The Untold Story of Disco and Its Black, Latino & LGBTQ Roots




As a white Midwestern child of the ‘70s, I received two messages loud and clear: disco was a breathtakingly glamorous, sexy urban scene, and “disco sucks.”

Culturally, the latter prevailed.

It was the opinion voiced most loudly by the popular boys.

Dissenters pushed back at their own peril.

I didn’t know what YMCA was about, and I’m not convinced the ski jacketed, puka-necklaced alpha males at my school did either.

(My father, who sang along joyfully whenever it came on the car radio, definitely did.)

Disco’s been dead for a long time now.

In the four plus decades since disgruntled Chicago radio DJ Steve Dahl commandeered a baseball stadium for a Disco Demolition Night where fans tossed around homophobic and racist epithets while destroying records, there’s been notable social progress.

This progress is the lens that makes Noah Lefevre’s Polyphonic video essay The Untold History of Disco, and other investigations into the racial and sexual underpinnings of disco possible.

I certainly never heard of Stonewall as a kid, but many contemporary viewers, coming of age in a country that is, on the whole, much more LGBTQ-friendly than the world of their parents and grandparents, are familiar with it as a gay rights milestone.

Lefevre ties the birth of disco to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, and a subculture born of necessity, wherein gay men improvised underground dance clubs where they could cut freely loose with same sex partners.

Instead of live dance music, these venues boasted DJs, crate diggers open to any groove that would keep the party going on the dance floor: psychedelic, classic soul, progressive soul, jazz fusion, Latin American dance music, African pop…

(Thus the name discotheque)

A disco sound began to coalesce around existing hits as the O-jays’ Love Train and Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft.

You can hear it in Jimmy Nolen’s chicken scratch lead guitar for James Brown and session drummer Earl Young’s open high hat and four-to-the-floor beat on Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost.

In the beginning, crowds were primarily Black, Latino and gay at New York City discos like The Loft, which started out as a rent party, and The Sanctuary, housed in a deconsecrated midtown German Baptist church. Mapplethorpe model Leigh Lee recalled The Sanctuary’s cachet to the Village Voice’s Peter Braunstein:

It was supposed to be a secret, but I don’t know how secret it could have been when faggots and lesbians can come out of a church from midnight till sunrise.

As discotheque DJs began driving the record charts, mainstream producers took note, opening the gates for such monster hits as the Barry White-helmed Love Unlimited Orchestra’s Love’s Theme, Donna Summer’s Love to Love Ya, and Chic’s Le Freak.

A glitter-bedecked nude man rode a white horse into Bianca Jagger’s birthday party at Studio 54 on the stroke of midnight, while hinterland squares did The Hustle at their local Holiday Inns. 

By the time celebs like the Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart starting horning in on the act, disco had already reached its tipping point.


Little twerps like me, whose mothers wouldn’t let them see the R-rated Saturday Night Fever bought Bee Gees 45s from our local Peaches and sang along to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, as did some of our dads…

(An unexpected pleasure of Lefevre’s video is seeing all those familiar record labels spinning just the way they did on our precious stereos – Atlantic! Casablanca! Polydor! RSO!  Somebody pass me a Dr. Pepper and a yellow plastic insert!)

Radio DJ Rick Dees‘ novelty hit with Disco Duck seemed so harmless at the time, but it was surely music to the mainstream “disco sucks” crowd’s ears. (Good luck to any punk who betrayed a fondness for Disco Duck )

Disco’s reign was brief – Lefevre notes that its end coincides with the beginning of the AIDS crisis – but its impact has been greater than many assume at first blush.

Disco’s emphasis on turntables and long play versions influenced hip hop and electronic dance music.

Nearly half a century after discomania seized the land, its deep connection to Black, Latino and LGBTQ history must not be tossed aside lightly.

Watch more of Noah Lefevre’s Polyphonic video essays here.

Related Content 

Disco Demolition Night: Scenes from the Night Disco Died (or Did It?) at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, 1979

Two Decades of Fire Island DJ Sets Get Unearthed, Digitized & Put Online: Stream 232 Mixtapes Online (1979-1999)

How Giorgio Moroder & Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” Created the “Blueprint for All Electronic Dance Music Today” (1977)

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto. Her Indiana ties resulted in an invitation to Rick “Disco Duck” Dees’ 1977 wedding. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Support Open Culture

We’re hoping to rely on our loyal readers rather than erratic ads. To support Open Culture’s educational mission, please consider making a donation. We accept PayPal, Venmo (@openculture), Patreon and Crypto! Please find all options here. We thank you!




Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Stan Flouride says:

    Great article!
    I recall in the late 70s have a mild argument with one of my co-workers at a pizzeria whether what we were listening to on the radio station on SF station KSOL FM was disco or soul music.
    Though it was first used as a shortened version of a discotheque in 1964 as a name for a club that played records in stead of having a live band, it wasn’t until 1972 that it became a general term for the style of music.
    Labeling it soul or disco is, from a distance of several decades, an insignificant difference (much like Punk/New Wave, Rock n Roll, Acid Rock, Hard Rock, etc) but it is quite interesting historically to trace the path of their development and evolution.
    The use of portable turntables definitely led to the development of Hip-hop and Rap music. Two forms of music that have spread more widely across the globe than anything since Jazz. You can listen to the syncopated rhythms in just about every language these days.
    I have been quite amused that the previous occupant of the White House always had Village People music playing at his rallies. (I am convinced that the person in charge of the music was trolling him but no one on his staff or he was sharp enough to catch on)

  • Reality Calling says:

    Dear god, this is revisionist nonsense, but you posed and virtual signaled hard. Have a cookie and trophy.

Leave a Reply

Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.