29 February 2012

Francis Grosso was the first ever DJ to mix two early disco records

By 1981 they declared that disco was dead and there were no more up tempo dance records. That’s when I realized I had to start changing things to keep feeding my dance floor -  Frankie Knuckles

Although some house aficionados will refuse to admit it, the development of house music has much of its success accredited to the rise and fall of disco. As a result, to appreciate the history of house music we need to look further back than the 1980s and the development of the TR909 and TR808 drum machines; we also need to examine the growth of disco during the 1970s.

This is because disco still forms a fundamental part of some of today’s house music and in many instances older disco records have been scrupulously sampled to produce the latest house tracks.

Pinning down an exact point in time where disco first appeared is difficult, since a majority of the elements that make disco appeared in earlier records. Nonetheless, arguably it is said to have first originated in the early 1970s and was derived from the funk music that was popular with black audiences at that time. Some big name producers such as Nile Rodgers, Quincy Jones, Tom Moulton, Giorgio Moroder and Vincent Montana began to move away from recording the self composed music, and started to hire session musicians and produce hits for artists whose only purpose was to supply vocals and become a marketable commodity.

Diana Ross became one of the first disco manufactured success stories with the release of Love to Love You Baby in 1975, believed by many to be the first disco record to hit and be accepted by the mainstream public. This ‘new’ form of music was still in its infancy, however, and it took the release of the motion picture Saturday Night Fever in 1977 before it eventually became a widespread phenomenon. Indeed, by the late 1970s over 200 000 people were attending disco- theques in the UK alone and disco records contributed to over 60% of the UK charts.

As with most genres of music that become popular, many artists and record labels jumped on the wave of this new happening vibe and it was soon deluged with countless disco versions of original songs and other pointless, and poorly produced, disco records as the genre became commercially bastardized. As a result, disco fell victim to its own success in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the campaign of ‘disco sucks’ growing ever more popular. In fact, in one extreme incident Steve Vahl, a rock DJ who had been against disco from the start, encouraged people to bring their disco collections to a baseball game on 12 July 1979 for a ritual burning.

After the game, a huge bonfire was lit and the fans were asked to throw all their disco vinyl ontothe fire.

By 1981, disco was dead, but not without first changing the entire face of club culture, changing the balance of power between smaller and major labels, and preparing the way for a new wave of music. Out of these ashes rose the phoenix that is house, but it had been a large under- ground movement before this and, contrary to the misconceptions that are spread around, it had actually been in very early stages of evolution before disco hit the mainstream.

Although to many Frankie Knuckles is seen as the ‘godfather’ of house, it’s true foundations lie well before and can be traced back to as early as 1970. At this time, Francis Grosso, a resident DJ at a converted church known as the Sanctuary, was the first ever DJ to mix two early disco records together to produce a continual groove to keep the party-goers on the dance floor.

What’s more, he is also believed to be the first DJ to mix one record over the top of another, a technique that was to form the very basis of dance music culture.

Drawing inspiration from this new form of mixing, DJ Nicky Siano set up a New York club known as The Gallery, and hired Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan to prepare the club for the night by spiking the drinks with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD/Acid/Trips). In return he taught both all about the basics of this new form of mixing records, and soon after they moved on to become resident DJs in other clubs. Levan began residency at The Continental Baths, while Knuckles began at Better Days, to soon rejoin Levan at The Continental Baths 6 months down the line. The two worked together until 1977, when Levan left the club to start his own and was asked to DJ at a new club named The Warehouse in Chicago. Since Levan was now running his own club he refused, but recommended Knuckles, who accepted the offer and promptly
moved to Chicago.

Since this new club had no music policy, Knuckles was free to experiment and show off the techniques he’d been taught by Nicky Siano. Word quickly spread about this new form of disco and The Warehouse quickly became the place to be for the predominantly gay crowd. Since no ‘house’ records actually existed at this time, the term house did not refer to any particular music, but simply referred to The Warehouse and the style of continual mixing it had adopted.

In fact, at this time the word ‘house’ was used to speak about music, attitudes and clothing. If a track was house it was from a cool club and something that you would never hear on a commercial radio station, whereas if you were house it meant you attended all the cool clubs, wore the ‘right’ clothing and listened to ‘cool’ music.

By late 1982/early 1983, the popularity of The Warehouse began to fall rapidly as the owners began to double the admission price as it became more commercial, so Knuckles decided to leave and start his own club known as The Powerhouse. His devoted followers went with him, but in retaliation The Warehouse was renamed The Music Box and the owners hired a new DJ
named Ron Hardy. Although Hardy wasn’t a doctor he dabbled in numerous pharmaceuticals and in turn was addicted to most of them, but was nonetheless a very talented DJ. While Knuckles kept a fairly clean sound, Hardy pounded out an eclectic mix of beats and grooves, mixing euro disco, funk and soul to produce an endless onslaught to keep the crowd up on the floor. Even to this day, Ron Hardy is viewed by many as the greatest ever DJ.

Simultaneously, WBMX, a local radio station, also broadcast late night mixes made by the Hot Mix Five. The team consisted of Ralphi Rossario, Kenny ‘Jammin’’ Jason, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, Mickey ‘Mixin’’ Oliver and Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk. These DJs played a non-stop mixture of British New Romantic music, ranging from Depeche Mode to Yazoo and Gary Numan, along
with the latest music from Kraftwerk, Yello and George Clinton. In fact, so popular was the UK New Romantic scene that a third of the American charts consisted of UK music.

However, it wasn’t just the music that the people tuned in for, it was the mixing styles of the five DJs. Using techniques that had never been heard of before, they would play two of the same records simultaneously to produce phasing effects, perform scratches and back spins, and generally produce a perfect mix from a number of different records. Due to the show’s popularity, it was soon moved to a daytime slot and kids would skip school just to listen to the latest mixes. In fact, it was so popular that Chicago’s only dance music store, ‘Imports Etc’, began to put a notice-board up in the window documenting all the records that had been played the previous day to prevent them from being overwhelmed with enquiries.

Meanwhile, Frankie Knuckles was suffering from a lack of new material. The ‘disco sucks’ campaign had destroyed the industry and all the labels were no longer producing disco. As a result, he had to turn to playing imports from Italy (the only country left that was still producing disco) alongside more dub influenced music. More importantly for the history of house, though, he
also turned to long-time friend Erasmo Rivieria, who was currently studying sound engineering, to help him create reworks of the earlier disco records in an attempt to keep his set alive. Using reel-to-reel tape recorders, the duo would record and cut up records, extending the intros and breakbeats and layering new sounds on top of them to create more complex mixes. This was soon pushed further as he began to experiment by placing entirely new rhythms and bass lines underneath familiar tracks. While this undeniably began to form the basis of house music, no one had yet released a true house record, and in the end it was Jesse Saunders’ release of On And On in 1984 that landmarked the first true house music record.

Although some aficionados may argue that artist Byron Walton (a.k.a. Jamie Principle) produced the first house record with just a portastudio and a keyboard, the track entitled Your Love was only handed to Knuckles for him to play as part of his set. Jesse Saunders, however, released the track commercially under his self-financed label ‘Jes Say’ and distributed the track through Chicago’s ‘Imports Etc’.

The records were pressed courtesy of Musical Products, Chicago’s only pressing plant, owned and run by Larry Sherman. Taking an interest in this scene, he investigated its influence over the crowds and soon decided to start the first ever house record label ‘Trax’. Simultaneously, however, another label ‘DJ International’ was started by Rocky Jones, and the following years involved a battle between the two to release the best house music. Many of these consisted of what are regarded as the most influential house records of all time, including Music is the Key, Move Your Body, Time to Jack, Get Funky, Jack Your Body, Runaway Girl, Promised Land, Washing Machine, House Nation and Acid Trax.

By 1987 house was in full swing; while still borrowing heavily from 1970s disco, the introduction of the Roland TB303 bass synthesizer, along with the TR909, TR808 and the Juno 106, had given house a harder edge as it became disco made by ‘amateur’ producers. The basses and rhythms were no longer live but recreated and sequenced on machines, resulting in a host of 303-driven tracks starting to appear.

One of these budding early producers was Larry Heard, who after producing a track entitled Washing Machine released what was to become one of the most poignant records in the history of house. Under the moniker of Mr Fingers, he released Can U Feel It, the first ever house record that didn’t borrow its style from earlier disco. Instead, it was influenced by soul, jazz and the techno that was simultaneously evolving from Chicago. This introduced a whole idea to the house music scene as artists began to look elsewhere for influences.

One of these was Todd Terry, a New Yorker and hip-hop DJ. He began to apply the sampling principles of rap into house music. By sampling drum loops from old records and layering them together, he introduced harsher and heavier rhythms into the scene and released.  Three Massive Dance Floor House Anthems, which pushed house music in a whole new direction. His
subsequent house releases brought him insurmountable respect from the UK underground scene and he has duly been given the title of Todd ‘The God’ Terry.

Over the following years, house music mutated, multiplied and diversified into a whole number of different subgenres, each with their own names and production ethics. In fact, to date there are over 14 different subgenres of house, consisting of progressive house, hard house, deep house, dark house, acid house, Chicago house, UK house, US house, Euro house, French house,tech house, vocal house, micro house and disco House.

Musical analysis

The divergence of house music over the subsequent years has resulted in a genre that has become hopelessly fragmented and as such cannot be easily identified as featuring any one particular attribute. Indeed, it can be funky, drawing its inspiration from disco of the 1970s; it can be relatively slow and deep, drawing inspiration from techno; it can be vocal, it can be party-
like or it can simply be pumping. In fact, today the word house has become somewhat of a catch-all name for music that is dance (not pop!) yet doesn’t fit into any other dance category.

The good news with this is that you can pretty much write what you want and as long as it has a dance vibe it could appear somewhere under the house label. The bad news, however, is that it makes it near impossible to analyse the genre in any exact musical sense and it is only possible to make some very rough generalizations.

Firstly, we can safely say that house music invariably uses a 4/4 time signature and is produced either allegretto or allegro. In terms of physical tempo, this can range from a somewhat slow (by today’s standards) 110BPM to a more substantial 140BPM, but many of the latest tracks seem to stay around the 127 or more recently 137 ‘disco heaven’ BPM. This latter value is referred to as such since this is equal to the average clubber’s heart rate while dancing, but whether this actually makes the music more ‘exciting’ in a club has yet to be proven.

Fundamentally, house is produced in one of three ways: everything is sampled and rearranged; only some elements are sampled and the rest is programmed; or the entire track is programmed in MIDI. The approach taken depends entirely on what style of house is being written. For example, the disco house produced by the likes of Modjo, Room 5 and Daft Punk relies heavily on sampling significant parts from previous disco hits and dropping their own vocals over the top (Daft Punk’s Digital Love and Modjo’s Lady being prime examples). If you write this style of music then this is much easier to analyse, since it’s based around the disco vibe. Generally, this means that it consists of a four-to-the-floor rhythm with a heavily syncopated bass line and the characteristic electric wah guitar. On the other hand, deep house uses much darker timbres (deep bass lines mixed with atmospheric jazzy chords) that don’t particularly exhibit a happy vibe but are still danceable, while acid house relies heavily on the squawking TB303. In fact, while all house music will employ a four-to-the-floor pattern, the instrumentation used will often determine the style it comes under.

The Dance Music Manual - Tools, toys and techniques - Rick Snoman

11 February 2012

a good store acts as a kind of brain trust and cultural meeting place for the music scene that surrounds it.

"Hanging out in wax cylinder shops" is a time-honored way to connect with like-minded (and like-eared) enthusiasts. So come, celebrate with visceral joy yet another format that's making a modern day comeback. Or maybe just never went away?

While I love my MP3 player for its amazing ability to allow me to access tons of music at the flick of a finger a recent dive back into my wax cylinder collection, the result of a day-long effort to establish a central wax cylinder listening area in the living room, has got me fondly remembering the fullness and warmth of the wax cylinder album.

sound is so warm and
full say enthusiasts
I do recollect the shops and the thrill of looking through rack upon rack of cylinders, the smell, the feel of the covers and the excitement of getting it home and opening it up to read the cylindrical sleeve notes which use to snap back into a roll and whatever else was in there; art work, Gate fold sleeves, stickers. Of course they get covered in dust, scratched, worn out. The sound is worse than the Trautonium, and you have to turn them over. They're bulky, heavy, and you need miles of shelving to store the buggers. Face it; cylinders are, like, sooo 1868.

Quite why music played on the unreliable and outdated technology of phonographic wax cylinders should sound so good is unclear. Yet they have survived in the homes of listeners who simply prefer the sound quality. Wax cylinders are richer and warmer to listen to than many other formats, even if new-fangled digital technology has improved slightly since the sound of wax discs in the 1870’s. They were, unfortunately, overtaken in sales by them upstarts the single-sided flat wax record after the great format war of 1889 and wax cylinders should have been banished to the back of the cupboard; but they weren’t.

Long before I met my partner my mum and dad had a phonographic wax cylinder playerette, or a “pwcp” as we used to affectionately call it. It was black with dark wood and Bakelite switches that stuck out. Unfortunately they didn't have a very hip “wax” collection. They used to send off to that Readers Digest a lot and collect stuff and i remember they had a boxed selection of The Best of Thaddeaus Cahill’s Dynamophone (the Telharmonium Years), another one was Lee DeForest’s – ‘The Triode Vacuum Tube Dun Arf Hum’. He was one of the fathers of the "electronic age" said my dad.

It all started for me when I bought a £3.1.6d used wax cylinder player off a friend of mine, who had found it at a boot fair. My partner and I then spent a rainy Sunday setting up the phonogram in the living room. It was an exciting day. I alphabetized my wax cylinder collection, had to build some heavy duty shelfage though, then sat back and listened to one of my earliest wax cylinder recordings.  It was a 1860 phonautogram by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, it was the first known sound wax cylinder recording with a human voice; Au clair de la lune, cracking tune. Although, if I may be so bold, Zesty’s 2013 psy-scouse-house remix did do the original some justice I may add.

My partner who loved hunting for soft furnishings started looking through the dusty wax cylinder bins that seemed to occupy the dark corners of every boot fair we visited. She started to pick up wax cylinders whenever she spotted a good deal on something she liked. We were hooked.

And then, last week, she came home on her lunch break, face beaming, frilly arms filled with a stack of worn wax cylinders. We were in waxy cylinder shaped heaven. I picked up one of the wax cylinder and the weight of the thing felt great in my hands. In this batch was the earliest known wax cylinder of vocal music from a genuine 1888 Edison phonograph recording of a Handel choral concert. I couldn’t wait to get in the studio and do a deep house remix of it. Although my dogging obsessed partner does seems to prefer buckets full of Special K and the sub bass dominated evil end of dubstep these days. Through Funktion 1 of course. Sans nappy.

For those who only buy their music on iTunes, Amazon.com, or other online digital music services and retailers, the idea of walking into a "brick-and-mortar" wax cylinder store and plunking down cash for a physical, mechanical reproduction of a wax cylinder recording might seem like a royal pain in the ass. Or perhaps the wax cylinder shop simply seems like a relic from a bygone era?

Before you dismiss the independent wax cylinder shop as hopelessly outmoded, ask yourself when was the last time you had a stimulating chat about the development of the Audion tube with one of the sellers at iTunes or Amazon? Is that really how you want to be turned on? They're no replacement for wandering the aisles and bins of a proper wax cylinder shop, checking out the featured albums that the store displays to pique your interest, talking turkey with the geeks at the counter, and knowing that the money you spend not only buys you a superior product sonically (wax cylinder literally crushes the tinny sound of MP3s) but helps to support a small business that genuinely cares about putting great music into the world.

What's more, a good wax cylinder store acts as a kind of brain trust and cultural meeting place for the music scene that surrounds it. "Hanging out in wax cylinder shops" is a time-honored way to connect with like-minded (and like-eared) enthusiasts and to find out what is happening in town.

Oz's son DJing in the studio
As vinyl wax cylinders continue their remarkable comeback as a viable, even premium form of music enjoyment, the indie wax cylinder store becomes even more indispensable, a place of wax worship where devotees of the cylinder congregate to buy, sell and celebrate the sheer pleasure of the C(n)H(2n+2) cylinder. While the wonderfully visceral thrill of watching the needle on a wax cylinder player make contact with the grooves - and hearing those first comforting crackles and snaps - is easy to rave about, so is the visual force of pulling a full-size wax cylinder jacket out of a bin and absorbing the cover art in the open air. Those postage stamp-sized JPEGs on the internet will simply never replace the optic bong-hit of a great jazz, psychedelic or new wave wax cylinder album cover.

Buy wax; support your local music shop.

2 February 2012

The worst drug on the planet sold to us by the biggest gangsters?

Blaming the government, or Society, for the drink problem is ridiculous. Yes, life is hard. But at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for how much they drink, what drugs they take, how much they exercise and how healthy their food is. You can't expect the government to make you happy. It's this moaning, passive, depressing attitude that leads to alcohol abuse in the first place.

The government is expected to publish an alcohol strategy in the coming months. No doubt the focus will be on the headline grabbing policies, with Cameron recently hinting at the possibility of a minimum unit price on alcohol. Will it work?
According to the wonderfully middle aged, middle class, middle of the road Guardian; “The picture of alcohol harm in this country is stark; the death toll from alcohol misuse is the equivalent of a passenger filled jumbo jet crashing every 17 days. Furthermore, 80% of alcohol-related deaths are from liver disease, which is the fifth most common cause of death in England and is set to overtake stroke and coronary heart disease as a killer within the next 10 years."
The British Liver Trust argues that people with alcohol problems must be offered effective support and treatment to meet their individual needs, an ‘individual person-centred journey’ as the Government’s drug strategy would describe it. There has been much talk about ‘recovery’ and ‘abstinence-based approaches’ for those with alcohol dependence.  “Our report suggests that it is vital that people who misuse alcohol are not treated by a one-size fits all abstinence approach; but, to be as successful as possible, healthcare professionals must work with patients to understand their preferences in setting goals to reduce their alcohol harm. Problem drinkers are after all a mixed bag of people with a range of mild, moderate and severe alcohol dependence.” Will it work?

The major problem is alcohol is seen by the British public as NOT A DRUG, when it's actually one of the most dangerous and addictive substances out there. The distinction is totally arbitrary and surely only suits those in the alcohol industry. Good luck saving everyone from themselves. You're going to be engaged in a battle you can't win with people who, in the main, don't want to be told how to live their own lives.


Alcoholism is linked to high unemployment and all the other crisis situations for which we like to seek some oblivion. This advise to have two drink free days a week does appear somewhat nonsensical. Isn't the real problem binge drinking at weekends? I would have thought that most people try and have four drink free days Monday -Thursday and then spend the weekends getting lashed. Telling people to only drink a certain amount is completely out of touch with reality...that many people will drink until theyre drunk/run out of money/passed out at the worst or drink far more than is good for them at best.

There has been a heavy drinking culture in the UK for centuries way before there was even a union, with people drinking beer 24/7 instead of the very poor quality water. The gin stews. Then the strange pub opening times which encourage people to drink against the clock consuming a huge amount in a short period of time. Much excessive drinking is self treatment for stress and mental health problems. Most people do not want to admit to these issues to their GP and have it on their medical records, so they find their own ways to cope. Obviously this is a psychological problem.

We have a difficult life-work balance that makes us stressed, and for a lot of people alcohol is the best and easiest option to let go, relax, and be merry. Sometimes it's just the only way they know how to be social. I'm one of these people, so I know what I'm talking about.

Blaming the government, or Society, for this problem is ridiculous though. Yes, life is hard. But at the end of the day, everyone is responsible for how much they drink, what drugs they take, how much they exercise and how healthy their food is. You can't expect the government to make you happy. It's this moaning, passive, depressing attitude that leads to alcohol abuse in the first place.

The government and other concerned bodies are not going to achieve anything by recommendations. This is a byproduct of the society we have created. Perhaps instead of telling people not to drink so much or tax them more, they could focus on making living in this country a little bit more enjoyable. People here work some of the longest hours with little to show for it in return. Life on the continent seems a bit more people/life focused than it is here. A happier, more content population may feel less of a need to obliterate themselves every weekend. These people are going to lie to their GPs about how much they drink anyway.

In the short term, so long as there is stigma attached, if you want to get some proper societal response to alcoholism you need anonymous clinics for both mental health and alcohol problems, so people can address these issues without them going on their medical records. You need alcohol treatments people can drop into which are not based on religious doctrine. Then you need to de-stigmatise and address mental health issues.

Perhaps Baclofen would appear to be the answer, and it works for cocaine detox as well? Or give people the option of MDMA or cannabis instead.

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