In the early seventies, when Vince Aletti was a young music critic in New York, looking to make a name for himself, the biggest music magazines at the time—Rolling Stone, Creem—were dominated by coverage of white rock-and-roll acts. Aletti, who grew up in Philadelphia, preferred R. & B. and soul music, and he carved out a niche writing about major artists in those genres, such as the Jackson 5 and Mary Wells. Then he began going to the Loft.
The Loft was a Manhattan dance party run by David Mancuso, an antiques dealer and music fanatic. Mancuso, who was in his twenties, had grown up in Utica, New York, and he set out for Manhattan in his late teens, immersing himself in the hippie counterculture of the East Village. In the years that followed, he retained some of the sunny effervescence of the sixties, but he also became enamored with modern dance music, and he began to throw eclectic, anything-goes parties in his NoHo apartment that combined the spirit of both. At the time, disco didn’t describe a specific sound or a unified scene. It was more like a threshold. It didn’t matter whether a song was soul, funk, or rock—whether it was a hit or a total obscurity. All that mattered was that a d.j. could get a crowd to dance to it.
Adventurous d.j.s experimented with ways to make the transition from one song to the next feel seamless—a kind of never-ending peak. But Mancuso was less interested in nonstop mixing than he was in conjuring trippy, contemplative, all-night vibes. This was in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots and the civil-rights movement; night life was still largely segregated. Mancuso strove to make his parties both racially inclusive and gay-friendly. In some of the earliest articles published about the nascent disco subculture, Aletti described Mancuso as an “introvert” who happened to like “bringing people together.” He described him as “part-technician, part-crowd psychologist”—perhaps the finest summary of d.j.ing ever written.
Mancuso played a lot of music that Aletti didn’t even know existed, so Aletti began writing about this music, which most of his editors didn’t know existed, either. In 1973, Aletti published a piece in Rolling Stone called “Discotheque Rock,” which is often considered the first major piece to shine light on what had been an underground phenomenon. The following year, he began writing a weekly column for Record World, a music-industry trade magazine. He wrote the column for five years, reviewing hundreds of records along the way and serving as a witness to a series of evolutions in dance music that continue to shape the landscape of pop. In 2009, DJhistory.com published his columns as a book, which, like the column itself, was called “Disco Files.” D.A.P. recently reprinted it, with additional material. (Since 2005, Aletti has written frequently about photography for The New Yorker.)
The first of Aletti’s columns ran in late 1974, and it was introduced as “a regular report on the state of the dance floor.” By then, an identifiable disco sound had emerged to meet the demands of parties and clubs: rangy bass lines atop steady, four-on-the-floor beats; synthesizers and electric pianos, and maybe strings and horns, if you wanted a touch of class. In his early columns, Aletti flagged important releases, highlighted his own personal obsessions and discoveries, and shared news tidbits. Eventually, the column took on a chattier feel and began to function as a clearinghouse for news and gossip that was being traded by d.j.s and fans. D.j.s sent in playlists that offered glimpses of regional trends. In a column published in May, 1975, Aletti mentioned “what is now known as the Disco Market,” a reference to the music industry waking up to the commercial possibilities of a new consumer niche. A month later, he detailed the beginning of a New York-area “record pool,” for the distribution of new records, which allowed d.j.s and promoters to work together. Labels began producing twelve-inch singles that were easier to manipulate and cue than the seven-inch standard.
The speed at which disco became a get-rich-quick phenomenon—its rapid ascent from the gay subculture to a Hollywood blockbuster (“Saturday Night Fever” came out in 1977)—influenced popular perception of the genre for decades. By the time disco surfaced in the mainstream, it had been reduced to a syncopated, machine-generated beat, ready-made for novelty songs; to those who didn’t experience it in its early days, disco seemed faddish, artificial, and gimmicky, because that’s how the music industry regarded it. (There might be no better encapsulation of the monoculture in America circa 1977 than Meco’s chart-topping disco album “Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk.”) But disco also retained an air of urban decadence, not to mention an association with minority communities. In 1979, hostility toward disco was famously on display at Comiskey Park, in Chicago, when the White Sox enlisted a local shock jock to host a mass explosion of disco records between games. The event ended in a mini-riot.
This frequently recounted narrative—from tiny, utopian parties to an overblown apex—obscures the modesty of disco’s early ambitions. Aletti’s book offers a different version of the disco experience, one that is premised not on mythically great nights out but on conversation and careful study of one’s record collection. In the column’s most stirring moments, you can sense a community forming in the safe space that is the dance floor. At one point, Mancuso’s Loft closed for a year; when it reopened, Aletti reports, some dance lovers flew in from as far away as the Midwest, while others offered to donate provisions: “100 pounds of potato salad, 50 pounds of macaroni salad, and sacks of sugar.”
The open-minded disco crowd proved hospitable to artists living within the gaps that existed between traditional styles and genres. In September, 1976, Aletti wrote about the visionary singer Grace Jones, then up-and-coming in the United States; in her voice, he heard “Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer with a trace of Nico to blur the edges.” Six months later, he tipped “adventurous” d.j.s off to a “cerebral, conceptual” German group called Kraftwerk. Soon, d.j.s were telling him that Kraftwerk’s track “Europe Endless” was working in the clubs. “The flatly sung vocals are slightly off-putting but quite minimal and as the piercing, insinuating instrumental intensifies, it draws you in like quicksand. Coldly spacey, but fascinating,” he wrote.
Aletti’s primary role as a reviewer was to identify songs that could be “functional” to disco zealots; his perspective as a critic was often steered by his stake as a fan, which was also true for most early rock journalists. In a way, disco needed him to be a booster, to convey its worth according to the standards of others while preserving its quality of intimate, furtive joy. “To people outside the disco milieu,” he writes, at the end of one column, the idea of a d.j. making something new out of other people’s music might seem preposterous. “But there’s no question that a real d.j. can shape a night of music with his personality, style, and spirit, magically turning a string of records into a spontaneous symphony.”
Aletti wrote this in June, 1977, as a tribute to the d.j. Jimmy Stuard, who had just died in a fire at the Everard Baths, in Manhattan. The pages of “Disco Files” are filled with the names of other d.j.s—Larry Levan, Sylvester, Arthur Russell, Patrick Cowley—who also died young, casualties of a disease that few understood. As AIDS spread, the early disco community was decimated. But their music won, in the end. People take for granted nowadays that a d.j. can be an artist, that dance music is no less thoughtful or serious than a rock anthem. As Aletti’s writing illustrates, seriousness wasn’t the point at the time. Disco promised an escape from the concerns and the conflicts of the real world. It was a kind of temporary home, a secret place to dance, to be free, and to author new stories, written in one’s own footsteps.