"The beat won't stop with the JM jock. If he jacks the box and the partyrocks. The clock tick tocks and the place gets hot. So ease your mind and set yourself free. To that mystifying music they call the key." -- JM Silk (1985)
III. FIGHT THE POWER
I recall the moment vividly. I was driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike East to NYC in 1975 when I first heard the driving, funky beats of The Isley Brother's "Fight the Power." This was music I could really shake my booty to. It was music like this that rocked the floors of the clubs I danced in back then. "Soul" music. (To get the flavor of some of this music, go to this crazy little site: afrosquad.com/sounds.html ).
"Fight the Power": An apt musical metaphor for our discussion of house music. Some believe, and I'm one of them, that it would have been house music, and not rap or hip-hop, that the African American dance subculture would have embraced in the eighties had it not been for house music's association with the gay underground. On the other side of the spectrum house never caught on in the predominately white gay clubs in the eighties for a variety of reasons, not the least being the devastation of AIDS. But I believe there was a dimension of bigotry here also: the music was just too "black" and funky. Even now in less sophisticated circles house is perceived as "gay" music and is dismissed as something about which straight white folk shouldn't be passionate. How tragic that a musical form that genuinely intended to unify people of all races, backgrounds and sexual orientations through a liberating dance experience could be so abused and misunderstood.
The antipathy between rap and house, two forms of soul music, continues today. According to Frankie Knuckles: "The fact that house got started in gay clubs makes it tough for some of them (the black community) to deal with it."
From my perspective that dream of a universal dance community where all peoples -- blacks, whites, gays, Latinos, Asians, rich and poor -- can celebrate life together through music and dance has never really been achieved, at least in this country. My deepest hope and desire is that the rave movement can succeed in this where others have failed.
Thus, bigotry, racism, and even corporate music politics all played a role in preventing house music from flourishing in this country in the eighties. The only place you could dance to it with any regularity was in black, gay clubs. Indeed, had the kids in the UK and Western Europe not adopted house as the core sound in their musical and cultural revolution in the late eighties we would probably not be dancing to house today and electronic music in general would not have the rich diversity it now enjoys.
House music, that gloriously simple four-on-the-floor, has another dimension that has often evoked controversy. For house, I think, derives more from gospel, soul and funk than it does from the commercial disco many love to hate. It is the music, it has been said, of both sin and salvation. The lyrics are often blatantly sexual and yet...there is this soulful reaching for the heavens. Juxtaposition of opposites? Or a genuine attempt at reconciliation of the body and soul through dance and music? I have felt it is the latter, and that's what makes this music so wonderful and at the same time challenging to the ethics of some. As we said in the last issue, as Puritans we are suspicious of pleasure, and especially bodily pleasures. Dancing is a prime example. Sex another. House evolved at a time when our culture was making one of it's periodic attempts to reconcile body and soul during the sixties and seventies. And the music still reflects that yearning we all have to celebrate the spirit through the body. As one.
A. THE SEVENTIES: A FEEL FOR THE VIBE
The seventies were really an extension, the fulfillment in many ways, of the sixties. And the origins of house music and modern dance culture are rooted in this era.
Many folks now days characterize the sixties as a non-stop plur fest of mind-expanding experimentation, free love and innovative music. But in reality the sixties were a period of very stressful social, political and cultural change. These were not peaceful times. We were involved in a hateful war that brought death to the TV on a daily basis; failure to address human rights inequities lead to riots in the streets; families were divided; students fought on a regular basis with the police and national guard; kids were shot at Kent State; in short, much discord. We were truly in a revolution and revolutions, while invigorating and creative, are not laid-back events. Traditions were reexamined, values challenged and discarded, and the world as our parents' knew it was forever changed for better or worse.
By 1969 a new feeling of freedom and liberation from the past was sweeping through many of our country's youth. Woodstock was a defining musical and spiritual event but that same year saw Stonewall, the beginnings of gay liberation (which had been all but ignored in the sixties), and other human rights movements focused on blacks and women were in full swing. "Were gonna bring down them walls, let 'um fall, fall fall..."
And it seemed to many of us that we were finally going to get rid of all the soul sickness of the world -- racism, bigotry, poverty, Puritanism, war -- and establish a new order based on peace and love. What a magnificent thing is the pure idealism of youth...
In the sixties we deliberately destroyed many things: empty religiosity, destructive values, outdated philosophies. But...and this is the evil thing...nothing replaced those old traditional constructs. And business finally came along to fill the vacuum providing us with a compete philosophy of life and values based on economic theory. Puritanism reinvented for the modern age.
Back then, however, we were on an adventurous exploration into the uncharted waters of a new age where the old had been swept away and the new, well, we were to invent that each day. Build new communities. Free the oppressed. Free ourselves. This was the seventies. (A loving film which provides a feel for this era, at least from the glam rock perspective, is "Velvet Goldmine.")
New York City in the seventies was at the center of this maelstrom of new ideas, lifestyles and values invention. It seemed there were to be no limits. Everything was permitted. We were involved in some grand experiment in living where there were no rules and where one could pretty much invent one's life. Music, drugs, sex, relationships...all was open to innovation. This was a time of awesome creativity on all fronts and, some say, terrible excess. I thought at the time, to be honest, it was great fun and I don't want to bring hindsight into play here.
Consider that for the first time in human history there was no downside to fulfilling any sexual desire that you had. This was pre-AIDS America following the era of free love philosophies. All STDs had a simple cure. Birth control was readily available. And everyone was questioning the old paradigms of love and marriage. Why is monogamy necessarily better than promiscuity? Is sexual fidelity the same thing as emotional fidelity? Why not have sex with someone of the same sex? Why not see sex as a valuable pleasure rather than a procreative duty? Could an orgy be a genuine experience of the Other? Who knows? Try it and see for yourself. The sexual energy in NYC at the time was palpable. Everyone seemed to be cruising everyone else. If one wanted, sex of all types was available 24/7 in sexual establishments like bath houses, on a subway car, or in a dance club. Although newly liberated gay men seemed to be leading the charge, people of all sexual orientations and tastes were also in the mix. And this libertarian approach to sexuality spread rapidly throughout the country. (An interesting note: 1015 used to be a straight sex club/bath house back in the day.)
This was not pure hedonism, however. Hundreds of oppressed, abused, rejected gay kids who had experienced the worst kind of mind fucking growing up in rural and suburban American poured into NYC to express themselves freely as sexual beings for the first time. Some had never actually seen a room full of people like themselves. They certainly had no support groups or community to grow into. For them, this was the fulfillment of a secret and distant dream. For them, this was life for the first time. They wanted to build a world that accepted them. Where they could have sexual relationships without thoughts of suicide. And they started to build these new social interactions on the dance floor. For dancing, as they all intuitively knew, would help make them whole, would exalt both their bodies and souls. They would be FREE for the first time, and they would be freed from oppression in part through the power of dance. This passion for dance has always been a characteristic of the post-Stonewall gay community and it interesting to note that the longest-lived electronic dance culture we have is gay. There are still gay and bisexual men and women in their 40s, 50s and beyond who dance to house regularly and there would be even more had AIDS not killed so many of them off. So this oppressed group found community and liberation in dance and the music and they formed intentional communities where love of music and dance were core values.
The plight of gay black and Hispanic kids was even worse, if that can be imagined, than their white counterparts and that continues to be the case to this day. Both cultures make it very, very difficult for gay youth to grow up without a horrible loss of self-esteem and respect. Layer over this the racism the makes life even more difficult for these groups and you can understand the need for supportive community in dance.
So it was an oppressed subculture in NYC in the seventies and beyond that gave birth to house music and, really, to modern electronic dance culture.
Before we take a look at the early players, venues, music and technology I should tell you a bit about your narrator.