The return of Disco
Reviled for decades, the genre is getting a boost from some young talents, writes Paul Lester
"It irritates me, the ignorance of some people when you mention disco," says Oliver Jones, otherwise known as dubstep don Skream. He feels so passionate about the subject he has agreed to be interviewed from a bar in Kuala Lumpur, where he is on tour. "They don't realise that, if it wasn't for that era, there would be no house, no hardcore, no jungle or drum'n'bass, and no UK garage or dubstep."
After several false starts and the occasional Sophie Ellis-Bextor or Kylie single, disco appears to be enjoying an Indian summer. Daft Punk are ruling in the album charts with Random Access Memories, thanks in no small part to the lead single Get Lucky - a showcase for the inimitable rhythmic guitar of Chic's Nile Rodgers.
A slew of new outfits, from Parisian producer Breakbot to the 17-piece troupe Escort, draw from the genre. Their output is redolent either of the classic 1970s New York sound with its hi-hats and strings, or the slower, funkier 1980s style, heavier on the synths and drum machines, known today as "boogie". Others such as Norway's Lindstrom are exploring a more cosmic, trancey variant. And the fact that Australian duo Flight Facilities - French house fans who deliver a knowing take on disco - have signed to the Glassnote label, home of Mumford and Sons, is a sure sign of commercial faith in the music.
It doesn't stop there. Veronica "Ronika" Sampson, also known as the "Madonna of the Midlands", sampled an old Chic production on her recent single Automatic, earning a favourable tweet from Rodgers. According to Mixmag, last year's finest dancefloor hit was the disco-indebted Inspector Norse by Todd Terje. Many of these artists have been quietly making disco-influenced music for years (there has been a "nu disco" chart on online music retailer Beatport since 2008), but there are now so many of them that the scene is reaching critical mass.
"It's becoming more commercial, definitely," says Dec Lennon, who makes boogie tracks as Krystal Klear and has a disco-centric show on Rinse FM, the east London station formerly synonymous with dubstep and grime. "I can see it driving that uptempo disco sound to the forefront." Lennon is glad disco is finally being vindicated. "I see people I went to school with who used to belittle my taste and say things like, 'That's music for faggots'," he says.
Lennon insists disco is no fad - "I was making disco mixtapes when I was 14 and 15," he says - and points to artists associated with other genres moving in a disco direction such as the grime MC Skepta. Probably the most credible enthusiast, though, is Skream, a serious disco head who has just put a mix dedicated to the genre online and is issuing a disco single this summer called Rollercoaster. He played an early version to French disco-rockers Justice, who "lost their mind over it", he says with some pride. So, is this really the summer of disco? "If I have my way - yes, definitely," he says.
Skream, like Lennon, is annoyed that disco doesn't have the reputation of its near-relation, funk. "People say, 'Oh, disco's gay'," he says. "But I Feel Love by Donna Summer and Cerrone's Supernature set the template for the future of dance music."
Yet the current wave goes beyond a nostalgia for syndrums and handclaps, afros and flares. If anything, an obsession with "realness" exists in disco circles that is as fierce as anything in rock: an insistence on remaining true to the original sound by the proponents of disco past and present. Many of the younger artists, steeped as they are in electronic music-making, are excited by Daft Punk's use of real musicians and Rodgers, who pioneered disco, could certainly see the delight in the robo-popsters' eyes during recording.
" Get Lucky wasn't a love letter or even an homage to Chic specifically," says Rodgers. "It was a recognition of how those records made you feel. They [Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo] wanted to be part of that process. I've been interacting with other musicians all my life. But for them it was the first time."
Jake Shears - who as the Scissor Sisters' frontman has helped keep disco alive this past decade - acknowledges the near-shock value of all this live performing in the dance realm: "It sounds incredible, like a giant fresh glass of water that so many people have been thirsty for so long," he says.
Skream, too, is loving the effect but is aware of the effort required to achieve it. "Disco is not easy to make or replicate unless you sample it," he says, comparing the disco process - with its multiple layered voices and instruments, horns and strings - to purely programmed electronic dance music. "You can imitate EDM, but learning how to write a song and play it isn't that easy. That's what I love about disco - you can hear people playing their hearts out. A lot of them were skint musicians who would play their best so they'd get invited back again. It sounds like a cliché, but it was their way out of the ghetto."
Hugo Gruzman of Flight Facilities can see a raising of the bar: "Disco requires more musical thought so it's going to make people up their game," he says. "It's going to be interesting to see who can kick it with the big guys."
However Eugene Cho, leader of Escort, does concede that EDM, in a strange way, may have paved the way for the growing appreciation of disco. "EDM has made more people open to dance music in general," he says. "But the flipside is a reaction to EDM, which is very hard to listen and dance to over an extended period because it's so intense. Whereas with disco you can dance to it all night long. It's the difference between a quick shag and an all-night lovemaking session."
Skream believes dance music has been crying out for some of disco's pizzazz for some time. "There is a massive lack of flamboyance in dance music now," says the producer, who has done much to popularise the growling basslines of dubstep. "It's very loud and abrasive, hetero and masculine. It's grooveless, very straight - literally and in terms of the rhythm."
Lennon concurs. He is seeing clubbers with their hands in the air again: "In the dubstep era everyone just stood there and nodded their heads. Now people are opening up, getting loose, having a drink and dance. And there's no better format for it."
Disco's return mirrors its original trajectory from margin to mainstream. But whereas last time around the genre's ubiquity opened it up to ridicule and eventual rejection after Disco Demolition Night - a 1979 event held at Comiskey Park baseball stadium in Chicago where sports fans were invited to bring their old disco records to be destroyed - this time it seems here to stay. After so long being derided, is this disco's revenge? "I'm not a negative person so I hate to look at it like that," says Rodgers, although he is rightly gratified by his and Daft Punk's present success, some three decades after he was effectively snubbed by the music industry.
Shears, who has just recorded a duet with Cher that he compares to an updated version of No More Tears (Enough is Enough) by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer, also baulks at the phrase but applauds the sentiment.
"I don't think disco has revenge in its soul," he says. "But what I do like about this Daft Punk record is that it has brought so many people together. It has captured the imagination of the entire public, and that's a disco thing. Now, no matter how many records they burn, it's never, ever, ever going away."
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