Disco Double Take

New York Parties Like It’s 1975

Tracks like Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me" shimmer with lustrous detail—the crisp, clear sound gives me goose bumps. Suddenly, it's easy to understand all those stories of people being brought to tears by Mancuso's DJ'ing.

One record Mancuso plays—Van Morrison's 1968 classic Astral Weeks—reveals the crucial, underacknowledged links between the proto-disco scene and the rock counterculture. Today, disco is often celebrated for its camp and kitschy plasticness. But the pre-Saturday Night Fever dance underground was actually sweetly earnest and irony-free in its hippie-dippie positivity, as evinced by anthems like M.F.S.B.'s "Love Is the Message." And the scene's combination of overwhelming sound, trippy lighting, and hallucinogens was indebted to the late-'60s psychedelic culture. Mancuso still uses the Timothy Leary catchphrase "set and setting" to describe the art of creating the right vibe at parties.

Part of the fascination for the Loft era is that it's about as far back as you can trace the roots of today's dance-and-drug culture. But it was actually another DJ—Nicky Siano, cofounder of the Gallery—who took the Loft's synergy between sound, lights, and drugs and turned it into a full-blown trance-dance science. "I had this brainstorm—no one was eating the free bananas, so we dissolved LSD in water, borrowed a syringe from a junkie friend, and injected the fruit," says Siano. Larry Levan, then learning DJ'ing under Siano's tutelage, was given the job of spiking the fruit punch. With much of the Gallery crowd buzzing on acid, "the vibe was electric; people were having seizures on the dancefloor," says Siano. Another popular substance was Quaaludes, which created a touchy-feely "love energy" similar to Ecstasy.

The New York dance underground described by Siano—clubs with house dealers, audiences hyped on a polydrug intake, trippy lights synchronized to a hypnotic beat, DJs working the crowd into mass hysteria—was essentially rave culture in chrysalis. More immediately, clubs like the Gallery inspired Studio 54, where Siano DJ'd for a few months. When disco went mainstream, the original scene bunkered down in the underground. The Paradise Garage, founded in 1976, was a members-only club with resident DJ Larry Levan playing to a mainly gay, black and Hispanic crowd. That same year Levan's friend Frankie Knuckles moved to Chicago to take up a residency at the Warehouse, transplanting the New York underground ethos and in the process fathering house music.

With the Paradise Garage era ending with the club's closure in 1987, and the Loft in difficulties, New York's dance underground survived into the '90s thanks to enclaves like Better Days, Tracks, Shelter, and the Sound Factory Bar. But at these clubs, the underground's sensibility became gradually more conservative. DJs venerated Mancuso and Levan (who died in 1992), but few emulated their openness to left-field artists like Jah Wobble and Holger Czukay, Nina Hagen, and Liquid Liquid. Instead, "garage" solidified as a genre term referring to soulful New York house characterized by organic textures, Latin percussion, and a jazzy feel. By the mid '90s, the city's dance culture was divided between the traditionalist house scene and the more future-leaning rave, which arrived here as an exotic U.K. import (but was actually a mutant form of Chicago house). On one side, white glow-stick warriors stoked on E rally to superstar DJs from Europe. On the other, it's Europeans who flock to worship at the shrine of all things authentically old school—the largely gay and black dance underground, where the DJs are local.

Since Twilo went wholesale into the Euro-trance sound, there's been a real divide in New York between drug clubs and what you could call soul clubs or 'vibe' clubs, like Body & Soul," says Adam Goldstone, a local DJ-producer who records for Nuphonic. Body & Soul—founded in 1996 by two veterans of the '70s underground, François Kevorkian and Danny Krivit, and their friend Joe Claussell—almost single-handedly sparked the renaissance of interest in New York's pre-disco club culture. Harking back to the approach of Mancuso and Levan, the trio DJ together round-robin style, and generally play tunes from start to finish rather than mixing. Echoing Mancuso and Levan, they believe the real art of DJ'ing is "programming"—the selection and sequencing of songs—a reaction against the cult of DJ virtuosity where jocks like Sasha and Digweed show off their seamless mixing by picking compatible samey-sounding tracks.

Another aspect that Body & Soul revived is the old-school ethos of playing healing, redemptive music. "Back in the day, the talented DJs really spun to tell a story with their records," says Krivit. "At Body & Soul, we are conscious that the music's talking, and you can't just play nonsense, or go to a song that contradicts the message in the previous song." Like the Loft, Body & Soul is dedicated, says Kevorkian, to "cherishing and perpetuating" a gay urban tradition that's over 30 years old and that survived both the disco backlash and the decimation of AIDS.

The party—hailed by U.K. dance magazines as the best club in the world—draws party animals and purist house scholars from Britain and Europe, immaculately retro-styled Japanese waifs, and bored New York hipsters who want a taste of what things were like "back in the day." "Dance music had become too technical, people were missing the soulfulness," says Richard Costecu, another member of the team behind the Maestro documentary. "That soulful house sound never went away; there were always people who lived for it. But maybe more people are ready for it now—they're sick of hearing disco loops all night long, they want 'real music.' And the new recruits are really interested in the history of the scene. It's still a more mature crowd at Body & Soul, not annoying suburban kids who are popping E's and want to hear fast music."

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