Cooper, Carol. “Disco Knights: Hidden Heroes of the New York Dance Music Underground.” Social Text, no. 45 (1995): 159–65. https://doi.org/10.2307/466679.
black radio becomes black disco
Disco emerged out of a struggle for communication and representation.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s United States, “so-called” black radio was owned by white broadcasters, and black music was stifled by white announcers (Cooper, 159). Air time dedicated to black musicality featured gospel music because it contained “nothing offensive or potentially seditious” (Cooper, 159). White broadcasters intended to generate profit by attempting to appeal to black audiences, however such attempts were insulting and selfishly motivated by potential monetary gain. Broadcasters exploited black music by depriving it of its cultural context as well as of “any power to affect America’s social status-quo” (Cooper, 159) by failing to hire black announcers.
The first “all black-formatted station featuring black on-air announcers” was the WDIA station located in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A. (Cooper, 159). WDIA was the only station at the time that catered to black listeners, so the station was able to charge advertisers higher prices for air time. Soon, broadcaster chains around the nation began to adopt black-formatted radio stations for the sole purpose of achieving a bigger profit. White corporations realized that they could benefit from recruiting black on-air personalities, and so they did. Yet, black disc jockeys became like “community leaders” across the nation (Cooper, 159). Spinning storied tracks that conversed with their audiences, black DJs demonstrated the talent, complexity, and necessity of black music.
According to Carol Cooper, the author of this article, the “1960s and 1970s were the golden decades for diversity in radio, and the 1970s and 1980s were years of tremendous progress and diversity in clubland” (160). New York’s five boroughs were “particularly full of social and technological experimentation” (Cooper, 160). College frat fundraisers and town rent parties demanded a jock “with personality and great music” (Cooper, 160) Once black entrepreneurs advanced this festive design, charging people to attend those functions developed into a professional entertainment platform (160). Manhattan clubs such as Leviticus, Othello’s, Pegasus, and Down Under were birthed from the “art of throwing a party people would pay to attend” (160). Yet though these “black-oriented clubs” were strongly influenced by popular black radio, none of these clubs attracted the same audience (160). They were diverse.
DIVERSIty, retaliation, CULTS
Disco has always been a “vast, multiethnic subculture” of music, whose various establishments served particular groups. The Copacabana nightclub was “predominantly Latin,” whereas Disco 2000 attracted Italians; Steve Rubell, the co-owner of Studio 54 described his club as the “white, Hollywood version of Leviticus” (qtd. in Cooper, 160). Yet much of the music played at these various disco nightclubs was “uptempo R&B” (Cooper, 160).
However, when record promoters wanted to test “fresh sounds,” they used DJs to expose “different kinds of listeners simultaneously” to their potential hits (Cooper, 160). Personality jocks with a “fanatical following” could often determine “hit records” within a week based off of their crowds’ feedback (Cooper, 160). Jocks were influential, cultural sculptors whose experimentation and increased technological sophistication continuously encouraged jocks to “live up to the expectations of [the] crowd” (Cooper, 161). Loyal, regular patrons loved, respected, and trusted their jocks. The reliability of a regular crowd inspired a confident desire in male DJs to improve their “sound system, […] technique, and record collection” (Cooper, 161). Yet once city policy limited the number of venues that disc jockeys could perform at, competition for sets in popular clubs surged.
Out of the competition for listeners sprung disco “cults,” whose determinations fell along certain group categories such as gay discos, “new wave” discos, or “black mainstream discos” (Cooper, 161). The byproduct of politicized jock competition was a “segregation of the disco market by style and demographics;” rather than being “mere happenstance,” such dissociation of the musical market intentionally and “forcibly [changed] the way new music could be presented to the public” (Cooper, 161). Once DJs acquired a steady gig, they sometimes felt pressured to abstain from making any new sound waves. These DJs played “more proven hits and less risky long shots” in order to maintain their job. The musicality of the disc jockey was quickly becoming stifled by the “narrow formatting” being forced upon crowds. Thus, some DJs began to perform as guests during special event nights at various clubs. Without committing to any one steady gig, these jocks were able to continue mixing different types of music and playing to different types of audiences (Cooper, 161).
This “cultural give-and-take” especially thrived in the 1980s, when jocks moved between uptown and downtown gigs, rendering musical excursions upon their crowds through expressions of rock’n’roll, reggaeton, and R&B music (Cooper, 161). Carol Cooper believes that “The biggest myth of late 1970s disco portrayed the disco audience as homoegenous in attitude and composition,” which, to her, is an undeniable falsehood. (Cooper, 160). Music is multidimensional, multi-ethnic, and attractive in different ways to different audiences. In fact, there seemed to exist a “gulf” in musical interest at white and black gay clubs in the 1970s (Cooper, 162). There were also several musical distinctions between the more popular discotheques of the 1970s and 1980s, such as the Paradise Garage and the Saint.
The Paradise Garage blasted low-end frequency music, whereas the Saint often played high or mid-range frequencies. According to the Paradise Garage Wikipedia page, three songs made popular through the Garage are “Don’t Make Me Wait” by Peech Boys, “Do It To The Music” by Raw Silk, and “Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner.
“Don’t Make Me Wait” by Peech Boys:
“Heartbeat” by Taana Gardner:
“Do It To The Music” by Raw Silk:
Cooper cites Chaka Khan, the Emotions, and The Talking Heads, as famed performers of mid to high frequency music, which was traditionally played at The Saint. The following songs are “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan, “Stay Up Late” by Talking Heads, and “Don’t Ask My Neighbors” by The Emotions. They give a range of the artistry found at mid to high frequency music.
“Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan
“Stay Up Late” by Talking Heads
“Don’t Ask My Neighbors” by The Emotions
The “densely arranged vocal records” of artists such as Chaka Khan, Talking Heads, and The Emotions were given “a clarity and a […] cerebral jolt unequaled anywhere else” at the Saint when they were articulated through a jock’s musical, technological, and storytelling style. (Cooper, 163). Popular clubs like the Saint, the Paradise Garage, and the Loft did not always play according to their brand though. In order to “pay tribute to their collective dedication to giving their respective patrons a unique musical experience,” these clubs sometimes played music that was usually identified with their so-called rivals (Cooper, 163). Such blatant branding still dictates the complexity of disco styles and genres, showing that the music from this era is not a uniform, indistinguishable mass of sound. Their homage to rival dance clubs additionally shows the aforementioned “cultural give-and-take” of the 80s (Cooper, 161).
On page 162, Carol Cooper divulges to the reader that all the jocks she has been discussing, those who had to grapple with narrow formatting and excelled when exposed to a variety of audiences and music, are male.
However, there are two female disc jockeys that “deserve examination,” despite that fact that mainstream media does not consider them worthy of news coverage since they are “neither tragic nor dead” (Cooper, 161). These two black female jocks are Sharon White and Gail King, whose talents at musical instrumentation imbued their passion for the music scene.
Sharon White grew up drumming and specializes in various forms of percussion. Gail King was the lead guitarist of several jazz and funk bands as a teenager.
In college, both women became exposed to disc jockeying through their participation at college radio stations.
When Sharon White wrote to the famed radio disc jockey Allison Steele, the two women swiftly became friends. Steele had been an “idol” to Sharon White, and acted as her mentor as they got to know each other. Eventually, White “drifted into clubs,” hoping to satisfy the “child” in her that had “always wanted an audience” (qtd. in Cooper, 163). To White, “spinning at a club […] was a hundred times better” than doing radio because she could see “500 people reacting to [her] music,” whereas during her nighttime slots on the radio, only a call or two would inform her that anyone was listening (Cooper, 163). Along with her expertise on the drums, White “knew the music,” having grown up listening to and loving artists like the Faces, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix (Cooper, 163). She quickly became extremely influential in the music scene.
12 inch extended single records arrived in the mid-1970s, and they significantly improved the ability of deejays to compose a smooth set with seamless transitions. During this time, Sharon White was perfecting her craft at a lesbian club called the Sahara. There, White caught the interest of several club promoters and sound engineers of the industry alike. As a percussionist and former radio operative, Sharon White possessed a talent for detecting the “sonic nuances” of “densely orchestrated instrumentals and vocal tracks” that only a technical ear could perceive and manipulate to energize crowds (Cooper, 162). Read more about Sharon White here. More sophisticated technology and club sound systems simultaneously began to advance the skill sets of accomplished jocks.
Gail King and Sharon White were among the known accomplished jocks. In the 70s, both women were elected to become members of Billboard’s national deejay panel, which “determined the chart position for dance singles” (Cooper, 163). Whereas Sharon White often drafted playlists of songs fitting the “white gay market,” King’s playlist indicated “potential hits among the young black and Latin vanguard of Generation X” (Cooper, 163).
Gail King possessed further expertise in the field of music.
By 1977, King had immersed herself in roller disco, a subculture of disco that was popular among “dating-age” blacks and Hispanics. King formed a rollerskating performance group that toured local skating rinks for “fun and profit” (Cooper, 163). At the roller disco, Gail King was esteemed for her fantastic ability to play to skating and dancing crowds. It was well-known among observers that “it took a particular ear to choose the perfect records for skating” (Cooper, 164). Read more about roller disco here.
After her escapades with the rollerskating performance group, Gail King became the main disc jockey at an upscale black nightclub called the Red Parrot, where she became a powerful influence on mainstream music. As rap and R&B began to converge into the “newjack” movement, hip hop broke into the mainstream media and radio. In the 1980s, scratching deejays, skate-dancers, graffiti artists, and break dancers all pulled from the musical tastes of the previous decade as well as their own creativity to contribute this hip-hop revolution. The Red Parrot attracted an audience of sports, music, fashion, and film celebrities, to whom King mixed the diverse “idioms” of house, reggae, and rap. King’s mixes were often emulated on the local black radio. Because of her work at the Red Parrot, Gail King became a prominent figure in the club scene and music industry.
If King “broke” your record to an audience at the Red Parrot, then your song was likely to receive air time on local radio stations. King became as essential to pulling crowds as the Red Parrot itself, which the club began to resent. After a dispute with the Red Parrot over its decision to add strippers to the night’s entertainment, King retired from her post as a DJ there. During the day, King had been working at a local radio station as an audio-production engineer. The steady, dependable skill set of King’s day job expanded her resume; King favored it over the fickle nature of the club scene. Not even a year after King left the establishment, the Red Parrot fell into a mockery of professionalism of artistry, and eventually closed.
missing firsthand Documentation
On the last pages of her article, Carol Cooper informs the reader of crucial information regarding the documentation of disco history.
A lack of firsthand documentation from the people “most qualified” to tell the story of disco threatens to diminish the presence of the “rich social history of New York club life” (Cooper, 164). Some of the experts who were present in the disco era are unwilling to write about their experiences. Still, there are influential disc jockeys who “have died without passing on their personal memories of important records and party-moments” (Cooper, 164).
If future generations cannot access firsthand accounts of disco’s growth, transformation, and divergence into various cultural expressions, then “myths and rumors” will begin to dilute and destroy the truth (Cooper, 165). Cooper laments that writers purporting to be “authorities on cult clubs like the Paradise Garage never interviewed its visionary owner Michael Brody, or its principal deejay Larry Levan” (Cooper, 165). Other contributors to the “early club-underground-like the Loft’s David Mancuso-[…] are notoriously shy and dismissive of latecomers to the scene who think they can understand more than a decade of fanatical allegiance to nightlife by pumping a famous jock for a few hours of colorful anecdotes” (Cooper, 165). Firsthand experience of the disco generation cannot be “accurately conveyed through the abstract medium of dry print” (Cooper, 165). Direct experience is the only way one can understand disco clubs or feel the true impacts of disco music. Even recordings of the time period in the mediums of radio and video are insufficient. The “interactive immediacy of a dance club” is the superior way to disseminate music and meaning to the public (Cooper, 165).
a discussion of carol cooper’s article
Cooper’s article is scholarly, well-researched, and well-written. Her article has been published with an accredited university, Duke University, and was published in the journal Social Text.
However, one drawback to her article is that I cannot access Cooper’s list of references through this article alone.
Yet, Cooper’s credibility is strong. She informs the reader of critical details and historical timelines one may otherwise never have known.
Cooper describes the selfish motivations of white broadcasters as well as the media’s disregard for female jocks without citing direct evidence of either entity’s personal inspirations. Though she does not give explicit evidence supporting her assertions, any evidence she could use would be hard to consolidate into one article.
Cooper relies on our ingrained cultural knowledge of the history of race and gender in the United States of America to support her claims, causing readers to conceive of the ways cultural prejudice and cultural diversity also played a role in disco’s origins and disco’s life.