Our in-depth look at the history of disco house continues, from 'Professional Widow' to 'Get Lucky' via Chicago, France, Italy, Detroit and NYC
was a hip-hop kid who made house music," says Armand Van Helden
plainly. "My management company would come to me and say 'Do you
want to remix Ace Of Base? Do you want to remix Jimmy Sommerville?'. I
had no idea who these artists were, so I'd just say yes,
take a few words or a line out of their track and build the remix
around that. I didn't really care what was going on in their original
version and, I have to admit, it was exactly the same with Tori Amos.
I don't mean to disrespect her by saying that. These days I know a
lot more about her and I think she's an amazing artist. But back then
that's how it was."
Amos had launched a successful career in the early 1990s with the
critically acclaimed album Little Earthquakes. By 1996 she was
releasing her third album, and for Atlantic Records she was a big
deal. Although oblivious as to her history and standing, Armand Van
Helden was about to embark upon a remix project for her that would
mark a high point in both their careers, the ramifications of which
would be felt through several sub-genres of dance music.
Germaise, the head of marketing at Atlantic, called me and said
'We're going to have dinner with Tori Amos'," recalls Johnny
DeMairo. "So we go to dinner and I presented her with this
scenario that I was going to get these mixes done and have 3,000
copies sent to DJs globally, and the worst thing that could happen
was that people who didn't know her records would get to hear of her.
I sent out copies of the album to some of the harder mixers
I thought could do something with her, not MAW, but people like
Junior Vasquez, MK and Armand. I was such a big fan of MK, I could
listen to him all day. So I gave the LP to MK and he wanted
Armand just told me he'd do anything. He'd kill whatever I gave him."
manager was Italian and Johnny D's Italian, so we would all go out to
this place on 8th Avenue to get Italian food," recalls Van
Helden. "One time, Johnny said, 'I have this artist, Tori Amos,
she's really cool. She's more on the rock side. She's looking for
something different and I thought of you.' I don't think I was really
listening to him at the time, but I just said 'Yeah, send it me'. I'd
done several remixes before and what did stick in my mind was that
the artist themselves, in this case, was specifically asking to try
something different. I guess with the success of Funk
Johnny had thought of me. I was in a pretty good place at the time,
I'd just come back from my first run in Ibiza and I was vibed from
by this first trip to the White Isle and fresh from the success of
Van Helden approached the project fearlessly. "There are certain
architectures in music, especially in dance music,” says Van
Helden. "Certain ways things groove and sometimes there's
predictability. Sometimes you can get a record that's totally crazy,
like The Bucketheads. That song had a different architecture, it was
a different way to build a house song."
the Tori Amos remix, I was trying to do a different architecture. I
think the reason that remix worked so well in the UK was that I've
always been a big drum & bass fan. I never DJed it so it was
difficult to keep up, maybe I only bought the big records,
Metalheadz, DJ Hype, things like that. With the Tori Amos mix, that
was really influenced by the rave breakbeat era. All of those
records, specifically the early drum & bass records, had drops.
No drums, just an ambient drop. So the Tori Amos mix, yes, it's a
funky disco house record but, in my mind, what I was trying to do was
a drop like in drum & bass.
and the fact I was trying to copy MK with the vocal chop! I didn't do
it as good as he does it. But my idea for the remix was to copy his
style, only to put it more into a funk/disco format rather than the
deep house thing he does. That Nightcrawlers record, with that kind
of vocal chop, was huge. It had lasted years. The oddest thing for me
was, when the Tori Amos record came out, the two remixes on there
were me and MK. I'd had no idea he was also doing a remix."
IT'S GOTTA BE BIG
actually came back with his mix first," explains DeMairo. "I
got the DAT back and I'm in an office where next to me is the heavy
metal guy and on the other side of me is this girl doing college
promo. I'm basically surrounded by all these rockers. I put the DAT
in the machine and the thing just takes off. Suddenly I have 20 heads
in my doorway because they all know it's Tori's voice."
thinking 'What the fuck is this?' because the bassline is absolutely
huge. Then there's the vocals: 'It's gotta be big… honey bring it
close to my lips' and I'm thinking 'What the fuck? She is gonna freak
out!'. She'd famously addressed this rape that had happened to her.
But the track was undeniable. I told Armand 'This is the nastiest,
most ridiculous shit I ever heard in my life' and the truth was I was
shitting my pants to send it to her.
mix came in a couple of weeks later and I made a tape of some of the
mixes to send to her, deliberately putting the MK mix on first,
because he'd used a lot of the vocal, and leaving the Armand mix
until last. I didn't hear anything for a couple of months."
didn't know her well at all," admits De Mairo, who was obviously
nervy having had no response. "I didn't know where she was at. I
just attributed not hearing from her to her being so offended by
'Honey bring it close to my lips, it's gotta be big'. But I kept
hitting Vicky back every few weeks, tip-toeing around it, 'Have you
spoken with Tori yet?'. Then I got a call."
says, 'My bus broke down in Germany. I had the cassette in my bag, I
put it in and the bus went nuts. That Armand thing is totally crazy,
we gotta do it'. That was a great moment, because it could so easily
have gone the other way. It just goes to show you what kind of an
artist she is. Other artists would have had a hard time with it, but
she embraced it. I was so happy."
Star Trunk Funkin' Mix was a major hit all across Europe, hitting No
1 in the UK and Italian pop charts and on the US dance charts. Its disco bassline was perhaps the best to hit the clubs that
year; certainly it was the most memorable. It's cited as being a
major influence, alongside the productions of Todd Edwards, on the UK
garage scene that was emerging at the time, and it marked the
beginning of a trend of drop-outs in dance tracks, with producers
attempting to ape the formula Van Helden had employed. It is Armand
Van Helden's most successful remix and Tori Amos's biggest-selling
no point in my remix history has an artist ever thanked me
personally," says Van Helden. "But she did. My management
company called me and told me the Professional Widow remix I'd done
had gone to No 1 in the UK. I was like 'Okay'. I didn't know they'd
meant No 1 in the pop charts, I just thought they meant the dance
charts and besides, I didn't live in the UK! They hit me
up again a couple of weeks later and said, 'Tori Amos wants to talk to
you'. She went out of her way to call and thank me on the phone,
which was sweet, and she sent me a little basket of strange cheeses
and jams, champagne, all this British stuff, the kind of thing you
could go to the park with and have a picnic. Kudos to her. An artist
like that, reaching out to do that for me. It was really cool."
But after The
and the Tori Amos remix had made Armand Van Helden one of the biggest remixers globally, the producer seemed to shy away
from the buzz around him. "When
I've had times that I've hit mass appeal, I've never been very good
at taking advantage of it," he admits. "If I had a certain
success, it's almost like I've run away from it. The next thing I'd
do would be totally weird so people wouldn't like me any more and I'd
have to build it back up. Back then, having a hit record was kinda
cheesy. These days, if a DJ has just one minor hit they end up with a
whole team behind them and it turns into this super big business.
Back then we didn't have any of that. We'd just drive away from it."
high profile remix work came flooding in thanks to Professional Widow, it wasn't until three years later, in 1999, that Armand returned to
being a name that was simultaneously in the charts and hot property
among DJs. That occurred with the release of two original vocal
singles. Massive hit U
Don't Know Me,
featuring Duane Harden, was to become Armand's second UK pop No 1.
Brash, filtered disco house that was very much of the time, it could
be heard in every commercial club.
on the other hand, was released with little fanfare. Built around a
live disco bassline, its hypnotic groove faded in and out as seasoned
vocalist Roland Clark delivered a rambling, freestyled vocal atop. It
caught the attention of the deeper side of club culture, Armand
slaying both the underground and the charts with these first two
singles from his 2
Future 4 U
two tracks were 100% a copy of Daft Punk,"
concedes Armand. "Especially Stardust. I was blown away by that.
I think anything I was doing in that era, I was just trying to be
Daft Punk. Maybe they don't sound like them, but that's what
was in my head."
BAD BOY COME AGAIN
and Bad Boy Records," Van Helden continues, "which was
really blowing up in New York back then. The formula with Bad Boy
was, take something familiar and put some new drums over it. Of
course the mixdown would be great and the singer, Biggie or Mary J
Blige, would be awesome, but it was a relatively simple formula for a
hit record. Like a bowl of pasta, simple but amazing."
the mid-90s, Bad Boy Records and its producer Puff Daddy had, via
hits with Mary J Blige, Notorious BIG and Faith Evans, hit paydirt
recycling grooves by the likes of Rose Royce, Curtis Mayfield, Mary
Jane Girls, Diana Ross, The Trammps and Chic. Their distinctly New
York sound echoed not just around that city but also around the
world, and this formula's success was mirrored in the similar efforts
of New York's disco-indebted house producers.
1996, Henry Street associates Little Louie Vega and Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez released their critically acclaimed and most musically
adventurous project, the Nu Yorican Soul album, working with disco
era artists Vincent Montana Jr, Roy Ayers, Jocelyn Brown and members
of the Salsoul Orchestra on a wondrous release that documented their
influences and included a faithful cover of the latter's disco hit
neighbouring New Jersey, Gusto appeared with a timeless filtered hit. The epitome of disco house, the one-off nature of Disco's
Revenge perhaps indicated that its success could be attributed to high
strength of the source sample.
Henry Street, the disco house would keep on coming and in 1997, New
York's Mike Delgado delivered a club hit that was to become a
favourite with the label's fans. Byrdman's Revenge sampled a small
section of jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd's Think Twice, a wonderful song
produced by the Mizell Brothers that combined elements of soul, jazz
and funk. The influence of Delgado's version would extend well beyond
the year of its release, going on to be reissued by Henry Street and
influence a remake by The Detroit Experiment in 2003, a studio
project produced by iconic Motor
City techno producer Carl Craig (the track gaining further shelf life
when it was later remixed by Henrik Schwarz).
Patrick Adams and Cerrone collaborator Jocelyn Brown, who had also
sung with Inner Life, Chic, Change, Salsoul Orchestra and Dazzle,
appeared again, alongside ex-Weather Girl Martha Wash. These two new
tons of fun were a natural choice when another Henry Street
associate, Todd Terry, came to reworking Musique's disco song Keep
On Jumping into
a chart hit, as Brown had also contributed vocals to the Musique
trio reconvened not long after for another vocal in the form of
these two singles, alongside Terry's Everything But The Girl remix,
being the biggest hits of his career. In the mid-1990s, American
disco house was at an all-time high.
by the late 1990s, the baton for disco house was snatched from the
hands of these US figures. The music's new standard bearers wouldn't
be from New York, where much of the disco source material had emerged
and where disco house had it's biggest hits. They wouldn't be from
Chicago, where the sound had been nurtured, filtered and tripped out.
They wouldn't be from Murk territory, Miami, where the well-produced,
disco-derived soulful house grooves of the Soulfuric stable had
started to transfer from the clubs to the charts.
wouldn't be from Italy, where some of the earliest non-US disco house
came from. They wouldn't even be from London and its Yankophiles like
Defected Records, run by original soul boy Simon Dunmore, or Farley
and Heller (the latter had covered disco classic There
But For The Grace Of God
as Fire Island on Junior Boys Own, where Ashley Beedle's Black
Science Orchestra also remade The Trammps's Where
the new claimants to the disco house crown would come from France.
THE FRENCH TOUCH
Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, AKA Daft Punk, gained
their first international recognition in 1995 with the release of Da
a single that, despite being initially released on Glasgow techno
imprint Soma, was well below regular house tempo, instead displaying
hip-hop and 1980s electro influences.
The Chemical Brothers were
early supporters of the track and after a major label re-release it
became hugely popular. Its original b-side, Rollin and Scratchin, was
a techno track that was tellingly indebted to the sound of Chicago's
Relief Records, an offshoot of Cajual, and specifically perhaps the
material of label head Cajmere as Green Velvet.
were pretty big friends of mine back then," says Van
Helden of Daft Punk. "We would hang all the time and they were
really big fans of Relief Records. I mean, they were obsessed with
Cajmere's label. They really based their whole careers on that. They
weren't following New York. They didn't want to be Masters At Work or
Todd Terry, they were into Relief. If you listen to their
stuff from back then, maybe not Da
but everything after, like Trax
On Da Rocks,
they're all trying to be Relief, no question."
would mine his Relief Records inspiration further across two EPs in
the Trax On Da Rocks series, released solo on his own Roule
Records, but Daft Punk would display less of a techno affinity and
instead nod towards disco on their second major label single, Around
The World (which was remixed by Masters At Work).
his love of the Relief sound and the disco direction Daft Punk had
first shown on Around The World, Bangalter released Spinal
Scratch in 1996, again on Roule. Although Van Helden freely admits to
being so enamoured with their sound at this time that he was trying
to recreate Daft Punk in his studio, it's not difficult to hear the
mutual influence occurring particularly at this point, with Spinal
Scratch sounding more like the Hard Steppin Disko Selection EP
than anything else around, an EP was released on Relief at almost
exactly the same time by Van Helden and DJ Sneak.
the middle of 1998, Bangalter would ditch the Relief edge of previous
Roule releases but maintain the bright production for a collaboration
with Alan Braxe and vocalist Benjamin Diamond that was pure disco
house, and one of the biggest house music singles of all time. Music
Sounds Better With You, released as Stardust, ended up being a
one-off. But it left an indelible mark.
MUSIC SOUNDS BETTER WITH YOU
Daft Punk and Bob Sinclair sound started to come through, man, still
to this day I don't know how they got those records to sound like
that," Johnny DeMairo confesses. "Daft Punk records sound
like Bob Clearmountain records or something, I just don't know how
they did that. Incredible. Even Stardust... I knew that Chaka Khan
song, but I don't know how they managed to get that out of it. They
must've had some kind of magic box because they all sound great. We
were bringing out records that were a six or a seven; theirs were all
of the Relief Records they'd been influenced by sound pretty good,"
offers Van Helden, "but a lot of them sounded bad, in terms of the
mixdown and the actual vinyl. The difference in audio quality between
Daft Punk and the records that inspired them was the key. That and
the fact there's so much going on musically underneath what is
essentially disco-looped house. At the time I was really naive to how
they were doing it. It took me years to figure it out. I'd listened
so many times and tried to work out how they'd got all that warmth
and sub-bass out of the sample, but I couldn't.
"In the end they had
to tell me: they have analogue synths playing in exactly the same
chord and key underneath the disco loops. That's what makes it
explode off the vinyl. The Chicago guys didn't think of doing that.
I'm sure they were capable, but a lot of them were just using a 909
and a sampler, which is in itself genius - not unlike hip hop - but
Daft Punk came along and beautified it. You just couldn't match it.
At the time, their stuff in the nightclub compared to other stuff was
like night and day."
simultaneous to issuing Music
Sounds Better With You,
Bangalter co-produced Bob Sinclar's Gym
which was set to follow Stardust's track as a chart-topper and cement
the French's reputation as the global kings of disco house, before a
licensing dispute over its Jane Fonda fitness video vocal sample
stalled its rise. A different act called Spacedust quickly and
cynically capitalised on the idea and released a re-recorded version
with a new vocal, titled Gym
which took the superior original's place at the top of the charts.Not
long after Sinclair, who had first emerged via Yellow Productions and
his downbeat/hiphop-influenced The Mighty Bop alias, would flip
styles yet again and readdress house music's underground with his
Africanism project, the influence of which can be heard in the
contemporary sounds of South African house producers like Black
wasn't the last time the sound popularised by Bangalter and co. was
to be copied for chart success. A raft of inferior soundalikes and
descendants followed Music
Sounds Better With You,
everywhere from independent house labels to major label pop releases
like Phats & Smalls's soul-destroying Turn
Disco house had gone overground and it wouldn't be long before
underground producers were left with nowhere else to go with sampled,
looped disco house.
is perhaps best indicated by the fact the same samples would appear
across several independent releases. Carl Bean's cover of Valentino's
gay pride song I
Was Born This Way
turned up in two New York house classics, Underground Solution's Luv
and Earth People's Dance
and later in French house with Pour Homme's remake Born
better example may be the following three tracks. From Detroit,
Terrence Parker's Your Love; from London (via Chicago label
Prescription) Heaven and Earth's Prescription
and from Glasgow, East End Trax's Chalk
The fact they all sought to create a deep house track from the
same segment of First Choice's Dr
shows how, by the end of the 1990s, many of the best disco samples
had already been mined.
CHICAGO CHIC, DETROIT DEPTHS
the mid-90s, just prior to disco house reaching its commercial peak,
a variant of the sound emerged that, while using the same
ingredients, would sound radically different from the disco house
which was appearing in the pop charts. Its producers would, in
typical fashion, begin with looped samples and progress to creating
more musically intricate, original songs. But such was their choice
and treatment of samples that, unlike much of the more simplistic,
immediate and familiar disco house of the late 1990s, their
productions sounded incredibly fresh.
new producers gave the impression that, in their hands, disco house
could continue indefinitely. And disco house would indeed continue as
a considerable force in underground music, long after the 1990s chart sound had ebbed out of favour.
Underground was part of the aforementioned second wave of Chicago
house producers. His early productions varied between the techno
loops heard on Relief, original, lo-fi but highly melodic productions
that paid tribute to the sounds of Detroit and his native Chicago
(such as his GU
EPs and debut album Atmosfear)
and disco house on labels like Cajual, where he would rip
samples from records like Sylvester's I
or his famous melding of Giorgio Moroder productions The
a production crew, Strictly Jaz Unit, with Boo Williams the
most consistent participant, Glenn Underground's disco productions
from the mid-90s hit a new level of finesse. Highly influenced by the
1970s, his drums sometimes became more like disco itself than house,
while his samples became more subtle and his own, often jazzy musical
additions became more confident. Tracks like GU's 70s Trip and
Chica Soul were, in essence, pure disco for deep house heads.
producer Kenny Dixon Jr, AKA Moodymann, first came to prominence via
a string of EPs on his own KDJ Records. His early efforts like The
the epic Marvin Gaye tribute The
Day We Lost The Soul
were pure disco house, with trippy original flourishes. But by 1997's
Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hitshe'd begun to take sampled disco house not to new heights, but to new
uncomplicated record, it boasted a relatively simple, but drawn-out
and relentless sample of a Chic record. Its monotone bassline
effortlessly flowed in and out of prominence over an almost 10-minute
period. The result was a record that sounded like a disco house
version of one of DJ Pierre's Wild Pitch mixes under the influence of
Mogadon. It was almost without equal in terms of its hypnotic
epic drawing out of a sample would become a formula he would repeat
time and again, including on Black Mahogani (which sampled
Walter Murphy's Afternoon Of A Faun) and Don't You Want My
Love (which used Spiral by The Crusaders). The
musicianship atop these samples would grow ever more creative and
intricate and, when sales of vinyl were at their lowest elsewhere,
Moodymann records would fly out of specialist dance stores.
Detroit disco house inspired a countless number of new, young house
and disco devotees. Like Glenn Underground, he helped form a
production crew and though none of the 3 Chairs collective -
Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Marcellus Pittman and Rick Wilhite - would
stick to producing disco house solely, they would all operate within
the genre at times, with considerable flair.
A NEW ERA OF DISCO
never really left dancefloors, either in its original form or in the
form of its house music offspring. Many house music contributors like
Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries and indeed Henry Street's Johnny
DeMairo had bridged the two styles, either as longstanding DJs or via
first-hand inspiration. And tthrough its use of samples, disco house
lead many house fans and DJs who were too young to know the source
material into a world of discovery.
DJs such as Francois Kevorkian, Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell,
though playing in a contemporary mode, paid direct tribute to this
formative disco heritage - the clubs, DJs and the music they played.
Their mid-1990s Body and Soul residency, a Sunday afternoon party,
was for a period rated as one of the best running. Krivit himself had
re-edited countless disco songs and some of these, alongside hard to
find favourites from the playlists of clubs like The Loft and
Paradise Garage began, on bootleg vinyl, to leave the NYC record
stores where they were a staple and travel overseas.
internet played a huge part in introducing a new, younger audience to
the stories and playlists of DJs like David Mancuso, Larry Levan and
Nicky Siano and their respective Loft, Paradise Garage and Gallery
at first by the success of disco house and incentivised by this new,
global appreciation of these infamous NYC clubs, labels such as
Harmless, BBE, Irma, Strut and Nuphonic began releasing compilations
dedicated to undergound disco, these DJs and their clubs.
had never died for many who were older, by the mid to late 1990s a
full-on disco revival seemed to be in motion, the influence of which,
like the original music itself, would shape much of what was to
happen in dance music. Official
disco reissues began to appear on 12-inch vinyl as disco labels such
as NYC's West End were reborn, with contributors such as Blaze and
Masters At Work readdressing and adding to their catalogue. And as
the hunger for underground disco music increased in connoisseur
quarters, every aspect of vintage disco began to be discovered by
ears new to the sounds.
New York's punk-funk and new wave disco
scenes proved twice as popular second time round. The catalogues of
the likes of ESG and Ze Records were reissued, and even Kid Creole,
AKA August Darnell, was transformed from being regarded as the leader
of a 1980s Latin cabaret disco act to being rightly appreciated as
the subversive lyricist and wayward producer he really was. These
leftfield, latter day disco excursions also proved highly influential
to a new disco music that began to emerge.
were perhaps the UK's Idjut Boys and Daniel Wang's mid-90s Balihu
project, and not long after the more electronic original material of
Metro Area. The impact of new wave disco's rediscovery, including the
music of acts like Liquid Liquid and James White & The Blacks, was
undeniable in the sound of DFA Records, founded in 2001, and some of
its most high profile acts such as LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture and
The Juan Maclean.
internet again played a valuable role in uncovering the playlists and
fables of bygone disco residencies. It finally managed to break the
language barrier that had prevented word of the 1970s and 1980s
innovations of Italian DJs like Daniele Baldelli and Beppe Loda, at
places like Baia degli Angeli and Cosmic Club, travelling much
playlists were picked over by DJs and producers who had already
absorbed most of what the USA had to offer in terms of vintage disco.
This often more subversive sound went on to influence a new breed of
so-called 'Balearic' disco DJs and new disco producers from places
like Scandanavia and the UK.
new, broad church of often rare and obscure disco sounds along with
masterboard mixes of more mainstream, classic disco that were now
travelling electronically with ease across the world, became the
catalyst in creating a new culture of re-editing music that still
continues, for better or for worse.
the introduction of all these new strands of disco, disco house
itself had ceased to be the dominant sound it had been in the late
90s. But it had ensured, for a time, that the melodies, songs and
spirit of original disco music had never left the dancefloors. And it
had directly influenced a resurgeant interest in its predecessor,
Street Records ceased vinyl releases early in the 2000s. For a while,
this New York independent had held the attention of the underground
and the pop charts with its reimagining of disco. In the latter half
of its catalogue, although nothing compared to the chart hits of its
first few years, the music would continue to be inventive, loved by
the underground and tip its hat to disco, as when DJ Duke sampled
Manuel Gottsching's E2-E4
DJ Duke would further explore this trance-like sound on Amor,
which would be a favourite at several European clubs.
disco house was never again to be the chart-topping force it was in
the mid to late 1990s, disco itself continued its revival. It has
remained a sound regularly heard at the top of the charts, from the
early 2000s in records like Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out Of My
Head, right up to the modern day, with Daft Punk scoring a No 1 hit
in 2013 thanks to a pure disco collaboration with Pharrell Williams
and Nile Rodgers of disco titans Chic.
DeMairo, though, never chased after such success. His day job at Atlantic was
where pressure existed to shift big numbers. He achieved everything
he wanted to achieve with Henry Street and remains satisfied with its
output and the contribution it made to disco and house music.
didn't do the label for money," he says. "That wasn't what
it was about. If you look at a label like Strictly Rhythm, Mark
Finkelstein was doing that from a business standpoint. He hired
Gladys Pizzaro and others to do the A+R and be the creatives, but he
was the money guy - and there was nobody better at it! Sure, people
at labels like Strictly and Nervous were music fans, but they were
business people first, whereas I was the opposite.
wasn't trying to be the next Atlantic Records, I was content being in
the underground. Having my fifth release go to the top of the pop
charts and become this incredible, worldwide thing, that wasn't
planned at all. It gives me great personal satisfaction to look back
and know that Kenny's biggest record was with me. Same with Todd's
biggest record, and Armand's. That, to me, gives me more
satisfaction than any money I could've made."