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Dance Music Owes Everything to the LGBTQ Community of Color

By Ned Shepard of Sultan + Shepard

The horrible attack on Pulse nightclub in Orlando was more than just an attack on the LGBTQ community. It was an attack on the spaces that provide sanctuary and shelter to those who do not have it in our society. As a DJ, producer and longtime fan of dance music, I feel that those of us working in the genre have a special obligation to support the LGBTQ community—and specifically, the LGBTQ community of color.

Our music owes so much to the gay clubs that first nurtured it, which in turn helped to create safe spaces that allowed a marginalized population the freedom to be themselves. It’s important that we understand the link between the origins of dance music and the LGBTQ community because, as 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.”

The form of music that many people call EDM (electronic dance music) originally stems from house music, which came into its own in Chicago in the 1980s at a club called the Warehouse — the genre’s namesake—and later at clubs like the Paradise Garage in New York. These clubs and cities — along with their legendary DJ’s Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan — were playing music that stemmed from disco but had taken on a new form. This new genre mixed disco with elements of gospel, soul, funk, and even new wave and rock music. The club and the music originally catered primarily to gay men of color, but later became incredibly popular throughout mainstream culture in the 90s and 2000s. Eventually it became a global force that birthed rave culture and spread around the world.

I was born in 1982 and grew up in the New York City of the late 80s and 90s. I was too young to experience the Paradise Garage. In fact, most of the music that I listened to until I was 16 was hip-hop or rock, two other forms of music that also owe a great deal to NYC. I was oblivious to the club scene, and especially to the lineage of house music that was all around me, until the age of 17 when I discovered just what a treasure trove of dance music NYC really was.

There was Twilo, where I spent many late Friday nights and early Saturday mornings walking west on 27th to see the likes of Sasha & Digweed, Carl Cox, Junior Vasquez, and one of my favorites at the time, Paul Van Dyk. (True story: I waited in line for two hours to see PVD and was turned away at the door because my fake ID was terrible.) And there was Vinyl, where Danny Tenaglia played every Friday (no alcohol served, only good music) for ten hours straight, sometimes even longer. He was like five DJs in one; some of the best sets I’ve ever heard were spun on random Fridays in August by this guy who was old enough to have been my dad. Walking into those rooms, underneath the giant disco ball there was such a feeling of freedom. The crowd was very mixed, both racially and sexually, and there was a feeling that you could do whatever you wanted and be whoever you wanted to be.

On Sundays at Vinyl from 4pm to midnight, was a party called Body&SOUL, which featured three DJs who were heavily influenced by the Paradise Garage: Joe Claussell, Danny Krivit and Francois K. The crowd was much older, many of the people were former Paradise Garage denizens in their 40s, 50s and even 60s. They showed up in leotards, sweatpants, onesies, tutus and everything in between. People did cartwheels and handstands on the dancefloor, they danced in circles with each other and didn’t face the DJ. There was a feeling that you could literally express yourself in any way you felt, much like when you were a little kid. People would come over, give you a high five, or put their arms around your shoulder and join in on whatever you were doing...

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