Short History of Disco


Disco music first came to pass nearly 50 years ago, a funky, underground concern of Philadelphia and New York City’s minority groups which, in the space of a decade, would snowball into glittering, global socio-cultural revolution.  Its steady four-to-the-floor beat served as a platform for lush orchestral arrangements, slinky bass guitar and sweeping soul vocals, on the one hand, and cosmic synthesizers and ‘black box’ FX on quite the other.  Over time disco music also embraced Latin, jazz, Afro and early Krautrock, demonstrating appeal far beyond its niche roots – pure enrichment for body and soul.  There was simply nothing like it.

When disco ‘died’ during the early Eighties it never truly went away.  Those loose, danceable grooves were the beginnings of house and techno, and a myriad of other contemporary dance scenes which today form clubland.  In its spirit of unity and togetherness the mirrorball movement also uprooted rotten social and racial prejudices, encouraging greater tolerance across society – another valuable tenet from which today’s club scene has taken its cue.

Without disco this just wouldn’t be the case.  The disco sound matured during the Seventies by incorporating synthesizers, drum machines and other advanced (for the time) tech-y gear.  Majestic productions by Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’), Yellow Magic Orchestra and Solid State Survivor were to prove highly influential during the following decade, as proto-house artists explored innovative new electronic ways to make people dance.

At the same time, underground disco pioneers such as Larry Levan, Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons were boldly wrestling new mixing and editing techniques in the studio, stretching the existing arrangements of disco records to the limits of funky elasticity.  It was an approach quickly embraced by early house titans Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles.  They would create similarly extended compositions using synths, sequencers and samplers and then hammer them at their soon-to-be-iconic club nights in Chicago.  House had been born.

And more exciting, monumental births were on their way.  As Skream put it, rather beautifully, two years ago:  “They don’t realise that, if it wasn’t for that [disco] era, there would be no house, no hardcore, no jungle or drum’n’bass, and no UK garage or dubstep.”  Disco is well and truly the daddy….

Disco provides perfect counterbalance to the absorbing if rather serious, heads-down propulsion of major dance genres like deep house and techno.  Any dancefloor should offer a journey, yes, but sometimes you simply want glittering sunshine vistas rather than moody, introspective submersion.  Both have their place but disco is, well more smiley….

Disco, to be honest, is at the very heart and history of what it means to joyously lose oneself on the dancefloor.  From the vintage sweeps of Salsoul, Prelude and West End to the contemporary twists of modern artists such as Lindstrom, Todd Terje, Breakbot and Bicep, disco-affiliated music raises spirits like nobody’s business.  In a world proliferated by bedroom producers knocking out shallow, digitally-touted drum tracks every five seconds, the disco sound delivers a heavenly, three-dimensional fusion of beats, bass, top-line instrumentation, melody and soaring songcraft.  It is a fully-formed realisation of the human instinct to dance – a supreme dance ‘experience’.

Any music scene would be greatly enriched by ‘Chic freak’ Nile Rodgers working within it.  To be fair, he has worked in most and yet disco is, unequivocally, his funky fatherland and, boy, how he’s steered the movement during the past few decades….

Rodgers hung with Hendrix, founded Chic…and in turn took disco credibly mainstream, became an addict himself, pursued boundary-breaking avenues with pop heavyweights like David Bowie and Madonna, nearly crashed and burned in hospital after another raucous night of partying, reformed Chic, shimmied with Daft Punk and, in doing so, returned disco to its former pop-culture pedestal.  Phew!

Rodgers is all about beautifully constructed songs and grooves that universally uplift and spill you back out onto the dancefoor in a giddy, euphoric mess.  The classic guitar riffs of funka-licious Chic anthems such as ‘Good Times’, ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Everybody Dance’ have translated brilliantly to the dance industry’s current frontline, with Rodgers adding serious panache and swerve to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. To this day, Rodgers’ insane talent continues to reinforce disco as a powerhouse genre with strength in its rich history, deeply soulful feeling and primal human groove.

Disco has far more up its flared trousers than big, sparkly glitterballs and a bunch of hip-swingingly good grooves.  Its history aligns closely with the pivotal, late 20th century struggle against social and racial oppression in America, the unity of its sound a rallying cry for the ethnic and LGBT minorities who predominantly supported it.  Disco played a pivotal role in extending the rights (and position) of gay people in America, not to mention black and ethnic communities, and women.  The music, and the clubs it was played in, presented welcome refuge for the troubled and persecuted, in turn convincing all within earshot that happier, more tolerant times lay ahead.

Disco’s revolution – culturally and sonically – has become house’s today, and that of the other sub-scenes comprising 21st century clubland.  That the electronic club scene continues to promote effective community of the spirit, offering people of all backgrounds an opportunity to let go and revel in quality, constantly innovating music, is borne out of the disco movement’s authentic rise to widespread cultural acceptance and enjoyment.  At the end of the day, a slammin’ disco record is a slammin’ disco record but one, undoubtedly, that carries even more weight and purpose because of its genre’s incredible, all-encompassing legacy.

Disco is about tangibility – a quality largely overlooked by today’s automated music industry and, in turn, regularly mourned for.  The boom of digital production and distribution has all but removed the need for record sleeves with their arresting cover art. In its heyday, disco orbited brightly around a brilliant, counter-cultural vision that leaked vividly into both its marketing and sound.  “Sometimes I bought the records just for the covers” revered collector ‘Disco Patrick’ Lejeune told Defected last year.  “They were incredible…part of the disco experience.”  What other genre displayed leaping catwomen, dreadlocked robots, glitter, girls, spandex in equal, erotic measure?

Disco is once again riding high now, and reminds us of the need to make dancefloor music more than just a brand and business process – it has to deliver tangible experience across the board. It is this that makes our music so much more.  Disco’s resurgence has specifically prompted fresh interest in some of those old racy covers, not to mention the dress codes, the flyers and, of course, the original vinyl releases.  Disco’s supreme lessons are being re-learned and adapted as clubland marches onwards and upwards….