NYC: Escape To New York

DJ Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage

DJ Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage

Counter-clockwise, it’s 2 o’clock and New York is once again reaching high… Feel 10:

Download: Feel 10 – NYC: Escape to New York, at 160kbps

 

“‘Life is something special!’ Sometimes we need reminding that we only get one life. That is the power of New York City, a superstructure of individual lives raised to a peak so that it cuts the sky open and we fall upward into the infinite dimensions of the human psyche. When terrorists killed thousands of innocent Americans on September 11, 2001, there may have been nothing more scary to them, more cause for their narrow hatred, than the multicultural and progressive ethos of EDM. As a music, it is already bringing people from around the world together as one family, from the beaches of Goa, India, to the slopes of Mt. Fuji, to England’s Glastonbury, to Burning Man and on and on. It has been so often derided. And yet ‘disco’ may be one of America’s greatest contributions to the world. And nothing says that better than the disco ball’s return as an image of pride and affection.”

In recent years, the original home of disco has been revisiting its history of mirror balls, loft dance parties and multicultural optimism. During the Reagan years, “Disco Sucks!” became a rallying cry against liberal excess. In those same years hip hop documented the city’s slide into racial inequality and popular culture, from Hill Street Blues to the 1981 movie Escape From New York, filled the American imagination with cartoonish distortions of the world’s greatest city as a flytrap for lowlifes, sexual deviants and criminals. It’s not a mistake that the big bad boss in Escape, the “Duke of New York,” played by none other than Isaac Hayes, had a giant disco ball hanging from his rearview mirror. This was in many ways tongue in cheek, but it got at the anxieties of Middle America. Five years earlier, Martin Scorsese prefigured this fear of New York as murderous paranoia in his classic Taxi Driver.

The Duke of New York in his Disco Mobile

The “Duke of New York” in his disco mobile

So why was there such a deep fear of America’s great metropolis? Why did the media feel compelled to play on such negative stereotypes? The answer is in part that New York City was indeed struggling as slums grew out of failed housing projects, trash collected on the street and America’s upwardly mobile chose to live in suburbs over skyscrapers. But something else was eating away at many Americans’ sense of security and it may very well have been the stirrings of a multiracial middle class and the rise of gay consciousness. In 1969, the gay community rioted in Greenwich Village after a police raid on a gay hotspot at the Stonewall Inn. The so-called “Stonewall riots” were the beginning of a strong gay rights movement.

In the years to come, gay artists and their friends would continue to push out new ideas, art, music and fashion. The great artist Andy Warhol was indicative of this change, pushing out radical new ways of seeing capitalism and modern life. Musicians like Lou Reed and David Bowie drew great inspiration from this heady mix. In the 1970s, David Mancuso started The Loft parties, which set the paradigm for intimate gatherings focused on eclectic dance music, including a brew of psychedelic rock, funk and soul. This in turn inspired the legendary Paradise Garage club, where DJ Larry Levan helped craft the post-disco electronic sound that would influence DJ Frankie Knuckles and the eventual evolution of house, techno and today’s EDM.

But in the late 1970s, dance music started to experience a backlash. In 1979, rock DJs Steve Dahl and Garry Meier led a “Disco Demolition Night” in Chicago’s Comiskey Park in between a White Sox double header, exploding record boxes filled with disco records. A riot ensued. Part of this was a back-to-basics cry by more conservative rock musicians, producers and business interests. But many pop music historians saw a darker connection. Craig Werner writes: “The anti-disco movement represented an unholy alliance of funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries. Nonetheless, the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia.”

Much of the history and brilliance of disco, especially Levan’s “Garage” sound during the early 1980s, is less well known because of this cultural black hole. Disco did not die and in fact went back underground only to mutate into some of the most innovative and experimental music of modern times. Auteurs like Arthur Russell, who used his cello to output poetic rhythm songs, reflected a purer parallel to popular acts like The Talking Heads and in fact moved in the same artistic circles. N.Y.C. Peachboys ‘ “Life Is Something Special” and Levan’s productions of Gwen Guthrie, like “Padlock” and “Seventh Heaven,” are musical masterworks.

Arthur Russell "Another Thought" 1994

Arthur Russell “Another Thought” 1994

By the late 1980s, that New York spirit of optimism and gritty diversity was again impacting artists around the world. Japan’s Satoshi Tomiie and Susumu Yokota maintained the gentler Garage sound in their house productions. As rave culture exploded in New York with the likes of Moby and DJs Frankie Bones and Junior Vasquez, classics like “Go” and “Energy Flash” sent shock waves back to Europe. Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash” in particular revolutionized EDM, sparking a love for light saber-like riffs and brooding bass. Closer to the fashion world, Lady Miss Kier’s Deee-Lite helped capture this period for the mainstream with their World Clique album. Others like Mocean Worker and the IDM outfit We helped push New York’s electronica movement in quieter directions while absorbing the drum ‘n’ bass sounds emanating from England.

At the end of the 1990s, Irish wanderer David Holmes, who was a mad rave remixer, found himself in Gotham with a dictaphone, recording the ramblings and streetcorner philosophies of New York City’s colorful characters. He rolled those voices into his acclaimed album Let’s Get Killed, which would win him several film scoring gigs with Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh. But Holmes, who was friends with label rebel Tim Goldsworthy, would also inspire James Murphy to get back into the studio and start hammering out the various sounds ringing about in his head, from indie rock to old disco to Daft Punk. The result would be LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records, Murphy’s gutsy venture with Goldsworthy. Together they would push out a disco revival of sorts, one with a new attitude informed by house, techno and the post-9/11 hangover.

"Energy Flash" mastermind Joey Beltram

“Energy Flash” mastermind Joey Beltram

LCD Soundsystem’s success was so close to total, that before it went supernova, Murphy decided to the pull the plug with a bang in two final brilliant shows at Madison Square Garden in 2011. New York Times rock critic Jon Caramanica couldn’t help celebrating with a relatively tone deaf review that spliced in The Strokes and the misguided notion that they were due for a comeback as Murphy decided to “retire.” But Murphy was only plotting his next move while refocusing on the other artists under his charge at DFA: The Juan MacLean, Black Van, Holy Ghost!, among others. At the same time, a genuine underground dance scene was hitting a self-sustaining stride. As millennials flocked to New York City, buffeted by the letdowns of two wars and Wall Street greed, they started finding the joy of grooves in the likes of Jacques Renault and California transplant and ex-!!! bassist Justin Vandervolgen, whose “Clapping Song” is a perfect distillation of EDM and disco into something thoroughly fresh and new.

With all the bellyaches about France during the Iraq War following 9/11, “freedom fries” were no match for the influence of Daft Punk. But the Gallic robots were simply reminding Americans of their own heritage, one that the new generation is increasingly proud of. And in the greatest of all ironies, lovers of freedom have missed one very important historical grace note. The word “disco” stems from “discotheque,” the French term for underground record playing parties by the French Resistance during World War II, when the Nazis occupied France and forbade American jazz, bebop and the jitterbug. That’s the spirit of dance music circa 2012 in a nutshell.

 

Download: Feel 10 – NYC: Escape to New York, at 160kbps

 

LCD Soundsystem play their final weekend in NYC

LCD Soundsystem play their final weekend in NYC