Too Blind To See It: Discovering The Roots Of House Music
With the unending controversy about homophobia in black music, people seem to have forgotten that the blackest music of all, the real soul music, comes from a place that some would rather didn’t exist. But it does, and now – as ever – half the world is dancing to a queer groove.
Which half? That depends on where you are. New York’s Roxy on a Saturday night gives you one answer. Every fortnight, up to 7,000 men – mainly black and Latino –gather in this vast club on the edge of Chelsea, now as gay as the West Village, to dance to the songs that Frankie Knuckles plays. This being Manhattan, Frankie faced real problems in bringing such a night to a venue not always famed for its peaceful get-togethers. He smiles knowingly as he describes the club owner’s reaction to the clientele. “He’s worried about a black or hispanic crowd, because of the serious problems he’s had with rap nights. He can’t appreciate that a straight crowd is completely different from a gay one. Gay people go out to have a good time: it’s based around sociability rather than the power trip.”
Looking down at the dance floor through British sensibilities, there’s no getting away from just how strange this is: the atmosphere is intense, sweaty, but still amazingly friendly and, well, soulful. It’s easy to be blasé about this, but that’s missing the point house music exists, as disco did before it, as the purest of soul music for people who want to hear songs of love, hope and, well, belonging. It may sound corny, but it’s true. Frankie puts it more succinctly: “What makes most gay clubs so successful, and has made this music so successful, is that this audience is looking for escapism. Rap sells to white kids who can learn about black life and culture: the gay crowd doesn’t need to be told about the tough life – they live it every day.”
There have been a few clubs which have managed to integrate black and white, but they’re a rarity. Why? Frankie looks at me like I’m an idiot. “That’s the nature of New York, the nature of the US.” The next morning, the papers are full of the story of a young black man, viciously beaten, for no apparent reason, by four white kids on his own housing estate. Over in Brooklyn, blacks and Hasidic Jews are just about maintaining a very uneasy peace, suspicious and resentful of each other despite having lived together for decades.
It can’t have always been this way, can it? Frankie recalls the good old days: “The first club I ever went to was The Loft (David Mancuso’s now-legendary private party); the first time I went there I wasn’t sure what kind of crowd it was: at times it looked very straight, at others, very gay. At that point (in the mid Seventies), sexuality didn’t mean a thing.”
Tom Moulton, the DJ who created the sound, vividly remembers the first house record he heard: “I was in Tower one night and I heard this ‘tss-aah, tss-aah…’ and this piano and bass, and I thought ‘this is horrible’: I swore I’d never use that hi-hat sound again, and here I was in a record store, getting off on it!” Now re-releasing the Salsoul songs that started his career, he looks back fondly on three crucial years in the Seventies when soul was being re-invented, not in Manhattan, but in an obscure club on one of New York’s summer resorts, the Sandpiper on Fire Island. It might not figure in the invented mythology surrounding house music, but this summer haven for gay New Yorkers saw a generation of white men turned onto the sounds, and the potential, of black music.
Just to make things stranger, Tom tells me that he never actually DJd there. “Oh, no, I just got a load of these soul records and put ’em all together on tape in a 45-minute set, building the tempo all the time.” But his true claim to fame is as a, or rather, the disco mixer. And to hear him talk about it, it all sounds like a glorious mistake, perpetrated first on BT Express’ ‘Do It Till You ‘re Satisfied’. “I had a lot of problems with that record”” he recalls. “I made it five-and-a half minutes long. with a nice booming bass drum and clean hi-hat. Then the engineer pointed out that all that bass just wouldn’t fit on a seven-inch if I wanted any level. And – this is how naive I was – I just killed the bass drum into a ‘thud thud’, and took up the level on the top end, the cymbal crashes and the hi-hat; the track still had the spectrum, but it was just shifted up. It was irritating – the hi-hat was spitting all over – but I got away with it.”
Fifteen years, and nearly four thousand mixes later, Tom is unsurprised at the growth of house. All the same, he sees it as very far from a direct descendant of disco. “It’s entirely different. I was playing stuff that was fully orchestrated, while this was a drum machine, a piano and a bass.”” But what about the fact that so many of the early house records were covers of disco classics? “Of course there was some continuity; what the new generation did was to take the music back to its basics, its essence.”
What Tom doesn’t say is that he was experimenting with this essence fifteen years ago. “Oh, the breaks, you mean? Well, I created the break by accident” he grins. “I needed to mix two parts of a record, but the song modulated to another key, so I had to take out practically all the music until the only things left were the drums, tambourine and conga.”
That’s one notion of the break, but for many, this formed the core of the underground disco scene. Take a track like Betty Wright’s anthemic “If You Love Me Like You Say You Love Me”: with its combination of diva-like vocal and an unbelievably loud crashing tambourine sound, it could generate an intensity that would have been unimaginable to a straight audience. And remember, this was at the peak of the commercial disco explosion, when everyone was supposedly dancing to the same music. Frankie Knuckles makes the point explicitly: “The underground was not affected by the mainstream: we were dancing to completely different records. The scenes only converged very occasionally, and on our terms, when a major disco artist needed a big launch at a more exclusive disco.”
In London, things are different; while a mega-disco like Heaven can still attract a massive crowd, you have to look a little harder for a club whose devotees understand something about soul – something like Patrick Lilley’s Queer Nation. Attracting a mix of generally hip black and white punters, dancing to garage grooves, the club seemed revolutionary when it opened in the early 90s, but to Lilley, it’s less of a revolution than a rediscovery by the British gay scene of a music that all but passed them by. To understand this, you have to appreciate the state of the gay disco scene in the early and mid Eighties. And to do that, you have to talk the man who more or less ruled Heaven for most of the Eighties, lan Levine.
It seems odd, though, that after vocally championing the cause of ‘real’ disco music for fifteen years, Levine should have ended up producing the likes of Take That, or involving himself with the soul-by numbers of The Pasadenas. It only begins to make sense when you realise that, for lan, house music now has no connection at all with disco, or with British gay culture. It wasn’t always so: “I remember being told off for playing house at Heaven in 1986. A few hip people were into it, but the majority didn’t understand it. I’d just come back from the US, and had seen Darryl Pandy performing ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’. It was amazing: he stood there like a male Patti Labelle – an outrageous diva and a wonderful soulful vocalist.” To lan, this meeting of performance, soaring vocals and a song that was saying something gave the early house records a hook into the disco past. And the song itself, like so many others of that era, was somewhere between a cover and a rip off of a cult disco track – in this case, Isaac Hayes’ ‘I Can’t Turn Around’. “But by 1988 it had become all beat and no song; it lost it all.” So what did house bring to the British gay scene? Ian shakes his head. “Look, house in Britain was never a gay thing; it was a straight white thing.”
Except that this isn’t the complete picture. “The truth is,” one long-time, white, scene member told me, “the gay scene up until about five years ago was racist, very racist. If anyone tells you that house wasn’t gay, they mean it wasn’t big with the white middle-class clones who were into the Eurobeat stuff that lan Levine was playing.”
Patrick Lilley agrees, and points to a link stretching right back to the groundbreaking (for the UK) Lift, launched in 1980, the same year that disco was supposed to have died. Patrick points out, “lt wasn’t defined as a gay disco, although it was predominantly black and gay. The music wasn’t quite there, but the vibe, the energy of screaming black queens was very much a la New York.” This mightn’t have been on a Manhattan scale – it pulled a few hundred people a week – but it lasted for four years, and led on to the famous Jungle and Bad one-nighters. But whatever lan Levine’s attitude to house, the first UK house night was at Heaven.
“To us, Pyramid was the freaks’ night,” Levine grins. Certainly, Mark Moore’s one-nighter at Heaven bore little relation to the other six nights, either in music or clientele. He’d made his name playing a mixture of disco trash, film soundtracks and heavy rap at the the-then desperately hip Wag Club. A cosmopolitan mix of B-Boys (the first wave of hard-core hip-hop fans), trendies and suburban girls and boys Up West flocked there, so Mark was bound to attract a different crowd to Heaven. “It was a fairly white gay crowd, probably seventy percent, but along with that you got the B-Boys from the Mud. LL Cool J came down once, and had a great time.” Mark recalls. “In fact, the only black faces were those B-Boys. Kid Batchelor would be down there every week, and every week he’d ask me “Why aren’t there more black people here?” Despite this mix of two totally different groups, there was never any trouble. “The B-Boys knew they were on someone else’s territory: this was the first gay club they’d ever been to. And when the best known B-Boys in London people like Magic and Flash told their mates that it was OK, I think it helped to change people’s attitudes to the music, and to gay people as well.”
Mark sees those early house nights as proof that the scene could incorporate black and white, gay and straight. But he adds: “Me and Colin (Faver, his collaborator at Heaven) were definitely fighting the rest of the gay scene,” and he recalls trying in vain to convince Record Cellar, then the hippest gay disco shop in London, to stock a record by house diva Liz Torres. It was The Trip, Nicky Holloway’s huge house night at the Astoria, that, really broke the scene amongst a black crowd for the first time.
And here, as in any story about music, drugs have their part to play; there are any number of tales of B Boys dropping a few Es at The Trip, swapping their gold chains for Smiley T-shirts and becoming house addicts overnight. As Mark points out, the main drug in London was “spliff, which gears you towards slower beats, rap and rare groove. With E, that all changed.”
And now? London’s house clubs attract a mix of gay and straight, black and white, that you’d be hard pressed to find in the US. What hasn’t changed is the gap between rap and house, an antipathy which exists between these two forms of soul music. While the UK is seeing the gay scene become more integrated, things are very different across the pond. According to Frankie Knuckles, this goes to the core of attitudes towards gays, especially amongst the black community. “The fact that house got started in the gay clubs makes it tough for some of them to deal with it.” This is about more than musical taste; for Frankie, it goes to the core of the future of minority groups in the US. And, ironically, it’s rap, with all of its violence and too-frequent lapses into intolerance and homophobia,that has pushed things along. “Rap has taught white kids that they need to respect black people; with house, white kids and straight kids may embrace it, but unless they’re able to respect gay people in the same way, what are we going to be left with?”