The quest for paradise is at the very heart of the clubbing experience. Dance music – by turns both uplifting and challenging – has long been the soundtrack of choice for those seeking that idyllic state of mind.
1980s: Paradise Sought
As the 1980s dawned, dance music was in limbo. While disco’s detractors may have believed they had successfully thrown it out with the trash, it had merely retreated to the nooks and crannies to lick its wounds and regroup. Labels like Salsoul and West End proved to be nurturing grounds for ever more inventive artists to weave their dancefloor magic. Larry Levan was the Pied Piper behind the decks at the Paradise Garage.
New York, dirty and unloved, still recovering from near bankruptcy, and with subsequent low rent apartments aplenty, was a magnet for all manner of creatives. Though our featured mix may be disco heaven, Levan would frequently genre hop over the course of his mammoth sets, turning artists like the Clash and Talking Heads into Garage staples; the alternative scene from whence they came was happy to play ball, with the likes of the Mudd Club and Danceteria championing bands like ESG, who welded a dancefloor sensibility to their sonic experiments.
In the shadow of both the Cold War and global recession, other cities sought solace in glamour and hedonism. London saw Steve Strange’s seminal Blitz club patrons thumb their dandy noses at the nihilism of punk and instead revolt into style, dressed up to the nines and dancing to an electronic soundtrack with a 4/4 beat. While famed as Bowie zealots, Giorgio Moroder struck a more contemporary chord, and informed the synthesized stylings of the myriad bands (including Strange’s own Visage) that unwittingly formed what was dubbed the new romantic movement.
Back across the Atlantic, the economic downturn had hit the industrial cities hard. Music offered an escape; Britain’s synth bands an unlikely source of inspiration. In Detroit, where they had been taking note of the electronic stylings and space age visuals now favoured by funk legend George Clinton and electro-funk newcomer Afrika Bambaataa, friends Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Derrick May, under the spell of local radio trailblazer the Electrifying Mojo, began to frame the futuristic sound that would come to be known as techno. The template for the new house sound of Chicago was wider. Much like Levan in NYC, Frankie Knuckles’ sets at the Windy City’s Warehouse club were rooted in disco, but stoked with edits, sound effects and new electronic sounds imported from Europe. This lit a fire under the city, with both Knuckles (moving to the Power Plant) and fellow pioneer Ron Hardy at the Music Box soon able to augment their programming with locally produced new music which they had directly influenced (as this radio mix of the time amply demonstrates – the sound quality Is not the best, but as an historical document it is fascinating.
That fire soon spread, in particular to Europe. To the continent’s bohemian heart Ibiza; to Manchester’s Hacienda club, an architectural homage to New York’s club scene that had been looking for a soundtrack to fit the surroundings; to Italy, and its clubbing clientele well versed in dance music’s subtler nuances. Timing was everything. As the end of a troubled decade hove into view, and the Berlin wall fell, this was the sound of hope.
1990s: Paradise Found
At the start of the 1990s, Deee-lite dropped into the world’s lap as if tailor-made for this shiny new decade. Singer Lady Miss Keir looked like she had walked straight out of Swinging London’s Carnaby Street circa 1966, and was flanked by DJs Dimitry from Ukraine (loud shirts, sharp slacks, top knot – this is 1990, remember, when top knots were not to be seen on every street corner) and Towa Tei from Japan (different hats and glasses for every day of the year). The music was disco through a house filter, with added funk from Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bootsy Collins and guest rapping from A Tribe Called Quest’s Q Tip. The album was called World Clique – in two words they invited you to the best party ever, while making you feel part of a secret club that only the cool kids knew about.
Deee-lite had come together in 1980s New York, and the 1990s saw the house music crown move from Windy City to Big Apple, as the likes of Masters At Work, Roger Sanchez and Armand Van Helden led a mission to fill the global dancefloor. However, not all was plain sailing. In 1994, the city elected a new mayor, and his mission was a very different one. The colourful Rudy Giuliani wanted to shut down New York nightlife. On the surface, it formed but a small part of his anti-crime initiative, but he made no secret of the fact that his vision of a sanitised, tourist-friendly NYC did not include large groups of people dancing into the night. To this end, he unearthed an ancient, rarely used piece of legislation, the cabaret law, that enabled the authorities to fine venues that permitted dancing if they didn’t possess a cabaret license. Clubs such as the Sound Factory still managed to attain legendary status (Danny Tenaglia, Junior Vasquez and Frankie Knuckles all having stints as residents and playing all night long), but Giuliani created a battlefield. Party queen Susanne Bartsch, at the heart of the previous decade’s extravagance, continued to fly the flag. The spotlight was shone on the city’s hugely influential ballroom subculture, not just through Madonna’s housed up hit ‘Vogue’ and music made by Vasquez under his Ellis D moniker, but also the Paris Is Burning documentary, which brought to the attention of the wider world the unique multi-generational ‘houses’ which acted as surrogate families for many from the African American and Hispanic LGBTQ communities. One drag queen in particular, RuPaul, began to make a splash. Flamboyant club night Jackie 60, with its themed nights and dance music / drag / situationism mix, survived and thrived throughout the decade.
It wasn’t only New York where ravers and authorities clashed. In the UK, November 1994 saw the passing of the Criminal Justice Bill, with its infamous clause outlawing events that featured music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (read more in our Rave New World feature here. There was a dark side to the clubbing lifestyle in Italy, where "stragi del sabato sera" (translating as Saturday night slaughter) was the phrase coined by the media to highlight the growing number of party-related road accidents, many of the country’s leading clubs being situated out of town. Italian DJ Robert Miles had an international hit with ‘Children’, template for the short-lived Dream House genre, and used it to bring attention to the problem.
However, taken as a whole, the 1990s was a decade in which dance music and clubland flourished like never before. So high profile was it, that rather than begin promotion for their new album by sending out a few 12” white labels to club DJs, Leftfield could soundtrack a Guinness advert. A truly global scene, innovation around every corner, as intriguing new genres seemed to pop up weekly, from progressive house to trip hop, drum & bass to UK Garage. Armand Van Helden mastered the art of combining them all into one heady brew. We spent the whole decade getting ready to party like it was 1999.
2000s: Paradise Online
Many spent millennium eve at house parties. As the big night drew ever closer, the fight to get the highest profile DJs got out of hand, as did the fees their agents began to ask for, and subsequently the ticket prices. Had clubland eaten itself? Certainly, the noughties initially felt like one big hangover. For many of the original Generation X rave crowd, the party was over, age having taken its toll. Daft Punk exhorted us to do it all ‘One More Time’, but for many the invitation fell on deaf ears. Jon Cutler and E-Man tried a slightly different sales pitch to Messrs Bangalter and Homem-Christo, challenging the millennials “on a pursuit of musical bliss”, asking them if they possessed “the knowledge to enter the temple” – the pay off, in the true spirit of house music, was to advise them that if you want it, “it’s yours!”.
Arguably, the noughties dance music landscape was a reflection of wider trends in a world where the powers that be frequently implied we’d never had it so good against a backdrop of an ever-widening gap between the richest and poorest in society; and the horrors of 9/11 and all that it unleashed. Confusion reigned, but out of it emerged much music of quality. LCD Soundsystem created a musical mosaic from a breathtaking mix of influences and captured the zeitgeist. However, they were nervously looking over their shoulders from day one – has any other act ever released a debut single worrying about being finished?
Initially hovering over the decade, but quickly bestriding it like a colossus, was the internet. What to do with this new toy? Much as the initial music industry debate centred around file sharing, reflection suggests that the most far-reaching effect was the ability it gave artists, DJs, promoters, indeed anyone with a mouse, the opportunity to connect directly with their audience – even the opportunity to fast track your search for a new or wider audience. Your browser was an open window to the world. Rarely mentioned now but incredibly important at the time, MySpace was the first social network of choice for artists and fans alike to interact.
From Theo Parrish to Hot Chip, Royksopp to Boards of Canada, The Streets to Burial, it was an environment which not only encouraged experimentation, but rewarded it, the worldwide web tailor made for the word of mouth that makes sufficient noise to create a fanbase. For house music, it was in some ways a decade of treading water, but it was not without its pivotal moments and, of course, great tunes. Perhaps most importantly for house’s longevity, this was the decade in which it reconnected with (and then reimagined) its disco roots. Labels like Nuphonic (not just with their nu-disco releases but also their seminal compilation albums celebrating David Mancuso’s Loft) and acts like Metro Area helped redefine house, both enticing in a new audience, and also welcoming a returning one, those who had grown tired of trance, progressive, big room house et al and moved on in the late 1990s. As long as house music retained the ability to bring us spine tingling moments like these, it was destined to grow, especially if it could use the internet to its advantage.
2010s: Paradise Refreshed
Listen to the Solomun remix of ‘Around’ by Noir & Haze (again – we know you will have done so many times before). What words come to mind? Moody? Trippy? Deep? Commercial certainly wouldn’t be one, this is house music at its most resolutely underground, the perfect antidote to the EDM monster that had appeared in the 21st century and threatened to undo all the pioneering work of the previous two decades in one confetti cannon hit. Now look at the number of You Tube plays ‘Around’ has amassed. 91,000,000. This, as Simon Dunmore has said, is “a hit in the modern music industry.” 100,000,000 plays are now in sight for a track that helped shape house music in the 2010s.
As the decade comes to an end, it seems safe to say that house music has got its swagger back. It didn’t happen overnight, and the scene is not without its challenges, be that ghost productions, lowest common denominator floorfillers, astronomical DJ fees. However, these are challenges that house music has faced and ridden out before. The harder battles have arguably been won, be that getting to grips with the economics of the reconfigured music industry, unearthing then nurturing and supporting new talent, and cementing clubland’s continued position as not only a place to escape (House Music All Life Long), but also as a purveyor of hope and inclusion (In Our House We Are All Equal). No other music scene does communality as well.
House, techno, electronica, raving, clubland – all now woven into the rich cultural tapestry of our planet. An underground rite of passage celebrated nightly in dark basements worldwide, but also the inspiration behind high brow exhibitions, such as Berlin’s No Photos on the Dancefloor or London’s Sweet Harmony. A hedonistic, often illicit activity that can still be used to sell cars.
After four decades of raving, dance music still knows how to work it.