The New York Groove: Life On The ’80s Dance Floor

The New York Groove: Life On The ’80s Dance Floor

As the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s, New York City’s party scene entered a ferociously inventive period characterized by its incredible creativity, intensity and hybridity.

And such is the premise for a recently published book about NYC’s party venues in the early 1980s. Tim Lawrence is the author of Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83, a book in which he illustrates how the relatively discreet post-disco, post-punk, and hip-hop scenes came to be marked by their level of plurality, interaction and ultimate convergence.

We invited Mr. Lawrence to create a companion soundtrack to accompany his new book, and, over the course of three hours of carefully chosen tracks, he gave us an exclusive and well-sequenced look at those quintessentially New York grooves that helped to define an era. Additionally, you can check out the following short excerpt from his book, one focusing on David Mancuso and his highly influential scene at The Loft.

The early 1980s have routinely been overlooked by critics and historians in favor of the sounds that dominated the 1970s and the second half of the 1980s: disco, house, rap and techno. But although disco is said to have died in 1979, with punk increasingly running low on enticing aesthetic ideas and rap’s then popular perception as being little more than a passing fad, the early 1980s produced one of the most productive and intriguing periods in dance music history.

Then still cheap, still lightly regulated and still highly attractive to young musicians and artists, New York City drove the music scene forward as remixers and producers entered into a mutant period that brought together disco, rhythm and blues, funk, rap, punk, no wave, new wave and dub into an undeniably heady mixture of sound seemingly beyond categorization. Much of the music released during the 1980-83 period didn’t have a name. Nobody seemed to care.

Jean-Michel Basquiat DJ-ing in the lounge at Area, 1986. Photograph by and courtesy of Johnny Dynell.

Three scenes – the post-disco dance scene, the art-punk scene and the nascent hip-hop scene – underpinned the renaissance, with once staunchly divided revellers increasingly open to interacting with one another. This was in part due to the fact that the preeminent DJs of the era – Ivan Baker, Afrika Bambaataa, John “Jellybean” Benitez, Johnny Dynell, Grandmaster Flash, Bruce Forest, Jazzy Jay, Mark Kamins Larry Levan, Anita Sarko, Tee Scott, Justin Strauss and Roy Thode along with musical host David Mancuso – were all notable for their willingness to cross genre lines. Meanwhile, party spaces such as Club 57, Danceteria, the Funhouse, the Loft, the Mudd Club, the Paradise Garage, Pyramid, the Roxy and the Saint took partying to new levels of intensity.

In the end, a lethal cocktail of AIDS, crack and neoliberalism put the city’s party scenes on the defensive. As the decade progressed and they turned inwards, the level of mutation and interaction slowed down. It’s not as though New York’s musicians stopped innovating, but the high point of the city’s melting pot inventiveness really belonged to the opening four years of the decade. With genre then occupying no more than a passing thought, the early ‘80s were quite simply some of the most inventive and exciting years in New York City’s musical history.

(Left to right) Keith Haring, Bethany Hardison, Grace Jones, Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite at the Fun Gallery, ca. 1983. Photograph by and courtesy of Ande Whyland.

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In this excerpt we learn how David Mancuso’s venue, The Loft, created a unique spirit and became the most influential New York party in the ‘70s:

“David Mancuso read about Steve Dahl’s anti-disco rally – which saw the Chicago rock DJ detonate a small mountain of forty thousand disco records during a baseball double-header – in the paper and that was it. “The disco sucks movement was more of an out-of-New-York phenomenon,” notes the Loft party host. “New York was and remains different to the rest of the States, including Chicago. Out there they had this very negative perception of disco, but in New York it was part of this mix of cultures and different types of music.” Mancuso had become a key figure in the popularization of disco when he cofounded the New York Record Pool, the first organization to arrange for record companies to provide DJs with promotional copies, yet he became wary when Studio 54 instituted a hierarchical door policy while promoting a wall-to-wall disco soundtrack that didn’t embrace “the range of music that was coming out.” That had never been an issue at the Loft, where maybe a third of Mancuso’s selections could be categorized as disco, but as the juggernaut gained momentum the music’s exhilarating potential became harder to hear. “If people had been able to listen to disco alongside other sounds they might not have thought it was so bad, but they were being hammered with it,” adds Mancuso. “Once it became a formula you knew there was going to be a change. People didn’t want a set of rules. They wanted to dance.”

The Loft dated back to Saturday, 14 February 1970, when Mancuso staged a “Love Saves the Day” Valentine’s bash that synthesized a startling range of influences. The flight of manufacturers from downtown enabled Mancuso to move into a warehouse space at 647 Broadway and shape an expansive form of partying. The advances of the golden age of stereo enabled him to maximize the musicality and, it followed, the social potential of the party experience. The Harlem rent-party tradition that dated back to the 1920s suggested a community-based model of unlicensed, private partying that could be sustained by donations. The civil rights, gay liberation, feminist, and antiwar movements fed into the rainbow coalition identifications of his come-as-you-are crowd. And Sister Alicia, who put on regular parties for the kids she cared for in the children’s home where Mancuso grew up, inspired his unswerving desire to nurture an extended family of dispossessed dancers as well as his comforting use of children’s birthday-party décor. The Loft host’s balloon supplier must have counted him as its most lucrative customer.

Thinking of himself not as a DJ but as a party host who happened to select music, Mancuso pioneered the practice of weaving together records according to their lyrical messages as well as their instrumental grooves, forging a narrative arc of acid intensity as the songs harmonized across the course of a night. He also expanded the sonic range of the New York dance floor by selecting records such as “City, Country, City” by War, “I’m a Man” by Chicago, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” by Eddie Kendricks, and “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango, which introduced Latin, African, rock, gospel, breakbeat, and even country elements while bedding an aesthetic that favored explorative records that reached dramatic crescendos. Admirers went on to model the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, Flamingo, 12 West, the Soho Place, Reade Street, and the Paradise Garage after Mancuso’s party, making it the most influential of the 1970s. But following a troubling period that saw authorities close down the Broadway Loft and trigger a move to Prince Street that became embroiled in a legal struggle, the party regained its equilibrium. “A lot of lsd was being dropped in those days and a trip lasted twelve hours, so even if you weren’t taking acid that was the vibe,” notes the host. “By 3:30 the place would be packed and the parties would carry on until one in the afternoon, sometimes later. It was the whole cycle.”

Invited to check out the Loft while dancing at a Long Island party in early 1980, Louis “Loose” Kee Jr. had already partied in Manhattan when his best friend (whose sister was dating Eddie Murphy) got him into Studio 54. He lapped up the theater of the entrance, the pyrotechnics of the interior, and the glamour of the crowd, yet none of that prepared him for the moment when he entered the Loft via the party’s basement entrance on Mercer Street and immediately witnessed three guys, one with his legs spread, the other two positioned at the other end of the room, each waiting their turn to take a run at the first guy, fall onto their knees, and slide through his legs while doing a backbend. “I was like, ‘Wow, where am I?’ ” he reminisces. “I knew I was home. I had been doing freestyle and doing the hustle in Long Island clubs for at least four years, and this was the first time I met people who were in a higher caliber than I was – and I was very good in Long Island.”

Going to the Loft provided Loose with his first experience of dancing “with blacks, whites, old, young, straight, and gay in the same room,” and he soon joined a “secret society” of Long Islanders who headed to the city every weekend as he wrapped up his shift at Blimpies at midnight, grabbed his bag, and headed straight to Prince Street. Mancuso’s party was the “complete opposite” of Studio 54, where dancers would buy expensive outfits in order to be somebody and narcissism reigned. “The Loft wasn’t about your dress and attire,” he explains. “It was about being communal.” Dancers wore functional T-shirts, military-style gas pants, and either Capezio jazz-dance shoes or five-dollar Chinese slippers. Many shredded the sleeves of their tees, threading beads onto the shred so they hung like braids. Some also attached an alligator clip adorned with a long feather to part of their clothing as an ornamental smoking accessory for when their joints burned down to the roach. “People dressed creatively and practically,” notes the dancer.

The comparatively uncrowded basement became a favorite destination for those who needed a little more space. One popular maneuver involved dancers taking a so-called swan dive, or leaping in the air, landing on their hands, and taking their head through their arms. Zuleka, one of the regulars, liked to stand on her hands and bring her legs around until her toes were touching the front of her head. “You could find people doing tap dancing, you saw people doing ballet, you would see gymnastics, you would see early aerobics, you would see people who were inspired by martial arts movies,” reminisces Loose. “There was one guy who had a bandana around his head and he would jump rope to the music or do push-ups to the music. One guy named Magic, he did magic. He would do card tricks or take a coin out of his ear. Then there was one girl who used to use her dress as a flag; that was the way she danced.” Complementary styles proliferated. “You could do anything physical so long as it was fun. Anyone who was free-spirited was accepted.”

Archie Burnett started to head to the Loft around the same time. Raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, he wasn’t permitted to wear tattoos and was only supposed to dance in honor of God. “Friday night sunset to Saturday night sunset, you didn’t do anything,” he notes. “I was living at home so I had to do this on the sneak.” A graphic design student who worked as a part-time usher at the Gramercy Theater, Burnett tested out moves he had seen on TV at Studio 54 rival New York, New York, until a friend from the playhouse took him to Prince Street. “At first I was freaked out by the noise,” he remembers. “When David played certain tracks the screaming was so deafening I didn’t know what was going on.” Burnett appreciated the contrast with midtown—the lack of gawking, the way dancers showed respect for each other’s space, and the informal dress code. “I came in with my L.A. style, knowing nothing at all,” he adds. “I was very upright, had my arms swinging, and didn’t shift my body weight.” Learning from others, Burnett started to become part of the music. “If a track had syncopation I would dance to the drums,” he explains. “On other tracks I would pick out the bass or whatever my instincts would tell me to ride on. I would also act out the vocals.”

With Alvin Ailey of the multiracial Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater a presence alongside coteachers and students, the Loft doubled as a place of mutual learning, especially downstairs, where dancers continually exchanged moves. At the same time the nurturing environment encouraged participants to experience a sense of childlike freedom, allowing them to “regress to when” they “were nine years old,” notes Burnett. (As domestic tensions deepened, the partygoer’s mother told him, “You’re doing the Devil’s work! Come back to God!” But Burnett didn’t agree and never missed a party.) Above all, the floor drew dancers into a web of interlocking, dynamic relationships in which sociality assumed forms that weren’t immediately recognizable. “I could dance with two or three people at the same time,” explains Loose. “Everyone gives you different rhythms, moves, and emotions, so on every turn I could pick up a little bit of what they were doing and add it to the repertoire of the dance.” During peak hours dancers had to rein in their moves if they were on the main floor, yet by 8:00 am they could start to stretch out as Mancuso introduced records such as “America” from West Side Story. Come the afternoon, as the marathon drew to a close, the party host might put on The Nutcracker as his cat Sir Wolfie scampered around the room. “A lot of the guys who came to the parties had rough lives on the outside,” offers Burnett. “The Loft was a sanctuary.”

Copyright Duke University Press 2016.

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Tim Lawrence is the author of Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83, as well as Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79 and Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92. Since 1999 he has worked at the University of East London, where he teaches, conducts research and is a founding member of the Centre for Cultural Studies Research. He is also the co-founder of Lucky Cloud Sound System, which started to put on Loft-style parties with David Mancuso in London back in 2003.

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