The Mediapolis Q&A: Tim Lawrence on Dance Music Culture in New York City (Part One)

The Paradise Garage dance floor. © 2016 Bill Bernstein from Disco: The Bill Bernstein Photographs (Reel Art Press).
Tim Lawrence is author of three groundbreaking books on the history of dance music culture in New York City. He sits down with Lawrence Webb to discuss the importance of space and place to writing music history, the extraordinary cultural fertility of New York, and the convergences between disco, punk, and hip-hop in the early 1980s.
[Ed. note: In this two-part Mediapolis Q&A, Lawrence Webb talks to Tim Lawrence about his research into the cultural history of New York City following the recent international conference on disco at the University of Sussex. To read part two, click here.]

Tim Lawrence is author of three groundbreaking books on the history of dance music culture in New York City: Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979 (Duke University Press, 2004); Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992 (2009); and Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 (2016). In part 1, Lawrence discusses the importance of space and place to writing music history, the extraordinary cultural fertility of New York, and the convergences between disco, punk, and hip-hop in the early 1980s.

Lawrence Webb: I’d like to start by talking about space and place, which are arguably central to your work. In your books, the history of dance music is inseparable from the cultural history of New York and the generative dynamics between different parts of the city. At the same time, the history of disco, for example, is a story of specific social spaces such as the Loft and Studio 54. Perhaps we could start by talking generally about viewing music history through a spatial lens, and why this has been so important to your research?

Tim Lawrence: The spatial lens wasn’t a particularly important consideration for me when I set out to write a transatlantic history of dance music culture back in 1997. The initial idea was to cover the mid-1980s to the then present, moving between Chicago, New York, London and Manchester, depending on whatever city happened to be hosting the most compelling developments at any particularly moment. However, I had already moved to New York City back in 1994, convinced that the city’s dance scene offered more in terms of musical and crowd diversity, and my first interview with David Mancuso, which took place in the autumn of 1997, led me to conclude that the pre-disco history of dance music culture amounted to a formative, innovative and vibrant period that had yet to be explored. What was intended to amount to an opening chapter of the book on dance history ended up becoming a 500-page book on the history of US dance culture during the 1970s—but the energetic focus of the culture was incontestably New York City, with Boston, LA, Philadelphia and San Francisco fulfilling satellite roles. It was during the writing of this book, Love Saves the Day, that I came to appreciate that New York City didn’t largely exist as an exciting yet inevitably transient stopover for people as they made their way through life, which was in some respects my relationship to the city, but amounted to a rooted urban space where communities had flourished for much of the 20th century, even if the end of the century had led them to be blitzed. I thought of Mancuso as a survivor who had a story to tell about the city during an earlier era.

The urban and spatial focus of my work became more explicit in my next two books, Hold On to Your Dreams, the Arthur Russell biography, which was really a biography of the city’s music scenes during the 1970s and 1980s as told through the experience of a vagabond, collaboratively-minded musician, and Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, which covers the 1980-83 period. I came to really understand that I wanted to write an extended, unfolding, interconnected history of New York dance floor, music and art culture during the 1970s and 1980s. I grasped that something unique had unfolded in New York City during the 1970s and early 1980s in particular, and I wanted to explore how New York’s specific social and economic conditions—its claim to be perhaps the most diverse city in the western world as well as one where the cost of living was cheap—enabled this culture to take root. I became drawn to the idea of writing a slow and detailed yet also (I hope) compelling history of dance, music and art culture in New York City, exploring how the patterns of its community-based culture changed over time, and how a history of the city’s subterranean dance, music and art movements could reveal otherwise lost information about its history. The next book, which is likely to cover 1984-87, will take the historical account deep into the neoconservative/neoliberal era and will shed light on the mechanics that enabled the neoliberal city to become dominant, even if this model has been challenged and resisted by many.

Could you say more about the specificity of New York, especially in relation to the kind of musical cross-pollination you trace in your most recent book? What made the disco scene possible in New York, and how did New York interact with the musical cultures of other cities?

We have to ask the question: why was New York City so musically inventive and prolific during the 1970s and early 1980s? And we have to answer: because of the city’s deeply ingrained diversity, which cut across race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and class; because it remained a relatively cheap place to live; and because the city’s shift from an industrial to a postindustrial infrastructure had the effect of opening up a substantial area of space to artists and musicians who migrated to the city from all over the country and beyond. There’s no other city in the world that shared these characteristics to such a degree, and, because music and art are relatively cheap to perform and make, versus, for example, television and cinema, these were two of the art forms that flourished. And of all of these art forms, the cheapest of all might have been DJ culture, because it was cheaper to go out dancing than it was to see a live band. Partying became particularly popular because the recessionary times encouraged New Yorkers to seek out low-cost entertainment and, as it happens, the dance floor offered a sense of counter-recessionary relief.

Yet for all of the diversity and accessibility, the cross-pollination didn’t happen for several years. Initially amorphous, barely conscious of itself, the downtown scene assumed a balkanised form for several years. Composers spent time with composers rather than punks, punks liked to congregate with other punks rather than graffiti artists and Bronx DJs, dance crowds pursued specific DJs and paid little attention to the art scene, and so on. There were exceptions, particularly in some of the exchanges that started to take place between contemporary dance and composers, but fairly clear divisions existed between so-called art and popular culture, as well as within scenes.

I’ve made much of the way Arthur Russell became a key figure when it came to breaking down some of these boundaries. He booked the Modern Lovers and Talking Heads to perform at the Kitchen; he took composers over to CBGB; he immersed himself in the city’s subterranean dance scene and ended up recording his first disco 12” on a punk label; he regularly headed into the recording studio with groups of musicians who came from entirely different backgrounds, many of them often amateurs. Arthur wasn’t the only open-minded, itinerant-leaning downtowner by any means, but he was particularly insistent on his musical freedom, to the point where, for example, whether entirely welcome or not, he could have never really fitted into a fairly definable line-up such as The Necessaries or Talking Heads.

But the broader point is that Arthur was ultimately representative of a broader development that witnessed downtown creative workers cross artistic and disciplinary boundaries with increasing regularity as the 1970s unfolded and, in particular, during the opening three or four years of the 1980s. As disco collapsed under the weight of its saturations, and punk entered an aesthetic cul-de-sac, the Bronx graffiti and party scenes started to forge downtown connections. Musicians entered into a period marked by hybridity, plurality and convergence. In many respects the DJs were the most determined advocates of the new aesthetic: one could go to dance to the selections of Afrika Bambaataa, Mark Kamins, Larry Levan, David Mancuso, Anita Sarko and many more and never have any idea whatsoever what genre of music would be next up—that is, inasmuch as records even followed the rules of genre. Party spaces also became these hotspots for a new pluralism in entertainment, with DJs, live bands, art displays, video and film screenings, performance art, immersive happenings and fashion shows often taking place in the same space.

The question about the relationship between New York and others cities is an interesting one and a complicated one. But I’d say that during the opening years of the 1970s New York operated as the melting pot apex of a whole series of musical networks that spread across the United States and beyond. For instance, disco was born in New York City because of the demographic and infrastructural elements I’ve mentioned, but in many respects the music that converged to form disco was being recorded in Philadelphia, Detroit and San Francisco, with Europe and Africa also significant contributors. But as the 1970s came to a close and the money drained out of the US economy and disco in particular, New York became far more independent and a significant amount of the music played by DJs was recorded in the city. The biggest records of the era were all rooted in the city and came up with a sound that captured its converging diversity and street level energy —from Arthur Russell’s various line-ups to ESG, Liquid Liquid, Konk, and James Chance and the Contortions, or production and remix wizards such as Arthur Baker, François Kevorkian, Larry Levan, Shep Pettibone, and John Robie. During this period the United Kingdom became an influential outpost, with Manchester’s music scene particularly influential, and San Francisco also remained a significant player, but as New York became increasingly inventive and prolific other city scenes, already in semi-decline, seemed to lack relevance. It was as if New York became a semi-independent city-state during the early 1980s—it needed nothing but itself because everything was already there.

Anita Sarko DJ-ing at the Mudd Club, ca. 1980. Photograph by and courtesy of Scott Morgan.

You suggest that there’s a turning point when independent labels and an underground production culture emerge in dialogue with New York’s already flourishing party scene. How has your work traced this shift in emphasis from consumption to production, and what are some of the grey areas between the two (e.g. DJ performances and re-edits)?

The grey areas are the ones that I’m drawn to. So, yes, the scenes we’ve been talking about were rooted in either DJ culture or live performance, both of which are ephemeral and are difficult to commodify. The first labels that sought to commodify the culture were independent ones—in disco, punk and at the end of the 1970s, rap—and although there were some exceptions most of these labels were rooted in the culture and became friends of the culture. Label heads got to know about the culture by dancing in party spaces and realising that they could run a successful small business if they engaged with the culture on its own terms. Salsoul provides an excellent example of this. Ken Cayre, the most influential of the brothers who owned the label, became inspired one night dancing in Le Jardin. A short while later he decided to release records that would appeal to the disco market and, handing out his records to DJs, got to know what they liked. A short while later he took the bold move of releasing the first commercially available twelve-inch single, which meant that not only DJs but dancers could start to listen to the music they really wanted to hear. And for the first twelve-inch Cayre invited not an established producer but instead a DJ to remix the record. It caused a semi-scandal, because producers ruled the studio while DJs were viewed by industry experts as know-nothing, unskilled upstarts. But Cayre appreciated that DJs were the experts when it came to understanding what parts of a record would work particularly well on a dance floor.

In this way a symbiotic relationship between the production and consumption started to develop. There was also something inherently intertwined and cyclical about the relationship, to the point where notions of production and consumption don’t readily apply. If we think through the example of the first twelve-inch single, for instance, it’s not clear who is producing the music in the first place. For sure, a line-up called Double Exposure recorded a track called “Ten Percent” that Salsoul invited a DJ called Walter Gibbons to remix. But that remix was arguably born not even in the DJ booth but instead in the relationship that existed between the DJ booth and the dance floor because it was through this form of dialogic, conversational, improvised interaction that contemporary DJ culture was born in the early 1970s. When Walter Gibbons went into the recording studio to edit that record he drew on the experience of how his crowd would respond to certain records or certain mixes. In that sense the very crowds that would go on to be the consumers of the record were also the producers of the record.

I’ve referred to the music culture and in particular the DJ culture of the 1970s as a kind of virtuous economy. DJs played records that their dancers would then go out to buy. The record stores would stock records that they knew the DJs were playing in the city’s party spaces because these soon became the most popular sellers. The record companies, receiving orders from the record stores, would reinvest their money by commissioning producers and remixers to create records that would work on the dance floor. The DJs would play the records. And dancers would go out and buy the records. And challenging the basic model of the record industry, which was to maximise profits through the sale of albums that would contain a couple of hits singles plus an awful lot of fodder, the twelve-inch market enabled consumers to buy exactly what they wanted, with no excess at all. It was a virtuous economy that was marked by a remarkable degree of equilibrium, and it only broke down when the corporate labels decided they wanted to market the music to a national and international audience. Until that point, the market was rooted in the rhythms of the city and the relationship between a handful of cities.

Your work pushes against standard narratives that place disco, hip-hop and punk in opposition to each other. What challenges have you encountered in establishing the early interrelationships between these scenes, given that they were not well documented at the time? 

Perhaps the primary argument of Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor is that the early 1980s were marked by a remarkable level of interaction between the disco, hip hop and punk scenes and that this interaction raises questions about the marked tendency of music historians to see these cultures as being fundamentally distinctive and resolutely oppositional. Yet as soon as this argument is made it opens up other arguments about the immediately preceding period, and I ended up reasoning that while there was, for instance, a certain level of punk opposition to disco, this opposition was targeted at the commercial end of disco as it came to be manifested in the exclusive midtown culture of Studio 54 and the suburban culture captured in Saturday Night Fever, neither of which had much to do with the organic, DJ-led dance floors that can be traced back to David Mancuso’s Loft and Seymour and Shelley’s Sanctuary. When the punk and disco scenes started to connect in the early 1980s it was precisely on this shared organic, democratic, independent, community-oriented, highly innovative terrain. So the argument that punks hated disco immediately started to look rather simplistic, and further analysis bore this out in many ways.

This line of thinking led to a second and perhaps more profound argument: that when historians and critics have set about analysing these scenes they have done so from the present, and that present reads these cultures as enjoying a realised and to a certain extent fixed idea of their contours as well as the developments that led them to assume those contours. To give an example, it is standard to argue that hip hop was born when Kool Herc started to put on parties in a South Bronx rec centre located on Sedgwick Avenue during 1973, and that from the beginning participants understood that they were engaging in a culture that understood its distinctiveness and opposition to other parallel cultures—including disco and punk. But this involves reading history backwards, because hip hop didn’t come into conscious being as an integrated culture that featured DJing, MCing, breaking and graffiti until 1981. This is an argument I develop in some detail in the last book.

What’s more, if we examine the moment when hip hop came into formation, the early 1980s were a period marked not by distinctiveness but by hybridity, plurality and convergence, with hip hop itself being one of the ultimate examples of convergent culture, so even when hip hop came into public consciousness it was marked more by its connectedness to other scenes than its distinction. The opposition and antagonism that is so often evoked when analysis the history of hip hop and its supposed rejection of disco is ultimately rooted in the social and economic experiences of the mid to late 1980s, when the combination of neoliberalism, the AIDS epidemic, the crack epidemic and the divisive outlook of Reagan virtually forced communities that had been engaging with each other to become more defensive and ultimately more hostile.

What happens, I have asked, when we don’t read history backwards but reimagine ourselves within these scenes as they are unfolding? The importance of this question is what led me to approach a syncretic and chronological approach to all three books. The result, I argue, is that scenes that we routinely assume to be oppositional not only weren’t oppositional; they didn’t necessarily understand themselves to be the scenes they would become and didn’t even necessarily know about the rival scenes. When the Loft and the Sanctuary started to pioneer DJ culture, disco didn’t even exist; the term and arguably the sound didn’t come into circulation until 1974—so one year after Herc supposedly started to do something that was distinctive from disco. For sure, Herc might have played some records that weren’t being played by downtown DJs, yet I’m more struck by just how many records were shared. Punk, to cite another quick example, might have started to take root at CBGB during 1974, but it hardly could have been antagonistic to disco because disco, like punk, barely existed. Ultimately some of the antagonisms can be traced to 1978, the year when Saturday Night Fever became this runaway commercial success, at which point the likes of Afrika Bambaataa started to express concerns that disco was losing the funk. Let’s set aside that the Zulu Nation continue to issue flyers that advertised their parties as disco parties. The more profound point is that by 1978, Mancuso and a whole community of dance DJs also started to become concerned that disco was losing the funk—because it was losing the funk.

East Village Eye front cover featuring “Planet Rock,” June 1982. Courtesy of Leonard Abrams.

I can’t say there have been many interviews where the person being interviewed told me I was talking nonsense. If anything they challenged my own preconceptions. Mancuso would play rock music, yet I had spent most of the 1990s becoming convinced that dance and rock were inherently antagonistic. I might have been nervous about asking Bambaataa and other Zulu Nation antagonists what they thought of disco, but they told me they loved disco and indeed any music that had a break. As for the punks, it turned out that many of them regretted the lack of a dance floor at spots like CBGB, and it took them about half-a-second to understand their uncanny aesthetic allegiance with the protagonists of the Bronx and Brooklyn party and graffiti scenes.

The conclusion is that in many ways the heavily mythologised disco, punk and hip hop scenes were ultimately connected by a desire to forge a form of organic, participatory, resourceful culture. In many ways this approach to culture defined New York City during the 1970s, when a form of what Julian Henriques describes as sonic dominance—a situation where sonic elements are more prominent than visual elements—came to rule the city. There was music everywhere and music was a connecting force. Boom boxes and car radios and live musicians filled the streets with sound while the city’s party spaces developed some of the most ambitious sound systems known to humankind. Music was a shared culture—“here’s what I’m listening to you, what are you listening to?”—and that only came to be properly interrupted when corporations entered the fray. But these scenes preceded that development and so were able to navigate that late 1970s corporate entry into disco and punk with relative ease. It was only when the corporations returned in earnest during 1983, in the wake of the commercial success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, that the corporate presence became more persistently corrosive at the same time as the city became more obviously unaffordable as well as more heavily regulated. My first three books have told the story of what came before this moment. The next one will trace how the culture of the city changed during the Reagan era.

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