When I think about disco in New York in the 1970’s I think of the lotus flower.
You can get so lost in the complexitiy of its beauty that it’s easy to overlook the murky waters the flower emerged from. We are entranced by a mythoized notion of disco marked by flashing neon lights and ribald excess, but beneath the surface loomed a gritty New York which was an isolated, abandoned wasteland in the early 1970’s.
By 1975 (NYT Drop Dead headline, Ford) the city was nearly bankrupt when the New York Post ran a headline that read: “President Ford Tells NY to Drop Dead.” It was a punch in the gut of an already battered and beaten city. Crime was rampant, schools were underfunded, and middle class flight led to the destruction of abandoned buildings destroyed by arson and crooked landlords looking to collect insurance money.
In a post Civil Rights New York, the era produced lingering discontent among residents of color who were still marginalized. Police brutality was rampant and fueled by officers intimidating tourists into preparing for doomsday scenarios by handing out Fear City survival guides. It was also during this time the LGBT community came to fruition post-Stonewall.
Under these conditions disco and hip hop originated and fluorished in clubs and parties that served as the primary vessel for amplifying both genres of music. With roots in soul and gospel, disco music became the aural glue that brought communities together. Parties became social constructs that served as shelters for free thinking, fellowship and survival (ie paying the rent). An earlier iteration of disco music created in the early 70’s is now called Proto Disco.
For more on Proto Disco, including a mix of some quintessential proto disco cuts, check out “The House that Proto Disco Built” on TONDI.