Disco UnSung : Quick Thoughts

A certain narrative has played itself out on TVOne’s UnSung program regarding the decline of many of the soul artists featured. Besides business issues, personal problems, unforseen tragedies and many other things that derail an enertainers career, there is also the issue of changing musical styles. Being that the program features many soul artists who peaked in the 1970s, two musical genres are often held up as the bane of the artists existence: Disco and Rap/Hip Hop. Of the two, the difference is that while Hip Hop is a genre that is not too kind to people from outside of the community attempting to seriously pass themselves off as Hip Hop artists, Disco is a music that will accept any artist from any genre. It was also a music that was close to the roots of Soul, Rock, Blues, Jazz and particularly Funk, all the genre’s that were popular when the music was born. Dizzy Gillespie once said when questioned why would he do a disco album, “It isn’t anythiing I haven’t heard before. And when we look at disco’s brief but powerful run at the top of the charts, we see the Rolling Stones doing disco rock, the Mighty Clouds of Joy doing gospel disco, Roy Ayers doing disco funk, Walter Murphy mixing disco and classical, Herbie Hancock mixing disco with jazz, and many other varients, all trying to cash in and ride the steady beat of disco to both artistic success and cultural currency.

So it was fitting that TVOne decided to tell the story of disco in a two hour special. This episode was special for several reasons. For one thing, it attempted to tell the story of disco from a black music perspective. It also attempted to get toward the roots of disco and also talk about the fall out experienced in the rest of the black/R&B music industry after disco was rejected so thoroughly in the late summer/fall of 1979. This was territory covered in books such as Nelson George’s The Death of Rhythm & Blues but it was still good to see the pieces put together and acknowledged on television.

My own history with disco music is interesting. I started out with a heavy interest in Funk, educated by Rickey Vincents Funk: The Music, People and Rhythm of the One, and I bought the standard storyline that disco was the death of funk, soul, and other black music’s. I was a true believer that disco was a lower form of music and fair game for everybody to lampoon and make fun of. However, I did not realize that there was alot of music I absolutely loved that either was disco, or was made by it’s creators with disco’s popularity in mind. There is little in the way of serious late ’70s funk that was not touched by the realities of disco’s popularity.

I’m talking tunes like Roy Ayers “Running Away”, The Four Tops “Catfish”, Johnny Taylors “Disco Lady”, even a record like Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” or “Another Star.” This includes acknowledged classics like Kool & The Gang’s “Ladies Night”, and Teddy Pendegrass “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” What about Lou Rawls smooth 1976 classic, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine????” Disco.

My study of music lead me to understand that disco is not about extravagent strings and horns, high pitched vocals, long playing songs, or any of the other cliche’s we associate with it. Those were musical elements that were popular during disco’s time period, true, but by themselves they don’t make disco. Disco is based on a very strong, very prominent beat. Four on the floor, meaning, a kick drum on each quarter note. The snare drum is played on the two and four, usually tuned low, so that it “thuds” rather than “cracks” (if you wanna hear crackin’ snares, listen to early ’80s funk, like Prince and Cameo), and the high hat is opened up in a pattern that dances, some people call it “T-sop” after Sound of Philadelphia drummer Earl Young, and some people omnatoepically call “Pea soup”. What musicians learned is that they could put this disco beat under whatever they were playing and craft their music into something suitable for the beat dancers were dancing to. It really was not any worse than adopting the “four on the top” Motown beat or the “give the drummer some” James Brown beat ten years earlier, musicians wanted to play the beats of the time that would get people moving.

Many other good elements of ’60s and ’70s soul and funk went into the disco style: Larry Grahams octave transitions on bass became the foundation of the disco bass style, the falsetto stylings of Curtis Mayfiled, Al Green Smokey Robinson, the Stylistics, et, al, became the new vocal approach, the girl group stylings of the Supremes and the Gospel emoting of Aretha Franklin found a place over the disco beat, the extended orchestrations of Issac Hayes set the template for dance floor ecstacy, the soulful orchestras of Philly Internatinal and Barry White prettied up the top, and disco kept alive that “latin tinge” that Jelly Roll Morton said was important for jazz music to have that dance beat.

TVOne’s show dealt with the fact that the word “disco” is just short for “discoteque”, a French word denoting a place where record were spun for dancing enjoyment as opposed to live bands. It seems amazing to a music fan today, but at one time, live bands ruled night clubs as opposed to D.J’s and recordings. It charted the discoteque’s early popularity with gay men in New York City. It covered David Mancuso’s Loft party, which catered to black gay men in the early ’70s.

At this time there was no “disco” music. D.J’s were playing records that made people dance, be it James Brown, Eddie Kendricks, Gladys Knight, Santana, or Led Zepplin. What impressed me when I learned about this time period in the history of disco, is how similar it was to the birth of hip hop, which happened right around the same time, if Kool Herc started Hip Hop in 1974, disco was not yet recognized as an independent genre of music itself. The D.J’s of what was to be called “disco” were exploreres searching after what Afrika Baambaata referred to as, “The Perfect Beat.”

The episode actually had Earl Young, house drummer for Gamble & Huff’s Philly International record label, demonstrate his original disco beat. Earl Young played drums on songs like “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes and “Disco Inferno” by The Tramps. It was really good for historical documentation to have him demonstrate his original disco beat.

The show also chronicled how disco provided a new voice for gay men and black women in the music industry. This was probably what made many people uncomfortable with disco in the long run.

This was a very important show because it dealt with what disco was in the black community. When you say disco to a black music fan from the late ’70s, they might  think of a song such as “Boogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey. All in all, it was a good show, the material was not 100% new, but the perspective on it was, the show reclaimed disco as a part of black music.

This is a favored topic of mine, attempting to find redeeming value in disco, so look to read more from me on it in the future…..

In the mean time in between time….


You might not believe it, but the Tempts “Law of the Land” was an important early record in the discoteque’s. It has a four on the floor kick drum, and one D.J mentioned he’d mix the live James Brown “Give it Up, Turn it A Loose” where J.B says “Clap your hands/stomp your feet” into this cut

Eddie Kendricks was probably one of the most important artists in the early disco thing

One of the songs that got the whole thing started

Hardcore disco funk

Elegant disco jazz

The Far Frontiers of disco



Filed under Music Matters

3 responses to “Disco UnSung : Quick Thoughts

  1. I sympathize completely. As a young music fan (OK, snob), I was certain Disco was the root of all music industry’s evil. It took me years to see that it wasn’t all about Boney M, The Village People, ABBA and the likes, and even grew to appreciate their role and talents. I don’t think any other genre gave novelty or guilty pleasure a bad name like Disco did- a heritage almost impossible to shake down. I feel like I’m obliged to mention one of Israel’s own bizarre cash-ins, “Chassidisco Fever”:

    Also, Disco’s peak coinciding with The Star Wars craze proved to be especially hilarious but deadly in terms of music appreciation:

    The Unsung Disco special briefly touched your point about the link between Disco and Hip-Hop, mentioning one lasting impact- the emergence of the big, fat 12″ single; perhaps my favorite of all formats. As a collector, I soon acknowledged Disco’s trailblazing contribution to DJ culture. You can’t underestimate the mere practice of taking a well known hit and making it sound even better or just plain different than the original version.

    Another major eye-opener for me was Alice Echols’ “Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture”. Of course, by then I was already more willing to reconsider my firm stance on the subject. But that book actually made me watch “Saturday Night Fever” for the first time and helped me realize this was a much darker flick than it is celebrated for.

  2. You understand exactly what I went through with disco, man. It’s funny how powerful of a force that music was, to get every other trend of the time to try to in some way cash in on it, Star Wars being an example. One of my favorite moments of Star Wars and Disco colliding was the funky disco type tune that the weird lady with the long nose was performing in Jabba The Hutts palace in “Return of the Jedi” 🙂

    I want to read Echol’s book. Some other good books on Disco and it’s formation are “Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979” by Tim Lawrence and “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey” by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton. “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” in particular did a lot for my understanding by splitting up it’s tale of disco history into sections it called “Disco 1” and “Disco 2”. “Disco 1” deals with the time when the practice of D.Jing and spinning records in clubs were just beginning and records like “Soul Makossa” were big hits in discos, crossing over from disco to radio to record sales through Frankie Crocker being influenced by going to clubs, it goes from that underground time period when D.J’s discovered MFSB and Love Unlimited Orchestra, to “Disco 2” which is the late, glittery, Studio 54 era. Totally reshaped how I thought about the formation of disco.

    That’s a very intriguing point you make about the darkness of “Saturday Night Fever.” In some of the biggest hits of the era you hear that note of foreboding under the happy rhythms. The Bee Gee’s for instance, in “Stayin Alive” after mentioning all the bravado of the character, squeezed in a lyric that said “You’re going nowhere.” Earth, Wind & Fire, in “Boogie Wonderland”, a record I never cared much for, laced that dance classic with a tale of “Men who need more than they get” and Women who had “Laid too many bets.” The song is almost a warning about the fast life disco represented, as Curtis Mayfield used “Superfly” to undercut the films seeming celebration of hustling. They had a similar message in an earlier dance hit, “Saturday Nite” (“When you gonna wake and see the sun/stop wasting time and having fun”). In fact, disco probably continued a long time blues music tradition of celebrating the good times while cautioning against their potential to debilitate.

    Man, that Israeli disco is pretty dope! lol

  3. Interesting thing is,I am one of those people who never laughed at disco. In fact,I knew what disco was long before I understand anything about funk. Point is,an excellent overview of the new two hour unsung special. I also wanted to add Henrique,after looking at that disco categorization chart you sent me and reading up on the work of Georgio Moroder and other pioneers of Eurodisco or “space disco” that those who used electronic synthesizers to make the music didn’t often have the advantages of pre-set patches and even poly-phonic playing ability. They had to rely on their engineering and musical ability,just as live musicians would,in order to polish their creative craft. And sometimes that space/Eurodisco sound is among the most maligned aspect of it. So whether it be it’s musical significance in the black community or in the European music world,disco is still a very under-appreciated musical development. Especially when you consider that the music continued and still continues to develop in Europe after it’s American rejection into sub-genres such as synth-pop,electronic new wave and many different varieties of house and Hi NRG music in the mid/late 1980’s that bought the “four on the floor” concepts back to America itself-just under different names.

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