White Folks Rioted at Disco Demolition Night – But Didn’t Silence Dance Music’s Black & LGBTQ Voices

It was 79 degrees outside when local DJ Steve Dahl set fire to a crate of disco records in a publicity stunt so hot, it scorched music history. Disco Demolition Night happened in Chicago on July 12, 1979. But in many ways, the event doesn’t feel too distant.

Blowing up records was supposed to boost ticket sales for White Sox games. Higher-ups at Comiskey Park were looking for ideas to get butts in seats, and rock-radio personality Dahl pitched this: If patrons sacrificed a disco album at the door, they could get in for 98 cents (about $3.50 in today’s money). On a good night, the ball park could attract 15,000 to 20,000 people. That evening, Dahl attracted almost 50,000 individuals — all eager to see a genre created by and for women, queer people, and people of color go up in flames.

Even now, talking to progressive people of that generation, I’ll hear that disco was music of the elites. I have to understand, they insist, that disco was about an urbane cosmopolitanism, and that’s really what Disco Demolition Night was rebelling against. Disco was driven by electronic sounds, not “real” instruments, and it’s vapid plasticity was embodied by Studio 54: beautiful celebrities, expensive clothing, and a bacchanalian excess that was alienating to “ordinary” people.

Never mind that Chic’s “Le Freak — which ranked number three on Billboard’s top singles of 1979 — is an ironic celebration of the nightclub; its refrain comes from being told to “fuck off” (which became “freak off,” then “freak out”) by Studio 54’s doorman. Sometimes even the “elites” didn’t fit into their own scene, and that element of exclusivity was part of the charm. In that sense, “Le Freak” proves the ultimate expression of disco as a space where anger and joy coexist, especially for those at the margins. That sentiment is rooted in the genre’s anti-fascist beginnings.

As Peter Shapiro describes in his book Turn the Beat Around, the music can be traced back to a small French club called La Discothéque that operated during German occupation. Even though Hitler considered it beneath “good” citizens, he did little to slow France’s famous nightlife, believing it would keep Parisians too distracted to resist German control. While popular clubs like the Moulin Rouge adapted to cater to Nazi officers, holes-in-the-wall such as La Discothéque used cultural contraband like jazz music to identify themselves as safe spaces for plotting against the Third Reich.

Under Nazi rule, large public assemblies and dancing were forbidden. This made underground clubs (which were often, literally, in basements) necessary sites for political organizing — but also for laughter and fun. When WWII ended, La Discothéque and similar spots endured because they continued presenting an escape from the repressive forces of daily life. Europe was taking strict austerity measures, and radio broadcasts were treated as public services that disseminated news and cultural ideals of music. To hit a place like La Discothéque meant experiencing moments of revelry and soundtracks not prescribed by the state.

In the post-war years, La Discothéque’s club model — screening clientele, foregoing live bands for curated selections of recorded music, and offering something out of the ordinary, even bordering on decadent — trickled across Europe and was eventually adapted in major cities across the United States. In 1970, a gay man named David Mancuso who’d been hosting record-playing parties since the mid-60s began hosting invite-only events in his apartment. Part of his goal was to provide a community for gay men to dance and socialize without fear of police violence — what the Stonewall riots had responded to a year before. Crowds flocked to hear his state-of-the-art audio equipment flood the space with rhythmic, soulful music, often with Afro-Latinx roots. Eventually, his apartment was christened The Loft.

As audio engineer Alex Rosner recalled in Bill Brewster’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, “[The Loft] was probably about sixty percent Black and seventy percent gay…There was a mix of sexual orientation, races, [and] economic groups. A real mix, where the common denominator was music.”

Mancuso helped DJs pool music for hosting dance parties, and the sound and vibe of his parties spread across New York, getting appropriated by private parties as much as dance clubs. It’s worth noting that, during this time, New York City was not unlike much of Europe after WWII. Infrastructure was weak, crime was high, and the city was verging on bankruptcy. American culture was also nursing a cultural hangover from ’60s idealism. Hip hop and punk are often referenced as disparate responses to shared conditions, but disco should also be seen as a reaction to systemic failures. Who bore the brunt of New York’s social problems? Queer, Black, and Brown communities. Some of them just danced their troubles away.

This is what’s coded into disco music. Listen to some of its most popular tracks: “I Will Survive” is about Gloria Gaynor finding joy and strength despite her most challenging moments, and it became a rallying cry for AIDs activists. Legendary gay group Village People wrote YMCA to celebrate the organization for providing affordable, temporary, single occupancy rooms to people experiencing homelessness. The subtext was, if you’re gay and on the streets, don’t despair: It’s fun to stay at the YMCA. Amii Stewart’s album Knock on Wood and the video supporting its title track are stunning examples of Afrofuturism. Though a cover, Stewart’s version of “Knock on Wood” is the best known one, and it survives as a gay anthem.

In this light, it’s easy to see why numerous musicians and scholars have described Disco Demolition Night as an outpouring of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Footage from that evening shows white people — mostly men — clamoring into the gates, hurling records like frisbees, throwing beer bottles and shoes at ball players, and eventually swarming the field in what was later deemed a riot. Of course, Dahl still pleads the event was harmless fun. Don’t we know white men were losing their place in the world? Working class ones especially didn’t know where to get a suit or how to get into a fancy city club, so can you blame them for lashing out at what, to them, were symbols of that? This, a year before Reagan’s campaign to “Make America Great Again.”

Comiskey Park was located on the Southwest side in a neighborhood called Armour Square, which hugs Bridgeport from the east. The stadium was demolished in 1991, and a new one was built in Bridgeport, eventually renamed Guaranteed Rate Field. Last year, the White Sox commemorated the 40th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night a full month before the original event: Pride month. And last Wednesday, June 3, white vigilantes swarmed the streets of Bridgeport armed with baseball bats, pipes, and two-by-fours, harassing and intimidating people returning from a nearby Black Lives Matter march— all while cops looked on. Scared Bridgeport residents streamed videos of it on social media (and I got frantic texts from friends in the neighborhood).

It’s hard to think about these facts and not hear Dahl’s words echoing. It’s just harmless fun, right? Working class white men aren’t sure of their place in the world.

But it’s also hard not to think about what happened to popular music after Disco Demolition Night. DJ Frankie Knuckles was a frequenter of The Loft, and he transported that sensibility with him when he relocated from the Bronx to Chicago in 1977. Here, he DJed at a spot called the Warehouse, a members-only club that catered to gay, mostly Black men, and he developed a disco-based party sound so popular, it forced the club to suspend its membership policy. In the early ’80s, he opened his own spot, the Power Plant, and used a drum machine to overlay heavy, bare-bones beats across disco tracks. This was the birth of house.

Early house innovator Vince Lawrence was an usher at Disco Demolition Night. He told NPR, “It’s ironic, that while you were blowing up disco records you were helping to create [house music]. … It’s funny how things work out.”

Disco Demolition Night heralded a conservatism that’s ideologically alive but has lessened its influence on pop music. Over time, what really got blown up was the cultural hegemony of straight white male rock. Maybe hetero-capitalist patriarchy is next.

NEWS ROUNDUP: RIP X?, Pride @ Ladyland & More…

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LadyFag photographed by Peter Tamlin.

By Jasmine Williams

In Memoriam?

Florida rapper, XXXTentacion, was killed on Monday in his home state when a drive by shooter open fired on him outside of a motorcycle dealer. Born Jahseh Onfroy, the twenty-year-old music rose to hip-hop prominence, thanks in part to his popularity on streaming platforms..

His death leaves a wake of divided opinions and online debates. Facing accusations of repeatedly assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, XXX was one of the only musicians to be removed from Spotify’s playlists and other promotional content as a result of their recently rolled out and since repealed, “Hateful Content and Conduct” policy.

Immediately following his death news outlets such as Rollingstone began publishing articles that seemed to package XXX’s violent actions as just a controversial facet of a complicated personality while referring to his short-lived career as a “legacy.”  Similarly, tributes poured in from music heavyweights such as Kanye West, Questlove, J. Cole, and Diplo. Understandably, their praise was matched by the dissent of those disappointed that such public figures would choose to honor someone with a storied history of violence against women.

XXX’s recent streaming numbers are indicative of the music industry’s complicated relationship with the #MeToo movement and pop culture’s fascination with celebrity deaths. Since the beginning of the week his single, “SAD!” broke Taylor Swift’s global single-day steaming record on Spotify with 10.4 million plays.

Celebrate Pride at Ladyland!

In much, much, happier news – New York City celebrates Pride this weekend! Kicking off the festivities is legendary party host, LadyFag. She’s throwing her first music festival, LadyLand at Brooklyn Mirage on Friday. The massive celebration of queerness features a killer lineup including Eve, SOPHIE, Cupcakke, and more.

For more Pride events, check out Brooklyn Vegan’s rundown.

That New New

This week musicians delivered on tunes worthy of the rainbow celebrations, starting with St. Vincent who transformed Brooklyn bar, St. Vitus, into a club full of gyrating leather daddies for her video, “Slow Fast Disco.”

Leon Bridges joined Dej Loaf for a celebration of self expression and happiness in Dej’s new single and clip, “Liberated.” The rapper started the love fest last weekend by paying for marriage license for gay couples. This week she also debuted the mini documentary, “Stories of Liberated People.”

Nile Rodgers & Chic picked perfect timing to release the debut single off of their upcoming album, It’s About Time.Till the World Falls” features a bevy of collaborators including Mura Masa, NAO, and Anderson .Paak.

We don’t need to tell you this but Beyoncé and Jay-Z also celebrated love this week. They dropped the album, Everything Is Love, under the moniker, The Carters.

End Notes

After playing the same setlist almost 150 times at his NYC residency, Bruce Springsteen deviated from his usual routine to voice his dismay about the Trump administration’s separation of migrant families crossing into the United States. He also expressed hope that the good would prevail and played the song “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

Trent Reznor also talked politics this week, telling the New York Times that “It feels like a country that celebrates stupidity is really taking it up a notch.”


ARTIST INTERVIEW + VIDEO REVIEW: Cocovan “Chic (Someone To Love)”

cocovan 3

Part French, part Iranian Cocovan disappeared for about a year—leaving her fans in the art and music world wandering through empty social media sites. Then, like the reincarnations of Madonna’s various styles, Cocovan reemerged as the glam-pop empress that she is now. She then released “Mirage Of Us” to rave responses. Yesterday, she put out the video for her brand new single “Chic (Someone To Love.”) And, yes—it’s just as electric. Cocovan is the creative drive behind the new material, directing the one-shot-behind-the-scenes video. Besides a few seconds of her holding a white hula-hoop and taking off her glam-ed-up leather jacket, it’s all her—dancing so gracefully, swishing her perfect short black hair, and posing like a goddess. This song puts me in the highest spirits, while making me feel like I could’ve been the coolest chick in the 80s. Check out her BRAND NEW video and lovely interview with Audiofemme below. You can also listen to her track here. Did I mention that she is also the biggest sweetheart? We LOVE her!

Greetings, love! The femmes are super excited to have you featured on our page! 

It’s great to meet you too! And I am equally excited to be featured on Audiofemme, thank you so much for your support!

Q: First off, “Chic” is rotating nonstop, I love it. I’ve been blasting it in my car. I feel like I’m in the movie Drive, and I’m living in an 80s-esque film. If you haven’t seen the movie, I feel like you would totally enjoy it. 

Oh thank you! I’m glad to hear that – It makes me happy to think “Chic” is playing somewhere in Brooklyn right now! I love the movie Drive. It’s funny you reference it, because even though I can’t actually drive (I know…), the imagery of driving is somehow a big inspiration to me. While I was writing my EP, I had videos like this one– playing on loop in the studio on a TV while I was writing, as a visual inspiration.

Q: I read that you are influenced by Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Prince. How has it affected your own unique style? (Or any other influences)? 

I think it affected me in the way that it liberated me. I can’t find a way to say it without sounding cheesy- but basically to embrace my quirkiness. Beyond the fact that their music and style have inspired me to create my own, all these artists are muses to me- they guide me. My muses motivate me to push myself everyday, to push myself to always try and create better art.

Q. Your recent project was you directing the video for “Chic.” I can’t wait to see it. Can we expect your creative drive in more videos, etc.?

Hehe! The video is out now! I hope you will enjoy it!

I’ve always been very involved in the visual side of my project. From logos, to artworks, to videos… To me, “Cocovan” is both a visual and musical project. In more recent news, I just shot two new music videos for the next singles! I love making videos, eventually I’d love to direct videos for other artists too.

Q. And in your new song, it gives a very confident look into the future of crushed hearts. Does this come from personal experience?

Well, I guess I’m still on the “crushed heart” side for now, I haven’t found “the one” yet. But yes, it absolutely comes from personal experience. I think it’s even harder to find love in the modern dating world. People treat each other like we’re disposable. It’s difficult to find depth. Or maybe it’s just that I’m entering the Sex And The City age! Anyways, I’m convinced there’s a perfect match on this planet for each one of us. So it’s just a matter of time now!

Q. When can we expect “The Club” to be released? And why have you said this EP is your most important yet?

The Club will come out in the fall. This EP is my most important yet because it is my artistic “rebirth”. Indeed I released a first EP in 2012 that I have since taken down from the internet. At the time, I needed to take time to sit at the studio and allow to evolve sonically. So The Club will be the first EP to be released since that break.

Q. Are you coming to the US (mainly NYC) anytime soon? We would love to have a dance party!

I’ll probably be back soon as I always have NYC withdrawals. I miss the 99c pizzas and the JMZ train. You know I have lived in NYC actually? Here’s a list of all the neighborhoods I have lived in in NYC: Lower East Side, East Village, South Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Clinton Hill and Fort Greene (thank you Craigslist). Anyways, I’d love to have a dance party too!

Q. Looks like you love Snapchat. Any favorite filters? And thank you for taking the time out to show us a little bit about you <3

I really love Snapchat, it’s my favorite social media. My snapchat is iamcocovan by the way! Fave filter is the purplish one. I don’t know how to describe this filter, so I figured I’d make a very special exclusive Cocovan x Audiofemme snap just for you guys! See you soon in NYC!

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