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Exploring The Roots Of Dance: Part 1 – Disco

We’re catapulting into 2017 with a brand new series, giving you a sneak peek of our Production Analysis module which features as just a small part of our BA (Hons) Music Production & Sound Engineering degree course. In this series we’ll be documenting some of the most significant cultural movements in musical history and their contribution to the evolution of electronic music and the music industry. In the first part of the series, we delve into the roots of dance music, taking a look at one of the most important counter-cultural scenes of the 20th century, Disco.

Disco first gained popularity in the mid-1970’s, with its roots founded in Philadelphia and New York where many Proto-Disco acts such as Gil Scott-Heron, First Choice, Isaac Hayes and MFSB were beginning to emerge in the mid 60’s / early 70’s. Tracks like MFSB’s ‘Love Is The Message’ and Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Bottle’ were some of the first to have that particular groove that made them a hit at early Disco events. Influenced by Psychedelia, Funk, and Soul groups such as Sly and the Family Stone and Archie Bell, these musicians, along with the rise of urban gay culture in New York City, shaped the sound of what we recognise today as Disco.

The LGBT community was pivotal in the rise of Disco, pioneering some of the first parties to embrace these sounds. However, it didn’t come easy. The gay community was incredibly oppressed, and there were few clubs or bars for people to go to without fear of harassment. The Stonewall Inn, a mafia-run bar in Greenwich Village was one of the first gay bars in New York City. At the time, a New York by-law banned two or more men from dancing together and police would often raid venues and attempt to shut down events. However on June 28th, 1969, a morning raid didn’t go exactly as planned. Patrol wagons were late in turning up and with no way to transport arrested patrons the growing crowd grew restless, tired of the inequalities they were constantly subjected to. Fights against the police broke out, leading to days of rioting and protesting. Eventually, the law was repealed, marking a significant victory for the LGBT community and essentially jumpstarting Disco.

Venues like The Loft and Paradise Garage began to pop up, with the Loft being credited as the first venue to really push the disco/proto disco sound. These private, strictly members-only events took place in DJ David Manusco’s apartment and provided a space for the gay community to enjoy themselves without fear of harassment. Frequented by House legends Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, The Loft’s impact on the Disco scene can be viewed as a crucial catalyst in the birth and rise of House & Techno. These events in the late 60’s and early 70’s laid the foundation of Disco and gave birth to a whole generation of legendary artists such as Nile Rodgers, German producer & synth-maestro Giorgio Moroder, as well as singers like Donna Summer, Cherelle, Grace Jones and Patrice Rushen.

By the end of the 70’s Disco was firmly in the mainstream, and was bringing electronica and synthesis with it. Whilst early Disco, Proto-Disco and Funk relied on the unique groove of a studio drummer and more traditional instrumentation, artists like Giorgio Moroder adopted a more modern approach; using drum machines and synthesisers for a more rigid, pumping rhythm and to create dreamy, ethereal soundscapes. Donna Summers’ classic ‘I Feel Love’ is a prime example of this. Check out this fantastic footage from Top Of The Pops in 1977, where you can instantly recognise the hallmark sounds of modern techno and in which ‘I Feel Love’ features second. Also, don’t forget to check out our Production courses, on which you’ll comprehensively learn about synthesis and have access to a range of drum machines, synthesizers, midi controllers and more.

From a production perspective, early Disco invariably incorporated a strong, pumping four-on-the-floor beat, with 8th and 16th note hi hat patterns. These would roll under a prominent syncopated bass line, driving the track forwards and helping to create that instantly recognizable, highly danceable groove. Rhythm guitarists would typically play in a ‘Chicken Scratch’ style, lightly pressing the strings against the fretboard and quickly releasing them. Orchestral instruments, usually strings and brass sections, solidified the sound, often adding classic soul arrangements using a rich background and defined solo melodies. The vocals would create the human touch within disco tracks, with vocalists usually singing about love, dancing, or other themes of escapism. It was later on when Disco truly embraced the use of synthesizers, and drum machines, particularly towards the end of the 70’s and into the early 80’s. On our degree courses you will learn about the fundamentals of FM, Digital and Analogue synthesis and on our music composition module you’ll work on your song writing and arrangement skills, a key aspect of top Disco tracks.

Disco also revolutionised the role of the DJ and musicians like Francis Grasso and Nicky Siano were some of the first to really start to remix and re-edit tracks, using reel- to-reel tape machines to add new sections and sounds, manipulating tracks and using two turntables so they could mix more seamlessly when performing (a skill you’ll learn on our Complete DJ course). The rise of club culture associated with Disco meant the role of the DJ was much more important, and shaped the way the modern DJ is represented today. Clubs like Tenth Floor, 12 West and the infamous Studio 54 pushed the boundaries of the clubbing experience and helped to set the tone for the future of dance music and club culture. There is no doubt that without Disco, modern dance music as we know it today would not exist.

At Point Blank, we go over all of the content you would need to cover to employ key musical and production techniques to your own music, whether you want to make Disco, Hip-Hop, EDM, Techno or anything else for that matter. Our BA (Hons) Music Production & Sound Engineering Degree can provide you with the tools necessary to take your productions above and beyond. With modules on Sound design, Mixing, DAWs, Composition, Djing, Music Business, Engineering, Mastering and more you will leave us overflowing with knowledge, kick starting your career in music and leaving you in good stead moving forwards. Using our London studios incredible facilities, you will have access to all sorts of hardware, from synthesizers and samplers to full recording booths. For a virtual tour, click here.

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If you register with Point Blank, you can access an array of free sounds, online course samples and much more! Simply register below and visit our Free Stuff page to get your hands on a range of exclusive music-making tools and tutorials provided by the team. Fill your boots!

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