Tag Archives: disco

The Music Lesson You Never Got in School

May 3, 2018 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub
Illustration by Derek Joy

Through my time as a DJ for the past 16 years, it’s been my career and passion to study music. And I’ve learned one important fact along the way—the modern legacy of American dance music owes its roots to black, Hispanic, and LGBTQ spaces.

Most folks probably know that genres like hip-hop, jazz, and R&B originated from African-Americans, but what about EDM or rock ’n’ roll?

Let’s explore that.

As a teenager, I caught the tail end of the ‘90s rave era. At these all-night raucous gatherings, I assumed what I was seeing and hearing was completely different, edgy, and transformative. And while the crowd was eclectic, it was mostly white. The DJs I played with and the friends that we got down with were mostly white. So I came to think about dance music as a white cultural expression.

Turns out I was wrong.

Everything we were into could be traced back to “The Godfather of House,” Frankie Knuckles. Born Francis Nicholls, Frankie Knuckles was a gay African-American man. Growing up in the Bronx, Knuckles frequented discos as a teenager during the 1970s. He eventually began working as a DJ, playing soul, disco, and R&B at two of the most important early discos, the Gallery in Manhattan and the Continental Baths, a lavish gay bathhouse on the Upper West Side. In the late 1970s, Knuckles moved from New York City to Chicago at the behest of Robert Williams, who was opening the now-legendary Warehouse nightclub.

When the Warehouse opened in 1977, Knuckles was invited to play on a regular basis. His style was a mix of disco classics, unusual indie-label soul, European synth-disco, the occasional rock track, and other rarities. This would all eventually become the genre we know as “house music,” (derived from “Warehouse music,” of course). Knuckles was so popular that the Warehouse, initially a members-only club for largely black gay men, began attracting straighter, whiter crowds who normally might not have gone there. Knuckles left to open his own club, the Power Plant, in 1983.

House music went on to birth techno, trance, and electronic dance music (aka EDM and those pop-ish dance tunes produced by Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and Avicii). But house music is actually disco reincarnated. The July 1979 radio campaign against disco, which some perceived as being anti-black and anti-LGBTQ, culminated in a promotion at Comiskey Park in which a crate of disco records was blown up on the field. While many saw this as the “death of disco,” house music rose from the ashes, hence why some people cunningly call it “disco’s revenge.”

House music doesn’t owe its roots to raves, and disco wasn’t created by a white guy in bell bottoms. As journalist Barry Walters wrote in Billboard: “The history of dance music in America and the history of LGBT folks—particularly those of color—coming together to create a cultural utopia, was and still is inseparable. Neither would have happened without the other.”

When I figured this out, I was blown away. Did my friends and DJs know this info? No one seemed to talk about it. It felt like I was let in on some secret history of American dance music.

As I went further down the historical path of music, the revelations kept coming.

Before disco was called disco, it was known as danceable R&B. Danceable R&B is an amalgamation of things like funk, soul, and jazz. R&B, of course, breaks down to rhythm and blues. All of these genres came from the African-American experience.

What about rock music?

Let’s take Elvis Presley—a man who we call the “King of Rock and Roll.”

His massive hit, “Hound Dog,” came out in 1956. Presley’s version is a remix. In 1953 Big Momma Thornton, a black woman artist, wrote and performed, “Hound Dog.” Whether it be his lyrics, aesthetic, or melodies, Elvis was just mimicking African-American artists, as he himself acknowledged. And for the record, Ol’ Man River declared that Chuck Berry was actually the King of Rock and Roll.

All that to say, without the cultural influence of African-Americans and the LGBTQ community, American music would be incredibly estranged from what we know and appreciate today. And if we’re to be fair, we need to recognize, honor, and share the origins of our music, the circumstances that brought it about, and the people who made it happen.

I’d like to address the role Hispanic music plays in this as well, but that’s another story for another time.


To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email millennials@omahapublications.com.

Transitorily Yours

May 31, 2017 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

Since we all know millennials are prone to nostalgia and the whole “Netflix’n’chill” bit, I recently watched the series The Get Down.

In the Netflix production, a couple of kids work their way through the economically famished world of New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Set amongst the cultural landscape that later was identified as the roots of hip-hop, the show is a brilliant representation of historical fiction. But unless you have a deep understanding of what was going on in that time period, you may have only picked up on half of the storyline. The stones that were dropped in America’s cultural pond during this era are still rippling all around us today. So let’s dive deeper into a few things.

In episode 3 of The Get Down, there was the citywide blackout. That actually happened. It was in the steamy summer of 1977 during the time of serial killer Son of Sam, when Times Square was filled with prostitutes and drug dealers—when the city was in the midst of bankruptcy and at any time, dozens of buildings were burning in the Bronx.

In the midst of this calamity, one night a flash of lighting caused all of NYC to erupt into darkness. Citizens switched on their reptilian brains and proceeded to vandalize and plunder. Interestingly enough, this is the very situation hip-hop needed.

Why? Before the blackout, only a handful of hip-hop DJs­—such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Jazzy Jay—resided in the Bronx. Mixers, turntables, and sound systems were cost-prohibitive. After the blackout, hundreds of new DJs and battle crews popped up across all five boroughs.

This unforeseen tipping point allowed hip-hop to spread throughout the city, and later to become a worldwide phenomenon.

Here’s another cue: In one episode, Jaden Smith’s character “Dizzee” discovered an underground disco club that was brimming with drag queens and Quaaludes.

TV critic Lisa Liebman speculated this scene was portraying David Mancuso’s The Loft and/or Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage.

Heard of these real-life nightclubs? Probably not. That’s because when we think of disco, we often think of Studio 54.

But the only reason why Studio 54 is relevant is because all the rich, famous, and mostly straight white folks went there. It’s the Paris Hilton of legendary nightclubs—famous for being famous. The “real” happened at spots like Nicky Siano’s Gallery, as well as the aforementioned Paradise Garage and Loft.

From alterations, to sound systems, to the founding of the first record pool, to turning unknown records into mega hits in a time when DJs determined what was played on the radio (as opposed to vice versa today), the legacy of these venues created the blueprint for modern nightclubs.

Heavily frequented by the gay, black, and Latino populations, these spots were pioneers of inclusivity. This was a time when being gay meant you often had to project a false image to your family, co-workers, and community.

Could you imagine what it would feel like to hide your identity on a daily basis? Imagine what it would feel like to be an LGBTQ person walking into a club for the first time, seeing like-minded people dancing with wild abandon, and then suddenly realizing you weren’t alone, and you could, perhaps, for the first time in your life, freely express yourself.

For more than a decade, my studies of this time period have been a big source of inspiration for the work I’ve done as a DJ, promoter, and club owner. While this era was set amongst dire economic poverty, it was incredibly rich with cultural breakthroughs—disco, hip hop, emceeing, breakdancing, graffiti, street art, Basquiat, Keith Haring, CBGB, post-punk, and the post-Stonewall sexual liberation movement.

Depending on who you ask, NYC was either a complete shit hole, or it was a totally unique creative and cultural utopia yet to be matched.

When taking that dichotomy into consideration, a larger lesson comes into focus about the role of the human condition. Simply put, struggle breeds the need to find an outlet. When society presents us with a problem, we often turn to culture for the solution. Creativity becomes a form of adaptation and escapism from the bleakness. This process is a beautiful call-and-response that pushes us beyond mediocrity, urging us to collectively create lasting legacies.

So now that we’ve re-contextualized a few things, I suggest you go even deeper and get on YouTube to watch VH1’s documentary NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell. Not only will it flip your perspective on life, but also give new dimension and relevance to The Get Down.

To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email millennials@omahapublications.com.

To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email millennials@omahapublications.com.

This column was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Looks Like We Got Us A Failure

October 3, 2016 by

We all know the old quote. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

This kind of persistence is considered a virtue, especially when one is engaged in a noble pursuit like trying to cure the common cold, discovering America, or attempting to rig a bird feeder so that the squirrels can’t loot it, boldly, right in front of you, day after day, no matter what you do…but I digress.

“It is fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Yeah, Bill Gates said that. Of course, there’s another old maxim: “That’s easy for you to say.” Bill Gates is the richest guy in the world, or close enough that it doesn’t make much difference. I mean how many diamond-encrusted, squirrel-proof bird feeders can one man use, right? Failure’s sting can be numbed more than a little bit by just one $55 billion success.

“They all laughed at Alexander Graham Bell. They all laughed at Steve Jobs.  They all laughed at Jeremy Geomorphia…”

And yet we have telephones, or at least we used to have them. Anyway, now we have “smartphones,” and nobody’s laughing anymore. Jeremy Geomorphia?  Well, they were right to laugh at him. Turned out nobody needed his innovative, non-slip collars for their pet boa constrictors.

People laughed at Chip Davis, too. But that’s exactly what he wanted them to do.   

When the kid out of Ohio came to Omaha to work for an advertising agency, he brought the funny. He and Bill Fries put together the “Old Home Filler-Up an’ Keep on A-Truckin’ Cafe” campaign for Old Home Bread. It was a huge success. That success naturally led to Davis and Bill (under the pseudonym C.W. McCall) catching the CB radio wave and surfing it all the way to a number one hit song, “Convoy.”

Within two years, Davis was riding the wave even higher. No less a Hollywood icon than Sam Peckinpah was bringing Rubber Duck, Pig Pen, and Sodbuster to life on the silver screen in a big-budget movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. The 1978 flick remains a cult classic to this day, and…interesting fact: Convoy was the biggest grossing box office success of the legendary director’s career.

Davis wasn’t finished succeeding. About the same time “Convoy” was taking the pop music world by storm, he started a little thing called Mannheim Steamroller. FYI, the moniker comes from “Mannheim Roller,” a crescendo passage having a melodic line over an ostinato bass line originating in the Mannheim school of composition in the 18th century. Add a little Christmas in the `80s and the rest is, as they say, history—or just plain success.

Success. Success. Success. So what’s missing?  Ah yes, failure. Where’s the failure? What huge mistake taught Davis a valuable lesson? What misstep gave Davis the chance to appreciate all of his success?

In a word, his biggest failure was me.

Disco was running big in the `70s. Really big. Davis decided to paddle towards that ocean swell. Thus he produced the dance club classic, “I am the Boogie Man,” a disco anthem for the ages. The lead vocalist? Me. But this time the muse had misled Davis. Almost simultaneously, Steve Dahl held “Disco Demolition Night” in 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago and nearly destroyed the venerable stadium when a riot broke out. Disco was dead.

There was an apocryphal story that thousands of unsold vinyl copies of “Boogie Man” were unceremoniously dumped in Davis’ driveway in the dead of a cold Nebraska night. It was the biggest disaster of his long career.

And I was to blame.

If it is true as Sophocles said, “There is no success without failure,” then I must finally take credit where credit is due. 

Chip, you’re welcome.

OtisXIIOtis XII hosts the radio program, Early Morning Classics with Otis XII, on 90.7 KVNO, weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. Visit kvno.org for more information.