This Old House

Dance Music's Heavy-Spirit Zone Survives at Shelter

Although Hedge and Milan insist that they aren't pissed off by the frustrating state of the boogie nation, Hedge's lyrics lay out the drama better than any tired old club troll, uptight deep-house geek, or embittered journalist could ever hope to do:

I remember House when House was more than just a name to package this sound, this groove, this emotion. . . . I remember House when House had artists, songwriters, and personalities. . . . I remember House before MPC 60's. . . . I remember House when House was about love . . .

Got that? Hedge, who recently became president of West End Records, an august and respected dance label, lists off the ire behind the song: "The conversation with that DJ who didn't know who Marshall Jefferson was; looking at the covers of DJ magazine, Mixer magazine, Muzik magazine, and never seeing anyone on the cover representing the deep house scene; never, never seeing anyone that looks like me."

The Shelter dancefloor, where time travels in reverse.
photo: Cary Conover
The Shelter dancefloor, where time travels in reverse.

But let's face it: It's a shitty time to put out a dance record, period, and if "Do You Remember House?" points to a breakdown in dance-music culture, then so does the October 5 Billboard cover story, "No Party for Dance Retailers," which reveals that SoundScan dance sales have fallen a devastating 61 percent since last year. Dance-music stores across the country are shuttering, and labels complain that sales are dramatically slowing. Rob Wunderman of New York City's deep house label King Street Sounds reports that sales dropped about 25 to 40 percent since last year. And Strictly Rhythm, one of the oldest and most widely recognized American dance-music labels, closed its doors in early October. Of course, CD burning and free downloads are largely to blame for this sudden decline, but these technological culprits have affected the music industry across the board.

Some blame poor sales on the increased police and government crackdown on nightclubs and raves. "You're dealing with a social structure that bubbles out of a club scene," says Errol Kolosine, general manager at Astralwerks, the New York-based label that releases the industry's most mainstream electronic acts. "And when you take away that experience in the club scene, you take away the ability to sell records."

Hedge, though, credits part of the fall to the DJs themselves, who as often as not provide dancers with nothing more than a beat that's absolutely perfect for nodding off. No wonder no one dances anymore. "I don't think it's hard to find musical innovators," he says. "Look at new producers like Solu Music, Glenn Underground, Pépé Braddock. What we need are DJs as educators. We need DJs to be broad-based in their music, to realize that all of the music doesn't have to have standard beats and tempos. You can have slower tempos and still have crowds move." Still, DJs complain about a lack of interesting new vinyl, and critics who once lived for dance now die for rock.

But if dance music is no longer chic, you'd never know it at 10:30 a.m. on the Shelter dancefloor, where time travels in reverse. Regisford is now shifting into older tunes, and the Stevie Wonder prophecy is about to be fulfilled as he coolly eyes the dancers, many of whom appear to be re-enacting scenes from All That Jazz—an intimidating prospect for those with limited rump-bumping repertoires. No longer mixing records, Regisford plays the endlessly romantic "Castles in the Sand," and a sad-eyed, fortysomething woman in a long red skirt dances in slow circles around her man, her gaze fixed on his, her arms building soft shapes above her head. A tiny dancer in a strapless black bikini top and sweat-soaked jeans begins silently weeping next to a speaker. And the tall guy who's plunked himself smack dab in the middle of the floor—the same dude who hasn't moved an inch since 7 a.m.—closes his eyes even tighter, raises his palms up toward the ceiling.

Most of the younger dancers have long gone home, but the dedicated ones rest quietly on the wooden pallets, observing with tired eyes the elders on the floor, who are causing a startling scene. They are lost in that full-body, heavy-spirit zone. The mushy stuff isn't about how people relate to one another; it's how they leave each other alone. No one's laughing at the weeping lady; no one freaks out when a man named Anthony begins pounding the floor with his hands. Imperfect bodies not fully clothed float about unjudged, and if all this amounts to peace and love, I'll buy it.

"You have to come and live it," Byrd says a few songs later. "No matter how much I describe it, it's still not enough for you to feel it. Sometimes the music hits you so fiercely—I've been up there when I've actually cried. And I'll say to myself, 'What the fuck is wrong with you?' But tears will just pour out of my eyes. Because the feeling, the vibe, is not just from the music. It's the way people react to it. Chaka is playing right now, but if Timmy breaks the music, you'll hear people singing the lyrics and I'll be like, yeah, sing, children, sing! It's a vibe."

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