This is the fourth in a weekly series of six essays looking at hip-hop's recent past, thinking about its distant past, and wondering about the possibility of a future. Read the first one here, the second one here, and the third one here.
We’re halfway through this weekly series now, which means that it’s time to take a breather. Okay. Breather over. Halftime over. Back to work.
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. Mechanistic, largely impersonal, it cut such a wide swath through black music that it damaged the culture of live performance and decimated the value of the black musician. Soul music needed virtuoso musicians, even if (in the case of Motown and the Funk Brothers) they weren’t properly credited. Funk music required the best guitarists, bassists, and drummers in the world. And before (or parallel to that) were other genres that were even more reliant on skill: jazz, especially, where stars were people like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, or Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, or Cecil Taylor and Freddie Hubbard. They were instrumental in the genre. Disco, willfully simplistic, needed no virtuosos, only adequate players. Anything else was inefficient.
Disco just grew, and then grew some more. And then, at some point, like all products, it reached the point of inevitable obsolescence. We don’t have to recount the specifics of the genre’s fall from grace, embodied most (in)famously by the 1979 Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, in which the DJ and avowed disco enemy Steve Dahl burned disco records in the stadium’s outfield. (Though if you don’t remember that, look it up: It’s worth it just for the reaction of Nile Rodgers, the lead guitarist of Chic — and one of the genre’s few legitimate virtuosos — who likened the promotional stunt to Nazi book burning.) Strangely, Dahl did disco’s job for it, in a sense. Disco was always designed to be disposable. It depended on limiting cost (and with it, a certain kind of quality) to maximize profit. The end of the road was always part of the road. Let the record show that the records showed that.
What killed disco? Look to motive. People have written plenty — and correctly — about the way that disco angered traditional rock-and-roll artists by prioritizing producers, not to mention the way that the mainstream slowly peeled away from disco culture as a result of homophobia and racism. The signal thing that people point to is John Travolta’s (d)evolution from being an icon of disco in Saturday Night Fever to being an icon of the new, macho, honky-tonk revival in Urban Cowboy. But there’s another urban beneficiary of disco’s decline that complicates the argument: hip-hop.
Hip-hop happened, largely, in reaction to disco. A half-decade earlier, punk had declared classic rock a bloated corpse and then killed it. Hip-hop was in a similar position with regard to disco. Disco had taken over black music by taking out most of its competitors with supreme confidence and efficiency, like a contract killer. After disco shattered, black music passed through various stages that incorporated elements of funk along with new synthesizer technology: boogie music and other post-disco sounds that followed milestones like Quincy Jones’s work on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, including the work that Leon Sylvers did at Solar Records and Leroy Burgess’s Universal Robot Band. And then there was the toothless soul overseen primarily by white producers (the Pointer Sisters with Richard Perry). Still, it was largely a wasteland, at least compared to the explosion of disco, funk, and soul of a few years earlier. In that desert, the first real greenery wasn’t a mirage but an oasis. It was hip-hop, ready to pick up the pieces and make something new.
How new? Newer than new. Disco had replaced live music with artificial, largely canned instrumentals. Early hip-hop went one step forward by going two steps back, reviving and recontextualizing the gritty R&B of James Brown and Stax. And then there’s the fashion. Disco was about artifice and glamour, a calculated decadence.
Hip-hop, which came around a few years later, put yet another wrinkle in popular fashion. Early hip-hop stars embraced the same look as disco stars, wearing tight clothes and bright colors, with the occasional fur for good measure. Many flaunted mirrored surfaces. But it quickly became clear that the music was as much about drawing attention to a community as training the spotlight on yourself. The first big fashion breakthrough came courtesy of the genre’s first superstars, Run-DMC. We have talked in an earlier essay about their black-hat-and-leather look, and what it meant: It was stripped-down, urban, almost punk, but also borrowing from prison culture (shoes with no laces, pants with no belts). Run-DMC went right back into the teeth of disco, to rattle them.
It wasn’t just style. It was substance, too. Hip-hop was about moving in directions that disco didn’t (or couldn’t). Consider Ultramagnetic MCs, one of the most singular (and, paradoxically, most representative) early rap acts. The group’s production influenced everyone, most directly the aggressive sonic collage that the Bomb Squad designed for Public Enemy. But I want to look at the lyrics, which represent a new kind of cool — or, if you’d prefer, Kool. Here’s Kool Keith, in “When I Burn”:
Yo I’m on with the freaky style
When you wait debate and rate my rhythm expansion
Dimension lyric extension
Rise above, amazing days
Crashin’ your brain, changin’ ways, sore for days
Many channels, triggering out forth
I’m sendin’, brains are bendin’
Disco’s strict die-cut mentality, which maximized production and minimized waste, is turned on its ear here, and it’s a head-turning (and occasionally head-scratching) process. The lyrics are scatological, philosophical, philological, neurological, at times defiantly illogical. They thrum with the thrill of discovery, of what’s unknown and — despite the torrent of terminology — only half-articulated. Early hip-hop is full of that sense of expansive discovery.
But times have changed — or maybe it’s more accurate to say that times have changed back. Hip-hop, after beginning as a site of resistance, has become, in some sense, the new disco. The signifiers are different, of course. Hip-hop has come to know itself largely via certain notions of capitalist aspiration, braggadocio, and macho posturing, which are different notes than those struck in disco. But the aesthetic ruthlessness, the streamlining of concept, is similar. What began as a music animated mainly by a spirit of innovation now has factory specifications. Hip-hop, more product than process, means something increasingly predictable, which means that it means less and less. Again, this is a trap situated within a prison. By the time disco came around, black music was already in a sex-and-dancing pigeonhole; disco represented not escape from that spot, but a nearly perfect refinement. Hip-hop finds itself not very far away from that corner. Just look around the rest of the room. The most popular music these days, EDM, is nothing if not a modern disco — just as artificial, just as geared toward the party, but with the product of the record replaced by the product of the concert experience. Hip-hop thought it was picking up the pieces of the shattered disco genre when in fact it was picking up seeds that had been dispersed. Disco regrew. Hip-hop got overgrown. It is not what it was, and it’s once again surrounded by what it wasn’t. It may be crashin’ your brain, but it’s not changin’ ways.