Nicky Siano’s Hallelujah Disco brings gospel and dance together. We spoke to the DJ about his upcoming tour.
Decades into his career, Nicky Siano has put together one of the most exciting dance music shows in recent memory. Teaming up with a live gospel choir, Nicky Siano’s Hallelujah Disco is an audiovisual feast, designed to celebrate disco’s relationship with passionate, pyrotechnic vocalists. Siano joins us from his home in Brooklyn to talk about the new project.
Nicky Siano’s love affair with gospel music started at the beginning of disco. In fact, as he tells us, it started when there was no such thing as ‘disco’ at all. In the early 1970s, recording artists hadn’t yet started to create songs specifically for the dancefloor, so instead DJs would hunt down and play what Siano calls “danceable rock” and “danceable R&B.” This was at a time when Siano was playing eight-hour nights at the club. He had to find more music to fill that time. And he found it in gospel.
“Gospel—it’s poignant, powerful, and you can dance to it. It takes you to a whole different place.” He describes hearing the track ‘Rain’ by Dorothy Morrison, and spending over three weeks tracking it down. No one had it anywhere, until he discovered Colony Records. “That was the secret place,” he says. From there, he began to work more gospel music into his sets, and the focus was always on the powerhouse vocals.
Nicky wasn’t the only DJ playing gospel songs. His friends Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan played them too. And many of the most popular early disco (or “danceable”) songs from the period were originally based on gospel songs. Siano points to ‘Harlem’ by Bill Withers, with its lyrics about going to church “all dressed up” on a Sunday. Then of course there’s ‘Stand on the World’, which became a club classic in spite of, or perhaps because of, its gospel origins.
Since gospel music was so important in the early days, Siano says it’s a shame that 90% of music in the clubs today is instrumental. It’s a shame, because “people still want words.” Vocal songs give people a kind of energy that’s currently missing in clubs. It’s not just listening to vocal melodies that’s missing, it’s singing along, too.
Siano remembers playing the extended version of M.F.S.B. & The Three Degrees’ ‘Love Is the Message’ at Christmas, 1973. For the second half of the record, people just started chanting, rhythmically (as Nicky does to us): “Turn this motha fucka out!” Frankie Knuckles noticed it when he played the record, too. “It just became a thing all over the place,” Siano tells us.
The Hallelujah Disco show is set to feature many of these gospel dance classics. Siano has already taken it out on the road for a test run at London’s XOYO. Appropriately enough, people came up to him afterwards and described it as a “religious experience.” This bodes well for the tour, because since then, Siano and his choir have made the show even better. “This show, it’s just so strong. The gospel singers are amazing.”
A true multisensory experience, Hallelujah Disco sets will feature a combination of live singing, DJing of newly recorded tracks from Siano, and projected images. “I talk intermittently, and there are projections overhead with footage from my film [2014’s Love Is the Message] and hopefully footage from other films. I talk about how these songs were sort of dance floor standards, and how much I miss this kind of singing. I talk about people who were around back then, who made the whole thing happen.” Siano compares the spoken sections of the show to Bruce Springsteen’s current one-man show on Broadway. “It’s a fucking amazing night,” he says. “The stories are amazing, Bruce is so engaging. There is a way to make history an entertaining thing.” It’s an important history, too. “Our show is all about Gay Pride. It starts off talking about Stonewall and how Gay Pride came to be celebrated all over the world.”
Much of the film footage was recorded in Nicky’s legendary club The Garage (the second one, after the first was closed down). It’s the spirit of this club that Hallelujah Disco will be reigniting worldwide. The show will change with time, too. “We’re putting songs in, we’re taking songs out. It’s ever-evolving.” By the end of its two-year run, it could be a very different show. But it’s heart will be in the same place.
In other news, Siano has a special announcement lined up for a show this summer, but he’s keeping his cards close to his chest for now. In the meantime, fans can catch Nicky Siano’s Hallelujah Disco on its worldwide tour. Siano is thrilled to be taking the show on the road. “For me, it’s just an exciting, exciting adventure.”
Nicky Siano’s Hallelujah Disco will come to Manchester’s Albert Hall on Saturday 10th February. Enquire now to make a booking.