By 1979, disco reigned supreme in American music. It claimed eight of fourteen Grammies that February, and nine of the Top 10 records. That summer, disco accounted for 40 percent of all records on the charts. But a year later, with rock DJs proclaiming "Disco sucks," the only thing people were dancing on was its grave. In Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (Norton; $26.95), University of Southern California historian and former disco DJ Alice Echols tells the story of the genre’s birth out of late soul and its transformation of gay life, women’s sexual expression, the record industry and pop music as we know it today. –Christine Smallwood
How did you get your start as a disco DJ?
I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. I was in the history department but was part of a contingent of people whose real academic life was in the women’s studies program. In 1979 the university decided to review the women’s studies program. It looked as if the university might have shut down the program, and so we more or less occupied the administration. Afterwards we went to have a victory party because it was clear that we had been pretty successful. We went to the Rubaiyat, a predominantly gay bar, and the music just stunk. Disco had crashed, or was in the process of crashing, and the management had hired a guy who was into New Wave, which was fine, but he just played overlong mixes of the B-52s and Gary Numan. We were complaining and somebody said, Alice, you have all of these disco records. Why don’t you try to DJ? So I got a trial gig at the Rubaiyat, and then was hired, largely because they didn’t know what to do.
The social history you cover–the history of the clubs, producers and the political climate–really overlaps with the musical history, the evolution of the sound of disco.
Disco is to a great extent the work of black performers and black producers. Disco hijacks soul music and takes it in a very different direction than the ’60s soul of James Brown. It works off a big beat–really the Motown beat, rather than Brown’s more polyrhythmic approach. But what these black producers and artists do is move soul music into a more, in their view, sophisticated terrain. They start using different instruments, not just a honking saxophone, but instruments like the French horn.
This move toward sophistication and elegance and symphonic soul is first put forward by Isaac Hayes. Motown is the root, but Hayes puts forward a different kind of masculinity, one with real vulnerability along with a strong race consciousness. That vulnerable masculinity reaches its fullest expression in the figure of Barry White. His is a kind of soul music that is not about a got-to got-to got-to sock it to me, baby, masculinity. It’s about, or it says it’s about, the ladies. It’s all about pleasuring the ladies.
You write that disco is anonymous, producer-driven music. And yet you tell the story through its most famous acts–Donna Summer, Labelle, Chaka Khan, Sylvester.
One could argue that for the most part, with the exception of Donna Summer, the women I write about were not women whose careers were defined by disco. And that’s true! One of the music’s big challenges was the fact that it was producer-driven, and the vocalists were not stars about whom people wanted to know very much. It’s very hard to market music without recognizable personalities.