Disco: The New Zen

Dancing to music is meditation. It helps the listener remain rooted in the present under the disco ball (a modern age bodhi tree,) enjoying their immediate surroundings. But the music of the moment is not spatiotemporally isolated, because history lays the foundation for every listener’s visceral experience and every producer’s musical fingerprint. Much like an upward spiral, history will continue to repeat itself in dance music, albeit in different contexts.

The past decade has witnessed a resurgence of classic house music a la Ralphie Rosario. The wide-ranging influences include everything from italo disco, to UK jungle, to Latin American cumbia. The fluid borders between dance music communities have diversified the industry beyond categorization. Chicago house, Detroit techno, and German disco can be heard in Boiler Room, Berghain, or Bleu. History shows that what goes up must come down, and people the world over are watching house music “come up” again.

Born in Japan, Common Factor absorbed the musical cultures of Belgium, Italy, and England, eventually opening his own record store in Brussels. When he moved to Chicago, it changed the way he thought about music. “Little changes make people forget about what came before. Dance music is not about hits. It’s about combining obscure tracks to make good mixes.” For Common Factor, there’s a clear difference between people who spin records and DJs. Living a fast-paced life, it’s easy to forget that music production and mix creation wasn’t always so simple. Classical training meant lots of listening, repetition, and imitation. Like the music teacher used to say, “practice makes perfect”.

Before modern technology, aspiring DJs were hands-on in the honing of their craft. They had to record tape reels on a cassette player and had no choice but to sample tracks that already existed, rearranging them in a novel way. Today, Searchl1te reflects on how London’s music scene influenced him when he lived there in the early 90s: “House wasn’t the sound that really interested me. Jungle… was a mashing up of cultures. Here’s hip hop, here’s reggae, here’s the European electronic music, and it’s all in one spot… London wasn’t this closed-off scene in the 1990s, but it [jungle] definitely was a niche sound from there. I brought it here and mixed it to my own rhythms.”

Searchl1te’s sound is distinct, combining cutting edge melody, jungle, and four-on-the-floor beats. The British electronic music scene impacted his current sound, thereby changing his musical impact. Searchl1te’s influence is far-ranging: he has a monthly residency at Rodan, a radio show on WNUR 89.3, plays at Smartbar, and is the director of the Free Write Jail Arts and Literacy program. Whether it’s while dancing in the club, listening on the computer, or getting heady at a coffee shop, the listening trends of the past keep popping up today.

The evolution of modern musical preference is fast-paced. We’ve come a long way from balls, speakeasies, and warehouses—and that was only 15 years ago. Electronic music is often about the character of the sound—down-tempo, energetic, low-fi. Gradually making the shift from traditional orchestral instruments to those that produce synthetic beats has altered the intersection between humans and the music we consume. DJ Warp is a producer that has collaborated with Nicolas Jaar, Air, and Aphex Twin. Before that, he studied Indian classical music and now promotes the Kalapriya Center for Performing Arts. “My 15-year old daughter is learning how to DJ. She’s using some program that she downloaded… so I’m teaching her… which is all new to me. She and I have talked about everything from sampling to rehashed and remade music.” Keigher applies his classical training in new ways to educate the future generation of music-makers.

History influences not just the aspiring DJ, but the casual listener as well. It’s important to recognize past samples that inspired today’s club hits and cult classics. To the makers, the legends of long (but not that long) ago will come up in music discussions, vinyl binges, and studio sessions. To the dancers, keeping track of what came before is a way to look out for what’s just under the radar in an uptempo audiovisual industry. Historical context may hold some answers for seekers in search of influence, and the future is dynamic, but music today is nuanced enough to pique the interest of even the most blasé fan.

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