MN2S recently signed disco legends the Village People, Sister Sledge, and Evelyn Champagne King, and our booking roster already plays host to fellow disco giants Shalamar, Chaka Khan, Boney M and Gloria Gaynor. To celebrate these signings, new and old, we explore the early days of the genre.
Disco has gone in and out of fashion over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the stellar quality and unrivalled liveliness of much of the music. Made up of the four-to-the-floor beats that still bounce around dancefloors today, combined with soulful vocals, funky bass lines, Latin rhythms and, of course, pop hooks, disco records still adorn the collections of the greatest DJs in the world, and rightly so.
But disco is about more than just a sound. It is a genre and a movement. And that was never more apparent than at its beginning.
The first steps of disco
It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that the term ‘disco’ is derived from the French word discotheque, which was used to describe Paris nightclubs. The genre itself, however, was formed in Philadelphia.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Philadelphia was already a musical hotspot. R&B artists from Philadelphia International and other labels had created the ‘Philadelphia Sound’, a smooth blend of soul, funk and orchestral elements. Artists from the area and their audiences began to gravitate towards the fashion of psychedelia, as evidenced by the music of Kool & the Gang at the time.
This influence grew into the distinctive disco fashion of the late seventies, and the trippy lights and unhinged dancing that became a huge part of the movement.
Putting a label on it
As disco fashion and the disco sound evolved, record labels dedicated to this new genre sprung up in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The biggest were Salsoul records whose roster included Jocelyn Brown and Skyy; Casablanca records, who signed Donna Summer, Lipps Inc and George Clinton’s Parliament; and Prelude Records, who released music from D-Train and the ever-prolific Jocelyn Brown.
At the same time, long-established labels around the country began to adapt to disco fever. The Jacksons released disco-inspired classics on Epic Records, as indeed did Michael Jackson as a solo artist. His 1979 ‘mature’ solo debut Off the Wall might just be disco’s finest self-contained album. But disco, as we shall see, was not about albums.
Rethinking music through remixing
For us today, dance music without 12-inch records and remixes is unthinkable. We have disco to thank for them. Some would be even more specific, pointing to Tom Moulton as the inventor of the remix (though, debatably, a similar practice had been taking place in Jamaica earlier).
Frustrated with the brevity of his favourite songs at gay clubbing spot Fire Island, Moulton wanted to find a way to extend disco tracks without repeating them, so he recorded 45s onto tapes, lengthening his favourite instrumental sections for maximum danceability.
As Moulton’s reputation grew, he became the genre’s go-to remixer, working with artists in studios to put out the 12-inch singles we know and love. Other remixers rose to prominence, of course. Many of them also DJs. Which brings us to our next point.
Disco club culture
As mentioned, disco was about more than music. The genre and the culture developed in tandem in nightclubs around the country. Here, DJs were of the utmost importance. Their remixes, made unofficially on tapes, like Moulton’s originals, created live on the turntables, or, as would eventually be common, bought on 12-inch records, created the free-flowing DJ sets we take for granted today in all kinds of dance music.
It’s not just about how the music was played, but who it was played for. Like many of the best musical advances, disco was the music of the oppressed. Specifically, of the gay and black communities in America, who faced daily discrimination. On the dancefloor, everyone was free.
With this in mind, it is unsurprising that disco has given us some of the greatest and most popular LGBT anthems of all time, including Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family’, Gloria Gaynor’s barnstorming ‘I Will Survive’ and, of course, the Village People’s ‘YMCA’.
After its dawn, disco went on to achieve great heights, and it helped create the entire genre of house music. Yes, it has faced scorn from some music fans and critics but, like Gaynor and the entire LGBT community, it will survive.