provide their version of the story.

Yet the elusive truth behind "I Got My Mind Made Up" matters because the twelve-inch is widely considered to be one of the most spellbinding remixes -- if not the most spellbinding remix -- of the 1970s. It helped propel the single to the top of the R&B charts and it launched Levan onto the remixing map. With the dubious benefit of partial hindsight, it could now cement Gibbons' reputation as the most influential remixer of the 1970s.

The Instant Funk twelve certainly sounds like a Gibbons Galaxy reel transposed onto vinyl. A deceptive sweet-lush intro is followed by a crackling percussive break interspersed with a rhythm guitar, repeated snippets of the song's upfront chorus and an extended keyboard jam, followed by the incredulous female reply of saaay whaaat? Then, in its full-frontal glory, comes the chant of I got my mind made up, come on, you can get it, get it girl, anytime, tonight is fine. The instrumental track and vocals ensue, producing a room-rocking crescendo, before the track cuts to another deep-down break, during which the bass and rhythm guitars groove over an undulating percussive backdrop. A final reprise of the song concludes the track.

The swirling structure and drum-happy attitude is classic Gibbons -- everlasting beats followed by a vocal release to the power of two -- so if Levan did mix "I Got My Mind Made Up" it should at least be acknowledged that he was adopting Gibbons' template beat for beat, phrase for phrase. Levan may have developed his own unique style during the eighties, but this much cannot be said of the ghetto-style groove of Instant Funk.

"'I Got My Mind Made Up' is very much in the style of Walter, so I wouldn't be surprised if he mixed it," says Danny Krivit. "But that doesn't mean that Larry didn't feel the record in the same way." Krivit notes that Levan's remix of "C Is For Cookie" is "much gutsier" than Roy Thode's flipside, so it's conceivable the Garage DJ could have come up with the Instant Funk remix. But whatever the truth, Levan's legacy will remain unaffected. "Larry wasn't credited with doing that many great mixes in the seventies. He did a few, but the eighties was really his decade."

Gate, now back in Glasgow, senses that Gibbons might be viewed differently if he had been credited with the "I Got My Mind Made Up" remix. "Instant Funk took Larry from being just another New York DJ to being a contender in the record industry overnight," he says. "There is no doubt that Larry would have made a name for himself as a remixer without it. But if Walter and not Larry had been credited with Instant Funk, Walter might have been known as the genius."

* * * * *

The relationship between Walter Gibbons and Salsoul may have been drawing to a close, but it wasn't over. In March 1979 Cayre released Disco Madness, which included six new Gibbons remixes and was issued as both a regular album and a DJ-friendly double-pack. "It was the first time a label released an album of mixes by a single remixer," says Ken Cayre. "Every DJ was inspired by Walter."

All of the mixes were radically different to existing versions -- some of which had already been mixed by Gibbons-- and marked a hardening and deepening of his aesthetic. "I don't consider Disco Madness to be a mix of the original music," says Tom Moulton, who regarded the new versions to be so far-reaching that they amounted to new songs. "It wasn't called Disco Madness for nothing. Most people felt the same way. I always said, 'If you want to know anything about that album, ask Walter.'"

On the first part of the double-pack, Gibbons revisited "Magic Bird Of Fire" and, remixing his own remix, elevated the beats and lowered the instrumentation. Faced with the challenge of reworking "Ten Percent", the studio whiz zoomed in on bongos and deep down keyboards. When it came to "Let No Man Put Asunder", a buried album cut by First Choice, he generated a dub-like workout of stripped down beats, sunken synthesisers and subtly echoed vocals.

For part two, Gibbons laid down a fierce, skipping beat for "It's Good For The Soul" and interspersed the chorus with his own infectious chants of "alright", "woo-ooo", "it's good for the soul" and "alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright" -- as if, unable to contain himself in the control booth, he kept on skipping into the studio to have a quick dance. The penultimate remix, "My Love Is Free", originally a Moulton twelve-inch, became so deep it almost disappeared into itself. To round things off, "Catch Me On The Rebound" was whittled down to the beats and Holloway's vamp.

Gibbons mixed two more twelve-inches for Salsoul in 1979: two Double Exposure album cuts, "Ice Cold Love" and "I Wish That I Could Make Love To You", plus "Stand By Your Man"/"Your Cheatin' Heart" by the Robin Hooker Band. All displayed a southern-soul-veering-into-gospel vibe that would have appealed more to a church barn dance than a drugged-up dance floor. Catchy, hypnotic and stomping, yet occasionally cheesy, they sounded like the work of a man who had an extraordinary feel for dance music but had fallen out of synch with Clubland.

That was reflected at Salsoul HQ, where the big remixes were going to other DJs. Tee Scott remixed "Love Thang" by First Choice and "Slap, Slap, Lickedy Lap" by Instant Funk. Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro went into the studio with Bunny Sigler's "By The Way You Dance", First Choice's "Double Cross" and Loleatta Holloway's "Greatest Performance Of My Life". And Larry Levan remixed just about everything else: Instant Funk's "Body Shine", plus six tracks for his Salsoul remix album --"Double Cross", "First Time Around", "Greatest Performance Of My Life", "Handsome Man", "How High" and… "I Got My Mind Made Up".

Levan also started to receive big remix commissions from other labels in the same year, including "Give Your Body Up To The Music" by Billy Nichols (West End), "When You Touch Me" by Taana Gardner (West End) and "Bad For Me" by Dee Dee Bridgewater (Elektra). All of these records were huge on the dance floor and, combined with his Salsoul work, make it clear that, even without the Instant Funk, Levan would have still established himself as a remarkably talented remixer by the end of 1979.

Gibbons, meanwhile, started to feed on scraps. His remix of Colleen Heather's "One Night Love Affair" for West End skipped along in a fairly predictable manner before breaking into a series of wild beats and handclaps interspersed with bass, horns and vocals. Released in the same period, his version of Gladys Knight & the Pips for Buddah also veered between the conservative and the crazy: "It's Better Than A Good Time" was a comparatively conventional, gospel-oriented effort, while the incredibly groovy flipside, "Saved By The Grace Of Your Love", featured southern-style yee-haas, handclaps and hallelujahs, all recorded at a sky high beat-per-minute tempo that would have flummoxed the most dextrous dancer (and probably wasn't intended for them in the first place).

Gibbons continued to DJ during this period, holding down spots at the Buttermilk Bottom and Xenon, but his sets became increasingly bizarre and his residencies increasingly ephemeral. "I got Walter his job at Xenon and the owners complained because he only played gospel and Salsoul," says Tony Smith, who had been working at the midtown location seven nights a week and was on the lookout for a helping hand. "I said, 'Walter, you can't do that!' There was so much great music out there at the time. Larry was coming out with all this new stuff. But Walter wouldn't change and after three weeks they told me to fire him."

Smith was shocked at the metamorphosis. "When I met Walter he was so wide-ranging. You didn't know what he was going to turn you onto. He could make a rock record sound like disco." Now, however, Gibbons was using a marker pen to blot out any unsavoury words that appeared on his records, as well as highlight any song titles that contained the word love with a heart. "His musical horizon shrank. All of a sudden the music had to have all these big messages and he wouldn't play any negative songs." Smith had no choice but to sack his friend. "It wasn't good. We fell out over that."

Somewhat inevitably, Gibbons also fell out of synch with the studio circuit. "Ken Cayre always went for the hot thing," says Bob Blank. "Larry became hot and Walter didn't have a base." The competition was growing and Gibbons was becoming yesterday's man. "It's the pop business," adds Blank. "Nobody's a star forever." Gibbons continued to hang around Blank Tapes Studios, but had become a peripheral figure. "Mel Cheren would call him when Kenny Nix was recording Taana Gardner and Walter would show up. He was always very cordial. I think he just didn't have the drive to become a star."

Gibbons was travelling backwards in time. Twentieth century popular culture in the United States had been defined by the tension between Saturday night partying and Sunday morning prayer, with the spirituality of gospel gradually giving way to the corporeality of the blues. Gibbons, however, was moving in the opposite direction, swapping the sin of sex for the salvation of God, and nobody else from the New York underground was willing to join him on his journey. "When Walter went religious he alienated all of his friends," says Kenny Carpenter. "He was really fanatical about the whole thing."

That didn't stop Steven Harvey from profiling Gibbons -- now sporting a mullet-shaped perm -- in his seminal overview of the New York underground, "Behind The Groove", which was published in Collusion in September 1983. Having met at Barry's, a record store on Twenty-third Street where Gibbons recommended danceable gospel tracks such as "Things 'Have' Got To Get Better" by Genobia Jeter, they reconvened at Harvey's apartment. Gibbons arrived with some homemade acetates of Philly-style tracks that included his own vocals. "They definitely had the spirit," Harvey later recorded.

Gibbons told Harvey that he was now playing records at his own house parties and added that he took requests, even for records that he considered to be unchristian, because that could help him get into the mindset of his dancers and help reshape their outlook. When one dancer asked him to play "Nasty Girls", Gibbons put it on, and then segued into "Try God" by the New York Community Choir. "For me, I have to let God play the records," he told the writer. "I'm just an instrument."

The last time he saw Scott, Gibbons added, he gave the Better Days DJ a mix that blended "Law Of The Land" by Undisputed Truth, "Ten Percent" by Double Exposure and a spoken version of the Ten Commandments. "He played it and the crowd roared like I've never heard in my life," Gibbons told Harvey. "Especially after the part where he's saying 'thou shalt not commit adultery, though shall not steal, though shall not kill' -- there was such a roar." Gibbons said he was taken aback. "It was very interesting." The DJ's proselytizing outlook had become more entrenched than ever.

* * * * *

Popular opinion had it that Walter Gibbons had traveled to Cloud Cuckoo Land and wasn't about to come back anytime soon, but in 1984 he approached his old friend Tony Smith, who was now the alternate DJ at the Funhouse, and handed him two white test pressings of a new recording. "I knew I had to play it otherwise we would never be friends," remembers Smith.

The record in question -- "Set It Off" by Strafe, the debut release on Jus Born Records, which was co-owned by Gibbons -- was a revelation. The vocals, performed by Steve "Strafe" Standart, a childhood friend of Kenny Carpenter, were mesmerizing, and the sparse rhythm track, all syncopation and repetition, brought together the seemingly incompatible worlds of breakbeat hip-hop and the downtown underground onto a single slab of vinyl. Once again Gibbons had taken a gravity-defying leap into the future of dance.

The Funhouse crowd, however, wasn't ready for Strafe. "They were really into the Arthur Baker sound," says Smith. "I played 'Set It Off' for ten minutes and it cleared the floor. Everyone in the booth was stunned by the record -- it was so incredible and different -- but Walter left under a real cloud. He was really disgusted. I said, 'Walter, there's no one here over eighteen!'"

When Smith discovered that lightman Ricky Cardona had made a reel-to-reel tape of his set, he made a copy of "Set It Off" and started to play the record once a night until, after a month of extremely careful programming, his dancers started to ask him the name of the unreleased track. "They didn't know the name of the song so they were calling it 'On The Left'," says Smith.

By the time Gibbons returned to the club to give the alternate DJ a copy of the vinyl, "Set It Off" had become a dance floor favorite. "Everyone screamed when I put it on," says Smith. "Walter was totally shocked. He eventually gave me all these other mixes of the song, including a reggae version." "Set It Off" became a Funhouse classic. "The original song was four minutes long and really sucked. I couldn't believe Walter got eighteen minutes out of it. The artist really hated Walter's mix. He didn't have Walter mix his next song and we haven't heard of him since."

Even though he was spending more and more time in the studio and would eventually leave the Funhouse in the summer, Jellybean also played "Set It Off". "It was very, very different to everything that was out there," says the DJ. "It had soul, it had electro, it had Latin. It had a whistle in it, and a lot of the kids on the dance floor would bring whistles. It was a long record that took you on a journey. It captured so many different things -- and it had just the right energy."

In June 1984 Billboard described "Set It Off" (which carried the inscription "Mixed with Love by Walter Gibbons") as a "low-budget production making some substantial neighbourhood noise here in New York, in the same way unusual cuts by Peech Boys and Loose Joints have." Yet while Larry Levan broke Peech Boys and Loose Joints at the Garage, "Set It Off", which was a little too electro-oriented for the King Street crowd, followed a different trajectory.

"Strafe got played at the Garage quite a bit, but it was getting more play in a lot of other places," says Danny Krivit. "It was unbelievably big." By this point Krivit spinning in a number of venues, including the Roxy, Down Under, Laces, Area and occasionally Danceteria, and "Set It Off" worked in all of them. "I could play the record all night, wherever I was DJing. I could play it on the worst sound system and it still sounded good. It was just this huge thing for me."

For his second release on Jus Born, Gibbons returned to the more familiar build-and-break template of his 1970s remixes, although it's hard to think of a more beautifully executed version of this aesthetic than "Searchin" by Arts and Crafts. Having laid down a hypnotic bongo beat, Gibbons brought in a dreamy bass, soulful male and female vocals, a gentle keyboard and a jazzy sax, and he gave each new part its own discrete space in which to evolve. The result was an almost wistful yet ultimately uplifting tapestry of decentralised, floating sounds in conversation with each other -- the future sound of deep house incarnate.

There was, however, no record industry rush to sign up Gibbons and, left with no choice but to plough his own groove, the idiosyncratic evangelist teamed up with Barbara Tucker, then an unknown gospel vocalist, to produce a remix of "Set It Off". Released in 1985 under the moniker Harlequin Four's, the record was the third (and probably last) issue on Jus Born Records. "After 'Set It Off' I thought he would get back into the music business," says Smith. "The record went to number one. But nobody gave him any offers."

Gibbons recorded two of his final releases with the avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell, who had started to produce dance records following his introduction to the Gallery in 1977. Having co-produced "Kiss Me Again" with Nicky Siano in 1978, Russell asked to be introduced to Gibbons after he heard Sandy Mercer's "Play With Me", and Steve D'Acquisto, who went on to record "Is It All Over My Face" with Russell, arranged for the two of them to get together.

Gibbons remixed an unreleased version of Russell's seminal "Go Bang" -- "Walter's mix is very different to the François mix," says Colin Gate. "It's weirder with loads of crazy things happening" -- and the two sound sculptors reconvened when Russell, who loved "Set It Off", asked Gibbons to mix "Schoolbell/Treehouse", which would later re-emerge as a voice-cello solo on Russell's meditative dub album, World Of Echo.

Released on Sleeping Bag in 1986, the Gibbons mix of "Schoolbell/Treehouse" revolved around a spaced-out array of bongos, piercing hi-hats, discordant synth stabs, scratchy cello solos and hovering trombone passages, maintaining a steady-but-jolty tempo before accelerating to a heart-attack finale. Wispy yet self-assured, Russell's voice presided over the mayhem, guiding the listener into the deep-down world of demented dance. "Walter could discuss the different textures of music for days," says Sleeping Bag owner Will Socolov. "The only other person who discussed sound in that kind of detail was Arthur. I think that's why they became friendly."

Having received a commission from Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, Russell also asked Gibbons to remix "Let's Go Swimming". "There were incredible scenes of screaming and fights," says Gary Lucas, who oversaw the recording process, which began at eleven-p.m. and wound up at eight the following morning. "Arthur was shrieking and tearing his hair out, raging around the studio like a psychotic bat, while Walter was calmly snipping and pasting the tape as if it was macramé." There were streams of tape all over the studio. "Arthur would say, 'You're ruining my fucking vision!' And Walter would reply, 'Arthur, Arthur, calm down!'"

"Mixed with Love by Walter Gibbons", the Coastal Dub version of "Let's Go Swimming" was less song-oriented and more conceptual than the Gulf Stream Dub and the Puppy Surf Dub, both of which were completed by Russell. As with so many Gibbons mixes, the track was constructed over a bongo beat, although on this occasion the rhythm was never allowed to settle into a groove, but instead lurched from beat to beat, with Russell's manic synthesiser riff rolling over a rumbling bass and cello. "Walter created a visionary soundscape for the song," says Lucas. "He took the song out to the stratosphere."

Two other Gibbons remixes were released in this twilight period: "4 Ever My Beat" by Stetsasonic, which came out on a Tommy Boy double pack, and "Time Out" by the Clark Sisters, which was released on Rejoice/A&M. Steering an uneasy path between synthesizer pop, jagged beats and run-of-the-mill gospel, the "Time Out" mix encapsulated the conundrum of combining feel-good vocals with a left-of-leftfield sensibility. Gospel Gibbons' ever more angular vision didn't sit easily with gospel.

The message was a lot simpler to communicate from behind the counter at Rock and Soul, situated on Seventh Avenue between Thirty-fifth and Thirty-sixth Streets, where Gibbons sold records and dished out sermons with equal gusto. Saxophonist Peter Gordon, another Russell collaborator, became the recipient of one particularly violent tirade when he handed Gibbons a copy of "That Hat", the B-side of which was titled "The Day The Devil Comes To Get You".

During this period Gibbons amassed a collection of approximately five thousand gospel records, many of which were signed copies purchased directly from church congregations in New York. "He thought gospel was the pure message of God and that something was wrong with you if you didn't get it," says Krivit, an occasional customer. "Every time he opened his mouth he would preach at you. It seemed to a lot of people he was just history, especially as there was less of a nostalgia thing going on at the time."

Yet ever since Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro, Francis Grasso and David Mancuso started to push Dorothy Morrison's "Rain" at the turn of the 1970s, gospel had demonstrated its ability to heighten the celebratory mood of the dance floor, and Gibbons continued to unearth the occasional treasure, including "Stand On The Word", which was recorded live in the First Baptist Church in Crown Heights in 1982.

"'Stand On The Word' was Walter's biggest record at the time," says Gate, who visited the church in order to track down the origins of the song. "The record was recorded in his local church -- the Jus Born studios were only a couple of blocks away. Walter played this record after the church pressed up a couple of hundred copies for the congregation." The song soon became a Garage, Loft and Zanzibar classic, and Tony Humphries went on to remix the record -- which was attributed to the Joubert Singers, after Phyllis McKoy Joubert, who penned the song for the Celestial Choir -- for Next Plateau. For many, Gibbons had lost his way but not his ear.

* * * * *

Walter Gibbons might have started to preach the Gospel with even more vigour after discovering he had contracted the Aids virus sometime in the second half of the 1980s. For a while nobody could tell he was sick: after all, Gibbons had always looked undernourished. But as the disease progressed, there could be no mistaking its presence. "I saw him at Rock and Soul about a year before he passed away," says Bob Blank. "He was in terrible shape. He was very thin and had lost a lot of his hair. He looked around and said, 'I just love being in contact with music. This is what I love.'"

Knowing that his corporeal end was near, and riding on the back of a new wave of interest in disco's pioneering DJs and remixers, Gibbons embarked on a mini-tour of Japan, where he played at the Wall (Sapporo) and Yellow (Tokyo) in September 1992. Mixing classics, house and hip-hop with his treasured reel-to-reels, he was received enthusiastically by local DJs and music aficionados. In between appearances, Gibbons went to listen to Larry Levan and François Kevorkian, who were playing at Gold as part of their Harmony tour. According to DJ Nori, Gibbons loved Japan and wanted to live in Sapporo.

Gibbons returned to Japan in 1993. Eyewitnesses say he was skinny but radiantly happy -- so happy that, during one of his nights at Yellow, he refused to stop playing when police raided the club and ordered it to close. The night was eventually reconvened as a private event and the party hit a new high, with Gibbons channelling his entire soul into the music. At the end of the set he asked to be taken to Hakone and, when he finally saw Mount Fuji, he kept uttering, "It's beautiful. It's beautiful!" He was subsequently whisked to a hot spring where he was able to revitalise his tired body.

Gibbons played his final set in New York at Renegayde, a monthly night organised by Joey Llanos and Richard Vasquez. Drawing on sixties Motown, Philly Soul, disco, early eighties dance and contemporary house, the ex-Galaxy spinner took his dancers on a timeless voyage of devotion and love, sequencing his selections according to ambience rather than chronology or genre. Gibbons demonstrated little in the way of turntable pyrotechnics but stretched the metaphor of the DJing journey to breaking point. Sincerity was more important than dexterity.

Aware that Gibbons regarded himself as an instrument of God, DJ Cosmo, who attended the Renegayde gig, wasn't sure if she had "heard Walter play" or if it was "God on the decks that night." Either way, Gibbons' "pure and beautiful musical aura" provided a striking contrast with the freakish mood of the post-Garage club scene. "I was really struck by Walter's honesty to himself, to his faith and to his audience."

DJ-producer Adam Goldstone, who also went to the party, admired the way Gibbons created an "uplifting, spiritual and positive atmosphere" without slipping "into religious proselytising or the kind of lazy, saccharine clichés that seem to pass for soulful dance music these days." The vibe in the room was electric. "I think everyone at the party realised they were sharing in something special."

Nightworld was war-wearily accustomed to seeing Aids devour its favourite sons and by the time of the Renegayde party it was clear that Gibbons would soon follow. "Walter was looking very thin," says Quinton Deeley, a London-based New York dance enthusiast. "He was obviously in poor health. It was poignant to see him play so well despite his advanced illness." Renegayde turned out to be the DJ's last public performance.

Frail, isolated and all but blind, Gibbons started to go out to Beefsteak Charlie's with François Kevorkian and Tom Moulton every Tuesday night. "A lot of people abandoned Walter, but he wasn't the most outgoing person either, and he didn't attract a lot of friends," says Moulton. "We would help him down the stairs. Beefsteak Charlie's had a salad bar and shrimp, all you could eat, and watching Walter shovel down that shrimp, I don't know where he put it. He kept saying, 'Boy, this shrimp is so good!'"

Gibbons continued to play records until the very end -- Moulton says the ex-Galaxy DJ developed a special "notch system" in order to recognise his records by touch -- and when he learnt that Moulton had just finished remastering a series of Salsoul twelve-inches he asked him to try and get hold of an advance copy. No tests were ready, so Ken Cayre put through a special set, which Moulton took to his old sparring partner. "Walter played one and said, 'Oh, it sounds great!'" remembers Moulton. "Then he cued up another record and mixed it in perfectly. He was a DJ to the very end."

Having spent his final weeks living alone in a YMCA, Gibbons died of complications resulting from Aids on 23 September 1994, aged thirty-eight years old. One of his final acts was to donate his record collection to an Aids charity based in San Francisco. Only a small number of people attended his funeral, and his memorial service, a dignified affair held on 11 October at the Church of St. John the Baptist on Thirty-first Street, was also relatively quiet -- much more quiet than the equivalent service held for Levan in 1992. Billboard marked the moment with a brief obituary at the bottom of its weekly dance music column. Devastatingly shy to the end, Gibbons might have been happy to pass away without too much of a fuss.

Yet we can forgive ourselves a certain amount of frustration that this groundbreaking remixer and DJ hasn't received more attention during the ongoing revival of interest in the disco decade. The name of Gibbons rarely features alongside canonical seventies spinners such as Francis Grasso, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, even though it is difficult to think of a more accomplished or visionary mixmaster. And as a remixer he has received significantly less attention than Tom Moulton, François Kevorkian and Larry Levan, even though he was arguably the most influential of them all when it came to establishing the future contours of remixology.

According to Blank, Gibbons was in a league of his own in the studio. While most remixers would enter unprepared, Gibbons would always do his homework, and while most remixers would bark out instructions, Gibbons would always sit with his hands on the mixing board. Yet the thing that most impressed Blank was the DJ's intuitive outlook. "It was quite easy to chop up a record and extend certain sections," says the engineer. "The difficult thing was to take a multitrack and create a flow. The skill lies in feeling the music and that's what Walter could do. He would sit at the board with the mute buttons, and he would cut and edit in real time."

Gibbons took the art of remixing to an emotional level. "He would come in and say, 'I want this song to be the love mix,'" remembers Blank. "He would listen to the bass part and say, 'That part is really about love.' These are amazing concepts. That's totally different to someone who comes in and says, 'I've got to get this mix out in a day and we've got to have three breaks!'" Gibbons was nurturing a new affective sensibility. "He would say, 'I want the flow to be like this, and just when you think you've hit this peak I want to go back into the groove.' Nobody was doing that. It was an amazing way of working."

When it came to plunging into a multitrack and excavating its core energy, Gibbons wasn't just the best: he was also the first. "By the time Larry came by I had done a thousand dance records," adds Blank. "I knew what was supposed to happen. I didn't say, 'Oh my God, there's the bass drum!'" It was different with Gibbons. "Nobody had heard the strings all by themselves or the rhythm chopped into these syncopated moments, but once he did it people began to understand there was a formula. When the next person came in after Walter, I would bring up all of his good ideas. That was my job -- to remember all the cool things."

The point is not to elevate Gibbons in order to denigrate others. Rather, it is to acknowledge that, at least for a few years, he was streets ahead of his contemporaries. As a breakbeat DJ working with reel-to-reel tapes, he at least paralleled and arguably anticipated core aspects of hip-hop culture. And as a remixer producing stripped down tracks that shifted between insistent beats and floating instrumentation, he developed an early blueprint for house. Gibbons was the first DJ to move into the protected world of the studio, and in the second half of the seventies and the first half of the eighties there were only three DJ remixers who really mattered: Gibbons, Kevorkian and Levan. Gibbons was the first.

Yet if there was a potential flaw with Gibbons' practice, it lay in the unrelenting purity of his vision. "Walter was an innovator, but he also had an abstract I don't give a shit approach," says Kevorkian. "Walter didn't care if anyone danced, whereas Larry would make it for the party. He was a little more conscious of what people liked. Whereas Walter was conceptually the most advanced, he was also a lonely genius. Walter was an innovator, but Larry made it work. He turned records into hits."

Scattered but not discarded, a series of unreleased Gibbons mixes continue to levitate around the outer reaches of the dance ether. Jeremy Newall spotted a reel of "Making Love Will Keep You Fit"/"Freakin' Freak" by Brenda Harris (Dream Records), marked "mixed by Walter Gibbons", in Tom Moulton's office in New York. Somewhere, surely, there is a copy of "Faith", the track Gibbons mixed and produced with Steve D'Acquisto (referenced by Steven Harvey in his Collusion article). And then there is the mouth-watering prospect of that "Go Bang" remix.

Some "lost recordings" are beginning to surface. Audika released Arthur Russell's "Calling All Kids", "remixed with love" by Gibbons some time between 1986 and 1990, earlier this year. And Colin Gate, who purchased the key elements of Gibbons' record collection when it was eventually returned to Rock and Soul, is hoping to release a collection of Gibbons' unreleased acetates, mixes and songs. "Walter's acetates are much more intense than his Salsoul remixes," says Gate. "You can hear slices of his DJing style on remixes like 'Just As Long', where there's that looped section with a kick drum and hi-hat pattern with a clap. Some of his acetates extend that house sound for ten minutes, not just a few bars."

Marking the tenth anniversary of Gibbons' death, this Suss'd compilation brings together his groundbreaking Salsoul catalogue for the very first time and, considered as a collection, the remixes create an indelible impression. These mixes could barely be contained on three CDs, whereas the equivalent Levan compilation barely stretched to two, and the quantity of the ex-Galaxy DJ's output in no way detracts from its quality.

"Compared to the Larry Salsoul compilation on Suss'd, Walter's mixes are more groundbreaking and seem to demonstrate a very hands-on type approach," says DJ/Salsoul aficionado Jeremy Newall, who helped compile both CDs. "It was probably Larry's personality, the size of the Garage, and the success of records like Taana Gardner and the Peech Boys, as well as his obvious DJ talents, that made him the deity he is today." Gibbons might be about to receive a little more recognition himself. "Hopefully this package will bring a lot more respect to Walter. It is deserved, without any doubt."

These remixes would have surely been reissued long before now were it not for Gibbons' conversion. Yet there is also a peculiar proximity between the DJ-remixer's evangelism and the practices that continue to underpin Nightworld to this day. Definitively fervent, DJs try to convert anyone who will listen to their favourite records, while dancers enter into a quasi-religious ritual in which they and their priest-like spinners generate a collective, spiritual high.

Gibbons experienced both sides of this divide -- dance floor spirituality on the one hand, born-again Christianity on the other -- and magnified the continuum that exists between them. Magical and evangelical from the beginning to the end, he lived and died in music. The spirit of his remixes, all of them mixed with love, will continue to move and shape dance floors for the rest of time.

 

Thanks:

Chidi Achara, Chris Barnett, Bob Blank, Kenny Carpenter, Ken Cayre, Denise Chatman, Quinton Deeley, Ian Dewhirst, Allan Felder, Adam Goldstone, Yuko Ichikawa, Jellybean, JJ, Dr Bob Jones, François Kevorkian, Gary Lucas, Danny Krivit, Cedric Lassonde, Colleen "Cosmo" Murphy, DJ Nori, Alex Pe Win, Steve Reed, Alex Rosner, Will Soclov and, especially, Colin Gate, Niki Mir, Jeremy Newall and Tony Smith.

“Disco Madness: Walter Gibbons and the Legacy of Turntablism and Remixology”. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 20, 3, 2008, 276-329.

This story begins with a skinny white DJ mixing between the breaks of obscure Motown records with the ambidextrous intensity of an octopus on speed. It closes with the same man, debilitated and virtually blind, fumbling for gospel records as he spins up eternal hope in a fading dusk. In between Walter Gibbons worked as a cutting-edge discotheque DJ and remixer who, thanks to his pioneering reel-to-reel edits and contribution to the development of the twelve-inch single, revealed the immanent synergy that ran between the dance floor, the DJ booth and the recording studio. Gibbons started to mix between the breaks of disco and funk records around the same time DJ Kool Herc began to test the technique in the Bronx, and the disco spinner was as technically precise as Grandmaster Flash, even if the spinners directed their deft handiwork to differing ends. It would make sense, then, for Gibbons to be considered alongside these and other towering figures in the pantheon of turntablism, but he died in virtual anonymity in 1994, and his groundbreaking contribution to the intersecting arts of DJing and remixology has yet to register beyond disco aficionados.

There is nothing mysterious about Gibbons’s low profile. First, he operated in a culture that has been ridiculed and reviled since the “disco sucks” backlash peaked with the symbolic detonation of 40,000 disco records in the summer of 1979. Second, he occupied a liminal position within that culture, where he attempted to express the aesthetically progressive priorities of downtown New York’s private party scene in a series of public discotheques that were always vulnerable to conservative cooption. And third, just as he was approaching the pinnacle of his remixing career, he became a born-again Christian, which set him in opposition to a movement that was already about to become marginal. Gibbons continued to produce remixes that were lucid and daring, yet he did so from the outside, and his isolation increased when he became sick with AIDS and joined a community that was widely deemed to be untouchable. During the first half of the 1990s, when the epidemic peaked in New York’s gay male community, it was difficult to even give away disco records ⎯ as the executors of Gibbons’s collection of vinyl and reel-to-reel tapes discovered.

Gibbons did not contribute to the most flagrantly commercial aspects of disco, but has suffered from implicit association. Elitist and hierarchical, Studio 54 dismantled the core ethos of early disco culture ⎯ that the dance floor should function as a space of communal dance ⎯ while Saturday Night Fever whitened and straightened a culture that had been forged by African American, Italian American and Latino gay men. As the majors flooded the market with a glut of second-rate disco recordings just as the economy entered a deep recession, disco was critiqued for being superficial, materialistic and irretrievably commercial, and this caricature endured as the commonsense interpretation of disco because the postdisco dance movements of house and techno failed to establish the kind of following that would have supported the writing of an alternative history.  Like disco, hip hop also struggled to gain recognition early on, but the culture received its first serious historical treatment when David Toop published Rap Attack in 1984, and the simultaneous emergence of Def Jam marked the beginning of a period of rapid growth that has supported the publication of a plethora of historical accounts that cite DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa as key figures. In contrast to hip hop’s relatively continuous history ⎯ a history that has escaped the schism of a national backlash ⎯ the disrupted story of disco and post-disco dance forms has give rise to a fragmented knowledge in which contemporary participants are unlikely to have heard of a pioneering figure such as Gibbons.

However the analogy between Gibbons and hip hop spinners such as Herc, Flash and Bambaataa is conjured not to illustrate the relative bad luck of the disco DJ, but instead to open up a conversation about the relationship between disco and hip hop that to date has been explored in only the most tentative ways. Timing and territory have contributed to the dialogue being foreclosed. Hip hop barely registered beyond New York’s boroughs during the 1970s, the decade in which disco surged to international prominence, and the cultures continued to move in inverse relationship to one another when the collapse of the disco market coincided with the breakthrough success of “Rapper’s Delight” in the summer of 1979, since when disco has surfaced only intermittently, and largely as cliché, while hip hop has become one of the best-selling alternatives to rock. In addition, the contrasting claims to territory as espoused within disco/dance and hip hop/rap have given rise to a sense of cultural disjuncture, with the former operating according to a range of interiors (the darkened club, the feel of the music, the psychic journey of the trip), and the latter a series of exteriors (the urban ghetto, the conflict with the state, the possession of material objects). Yet if these temporalities and outlooks suggest only contrasts, a consideration of Gibbons opens up a space in which a range of shared practices can begin to be teased out.

Overly simplistic assumptions about the sexuality of purportedly “gay” disco/dance and “straight” hip hop/rap have conflated the reigning sense of immutable difference, and hip hop has contributed more words to the exchange thanks to its sustained success as well as its emphasis on rapped vocals, a number of which have been provocative. As Peter Shapiro notes, the lyrics of “Rapper’s Delight”, hip hop’s breakthrough single, contained homophobic elements that have been repeated as if they are part of hip hop’s accepted social reality, and it has become commonplace (although not mandatory) for disco to be dismissed for being insufficiently masculine.  Noting that clubs DJs were often gay, Houston A. Baker, Jr. (1991) commented that disco “was not dope in the eyes, ears, and agile bodies of black Bronx teenagers,” before he concluded: “Hey, some resentment of disco culture and a reassertion of black manhood rights (rites) — no matter who populated discotheques — was a natural thing.”  The disdain for house, disco’s most obvious generic descendent, was illustrated when Chuck D of Public Enemy described the genre as “sophisticated, anti-black, anti-feel, the most ARTIFICIAL shit I ever heard. It represents the gay scene, it’s separating blacks from their past and their culture, it’s upwardly mobile.”  More recently, 50 Cent’s derogatory references to “homie” culture and the positioning of female pornography as routine in “Disco Inferno” suggested not so much an engagement with disco as a proposition that the roots of this queer and female dominated culture should be quashed. “For a generation of gays and lesbians raised on disco, hip-hop is foreign territory distinguished mostly by the homophobic trash talk of its superstars,” wrote Derrick Mathis in The Advocate in 2003.

The jousting conceals a nuanced and variegated history in which disco/dance and hip hop/rap DJs drew on the same pool of funk, soul, uptempo R&B and imported records, developed intersecting turntablist practices, set up inclusive record pools, nurtured dance styles (breakdancing and vogueing) that blended athleticism and angularity, and produced a set of recordings that were mixed back-to-back in clubs during the first half of the 1980s. Hip hop chroniclers Jeff Chang, Murray Forman, Nelson George and Tricia Rose have captured shards of this history: that Kool DJ D, Disco King Mario and other Bronx River DJs like DJ Tex played uptempo disco music; that Flash saw Pete “DJ” Jones extend disco records by mixing two copies of the same record; that Bronx discotheques such as Mel Quinns’s on 42nd Street and Club 371 in the Bronx were incubators for early rap; that instrumental disco tracks underpinned some early rap recordings; and that “Rapper’s Delight” received club play.  The citations might have been more extensive if the history of disco had been charted more thoroughly when these and other hip hop historians went about their work; as it is, or was, disco’s ahistorical status also made it vulnerable to parody.  However, recent research has established a platform upon which it possible points of intersection can be traced more easily, and thanks to his aesthetic outlook, the figure of Gibbons encourages an exploration of the intersecting practices and priorities of disco and hip hop.

Gibbons immersed himself in disco culture, yet his excavation of the break across the 1970s and 1980s makes him an articulate advocate of the links that ran between dance and hip hop. Paralleling Herc, Gibbons started to mix between breaks when he DJed at Galaxy 21, where he developed a quick-fire technique that was comparable to Flash. Ahead of disco and hip hop spinners alike, Gibbons started to construct reel-to-reel mixes of his edits in his home that he would play live and also pass to friends, and popularising this turntablist practice, Gibbons drew on his DJing sensibility when mixed the first commercial twelve-inch single for Salsoul in 1976. A short while later, and as the first DJ to be granted access to the multitrack tapes of a recording, he began to explore the way in which sound could be manipulated further in order to accentuate the energy of the dance floor. During the 1980s he continued to explore the aesthetic potential of the looped break when he recorded the haunting, heavily syncopated “Set It Off”, and he continued to pursue his interest in off-kilter, skittish beats with the musician and producer Arthur Russell. For these and other reasons, Gibbons compels us to remember disco and to ponder its relationship to hip hop.

The Break

Walter Gibbons stood at five foot five, sported a wispy moustache, and parted his brown hair right to left. He was also shy and softly spoken. Yet when he stood behind the turntables, he became hurricane articulate, as though he kept his daytime thoughts to himself because he could express them so much more forcefully at night. Aware the process of splitting the nucleus of a song into smaller nuclei could produce a significant release of energy, Gibbons approached his work in the DJ booth with the mindset of a nuclear physicist, and once he deduced that drums lay at the atomic heart of dance music, he began to hunt down songs that included a long drum intro or, alternatively, a break — the technique transplanted from jazz and gospel into soul, funk and early disco whereby the vocalists and musicians would stop playing, often simultaneously, in order to let the drummer play solo. Purchasing two copies of any record that contained one or more of these percussive gems, Gibbons specialized in stretching them beyond the horizon of New York’s tribal imaginary by mixing between two copies of a record.

Born in Brooklyn on 2 April 1954, Gibbons started to forge his sensibility at a young age. At the Walt Whitman Junior High in Brooklyn, recalls one friend, “he was the lone white boy hangin’ out with the sistahs… a fairly tough group of black girls” who probably “helped cultivate his musical taste,” and by June 1972, when he met Rich Flores on a Gay Pride event, he had accumulated a collection of 1,500 seven-inch singles.  Soon after Flores visited Gibbons, who was still living with his mother, and witnessed him play records on an amp and two Gerrard turntables. “He had one turntable plugged into the left channel and the other turntable plugged into the right channel, and he also used low spindles and paper sleeves to help the records slip,” recalls Flores. “He had two copies of Bobby Byrd ‘Hot Pants’, and he extended the opening of the record by using headphones and the fader, which he also used to hear how to cue the incoming record. He could keep it going for as long as he wanted. It was easy for him.”

Gibbons had already DJed for a month or two at a club called Sanctum Sanctorum, where an African American spinner called Alfie Davison was resident, but he was more focused on playing at private house parties, where he would set up his home stereo system and sometimes make a little money. “He was this mamma’s kid,” remarks Flores, who moved into an apartment with Gibbons in the autumn of 1972. “He was green. He knew nobody in the industry and he had no connections.” That began to change when Gibbons started to work at Melody Song Shops (informally known as Melody Records) in the spring of 1973, and toward the end of the year he started to DJ at the Outside Inn, a gay venue situated in Jackson Heights, Queens, after Flores took it upon himself to call around the clubs that were listed in Michael’s Thing, a gay magazine. When MFSB released “Love Is the Message” (Philadelphia International, 1973) around the same time, Gibbons took to extending its instrumental section, after which he began to blend it with spoken extracts from the Wizard of Oz, yet it was his ability to extend the break that became his trademark skill. “I was amazed at the way he would mix,” remembers Mark Zimmer, who went to listen to Gibbons after meeting him in Melody Records towards the beginning of 1974. “He was working with these short little records, which were just two or three minutes long, with maybe a two-measure introduction, and he had the mixing down pat. He would extend the break until he got exhausted, or until the people on the dance floor became fatigued. It was just magnificent to see him do it.”

Gibbons went on to DJ at Galaxy 21, an after-hours venue on Twenty-third Street, around late 1974, or possibly early 1975, and it was there that he began to play records such as Rare Earth “Happy Song” (drawn from the 1975 album Back to Earth), Jermaine Jackson “Erucu” (released by Motown on the Mahogany soundtrack in 1975) and the Cooley High soundtrack number “2 Pigs and A Hog” (also released in 1975), all of which contained prominent breaks. “Walter was so innovative,” notes Kenny Carpenter, who witnessed Gibbons forge his craft in Galaxy 21, where he worked the lights (and briefly dated the DJ). “He would buy two copies of a record like ‘Happy Song’ and he would loop the thirty-second conga section.” Hired to play drums alongside Gibbons, much to the irritation of the DJ, François Kevorkian recalls how listeners “would never hear the actual song” when Gibbons worked two copies of “Happy Song”. “You just heard the drums,” he adds. “It seemed like he kept them going forever, although I imagine it was actually about ten minutes.” (Lawrence 2003: 216)

It was in the late-night setting of Galaxy 21 that Gibbons was able to fully develop his craft. “You could get away with things at an after hours venue that you couldn’t get away with at a regular club night,” notes Tony Smith, the DJ at Barefoot Boy, who met Gibbons in mid 1975. “After five hours [of dancing in another venue] people would have heard most of the things they wanted to hear and they would be ready for something new. You could go to Galaxy 21 at seven-a.m.” ⎯ most other discotheques closed at four-a.m. and Galaxy 21 opened at four-forty-a.m. ⎯ “and the club would still be packed.” Looping breaks in order to generate tension before switching to a euphoria-inducing vocal crescendo, Gibbons acquired a reputation for being for being a highly skilled original. “Walter was making a lot of flawless mixes,” says Danny Krivit, who started DJing at the Ninth Circle in 1971. “He would go back and forth, very quickly, which made it sound like a live edit. It was very impressive.” Disco historian Peter Shapiro (34) notes that people started to refer to the spinner’s style as “jungle music”.

Gibbons was operating at the fulcrum of converging historical forces. The age-old practice of dancing to drum-generated rhythms echoed beneath his beat-mixing aesthetic, while the potential to repeat that experience with pre-recorded music in an industrialised western setting had been established when jazz musicians began to lay down drum breaks on their records. The likelihood of these breaks being looped in consecutive succession increased when David Mancuso and Francis Grasso started to select records for the predominantly gay crowds that congregated at the Loft (a private party situated in NoHo) and the Sanctuary (a public discotheque situated in Hell’s Kitchen) at the beginning of 1970. Previously dancers had been required to move within the physically restrictive matrix of the heterosexual couple, while DJs were charged with the task of “working the bar” (in order to maximize venue profits) and accordingly interrupted the rhythmic flow in order to encourage dancers to drink. But the predominantly gay crowds who congregated at the Loft and the Sanctuary weren’t used to dancing with partners of the same sex ⎯ indeed New York law continued to forbid such activity until December 1971 ⎯ and the post-Stonewall celebratory fervour that swept through these venues contributed to the emergence of a new antiphonic dynamic. From this point onwards, dancers moved in freeform patterns that were connected to the broader fluctuations of the assembled crowd, while DJs selected records according to the mood of the floor and programmed them to flow across the course of an entire night.

Picking out tracks that would have cleared the dance floor in another setting, Grasso substituted Santana’s guitar-led “Jingo” (Columbia, 1969) with Olatunji’s original version, “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion)” (Columbia, 1959), while Mancuso began to spin the heavily-percussive “Exuma, the Obeah Man” by Exuma (Mercury, 1969) and “City, Country, City” by War (United Artists, 1972) around the same time. “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman (Victor, 1937), “Revelation” by Love (Da Capo, 1967), “Girl, You Need A Change of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks (Motown, 1972) and “Sultana” by Titanic (RCA, 1971) also became popular, in part because dancers loved the rhythmic dynamism of their breaks as well as the way in which these percussive interludes contrasted with other instrumental and vocal parts, and accordingly generated tension and release. Within the space of a few short months, the break had assumed a central position within New York’s nascent dance network.

New York DJs set about deploying the technologies of the turntable and the mixer to intensify the experience of the dance floor. Leading the way, Grasso pioneered the art of extended beat mixing, while Mancuso stuck to rudimentary segueing in order to stay focused on developing themes around lyrical meanings and instrumental moods. After that, New York spinners such as Jim Burgess, Michael Cappello, Steve D’Acquisto, Armando Galvez, Bobby “DJ” Guttadaro, Richie Kaczor, Frankie Knuckles, Robbie Leslie, Larry Levan, Howard Merritt, Richie Rivera, David Rodriguez, Tom Savarese, Tee Scott, Nicky Siano, Jimmy Stuard and Ray Yeates began to beat-match, interrupt records in mid-flow, manipulate the equalizer, and even mix with three turntables. Plying their trade in Boston and Philadelphia, John Luongo and David Todd mixed between the breaks of records, while Siano might have been the first DJ to virtually insist he would only play a record if it contained a break. Gibbons appreciated the work of his peers: in his opinion, Todd could beat-mix for longer than any other spinner, while Kaczor (he told Zimmer) was “one of the first DJs to do this type of mixing.” Amidst the turntablist frenzy, Gibbons acquired a reputation for championing the break. “["2 Pigs and a Hog"] is only 1:46, but the DJs play it two or three times in a row, making it longer,” reported Tom Moulton in Billboard in October 1975. “The LP has been around for several months and Walter [Gibbons] believed in the record enough to try and convince others.”

DJ Kool Herc began to lay down a similar breakbeat aesthetic about a year after Gibbons started to DJ in public. Having arrived in New York from Jamaica, Herc had played reggae at his first party, which he staged in the rec room of the apartment building where he lived on Sedgwick Avenue in August 1973, but as Jeff Chang points out in a narrative that has acquired folklore status, the crowd “wanted the breaks”, so he “dropped some soul and funk bombs” (Chang: 70). In the summer of 1974 Herc started to put on free outdoor parties, and at some point he started to work a technique that became known as the “Merry-Go-Round,” which involved him using two copies of a record in order to extend the break. Toop (6) notes that Herc “switched to Latin-tinged funk, just playing the fragments that were popular with the dancers and ignoring the rest of the track”, and adds that the “most popular part was usually the percussion break.” Electro pioneer Afrika Bambaataa recalls Herc began to turn to “certain disco records that had funky percussion breaks… and he just kept that beat going” (Toop 2000: 6).

The question remains: if dancer desire for the break was so explicit, why hadn’t other DJs started to extend these sections at an earlier moment? Offering an explanation, Garnette Cadogan (2007) suggests Herc was not simply responding to his Bronx-based dancers, but also channelled their will through a set of priorities and techniques he had absorbed in Jamaica, where sound system DJs would head from the party to the studio in order to edit records according to the responses they had just witnessed on the dance floor. Because Herc lacked that kind of studio set-up in New York, he worked out how to reproduce the looped process on the spot, and so a modified Jamaican outlook was brought to bear on a set of non-Jamaican records. “We can think of Kool Herc as a one-man sound system-cum-studio, or, if you prefer, a selector-cum-sound system-cum-studio who fused economic expediency with imaginative remixing and improvisation,” Cadogan adds in conversation. “Like the dub musicians who reused existing rhythms to useful and even exhaustive effect, Herc developed a technique that made perfect economic and creative sense, and supplied an aesthetic in which the pleasure of dancers (and a quick, ready responsiveness to them) reigned paramount. Perhaps more than anything else, this is how Jamaican popular music influenced hip hop.” Acknowledging the attention to the dance floor was not specific to Jamaica, but was also an established practice within the tradition of African American jazz dance and related forms, Cadogan concludes: “Although Kool Herc’s techniques marked a departure, I see the departure as less a break than an apotheosis, or a confluence of earlier practices.”

Along with Luongo and Todd, Gibbons developed a comparable practice, perhaps because the darkened space of the discotheque, in which time and space could be collapsed and extended in unconventional ways, encouraged him to adopt an aesthetic that sounded both primeval and futuristic. Yet whereas Herc talked over records in a style reminiscent of Jamaican MCing, Gibbons abandoned the radio tradition of talking between and sometimes over records, and while the Bronx DJ faded from one record to the next without lining up the beats ⎯ much to the frustration of listeners such as Flash ⎯ Gibbons combined precision and spontaneity in his mixing. “The break in ‘Happy Song’ is only thirty seconds long and he [Gibbons] knew exactly how to make it click because to me it sounded like one record,” recalls Kevorkian. “I was playing along with the drums and it was always the same pattern, always the same number of bars. He had this uncanny sense of mixing that was so accurate it was unbelievable.” The Galaxy DJ’s technical perfection disguised the difficulty of the mix. “When you listened to the record it was like, ‘Wait a minute, where do I cue up to know exactly where I am?’ It’s not easy. The record doesn’t just start. It fades up. You really have to have a very keen ear to pick it out through the headphones.”

The contrasting approaches of Gibbons and Herc were grounded in the culture of their respective dance crowds. At Herc’s street parties, athletic young dancers ⎯ break boys, or b-boys, as Herc dubbed them ⎯ would compete with each other, and as their skills became more developed and the competition intensified, other partygoers began to circle around them in order to watch the unfolding spectacle. “Each person’s turn in the ring was very brief ⎯ ten to thirty seconds ⎯ but packed with action and meaning,” Nelson George (Rose 1994: 47) has noted of the nascent form. “It began with an entry, a hesitating walk that allowed him to get in step with the music for several beats and take his place ‘on stage.’ Next the dancer ‘got down’ to the floor to do the footwork, a rapid, slashing, circular scan of the floor by sneakered feet, in which the hands support the body’s weight while the head and torso revolve at a slower speed, a kind of syncopated sunken pirouette, also known as the helicopter. Acrobatic transitions such as head spins, hand spins, shoulder spins, flips and the swipe ⎯ a flip of the weight from hands to feet that also involves a twist in the body’s direction ⎯ served as bridges between the footwork and the freeze.”

The athletic style of the b-boys did not require Herc to mix smoothly between records such as “Bra” by Cymande (Janus, 1972), “Funky Music Is the Thing” by the Dynamic Corvettes (Abet, 1975), “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band (MGM, 1973), “Get Into Something” by the Isley Brothers (T-Neck, 1970), or “It’s Just Begun” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch (RCA, 1972). According to Rose (47), breakdancers executed “moves that imitated the rupture in rhythmic continuity as it was highlighted in the musical break,” and it follows that Herc’s abrupt transitions might have been welcomed as an additional challenge.  Shapiro (237) adds that the hip hop break functioned in a different way to the disco break, for while the latter created a moment for dancers to “relax”, the former was “just the opposite.” Shapiro oversimplifies in order to make his point, because so-called hip hop records such as “The Mexican” by Babe Ruth (Harvest, 1973), the live version of James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit A Loose” (King, 1970), and “Think (About It)” by Lynn Collins (People, 1972) were played regularly in disco settings, while protagonists from the private party and public discotheque network attest to the way the disco break was experienced as a moment of intense excitement and energy. If there was a difference in the private party or public discotheque setting, it lay in the way dancers sought to merge into the crowd rather than stand out as spectacular individuals. DJs such as Gibbons contributed to the dynamic by developing a mixing technique that created a mesmerising flow and encouraged dancers to abandon themselves to the rhythm of the music.

As Flash, Bambaataa and other spinners came to the fore, innovative techniques such as scratching and the quick-fire mixing of multiple records consolidated the impression that hip hop and disco spinners were assuming distinctive styles as they pursued contrasting goals. Yet these differences should not be allowed to override the common turntablist ethos that linked both sets of DJs from the outset as well as the way Gibbons bridged the ostensibly disconnected worlds of Manhattan and the Bronx. The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, John “Jellybean” Benitez grew up on Davidson Avenue in the South Bronx and witnessed DJs such as Bambaataa scratch and quick-cut before he went on to hear Gibbons spin at Galaxy 21. “He [Gibbons] would cut up records creatively, he would play two together, he did double beats, he worked the sound system, and he made pressings of his own edits,” says Jellybean (Lawrence 2003: 217). “Walter played a lot of beats and breaks, and I had never heard a disco DJ playing those kinds of records before. His style appealed to my Bronx sensibilities. He just blew me away.”

Walter Gibbons. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Kenny Carpenter.

Walter Gibbons. Photographer unknown, courtesy of Kenny Carpenter.

Disco spinners were also left open-mouthed. “Walter was doing things other DJs wished they could try in their clubs, including me,” remembers Smith, who became close with Gibbons during this period. “I heard every DJ, straight and gay, because I wanted to know what was going on in the music world. Walter was the most advanced.” Having heard the future, Smith started to go to Galaxy 21 on a regular basis once he had wrapped up for the night at Barefoot Boy. “Everyone was going to hear Walter,” adds Smith. “Most DJs finished at four so we could hear Walter from five until ten. DJs couldn’t go and listen to too many people because we had played all night and didn’t want to hear the same thing all over again. But we knew Walter would turn us on. Everyone showed up.” Smith remembers how the collective fascination with Gibbons emerged in a very short space of time. “It happened close to overnight. DJs were saying, ‘Oh, did you hear Walter?’ because no one else was doing it. There were lots of good DJs around, but nobody was spinning like Walter.”

Once Gibbons had finished his set, he and Smith would go for breakfast and, weather permitting, a trip to the beach, where they would talk about music. “Walter loved progressive music,” recalls Smith. “That’s why I bought him ‘New York City’ by Miroslav Vitous. He was the first person to play ‘Love Is the Message’ with Funkadelic in the background. That was the kind of music he was into.” Whereas spinners such as Mancuso and Siano were able to develop a similarly broad-ranging musical agenda because the private status of their parties enabled them to stay open late and attract a predominantly gay crowd that was in search of intimacy and innovation, Gibbons lacked that kind of set-up yet still managed to forge a daring aesthetic. As Smith notes, “The amazing thing was that Walter did what he did for a predominantly straight crowd when it was thought they weren’t as musically progressive as the gay crowds.”

Tape and Acetate

The task of mixing between the breaks that appeared in disco and funk records was doubly difficult. The subtly shifting time signatures of their live drums meant the DJ could never hope to lock into an unchanging tempo, while the truncated length of the percussive solos added to the challenge. If a break lasted for thirty seconds, that was long, so Walter Gibbons had to be dextrous and sharp-eared if he was to mix between the breaks more than once ⎯ a feat that required him to play the break in record A and then return to the beginning of that break before the equivalent break in record B ran its course. “These quick-fire mixes were work,” says Tony Smith. “There were so many short songs where he had to do this mixing technique that after a while he started to put his beat mixes on reel-to-reel at home. Walter became really adept at reel-to-reel.” Kenny Carpenter notes that Gibbons would still perform lives mixes, but adds that “if there was a mix that went over well Walter would perfect it on reel-to-reel.” For the most part these tape edits were not pressed to acetate ⎯ or the cheap and ephemeral “dub plate” disc format that was used to test original recordings before they were pressed up onto a “master disc” and reproduced for retail. “Galaxy 21 had a reel-to-reel player/recorder for him to play his edits. He worked in this way to protect the exclusivity of his mixes since, in those days, you couldn’t make a copy of a reel-to-reel.”

A range of dub producers, experimental composers and recording artists ⎯ among them the Beatles, Miles Davis, Alvin Lucier, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Steve Reich, Pierre Schaeffer and King Tubby ⎯ had started to explore the sonic possibilities of splicing and looping tape before Gibbons, while Tom Moulton had recorded a non-stop cassette mix for the nascent discotheque scene after he visited Fire Island in the early 1970s. Yet Gibbons appears to have pioneered the practice of developing homemade reel-to-reel edits and pressing them up onto acetate when he produced a custom-made mix of the Temptations “Law of the Land” in 1973 (the year of the song’s release on Motown). “‘Law of the Land’ starts with clapping and he used to extend that section in real time,” comments Rich Flores. “But there were a few fuck-ups, so I said, ‘Why don’t we record the song over and over again, just the beginning of it, and then splice the magnetic tape together?’ I didn’t have a proper splicing block, so it was ninety-five percent good. Then we pressed it to acetate.”

Situated on Forty-seventh Street and Broadway, Angel Sound appears to have been the first company to start pressing up dance records onto acetate for club play. “I had done the big stuff for so long I decided I wanted a smaller place, so I set myself up to do something the larger studios didn’t care to do ⎯ small recordings and the cutting of discs,” says Sandy Sandoval, who opened Angel Sound in 1966. “I was a lot more successful than I ever imagined.” Having spent most of his time working in rock ‘n’ roll and rock, and even engineering Hendrix, Sandoval was surprised when club-based spinners began to pour into his studio in 1972, and by the mid 1970s he says the approximate figure had risen from ten to forty or fifty, which accounted for something like twenty percent of his total business. Sandoval adds that a number of Jamaican reggae DJs also passed through his studio to press up acetate recordings, but maintains there were “no hip hop guys”. Then again, how could Sandoval or anyone else have distinguished between a hip hop guy and a disco guy during the first half of the 1970s?

According to Sandoval, the DJs would enter the studio with reel-to-reels and cassettes that contained looped breaks and other reworked instrumental sections, and they also used the studio to grab nonrhythmic parts (such as speech extracts) and overlay those parts onto other tracks. “We’d make transfers and adjustments to the timing, and sometimes we’d carry out the edits they wanted, as well,” he notes. “They would get these tapes together, but the tapes couldn’t be used for DJing [because most clubs were only equipped with turntables], so they came to us to have the music put onto disc. They would exchange recordings and make compilations of these things. They were all striving to have something that was a little bit different.” The names of the DJs who pressed up these cuts, as well as the dates they went about their work, have been lost to the vagaries of this indelibly transient, anonymous, black-market economy, yet Sandoval recalls their enthusiasm with fondness. “The DJs were really into it,” he comments. “They played in rough clubs, but they were basically just people who liked music. They probably didn’t have the talent to play an instrument, but disco gave them a chance to work in music.”

Initially DJs went to Angel Sound with the sole intention of pressing up acetates of rare records, but when Gibbons played Flores two Angel Sound bootlegs ⎯ Max B’s “Bananaticoco” and “Nessa”, which had been released originally on Wah Wah in 1972, and Eric and the Vikings “Get Off the Street Y’All”, which came out on Soulhawk, a Detroit-based record company ⎯ Flores became inquisitive.  “Walter came over to my mother’s house before we moved in together, took these ten-inch acetates out of a green sleeve, and played them,” recalls Flores. “The Bananaticoco had a lot of heavy bongos, and it was very jungle-like. The Eric and the Vikings was a very obscure instrumental track. I was impressed.” When Flores discovered Sandoval charged seven or eight dollars per acetate, he decided to purchase his own record-cutting lathe in order to combine his technical know-how with his boyfriend’s impressive record collection. “I knew we were going to have strangers come up to the apartment so I said, ‘Let’s put the machine in the foyer so people don’t have to come into our living room or bedroom,’” recalls Flores. “We had a favourite record by Boris Gardner that was called ‘Melting Pot’ ⎯ it was a Jamaican record that the DJs used to play in the clubs ⎯ so that’s what we called our company.’”

Twenty two-sided seven-inch acetates were pressed up on Melting Pot, and when sales turned out to be slow, Flores and Gibbons arranged for them to be listed at Downstairs Records, where DJ customers were invited to place orders. The selection of artists and tracks pressed up on Melting Pot ⎯ MP-01 Kongas “Jungle” / Tony Morgan “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys”, MP-02 Max B “Nessa” / Elephant’s Memory, MP-03 Eric and the Vikings “Get Off the Streets Y’All” / United 8 “Getting Uptown to Get Down”, MP-04 Titanic “Santa Fe” / Edwin Starr “Time”, MP-05 Andwella “Hold On to Your Mind” / Apatchi Band “Issmak”, MP-06 Julio Gutierrez “Revival” / Edwin Starr “Runnin’ Back and Forth”, and so on ⎯ reveals the common aesthetic that was surging within the nascent disco and hip hop scenes.  Running to MP-20, the series also included edits of “People Get On Up and Drive Your Funky Soul” by James Brown, “Exuma, The Obeah Man” by Exuma, and… “It’s Just Begun” by The Jimmy Castor Bunch. “None of these records were edits,” notes Flores. “They were all direct copies. The only edits we did were ‘Law of the Land’ and then ‘Love Is the Message’.”

Taken together, these sounds, formats and practices repudiate the idea that discotheque turntablism amounted to a conservative practice. “Disco was brand new then and there were a few jocks that had monstrous sound systems but they wouldn’t dare play this kind of music,” Grandmaster Flash told David Toop (2004b: 233-45) in one such critique. “They would never play a record where only two minutes of the song was all it was worth. They wouldn’t buy those type of records. The type of mixing that was out then was blending from one record to the next or waiting for the record to go off and wait for the jock to put the needle back on.” Yet discotheque DJs such as the exemplary Gibbons were mixing between two copies of the same record, as well as pioneering a range of other techniques that led them to manipulate pre-recorded music in order to keep their dance floors moving.  Just as hip hop DJs would begin to introduce innovative mixing techniques during the second half of 1974, so discotheque DJs searched tirelessly for new ways to massage sound in order to keep their dance floors moving, and across 1972 and 1973 this outlook gave rise to a reel-to-reel and acetate economy that came to isolate and extend the fragment of the break. Indeed their commitment to reworking records where “only two minutes of the song was all it was worth” was so forceful it would give rise to a new format ⎯ and Gibbons was once again positioned at the centre of the sonic storm.

Ten Percent

Walter Gibbons was tenacious in his pursuit of music and, according to Mark Zimmer, he “knew how to be a little aggressive” in order to have his name added to the door list of a club or get promotional records. On one occasion Gibbons showed Zimmer a Top Twenty list that had been published and asked him if he noticed anything peculiar about it. “I took a good look and I said, ‘Oh, every song is from a different record company!’” recalls Zimmer. “Walter knew how to use these lists to his advantage, because that meant he could call the companies and say, ‘Look, I have your record in my list!’ If it was a Top Forty list he would have listed records from forty different companies.” The outlook served Gibbons well when he approached Salsoul, a newly formed independent label, and offered to promote their records for free ⎯ as long as he did not have to pay for them. “Walter was very aggressive when it came to searching out new records,” says Ken Cayre, the co-owner of the company. “He became friendly with Denise Chatman, our promotions girl, and we went to hear him play. I was very impressed with his skills.”

With only a limited background in music, Cayre had put Salsoul on the map by persuading the Philadelphia International musicians Vince Montana (vibes), Ronnie Baker (bass), Norman Harris (guitar) and Earl Young (drums) to play on “Salsoul Hustle” (Salsoul, 1975), which referenced Van McCoy’s smash hit “The Hustle” (Avoc, 1975), and he attempted to build on this success when he commissioned the Philadelphia band Double Exposure to record the album Ten Percent (Salsoul, 1976). In order to promote the album’s title single, Cayre released a non-commercial promotional twelve-inch test pressing of the six-minute-fifty-second album version, which consisted of the standard single plus an extended jam, and when inquisitiveness led him to go and hear Gibbons play at Galaxy 21, the DJ worked two copies of the promo in his trademark fashion. “He did this fantastic edit and the reaction in the club was phenomenal,” recalls Cayre, who went to the club with Chatman. “I said, ‘Can you do that in the studio?’ He said he could.” Having been impressed by the seriousness and diligence displayed by Gibbons in his dealings with Salsoul, Cayre concluded that the DJ was atypical of his peers and could be entrusted with the remix. According to Smith, Gibbons was interested in remixing “Ten Percent” because the record was “more progressive than the label’s attempt to compete with Van McCoy.”

By this point the collective desire for extended mixes was tangible. Ever since they started to play extended sets, New York’s insomniac spinners had sought out long, experimental album cuts that would enable their dancers to lose themselves in the music, and because these cuts were scarce, they had also adopted the habit of buying two copies of a seven-inch single in order to extend an original recording beyond its three- to four-minute limit. Scepter’s Mel Cheren was the first record company executive to respond to the demand, and having commissioned Tom Moulton to remix of “Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)” by B.T. Express (Scepter, 1974) and “Dream World” by Don Downing (Scepter, 1974), which were squeezed onto seven-inch singles, he released another remix ⎯ Bobby Moore’s “Call Me Your Anything Man” ⎯ as a promo-only twelve-inch dance single in June 1975.  Although there is some dispute as to whether the Moore remix amounted to the first twelve-inch dance release, the fact that remixes of “I’ll Be Holding On” by Al Downing, “So Much for Love” by Moment of Truth, “(Baby) Save Me” by Secrets, and “Train Called Freedom” by South Shore Commission can also lay claim to that honour highlights the way club-based DJs and disco-friendly labels were set on establishing an extended dance format.

Cayre’s contribution turned out to be twofold. He was the first label head to grasp that the twelve-inch single would appeal to dancers as well as DJs, and accordingly released “Ten Percent” as the first commercially available twelve-inch single. And he also understood that, despite their lowly position within the music industry, discotheque DJs were more adept than producers when it came to grasping the way the dynamic of the dance floor might be transposed onto vinyl, and so he commissioned Gibbons to team up with the engineer Bob Blank and produce a remix of “Ten Percent”. They were given three hours to complete the job ⎯ in effect, one hour to put up the mix and channel the sound, one hour to break down the recording, and one hour to cut up tape with a razor blade. “Walter was prepared but he couldn’t prepare everything,” says Blank, who would go on to become the most revered engineer in the dance scene. “He had to be ready to do ‘brain work’ on the spur of the moment. The session was very intuitive. Walter was a real genius.”

Walter Gibbons at Blank Tapes Studios, New York. Photographer unknown, courtesy of François Kevorkian.

Walter Gibbons at Blank Tapes Studios, New York. Photographer unknown, courtesy of François Kevorkian.

By the end of the session, the diminutive DJ had transformed the album version of “Ten Percent” into a nine-minute-forty-five-second roller coaster that stretched out the rhythm section, the strings and T.G. Conway’s keyboards.  Gibbons was paid $185 for his efforts — $85 to cover a night’s work at Galaxy, plus $100 for the mix — and he started to spin an acetate of the remix (which was effectively a readymade version of the lightning-quick collages he had already been creating at Galaxy) in late February/early March 1976. Released in May, the remix captured the way in which disco’s novel aesthetic was beginning to influence wider music culture. “I heard it on an acetate in the Gallery,” recalls Mixmaster editor and downtown connoisseur Michael Gomes (Lawrence 2003: 218). “It sounded so new, going backwards and forwards. It built and built like it would never stop. The dance floor just exploded.” To the frustration of Rich Flores, Gibbons took the tapes to be mastered at Sunshine Sound, which would go on to become a significant rival to Angel Sound. “Walter could have easily said to me, ‘Would you like to master the ‘Ten Percent’ twelve-inch?’” claims Flores. “He could have said, ‘Hey, Rich, are you eating good?’ That’s my one resentment with Walter.” Flores would have probably landed the job if he and Gibbons had not broken up towards the beginning of 1975, having released something like 250-350 acetates on Melting Pot.

Sales of the “Ten Percent” twelve-inch single quickly outstripped the regular seven-inch by two to one (McGee 1976; Garcia 1976), but the record’s original architects were disappointed with the result. “The mixer cut up the lyrics and changed the music,” comments Allan Felder, who co-wrote the song with Conway (Lawrence 2003: 218). “It was as if the writers and producers were nothing.” Felder’s outlook was widely shared in the 1970s ⎯ DJs were widely regarded as musical parasites, and the idea that someone like Gibbons should be given carte blanche to remix an “original work of art” was doggedly opposed ⎯ but Cayre understood their potential importance. “Walter was the first DJ to show the record companies that they should be open to different versions of a song,” he notes. “They were in the club night after night so they knew what worked and what didn’t work. Walter was pivotal. He convinced producers and other record companies to give the DJs an opportunity to remix records for the clubs. And he showed us that these records could be commercially successful. People didn’t believe that was possible before ‘Ten Percent’. Walter was a pioneer.”

Gibbons remixed “Sun… Sun… Sun…” by Jakki around the same time he worked on “Ten Percent”.  Produced by Johnny Melfi and released on Pyramid as a twelve-inch in 1976, the record sleeve information contained no reference to Gibbons, but Chatman, who was nicknamed “Sunshine” because of her cheerful personality, remembers Gibbons phoning her up to tell her he was remixing the record. “Walter called me and said, ‘Sunshine, sunshine, sunshine!’” she remembers. “Then he told me the name of the record.” The remix consisted of three parts: the regular song (which was released as a seven-inch single), a looped break (snatched from the beginning of the second side of the original seven-inch), and a mix of the A- and B-sides of the seven-inch. The break — which was highly percussive, and included trippy vocal clips that faded in and out — was typical of the drums-for-days reel-to-reel edits Gibbons had been developing at Galaxy 21, and it was this section of the record that set it apart from “Ten Percent”. “It was a really bad song and Walter turned it into a nine-minute mix,” says Smith, who remembers the release being slow to attract attention, in part because Pyramid was a small company, in part because the remix was so off-the-wall. “We would just play the break and after a while we grew to like the rest of the song. The record got no play until it was mixed by Walter.”

But it was Salsoul rather than Pyramid that went on to develop a pivotal affiliation with Gibbons when Cayre invited the DJ to remix “Nice ‘N’ Naasty” and “Salsoul 2001″ by the Salsoul Orchestra. Gibbons included a trademark thirty-second percussive break in his A-side remix of “Nice”, yet it was the B-side version of “Salsoul 2001″, which was re-titled “Salsoul 3001″, that revealed Gibbons’s willingness to record increasingly abstract and strange remixes. “Salsoul 3001″ opened with jet engines, animal whoops, congas and timbales before the record soared into a powerful combination of orchestral refrains and synthesised sound effects that were played out against a backdrop of relentless Latin rhythms. “This has got to be one of the year’s most extraordinary products and although it may be too overwhelming and bizarre for some clubs, others, like New York’s Loft, turn to pandemonium when the record comes on,” reported Vince Aletti (1976) in his highly regarded “Disco File” column in Record World. “Experiment with it if you haven’t already.” Moulton was taken aback. “Walter did this weird, off-the-wall stuff with ’3001′,” says the remix pioneer, who also started to work for Salsoul in 1976. “I said, ‘Walter, what was going through that brain of yours for ’3001′?’ It was nothing like ’2001′.” A non-DJ who did not like to go out dancing, in part because he disapproved of the night scene’s association with drug consumption, Moulton concedes he “couldn’t understand” the aberrant angles of the remix. “It was like Walter wanted to come out with an album that was tripping. Walter was the first radical one.”

Hit and Run

Walter Gibbons developed an even more militant aesthetic on his remix of Loleatta Holloway’s “Hit and Run”. Released in December 1976 on the album Loleatta, which appeared on Gold Mind, a Salsoul subsidiary, the song appealed to Gibbons, who asked Ken Cayre if he could rework the record. In an unprecedented gesture that demonstrated his faith in the DJ, the Salsoul boss handed Gibbons the multitrack tapes in order to maximise his creative scope. Previously limited to carrying out cut-and-paste reedits on half-inch master copies, the remixer was now able to select between each individual track, and he ended up dissecting and reconstructing the six-minute album version in a sweeping manner. Jettisoning large swathes of the original production, Gibbons removed the entire string section and almost all of the horns in order to place greater emphasis on Ronnie Baker, Norman Harris and Earl Young’s rhythm section, and in an even more audacious move the remixer revised the entire focus of the record by cutting the first two minutes of Holloway’s vocal as well as all of her verses, perhaps because the “old-fashioned country girl” content of the song was deemed to be inappropriate for the urban dance floor, and also because Holloway’s vocal performance was at its most conservative in those sections. Gibbons preferred the second, improvised half of Holloway’s effort, in which the vocalist supplied an extended, improvised vamp that consisted of a series of lung-busting repetitions, screams, tremors and sighs that ran for three minutes on the original release. To his delight, Gibbons discovered the multitracks contained even more of the same, so he extended the vamp to a long five minutes, and also ran it higher (i.e. louder) in the mix. Lasting an epic eleven minutes seven seconds, the final cut was almost twice the length of the five-minute-fifty-two original.

Cayre wondered if he had made a terrible mistake when Gibbons handed him the revised tape. After all, there was no precedent for a remixer to slice out such a high percentage of the instrumentation, not to mention significant elements of the vocal, and the record label boss began to wonder how he would deal with a wrathful Norman Harris (who had produced the record) as well as an incandescent vocalist (who was well-versed in the art of standing up to men). Gibbons reassured Cayre he simply needed to get used to the new version, and sure enough, when he went to hear it played live he realized Gibbons had improved the record from the perspective of the dance floor. Resolute in his opposition, Harris attempted to have the remix shelved ⎯ unsuccessfully, as it turned out ⎯ while Moulton was equivocal in his support. “Many of the breaks on this record are unpredictable, and convey the impression that the mixing deejay was working with a full floor of dancers and was going out of his way to ‘do a number’ on the audience,” he wrote in Billboard at the beginning of May 1977. “This version is really so different from the original that it must be classified as a new record.”

“Hit and Run” (Gold Mind, 1977) marked out the aesthetic potential of the twelve-inch remix. Embedded in the dynamic call-and-response relationship that ran between the DJ and the dancing crowd, the record captured important elements of Jacques Attali’s demand (Attali 1989: 132-48) for music to become democratic, improvised and non-reproducible in order for it to forge a sonic alternative to the hierarchical and commodity-driven music industry. Rather than having the music determined “on high” by recognised specialists such as Harris and Holloway, Gibbons integrated the communicated priorities of his dancers in the twelve-inch reinterpretation of “Hit and Run”, which highlighted the rhythmic groove above orchestral complexity, as well as the affective intensity of Holloway’s delivery above her semiotic presence. “I remember every DJ just loving it,” says Smith. “I heard it everywhere I went and the crowds just went crazy. Everyone was used to the uniform Tom Moulton mix of the intro, the vocal, a little instrumental part and then a fade-out on the vocal. But Walter changed the whole sequence of the song. He did it a bit with ‘Ten Percent’ and he did it even more with ‘Hit And Run’.”

Hostile towards drug consumption and suspicious that Gibbons made his records with that culture in mind, Moulton says he could not understand his peer’s work. Yet although Gibbons would occasionally take blotter acid and smoke pot when he worked or went to hear other spinners, Smith, who would partner him, maintains the drugs were always secondary. “It was all about enhancing and expanding our creative juices,” notes Smith. “We wouldn’t do anything that was overpowering because that would stop us focusing on the music. The drug wasn’t the high. The music was the high.” Moulton also developed intoxicating music, but whereas his remixes were grounded in melody and structure, Gibbons was drawn to discord and unpredictability, and this approach appealed to dancers and DJs who wanted to be transported into the unfamiliar. “Tom was first and he was consistent all the way through, but Walter’s mixes were outrageous and quickly got a lot of attention,” says Danny Krivit. “Tom was by no means out of the picture, but Walter was much more irreverent and very much the remixer of the moment.”

Featuring “We’re Getting Stronger” on the B-side, the twelve-inch of “Hit and Run” sold approximately 300,000 copies, outstripping the “Ten Percent” twelve-inch and the “Hit and Run” seven-inch along the way. The commercial success of the release helped placate Harris, and also illustrated the way in which disco music could bypass the imperative of the Hot 100 while remaining economically viable. In addition, a milestone had been passed in the history of recorded music three times over inasmuch as a DJ had revised a leading producer’s work beyond recognition, the remix had outsold the original single, and the producer accepted the logic of the exercise ⎯ even if he continued to object to the aesthetic sensibility developed by Gibbons. The balance of power was shifting within the music industry, and Gibbons lay at the centre of a transition that would go on to define the DJ-led principles of dance music and hip hop productions in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Hit and Run” fortified Salsoul’s pre-eminent status among New York’s DJs, and during the first half of 1977 Walter Gibbons consolidated his position as the label’s most compelling remixer. He included a trademark break in his reworking of True Example’s tender “Love Is Finally Coming My Way” (backed with “As Long As You Love Me”), which was considered by many to be one of his strongest mixes to date, and he restructured Love Committee’s “Cheaters Never Win”/”Where Will It End,” a sweet-sounding falsetto recording, in a similar vein. Gibbons also remixed Anthony White’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”, an Otis Redding cover, and appeared to nod toward the emergent culture of hip hop when he created an unusual B-side edit and renamed it “Block Party”. During the same period Gibbons also stretched out the Salsoul Orchestra’s discordant strings around layers of shifting percussion on his reworking of “Magic Bird of Fire”. In all likelihood these remixes were completed before Gibbons was employed to blend a selection of Salsoul records on Disco Boogie: Super Hits For Non-Stop Dancing (Salsoul) in the summer of 1977. Including only the briefest of segues between each track, the album would have disappointed any dancer who hoped to purchase a simulacrum of Gibbons’s Galaxy aesthetic.

Gibbons’s DJing career was comparatively troubled, however, the spinner having left Galaxy 21 towards the end of 1976 when he realised his sets were being recorded secretly. George Freeman must have delivered a fine speech because the DJ agreed to return to the after hours venue, but he quit again when he discovered his reel-to-reel edits ⎯ possibly including his sough-after versions of “”Girl You Need A Change of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks and “Where Is the Love” by Betty Wright (Alston, 1975) ⎯ were being lifted from his booth and taken to Sunshine Sound, where they were being pressed up and sold on the black market. Following his split with Rich Flores, Gibbons had started to channel the acetate end of his work ⎯ including a pressing of “It’s Better Then Good Time” by Gladys Knight (originally released as “It’s Better Than Good Time” on Buddah in 1978) ⎯ through Sunshine Sound.  “Sunshine Sound was my competitor and at the time I didn’t know Walter knew these people,” comments Flores, who kept the lathe and set up a smaller (and less prolific) acetate-cutting outfit called Spectrum Sound. “Later on I found out that Walter was working with them, bringing them all the business.” Flores would bump into Gibbons occasionally and remembers his ex-partner telling him that Sunshine Sound was engaging in shady bootlegging practices. “Even though I wasn’t with Walter, I spoke with him, and he said Sunshine Sound was secretly recording the DJ mixes while they were cutting their records.” It’s likely that Gibbons would have subsequently stopped taking his reel-to-reels to Sunshine for fear of illegal copy, and he therefore might have been doubly dismayed to learn at this later point that he could not even play his homemade tapes at Galaxy without fear of being pirated.

Galaxy 21 ended up closing around the beginning of 1977 — the venue was never going to survive without its renowned spinner — and Gibbons spent the next six months bouncing around venues such as Crisco Disco, Fantasia and Pep McGuires. Gibbons’s quick-fire sequence of post-Galaxy 21 residences suggested his challenging playing style and awkward personality made it difficult for him to settle into a regular discotheque ⎯ indeed he had already failed to hold down alternate positions at Limelight, Better Days and Barefoot Boy, where he played on his nights off from Galaxy 21 ⎯ and in the summer of 1977 Gibbons travelled to Seattle, where Freeman had opened a predominantly gay discotheque called the Monastery. Gibbons returned to New York during the first half of 1978, but struggled to hold down a steady spot. “Walter was too experimental and too creative,” reasons Smith, who had handed Gibbons the Monday and Tuesday-night spots at Barefoot Boy. “Most DJs trained their crowd to know them, but Walter was known for being Walter and he didn’t want to change.” Smith remembers telling his friend that he needed to modify his playing at Barefoot Boy, which wasn’t an after hours club, but his advice went unheeded. “Walter was not good at compromising. He was steadfast in what he wanted to do. He could be so stubborn.”

A year or so earlier DJ Kool Herc had come to appreciate just how easy it was for a DJ to go out of fashion ⎯ as DJ AJ told Jeff Chang, “Kool Herc couldn’t draw a crowd after people saw Flash,” and that happened around 1976-77 ⎯ and Gibbons discovered the same thing on his return from Seattle.  It is possible Gibbons’s playing style would have worked in private party venues such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage, but they were not looking for anyone to take over behind the turntables. Elsewhere the white gay private party scene was on the lookout for spinners who were grounded in the steady pulse of Eurodisco; brash midtown spots such as Studio 54, New York, New York and Xenon required DJs who were focused on maintaining a steady flow; and the owners of the burgeoning suburban discotheque scene wanted spinners to rotate chart-oriented disco. Although the dance market had expanded, it had also closed down. “The business had changed and it wasn’t Walter’s era anymore,” says Kenny Carpenter.

I Got My Mind Made Up

The increasingly commercial discotheque market of 1977 and 1978 was not experienced as being conservative. Laser technology, synthesizer effects, flashing floors, descending spacecrafts, mirror-and-chrome interiors and the suchlike were all the rage, and at the time they resembled the future. Although the commodification of disco culture became increasingly crass, and although the come-as-your-are inclusiveness of the early 1970s gave way to a range of door policies and dress codes that fostered division and exclusion, the conservative cooption of the movement was never complete. Studio 54 provides one interesting example. The owners of the club attempted to institute a hierarchical door policy, but thank to its public status, there was no straightforward way for the venue’s door team to differentiate between “elite” and “non-elite” dancers, and so the entrance policy ended up mutating into a rather vague attack on the perceived conservatism of suburban culture. Once inside, dancers enjoyed listening to a Richard Long sound system, the queer performances of Grace Jones and, for the first six months of the venue’s existence, the cutting-edge selections of Nicky Siano (who hailed from the forbidden borough of Brooklyn). Fragments of progressiveness could also be found in New York, New York, the main midtown rival to Studio 54, where François Kevorkian was employed as the resident DJ. Whenever he could, the spinner played the acetate edits he had started to press up at Sunshine Sound during 1977. The first of these edits, “Happy Song”, which he modelled on the way Walter Gibbons used mix the record at Galaxy 21, acquired legendary status, as did his edit of “Erucu”.

Although his DJing career had dipped, Gibbons was by no means history, and his remixing exploits illustrate the way disco remained a variegated culture, even in 1978, the year in which independent and major record companies attempted to capitalise on the “craze” that followed the opening of Studio 54 and the release of Saturday Night Fever. During that year Gibbons picked up plenty of remix commissions, especially from Salsoul, and his reconstructions of Love Committee “Law And Order” (Salsoul, 1978) and “Just As Long As I Got You” (Salsoul, 1978) illustrated disco’s ongoing potential for aesthetic progressiveness. On “Law and Order”, Gibbons grabbed a series of instrumental phrases and vocal hooks from the cluttered-up original and wove them around an elevated, insistent bongo-driven percussion track; stripped down and driving, the result was nothing less than a blueprint for the decentralised, rhizomatic future of electronic dance. The remix of “Just As Long” caused even more of a stir thanks to the three minutes of dissonant drama Gibbons added to the end of Tom Moulton’s original remix. “I said, ‘Walter, what you’ve done with the keyboards is spectacular,’” remembers Moulton, the first remixer to be remixed by another remixer. “The keyboard was there, but I didn’t pick up on it. I said, ‘Walter, you did a fantastic job on that!’”

Gibbons’s irreverence continued to flourish on two relatively obscure twelve-inch singles: Cellophane’s “Super Queen”, which was backed with “Dance With Me (Let’s Believe)”, and “Moon Maiden” by the Luv You Madly Orchestra, a Duke Ellington song that appeared on the B-side of the more conventional “Rocket Rock”. The original releases appear to have been part of Salsoul’s ill-judged decision to release as many disco acts as possible in 1978 (in the belief that everything it released had the potential to be transformed into disco gold). The vocals on both tracks resembled what Abba might have sounded like if they had modified their middle European accents with a cocktail of amphetamines, acid and helium, but instead of smoothing out the strangeness, Gibbons accentuated the effect, intertwining the contorted voices with a series of modulating synthesizers and stabbing strings, which he laid over an insistent and shifting bongo-driven beat track. Although neither record received much attention, Gibbons was probably having too much fun to worry about that.

During the same period Gibbons mixed Loleatta Holloway’s “Catch Me On the Rebound” (Gold Mind, 1978), two versions of TC James and the Fist O Funk Orchestra “Get Up On Your Feet (Keep On Dancin’)” (Fist O Funk, 1978), Sandi Mercer’s “Play with Me”, which was backed with “You Are My Love” (H&L, 1978), and Bettye LaVette’s “Doin’ the Best That I Can” (West End, 1978). A professional mix of a strong song, the Holloway twelve-inch was notable for its extended break, during which Holloway vamped over thumping drums and bouncing bongos. Appearing on an obscure five-track EP, the longer mix of “Get Up On Your Feet” ran for eleven minutes and included a long percussion-and-synth solo. Co-mixed by the late Steve D’Acquisto, the Mercer release was noteworthy for its B-side, which became a favourite of Ron Hardy (who would go on to pioneer house music in Chicago) and Larry Levan (the DJ at the legendary Paradise Garage). Meanwhile the epic eleven-minute remix of “Doin’ the Best” shuttled between instrumental and vocal sections before it set off on a disorienting, dub-inflected rollercoaster ride of bongos, handclaps, tambourines and instrumental interludes. As David Toop commented later, the remix “redefined the logical hierarchy of instrumentation” (Toop 1995, 119).

As his twelve-inch work unfolded, Gibbons also blended the Salsoul Orchestra’s Greatest Disco Hits: Music for Non-Stop Dancing (Salsoul, 1978), and was co-credited (along with Tom Moulton and Jim Burgess) for compiling Salsoul’s Saturday Night Disco Party (Salsoul, 1978) ⎯ a significant level of album work within a market that had yet to come up with the CD-friendly idea of having DJs record album-length mixes of their own selections. But at the end of the year Gibbons began to distance himself explicitly from the disco scene when, having come close to completing a remix of Instant Funk “I Got My Mind Made Up” for Ken Cayre, he decided he did not want to be associated with the song’s flagrantly sexual lyrics and asked the Salsoul head for the song to be rewritten. When Cayre refused the request, Gibbons agreed that Levan (who had remixed just one record, the unremarkable Cookie Monster & the Girls “C Is For Cookie”) should finish off the job as well as receive credit for the entire mix.

“I worked for weeks on the record,” remembers Bob Blank, who engineered the sessions. “Walter started on the mix but then refused to carry on because he became very religious. I remember him saying very specifically, ‘I really don’t think I’m going to be working on this record anymore.’” With Gibbons out of the studio, Blank continued to develop the remix with the assistance of Levan. “Larry was brought in after we had worked on this record forever,” notes the engineer. “Larry basically had very little input on ‘I Got My Mind Made Up’. All the groundwork had been done and he only came in for a few hours. But it was Larry who made the nine-minute version. It was never nine minutes before he came in.” Denise Chatman confirms Gibbons had a change of heart during the recording process. “Walter’s whole being was taken over by something else during the remix of ‘I Got My Mind Made Up’ and that made Kenny very, very nervous,” she says. “Walter became very judgemental of everybody around him — he was against any kind of cursing — and he became very uncomfortable with the material.” Having stretched the boundaries of remix culture to breaking point, Gibbons went a step too far. “Walter asked Kenny to change the lyrics and there was no way that was going to happen,” adds Chatman. “I told Walter he was being totally unrealistic. Kenny then went with Larry.”

One significant player contests Blank and Chatman’s account. “Walter never went into the studio with ‘I Got My Mind Made Up’”, maintains Cayre, and the appearance of Levan’s name on the sleeve makes this hard to dispute. “Larry was playing the record at the Paradise Garage and loved it,” adds the Salsoul boss. “We went to see the edits he was doing and we asked him if he wanted to do a remix. We asked Larry because he was getting the best reaction of all the DJs.” But whereas it is hard to imagine why Blank and Chatham should invent a story about the involvement of Gibbons, Cayre could be honouring a commitment he might have given to Gibbons and Levan ⎯ perhaps that he promised to keep secret the sequence events that resulted in Levan receiving an exclusive credit. When Cayre claims “Walter” did not go into the studio with the record, perhaps he is referring to the “old Walter” ⎯ the Walter he knew before the remixer began to complain about the lewd content of “I Got My Mind Made Up”. Ultimately, it is only possible to speculate.

Released on Salsoul at the end of 1978, the Instant Funk twelve-inch single sounded like a Galaxy 21 reel-to-reel tape edit transposed onto vinyl (and bore no obvious relation to Levan’s “C Is for Cookie”, or anything else the Garage DJ would remix in the immediate aftermath of the release). Opening with a lush twenty-three second intro, the remix switched to a crackling percussive break that incorporated elements of rhythm guitar and the song’s upfront chorus, and then moved to an extended keyboard jam. At around two minutes, and anticipating the approach that was about to come her way, the female protagonist asked incredulously, “Saaay whaaat?” after which the lascivious male vocal declared, “I got my mind made up, come on, you can get it, get it girl, anytime, tonight is fine” ⎯ the lyric that appears to have persuaded Gibbons to abandon the remix. After moving to an instrumental and vocal section that built to a forceful crescendo, the track returned to another break, during which the bass and rhythm guitars grooved over an undulating percussive backdrop, and a final reprise of the song concluded the remix. Widely considered to be one of the most spellbinding twelve-inch singles of the 1970s, the recording helped propel the single to the top of the R&B charts, and also launched Levan onto the remixing map. From there the Garage DJ became one of the most prolific remixers of the late 1970s and 1980s, and, for many, the most accomplished remixer of his generation.

Although Gibbons might have experienced some kind of revelatory turn during the Instant Funk commission, it is plausible he became more and more uncomfortable with the provocative if not entirely outrageous lyrics of “I Got My Mind Made Up” over a period of time. “Walter was starting to get into the Bible and Jesus back in 1974 or 1975, although he was never committed one hundred percent,” notes Mark Zimmer. “He was always interested in spirituality, and that led him to programme only music that contained positive lyrics, but he also led a gay lifestyle. He thought, ‘God is on my side with me when I play this style of music.’” According to Zimmer, Gibbons attended a church that was tolerant of homosexuality, yet as his religious outlook hardened, he became increasingly intolerant of dance culture’s liberal relationship with sexual licentiousness and drug consumption, and instead of consolidating his cutting-edge reputation career, Gibbons began to distance himself from the club scene. The zealousness he had channelled through his fiery DJing, editing and remixing came to be expressed through sermonising and intolerance. “When Walter went religious he alienated all of his friends,” says Kenny Carpenter. “He was really fanatical about the whole thing.”

Disco Madness

According to Bob Blank, Walter Gibbons was a consummate professional in the recording studio. While most remixers entered unprepared and barked out instructions, notes the engineer, Gibbons always did his homework and sat with his hands on the mixing board. Yet the thing that most impressed Blank was the remixer’s intuitive style. “It was quite easy to chop up a record and extend certain sections,” says the engineer. “The difficult thing was to take a multitrack and create a flow. The skill lies in feeling the music and that’s what Walter could do. He would sit at the board with the mute buttons, and he would cut and edit in real time.” Gibbons took the art of remixing into the realm of emotion and affect. “He would come in and say, ‘I want this song to be the love mix.’ He would listen to the bass part and say, ‘That part is really about love.’ That’s totally different to someone who comes in and says, ‘I’ve got to get this mix out in a day and we’ve got to have three breaks!’”

Those qualities persuaded Cayre to entrust Gibbons with the task of recording an album of custom-designed twelve-inch mixes, and with no contentious lyrics to disturb the production process, which would have overlapped with the remix of “I Got My Mind Made Up”, Salsoul released Disco Madness in March 1979. “It was the first time a label released an album of mixes by a single remixer,” says Ken Cayre. “Every DJ was inspired by Walter.” Issued as both a regular album and a DJ-friendly double-pack, Disco Madness included six mixes, and marked a hardening and deepening of Gibbons’s aesthetic. “I don’t consider Disco Madness to be a mix of the original music,” says Tom Moulton. “It wasn’t called Disco Madness for nothing. Most people felt the same way. I always said, ‘If you want to know anything about that album, ask Walter.’”

On the first part of the album, Gibbons revisited “Magic Bird of Fire” and, remixing his own remix, elevated the beats and lowered the instrumentation. Faced with the challenge of reworking “Ten Percent”, another earlier remix, he zoomed in on bongos and low-end keyboards, while on “Let No Man Put Asunder” ⎯ a rarely-played album cut by First Choice ⎯ he produced a dub-like mix that included stripped down beats, sunken synthesisers and echoed vocals. On the second twelve-inch, Gibbons laid down a driving, skipping beat for “It’s Good For the Soul” and interspersed the chorus with his own infectious chants of “alright”, “woo-ooo”, “it’s good for the soul” and “alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright-alright”. (It was as if, unable to contain himself in the control booth, he kept on darting into the studio to have a quick dance.) The penultimate track, “My Love Is Free”, originally a Moulton twelve-inch release, resembled a fragile and tender conversation. To round things off, “Catch Me On the Rebound”, another remix of an earlier remix, was whittled down to the beats and Holloway’s vamp.

Disco Madness helped forge a set of sonic principles that would run through the future of post-disco dance music. Aside from the Disco Dub Band’s 1976 cover of “For the Love of Money” and Gibbons’s mix of “Doin’ the Best That I Can”, the release was the closest disco had come to establishing an aesthetic alliance with dub, and that connection would be consolidated with the release of tracks such as “Love Money” by the Funk Masters (Siamese Records, 1981), the Peech Boys “Don’t Make Me Wait” (West End, 1982), and François Kevorkian’s twelve-inch remixes of “Keep On” by D Train (Prelude, 1982) and “Go Bang #5″ by Dinosaur L (Sleeping Bag, 1982) in the early 1980s. The album also contributed to the emergence of house when Frankie Knuckles, who was spinning at the Warehouse in Chicago, turned the “Let No Man” remix into one of his signature records. A year or so later, Warehouse dancers started to describe the music they were hearing as “house music”, and cited “Let No Man” as the record that was most typical of the sound. Although the Gibbons remix was less electronic than the dance tracks that would be laid down by the likes of Adonis, Chip E, Larry Heard, Marshall Jefferson, Frankie Knuckles, Jamie Principle and Jessie Saunders during 1984 and 1985, its stripped-down aesthetic, three-dimensional use of space and quotation-oriented schizophrenia place Gibbons as a visionary antecedent to the formal sound of house.

Gibbons completed four more mixes for Salsoul in 1979: “Ice Cold Love” and “I Wish That I Could Make Love to You” by Double Exposure appeared on the Double Exposure album Locker Room ⎯ Gibbons was also credited with adding tambourine and cowbell on the mixes ⎯ plus “Stand By Your Man” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by the Robin Hooker Band. The releases displayed a southern-soul-veering-into-gospel vibe that might have worked well in a church barn dance; catchy, hypnotic and stomping, yet occasionally cheesy, they sounded like the work of a man who had a gifted feel for dance music, but had fallen out of synch with the culture in which it was played. The deepening disjuncture came to be reflected at Salsoul, where the big remixes started to go other figures (most notably Larry Levan) while Gibbons was offered scraps. Elsewhere, the ex-Galaxy 21 DJ’s remix of Colleen Heather’s “One Night Love Affair” (West End, 1979) skipped along in a fairly predictable manner before breaking into a series of wild beats and handclaps, which were interspersed with bass, horns and vocals. Released in Canada in 1979, Gibbons’s version of “It’s Better Than Good Time” by Gladys Knight & the Pips for Buddah ran at half the length of his earlier acetate bootleg and was a comparatively conventional, gospel-oriented effort, while the flipside, “Saved By the Grace of Your Love” featured southern-style yee-haas, handclaps and hallelujahs, all recorded at a sky high beats-per-minute tempo that would have flummoxed most dancers.  If a hardening religious outlook had led Gibbons to attempt to scrap the supposedly immoral vocals of “I Got My Mind Made Up” at the end of 1978, by 1979 he was introducing self-consciously religious elements into his mixes ⎯ with somewhat uneven results (at least from the perspective of the secular dance floor).

Gibbons DJed at the Buttermilk Bottom and Xenon during this period, but his sets became increasingly improbable and his residencies ever more ephemeral. “I got Walter his job at Xenon and the owners complained because he only played gospel and Salsoul,” says Tony Smith, who had been working at the midtown location seven nights a week and needed to employ an alternate. “I said, ‘Walter, you can’t do that!’ There was so much great music out there at the time. Larry was coming out with all this new stuff. But Walter wouldn’t change and after three weeks they told me to fire him.” Smith was shocked at the transformation that had taken place in his friend. “When I met Walter he was so wide-ranging. You didn’t know what he was going to turn you onto. He could make a rock record sound like disco.” Now, however, Gibbons was using a marker pen to blot out any unsavoury words that appeared on his records, as well as highlight any song titles that contained the word “love” with a heart. “His musical horizon shrank. All of a sudden the music had to have all these big messages and he wouldn’t play any negative songs.”

Gibbons continued to push his religious theme when Steven Harvey interviewed him for a wide-ranging and influential survey published in Collusion in September 1983. Having met at Barry’s, a record store on Twenty-third Street, where Gibbons recommended danceable gospel tracks, Harvey invited Gibbons back to his apartment and listened to him play a series of homemade acetate recordings of Philly-style tracks that included his own vocals. “Walter was not a singer,” Harvey remarked in his piece, “but they definitely had the spirit.” Gibbons went on to explain how he had started to play records at his own house parties ⎯ he was now living in Queens ⎯ and noted that he took requests, even for records he considered unchristian, because that could help him get into the mindset of his dancers and help reshape their outlook. When one dancer asked him to play “Nasty Girls”, Gibbons recounted, he put it on and then segued into “Try God” by the New York Community Choir. “For me, I have to let God play the records,” he explained. “I’m just an instrument.”  Gibbons also discussed a recent encounter with the Better Days DJ Tee Scott, whom he gave a mix that blended two disco classics with a spoken version of the Ten Commandments. “He played it and the crowd roared like I’ve never heard in my life,” said Gibbons. “Especially after the part where he’s saying ‘thou shalt not commit adultery, though shall not steal, though shall not kill’ — there was such a roar.” Gibbons said he was taken aback. “It was very interesting.”  The DJ’s proselytizing outlook had become more entrenched than ever.

Set It Off

Between 1979 and 1982, hip hop tracks tended to consist of a rapped vocal being laid on top of a grooving rhythm section, with party whistles, canned chatter and dancer cries added to the mix. In other words, they sounded a lot like disco as well as the increasingly raw and electronic sound of mutant disco (which came to define the sound of dance in the post-disco period of the early 1980s). Released in 1982, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash slowed down the tempo, but this hardly marked a finite break with dance given that Larry Levan had made the same move with a significantly slower mix of Taana Gardner’s “Heartbeat” (West End, 1981) a year earlier. Tracks such as “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force (Tommy Boy, 1982) demonstrated how hip hop and early electro were linked to the postdisco sound that was being spun in New York’s clubs in the early 1980s. Playing at the Funhouse, a cutting-edge club for a young Latin crowd where Tony Smith was employed as his alternate, Jellybean switched willingly from hip hop to electro to dance ⎯ as well as UK synth pop, Latin Freestyle and anything else that had a danceable beat.

Although the flow that existed between hip hop and dance could not be halted by any single record, the release of “It’s Like That” / “Sucker MCs” by Run DMC (Profile Records, 1983) marked a significant turning point.  Delivering shouted raps over a heavily syncopated, big-sounding beat, Run DMC marked a move towards simplicity and noise; as Jeff Chang (209) comments, the group “hollowed out the music and killed the old school,” and over the next couple of years their sound would inspire hip hop outfits such as the Beastie Boys, Doug E Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew, Heavy D & the Boyz and Schooly-D. Across the same period, hip hop DJs became far less prominent and breakdancing all but disappeared, while rappers came to the fore as the element of hip hop that could be most easily commodified. The sonic composition of these rap releases was sufficiently far removed from the aesthetic of the nightclub for it to be possible, some ten years after the disparate elements of hip hop synchronised in the Bronx in 1974, to talk about a clear-cut split between hip hop and dance.

Along with a number of other DJs, producers and remixers, Walter Gibbons ignored the market-driven logic that required dance and rap to develop distinctive sounds in order to sell to segmented audiences when he recorded “Set It Off” by Strafe in 1984. The debut release on Jus Born Records, which was co-owned by Gibbons and explicitly referenced his religious affiliation, “Set It Off” was performed by Steve “Strafe” Standart, a childhood friend of Kenny Carpenter’s, whose vocals combined sung, spoken and whispered elements, and were delivered in a mode that emphasised an affect of longing, desperation and desire. “Set It Off” was also structured like a dance track. Running at nine-minutes-twenty-seconds, the record introduced and subtracted a range of instrumental parts across a steady pulse as it sought to create a trance-inducing state (a goal that had been all but discarded within hip hop culture). Yet whereas the record’s reliance on electronic instrumentation established a sonic link to house ⎯ a sound that had not yet filtered into New York ⎯ the Chicago genre revolved around an insistent four-on-the-floor bass beat that was reminiscent of disco, while “Set It Off” had more in common with funk, Latin and dub music as it hit developed unexpected rhythms and introduced intense clusters of handclaps. Sparse, atmospheric and heavily syncopated, “Set It Off” maintained the link between the hip hop offshoot of electro and the postdisco continuum of early eighties dance.

In all likelihood “Set It Off” was played for the first time in 1984 when Gibbons approached Tony Smith at the Funhouse and handed him a test pressing of the record. “Walter had brought the track to other DJs before me but no-one would play it,” recalls Smith. “Even Strafe didn’t like it, or should I say ‘understand’ it. Ultimately, I had to play it. I played both sides. It cleared the floor.” Smith notes that the Funhouse crowd had become habituated to the sound of Arthur Baker’s electro, which was more direct and pop-oriented than “Set It Off”, but adds that “everyone in the booth was stunned by the record ⎯ it was so incredible and different.” That didn’t prevent Gibbons from heading off with the test pressing, much to the dismay of Smith. “Walter left under a real cloud. He was really disgusted. I said, ‘Walter, there’s no one here over eighteen!’”

Smith managed to lay his hands on a copy of “Set it Off” when he discovered the Funhouse light man Ricky Cardona had made a reel-to-reel tape of his set, and he proceeded to play the record once a night until, after a month of careful programming, his dancers began to ask after the track. By the time Gibbons returned to the club, “Set It Off” had become a dance floor favourite. “Everyone screamed when I put it on,” remembers Smith. “Walter was totally shocked.” The principal DJ at the Funhouse, Jellybean, also went heavily on the record and helped build it up into a Funhouse classic. “It was very, very different to everything that was out there,” says the spinner, who had risen to celebrity fame as the boyfriend and producer of Madonna. “It had soul, it had electro, it had Latin. It had a whistle in it, and a lot of the kids on the dance floor would bring whistles. It was a long record that took you on a journey. It captured so many different things — and it had just the right energy.”

Carrying the inscription “Mixed with Love by Walter Gibbons”, “Set It Off” was reviewed by Billboard as being a “low-budget production making some substantial neighbourhood noise here in New York, in the same way unusual cuts by Peech Boys and Loose Joints have.”  Yet while Larry Levan broke Peech Boys and Loose Joints at the Garage, “Set It Off” was too electro-oriented to become a favourite at the King Street venue and ended up following a different trajectory. “Strafe got played at the Garage quite a bit, but it was getting more play in a lot of other places,” says Danny Krivit, who was spinning in venues such as the Roxy, Down Under, Laces, Area and occasionally Danceteria. “It was unbelievably big. I could play the record all night, wherever I was DJing. I could play it on the worst sound system and it still sounded good. It was just this huge thing for me.” The reverberations were felt throughout the city. “In my honest opinion, ‘Set It Off’ was the great record of that whole era,” says Ned Sublette, the future of author of Cuba and Its Music and The World That Made New Orleans, who would gravitate from the downtown experimental scene to the Salsa scene in 1985.

For his second release on Jus Born, “I’ve Been Searching” by Arts & Craft, an undated mix of a seven-inch single that appears to have been released in the mid-1970s, Gibbons developed live percussion, strings, and soulful vocals within a minimalist structure that evoked a spiritual sensibility.  Introduced over a hypnotic beat that featured prominent bongos, soulful male and female vocals interacted with keyboard effects until the song developed into an uplifting jam and continued in that vein until it returned to the atmospheric beats-and-vocals aesthetic. Creating space through its emphasis on low and high-end frequencies, the ten-minute recording would become a reference-point for the followers of so-called deep house, a loosely defined sound that created its effects as much through absence as presence. Yet there was no record industry rush to sign the mix and, left with no choice but to plough his own groove, Gibbons teamed up with Barbara Tucker, then an unknown gospel vocalist, to produce his next release, a remix of “Set It Off”, which he released in 1985 under the moniker Harlequin Four’s.  The record was the third (and probably last) issue to be released on Jus Born Records. “After ‘Set It Off’ I thought [Walter] would get back into the music business,” says Smith. “The record went to number one [on the dance chart]. But nobody gave him any offers.”

Gibbons recorded two of his final releases with Arthur Russell, the experimental-composer-turned-disco-auteur, who had co-produced “Kiss Me Again” with the Gallery DJ Nicky Siano for Sire in 1978. Russell became interested in Gibbons after hearing his mix of Sandi Mercer’s “Play With Me”, and the two of them ended up meeting each other for the first time in the offices of West End (the label having signed Russell’s Loose Joints project). Nothing came out of that encounter, and Russell ended up developing his interest in dance with Steve D’Acquisto (who co-produced the Loose Joints sessions), Larry Levan (who remixed “Is It All Over My Face?” and “Tell You (Today)” by Loose Joints, and “Cornbelt” by Dinosaur L, another of Russell’s studio outfits), and François Kevorkian (who remixed “Go Bang! #5″ by Dinosaur L). But then Russell heard “Set If Off” and resolved to work with Gibbons. “Strafe changed our lives,” reminisces Steven Hall, a musician and close friend of Russell. “It would play in the black gay clubs on the waterfront and people would abandon themselves in a kind of Bacchanalian trance. The record gave Arthur a new idea about how to use trance-like states in dance music.” Visiting Rock & Soul, where Gibbons had started to work, Russell learned about the ex-Galaxy 21 DJ’s readiness to dish out sermons when he handed him a copy of “That Hat”, an uptempo record he had worked on with the experimental musician and producer Peter Gordon. Gibbons was fine until he saw the B-side of the record was titled “The Day the Devil Comes to Getcha”.

The outburst did not dissuade Russell from inviting Gibbons to develop a mix of “Let’s Go Swimming”, an off-kilter dance track he was working on for Logarhythm, a subsidiary of Upside Records, and Gibbons is likely to have been pleased to work with a potentially like-minded soul, Russell having made an substantial impact on the dance scene in spite of his distinctly off-beat outlook. Not that their compatibility made for a peaceable studio session. “There were incredible scenes of screaming and fights,” recalls the guitarist and co-owner of Upside Records Gary Lucas of the ensuing all-night edit. “Arthur was shrieking and tearing his hair out, raging around the studio like a psychotic bat, while Walter was calmly snipping and pasting the tape as if it was macramé. Arthur would say, ‘You’re ruining my fucking vision! This isn’t what I had in mind! What are you doing? This is my big shot!’ And Walter would reply, ‘Arthur, Arthur, calm down!’” Lucas sat back and watched the drama unfold, while the engineer Eric Liljestrand, who had been stationed in the studio in order to make sure that nothing was broken, did his best to keep out of the control room because Gibbons worked deafening loud. “It seemed argumentative, but Arthur would often defer to Walter, and I don’t remember him deferring to anybody else,” remembers the engineer.

Released in the summer of 1986, Gibbons’s “Coastal Dub” mix ran for just under eight minutes and included an opening instrumental section that built to a crescendo before it broke back down, as well as an extended outro that rose out of a gurgling sound effect before locking into a conga-and-cello groove. “Walter created a visionary, psychedelic soundscape for the song,” says Lucas. “He sort of out-avant-garded Arthur and took the song out to the stratosphere. There was a kind of one-upmanship as to who could be more far out ⎯ like Zappa and Beefheart.” Despite the studio drama, Arthur was pleased with the contribution of Gibbons. “[I]f you try and do something different in dance music, you just get branded as an eccentric,” he told David Toop in 1995. “A lot of DJs take the tapes I make and try to make them into something more ordinary. ‘Let’s Go Swimming’ was supposed to be a futuristic summer record. Some DJs said that nobody would ever, ever play that. I think eventually that kind of thing will be commonplace.” Toop (2004a) would later state that “Let’s Go Swimming” sounded “like nothing in the history of disco.” Contemporary reviewers were just as enthusiastic about the record. “This is an impossible dance music, jumbling your urges, making you want to move in ways not yet invented, confounding your body as it provokes it,” wrote Simon Reynolds (1986) in Melody Maker. “In its tipsy mix, I seem to hear Can, Peech Boys, Thomas Leer, Weather Report, hip hop, but really this is unique, original, a work of genius.”

Russell also asked Gibbons to bring his leftfield sensibility to bear on “School Bell/Treehouse”, which replaced the oscillating flows of “Let’s Go Swimming” with a recognisable groove that revolved around jagged congas and skipping hi-hats. Scratchy cello motifs, discordant synth patterns and spacey trombone passages were wrapped around the recording’s awkwardly aggressive groove, while Russell’s echo-laden voice evoked a child-like world of innocence and strangeness. As the percussion accelerated across the last couple of minutes of the record, “School Bell/Treehouse” began to sound like a proto-house track, although its rhythm was too organic and peculiar to suggest anything more than a passing proximity to the Roland-generated rhythms of Chicago house. Instead the recording was closer to the hypnotic groove that might have been generated if Ali Akbar Khan, James Brown, Fela Kuti and Neil Young had got together to busk in Grand Central Station. Featuring the longer ten-minute mix on the B-side, the twelve-inch was met with critical enthusiasm when it was released on Sleeping Bag in 1986. “Possibly a bit too esoteric for current dance tastes, this will undoubtedly be a collector’s item in about three years time,” wrote Jay Strongman in the NME.

In Gibbons, Russell had found not only an ideal companion with whom he could make quirky, leftfield dance music, but also a friend who, like himself, was intensely creative, softly spoken, unremittingly intense, and gay while not appearing to be gay. Will Socolov, who co-founded Sleeping Bag Records with Russell, remembers Gibbons being obsessed with the nuances of musical texture ⎯ the ex-Galaxy 21 DJ would lure him into discussions about sound that he could barely follow and never had time for ⎯ and notes that Russell was the only other person who liked to analyse sound in such microscopic detail. Their collaborations were not always successful, so when Gibbons remixed “Go Bang! #5″ during scrambled-together hours at Blank Tapes, the taut, stretched out result lacked the dramatic dynamism of Kevorkian’s original remix effort (and wasn’t released until a bootleg version appeared in Japan some twenty years later). Other records, such as the sparse and funky “C-Thru”, remained unfinished. Yet the more or less simultaneous release of “Let’s Go Swimming” and “School Bell/Treehouse” confirmed that Russell and Gibbons were set on forging a new form of jittery, wonky dance music. Hall confirms Russell respected Gibbons more than anyone. “Everyone knew that Walter Gibbons was the real thing,” he comments. “He was not just a mixer but a musician and an alchemist. He could turn a good groove into gold or mercury. Arthur and Walter were totally soul mates.”

Gibbons worked on three other records (and maybe more) in what would turn out to be his twilight period. In 1985 he mixed Arts & Craft Wait A Minute “Before You Leave Me” (Panic), but the record appears to have failed to make it beyond the promo stage.  A year later Gibbons heard “4 Ever My Beat” by the Brooklyn-based hip hop outfit Stetsasonic (Tommy Boy, 1986) and went on to produce a ten-minute mix on which he stripped away everything save for the vocal and replaced the group’s drums with live percussion ⎯ but in this case Tommy Boy decided to edit the mix in half for the final promo-only release, which was released in 1987. Steering an uneasy path between synthesizer pop, jagged beats and run-of-the-mill gospel, Gibbons’s mix of “Time Out” by the Clark Sisters (A&M, 1986) combined feel-good vocals with a leftfield sensibility. Developing an almost unfathomable syncopated rhythm, the electronic, twitchy “Calling All Kids” ended up appearing on the posthumous Arthur Russell compilation Calling Out of Context (Audika, 2004).

“Calling All Kids” seemed to capture something about the whereabouts of Gibbons; working with an innovative and misunderstood songwriter/producer on music that drew on dance and hip hop, his work continued to bring together Bronx and downtown sensibilities, but was now going unheard. The fate of the Stetsasonic mix, subtitled the “Beat Bongo Mix”, was also revealing. “Walter was crazy for the track and begged to remix it,” remembers Steve Knutson, who was working for Tommy Boy at the time. “After weeks of nagging we gave in and paid him one thousand dollars to remix it. What we got back was an unusable track, even though I personally loved it. The group hated it and so did the promotion people.” At the request of Tom Silverman, the head of Tommy Boy, Knutson carried out the edit with Rodd [sic.] Houston ⎯ to the satisfaction of everyone except for Gibbons. “Walter never forgave me and was in tears,” adds Knutson. “He was very, very angry and for a period of a month or so he would call up and yell at me. He even begged us to give the remix back to him so he could release it himself.” Knutson notes that the twelve-inch promo disappeared unnoticed. “Walter was crushed as he thought it was a masterpiece.”

During this period Gibbons also amassed a collection of approximately five thousand gospel records, a number of them signed copies purchased directly from church congregations in New York. “He thought gospel was the pure message of God and that something was wrong with you if you didn’t get it,” says Krivit, an occasional customer. “Every time he opened his mouth he would preach at you. It seemed to a lot of people he was just history, especially as there was less of a nostalgia thing going on at the time.” Yet Gibbons was still able to connect to the dance scene, and appears to have played a key role in bringing one of the most unusual and popular dance records of the early 1980s to the attention of other DJs. An uplifting, funk-tinged gospel record, “Stand On the Word” by the Celestial Choir was recorded in 1982 at the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where it was sold as an independent production. “Walter was a member and consistent visitor and lived down the block while I was Minister of Music at the Church,” says Phyliss Joubert, the leader of the Celestial Choir. “He happened to be in the audience listening, and without my knowledge or consent, purchased one of the original records from the church and began his own illegal path of doing whatever he chose to do.”

It is impossible to confirm if a devotion to the rousing sound and message of “Stand On the Word” persuaded Gibbons to return to the practice of bootlegging in the belief that the end would justify the means, but it seems likely. How else could the record have found its way into one of the weekly listening sessions the promoter Bobby Shaw held with DJs in his office at Warners every Friday? Present when the record was played to this select group of spinners, Steven Harvey was so enchanted with its innocent vocals (which were sung by children) and stirring instrumentation (led by a gospel piano) he paid a visit to the church, purchased a whole box of the vinyl, and distributed copies to his DJ friends as a “free promo”. Within a short space of time, “Stand On the Word” became a favourite at venues such as the Loft and the Paradise Garage, while Harvey remembers hearing Gibbons play two copies of the record at a gay bar where he was spinning on Christopher Street. “Walter started to take the end part, where the record is more uptempo, and he kept that section going by mixing between the two copies.” Harvey adds: “I had a fantasy that Walter would be the ultimate guy to remix the record.” Instead Joubert created the Joubert Singers to remix the record for the club scene, and it became a popular release. But it is the Celestial Choir version that continues to receive play today.

Threshold Territory

Walter Gibbons contracted the AIDS virus sometime in the second half of the 1980s. For a while nobody could tell he was sick because he had always looked undernourished, but as the disease progressed, there could be no mistaking his condition. “I saw him at Rock & Soul about a year before he passed away,” recalls Bob Blank. “He was in terrible shape. He was very thin and had lost a lot of his hair. He looked around and said, ‘I just love being in contact with music. This is what I love.’”

In September 1992 Gibbons went on a mini-tour of Japan, where interest in the disco era had been gaining momentum. Mixing classics, house and hip hop with his custom-made mixes, Gibbons received an enthusiastic reception from local DJs and music aficionados, and in between appearances at the Wall (Sapporo) and Yellow (Tokyo) he went to listen to Larry Levan and François Kevorkian play at Gold as part of their Harmony tour. When Gibbons returned to Japan a year later he was skeletal but radiantly happy — so happy that he refused to stop playing when police raided Yellow and ordered it to close. In the end the party was reconvened as a private event, and at the end of the night Gibbons asked to be taken to Hakone, situated in the district of Ashigarashimo. When he saw Mount Fuji he kept uttering, “It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful!” After that he was whisked to a hot spring to revitalise his tired body.

Gibbons played his final set in New York at Renegayde, a monthly night organised by Joey Llanos and Richard Vasquez. Drawing on Motown, Philly Soul, disco, early eighties dance and contemporary house, the ex-Galaxy spinner took his dancers on a message-oriented journey of devotion and love in which he sequenced his selections according to ambience rather than chronology or genre. Judging sincerity to be more important than dexterity, Gibbons made no attempt to repeat the quick-fire mixes that had become his signature skill during the 1970s. DJ Cosmo, who was in the crowd that night, remembers being struck by the way in which Gibbons’s “pure and beautiful musical aura” provided a striking contrast with the freakish mood that had come to dominate the New York club during the late 1980s. “I was really struck by Walter’s honesty to himself, to his faith and to his audience,” she says. The late Adam Goldstone, a significant DJ and remixer on the New York club scene until his sudden and untimely death in 2006, admired the way Gibbons created an “uplifting, spiritual and positive atmosphere” without slipping “into religious proselytising or the kind of lazy, saccharine clichés that seem to pass for soulful dance music these days.”

Frail, isolated and all but blind, Gibbons started to go out to eat with François Kevorkian and Tom Moulton at Beefsteak Charlie’s every Tuesday night. “A lot of people abandoned Walter, but he wasn’t the most outgoing person either, and he didn’t attract a lot of friends,” notes Moulton. “We would help him down the stairs. Beefsteak Charlie’s had a salad bar and shrimp, all you could eat, and watching Walter shovel down that shrimp, I don’t know where he put it. He kept saying, ‘Boy, this shrimp is so good!’” According to Mouton, Gibbons was still playing records ⎯ he developed a special “notch system” in order to recognise his records by touch ⎯ and when he found out Moulton had just finished re-mastering a series of Salsoul twelve-inche singles he asked him for an advance copy. No tests were ready, so Ken Cayre pressed up a special set, which Moulton took to his old sparring partner. “Walter played one and said, ‘Oh, it sounds great!’” remembers Moulton. “Then he cued up another record and mixed it in perfectly.”

Having spent his final weeks living in a YMCA, Gibbons died of complications resulting from AIDS on 23 September 1994, aged thirty-eight years old. One of his final acts was to donate his record collection to an AIDS charity based in San Francisco (only for the collection to be returned at a later date because the charity’s organisers deemed the records to have no market value). A small number of people attended his funeral, and his memorial service, a dignified affair held on 11 October at the Church of St. John the Baptist on Thirty-first Street, was also quiet (and certainly much quieter than the service that had been held for Larry Levan in 1992). Billboard marked the moment with a brief obituary at the bottom of its weekly dance music column. “The club community lost one of its earliest studio wizards Sept. 23, when veteran mixer Walter Gibbons died of complications resulting from AIDS,” ran the somewhat matter-of-fact tribute (Flick, 1994). “He was 38. The bulk of Gibbons’ work was for Salsoul Records during the disco era. Among his records were ‘Ten Percent’ by Double Exposure and ‘Just As I Have You’ by Love Committee. He will be missed.”

Gibbons has subsequently received partial recognition for his work within dance, although that recognition might have been more pronounced had he been an easier person to spend time with from the late 1970s onwards. (Instead he became intolerant, and friends agreed that his preaching and castigating were unbearable.) Gibbons might have also enjoyed a higher profile if he had been less unbending in his commitment to aesthetic progressiveness ⎯ an outlook that he only relaxed on some of his gospel recordings. “Walter was an innovator, but he also had an abstract I don’t give a shit approach,” notes Kevorkian. “Walter didn’t care if anyone danced, whereas Larry [Levan] would make it for the party. He was a little more conscious of what people liked. Whereas Walter was conceptually the most advanced, he was also a lonely genius. Walter was an innovator, but Larry made it work. He turned records into hits.”

Nevertheless it was Gibbons (along with Moulton) who established the basic principles of remix culture, and in a fairly short space of time his innovations were judged to be so important they became routine. “By the time Larry came by I had done a thousand dance records,” comments Bob Blank. “I knew what was supposed to happen. I didn’t say, ‘Oh my God, there’s the bass drum!’” Along with Moulton, and leaning in a more experimental direction, Gibbons established the basic principles of remix culture. “Nobody had heard the strings all by themselves or the rhythm chopped into these syncopated moments, but once he did it people began to understand there was a formula. When the next person came in after Walter, I would bring up all of his good ideas. That was my job — to remember all the cool things.” The cool things are now ubiquitous within dance. “On disco classics like Loleatta Holloway’s ‘Hit and Run’ and Love Committee’s ‘Law and Order’, Walter took heavily orchestrated Philly soul–style songs, stripped out most of the sonic frills, and turned them into dark, trippy, heavily percussive marathons,” Goldstone told me in 2004. “Nowadays, that sort of stark, dubbed-out aesthetic is standard-issue in hip-hop, house, drum ‘n’ bass, and so on, but in the mid-seventies it must have sounded like something from another planet entirely.”

Gibbons would have developed a higher profile if he had worked in just about any sound other than disco and dance. The paucity of serious music criticism on these genres remains striking and extends well beyond the sidelining of disco in the published histories of hip hop. More general histories of US popular music overlook disco as a matter of routine, while the innovative, cross-fertilising presence of disco has also failed to register in the recent flurry of books on downtown New York during the 1970s and 1980s.  Of course when the disco of Studio 54, Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees and the hustle does get a mention, Gibbons cannot be squeezed into the cliché of commercialism and extravagance. Nevertheless one of the reasons why Gibbons remains interesting is not because he was exceptional in this regard, but precisely because so many disco DJs, venues and records did not match the cliché.

Hovering between disco/dance and hip hop/rap, Gibbons occupied a threshold territory that could not be assimilated easily into genre, and although the commodification of disco and hip hop encouraged them to develop into mutually antagonistic generic formations, the example of Gibbons encourages an analysis that acknowledges the way in which these and other music scenes and cultures are porous and interactive. Although that might be a lot to load onto the shoulders of a skinny DJ, Gibbons’s practice suggests that an analysis of the relationship between disco/dance and hip hop/rap should begin not with the assumption of difference and opposition, as has been the case so far, but instead with the recognition of their shared roots and perspectives. While it is important to acknowledge divergences, the cultures of disco and hip hop also drew on an overlapping pool of records, developed innovative uses around turntable technologies, explored various ways of isolating and extending the break, and produced a set of records that, at least during the first half of the 1980s, were played back-to-back in a number of venues. The cultural history of New York can become richer through such a conversation, and so, too, perhaps, can the future.

 

Discography

The following discography includes a comprehensive list of Walter Gibbons’s official releases. Acetates, reel-to-reel recordings and unreleased recordings are not included.

Arts & Craft. “I’ve Been Searchin.” Jus Born (undated).
Arts & Craft. Wait A Minute “Before You Leave Me.” Panic (1985).
Cellophane. “Super Queen” b/w “Dance With Me (Let’s Believe).” Salsoul (1978).
Clark Sisters. “Time Out.” A&M (1986).
Double Exposure. “Ice Cold Love.” On Locker Room. Salsoul (1979).
Double Exposure. “I Wish That I Could Make Love To You.” On Locker Room. Salsoul (1979).
Double Exposure. “My Love Is Free.” On Disco Madness. Salsoul (1979).
Double Exposure. “Ten Percent.” Salsoul (1976).
Double Exposure. “Ten Percent.” On Disco Madness. Salsoul (1979).
First Choice. “Let No Man Put Asunder.” On Disco Madness. Salsoul (1979).
Gladys Knight & the Pips. “It’s Better Than Good Time.” Buddah (1979).
Heather, Colleen. “One Night Love Affair.” West End (1979).
Holloway, Loleatta. “Catch Me On the Rebound.” Gold Mind (1978).
Holloway, Loleatta. “Catch Me On the Rebound.” On Disco Madness. Salsoul (1979).
Holloway, Loleatta. “Hit and Run” b/w “We’re Getting Stronger.” Gold Mind (1977).
Indian Ocean. “School bell / Treehouse.” Sleeping Bag (1986).
Instant Funk. “I Got My Mind Made Up.” Salsoul (1978).
Jakki. “Sun… Sun… Sun…” Pyramid (1976).
James, TC, & the Fist O Funk Orchestra. “Get Up On Your Feet (Keep On Dancin’).” Fist O Funk (1978).
LaVette, Bettye. “Doin’ the Best That I Can.” West End (1978).
Love Committee. “Cheaters Never Win” b/w “Where Will It End.” Salsoul (1977).
Love Committee. “Just As Long As I Got You.” Salsoul (1978).
Love Committee. “Law and Order.” Salsoul (1978).
Luv You Madly Orchestra. “Rocket Rock” b/w “Moon Maiden.” Salsoul (1978).
Robin Hooker Band. “Stand By Your Man” b/w “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Salsoul (1979).
Russell, Arthur. “Let’s Go Swimming.” Logarhythm (1986).
Russell, Arthur. “Calling All Kids.” Audika (2004).
Mercer, Sandi. “Play With Me” b/w “You Are My Love.” H&L (1978).
Salsoul Orchestra. Greatest Disco Hits: Music for Non-Stop Dancing. Salsoul (1978). (Blended by Walter Gibbons.)
Salsoul Orchestra. “It’s Good for the Soul.” On Disco Madness. Salsoul (1979).
Salsoul Orchestra. “Magic Bird of Fire.” Salsoul (1976).
Salsoul Orchestra. “Magic Bird of Fire.” On Disco Madness. Salsoul (1979).
Salsoul Orchestra. “Nice ‘n’ Naasty.” Salsoul (1976).
Salsoul Orchestra. “Salsoul 3001.” Salsoul (1976).
Stetsasonic. “4 Ever My Beat: Beat Bongo Mix.” Tommy Boy, 1986).
Strafe. “Set It Off.” Jus Born Records (1984).
True Example. “Love Is Finally Coming My Way” b/w “As Long As You Love Me.” Salsoul, 1977.
Various. Disco Boogie: Super Hits for Non-Stop Dancing. Salsoul (1977). (Blended by Walter Gibbons.)
Various. Disco Madness. Salsoul (1979). (Remixes by Walter Gibbons.)
Various. Saturday Night Disco Party. Salsoul (1978). (Compiled by Jim Burgess, Walter Gibbons and Tom Moulton.)
White, Anthony. “I Can’t Turn You Loose” b/w “Block Party.” Salsoul (1977).

 

Works Cited

Aletti, Vince. “Disco File”, Record World, 4 September 1976.
Baker, Jr., Houston A. “Hybridity, the Rap Race, and Pedagogy for the 1990s”. In Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (eds.), Technoculture: Cultural Politics, Volume 3. Minneapolis and Oxford: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, 197-209.
Billboard, 9 June 1984.
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. London: Headline, 2006.
Cadogan, Garnette. “Begin at the Beginning: Jamaican Popular Music In Jamaica”, unpublished paper presented at the EMP Pop Music Conference, 21 April 2007.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. London: Ebury Press, 2005.
Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life. London: WW Norton & Company, 2001.
Flick, Larry. “Eclectic Ideas Sprout From Moby’s Techno Roots”, Billboard, 8 October 1994.
Forman, Murray. The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
Garcia, Rudy. “12-Inch 45 Disco Disk Sales Brisk”, Billboard, 19 June 1976.
George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. New York: Plume, 1988.
Haden-Guest, Anthony. The Last Party. Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1997.
Harvey, Steven. “Behind the Groove”, Collusion, September 1983, reprinted in DJ Magazine, 11 March 1993.
Lawrence, Tim. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (1970-79). North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003.
——–. “Beyond the Hustle: Seventies Social Dancing, Discotheque Culture and the Emergence of the Contemporary Club Dancer”, in Julie Malnig (ed.), Social and Popular Dance Reader (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 199-214.
Lejeune, Patrick. The Bootleg Guide to Disco Acetates, Funk, Rap and Disco Medleys. Published by Patrick Lejeune and Patrick Vogt, Netherlands, 2007.
Mathis, Derrick. “Gay Hip-Hop Comes Out”. The Advocate, 13 May 2003
McGee, David. “Salsoul 12″ Disco Mix a Retail Smash”, Record World, 19 June 1976.
Moulton, Tom. “Disco Action”, Billboard, 25 October 1975.
——–. “Disco Mix”, Billboard, 7 May 1977.
Reynolds, Simon. “Arthur Russell Let’s Go Swimming”, Melody Maker, 11 October 1986.
——–. Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture. London: Picador, 1998.
Rivera, Raquel. New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone. New York, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.
Shapiro, Peter. Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. London: Faber and Faber, 2005.
Strongman, Jay. “Bomb Culture”, New Musical Express, 27 September 1986.
Taylor, Marvin J. (ed.). The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Toop, David. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1995.
——– “Past Futurist”, Wire, April 1995.
——– Rap Attack 3: African Rap to Global Hip Hop. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2000.

——– “The Flying Heart”, Wire, January 2004.

——– “Uptown Throwdown”. In Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (eds), That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (NY/London Routledge, 2004), 233-245.

 

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