“Beyond the Hustle: Seventies Social Dancing, Discotheque Culture and the Emergence of the Contemporary Club Dancer”. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009, 199-214.

In Julie Malnig ed. Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader. 

 

The Saturday Night Fever publicity shot of a white-suited John Travolta, right hand pointing up and left hand, twisting along the same axis, aiming down, quickly became (and continues to be) the consciousness-invading icon of 1970s disco culture. The image evokes a strutting, straight masculinity.   Tony Manero, played by Travolta, is a Hustle expert and a straight man on the prowl; in the photo, he is pictured alone, but his look and posture reveal that he is searching for a female partner, both on and off the dance floor.  Released in November 1977, Saturday Night Fever ushered disco into the American mainstream, where it remained for a relatively short eighteen months.  Travolta and 2001 Odyssey, the discotheque featured in the film, became the key reference points for dancers and club owners during disco's commercial peak.

Beyond the celluloid sheen and marketing paraphernalia of the post-Saturday Night Fever disco boom, however, the 1970s dance floor functioned as a threshold space in which dancers broke with the tradition of couples dancing and forged a new practice of solo club dancing.  Although the shift in style suggested that individuality and loneliness came to dominate the floor, participants in fact discovered a new partner in the form of the dancing crowd.  The Travolta-types may have subsequently gained a Gucci-shoed or stiletto-heeled foothold on the dance floor towards the end of the "disco decade," but their grip proved to be ephemeral in the post-disco era.  From 1980 onwards, the solo dancer, moving to the collective rhythms of the room, formed the enduring model for contemporary club culture.

The sexual and bodily politics of Saturday Night Fever didn't appear out of thin air, of course.  If dancing is an articulation of the wider world, reflecting dominant forces while providing a space for difference and resistance, the history of social dance in the United States has been intertwined with the shifting yet resilient practice of patriarchal heterosexuality.  On the dance floor this has become manifest through the partnered couple, in which the man, assuming the role of gatekeeper, both invited his female partner onto the floor and then assumed the role of dance leader.  Although the position of the male lead did not go unchallenged--the twentieth century is replete with examples of social dances in which the couple would break for periods on the floor or the woman would be granted periods of relative control within the couple--the framing role of the leading man remained in place.

Dances such as the Waltz and the Foxtrot, which allowed for minimal individual movement, were the most rigorously partnered of all, at least from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, and when couples in "modern" ballroom dancing developed their independence from the wider floor by developing their own "individuality," this served to entrench the heterosexual couple--now unique in their relationship--still further.[i]  The rise of black social dance such as the Lindy Hop (often referred to as the Jitterbug) and the Texas Tommy chipped away at these practices inasmuch as they allowed partners to break away from each other and intersperse moves with individual improvisation.  As Marshall and Jean Stearns, writing in 1968, noted, "both dances constitute a frame into which almost any movement can be inserted before the dancers return to each other."{C}[ii]{C}  The Stearns added that, "while a Lindy team often danced together during the opening ensembles of a big band, they tended to go into a breakaway and improvise individual steps when the band arrangement led into a solo."[iii]  These and other dances, such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom, integrated breakaway practices that enabled dancers (including, of course, female followers) to discover a new form of expressive freedom.  The mutating tensions between the couple and the individual were, however, regularly resolved in favor of the former.

The unit of the couple faced its most sustained challenge when the Twist emerged alongside the first discotheques in New York City at the beginning of the 1960s.[iv]  Allowing their bodies to respond to the affective space of the club, in which dancers encountered a combination of amplified sound and lighting effects, partners were couples only in name.  Marshall and Jean Stearns acknowledged that the Twist and related dances had produced a "new and rhythmically sophisticated generation," but remained pessimistic about the environment in which the dancing occurred.[v]  "No one could dance with finesse in such crowded darkness, even if he wished. . . The only way to attract attention was to go ape with more energy than skill, achieving a very disordered effect."{C}[vi]{C}  Couples dancing (alternatively known as "hand dancing") all but imploded, yet the individual free-form style of the Twist appeared to be an inadequate replacement when, towards the end of the 1960s, the dance went out of fashion, the music industry stopped pushing the music, and beacon discotheques such as Arthur began to close.

Contemporary disco dancing emerged out of the dual context of African American social dance and the rise of the discotheque, and was propelled forward by the sudden influx of gay men into these social dance spaces at the beginning of the 1970s.[vii]  Up until this moment, gay men were marginal within social dance, for while they were free to go out and dance, they weren't free to choose their partner.  Although the door staff at flashbulb discotheques such as Arthur waived gay men to the front of the queue because of their ability to energize the dance floor, these men were still required by New York state law to take to the floor with female partners.  The Stonewall Inn was one of the few venues in Manhattan where men could dance with other men, but patrons had to make do with the stuttering rhythms of a jukebox as well as regular police raids.  By the time the owner of the Electric Circus, responding to the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969, invited gay men to share the dance floor with straights, the institution of the discotheque was in nose-dive decline.[viii]  Because the Electric Circus was still marked as a straight (if tolerant) venue, the influx of gay men into the venue was minimal.

The key turning point in the culture of individual free-form dance arrived when, more or less simultaneously, David Mancuso began to put on regular parties in his Broadway loft apartment (which became known as the Loft) on Valentine's Day 1970, and two entrepreneurs known as Seymour and Shelley who owned a series of gay bars in the West Village took over a struggling straight discotheque called the Sanctuary and encouraged their clientele to give it a go.  Both venues were unique in that gay men--who required "special protection" until Mayor Lindsay repealed New York City's laws governing the admission of gay men to cabarets, dance halls, and restaurants in October 1971--were dominant on the floor (even if straights were present) and the energy and expressivity of these dancers, many of whom faced the double marginalization of being black as well as gay, kick-started 1970s dance culture.[ix] A series of legendary private parties (including Flamingo, the Gallery, the Paradise Garage, Reade Street, the SoHo Place and the Tenth Floor) emerged out of this moment, while the public institution of the discotheque also received a second lease of life that culminated in the opening of Studio 54 in 1977.

According to eyewitness such as spinner Francis Grasso, who surveyed the metamorphosis of the crowd at the Sanctuary from the vantage point of his DJ booth, the difference in dance styles was radical.  "[Seymour and Shelley's] opening night was a bang," he told me. "I'd never seen a crowd party like that before. . .  When the Sanctuary went gay I didn't play that many slow records because they were drinkers and they knew how to party.  Just the sheer heat and numbers made them drink.  The energy level was phenomenal."[x]  That energy was founded on the newness of the experience (this was the first time that gay men had been able to dance together in a dedicated dance venue) and the wider social context (the celebratory momentum of gay liberation).

Whereas couples had dominated the straight Sanctuary, the gay reincarnation was organized around individual dancers who took to the floor by themselves.  The break with partnered dancing wasn't total--men would sometimes grab each other before dancing, or sidle up to each other on the floor--but the established matrix of social dance was nevertheless loosened to the point where it was no longer recognizable.  Yet the shift towards individual free-form dancing, which was mirrored at the Loft, didn't result in participants experiencing the floor as space of isolation.  Instead, by moving around on a single spot, dancers would effectively groove with multiple "partners."  "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," Frankie Knuckles, a regular at the Loft, told me.  "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."[xi]  The experience of dancing with scores of other dancers helped generate the notion of the dancing "crowd" as a unified and powerful organism.  By moving to the rhythm of the DJ and the gyrating bodies that surrounded them, gay men realized they were part of a collective movement.  The idea of dancing with a partner didn't so much implode as expand.

Early discotheque dancers, according to participants such as Frank Crapanzano and Jorge La Torre (two regulars at Manhattan's best known gay venues), didn't develop a defined style, such as the Twist, but instead improvised their steps (moving backwards and forwards, then side to side, etc.) and, in line with black jazz dance and the Twist, generated movement from their hips.  Combining grace and stamina, the dancers broke with the dominant practices of the late 1960s.  "The dancing was very jazz-spirited," Danny Krivit, an early downtown dance aficionado whose father ran a popular gay bar in the Village called the Ninth Circle, told me.  "It was just free.  Before the Loft people thought they were free but they were just jerking around and jumping up and down."[xii]

Dance floors were usually crowded, often to sardine-like proportions at hipper-than-thou venues such as the Loft, the Tenth Floor, and the Gallery, so there was little room to show off special steps, or form circles around especially skilled dancers.  Some dancers would seek out unpopulated areas--Archie Burnett, a "Loft baby" from the late 1970s onwards, told me how he would gravitate towards the cloak room, away from the main floor, in order to find space to work on (and show off) his steps.  But the lack of space was of little concern to most protagonists, whose aim was to participate in a musical-kinetic form of individual dissolution and collective bliss.[xiii]  While the exhibition (or novelty) practices of the swing era involved, in the words of Jonathan David Jackson, "asserting such a pronounced sense of personal style that the black vernacular dancer's actions invite a charged, voyeuristic attention from the community at the ritual event," the party-goers of the early 1970s expressed their individuality within a more overtly participatory, less visible framework.[xiv]

Drugs--in particular LSD and marijuana, although Quaaludes, poppers and speed also became popular as the decade progressed--contributed to the hedonistic quality of the dance floor experience, although New York's downtown venues were ultimately grounded in a collective rather than individualistic notion of pleasure.  As La Torre told me, the consumption of drugs was an enabling add-on part of the dance experience, which was ultimately focused on tribal transcendence rather than a narrower, individualistic high.[xv]  Describing the experience in similar terms, Jim Feldman, a dancer at the Paradise Garage (an expanded version of the Loft that opened in 1977), noted, "There was a sexual undercurrent at the Garage but no one was picking up.  Sex was subsumed to the music and was worked out in the dancing.  It was like having sex with everyone.  It was very unifying."[xvi]  As Maria Pini, in an analysis of club and rave culture in the 1990s that speaks to the 1970s, comments: "This is not about a sexual longing directed towards a specific or individual `target,' but about a far more dispersed and fragmented set of erotic energies which appear to be generated within the dance event."[xvii]

Contrary to some accounts of the early disco scene, out of which certain mythologies continue to circulate, sex rarely, if ever, took place on the dance floors of New York's downtown discotheques.[xviii]  Although the evocation of sex is not altogether ridiculous--a sexual energy undoubtedly permeated the early gay discotheques, and erotic glances would regularly be exchanged--dancing at the Sanctuary, the Loft, and scores of other venues wasn't the first stage in the process of seduction.  Revelers refigured the dance floor not as a site of foreplay--the contention of David Walsh in "Saturday Night Fever: An Ethnography of Disco Dancing"--but of spiritual communion where sensation wasn't confined to the genitals but materialized in every new touch, sound, sight, and smell.[xix]  "The Loft chipped away at the ritual of sex as the driving force behind parties," Mark Riley, a confident of Mancuso, explained.  "Dance was not a means to sex but drove the space."[xx]  The ethos continues to this day, even if the club scene is now dominated by house rather than disco music. As Sally R. Sommer comments in "C'mon to my house": Underground-House Dancing (in this collection), "the redemption of total body sensuality without rampant sexuality fostered by hard dancing that engages the body and mind" remains central to the paradigm of the contemporary underground dance network in New York and beyond.[xxi]

The technologies of amplified sound and lighting developed at an exponential pace during the 1970s and, combining with rhythm-driven dance music and perception-enhancing drugs, established a hyper-affective environment that prioritized alternative forms of bodily sensation.  Mancuso introduced the technologies of tweeter arrays (clusters of small loudspeakers, which emit high-end frequencies, positioned above the floor) and bass reinforcements (additional sets of subwoofers positioned at ground level) at the start of the 1970s in order to boost the treble and bass at opportune moments, and by the end of the decade sound engineers such as Richard Long had multiplied the effects of these innovations in venues such as the Garage.  "Bass-heavy dance music provokes the recognition that we do not just `hear' with our ears, but with our entire body," write Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, in Discographies.  "This embodiment is achieved through the experiential characteristics, the kinesthetic effects of the disco, the club, the dance floor, and the performative and reproductive technologies employed within them."[xxii]

The spread of the marathon dance session in the 1970s discotheque heightened this affective experience and was particularly pronounced at private venues such as the Loft, the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, Flamingo, 12 West, and the Garage, where the owners bypassed cabaret licensing laws by offering only non-alcoholic drinks and running a private membership system.  That meant that they could stay open as long as they liked--in contrast to public venues that operated under New York's cabaret licensing laws.  Mancuso started off with the seemingly audacious decision to open until 6:00 a.m.; by the early 1980s he was holding parties that would begin at midnight and carry on until 8p.m. the following evening.  The substitution of alcohol with energy-enhancing drugs enabled dancers to stay on the floor for longer and longer periods of time, and this in turn encouraged them to "lose themselves" in the dance experience.  While the idea of engaging in a trance-inducing workout might not have been new--shamanistic ceremonies and drag balls functioned according to similar principles--it was a novel experience within the context of late 1960s-early 1970s North American society, and it was novel in terms of its deployment of amplified sound and disorienting light.

The sheer length of these marathon dance sessions, the reduced consumption of alcohol, and the relatively abrupt end to the practice of partnered dancing combined to create the conditions for the emergence of a new narrative of dance.  Instead of regarding the night as a series of ventures onto the floor that would be interspersed by visits to the bar or leaving the floor to find a new partner, dancers started to stay on the floor for hours on end, and DJs started to sculpt a soundtrack to respond to these new conditions.  Whereas 1960s discotheque DJs would build to a quick peak and then introduce a slow record to "work the bar" or "move the floor around," spinners such as Grasso and, above all, Mancuso, began to build sets that would tell a story over an entire night, beginning gently before climaxing with a series of peaks, after which the spinner would bring the dancers down.

The DJ was central to the ritual of 1970s dance culture, but the dancing crowd was no less important, and it was the combination of these two elements that created the conditions for the dance floor dynamic.  A good DJ didn't only lead dancers along his or her (male spinners far outnumbered their female counterparts) preferred musical path, but would also feel the mood of the dance floor and select records according to this energy (which could be communicated by the vigor of the dancing, or level of the crowd's screams, or sign language of dancers directed towards the booth).  This communication--described by Sarah Thornton, in her early analysis of late 1980s and 1990s dance culture, as "the vibe"--amounted to a form of synergistic music-making in which separate elements combined to create a mutually beneficial and greater whole.[xxiii]

Continuous with the practice of antiphony, or the call-and-response of African American gospel, the DJ-crowd exchange can be traced to the 1960s discotheque, but the best-known spinner of that era, Terry Noël, nevertheless preferred to view himself as a puppeteer who asserted his will over an obedient, passive floor.[xxiv]  The tempo of Twist music, which was significantly more uniform than the "party music" selected by DJs in the early 1970s, would have dampened dancer expectations of influencing a spinner's selections, and couples' dancing, inasmuch as it was still in play in the 1960s, would have further discouraged dancers from making the DJ their primary focus for communication.  It was only when the unit of the couple was further weakened in the early 1970s that the wider crowd, conceived of as a communicative force, discovered its power to influence the course of a night.

The popularization of this call-and-response pattern, so familiar within gospel, on the dance floor points to the way in which the dance experience of the 1970s was experienced as a spiritual affair, albeit within a secular-to-the-point-of-sacrilegious context.  This quality was apparent at the Sanctuary, which was situated in a converted church in which the DJ booth was housed in the pulpit.  La Torre argues that the spiritual dimension of the dance floor experience became particularly pronounced in the second half of the 1970s when the music became less vocally driven and more instrumental, thereby allowing the mind to wander more freely.  All of this anticipates Kai Fikentscher's description of the nightclub's parallels with the African American church: both the African American church and the nightclub "feature ritualized activities centered around music, dance, and worship, in which there are no set boundaries between secular and sacred domains," and this tradition cultivated a mood of group ecstasy and catharsis on the dance floors of the Loft, the Gallery, the SoHo Place, Reade Street, the Warehouse, and the early incarnation of the Paradise Garage.[xxv]

The nature of the ecstatic-cathartic experience of the 1970s discotheque can be theorized in various ways.  Freud's discussion of pre-Oedipal sexuality--which he characterizes as the polymorphous perverse, whereby the child experiences sexual drives that are organized around not the genitals but the entire body--is appealing when analyzing the Loft, which evoked a series of child-oriented themes in its mass deployment of party balloons and, thanks to its "safe" private party status, encouraged dancers to "regress" into a series of pre-linguistic yelps, gasps, and screeches.  These themes were played out in the 1970s and beyond: baggy, sexless t-shirts were symbolic of late 1980s club culture in the U.K.; dummies and other kids' accessories, as well as intentionally inane kid-style melodic riffs, were ubiquitous within the Anglo-American Rave scene of the 1990s.[xxvi]  Of course these parties didn't enable a literal return to a pre-Oedipal childhood, but they did establish the conditions for the rediscovery of something that is experienced (if temporarily forgotten) in childhood.  Dancing in a constricted space in which the boundaried body was lost in a pre-linguistic sea of touch and sensation, participants experienced subjectivity in a non-egotistic mode--which suggests that the theory of the polymorphous perverse might be more than an evocative metaphor.

Describing one of his trips to Flamingo, author Edmund White evokes the process of abandoning his cherished ego.  "I am ordinarily squeamish about touching an alien body," he wrote in States Of Desire: Travels in Gay America.  "I loathe crowds.  But tonight the drugs and the music and the exhilaration had stripped me of all such scruples.  We were packed in so tightly we were forced to slither across each other's wet bodies and arms; I felt my arm moving like a piston in synchrony against a stranger's--and I did not pull away.  Freed of my shirt and my touchiness, I surrendered myself to the idea that I was just like everyone else.  A body among bodies."[xxvii]  Unable to avoid physical contact on all sides, dancers had little choice but to dissolve into the amorphous whole and, as the distinctions between self and other collapsed, they relinquished their socialized desire for independence and separation.

Developing a related argument, cultural critic Walter Hughes describes the way in which the boundaried masculine body, having been penetrated sonically on the dance floor, loses its autonomy and, in turn, establishes an empathetic alliance with the repressed-yet-resistant figure of the black female diva.  Disciplined by the relentless disco beat, which compels him to move, the gay male dancer embraces the traditional role of slave while experimenting with a cyborg-like refusal of the "natural," his body no longer being an autonomous entity but instead a mixture of tissue, bone, and reverberating sound.[xxviii]  The emergence of Euro-disco, which isolated and reinforced the four-on-the-floor bass beat of disco and combined this rigid rhythm with the nascent synthesizer technology of the 1970s, accentuated the experience of the dance floor as a realm in which technology went hand-in-hand with disciplinary compulsion.

At the same time, dancers also experienced disco as polyrhythmic, especially in contrast to thudding pulse of contemporary rock, which had long since departed from the rhythmic interplay of rock 'n' roll, and this quality underpinned Richard Dyer's compelling defense of disco, published in 1979.[xxix]  Whereas rock, according to Dyer, confined "sexuality to the cock" and was thus "indelibly phallo-centric music," disco "restores eroticism to the whole body" thanks to its "willingness to play with rhythm," and it does this "for both sexes."[xxx]  Gilbert and Pearson, drawing on Dyer's argument, add: "If the body in its very materiality is an effect of repeated practices of which the experience of music is one, then we can say that what a music like disco can offer is a mode of actually rematerializing the body in terms which confound the gender binary."[xxxi]

The centrality of this experiential process--of abandoning the ego and giving oneself up to the undulating rhythms and affective sensations of the dance floor--helps explain why gay men, along with people of color and women, were so central to disco's earliest formation.  Having been historically excluded from the Enlightenment project, these groups were less attached to the project of bourgeois individualism and rational advancement than their straight white male counterparts, and were accordingly more open to the disturbing forces of sonic-dance rapture.  Riding on the back of gay liberation, feminism, and civil rights, the core dancers of the disco era were also engaging in the development of new social forms and cultural expressions, and the floor provided them with a relatively safe space in which they could work out their concerns and articulate their emotions and desires.

The discotheque, however, didn't only function as a meeting space for the outcastes of the rainbow coalition.  Straight men were involved in discotheque culture from the outset, both in its 1960s (predominantly straight commercial) and 1970s (predominantly gay subterranean) guises.  While straights were relatively marginal in spaces such as the Loft and the Sanctuary, they became more prominent after club culture became more visible (especially through the commercial success of venues such as Le Jardin, which was situated in Times Square) and the media began to report on the phenomenon.  Their participation became even more pronounced when the mid-1970s recession provided straight white men with one of disco's most important pretexts: the need for release.  "Straight, middle-class people never learned how to party," a gay Puerto Rican partygoer told the New York Sunday News in 1975.  "To them, a party is where you get all dressed up just to stand around with a drink in your hand, talking business.  But for us, partying is release, celebration.  The more hostile the vibes in your life, the better you learn how to party, 'cause that's your salvation.  Now that things aren't going so well for the stockbroker in Westchester and his wife, they come down here, where it doesn't matter how much money you make, or what the label in your coat says."[xxxii]

The broad characteristics of the early 1970s dance floor--a crowd largely composed of outsider groups that would dance as individuals-in-the-crowd in a highly affective environment for an extended period of time in--could be found not only at private venues such as the Loft, the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, and so on, but also at public venues such as the Limelight (the Greenwich Village version), the Haven, Le Jardin, and Galaxy 21 (Figure 11.1).  Whereas the private parties were normally considered underground and the public venues commercial, the key difference between the two was social rather than aesthetic.  Hardcore dancers would frequent both, but whereas their position would be protected in the private parties, which weren't advertised and weren't open to members of the public, they were vulnerable to "unknowing outsiders" in public venues.  As such the dance ritual practiced at the Sanctuary, the Limelight, Le Jardin, and other public venues would be every bit as purist as that practiced in counterpart private parties at the beginning of their run, but their purism was invariably short-lived, at least in comparison to the private venues.

Even so, the private party network, which referred to itself as "the underground," could hardly be described as constituting a hermetically sealed entity.  These private parties influenced the mainstream by generating chart hits, and underground DJs were insistent that they received Gold Records, or at least free records (via the first Record Pools), in return for their service to the music industry.  In addition, DJs were largely committed to spreading their music beyond their core dance crowd, with figures such as Nicky Siano playing at his own private party, the Gallery, as well as highly visible venues such as Studio 54.

The precariousness of the private party network's model of dancing was illustrated in the second half of the decade when it was twisted to the point of non-recognition.  As discotheque culture entered the commercial mainstream, DJs started to push primarily chart-based music and, on the dance floor, the Hustle (as well as various line dances) came to dominate.  Critics such as William Safire, the conservative New York Times op ed columnist, were delighted and praised the routine for marking a conservative return to self-discipline, responsibility, and communication after a fifteen-year period of "frantic self-expression" and "personal isolationism" on the dance floor.  "The political fact is that the absolute-freedom days of the dance are over," added Safire.  "When you are committed to considering what your partner will do next, and must signal your own intentions so that the `team' of which you are a part can stay in step, then you have embraced not only a dance partner, but responsibility."[xxxiii]

Drawn from the Mambo, the Hustle required partners to hold hands while one led the other in a series of learned step and spin sequences and, popularized by Van McCoy's hit single, the practice subsequently emerged as a conspicuous ingredient of the discotheque revival to the extent that it was the featured dance of Saturday Night Fever, the film that became the key catalyst within disco's belated and, ultimately, short-lived explosion.  That film, in which there is no discernable dynamic between the selections of the DJ or the movements of Manero and his co-dancers, became the takeoff point for the mass crossover in disco during 1978 and the template for the disco boom.

Music writer Peter Shapiro confirms that the "Hustle marked the return of dancing as a surrogate for, or prelude to, sex," yet he also maintains that "as long as you strutted your stuff on the floor, disco was essentially democratic."[xxxiv]  It is difficult, however, to see how the Hustle could have maintained the individual-within-the-crowd dynamic that was so central to the early (and, ultimately, enduring) formation of disco.  For sure, Hustle dancers could be expressive, but the Mambo-derived move disrupted the synergistic line of communication that was so central to the dance dynamic established in the early 1970s.  Significantly, the move wasn't practiced in any of New York's hardcore venues.

Following the release of Saturday Night Fever, some thirty instruction books were published on disco dancing, and their focus on the Hustle, combined with the rapid growth of Hustle classes, is indicative of the way in which the priorities of New York's downtown dancers were lost in the second half of the 1970s.  It is no coincidence that the DJ in Saturday Night Fever, Monty Rock, is an almost wholly absent figure.  Spinners such as Paul Casella, who played in a variety of venues during the 1970s, testify that it was far easier to establish a flow in a hardcore urban setting than any commercial (urban or suburban) equivalent.

Dancing, of course, could be enjoyed outside of the esoteric ambience of the private party network and, for the most part, suburban clubbers, gravitating to local and urban venues, wouldn't have even been aware of what they were missing.  In some instances, they might not have missed much: strong DJs were in operation outside of New York's hallowed downtown scene, and the Hustle was, ultimately, just one of a number of dance styles that were popularized in the 1970s (even if a number of the other routines also disrupted the line of communication between the floor and the booth).  Of course, there is no reason to think that Hustle dancers were having a bad time, and while dance floor aficionados might have maintained that transcendence could only be attained through other moves, the producers of Saturday Night Fever were clever enough to capitalize on the potential pleasure of this particular dance practice.  In the process they generated a new vehicle for the popularization of social dance in the United States.

Saturday Night Fever was initially welcomed by a number of disco purists, but the excitement soon waned.  The extraordinary commercial success of the film might have encouraged the rapid expansion of the discotheque sector, but the new strata of club owners tended to create third-rate venues in their rush to capitalize on the boom.  Inadequate sound systems broke up when pumped hard, illuminated floors flashed out their distracting sequences, and a new generation of know-nothing DJ automatons spurred an aural diet of prescribed, shrill white pop.  Meanwhile male dancers took to dressing, dancing, and generally behaving like John Travolta, and their come-and-get-me gestures soon began to look ridiculous to even the least discerning dancer.

The rapid dilution of the downtown dance dynamic during the course of 1978, with the glut of bad disco music that was released in the slipstream of Saturday Night Fever, and the fatigue that inevitably followed the film's marathon stint at the top established the conditions for national backlash against disco.  The culture's demise was accelerated by the combination of a deep recession in 1979 and the gathering momentum of the "disco sucks movement," a coalition of predominantly straight white men who felt dispossessed by disco and vented their anger and revenge in frequently homophobic and, to a lesser extent, racist publicity stunts.  Yet while hardcore DJs and dance aficionados blanched at the discourse of "disco sucks," they passively agreed with the premise that disco productions in the post-Saturday Night Fever climate had become, for the most part, aesthetically banal and tiresomely commercial.

The Hustle didn't survive the so-called "death of disco," at least not as the standard routine on club dance floors of the United States during the 1980s and beyond, but the dance practices of the downtown party did.  The outward signs suggested a culture in terminal decline--thousands of clubs, many of them in suburban centers, closed in the second half of 1979, and at the beginning of 1980 the music majors ditched the word "disco" and replaced it with "dance"--but parties such as the Loft, the Garage, and the Warehouse in Chicago, as well as host of new, groundbreaking venues such as Danceteria, the Saint, Bond's, and the Funhouse went from strength to strength.  Dance floor practices in the key urban venues of the 1980s and beyond were largely continuous with those of the early 1970s, and, as described by Fikentscher and Sommer, this template has survived into contemporary North American club culture, which largely revolves around the more electronically-driven genres of house, techno, and garage. As such, the dance formations of the New York downtown party network of the early 1970s have proved to be significantly more enduring than the Hustle, even though disco culture will, it seems, forever be associated with this altogether safer routine.

Notes

 

Many thanks to Julie Malnig for the astute comments she offered throughout the writing of this essay.

[i] Elsewhere in this collection Elizabeth Aldrich points out that from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century the Waltz revolved around "whirling pivots" and, as such, could be practiced without a leader.

 

 

[ii] Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 323.

 

 

[iii] Ibid., 325.

 

 

[iv] Ibid., 361.

 

 

[v] Ibid., 7.

 

 

[vi] Ibid., 5.

 

 

[vii] My book, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2004), opens at the start of the 1970s and investigates, amongst other things, the precise chronology of the evolution of 1970s club culture.  A number of points that I make in this article are drawn from the book.

 

 

[viii] Charles Kaiser, The Gay Metropolis 1940-1996 (London: Phoenix, 1999), 201-2.

 

 

[ix] See Love Saves the Day, 28-30, for a more detailed discussion of the relationship between the Stonewall rebellion, gay liberation and the rise of gay discotheque culture.  In contrast to a number of authors, I argue that disco didn't so much grow out of the Stonewall rebellion as run parallel to it as part of a wider movement of gay activism, consciousness, and culture.

 

 

[x] Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 21, 37-38.

 

 

[xi] Ibid., 25.

 

 

[xii] Ibid., 26.

 

 

[xiii] Ibid., 25; Archie Burnett, interview with author, 19 September 1997.

 

 

[xiv] Jonathan David Jackson, "Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing," Dance Research Journal 33 (2001/02): 45-46. 

 

 

[xv] Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 288-89.

 

 

[xvi] Ibid., 353.

 

 

[xvii] Maria Pini, Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity: The Move from Home to House (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 165.

 

 

[xviii] For example, Albert Goldman's Disco, for long the most authoritative account of 1970s American discotheque culture, describes orgiastic scenes taking place at the Sanctuary (London: Hawthorn Books, 1978), 118-119.  This claim, for which (after interviewing several regulars at the venue) I have found no supporting evidence, is regularly repeated in books on club culture including, most recently, Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), 15. 

 

 

[xix] David Walsh, "`Saturday Night Fever': An Ethnography of Disco Dancing," in Helen Thomas ed., Dance, Gender and Culture (London: Macmillan, 1993), 116.

 

 

[xx] Lawrence, Love Saves the Day, 25.

 

 

[xxi] Sommer, "C'mon to my house," in Julie Malnig, ed., The Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2007), pg. Sally Sommer, "C'mon to My House: Underground-House Dancing", Dance Research Journal, 2001/02, 33, 74, reprinted in Julie Malnig, ed., The Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2007), pg. House music dates back to 1980 or 1981, when dancers at the Warehouse in Chicago started to describe the DJ's selections -- disco, boogie and some early Italo disco -- as "house music", house in this instance being an abbreviation of the Warehouse (Lawrence, 2004, 409-10). In late 1983 young Chicago producers started to use cheap synthesiser and drum machine technology to create their own dance tracks, which imitated a number of disco's bass lines and rhythmic patterns, and in 1984 the term house music was reappointed to designate Chicago's electronic offshoot of disco. The new genre started to receive play in New York clubs in 1985. Sally Sommer's use of the term house music is more general than my own, and her use of the term house dancing is used interchangeably with the style of dancing at the Loft, which she calls Lofting (and which I label individual free-form dance).

 

 

[xxii] Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson, Discographies: Dance Music, Culture and the Politics of Sound (London and New York: 1999), 134.

 

 

[xxiii] Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital (Hanover, New Hampshire: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 29.

 

 

[xxiv] Philip H. Dougherty, "Now the Latest Craze Is 1-2-3, All Fall Down," New York Times, 11 February 1965.

 

 

[xxv] Kai Fikentscher, You Better Work! Underground Dance Music in New York City (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press), 101.

 

 

[xxvi] See, for example, Hillegonda Rietveld, "Living the Dream," in Steve Redhead ed., Rave Off: Politics and Deviance in Contemporary Youth Culture (Aldershot: Avebury, 1993), 54.

 

 

[xxvii] Edmund White, States Of Desire: Travels in Gay America (London: Picador, 1986), 270-271.

 

 

[xxviii] Walter Hughes, "In the Empire of the Beat: Discipline and Disco," in Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose eds., Microphone Fiends: Youth Music & Youth Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 151-152.

 

 

[xxix] Richard Dyer, "In Defence of Disco," Gay Left, summer 1979. Reprinted in Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage eds., The Faber Book of Pop (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995), 518-27.

 

 

[xxx] Ibid., 523.

 

 

[xxxi] Gilbert and Pearson, Discographies, 102.

 

 

[xxxii] Sheila Weller, "The New Wave of Discotheques," New York Sunday News, 31 August 1975.

 

 

[xxxiii] William Safire, "On the Hustle," New York Times, 4 August 1975.

 

 

[xxxiv] Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around, 184-85.

 

 

Download the article here

“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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