Disco? Very: On the Evolution of DJ Culture

Chad Parkhill spent his Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship writing a critical essay that analyses Daft Punk’s 2001 album Discovery in terms of technology and temporality. In this extract, he looks at Daft Punk’s use of disco samples, and traces the evolution of disco as a genre - and with it, DJ culture.

Daft Punk’s Discovery revealed that the duo, who had previously only expressed admiration for rock groups such as KISS and the producers behind the hard-edged dance music coming out of Chicago and Detroit, were also in fact disco aficionados. Officially speaking, the album contains only four samples — from George Duke’s ‘I Love You More’, Edwin Birdsong’s ‘Cola Bottle Baby’, The Imperials’ ‘Can You Imagine’, and Barry Manilow’s ‘Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed?’— but unofficially it contains many more: recreations of, seeming reproductions of, and homages to disco music. The disco connection is signposted not only in the pun of the album’s title, but also in the name of one of its deep cuts, ‘Veridis Quo’— a piece of meaningless cod-Latin that, when spoken aloud, sounds like ‘very disco’.

Image: Daft Punk

Very disco: Daft Punk

The connection is deeper than the merely stylistic and linguistic, however. Discovery’s use of disco samples replicates one of the foundational manoeuvres of disco itself, and in so doing it manipulates time in unusual ways. In order to understand Discovery’s strange temporalities, it will be necessary to take a detour into history of one of the twentieth century’s most reviled and misunderstood music genres.

The word ‘disco’ comes from the French discothèque, or record library — just as a bibliothèque is a library of books and an oenothèque is a library of wine. The discothèque itself emerged from a particular historical confluence of necessity and technology: in Nazi-occupied Paris, a group of counterculture rebels known as ‘les Zazous’ indulged their passion for American jazz music, contrary to the official interdiction against what the Nazi regime saw as degenerate Negro music. As the police had the power to shut down dances after 9pm, and the professional musicians’ association, the Reichs music chamber, went from bar to bar looking for traces of ‘degenerate’ music, the dances put on by les Zazous were necessarily clandestine affairs, pop-up parties held with portable record players in suburban cafés and restaurants.

Image: Daft Punk

Discovery-era Daft Punk

As Peter Shapiro argues in his book Turn the Beat Around: the Secret History of Disco, these gatherings were perhaps the first instantiation of the concept of the DJ as we now know it. People had been dancing to pre-recorded music earlier — from jukeboxes to piano rolls — but the content of those forms were under the control of record distributors and linked to a broader complex of record production and promotion. To quote Shapiro, ‘The gatherings of [les Zazous] mark the first instance that a disc jockey played music of his own choosing and not necessarily what was in the hit parade, tailored to a specific crowd of dancers in a nondomestic setting.’ The format survived the war, and La Discothèque — a club on rue de la Huchette that had operated during the resistance — moved into the overground. Imitators such as Whisky à Go-Go and Chez Régine soon opened. The format spread to New York in the 60s with the opening of the club Arthur. The modern nightclub as a temple of prerecorded music was born.

So: disco initially referred to music played in a discothèque. But the circularity of this definition causes problems; after all, you can play anything that’s been recorded in a discothèque. How did disco transform from a term of trade to a coherent genre of music with established rules and tropes?

The musician was no longer the site of innovation, but the DJ was.

Disco’s next quantum leap came when a young dancer named Terry Noel took over DJing duties at Arthur. Noel’s years of dancing at the Peppermint Lounge had taught him the downside of the 45RPM, 7" single — while a well-known song would bring dancers to the floor, the abrupt end of the song would soon scatter them. Arthur’s sound system, however, contained two separate record players, and soon Noel was blending together songs to create a nonstop flow of music.

Noel’s innovation was soon outstripped by one of his pupils, Francis Grasso, who had observed Noel’s techniques and replaced him one evening when he turned up late to perform. Grasso pioneered beat-matching — a process where two songs of a very similar tempo would be played so the beats overlapped, allowing for smoother, less noticeable transitions between songs. (The Platonic ideal of beatmatching is to make the transition so perfectly timed and musically appropriate that it isn’t noticeable at all.) By purchasing multiple copies of the same record and utilising beat-matching and slip-cueing — where the record is held in place until it is released by the DJ, allowing for pinpoint precision of timing — Grasso could extend a record’s most pleasurable moments, theoretically indefinitely. But Grasso’s biggest breakthrough might have been conceptual rather than technical: where Noel was concerned only with keeping dancers on the floor, Grasso saw the DJ’s role as that of a musical storyteller — each night would have a beginning, a middle, and an end, with individual songs forming the basic units out of which the DJ could craft a longer narrative full of peaks and troughs, the slow and steady elaboration of musical themes, or dramatic and sudden shifts in tone. In Grasso’s hands, turntables moved beyond tools to reproduce sound and became instruments of musical expression.

At this stage the music in discothèques was still not disco as we know it now. The songs were a blend of established styles — in Grasso’s case, Motown, funk, psychedelic rock, and world music oddities such as Osibisa and Babatunde Olatunji. Grasso’s colleagues such as David Mancuso and Nicky Siano would also take their audiences on a journey using established musical styles to tell a broader narrative. (Mancuso preferred a more ethereal psychedelic blend that rolled in gentle waves — there was a reason his loft parties were called ‘Love Saves the Day’, or LSD — while Siano’s sets were more melodramatic, building from peak to peak of cathartic release.) Siano himself brought one of the final technical innovations to disco DJing by introducing varispeed record players that could slow down or speed up a track. This made beatmatching between disparate genres even easier — the DJ could now bring a slower funk song up in tempo to meet a storming rock number.

All music is mediated through technology — there could be no rock music without Les Paul’s invention of the solid-body electric guitar, for example. But disco saw a fundamental shift in the production of music — the musician was no longer the site of innovation, but the DJ was. As record companies began taking notice of the buying power of the audiences that Grasso, Mancuso, and Siano had attracted, musicians began making music that would appeal to dancers at discothèques — featuring the driving beat of African and Latin music, the syrupy strings of Philadelphia soul, and the plangent guitars of psychedelic rock. These tracks were extended by the first remix artists, Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons, which drove the artists to make their original compositions longer and less song-like. Enabled by technology, selected by non-musicians, and disseminated by the networks of late capitalism, disco signalled a radical new relationship between the terms of time, technology, and music.

Portrait of Chad Parkhill

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based cultural critic who writes about sex, booze, music, history, and books – but not necessarily in that order.

Related posts