Monday, April 28, 2008

All you judges beware

I wasn't sure about going to see Grant Gee and Jon Savage's new Joy Division documentary so soon after weeping my way through Control. Joy Division had a massive impact on me as a teenager and I worry about the mystery being obscured in over-documentation of what was a very short episode. But since my partner won two tickets for the screening at the Brixton Ritzy I could hardly refuse to go, and I am glad I did.

I thought it nicely complemented Anton Corbijn's fictional treatment. The latter evoked the period very well, but as a movie inevitably it raised the story to the dimension of the mythic and universal. The documentary on the other hand is very much rooted in the specifics of time and place, with lots of grainy footage of Manchester and Joy Division gigs and a tour of the sites of lost landmarks in their story - the Electric Palace, Rafters, Pips and other nightclubs. There is mention of Manchester's notoriously right-wing police chief, James Anderton, and super 8 footage of the racks in a left-wing bookshop stocked with magazines like Peace News and World Revolution.

Nice to see the late Anthony Wilson in what must have been one of his last interviews, although part of me thinks that there is danger - typified by his comments - of inscribing Joy Division too tightly within a narrative about the transformation of Manchester. Joy Division's beauty was their defiance of the mundane. As was mentioned in the film their songs opened up windows into other worlds for those looking for them - whether it was referencing J.G. Ballard (Atrocity Exhibition), Kafka (Colony), or Williams Burroughs (Interzone). There's a funny story in the film about Ian Curtis's encounter with Burroughs at a gig in Belgium. Others who wrote about Joy Division, like Paul Morely and Jon Savage, were also inspired and inspiring - even if the latter's quote from Raoul Vaneigem in his 1979 Melody Maker review was later to take on a macabre resonance: 'To talk of life today is like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man'.

Several people in the film talk of Ian Curtis in terms of possession, as if he was channelling some kind of energy. Most memorably, Genesis P. Orridge, talks of him switched on by electricity like some 'tranced out symbol for a human being'. Curtis himself seems to have been interested in such notions, and the film features a recording of him undergoing some amateur 'past life regression' hypnotherapy with Bernard Sumner.
All this and an opening quote from Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts into Air: "To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world - and at the same time threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are" .

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Women and Rave

Carrying on the discussion about gender and dance music, here's an extract from 'Women and the Early British Rave Scene' by Maria Pini, originally published in 'Back to Reality? Social Experience and Cultural Studies', edited by Angela McRobbie (Manchester University Press, 1997). Maria Pini based this work on interviews with women in the rave scene, and later expanded on the subject in her book Club Cultures and Female Subjectivity: from Home to House.

In general, I would argue that rave's appeal to women is tied with its opening up of new modes of 'looking', its set-up of particular interpersonal relations and its encouragement of new understandings of 'self'. Women within this context feel freed from traditional associa­tions of dancing with sexual invite, and in this sense rave seems to repre­sent an 'alternative' space… many of these women articulate their involvement within rave, and the pleasures it is seen to afford, in terms of an implicitly feminist dissatisfaction with traditional sexual relations and particular forms of masculinity. For instance, Jane speaks of other social-dance scenes as 'pick-up cities', and describes the kind of feelings she associates with these:

‘There was always a feeling that you could fail- if you didn't get picked-up, and also, if you didn't get picked-up by the right person - then what was the point? There was always the idea, when you got approached of 'oh God, are they going to demand something from me that I'm not going to give­ - meaning a snog, or a fuck, or a date, or a phone-number or whatever’.

The rave dance-floor, I would argue, is one of the few spaces which afford - and indeed, encourage - open displays of physical pleasure and affection. Explicit displays of 'ecstatic' happiness, and the relentless drive to achieve this, have never been so central to a youth culture's meaning. Arguably rave represents the emergence of a particular form of 'jouissance', one which is more centred on the achievement of phys­ical and mental transformation and one which is possibly best under­stood as a non-phallic form of pleasure. Many of the interviewees did speak of rave pleasures as being 'sexual', but many had difficulty in clearly 'languaging' what this 'sexual' was. I would suggest that this is because these pleasures do not dearly 'fit' standard, patriarchal defini­tions of sexuality, and eroticism. To illustrate this difficulty:

“I kind of see it as a place where I can feel sexually about other people, but it doesn't actually go anywhere ... It doesn't have to go anywhere 'cause that's it really: (Catherine)

“It's not sexual, but orgasmic .. I wouldn't say it was sexual. It's different from being sexual. It's orgasmic in the sense of being very intense and reaching a peak”. (Miriam)

“Well it's sexual kind of ... no, it's not sexual- it's different. (Helen)

“When I go raving ... it's very ... um ... well, one word that really comes to mind is auto-erotic ... because you're getting off on yourself. And you can dance quite sexily and you can enjoy it ... and you can get really into being a sexual being. It can be sexual, but it's a kind of self-contained sexual, so that auto-erotic spreads out- out of the erotic- and into a whole personality thing”. (Jane)

Also Jane points out that although she might normally feel 'guilt' around certain forms of self-pleasure (and here, she mentions masturbation), auto-eroticism within rave is normalised:

“But, somehow it's sanctioned more in a club - 'cause if you look round you think other people are doing it too so, it's OK. It's normalised because like, everyone is doing it and you can always see somebody out there with less clothes on than you and dancing way more sexy than you - and all you think is 'wow, they look like they're having a good time' - and it actually helps “.

Hence, what seems to emerge within rave is a space for new modes of femininity and physical pleasures. In terms of how this space fits within a wider life-context, many interviewees described the rave scene as pro­viding a space for the expression of 'other sides' of themselves. As Jane puts it;

“It's about letting go of being conformist, and being professional and proper and ... 'together'. It's 'other' to presenting that face of you. It's not necessarily the dark side of you - but it's the messy side of you ... It's about something you do which isn't about working. It's about the time you spend doing things which are about freedom”.

To close then, despite women's relative absence at the levels of rave pro­duction and organisation, at other levels rave can be seen as indicating an important shift in sexual relations, and indeed might suggest (with its emphasis on dance, physicality, affection and unity) a general 'femi­nisation' of 'youth'.

Friday, April 25, 2008

A time to mourn, a time to dance

Is there ever a time when it's not OK to dance? Of course there have always been priests telling people not to dance on sabbaths, but what about dancing at a time of war and misery? My general view is that dancing as the affirmation of life is irrepressible even in the darkest times, but sometimes doesn't defiance become indifference to others' suffering?

There's a bit of a fuss at the moment about an exhibition of photographs of Parisians apparently enjoying themselves under Nazi occupation, including nightclubbing. Was this simple collaboration? Undoubtedly in some cases, although the history of the Zazous - denounced by fascists for defying bans on dancing - suggests that dancing in wartime France was more complex.

But clearly there are times when a line is crossed, and here's an unambiguous example. When the Nazis and their Bulgarian allies occupied Greece they massacred the majority of the country's Jewish population. In the city of Salonica, 95% of Jews were rounded up and deported to death camps, with around 45,000 being killed at Auschwitz. When the few survivors returned to the city in 1945 they found that 'Jewish tombstones were to be found in urinals and driveways, and had been used to make up the dance-floor of a taverna built over a corner of the former cemetery itself'.

Source: Salonica: City of Ghosts - Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 - Mark Mazower (Lonon, Harper Collins, 2004)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

House Music/Gender/Sexuality

Great post on house music and masculinity from a Jamaican in New York perspective at (and interesting comments from a similar perspective by DJ Ripley). From the original post:

'I would go to mostly to Red Zone to hear DJ Dmitri from Deelite spin. It was a mostly people of color crowd, and people would just be there to DANCE their asses off, go to the bathroom to wash their faces and gulp water from the pipe, then go back and dance some more. Then there was the dancing itself. Gender became a blur. Drag queens would go from voguing to uprocking and breakin. Girls in baggy pants and baseball caps would do the same. There was a large diversity of gender. And men who i knew were hetero would have fun busting into a runway strut and a fierce vogue... After living in Jamaica, to see such a celebration of gender fluidity was stunning- and more importantly, liberating. Judith Butler theorizes gender to be performance, and we all tried it on, supported and ritualized fluidity, away from the gender police. It gave me permission that i had never had before as a hetero man to try on various masculinities, to be more comfortable being andro, and trying on movements where i could explore being more butch or more femme. I had officially escaped the confining box of hegemonic masculinity, and wore my fluidity naturally with pride' (there's also some interesting stuff about invoking Orishas on the dancefloor, but that's another post).

Obviously my perspective as a white man in London is different, but certainly the gender/sexuality fluidity of techno and house music parties/clubs was part of what made it so exciting when I first submerged myself in that scene. A lot of the squat techno parties I went to in the early/mid 90s were androgynous in a fairly masculine way - i.e. men and women all dressed in jeans/black clothes/combat gear. Then there were the glam house clubs I frequented where there was much more of an emphasis on dressing up, but still in a very playful way, boys and girls with glitter, sparkly clothes and make up. There was a mixed gay/straight vibe and many straight clubbbers were going to gay clubs like Heaven.

I recall the feeling of this beginning to freeze over from the mid-90s - in the culture there was a resurgence of 'blokeism' with lads mags extolling a lowest common denominator masculinity of football, cars and breasts. On the dancefloor more and more blokes were turning up in nobody-could-mistake-for-camp Ben Sherman shirts. For women the playful adoption of a 'glamour' look became more like a compulsory 'club babe' dress code. It was no surprize that within a few years, cliched boys with guitars rock had began to push dance music back to the margins.

And just to prove this trend wasn't just in my imagination, here's a letter published in Mixmag in 1995:

"I am becoming increasingly aware of and concerned about promoters insisting that women (babes) should be dressed to thrill. I think that women (babes) are being pushed away from the dancefloor by these essentially male promoters and treated as a commodity, by which I mean that a better looking female crowd induces a greater number of men, more media attention and a hipper status... to get into a venue we are told not to be geeks, to glam it up and to look gorgeous. Does this mean I have to wear high heels, restrictive clothes, a wonderbra and to visit the hairdressers for the latest stylish hairdo? I like to dress up, it gives you a sense of occasion, but I can't dance in high heels, I need to wear comfortable (which does mean drab) clothes, and just tie my hair back. So far I've had no problems entering clubs, but the way clubland is heading how much longer? Is it soon to become a distasteful sight to see a woman (babe) out of it and saying fuck off to all the men, she's here for herself" (Elizabeth, Hastings, Mixmag, June 1995).

Thanks to John at Uncarved for alerting me to this discussion.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music

Expect to read a lot this year about the 20th anniversary of acid house in the UK. There’s a new Danny Rampling '20 years of house' mix CD and a linked facebook group with 13,000+ members (worth a look if you’re on facebook as people have uploaded lots of great flyers). There’s also a planned flash mob event based around the premise of getting lots of people together to dance to acid house classics – on their headphones. Clearly 1988 was the year when house music really exploded in the UK, but house music itself goes back a few years further. The following article was originally published in the US magazine Out/Look in 1989, and looks at house music’s origins in the black gay clubs of Chicago in the 1980s:

The House the Kids Built: The Gay Black Imprint on American Dance Music - Anthony Thomas

America’s critical establishment has yet to acknowledge the contributions made by gay Afro-Americans. Yet black (and often white) society continues to adopt cultural and social patterns from the gay black subculture. In terms of language, turns of phrase that were once used exclusively by gay Afro-Americans have crept into the vocabulary of the larger black society; singer Gladys Knight preaches about unrequited love to her "girlfriend" in the hit "Love Overboard"'; and college rivals toss around "Miss Thing" in Spike Lee's film "School Daze."

What's also continued to emerge from the underground is the dance music of gay black America. More energetic and polyrhythmic than the sensibility of straight African-Americans, and simply more African than the sensibility of white gays, the musical sensibility of today's ‘house’ music- like that of disco and club music before it- has spread beyond the gay black subculture to influence broader musical tastes.

What exactly is house music? At a recording session for DJ International, a leading label of house music, British journalist Sheryl Garratt posed that question to the assembled artists. A veritable barrage of answers followed: "I couldn't begin to tell you what house is. You have to go to the clubs and see how people react when they hear it. It's more like a feeling that runs through, like old time religion in the way that people jus' get happy and screamin'… It's happening! ... It's Chicago's own sound.... It's rock till you drop… You might go and seek religion afterwards! It's gonna be hot, it's gonna be sweaty, and it's gonna be great, It's honest-ta-goodness, get down, low down gutsy, grabbin' type music." (1).

Like the blues and gospel, house is very Chicago. Like rap out, of New York and go-go out of D.C., house is evidence of the regionalization of black American music. Like its predecessors, disco and club, house is a scene as well as a music, black as well as gay.

But as house music goes pop, so slams the closet door that keeps the facts about its roots from public view. House, disco, and dub are not the only black music that gays have been involved in producing, nor is everyone involved in this music gay. Still, the sound, the beat, and the rhythm have risen up from the dancing sensibilities of urban gay Afro-Americans.

The music, in turn, has provided one of the underpinnings of the gay black subculture. Dance clubs are the only popular institutions of the gay black community that are separate and distinct from the institutions of the straight black majority. Unlike their white counterparts, gay black Americans, for the most part, have not redefined themselves- politically or culturally- apart from their majority community. Although political and cultural organizations of gay Afro-Americans have formed in recent years, membership in these groups remains very small and represents only a tiny minority of the gay black population. Lesbian and gay Afro-Americans still attend black churches, join black fraternities and sororities, and belong to the NAACP.

Gay black dance clubs, like New York's Paradise Garage and Chicago's Warehouse (the birthplace of house music) have staked out a social space where gay black men don't have to deal with the racist door policies at predominantly white gay clubs or the homophobia of black straight clubs. Over the last twenty years the soundtrack to this dancing revolution has been provided by disco, club, and now-house music.

Playback: The Roots of House

Although disco is most often associated with gay while men, the roots of the music actually go back to the small underground gay black clubs of New York City. During the sixties and early seventies, these clubs offered inexpensive all-night entertainment where DJs, in order to accommodate the dancing urgencies of their gay black clientele, overlapped soul and Philly (Philadelphia International) records, phasing them in and out, to form uninterrupted soundtracks for non-stop dancing. The Temptations’ 1969 hit “I Can't Get Next To You" and the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" are classic examples of the genre of songs that were manipulated by gay black DJs. The songs' up-tempo, polyrhythmic, Latin percussion-backed grooves were well suited for the high energy, emotional, and physical dancing sensibility of the urban gay black audience.

In African and African-American music, new styles are almost always built from simple modifications of existing and respected musical styles and forms. By mixing together the best dance elements of soul and Philly records, DJs in gay black clubs had taken the first steps in the creative process that music critic Iain Chambers interprets as a marker of disco's continuity with the rhythm and blues tradition: "[In disco] the musical pulse is freed from the claustrophobic interiors of the blues and the tight scaffolding of R&B and early soul music. A looser) explicitly polyrhythmic attack pushes the blues, gospel and soul heritage into an apparently endless cycle where there is no beginning or end, just an ever-present 'now.' Disco music does not come to a halt… restricted to a three-minute single, the music would be rendered senseless. The power of disco… lay in saturating dancers and the dance floor in the continual explosion of its presence.' (2)

Although the disco pulse was born in the small gay black clubs of New York, disco music only began to gain commercial attention when it was exposed to the dance floor public of the large, predominantly white gay discos. Billboard only introduced the term disco-hit in 1973, years after disco was a staple among gay Afro-Americans, but- as music historian Tony Cummings noted- only one year after black and while gay men began to intermingle on the dance floor.

By the mid-seventies disco music production was in high gear, and many soul performers (such as Johnny Taylor with his 1976 hit "Disco Lady") had switched camps to take advantage of disco's larger market. Records were now being recorded to accomplish what DJs in gay black clubs had done earlier. Gloria Gaynor scored a breakthrough in disco technique with her 1974 album, Never Can Say Goodbye. The album treated the three songs on side one ("Honey Bee," "Never Call Say Goodbye," and "Reach Out, I'll Be There") as one long suite delivered without interrupting the dance beat- a ploy that would become a standard disco format and the basis of house music's energy level.

As the decade progressed, disco music spread far beyond its gay black origins and went on to affect the sound of pop. In its journey from this underground scene, however, disco was whitewashed. The massive success of the 1978 film Saturday Night Fever convinced mainstream America that disco was a new fad),the likes and sound of which had never been seen before. While gay men latched onto the ‘Hi NRGEurodisco beat of Donna Summer's post-‘Love to Love You’ recordings and the camp stylings of Bette Midler.

Indeed, the dance floor proved to be an accurate barometer of the racial differences in the musical tastes of white and black gays and the variation in dancing sensibilities between gay and straight Afro-Americans. Quick to recognize and exploit the profit-making potential of this phenomenon, independent producers began to put out more and more records reflecting a gay black sound.

Starting in 1977, there was an upsurge in the production of disco-like records with a soul, rhythm and blues, and gospel feel: club music was born. The most significant difference between disco and club was rhythm. Club rhythms were more complex and more Africanized. With club music, the gay black subculture reappropriated the disco impulse, as demonstrated by the evolution in disco superstar Sylvester's music.

In 1978 Sylvester had a big hit with "Disco Heat"; in 1980 he released another smash, "Fever." "Disco Heat" was a classic example of the type of disco popular among gay Afro-Americans. At 136 beats per minute it combined the high energy aspect of white gay disco with the orchestral flourishes of contemporary soul. The song also contained the metronomic bass drum that characterized all disco. It was only the gospel and soul-influenced vocals of Sylvester and his back-up singers, Two Tons o’Fun, that distinguished the music from whiter genres of disco.

"Fever," on the other hand, more dearly reflects a black/African sensibility. To begin with, the song starts with the rhythmic beating of cow bells. Sylvester also slowed the beat down to a funkier 116 beats per minute and added polyrhythmic conga and bongo drumming. The drumming is constant throughout the song and is as dominant as any other sound in it. Just as significant, in terms of Africanizing the music, was the removal of the metronomic bass drum that served to beat time in disco. In African music there is no single main beat; the beat emerges from the relation of cross-rhythms and is provided by the listener or dancer, not the musician. By removing the explicit time-keeping bass of disco, Sylvester had reintroduced the African concept of the "hidden rhythm."

While most black pop emphasizes vocals and instrumental sounds, club music tends to place more emphasis on a wide array of percussive sounds (many of which are electronically produced) to create complex patterns of cross-rhythms. In the best of club music, these patterns change very slowly; some remain stable throughout the song. It is this characteristic of club music, above all, that makes it an African-American dance music par excellence. Like disco, club also moved beyond the gay black underground scene. Gay clubs helped spread the music to a "straight" black audience on ostensibly "straight" Friday nights. And some club artists, like Grace Jones, Colonel Abrams, and Gwen Guthrie, achieved limited success in the black pop market.

For most of its history, though, club music largely has been ignored by black-oriented radio stations. Those in New York, for instance, were slow to start playing club music with any regularity; finally WBLS and WRKS began airing dance mixes at various intervals during the day. In the early eighties, the two black-oriented FM radio outlets in Chicago, WBMX and WGCI, began a similar programming format that helped give rise to the most recent variation of gay black music: house.

Pumping Up the Volume

The house scene began, and derived its name from Chicago's now defunct dance club The Warehouse. At the time of its debut in 1977, the club was the only after-hours dance venue in the city, opening at midnight Saturday and closing after the last dancers left on Sunday afternoon. On a typical Saturday night, two to five thousand patrons passed through its doors.

The Warehouse was a small three-story building- literally an abandoned warehouse with a seating area upstairs, free juice, water, and munchies in the basement, and a dimly lit, steamy dance floor in between. You only could reach the dance floor through a trap door from the level above, adding to the underground feeling of the club.

A mixed crowd (predominately gay- male and female) in various stages of undress (with athletic wear and bare flesh predominating) was packed into the dance space, wall to wall. Many actually danced hanging from water pipes that extended on a diagonal from the walls to the ceiling. The heat generated by the dancers would rise to greet you as you descended, confirming your initial impression that you were going down into something very funky and "low."

What set the Warehouse apart from comparable clubs in other cities was its economically democratic admission policy. Its bargain admission price of four dollars made it possible for almost anyone to attend. The Paradise Garage in New York, on the other hand, was a private club that charged a yearly membership fee of seventy-five dollars, plus a door price of eight dollars. The economic barriers in New York clubs resulted in a less "low" crowd and atmosphere, and the scene there was more about who you saw and what you looked like than in Chicago.

For the Warehouse’s opening night in 1977, its owners lured one of New York's hottest DJS, Frankie Knuckles, to spin for the "kids" (as gay Afro-Americans refer to each other). Knuckles found out that these Chicagoans would bring the roof down if the number of beats per minute weren't sky high: "That fast beat [had] been missing for a long time. All the records out of New York the last three years (had] been mid- or down-tempo, and thee kids here in Chicago] won't do that all night long, they need more energy."(3)

Responding to the needs of their audience, the DJs in Chicago's gay black clubs, led by Knuckles, supplied that energy in two ways: by playing club tunes and old Philly songs (like MFSB’s "Love Is the Message") with a faster, boosted rhythm track, and by mixing in the best of up-tempo avant-garde electronic dance music from Europe. Both ploys were well received by the kids in Chicago; the same was not true of the kids in New York.

As Knuckles points out, many of the popular songs in Chicago were big in New York City, "but one of the biggest cult hits, 'Los Ninos' by Liaisons Dangereuses, only got played in the punk clubs there." Dance Music Report noted that for most of the eighties, Chicago has been the most receptive American market for avant-garde dance music. The Windy City's gay black clubs have a penchant for futuristic music, and its black radio stations were the first in the United States to give airplay to Kraftwerk's "Trans Europe Express" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes." The Art of Noise, Depeche Mode, David Byrne and the Talking Heads, and Brian Eno were all popular in Chicago's gay black circles.

What's also popular in Chicago is the art of mixing. In an interview with Sheryl Garratt, Farley Keith Williams (a.k.a. "Farley Jackmaster Funk"), one of house music's best known DJ/producers, says: "Chicago is a DJ city .... If there's a hot record out, in Chicago they'll all buy two copies so they can mix it, we have a talent for mixing. When we first started on the radio there weren't many [DJS], but then every kid wanted two turntables and a mixer for Christmas... And if a DJ can't mix, they'll boo him in a minute because half of them probably known [sic] how to do it themselves."

What was fresh about house music in its early days was that folks did it themselves; it was "homemade." Chicago DJs began recording rhythm tracks, using inexpensive synthesizers and drum machines. Very soon, a booming trade developed in records consisting solely of a bassline and drum patterns. As music critic Carol Cooper notes, "basement and home studios sprang up all over Chicago."

DJs were now able to create and record music and then expose it to a dance floor public all their own, completely circumventing the usual process of music production and distribution. These homespun DJs-cum-artists/producers synthesized the best of the avant-garde electronic dance music (Trilogy's "Not Love," Capricorn's "I Need Love," and Telex's "Brain Washed") with the best loved elements of classic African-American dance cuts, and wove it all through the cross-rhythms of the percussion tracks, creating something unique to the character of gay black Chicago.

There are so many variants of house that it is difficult to describe the music in general terms. Still, there are two common traits that hold for all of house: the music is always a brisk 120 bpm or faster; and percussion is everything. Drums and percussion are brought to the fore, and instrumental elements are electronically reproduced. In Western music, rhythm is secondary in emphasis and complexity to harmony and melody. In house music, as in African music, this sensibility is reversed.

Chip E., producer of the stuttering, stripped-down dance tracks "Like This" and "Godfather of House" characterizes house's beat as "a lot of bottom, real heavy kick drum, snappy snare, bright hi-hat and a real driving bassline to keep the groove. Not a lot of lyrics- just a sample of some sort, a melody [just] to remind you of the name of the record."(4).

That's all you can remember- the song's title- if you're working the groove of house music, because house is pure dance music. Don't dismiss the simple chord changes, the echoing percussion lines, and the minimalist melody: in African music the repetition of well-chosen rhythms is crucial to the dynamism of the music. In the classic African Rhythm and African Sensibility, John Chernoff remarks that "repetition continually re-affirms the power of the music by locking that rhythm, and the people listening or dancing to it, into a dynamic and open structure." It is precisely the recycling of well-chosen rhythmic patterns in house that gives the music a hypnotic and powerfully kinetic thrusting, permitting dancers to extract the full tension from the music's beat.

Chernoff argues that the power and dynamic potential of African music is in the gaps between the notes, and that it is there that a creative participant will place his contribution. By focusing on the gaps rather than the beats, the dancers at the Warehouse found much more freedom in terms of dancing possibilities, a freedom that permitted total improvisation.

The result was a style of dancing dubbed "jacking" that more closely resembled the spasmodic up and down movements of people possessed than it did the more choreographed and fluid "vogueing" movement of the dancers at other dubs like New York's Paradise Garage. Dancers at The Warehouse tended to move faster, quirkier, more individualistically, and deliberately off-beat. It's not that the kids had difficulty getting the beat; they simply had decided to move beyond it-around, above, and below it. Dancing on the beat was considered too normal. To dance at the Warehouse was to participate in a type of mass possession: hundreds of young black kids packed into the heat and darkness of an abandoned warehouse in the heart of Chicago during the twilight hours of Sunday morning, jacking as if there would be no tomorrow, It was a dancing orgy of unrivalled intensity, as Frankie Knuckles recalls: "It was absolutely the only club in the city to got to… it wasn't a polished atmosphere - the lighting was real simplistic, but the sound system was intense and it was about what you heard as opposed to what you saw." (5)

No Way Back: House Crosses Over

Like disco and club, house music is rapidly moving beyond the gay black underground scene, thanks in part to a boost from radio play. As early as 1980, Chicago's black-oriented radio stations WBMX and WGCI rotated house music into their programming by airing dance mixes. WBMX signed on a group pf street DJS, the ‘Hot Mix 5’, whose ranks included two of the most prolific and important house producers/artists- Ralph Rosario and Farley Jackmaster Funk. When the Hot Mix crew look to the air on Saturday nights, their five-hour show drew an estimated audience of 250,000 to 1,000,000 Chicagoans.

Now in Chicago, five-year-olds are listening to house and jacking. Rocky Jones, president of the DJ International recording label, points out that ‘[in Chicago, house] appeals to kids, teenagers, blacks, whites, hispanics, straights, gays. When McDonald's HQ throws a party for its employees, they hire house DJs."

Outside of Chicago, house sells mainly in New York, Detroit, D.C., and other large urban/black markets in the Northeast and Midwest. As in Chicago, the music has moved beyond the gay black market and is now very popular in the predominantly white downtown scene in New York, where it regularly is featured in clubs like Boy Bar and the World. But the sound also has travelled uptown, into the boroughs (and even into New Jersey) by way of increased airplay on New York's black radio stations; house can now be heard blasting forth from the boom boxes of b-boys and b-girls throughout the metropolitan area. It has also spread south and west to gay clubs like the Marquette in Atlanta and Catch One in Los Angeles. Even Detroit is manufacturing its own line, tagged "techno-house."

House music has a significant public in England as well, especially in London. In reporting on the house scene in Chicago, the British music press scooped most of its American counterparts (with the notable exception of Dance Music Report) by more than a year. So enthusiastic has been the British response to house that English DJs and musicians (both black and white) are now producing their own variety of house music, known as "acid" house.

House music, however, is not without its critics. Like disco and club, it has been either ignored or libelled by most in the American music press. In a recent Village Voice article hailing the popularity of rap music, Nelson George perfunctorily dismisses the music as "retro-disco." Other detractors of house have labelled the music "repetitive" and "unoriginal." (6)

Because of its complex rhythmic framework, though, house should not be judged by Western music standards but by criteria similar to those used to judge African music. House is retro-disco in the same way and to the same extent that rap is "retro-funk."

The criticism that this music is unoriginal stems from the fact that many house records are actually house versions of rhythms found in old soul and Philly songs. Anyone familiar with African-American musical idioms is aware that the remaking of songs is a time-honored tradition. As John Chernoff has documented, truly original style in African and African-American music often consists in subtle modifications of perfected and strictly respected forms. Thus, Africans remain "curiously" indifferent to what is an important concern of Western culture: the issue of artistic origins.

Each time a DJ plays at a club, it is a different music-making situation. The kids in the club are basically familiar with the music and follow the DJ'S mixing with informed interest. So, when a master DJ flawlessly mixes bits and pieces of classic soul, Philly, disco, and club tunes with the best of more recent house fare to form an evenly pumping groove, or layers the speeches of political heroes (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, or Jesse Jackson) or funky Americana (a telephone operator's voice or jingles from old television programs) over well known rhythm tracks, the variations stand out clearly to the kids and can make a night at the club a special affair.

To be properly appreciated, house must be experienced in a gay black club. As is true of other African music, it is a mistake "to listen" to house because it is not set apart from its social and cultural context. "You have to go to the clubs and see how people react when they hear it ‘... people jus’ get happy and screamin’”. When house really jacks, it is about the most intense dance music around. Wallflowers beware: you have to move to understand the power of house.


1. Sheryl Garratt, "Let's Play House," The Face (September 1986), 18-23.
2. lain Chambers, Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture (New York: St. Martin's, 1985), 187-188.
3. Simon Wiffer, "House Music," i-d (September 1986),
4. Garratt, "Let's Play House," 23•
5. Wiffer, "House Music."
6. Nelson George, "Nationwide: America Raps Back," VillageVoice 4,19 January 1988, p.32-33.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Privatized sound? - from the Walkman to the iPod

I have recently been re-reading some essays written in the 1980s by Marxist/Feminist cultural critic Judith Williamson, collected together in her book Consuming Passions: the Dynamics of Popular Culture (London: Marion Boyars, 1986), The following essay was originally published in the London magazine City Limits in 1983, and is a response to the popularity of the (then new) Sony Walkman personal stereo. 25 years later, with the Walkman superseded by the iPod and music playing mobiles, some of the arguments about their use as amounting to a privatized withdrawal from social life still ring true. But equally part of me feels that human sociability is stronger than any technical device or political offensive to created atomised citizens - with the mobile phone in particular there are contradictory things going on, listening to music in private while simultaneously being involved in communications with others on a scale that would have been unthinkable 25 years ago.


A vodka advertisement in the London underground shows a cartoon man and woman with little headphones over their ears and little cassette-players over their shoulders. One of them holds up a card which asks, 'Your place or mine?' - so incapable are they of communicating in any other way.

The walkman has become a familiar image of modern urban life, creating troops of sleep-walking space-creatures, who seem to feel themselves invisible because they imagine that what they're listening to is inaudible. It rarely is: nothing is more irritating than the gnats' orchestra which so frequently assails the fellow-passenger of an oblivious walk-person sounding, literally, like a flea in your ear. Although disconcertingly insubstantial, this phantom music has all the piercing insistency of a digital watch alarm; it is your request to the headphoned one to turn it down that cannot be heard. The argument that the walkman protects the public from hearing one person's sounds, is back-to-front: it is the walk-person who is protected from the outside world, for whether or not their music is audible they are shut off as if by a spell.

The walkman is a vivid symbol of our time. It provides a concrete image of alienation, suggesting an implicit hostility to, and isolation from, the environment in which it is worn.

Yet it also embodies the underlying values of precisely the society which produces that alienation - those principles which are the lynch-pin of Thatcherite Britain: individualism, privatization and 'choice'. The walkman is primarily a way of escaping from a shared experience or environment. It produces a privatized sound, in the public domain; a weapon of the individual against the communal. It attempts to negate chance: you never know what you are going to hear on a bus or in the streets, but the walk-person is buffered against the unexpected - an apparent triumph of individual control over social spontaneity. Of course, what the walkperson controls is very limited; they can only affect their own environment, and although this may make the individual feel active (or even rebellious) in social terms they are absolutely passive. The wearer of a walkman states that they expect to make no input into the social arena, no speech, no reaction, no intervention. Their own body is the extent of their domain. The turning of desire for control inwards towards the body has been a much more general phenomenon of recent years; as if one's muscles or jogging record were all that one could improve in this world. But while everyone listens to whatever they want within their 'private' domestic space, the peculiarity of the walkman is that it turns the inside of the head into a mobile home rather like the building society image of the couple who, instead of an umbrella, carry a tiled roof over their heads (to protect them against hazards created by the same system that provides their mortgage).

This interpretation of the walkman may seem extreme, but only because first, we have become accustomed to the privatization of social space, and second, we have come to regard sound as secondary to sight - a sort of accompaniment to a life which appears as essentially visual. Imagine people walking round the streets with little TVs strapped in front of their eyes, because they would rather watch a favourite film or programme than see where they were going, and what was going on around them. (It could be argued that this would be too dangerous - but how about the thousands of suicidal cyclists who prefer taped music to their own safety?). This bizarre idea is no more extreme in principle than the walkman. In the visual media there has already been a move from the social setting of the cinema, to the privacy of the TV set in the living-room, and personalized mobile viewing would be the logical next step. In all media, the technology of this century has been directed towards a shift, first from the social to the private - from concert to record-player - and then of the private into the social - exemplified by the walkman, which, paradoxically, allows someone to listen to a recording of a public concert, in public, completely privately.

The contemporary antithesis to the walkman is perhaps the appropriately named ghetto-blaster. Music in the street or played too loud indoors can be extremely anti-social although at least its perpetrators can hear you when you come and tell them to shut up. Yet in its current use, the ghetto-blaster stands for a shared experience, a communal event. Outdoors, ghetto-blasters are seldom used by only their individual owners, but rather act as the focal point for a group, something to gather around. In urban life 'the streets' stand for shared existence, a common understanding, a place that is owned by no-one and used by everyone. The traditional custom of giving people the 'freedom of the city' has a meaning which can be appropriated for ourselves today. There is a kind of freedom about chance encounters, which is why conversations and arguments in buses and bus-queues are often so much livelier than those of the wittiest dinner party. Help is also easy to come by on urban streets, whether with a burst shopping bag or a road accident.

It would be a great romanticization not to admit that all these social places can also hold danger, abuse, violence. But, in both its good and bad aspects, urban space is like the physical medium of society itself. The prevailing ideology sees society as simply a mathematical sum of its individual parts, a collection of private interests. Yet social life demonstrates the transformation of quantity into quality: it has something extra, over and above the characteristics of its members in isolation. That 'something extra' is unpredictable, unfixed, and resides in interaction. It would be a victory for the same forces that have slashed public transport and privatized British Telecom, if the day were to come when everyone walked the street in headphones.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Free Jamyang Kyi

'A Tibetan singer well known as a feminist activist has been taken by Chinese authorities and her family has received no word of her fate. Jamyang Kyi was detained on April 1, friends said. The US government-supporting Radio Free Asia quoted unidentified sources as saying that she had been formally arrested in the western city of Xining. However police made no comment.

Kyi, a longtime producer in the Tibetan-language section of Qinghai Television, the state-run channel for western Qinghai province bordering Tibet, has not been seen since April 7. That was when her husband was last allowed contact with her, friends said' (Times, 17 April 2008). Lots more Tibetan music here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Night Haunts

In Night haunts: a journey through the London Night (Verso, 2007), Sukhdev Sandhu asks ‘Whatever happened to the London night?’, arguing that while in Victorian times ‘Gas lighting opened up the night’, nocturnal London was still seen as the other of daytime life: ‘The night was seen as lawless, foreign territory teeming with rogues and banditos… It was a hive of fascination and to it came a steady flow of gawkers, boulevardiers, solitaires, rubberneckers, slummers and sex tourists exercising their right to roam’.

Sandu suggests that the second world war ‘Blitz did for the London night. It produced life-threatening fear rather than flaneurial frissons’ and that is has been further killed off by ‘a slicked-up form of commodity urbanism… the ‘London night’ has morphed into, and been rebranded as, ‘London nightlife’’.

Night is no longer ‘a distinct, cordoned-off territory in which we may immerse ourselves in strange possibilities or make ourselves susceptible to off-kilter enchantments’. Instead it is a focus of a whole industry: ‘Fun – its conception, manufacture, and promotion – occupies hundreds of thousands of people… Night London is endlessly studied and written about – not for any mysteries it may hold, but because it is now seen as an economic unit… Acronyms clog the pages – TfL, EMZs, the latter standing for Entertainment Management Zones, a new term that describes areas in which large numbers of young people like to hang out in the evening’.

Nevertheless Sandhu still thinks it’s worth his while to explore, hanging out with nocturnal workers and other denizens of the dark – mini-cab drivers, office cleaners, nurses in a sleep clinic and Benedictine nuns at Tyburn Convent praying for the souls of Londoners in a ceremony called the Night Adoration. The image of prayer unites Sandhu’s night-time pilgrims: ‘Listen carefully. People are praying tonight. The blue-light ambulance driver tearing through the streets of South London in the hope that he can still deliver a hit-and-run victim to A&E before it’s too late. The young Chinese vendor who has spent the last few hours ducking in and out of New Cross pubs trying to sell knock-off DVDs, and who now sees a group of toughs looking enviously at his backpack… Prayer is the true language of the night. It is the sound of London’s heart beating. The sound of individuals walking alone in the dark’.

There is something seductive about Sandhu's prose and his argument about the taming of the London night certainly strikes a chord. Still he is well-enough read in Londonist prose to know that there is nothing new about lamenting for the glories of London 's nocturnal past. H.V. Morton, whose The Nights of London (1926) Sandhu takes as a model, mentions that 'Old men who drink port have told me, when warmed up, how beautiful London was at night in those [Victorian] days of side whiskers and plaid trousers and Ouida'.
It also seems to me that in eschewing London 'nightlife' as simply a managed industry, Sandhu has missed out on what is still exciting for many. Nocturnal London isn't just one long dark night of the soul, populated by lonely wanderers whistling in the shadows. There are surely still many making a collective journey on to the dawn and having adventures along the way.

Night, the beloved

'Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again'
(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
image is from a Los Angeles house club called Balance

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Classic party scenes (3): Desperately Seeking Susan

In Susan Seidelman's 1985 film, bored housewife Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) swaps lives with bohemian rock chick/gangster's moll Susan (played by Madonna playing herself), leading Roberta's husband ('the spa king of New Jersey') to seek out Susan to help him find his wiife. 'Meet me at 30 West 21st Street' says Susan/Madonna and so the hapless yuppie finds himself dancing to 'Get Into the Groove' surrounded by an assortment of post-punk/new romantic haircuts. Earlier in the film, by way of contrast, we've seen his own tedious house party - a few nibbles, no dancing, conversations with dentists. Out on the dancefloor he really lets go, well loosens his tie anyway - 'only when I'm dancing can I feel this free'.

The scene was shot in real New York club Danceteria (fondly remembered here before by Charles Donelan), with various regulars and staff from the club in the film scene.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Mexico 'Emo' Bashing

Last week in Lancashire a 15 -year-old was convicted to 'stamping to death a young woman in a park because she was dressed as a Goth'.

Now from Mexico and Chile comes news of a wave anti-emo attacks. According to NME: "On March 7 around 800 young people in the city of Querataro amassed against emos in the city resulting in many violent attacks, and a week later a similar incident occurred in Mexico City. Emos in both cities responded to the attacks by marching peacefully through the center of the cities. Meanwhile, Chile is also seeing a wave of violence against emo, with TV station Chilevision showing an attack on a group of PokEMOns by skinheads. Emo’s in Chile are known as PokEMOns in different parts of the country."

As usual in incidents like these, sexuality is at the heart of the matter with so-called emos being targeted for dressing effeminately and wearing make up: "At the core of this is the homophobic issue. The other arguments are just window dressing for that," said Victor Mendoza, a youth worker in Mexico City. "This is not a battle between music styles at all. It is the conservative side of Mexican society fighting against something different."