By Anna Merlan
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Bang the Party prides itself on being "the last real underground house party in New York." Held upstairs in Frank's Lounge, a Fort Greene, Brooklyn, bar, it's an unpretentious and intimate affair. The lighting and decor are minimal, and there's free food laid out in a back room. The crowd, mostly black and Hispanic, includes many people who look old enough to have been clubbing for two decades or longer. Likewise the music: The beats kick with a contemporary sharpness, but most of the tracks played by resident DJ E-Man sound like they could have been made in the mid '70s, exuding a played-not-programmed feel and brimming with warm textures that feel "organic" rather than computerized. Most importantly, that crucial intangible "vibe"the thing that makes or breaks a partyis fully present. When a fuse blows, temporarily cutting the sound dead, the audience claps and hollers to maintain the absent beat, with one patron rhythmically chanting, "We don't need no music!"
Bang is one of a number of New York parties directly modeled on the Loft, a legendary dance party of the early '70s hosted by David Mancuso in his own apartment. Fascinated by the futuristic, dance culture feels an equally potent tug toward the past: It's obsessed with roots, origins, and all things "old school." In the last few years, interest in this pre-disco era of New York nightlifeduring which the Loft and similar clubs like the Sanctuary and the Gallery thrivedhas grown dramatically. Partly this is a response to a sense of malaise in the city's contemporary dance culture, which some identify with slick corporate superclubs like the recently closed Twilo and others attribute to the Giuliani-sponsored crackdown on clubland. Reinvoking the "original principles" of the New York dance underground, nights like Body & Soul, Together in Spirit, Journey, and Soul-Sa appeal both to disenchanted veterans of the original scene and to neophytes who feel the romance of a lost golden age they never actually lived through. With clubbing tourists coming from all over the world to experience "the real thing" as a sort of time-travel simulacrum, New York's '70s-style dance underground has become a veritable heritage industry similar to jazz in New Orleans.
Stoking the interest in this period during the past year were a spate of books (ranging from the disco memoir Keep on Dancin' by Mel Cheren, financial backer of the Paradise Garage, to histories like Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's Last Night a DJ Saved My Life) and CD compilations (like the ongoing series David Mancuso Presents the Loft and Disco Not Disco, a collection of the "mutant disco" played by the late Larry Levan at the Garage). There's even a documentary movie, Maestro, due out this fall and featuring interviews with all the major players of the era. "We have rare footage of the Loft, the Gallery, Paradise Garagestuff that no one's ever seen," says producer-director Josell Ramos. Excerpts will be previewed at Body & Soul's annual July 22 birthday bash for Levan, which is hosted by the Maestro team this year.
Some of the most diligent curators of this era of New York club culture are actually foreigners. The first academic treatise on this subject, You Better Work!, is by a German, Kai Fikentscher. And it took a London label, Nuphonic, to honor David Mancuso's legacy by organizing the Loft compilations. Right now, Nuphonic is about to issue a trilogy of anthologies that pull together the hard-to-find output of avant-disco auteur Arthur Russell, creator of quirky "Loft classics" like Dinosaur L's "#5 (Go Bang)" and Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face?" The Russell project is a labor of love that has taken Nuphonic founder Dave Hill six years to complete. Nuphonic is also home to contemporary U.K. outfits like Faze Action and Idjut Boys, whose music is steeped in the '70s New York sound. Listen to Faze Action's debut Plans & Designs, and you imagine the brothers Simon and Robin Lee fanatically studying the orchestral arrangements on old Salsoul 12-inches, like the Stones once did with Muddy Waters records.
What exactly is the allure of this period? "It's that whole mythic aura thing," says Hill. "None of these people went to the Loft in the '70s or the Garage in the '80s, so the spell can't be broken.
It's like some mad idyllic party that they can't ever have attended. Who knows if these clubs were really that great, but they certainly yielded some fascinating stories, and some fantastic records."
Pretty much anybody who's anybody in the New York house scene, from David Morales to Danny Tenaglia, was a "Loft baby" (or claims they were). Although the Sanctuary's Francis Grossowho died this yearinvented DJ'ing in the modern sense (long sets "beat-matched" to sustain a nonstop groove), it was Mancuso who pioneered the we-are-family vibe central to house culture and the idea of the club as total experience, with every aspectaudiophile sound system, lights, decor, free foodmicromanaged for your pleasure.
"I started doing the Loft regularly in 1970, as an invitation-only rent party at my Soho apartment," says the bearded and big-bellied Mancuso between mouthfuls of Italian sausage at his favorite East Village restaurant. A few blocks away is his 6th Street office, where Mancuso keeps the remnants of the Loft's legendary sound system. Keen to demonstrate the importance of what he calls "Class A audio," the 56-year-old DJ treats me to a private performance.
Tracks like Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me" shimmer with lustrous detailthe 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 playsVan Morrison's 1968 classic Astral Weeksreveals 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 DJNicky Siano, cofounder of the Gallerywho took the Loft's synergy between sound, lights, and drugs and turned it into a full-blown trance-dance science. "I had this brainstormno 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 Sianoclubs with house dealers, audiences hyped on a polydrug intake, trippy lights synchronized to a hypnotic beat, DJs working the crowd into mass hysteriawas 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 schoolthe 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 & Soulfounded in 1996 by two veterans of the '70s underground, François Kevorkian and Danny Krivit, and their friend Joe Claussellalmost 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 songsa 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 partyhailed by U.K. dance magazines as the best club in the worlddraws 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 nowthey'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."
Not everybody is happy about the newcomers, though. "Some people say that the vibe at Body & Soul has deteriorated as the composition of the party has changed, and I'm one of them," says Fikentscher. "So I've looked for other parties that are more 'underground.' "
This is a vital contradiction running through house culture: The overt ideology is one of love, unity, and inclusivity, but in reality this is limited to insiders, "those in the know." "Body & Soul was initially a secret you passed only on to your best friends, just like the Loft and the Garage," says Fikentscher. "To this day, you see parties advertised that say, 'If you have a Paradise Garage membership pass from way back, you get in for free.' " The most positive spin on this exclusivity is to see it as tribal rather than elitist. To maintain the right vibe, clubs need to control access. But even the best-kept secret can't stay on the down-low for long, and clubs have an in-built mortality. By the time they've established a killer vibe, it's only a matter of time before outsiders arrive to alienate the "true believers." Hence the post-Body & Soul rash of small underground nights like Bang the Party, Journey, Together in Spirit (like Body & Soul, a Sunday-afternoon party), and Deep See, an after-work club DJ'd by veterans like Andre Collins and sometimes kicked off by Kai Fikentscher's irregular series of lectures on the history of house.
Clubs like these are glorious proof that New York's disco-house tradition is a living thing. But there's a downside: The keep-the-faith attitude often translates into a kind of cultural protectionism (typified by the snobbish disdain of most New York house purists toward 2step, London's radical twist on garage). Worse, the excessive sense of heritage ensures that the scene evolves very slowly. In truth, New York dance culture hasn't delivered the shock-of-the-new in well over a decade. Despite the rhetoric of open-mindedness and eclecticism, the fusions that occurAfro-Beat, Brazilian music, the lighter side of electric jazzare rather predictable, and hidebound by the scene's premium on old-fashioned notions of "musicality" and "soulfulness." The underground's refusal to break with the past has effectively denied it the musical breakthroughs that have occurred in other cities: Detroit, Sheffield, Ghent, Frankfurt, Rotterdam, Berlin, and, repeatedly, London. There's a fine line between honoring the past and living there. The solution? A little less reverence, maybe.