A few months back I purchased a trippy instrumental album from DJ/collector Oliver Wang thru his website. The disc had a crazy riff on Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” and I thought the beat just had an infectious groove. The album was from jazz arranger Peter Nero and was clearly a throwaway disco effort by him (It is called “Disco, Dance and Love Themes from the 70s”).
But the crazier part for me is the fact that I went out of my way to get all up into this record, an album of derivative disco interpretations! First off, and it is well documented in my book, I am very adamant that the rise of disco meant the death of The Funk on the radio and untold damage to the careers of so many of my super funky heroes.
At the time I considered disco records to be utterly shallow, monotonous, non-musical assaults on the integrity of music in general, and definitely the kryptonite for the funk. It was hard to enjoy even the most pleasant productions because of what the entire disco movement represented.
Now, thirty years later, that period of funk and disco dance is all mushing together, and good dance music from the late 70’s is standing on its own, regardless of source or style. It is also the richest untapped ground for CD reissuers digging around the greatest era of dance music ever. At the time I considered that time (my high school years 77-79) to be the best time for dance music because great funk bands had been forced to stretch out their music for ultimate dance satisfaction. Thus, stormers like “It’s All The Way Live” by Lakeside, “Movin’” by Brass Construction and “Rigor Mortis” by Cameo all broke through the dance funk blackout on the strength of their party licks, but were 100% funk to boot.
Other artists like Marvin Gaye (“Got to Give it Up”) Johnnie Taylor (“Disco Lady”) and Chaka Khan made the most of the new style and stayed relevant, even if their music was dumbed down a bit from what it once was. Of course Kool & the Gang was the worst offender, turing their back on the Afro-centric genius of “Let the Music Take Your Mind” and “Jungle Jazz” and producing “Ladies Night” instead. At the time I was easily offended by these disparaging digs at the funk. When jazzmen like Herbie Hancock and Lonnie Liston Smith drank the disco kool-aid I was about through with it all.
But with the endless onslaught of talent-challenged jokers masquerading as pop stars, the lameness of the music has put disco songs in a new light. There were actually melodies on some disco cuts. There was actually some singing on some of the songs, and some musicians actually played on some of the tracks. At the time, when Nile Rogers of Chic talked about how he was using jazz chords and putting them on a disco beat, I wanted nothing to do with what he was saying.
Now that we have been lobotomized by the standardized nature of American pop beats, even the disco beat features a relatively lively rhythmic interplay, one that does not drone into eternity like so much techno and tired club rap.
So I’m digging into my dance compilation CD’s that have disco and funk hits, and finally checking the other tracks and discovering that some songs aren’t insultingly insipid. Maybe it is just generational, but I’m finding more satisfaction in disco tracks than I ever thought was out there.
Recently I played Yarborough and People’s “Don’t Stop The Music” the O’Jays “I Love Music” and “You + Me = Love” by the Undisputed Truth. These are all very good songs, but would have had a hard time making my “History of Funk” playlist in the past. These songs were all informed by the funk, so they belong in the funk family, and some put a new perfume on the funky mix.
Not that I’ve forgotten what’s really going on. Certainly, to be sure, we as a generation have suffered from a very deep lack of musical leadership, and standards of dance music in America have dropped so low, that one does not need to sing – or even rap – with any quality to get a big hit. This is all real, but my respect for some disco is not entirely based on a rejection of modern music. Okay maybe it is.