The Joy Of Nu Disco

Steve Cole hits the history books to uncover the roots of nu disco, and asks what’s next for the genre that is having its moment in the mainstream.

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 2 Mar 2012
  • min read
Steve Cole hits the history books to uncover the roots of nu disco, and asks what’s next for the genre that is having its moment in the mainstream.

Whether it is rocking an uber-cool party in St Petersburg, blissing out a summer festival in the English countryside or providing the funk to an angular indie-pop record, the word is: disco is back.

But disco’s revenge doesn’t seem to be about night-fever divas and overwrought orchestration. Pablo Contraband, DJ and founder of the Disco Deviant blog and DJ bookers’ The Unity Agency, thinks it is all about a return to the music’s original eclectic spirit. The resurgence lies in dance music’s move to a slower, more sinuous bassline. Struggling for a definition, Contraband finally says: ‘I think “groove-led” is quite a good way to think about nu disco. It’s a funny one to define as I’m not sure where the term popped up from in the first place. Probably a music journalist.’

Contraband isn’t the only the only one who’s uncomfortable with the nu disco tag; Jim Baron is one of the founders of the scene’s most pioneering groups Crazy P, which started in Manchester during the mid 90s. ‘I guess I find it difficult with this nu disco tag,’ he explains. ‘It’s incorporating the funk, house and some sort of elements of disco. And there’s cosmic rock; lots of little subsections.’

A scene with no name

It is this broadness of sound that makes it so difficult to put nu disco into a box, and makes many of the artists associated with the scene reluctant to define themselves as such. ‘It’s a broad term for eclectic styles of music,’ explains leading musician and producer Max Essa. ‘If you look at the nu disco section in any record shop you’ll see a wide array of tempos, styles, re-edits and original productions.’

Essa’s sometime collaborator, and member of cult band Chicken Lips, Steve Kotey, says: ‘I prefer to call it, nowadays, “a scene with no name”. Which is a tag that has been bandied around a few web forums and I think best describes it.’

So where did disco re-emerge from? The answer, it seems, lies in disco’s mutant stepchild - house music. ‘House and disco are inextricably linked’ believes Essa. ‘I think that some people just wanted to make house music that took its cues a bit more from the feel of disco - maybe a slightly looser, live feel, maybe a little more melody.’

Although the first flowering of this new sound appeared in the mid 90s with Faze Action, the Idjut Boys, Ashley Beedle, Joey Negro and Al Kent, the recent, more eclectic nu disco scene was a reaction to the paired down production of last decade’s house music.

‘What happened with me was the dance scene suddenly became so minimal back in 2004, and electro and funky house just sounded so dated and contrived to me,’ reveals Contraband. ‘I think in the past few years the net has widened and more of the Chicago and acid house influences are being incorporated, as well as some more experimental and forward thinking productions.’

Kotey also believes that the rebirth of disco was a reaction to the more ‘soulless’ end of dance music. ‘It has come from people rinsing the minimal stuff to death, being bored shitless with it. Don’t get me wrong, that’s what happens, it’ll probably happen with this stuff before long.’

‘But what’s different about it now compared to the mid 90s is that the mainstream artist wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole then, it wasn’t something that was ever going to cross over, but now I’m hearing it in bands like Metronomy. It’s good times,’ he adds.

So, not only has the nu disco sound become broader over the past few years, absorbing influences from the funkier end of rock and electronica, the scope of the genre’s influence has spread much further too. Simon Rigg, manager of influential London dance music shop Phonica,  confirms that it has become a lot more commercial and popular recently, bringing an increase in demand for artist and mix CDs.

What next?

DJ Dave Lee, aka Joey Negro, is one of the original fathers of the genre and an innovator in fusing house music and disco. He has since come full circle with his live project The Sunburst Band, and says that nu disco is changing as younger producers bring a more repetitive production style to the genre.

‘It’s got a more European sensibility now; it’s more Georgio Moroder and Cerrone than Ashford & Simpson. I think that you can see that they’ve grown up with electronic house music. It’s also influenced by the technology they’re making the music on, as programs like Ableton and Fruityloops encourage repetition and looping.’

Meanwhile, scene stalwarts Crazy P have also made the leap from programming to using live instruments. Baron explains that the duo, comprising himself and Chris Todd, would use an Akai sampler to chop up ‘live bits’ from other records. ‘We did a couple of performances, just me and Chris with a bank of equipment, and it just really wasn’t musical enough for us. As we’re both musicians we wanted to get a bit more of that into the pot.’

The pair teamed up with singer Danielle Moore and reinvented themselves. They are now renowned for their live performances. ‘As soon as we started doing the band it put us in a different market. You just go from faceless dance music to something you can put in front of a festival crowd. I think having the band has helped get our name out there to people who might not have heard of us, and I think we’ve definitely pick up many fans from the live show over the years.’

Scottish producer and DJ Ewan Kelly has been making music under the guise of Al Kent since the late 90s, and also went from using disco loops to form a band with his Million Dollar Orchestra project. ‘I didn’t just want to make something using samples; I wanted to create something with more depth. But, once you’ve done something like that, there’s no way of going back to putting things together just with samples. It limits what I can do, as I can’t just knock out tunes anymore because of the cost.’
Creeping onto mainstream radio and in turn selling more

So, has this underground scene punched above its weight? Contraband thinks so. ‘Aeroplane and Soulwax were massively influential and have been released on major labels. Other producers are commissioned anonymously to work for pop acts. Artists such as Hercules & Love Affair, LCD Soundsystem, Grace Jones, Friendly Fires, The XX, and remixes from Toby Tobias, Pete Herbert, Bicep, Danny Daze, Jamie Jones, Dimitri from Paris and Greg Wilson, are creeping onto mainstream radio and in turn selling more.’

Kotey, who runs record labels Bear Funk and Lip Service, says a similar thing: ‘I think 30 percent of music in the charts have the feeling of this left-field disco production style in it. The producers give it that kind of shine that makes it more for radio than your DJ box, but it’s there. You can hear the electronic Chicken Lips stuff that was prevalent in 2003 in some of Lady GaGa’s music. There are more mainstream artists and labels that are picking up on that kind of sound now.’
The sound has been behind some of the decade’s biggest hits

Crazy P, who have worked with pop artists VV Brown and Sam Sparro, and remixed a Little Boots track, also observe that the nu disco sound has been behind some of the decade’s biggest hits. ‘You can see it in pop music definitely,’ says Baron. ‘Calvin Harris, that tune [Dance Wiv Me] he did with Dizzee Rascal, had a lot of disco in it. And Estelle’s American Boy is a 4/4 disco record really.’

It seems that the scene with no name has been quietly influencing the mainstream for a few years now, but what’s next for nu disco? Lee thinks he might have the answer: ‘One of the hottest nu disco guys right now, The Revenge, started off with pure edits of old music and now his stuff is more deep house. He’s originating more of the musical parts himself instead of adding drums to an already great piece of music and looping it. His stuff now doesn’t sound like it’s got any big samples in it. I think that’s probably a logical progression.’

Kotey also suggests that the younger producers will follow nu disco pioneers like Crazy P, Dave Lee, Al Kent and himself, to embrace more live instrumentation in their work. ‘What’s happened now is that the technology has allowed people to get on board, and if you can play music you can get on quite quickly. Unfortunately with the plug-ins and so on, the music can start to sound the same, but if you have your own set-up I can hear it straight away.’
Pushing yourself into the songwriting area is a much more rewarding challenge

As well as moving towards using original material and live instrumentation, the genre is also experiencing a more fundamental change, with some artists developing the music that sits on top of their expertly-crafted beats. Simon Lee, one half of Faze Action, whose 1996 release In The Trees is perhaps ‘the daddy’ of all nu disco records, says: ‘Doing re-edits is all well and good, but pushing yourself into the songwriting area is a much more rewarding challenge.’ With Faze Action’s fifth album due out soon, watch this space.