From disco and house to pre-rave light shows, how a sexually-charged subculture created a music we all know and love today.
On May 11, 2014, Red Bull Music Academy threw an outdoor event in Hudson Square in lower Manhattan to celebrate the life of Larry Levan, one of the originators of house music. This high profile party was part of a wider effort to have the section of King Street where it took place renamed Larry Levan Way, after the infamous DJ and the equally legendary club, the Paradise Garage, which once stood on the same block.
Hundreds of revelers descended on King Street that Sunday afternoon, while thousands more tuned in online to watch the live stream of dancers shaking and strutting in the sun to the vintage sounds of underground disco played by Levan disciples François Kevorkian, David DePino and Joey Llanos. Whether experienced in person or virtually, one thing quickly became apparent about the Larry Levan Street Party: This was not your typical dance music crowd.
With an average age well over 30 (over 40, even), this was clearly a party for adults. Look again and the multi-racial make-up of the audience not only skewed black and Latino, it was almost exclusively made up of minorities—and not just racially. A substantial percentage of those assembled at the Larry Levan Street Party were gay. It was, seen through the hazy filter of history, as clear a view of dance music's roots as one will ever see. A subculture that, as the first rays of gay rights began to shine out of the closet, gave birth to the dance music culture that now goes around the globe.
The depth one can delve into the history of gay dance music is only limited by how deep one wishes to dig. Author Luis Manuel-Garcia recently went deeper than most in his extensive article on Resident Advisor, An Alternate History of Sexuality in Club Culture, a hefty online article that surprisingly became one of the international techno portal's most widely read pieces.
"Nobody is really denying that disco emerged out of queer nightlife," Manuel-Garcia clarifies via e-mail. "But as house turns into acid-house turns into techno and all of the other sub-genres, somehow queer folks slip out of the established narrative and disappear."
One queer not in question is David Mancuso and his infamous Loft party—marked by almost all authors, including Manuel-Garcia, as ground zero for the start of disco, gay or otherwise. These early 70s private afterhours parties we lovingly assembled by the host and a network of dedicated dancers within the New York gay community, including Levan and Frankie Knuckles (the "godfather of house music," who tragically passed away just weeks before the Larry Levan Street Party). Levan and Knuckles took their musical passion from Mancuso's Loft and began playing it at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse that most famously acted as the launching pad for Bette Midler's career.
Knuckles would relocate to Chicago, where he would take up DJ residency at The Warehouse, and in the process give house music its genre name. Levan would remain in New York, where his own residency at the Paradise Garage would act as another key catalyst to DJ culture as we know it today.
Both The Warehouse and Paradise Garage offered a gritty underground version of the disco fever that swept the entire nation in the country in the mid-to-late 70s. It was a cultural phenomenon most famously encapsulated in the glitz of Studio 54, but more accurately portrayed in the tough guy with twinkle-toes contradiction of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. This mass cognitive dissonance of the mainstream would eventually collapse in spectacular fashion, with "disco sucks" soon becoming the anti-dance, and anti-gay by proxy, battle cry (the slogan itself was a thinly veiled homophobic slur).
Far removed from the heartland hostility that consumed mainstream disco, the urban gay clubs continued to nurture the disco sound that would morph into house and techno music by the early 80s. At gay clubs like Ron Hardy's Music Box in Chicago and Ken Collier's Heaven in Detroit, key cultural exchanges would take place between the originators of both styles—gay and straight. Meanwhile in New York, The Saint would usher in a new era of electronic sounds (much of it of Italo-disco origins) and stunning light shows that would pre-date much of the rave aesthetic, and eventually the eye-popping excess of today's "EDM."
Yet despite these few outlier events, this seemingly fertile time for dance music innovation was in fact a fallow period in its popularity. Undeniably, AIDS only aggravated the issue, decimating much of the club-going generation with fear and its sexually transmitted death sentence.
Dance music would not deliver another bumper crop of beats until the late 80s, this time in the UK with acid house and the rave revolution. Fueled by the empathy-heightening powers of ecstasy, this scene famously turned brawling blokes into luved-up loons. Despite gay icons like Tony De Vit and infamous London club Trade, a vast majority of the acid house scene practiced the hetronormative sexuality of the mainstream culture. The same could certainly be said for the U.S. rave scene that would arise in the 90s.
One could argue that the final nail was hammered into the original era of gay dance music when nightlife icon Michael Alig murdered his drug dealer and fellow fag Angel Melendez in a drug-fueled rage. It was a literal and metaphorical double homicide that ended the life of the young man, as well as the flamboyant New York Club Kids scene, which Alig had ruled after escaping his own midwestern rural roots. One might be tempted to analyze the irony of a white man from the Midwest killing a Latino man from Manhattan, and simultaneously pulling the plug on 20 years of gay dance music innovation in the process.
From that point on, the dance music of the 90s would be defined by an almost asexual aesthetic, all phat pants androgyny that was the utter opposite of hip-hugging disco denim. In 1997, Palladium, the club founded by Studio 54 impresarios Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager and once a mecca of gay nightlife culture and credible DJ music in New York City, closed with a now-legendary final set from Junior Vasquez. That same year, The Prodigy sang "Smack My Bitch Up," and any inkling of dance music's gay roots were all but erased. Electroclash attempted to reclaim the fabulous fashion of the scene, but was mired in overwrought affect, despite the sincere sass of Larry Tee and the vocal queer feminism of Le Tigre.
The other side of that coin was driven by the rediscovery of vintage gay dance music by mostly straight Brooklyn music nerds. Lead by conspicuously schlubby guys like James Murphy, along with The Rapture and Juan Maclean, these new pied pipers of underground dance music would eagerly introduce disco and house to a generation of hipsters previously fed a steady diet of The Strokes and PBR.
This is in no way meant to position these several generations of breeding beat-makers as anti-gay. In fact, one could easily argue that this particular group of mostly hetrosexual musicians did the job of conserving dance music's gay history better than the gay community itself, which became utterly consumed by mainstream dance divas like Lady Gaga in the interim decades. But that doesn't change the fact that the interest in vintage gay dance music was almost scholarly in nature, despite the number of shirtless hipsters who would fall down drunk at Last Night's Party.
There is also a distinct difference between conservation and cultural creation. One would be hard-pressed to identify any actual innovations in gay-identified legitimate dance music in the past 20 years. Perhaps that is too much to ask for. Gay culture, at least an urban black and latino subsect of it, has already spawned a decade-spanning era of DJ-driven culture that is currently eclipsing both rock and hip-hop in popularity, 40 years after it's inception. No movement can realistically be expected to maintain more than fleeting traces of its minority flavor once it hits the mainstream. It's simply a numbers game.
So is it worth viewing dance music through a gay lens in 2014? Is it merely an exercise in un-experienced nostalgia, or an academic cataloging of the past? These are questions we'll try to answer in a series this month in celebration of Pride. One thing for certain is that part of practicing equality is giving even play to historical happenings that fall outside of the majority experience. DJ-driven dance music may have long since outgrown its minority origins, but it is still essential that history not be lost.