Burn This Disco Out 
Arthur Baker road-tested New Order records there and made 'Planet Rock' with its dancefloor in mind, it was Madonna's launchpad as she clawed her way to stardom, and its DJ Jellybean made his name by regularly saving people's lives. With a crowd of mad-for-it boroughs kids, The Funhouse was where the new sounds of electro and early house – or 'street music – as it was called, met the world. In 1983 the NME sent Richard Grabel inside the clown's-head booth to see what made it so much fun.
THE BEST DISCO IN NEW YORK IS THE FUNHOUSE WHERE SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER IS ENJOYING A RENAISSANCE WITH AMERICA’S TEENAGERS. RICHARD GRABEL INVESTIGATES THE NEW STREET BEAT INDUSTRY – THE PRODUCERS AND ARTISTS BEHIND THE MUSIC – AND TALKS TO THE BREAKER DANCERS ON THE FLOOR.
WEST 26th Street, a little after midnight on a Saturday. A block of warehouses, all deserted except for one. A line stretches from the doorway halfway down the block. There’s no “doorman” picking and choosing from a crowd, just an orderly queue. The kids on the line are aged between 16 and 19; they are Latin, and white Italian, and black – all working class kids from the boroughs that surround Manhattan.
You step through the inner door into a reverberating human wall, and it takes a while to recover your senses. It’s then that the enormity of the scene hits you. The floor of this gigantic former warehouse is filled with something like three and a half thousand kids, all moving with an incredible abandon. Nobody is posing; nobody is glancing over their shoulder to see who’s walking into the room; nobody is acting selfconsciously.
Welcome to the Funhouse. Let’s dance!
The noise that fills the Funhouse with a palpable, physical throb is the sound of a new New York music that’s coming fast and furious out of the city’s many cheap studios and independent record labels; a sound most of its makers like to call street music.
There’s a new audience to go with this new sound too; an audience that every Saturday afternoon turns a select group of record stores –Vinyl Mania, Downtown, Downstairs – into hives of activity. People talk about the records, keep the guy or girl behind the counter busy mixing from one record to another, gossip about new releases, and what’s being played at which club, and who’s coming out with what.
It’s the sort of lively, excited enthusiasm about music that used to be encountered in the white new wave record shops, but sadly is no longer. There’s a sense of participation, of people feeling close to their music. But the excited buzz of Saturday afternoon turns into the manic frenzy come night time.
The street music discos – the Funhouse, Broadway 96, Hunt’s Point Palace, Disco Fever – are very much apart from the world of the social fashion discos such as Studio 54 and Xenon. And they tolerate none of the trendiness or hipness of the rock disco clubs such as Danceteria and the Peppermint Lounge. The Roxy, which draws its DJs, and playlist from the street but most of its clientele from the rock club scene, is a kind of hybrid, a special case.
The Funhouse is the most integrated of the hardcore dance scenes, which makes it the most interesting. What goes on there every week is a 1983 update of Saturday Night Fever culture. The story idea for that film came from a New York Magazine article that profiled the disco culture of working class Italians in Brooklyn. That culture revolved around getting dressed up on a Saturday night and going out dancing.
In 1983 the dancing scene of New York’s working class teenagers is more alive and thriving than ever. But the style of the soundtrack and the style of the kids have changed dramatically.
Perhaps it’s the harder economic times, or perhaps its the fact that they take their dancing more seriously, but the Funhouse kids have dropped the pretence and the flashy suits of the last disco generation, Their style, all low belts and bare midriffs, is both more sensual and more functional. T-shirts, jeans or shorts and sneakers are the basic uniform for boys. For girls there are embellishments such as billowy genie pants and short white gloves, and halter tops and cut-off T-shirts to expose those lean bodies. Most of the girls carry their dancing clothes in a shoulder bag and change in the ladies’ room. In the summer, boys and girls carry a change of clothing, and after a whole night of dancing head straight for the beach in the morning.
The Funhouse Kids take pride in their sexuality and their stamina. The dancing starts at 10 pm and doesn’t stop till 8.30 the next morning. And it is the most exuberant, athletic and sexual dancing I’ve seen anywhere, but sex really isn’t much of a force in this ritual. Dancing or drugs – but more often a combination of the two – takes the place of sex, and you don’t notice any cruising going on. Dancing is the name of the game, and it is pursued with single-minded determination, trained for like a sport, approached with devotion.
Some of it is competitive. There are crews who come every week wearing their own emblemed T-shirts, and they pride themselves on being the baddest dancers on the floor. There is The Juice Crew, and The Buggers, who’ve been coming for three years, and The Burners, a newer crew who are challenging the Buggers. Neighbourhood pride is also a strong influence. Here and there in corners of the dance floor you’ll find groups breaking into spontaneous chants to the music, shouting, “Bronx rocks the house” or “Brooklyn rocks the house!”
But for all the rivalry, and despite the potential tension in any racially mixed crowd (New York’s Italians and Puerto Ricans are not famous for their warm relations with each other), there is never any fighting. All that’s left at the door.
To the kids who go there weekly, the Funhouse is the central ritual of their lives. Or, as the Funhouse DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez puts it, “It’s something that they have to do. Their whole life revolves around being there on Saturday.”
But to the small group of producers responsible for most of New York’s new dance music, it has a different importance. It’s a proving ground for rhythms.
We’d go to the Funhouse,” Arthur Baker explains, “and we’d see what people were getting off on. ‘Planet Rock’, ‘Walking On Sunshine’, those records were consciously made to get over at the Funhouse. And a lot of other producers who have had success with electronic records, like Michael Jonzun, the people who did ‘Nunk’ (by Warp 9), Richard Scher and Lotti Golden, Hubert Eaves of D-Train... a lot of these producers test out records there. They have a crowd that’s very open to strange things. So we can make our records for them because they are ahead and usually everyone else will catch up.”
The axis of this action is the DJ booth, behind a glass window surrounded by a giant drawing of a clown’s face, It’s a calm centre in the midst of a storm, Jellybean’s domain.
New York DJs are being increasingly requested to try and mix some streetsense into a wide variety of material. Of course no re-mix can put something into a record that wasn’t to some degree present in the tracks, but they can make a dramatic difference. Francois Kevorkian’s mixes put Yazoo over in America, Larry Levan of the Paradise Garage has done the same several times, most recently with David Joseph. A Mark Kamins remix made New York hits out of Girls Can’t Help It’s ‘Baby Doll’ and Madonna’s ‘Everybody’.
These cross-Atlantic tape exchanges are part of a cultural currency that is creating an international music. At the dance clubs the New York stuff segues smoothly with Heaven 17, Malcolm McLaren, Yazoo, Wide Boy Awake (‘Slang Teacher’ is a current Funhouse favourite), Yello or a classic like Sparks’ ‘Beat The Clock’.
Benitez has mixed records by Jimmy Spicer, Rocker’s Revenge, Soul Sonic Force, Orange Crush, Warp 9, Jonzun Crew, Divine, Quadrant 6. He’s done Madonna’s ‘Physical Attraction’ and The Beat’s ‘I Confess’, both excellent jobs and big NY disco records. Lately he’s been even more busy, doing Peter Tosh, JoBoxers, Naked Eyes, Central Line, Freeze, even (Good Lord!) Frankie Avalon.
So what are all these British groups looking for when they send their tapes over?
“I think they’re looking for more of an urban sound. Something that can happen in R&B clubs as well as in rock clubs.
“From the experience of being in the booth I know where things should be, where they should fall Sometime, a record is real close to where it should be, but you think, if the break was here it would bring the audience even higher. And producers know that I’m in touch with what’s happening with every other record that’s out, and what kids are dancing to.
“Like The Beat, I wasn’t familiar with the tune but I listened to it and it had a Latin appeal, and a rock feel too. It was very percussive, more so than most rock groups are. I brought more of the Latin influence out.”
But none of this matters to the Funhouse kids. To them Jellybean is a hero because he orchestrates the soundtrack to their Big Night. They wear T-shirts that say things like’ “Last Night Jellybean Saved My Life” and “Jellybean Rocks The House”.
They’re not aware of what’s happening, or their role in it, when Jellybean hits a button and switches from his turntables to a reel-to-reel tape deck mounted on the wall. He then turns around toward Arthur B aker, who’s standing in the booth and gestures towards the tape. He’s trying out one of Baker’s works-in-progress, an instrumental version of a new New Order track called ‘Confusion’.
Baker, a big bear of a man, stares impassively out the window, watching the reaction on the dancefloor carefully. He should be well pleased. The kids don’t know what this new track is, but they’re moving to it. It works. But it’s hard to read Baker’s expressionless face. Perhaps what he’s seeing is dollars jumping into frantic motion.
Street music is becoming an industry. The only independent record distributors doing well in America are those who handle 12-inch singles. ‘Planet Rock’ sold 680,000 copies in America. The music is being brought to the market by small, quick-to-the-draw companies. In New York, three competitive and responsive radio stations (black music stations, which the industry calls Urban Contemporary Radio) pump the sound out to thousands of ghetto blasters that make it a real sidewalk soundtrack. And there are 15 record pools servicing approximately 800 DJs in New York alone.
But to the industry as a whole, the major labels, the large chain stores where most records are sold and their distributors, 12-inch singles are still a novelty, a peculiar side-line of the business. And because Billboard’s US charts are based on radio play instead of sales, the massive commercial success of some of these records goes unrecorded, As Tom Silverman, the owner of Tommy Boy, Records, wrote in a recent issue of Dance Music Report, “If American charts were based on
sales... records like ‘Rapper’s Delight’, ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Planet Rock’ would all go top five. As it stands, none of them even made the top 40.”
The sound of the street currently in vogue dates back to the popularity of Kraftwerk in the dance clubs. That led to ‘Planet Rock’, which fused electronics and rap, and electronics became the beat of the street. Since then vital, exciting records have been coming out practically weekly: ‘Walking On-Sunshine’, ‘The Message’, ‘Play At Your Own Risk’, ‘The Harder They Come’ – in some ways an even better record than ‘Walking On Sunshine’; and Pressure Drop’s ‘Rock The House’. Even John Robie, Artkur Baker’s partner who actually played all the music on their collaborations such as ‘Planet Rock’ and ‘Walking On Sunshine’, branched out on his own and came up with a crafty little floor filler, ‘Body Mechanic’ by Quadrant 6, And there’s the equally crafty, cool and graceful construction by Raul Rodriquez, and Man Parrish, with some help from Robie, called ‘Hip Hop Be Bop.’
Two months ago I was raving about ‘One More Shot’ by C-Bank, one of the most brilliant records to emerge from this scene, orchestrated with floor-shaking power by Robie and sung to heart-breaking perfection by a young, black. gospel-trained woman named Jenny Burton, We’ll be hearing more from her as she’s been signed to a deal with Atlantic Records.
And then there was Indeep’s ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ – and Baker, Robie, Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force got together and did it again with ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’.
Meanwhile, inspired or pushed by ‘The Message’, the old forms of rap music have mutated into a new fusion of rap hardness and electrobeat lushness; a kind of post-rap, with lyrics that convey an awareness of the need to say something beyond jive-talk.
In this genre we have C.O.D’s ‘In The Bottle’ (Emergency) produced by the ‘Hip Hop’ team of Rodriquez and Parrish, a lively reworking Of the Gil Scott-Heron classic that leaves the message intact and brings it out onto the dancefloor to a whole new audience.
But what makes people call all this stuff “streetmusic”?
“To me street is the way I grew up in the Bronx,” says “Jellybean”, “‘Graffiti was going on, break dancing was going on. In those days a street record was one that never got on the radio. But now that the streetsound is getting more popular, it is getting on the radio. The Sweet G. record is a big street record, it’s selling like crazy and all the kids that go dance in the park are buying it. When I say street I mean appealing to that core audience that buys and dances to that type of record...”
Or ask Raul Rodriquez and Man Parrish
Raul: “Everybody has a different definition of street. Manny’s street and my street are different. To me it’s like the dudes with the radios. What’s happening bro?”
The latest breaker hit is Natasha King’s ‘AM-FM’, which features an irresistible rhythm, a female vocal performance with some grit and balls to it, and a very catchy hook in the chorus ‘AM-FM’ is a good example of how New York disco has become an international sound. It was recorded in Rome by Italian producer Paolo Giombini, using for the vocals the 18-year-old daughter of an American father and an Italian mother. Emergency Records (the C.O.D. folks) picked it up for release in America, and it was edited and mastered by them in NY. The dance clubs and radio stations started playing it as soon as they got it, and it looks set to be the big hit of early summer. Creole Records are putting it out in England.
Man: “I think it falls in the percussion, I think of street stuff as the complicated kick drum patterns and the crazy kind of percussion stuff.
“I guess it’s also the craziness that happens in the records, things flying in and out, the weird edits, The bass and drums in C-Bank are like a high energy disco song, but the glass crashing and the crazy things flying in and out make it street.”
Or ask Tom Silverman.
“I think what they mean by street is that it’s going to happen in the record stores. Record stores in urban areas where there are streets. There’s not a lot of streets in L.A., it’s all, uh, roads. Rock is road music. This is treet music because it’s music that spreads like wildfire through the street. You hear it on boxes and you go into the record store, and you can feel the excitement about a new record as soon as it comes out.”
But is it a movement? More like an independent collection of motions, made by people sharing some assumptions in common. A lot of people realised, as Robert Palmer asserted in the New York Times, that ‘Planet Rock’ “redefined the face of funk”.
“1 think it has”, Arthur Baker says with a laugh. “We didn’t plan it that way, but the way everything turned out it did. 12-inch dance records now sound totally different.
“The whole thing we’re doing now is almost like a form of jazz, cos we’re taking known music, things people are familiar with, and changing them up, I think street music is the closest thing to jazz, the jazz of Coltrane, than any thing else.”
Although unquestionably one of the leading producers with the disco street beat, he is still sensitive to accusations of exploitation. In fact, he recently took legal action against Prince Charles’ manager Tony Rose who had alleged Baker was a white guy ripping off black music.
“That really bugged me because I’ve known Tony for a long time. He even stayed at my house when he was doing some of his records. How can he say, if he makes money off a record it’s alright because he’s black, but if I make money off a record it’s not alright because I’m white?
“Ask Bambaataa if I’ve exploited him. A year and a half ago, who knew Bambaataa’s name? Now he’s internationally known.
“Even if I wanted to exploit Bambaataa there’s no way. I produce records, I get my fee, and that’s it. And the groups who are on my record company, Streetwise, like Rocker’s Revenge, I don’t think you’ll find any complaints.”
What about the criticism that this is producer’s music, that just uses artists and spits them out? “The artist definitely matters, but it is producer-oriented music. I love to work with bands, if someone could bring me a band that could play and had good ideas. But it seems there aren’t as many good bands as there used to be, especially black bands.”
Adrlan Lyne’s Flashdance purports to be the new disco film of the ‘80s, while meanwhile the Robert Stigwood Organisation is preparing its own update of Saturday Night Fever. The advertising come-on for Flashdance – “Something happens when she hears the music... It’s her passion, It’s her fire. It’s her life.” – gets the attitude of the Funhouse kids right, but it gets the circumstances of its heroine’s life all wrong.
She is supposed to be a l7-year-old steel welder who also works as a dancer in a bar, lives in Pittsburgh in a beautiful and elaborately laid-out loft, and lives only to dance. It just doesn’t add up. The kids at the Funhouse are also 17, give or take a couple of years, but most of them are looking for one job, not holding down two. The boys work driving trucks, or as machinists, or messengers, or whatever’s happening, The girls are secretaries, or sales clerks. They live at home with parents and a sibling or two, not in fancy lofts. But their attitude toward dancing is roughly the same – it’s the thing they live out the week for.
Rita is 19, white, and comes from the Bronx. She goes to Business School, a euphemism for secretarial training, and she’s not at all sure of her employment prospects. But she saves whatever she can and doesn’t miss a Saturday night at the Funhouse.
“If you want to write about this place,” she says, “write that it’s too whacked. People are too off in their own world. One crowd does coke and ups and dances all night. Another crowd is into ‘ludes and dust (PCP) and are just in their own world. And those crowds don’t talk to each other.
“But it’s good,” she has decided. “It’s a young crowd. And it does rock till 8.30 or nine in the morning.”
Approaching people at random in the Funhouse, I find that most of them come every week. Why? Eva, 17, from Brooklyn: “I like the people here, and the music. You dress the way you want, and you dance any way you want.”
Tony, from Brooklyn: “I come to practice my dancing moves. Spins, flies, that kinda thing.”
What do you do during the week?
“I drive a truck. I’m not that young, I’m 22.”
Idales is 18, Puerto Rican, from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, She’s wearing an outfit she made herself that makes her look like a disco belly dancer, but she dances like a ballerina. She goes to Kingsborough Community College and doesn’t know what she’s going to do about a job. She doesn’t have a record player, but her older brother does and she tells him what to buy.
“Have you bean to Studio 54, Xenon?” she asks me. “Those places are for people that are there for social reasons, This place plays hard disco for people that are into dancing. I like to go to those other places for a change of pace. I go to Studio to get my head together. But this is real. Real people.”
Mellisa is a black girl from Brooklyn who is a member of the Juice Crew. They come to the Funhouse every week and dance together. They have Juice Crew T-shirts and crew names. Mellisa is Brown Sugar, Nikki is Pariko, Tony is White Lightning, Elise is Moma Juice, Ken is Spinner, Chino is Kid Viscious, Eva is Starstruck, Brian is Mr Nasty. “Most of us met here,” Mellisa says. ‘‘We were all hanging out and we’re the type that like to have a good time.”
Why such loyalty to one place?
“I always meet different people here, and make friends. And “Jellybean’s” the top DJ, to me anyway. That’s where we all met, we could call it our home. We have so many memories here. Lately some of the crew have been checking out different clubs, and if they like it we’ll take their opinion and go there. Like we’ve been going to Crisco’s (Crisco Disco) and the Garage (Paradise Garage) and we went to Broadway 96 on Friday. It’s alright but the people there are like, we can’t wear our Juice Crew shirts there cos to them that would be starting trouble. So we just avoid trouble and don’t wear our shirts there. It’s much heavier up there.”
And the Garage is more whacked out?
“Right, that’s true. Crisco’s is nice cos the guys there are very polite... They’ll come up and ask a girl to dance. In the Funhouse if you want to dance with somebody you just go up to them and start dancing. I don’t mind that either cos then I get to meet more and more people like that.”
Mellisa shops for her dancing outfits in downtown Manhattan, at stores like Unique Clothing and Canal Jeans.
“If it’s a really good outfit, something I can dance in and feel comfortable in so I can wear it everyday, then I’ll spend like mostly 25, 30, 35 dollars. Even 40.
“I buy some records, but mostly I have them taped for me by a friend who’s a DJ. Most of the time we’ll have tapes and we’ll go to Washington Square Park and hang out and start dancing there. Anywhere we go we dance.
Which is really why this is street music, and why people feel close to it. Not for the way it sounds – today’s synth sound is not going to be around forever – but for the way they can use it constantly. The way they can, as Robie said, make it theirs.
© Richard Grabel
Originally published in the NME, May 21 1983
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