Discover Disco’s Roots: From Cameroon to Puerto Rico, Memphis and Philadelphia
Disco is so omnipresent as a cultural signifier nowadays that it’s easy to think it’s a single thing.
Do a google image search and the aesthetic that appears is remarkably consistent: multicoloured glitter and lights, tight pants, big hair (whether Farah Fawcett flicks or Afros), generally upmarket glamour.
And the sound associated with that is super familiar, too: four-to-the-floor kickdrums, bouncing bassline, lots of lavish strings and high drama vocals (usually female – the proverbial disco divas), the grooves often extremely extended.
This, though, is a simplified version of disco at its commercial peak – of the late 1970s, when it had become the soundtrack to celebrity bacchanals and mega-popular movies, and was globally popular.
It was codified like this in the 1980s and early 90s when, ironically, disco was at its lowest cultural ebb, usurped on cool dancefloors by its offspring house music, and reduced to “revival nights” with the same few Abba, Bee Gees, Chic and Donna Summer hits on rotation.
But, great though those hits were, disco was always more than this.
Thankfully by the late 1990s, a mixture of DJs and historians began to revive interest in it as a grassroots form.
Books like Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s Last Night A DJ Saved My Life (1999), Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves The Day (2003) and Peter Shapiro’s Turn The Beat Around (2006) both brought the origins of disco vividly to life, and spelled out for a new generation its continuity with the DJ and dance culture than has continued on from house and techno.
Those origins bring together many threads.
Disco undoubtedly began in New York, with mostly Italian DJs (David Mancuso, Francis Grasso, Nicky Siano among the first) playing mostly Black music to mostly LGBTQ+ crowds.
To begin with that meant a lot of soul – Motown from Detroit, Stax from Memphis and in particular the extra lush and euphoric Philadelphia International from… well, you can guess.
But mingled with that was some psychedelic rock, quite a bit of jazz fusion, a large helping of Latin percussion especially from the Puerto Rican and Cuban populations of NYC, and just a sprinkling of broadway high camp.
There were curveballs too: one of the defining early tunes was the Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa”, for example.
To try and capture that inchoate groove, we’ve put together three hours of music that you might have heard if you stepped back fifty years to 1973.
Almost all these records are from 1972 and 1973, with one or two slightly older perennials, but they capture the moment where the floodgates of recognisably DISCO records were about to open.
Some of them are just about there, with the distinctive drum patterns of disco creeping in.
However, mostly taken alone, they are funk (with quite a few big names with one foot still in the 60s like James Brown, Sly Stone and Isaac Hayes), Latin, jazz fusion and so on: but it’s the placing of them together, as those pioneering disco, that allows you to hear what was coming.
All Images: Nicky Siano
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.