A Relevant History Lesson On Sexuality In Club Culture

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Over the past few days, the Internet was shocked to hear about the comments Lithuanian producer Ten Walls made about the gay community. It's a human right to have an opinion, but when you are blatantly taking that opinion and crudely spreading it across social media, then a line needs to be drawn.

Beyond just offending the LBGT crowd, he also offended the roots of dance music, and specifically the house scene that has given him a home. With its primary roots in Chicago, pioneers like Frankie Knuckles and many more were openly gay and helped build the genre that we know and love today. It extends well beyond just Chicago though, and is an integral part of club culture from then till now.

Read: Ten Walls Dropped From Major Festivals After Homophobic Rant

With this in mind, we wanted to bring more attention to the roots of sexuality in dance music, electronic music, house music, and club culture. We were drawn to an article written in 2014 by Luis-Manuel Garcia, who extensively dug into this issue with a focus on house, techno, rave, drag balls, Paris, A Club Called Rhonda, and much more. You can head to Resident Advisor for the full article and more pictures, but we wanted to give you an introduction to a story that many might not know.

From Resident Advisor: 

"In September of last year, Berghain held its Promote Diversity fundraising event, starting off as a concert and continuing on into the next morning as a party. The list of DJs for the party added up to a whopping 38 over 24 hours—so many, in fact, that the coat-check area was opened up as a third floor of music, while nearly every DJ appeared back-to-back with another artist for 1.5-hour sets.

During that same week, similar Promote Diversity fundraisers were held in Munich (Harry Klein), Paris (Rex Club), New York (Output/The Panther Room), Tel Aviv (The Block), San Francisco (Holy Cow/Honey Soundsystem) and Zurich (Heaven Club). The ticket proceeds from these events were to be donated to All Out, a LGBT-rights organization that is active in several countries around the world. This was in response to Russia's recently passed legislation against "homosexual propaganda," which included wording that criminalized virtually any public statement in support of "non-traditional sexual relations." But why would the global nightclub community take action to support sexual minorities? What relevance do they have to today's club culture, anyway?

The press release for the Promote Diversity fundraiser says, "Equality on all levels and tolerance are basic values that the club and music scene has always supported." Why is that so? Well, presumably because most of the music scenes that founded today's dance music genres—disco, garage, house, etc—were closely connected with marginalized groups, including gays and lesbians, transpeople, racial and ethnic minorities.

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Loren Granic, Gregory Alexander of A Club Called Rhonda

Maybe we need to flip the opening question on its head: if the roots of electronic music are so sexually diverse, why do today's audiences need to be reminded of it? Have we forgotten about the queer nightlife worlds of the '70s and '80s? That's the problem according to Loren Granic, AKA Goddollars, co-founder and resident of A Club Called Rhonda in Los Angeles, who doesn't mince words:

"We're currently experiencing a total mainstreaming of dance music in America," he says. "Many of these newcomers are straight/white kids who are very far removed from the LGBT community, despite fist-pumping by the millions to a music that was born from gay people of color sweating their asses off at 5 AM in a Chicago warehouse. It's easy for us to dismiss this as a corruption of the music we hold so dear by charlatans and assholes, but many of the newcomers will be drawn into the music for life, and I think it's important that we highlight the role that the gay community played and that we educate new fans of dance music to the ideals of community, equality and diversity that were so crucial to dance music's DNA from the beginning.

"And if sexual minorities were historically central to the emergence of dance music culture, where are they now? If you take a look at who is running the clubs, managing the labels, booking the artists, and playing the records, the demographics are starkly different from the crowds that got this music started. Considering how big a role the gay community played in the genesis of the music, it's strange to see that the majority of the stakeholders nowadays are of the straight male variety. It would be great to see promoters, artists, producers and club owners take a stronger stand to be more inclusive of the culture from which they take and profit so liberally."

Read: Mat Zo And More DJs Respond To Homophobic Comments From Ten Walls

Despite this, queer dance music scenes continue to thrive today, even if they're mostly off the radar of mainstream dance music media. Why and how did that happen? Part of this might have to do with the scale of today's club culture: it's easier for minorities to remain central to a music scene when it's small, local and personal. Once it becomes a massive global phenomenon, it's much harder for marginalized people to stay inside the frame of attention. But another reason for this absence is that history is written by victors: as dance music became more mainstream and had more crossover success, the people writing its history followed the "more relevant" threads into primarily straight, white, middle class environments, quickly forgetting about the more queer and colorful scenes that were still dancing and making music.

These days, it's clear that there is not one history but many histories. Everyone has an idea of how things happened and, as more people have access to writing, publishing, the internet, etc., more and more alternative histories crop up to contest the "official" version of events. Those who want to uncover the history of marginalized peoples have to search through the archives of historical documents—mostly written by the powerful about the powerful for the powerful—to find traces of what the less powerful were doing. The idea behind this feature is not to set the record "straight," but rather to re-examine club culture's queer roots, and then dig up the stories of the scene's queer undergrounds.

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New York Disco And Garage:

In New York City at the beginning of the 1970s, queers of color (primarily of African-American and Latin-Caribbean ancestry) and many straight-but-not-narrow allies came together to create small pockets of space in the city's harsh urban landscape—spaces where they could be safe, be themselves, be someone else for a while, and be with others in ways not permitted in the "normal" everyday world. Music was an essential part of these gatherings, and the sound of these events would eventually develop into the style called disco. The sound was a mix of soul, funk and Latin music with a driving, four-four kick drum pattern. It took its name from discotheque, the French word given to nightlife venues that featured recorded music instead of live performances.

But disco didn't start in discotheques; most histories of disco start with The Loft, David Mancuso's series of private parties held in his apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Mancuso was DJ, promoter and master of ceremonies from the beginning to the end of the night, presiding over a crowd of mixed sexualities, gender expressions, ethnicities and social classes. As word got around about Mancuso's parties, discotheques in Lower and Midtown Manhattan began to cater to this emerging sound, such as Nicky Siano's The Gallery. By 1973, this sound had become prominent enough for music journalist Vince Aletti to pen the first article on disco ("Discotheque Rock '72: Paaaaarty!"), for Rolling Stone magazine. In it he described the local disco scene as a thriving underground of "juice bars, after-hours clubs, private lofts open on weekends to members only," populated by a "hardcore dance crowd—blacks, Latins, gays."

Later in the '70s, disco gained in popularity and developed a larger presence in the above-ground nightlife economy, spilling over into mainstream discotheques, being broadcast on national and international radio, and gradually attracting a larger audience of white, straight, middle class people. This was the time when many purpose-built disco clubs started opening, such as Studio 54 (1977) and the Paradise Garage (1976) in New York, as well as the EndUp (1973) and the Trocadero Transfer (1977) in San Francisco. And this was also the period when many of disco's best-known artists launched their careers—Donna Summer, Chic, The Bee Gees, KC And The Sunshine Band.

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As disco recordings began to saturate the music markets, disco itself increasingly lost its connection to its queer, black and Latin roots. But these roots weren't completely forgotten: when the disco market collapsed at the end of the '70s and the anti-disco backlash began to take over in America, disco's critics suddenly remembered its sexualized and racialized origins. The anti-disco slogan, "Disco Sucks"—available on t-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons and more—wasn't just a metaphor in the '70s: it was a direct reference to cock-sucking, aiming a half-spoken homophobic slur at disco and its fans.

In Chicago, on July 12, 1979, WLUP disc jockey Steve Dahl organized the Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park during a double-header between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. Spectators were invited to bring along unwanted disco records, which were piled into the middle of the field during the break between the two games and blown up with dynamite. Chanting "disco sucks," fans flooded onto the field and began to riot. These collective outbursts of anti-disco sentiment were not as spontaneous or "grassroots" as the press would later make them out to be. In fact, as Alice Echols relates in her history of disco, Hot Stuff: Disco And The Remaking Of American Culture, this backlash was to a large extent organized by a handful of disgruntled radio professionals (Dahl, but also Lee Abrams and Kent Burkhart) who orchestrated a shift in rhetoric and programming across several radio stations, in order to profit from the ensuing anti-disco backlash.

But disco's downfall didn't happen overnight. Sales had been falling for some time beforehand, and they would continue to taper off into the '80s. Outside of the US, disco stuck around and dovetailed with '80s dance-pop, new wave and industrial music. Nonetheless, some of the changes were shockingly abrupt. Most of the major record labels closed down their entire disco divisions, laying off their employees and canceling artists' contracts with almost no notice. The disco collapse hit nightclubs especially hard, and the few clubs that managed to stay open went on to form the "underground" of the post-disco era.

In New York, Paradise Garage was the most well-known of these surviving clubs, which catered to an audience that was primarily queer, black and/or Latin-Caribbean. Larry Levan, the club's resident DJ, maintained a loyal following of dancers by developing a distinctive sound that would later be dubbed "garage." Depending on who (and how) you ask, garage was either a precursor, a parallel or a sub-style of house music. Generally slower in tempo than Chicago house, it featured a mix of disco, R&B, soul and funk with a focus on gospel-inflected vocals. Clubs like Paradise Garage, The Saint and Zanzibar kept the post-disco tradition alive in New York and New Jersey throughout the '80s, while newer clubs like Sound Factory and Twilo brought club culture into the '90s.

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Chicago House: 

Most histories of Chicago house begin with Frankie Knuckles, a disco DJ from NYC who played records with Larry Levan at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in downtown Manhattan. Levan had been offered a job as the resident DJ of a new nightclub that Chicago promoter Robert Williams was opening in the city's West Loop in 1977, but Levan was already committed to a permanent residency at the Paradise Garage. Levan recommended Knuckles, who relocated to Chicago and took charge of the music at The Warehouse, a dance club that would cater primarily to gay black and Latino men. When the club doubled its entry fee and went upmarket in 1982, Knuckles left The Warehouse and started his own club, The Power Plant. Not to be outdone, The Warehouse responded by renaming itself The Music Box and hiring DJ Ron Hardy as its new resident.

Knuckles, Hardy and numerous other producers and DJs in Chicago at that time would go on to become the founders of Chicago house. Chicago's house sound was developed for and in the city's primarily queer and black clubs, mixing older disco with Italo disco, funk, hip-hop and European electro pop. In contrast to NY garage's heavier gospel and soul influences, Chicago house drew deeply from funk music, with a more high-energy "jacking" sound that featured driving percussion and higher tempos. In the late '80s, house music took a harder and darker turn, as DJs and producers began to experiment with the overdriven, squelching sounds of the Roland TR-303 synthesizer. This gritty, psychedelic sub-style came to be known as "acid house," and it would later provide the initial soundtrack for the UK's acid house party scene at the end of the decade.

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The growing popularity of house and acid house in the UK brought not only record sales but also gigs for Chicago's DJs, who found themselves traveling frequently to Europe to play for primarily white and straight crowds, while the music scene they came from continued to be largely ignored by the local American music market. And so, despite what happened at the Disco Demolition Night in 1979, disco didn't die in Chicago. It just went back underground into the queer dance scene and returned as stripped-down, jacking, raw house music.

Detroit Techno:

Sexual diversity is much less visible in the stories of Detroit techno's origins. Race is more often cited as an important factor for the scene, but sexuality and gender are rarely mentioned in techno's "official" history. If you flip through books like Simon Reynolds'Energy Flash or Dan Sicko's Techno Rebels, you'll read that Detroit was the straight, middle class, "serious," sober and sexually-restrained counterpart to Chicago's queer, working class, druggy, messy, excessive and horny crowd. This comparison stems from a focus on Detroit's significant middle class black population in the 1980s—mostly associated with the city's car manufacturing industry—out of which came a network of exclusive "social clubs," usually named after European fashion houses, who organized a circuit of competing dance parties. Into this scene entered the Belleville Three—Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson—who were high-school classmates in the suburban town of Belleville. Out of their shared passion for European synth pop, electronic rock, electro funk and futurism, they developed a futuristic-sounding style of dance music that drew heavily from electronic funk, relied more heavily on synthesizers instead of acoustic samples, and stripped away the warmer textures and gospel/soul vocal samples of house music.

But was Detroit such a straight scene? "Compared to Chicago, I guess it kind of makes sense," says Carleton Gholz, a Detroit-based scholar, writer and music historian, "but it's just not true." In his forthcoming book, Out Come The Freaks: Electronic Dance Music And The Making Of Detroit After Motown, Gholz argues that sexuality has played an important role in the development of Detroit's post-Motown musical landscape. Instead of starting with May, Atkins and Saunderson, Gholz starts with Morris Mitchell, a DJ who was spinning disco in Detroit as early as 1971. Along with Ken Collier and Renaldo White, Mitchell formed True Disco Productions, a party outfit that organized disco events. For years, they would spin at the Chessmate, a coffeehouse from the beatnik era that turned into an after-hours gay club on the weekends.

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Photo Credit: Morris Mitchell

They were part of a generation of primarily black and gay DJs that brought new DJ techniques and sounds from places like NYC and Chicago. Throughout the '70s, Detroit's dance scene was divided along sexual and racial lines: Ken Collier used to play at the Downstairs Pub, in the basement of the upscale disco club L'Esprit, but it was the set lists of the white DJ upstairs that appeared in Vince Aletti's "Disco Files" column. Collier would later go on to hold a Saturday night residency at the gay after-hours club Heaven until his death in the mid-'90s. Gholz reports that many of Detroit's "techno pioneers" saw Collier as a mentor and "godfather" of DJ culture in the city, but he gets little more than a passing mention in the history books (see Energy Flash and Techno Rebels).

And yet, this generation of disco and post-disco DJs—playing mostly in queer venues and participating in that community—played a pivotal role in the development of Detroit techno, bringing new sounds from places like NYC and Chicago. "When Derrick May and Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes wanted to go to Chicago to see the house scene, the people they got in the car with were an older crew that went to Chessmate, a crew that had been part of that primarily gay disco community," says Gholz.

In the '80s, as the sexual segregation of nightlife in Detroit began to loosen up, mostly-queer venues like Heaven and Todd's were important points of contact and mentorship between different generations of musicians. Many of Detroit's techno legends got their start frequenting (and often sneaking into) venues where an older generation of gay, black DJs were combining disco with the new sounds of house and garage. But these encounters are almost entirely missing from the story of Detroit techno. Gholz points out that these venues and their social networks remained mostly "off the grid." Indeed, most of the material for this section is based on oral histories collected by Gholz; almost none of it exists in print.

And Detroit's LGBTQ-history didn't end in the '80s, either. This older generation of primarily gay DJs continued to play at local parties well into the early 2000s—although most of them have either retired or passed on by now. A younger generation of queer-of-color dancers, producers, DJs, event promoters, label managers and venue staff have also come up in the scene, such as Curtis Lipscomb and Adriel Thornton. Lipscomb runs Kick, stemming from a magazine running since 1994, which organizes programs and events serving the Detroit LGBT community; Lipscomb also had a hand in founding the annual Hotter Than July festival, "the nation's third oldest celebration of African American lesbian, gay, bi and transgender culture." Thornton is a local promoter of both electronic music and queer culture, founding the Fresh Media Group and engaging in community activism with Detroit's Allied Media Projects."

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