Monday the Sunshine Cinema is hosting a screening of the documentary The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan. Ostensibly a profile of the prolific cult graffiti artist of the title, the footage soon expands its ambit to tell a story that interweaves the burgeoning Washington D.C. go-go scene of the ’80s with the city’s social and economic troubles during the era of Reaganomics. Henry Rollins narrates. If you’re not attending, you can pre-order and get details of an online streaming offer over at the official Disco Dan corner of the Internet.
Ahead of the screening, we picked the brains of executive producer Roger Gastman and director Joseph Pattisall about Disco Dan’s rise to D.C. infamy, the intermingling of the go-go and hip-hop scenes, and why the tale of Disco Dan might be set in D.C. but is a yarn that should resonate with any metropolitan dweller.
Can you remember the first time you heard about Cool Disco Dan?
Roger Gastman: I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland and noticed Cool Disco Dan from a young age. I didn’t really think about graffiti or anything — it was just there and part of the city. When I got into graffiti later, probably in like 1992 or ’93, I realized who Dan was and his importance to the city. So many people said to us after screenings or events that they didn’t know what the tags were but they’d count how many Cool Disco Dan tags they saw on the train going into the city.
Joseph Pattisall: That’s a question that I was thinking about earlier today. I don’t think there was a time when I didn’t see or remember Disco Dan — he was just there. You can also ask when was the last time you saw Disco Dan? The tags had always been there and then it was gone, like a wake up call. Things had changed.
What were the circumstances that allowed Disco Dan to become so prolific with his tagging?
RG: That was Dan’s addiction, you know? Some people smoke cigarettes or are obsessed with going to the gym or doing drugs but Dan’s obsession was writing his name everywhere and in as many places as he could be. He really thought hard about where he was going to write his name: “Okay, people ride the bus from here and the bus stops there and from there you can see that rooftop really amazing when the bus stops in traffic. This is the way everyone walks from high school and they always hit this specific corner store so I need to hit this specific corner store from this angle.” There was a ridiculous amount of graffiti but it was also very carefully placed. It would be under a bridge the kids hung out at or across the block from a club everyone would line up outside. It wasn’t just quantity — it was quality too.
What are some of your favorite myths or legends you heard about Disco Dan?
JP: You name it! I heard that there was a person in my high school who wrote Cool Disco Dan on the wall in my math class and that was Dan. Cool Disco Dan was some crazy tall white guy in a trench coat. I’ve heard it all. People always wanted to hear who this guy was. When you start getting into graffiti you want to know who the person behind this symbol on the wall is and then you meet that person and they might be a regular person who wakes up everyday and goes to a job. But when you meet Dan the mystery doesn’t go away — it raises as many questions as it answers ’cause he’s an interesting and mysterious person by nature.
How does the rising go-go scene in D.C. interplay with Disco Dan’s legend?
RG: Go-go music is the soundtrack to Washington, D.C. It was born in Washington, it’s primarily stayed in Washington and it’s still very active in Washington. The bands who started playing in the late-’70s, so many of them are still playing in one form or another and Dan and nearly all the youth in D.C. were highly interested in go-go music. It was the soundtrack to the city and that’s where people were going — it was their social club. There was always a go-go every night; some of course were more youth friendly than the others. A lot of it was call and response — go-go live is different from recorded go-go and uses a lot of crowd participation. Everyone from the block would go to the go-go so everyone from the block would come up with a cool name for themselves. Music really started to play into the graffiti and acted as a gathering place for the youth and then a lot of the youth had these cool nicknames and the kids started writing their names.
Would you see Disco Dan at some of these parties?
RG: Back then in the ’80s, yeah, you could go to a go-go and you’d see Cool Disco Dan in the corner. Not all the time though — a lot of the time he was definitely under the radar — but he was definitely a voice and he was around. As a lot of people in the ’80s he was writing with started to get out of the scene for the drug trade or just growing up, he became a little more private and more secretive but he was also writing his name more throughout the city and not just in the go-gos of the south-east where he was living.
How did the go-go scene react to hip-hop music at that time?
JP: There were times back then when famous hip-hop artists would come to D.C. and no one would ever want to headline and play after the go-go bands. When Run-DMC would come play at the Capital Centre they knew they were in a go-go town and no one ever wanted to headline. Even in the ’90s, Ice Cube would come to D.C. and instead of getting a D.J. he’d get a go-go band to back him, kinda like how Wale does now. There was a tiny bit of interplay between hip-hop and go-go but D.C. is a go-go town and there were no big hip-hop artists from the ’80s in D.C. and all the other big hip-hop artists from out of town knew that and respected that. If they wanted to play in D.C. that’s how it was. And hip-hop artists started sampling go-go, like Kid-n-Play.
How did local go-go artists take being sampled? Was it seen as acknowledgement or disrespectful?
RG: I’ve heard various things about it from different people. A lot of the go-go people were proud that people were paying attention to what they were doing, but of course some also wondered why their own song shouldn’t have made it on its own merits.
What you you learn most about Dan while making the documentary?
JP: Dan is very serious, he’s shy and a very private person. The thing I learned most was that there’s many sides to Dan. He has some level of mental illness going on — and I don’t think either Roger or I realized how deep that went when we started the project ’cause he’s very good at not letting that show — and I had never dealed with somebody with that deepness of mental illness going on before in my life.
RG: For me he’s like a hidden relic. He’s a perfect time capsule of 1980s Washington D.C. He’s very aware of what’s going on in current events but that was his favorite time of life, his favorite type of music and his best memories. When we’re driving down the street he’ll be like, “I know that guy.” I’ll tell him, “No, you don’t know that guy.” But we’ll stop and he’s right and it’ll be someone he hasn’t seen in 20 years and he’ll recognize them and can remember the last conversation they had. He’s highly intelligent and has a great memory. If you get to know him and he trusts you, he’s open and caring and while he doesn’t have much he’ll always share. And he’ll tell you some amazing stories.
What do you hope someone born or living in New York City will get out of watching the documentary?
JP: I’d describe it like this: Every movie is a story about New York and L.A. and I’m hoping that someone sees this and realizes that there’s so much more story to Washington D.C. other than what we see on the news every day about the President and the government being shut down. There’s this whole genre of music that they might not have heard about and if they have they probably haven’t had a whole lot of exposure to it. I hope that people see it and appreciate it as a really interesting story they’ve never heard about before. Hopefully they can understand D.C. a little bit better than before. The whole world is like, “Why does this guy Marion Barry keep getting elected?” There’s a real reason for that; there’s a real reason that he’s a hero to Washington D.C. There’s another side to that story. We wanted to show the other side to it.
RG: I would add that we’ve shown this movie in other cities and that was a common question between Joseph and I. But the story is really a story of the problems that so many cities have had and it’s a story of youth and rebellion and go-go music and black music culture. There’s so many stories in it that so many people can relate to. We’re happy to show it in New York and see what people think.