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The First Days of Disco

[whitespace] Hip-O's 'Disco 54' and 'Funkin' on the Floor' collections resurrect the genre's glory days

By Nicky Baxter

Nothing separated the pop world as much as disco once did. On one side of the divide, blackfolk, Latinos and gays grooved to the trance-inducing flash-fast beats. On the other side, disaffected white kids griped that disco's insistent pulse was monotonous.

Indeed, it appeared as if the entire rock community stood in solidarity against the music, jeering at the high-heeled (and the well-heeled) who couldn't get enough of the funky stuff on discotheque dance floors. In the late 1970s, when rock stations sponsored record burnings, charges of racism were raised. Funnily enough, the current generation of pop fetishists, white and black alike, are now boogying down to disco's unwavering groove.

Acknowledging the rediscovery of disco, Hip-O Records has released Disco 54: Where We Started From and Funkin' on the Floor. The two discs heave with scratchy guitars, shaking percussion and bone-rattling bass designed to transform listeners into writhing masses of flesh.

Where We Started From offers disco in its seminal form. While critics may have had a point about the music's monotonous and at times mechanical sound, disco's origins were rooted in soul city. Indeed, performers with impeccable soul and R&B credentials were able to incorporate the new form into their own trick bag without much compromise.

Eddie Kendricks and Blue Magic were just two examples of predisco artists who made the transition smoothly and without selling their souls. Both are included in this collection.

Kendricks' "Girl, You Need a Change of Mind" employs disco's sweaty percussive drive, showcasing slashing hi-hat cymbal work and scattershot congas. Rhythmically strummed guitar and blurting horns fill out the sound.

Kendricks' trademark falsetto cuts through the mix like a knife through butter. Shrieking, sighing, beseeching, he urges a "soul sister" to return his affection. The extended break, filled out by those congas, churchy piano and Kendricks' ghostly, echo-laden vocals, is a definitive disco signature.

Blue Magic's "Welcome to the Club" boasts gorgeous vocal harmonies, again featuring a falsetto lead. Musically, the tune adheres more stringently to disco's sonic rules. Sawing strings and whooshing electric keyboards answer each beguiling call to dance-floor nirvana. Other groups here whose backgrounds precede disco's feverish clubland beginnings include the Tavares ("It Only Takes a Minute") and the Four Tops' ("Catfish").

Though they wound up casualties of disco's musical coup, the Four Tops made a valiant attempt to keep pace with the changing times. Lyrically, "Catfish" delivers a clear statement of transition. The subject is a "disco queen," but rather than dancing up a storm in one of New York's ultrahip discotheques, she's bopping to the beat in some countrified club somewhere down south.

As its title makes explicit, Funkin' on the Floor serves up disco's down-and-dirty side. Groups like Bootsy's Rubber Band, the Bar-Kays, Rose Royce and a slew of other funkateers attack disco head on, tethering Sly & the Family Stone's molasses-thick grooves to the form's slicked-down pulse, swapping strings for a human-sounding synths while fattening up the bottom with thumb-plucked bass and kinetic drumming.

We might as well face up to the fact that disco is here to stay. It never left, really: from techno's bleeps and industrial's clang to house music and hip-hop, it's been here all the while.

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Web extra to the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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