Questlove On 'Disco and the Return of the Repressed' In "How Hip-Hop Failed Black America" Part 4
Your dude (and ours) is back: Questlove delivers the 4th installment of his “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” (Read Parts 1-3 here) which addresses the impact of disco on the evolution of hip-hop and argues that hip-hop is the new disco–and not in a good way. Since I’ve been adding my one cent to each of the installments I’ll just say this one leaves me with…mixed feelings (DJ-centric pun intended). Questo’s always-erudite music history of disco and its impact on rap seems to mostly take the major label, top 40 reification of the genre as representing everything about it, as if it was cooked up in by label heads boardrooms rather than in clubs by a handful of visionary DJs. The truth maybe somewhere in the middle, but even in some of disco’s ‘golden hits’ there is plenty (gay liberation, musical virtuosity and yes, even aspiration) to champion. But this is maybe quibbling over music nerdery where Professor Questlove’s lesson this week is really about philosophy and economics. It’s hard to dispute the conclusions he draws from all this to apply to the current musical landscape: hip-hop’s aspiration-to-the-point-of-asphyxiation agenda is slowly but surely mushing it into EDM, which is the new corporate disco (except boring-er and more soulless, almost all of the time). But I personally find that there may be a glimmer of hope in accepting this reality. As Salaam Remi pointed out on panel I moderated at last year’s CMJ, the last time the airwaves and video jukeboxes were so dominated by cookie cutter club music was the era of Technotronics and C+C Music Factory–that was right before that early ’90s explosion of rap-attack brilliance we now simplistically remember as ‘the golden era’. It’ll be interesting to see where this argument takes us in parts 5 & 6–and more interesting to see what happens in real life. Take the laces out your boogie shoes and read Questlove’s treatise on the new disco below – ed.
In past weeks, we’ve talked about black cool (shrinking), consumerism (swelling), and the effect of hip-hop upon the broader black culture of America (chilling). Now, I think, we’ve arrived at a point where we can look confidently at the time before hip-hop. The hip-hop world, like the world around it, wasn’t created in a matter of days. It took years to get from there to here. But when people talk about the genres that led into (and fed into) hip-hop, they usually look at ’60s soul and ’70s funk. That’s because those are the most audible ingredients. You can feel those peas under the mattress; pass them. But that analysis leaves out a conspicuous player. It overlooks, in fact, the tallest mountain in the range, the dominant aesthetic in African-American music in the years directly preceding hip-hop. I’m talking, of course, about disco.
As disco has become the stuff of cliché — usually represented in movies and TVs by a statuesque woman in platform shoes or a mirrored ball rotating slowly in the center of a room — it’s increasingly hard to remember how groundbreaking it was, how thoroughly it changed the relationship between those producing music and those consuming it, not to mention the places in which those transactions occurred, both actual and conceptual.
A brief primer — or at least an undercoat. Disco came out of the discotheques, French dance halls that predated any modern idea of a dance club. In the mid-’60s, promoters in European cities, including Paris and Berlin, started replacing live acts with a curated selection of records played over sound systems, a forerunner of DJ culture and also a second source for the name (“disco” for “disc”). People danced on shag carpet and records went round. Lift the needle. Skip ahead. In the early ’70s, in places like Philadelphia, the soul music of the ’60s was still flowering, and the vegetation was lush: There were strings, there were horns, and there were lavish orchestral arrangements. There was also an ebb tide in both the introspective romantic themes of traditional soul music and the darker-than-blue social consciousness of early funk. Black music, increasingly, was about love and happiness: Though by happiness I mean dancing, and by love I mean sex. Out of that black music came a new black music: In New York City, primarily, club culture and gay culture came together to make dance clubs the center of the universe, and the music that played in them — rather, that was played in them, often with the intervention of in-club DJs — the soundtrack to that universe. What emerged was the party, and the party went strong through the middle of the ’70s.
And then, suddenly, powerfully, disco was everywhere: Not just in the dance clubs, but on the radio, and not just in music primarily figured as dance music, but in music that had previously been rock or pop. As disco blew up further — Saturday Night Fever ate up almost the entirety of 1978, except for the part that Chic ate — it became not only a musical genre, but a way of doing business. Disco held its historical moment so tightly in large part because of an incredible streamlining of the aesthetic. Records could be stamped out like Model Ts, with assembly-line production: Not with an indifference to quality, but with a fierce determination to deliver the same level of quality in each product. Fredrick Winslow Taylor, whose work in the late 19th century helped to establish a new way of thinking about business efficiency, probably never went to a disco, on account of he was in the ground 60 years before “Love to Love You, Baby.” But it’s worth looking at his work, if only for a moment. Taylor prized efficiency and work ethic, which depended on the primacy of the factory or office manager. Something similar happened in disco. Despite the hedonistic trappings of the music, disco worked by ruthlessly making records via a top-down, template-heavy process. While rock and roll privileged (or at least pretended to privilege) the artist and the notion of individual expression, disco made no bones about casting its lot with management. Labels like SalSoul and Casablanca and producers or DJs like Tom Moulton and Larry Levan were the architects of the sound more than any individual artist. In fact, the artists themselves are remembered primarily as interchangeable and disposable, secondary to the corporate ethos, to the business of refiguring pleasure as product. It’s no accident that one of the first No. 1s was by the Hues Corporation. Disco paid dividends.
But the corporation had layoffs, too…