In the fall of 1995 I interviewed Conrad McDonnell of Idjut Boys and Daniel Wang for XLR8R. The subject was their rekindling of the spirit of disco. By 1995 Daniel had released two records, “The Look Ma No Drum Machine” EP and “Aphroasiatechnubian” on his own Balihu label.
The reason I sought him out was because I heard a San Francisco DJ named James Presley (a very talented, unsung SF DJ whose “6AM” mix tape should be heard by all dance music enthusiasts) playing one night in the spring of ’95 in Deco (a great club on Larkin street, in The Tenderloin, which is now a bar). He dropped a track with a crazy, sampled vocal and I had to know what it was. He handed me the record after he was finished with it and it was “The Look Ma No Drum Machine” EP. The credits said it was mixed by someone called Daniel Wang.
I believe that I called the number on the B-side label, talked to Daniel and the idea for the interview came from there. In this first conversation he told me about another unsung — and amazing, believe me — San Francisco DJ named Bruce Gauld. This was the first article ever written about Daniel, and it’s great to see him go on to be a disco god(dess) in Berleen.
Two sets of Disco Disciples, on either side of the Atlantic, detail the ‘D’ word’s devastation of dancefloors past and present.
Interviews by Chris Orr
As disco again becomes a very prominent element in modern dance music, we can simply no longer talk about this as a sign of regression and justify the opinion with a flood of tired jokes about flares and Village People. It is apparent that disco never went away, that disco became house, and as Frankie Knuckles once said, “House is not disco’s return, it’s disco’s revenge.” Two purveyors of leftfield disco grooves, Daniel Wang of Balihu Records fame and Conrad Mc Donnell of Idjut Boys discuss burning issues of this ilk, as well as their own productions and inspirations, and stay well clear of an in-depth analysis of Ottowan (any excuse for a tired joke).
Balihu’s Daniel Wang
Though Daniel Wang has only released two EPs on his Balihu imprint, both records have made an impact. Simply because they are excellent collections of grooves and this is reflected in the fact that British label Back 2 Basics is set to release both of them (hopefully!). The strength of these is also a product of Daniel’s fervor for the music that spawned house, the R’n’B sounds that flooded out of New York between 1969 and 1983. I asked him if he is a perpetrator of disco’s revenge or is he just an innocent bystander with an armful of Prelude records. “(Big laugh) I think it’s an evolution. I think house and disco are defined, how shall I put it, I think there was something that distinctly evolved into disco, which is basslines composed mostly of a series of quarter notes. That moved away from a downtempo or mid-tempo R&B into a very straightforward uptempo quarter note, eighth note kind of thing, basically I think disco and house are the same thing.”
“If you take something like MFSB’s “Love Is The Message,” the bassline in that bears more of resemblance to house in 1987 than disco in 1979. It’s not a matter of the era of the record, it’s a question of the musical structure of the composition itself. If you listen to Marshall Jefferson’s “House Music Anthem,” its bassline is a one measure, truncated version of the two measure bassline in “Love Is The Message.” I think this should be quoted, the principle of that classic bassline is half note, half note, quarter note, quarter note, quarter note, quarter note. The real masterpieces of dance music are the things that went beyond the formal structures and into free form structures and jazz structures. A track like “Go Bang” by Dinosaur L, that has a great bassline that comes from nowhere, Giorgio Moroder’s “Evolution” has one of my favorite basslines of all time, and “The Magnificent Dance” by The Clash is based on the same principle as “Love Is The Message.”
Daniel’s knowledge of the roots of house to far and beyond the realm of your average “I’m into deep house/trance/Goombay Dance Band” style trainspotter. He started off listening to house in college via parties thrown by the gay kids on the campus who had the coolest records, and compilations like Profile’s Best Of House Music. He didn’t warm to Todd Terry’s contributions, but felt the essence of house music in artists like Blaze, who overcame the mechanical limitations of early house by using free-form elements. “At the moment house has enormous problems in that the grooves are based on one measure basslines; classic disco and house are really defined by a two measure groove.” Basically Daniel is saying that a lot of house and garage is as boring as fuck, much too repetitive and devoid of the sophistication, innovation and soulfulness that is found in the classics. He then goes on to hum several classic basslines to prove his point and discusses records as diverse as Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” and Rhythim Is Rhythim’s “Nude Photo.”
“I could give you some of my rude opinions or who I give props to,” he decides to do both, so hang on to your triple pack promo. “Who do I give props to, Kenny Dope is the brilliant one of our generation, I think he hears things he’s not even aware he hears. He is truly the one who understands that the first thing that comes in a record is the groove, that’s organic rhythm with an interesting and sometimes minimal bassline. Also I love what Black Science Orchestra do, even though he’s only done two or three records.” I’m tempted to remind Daniel that the reason ‘he’s’ done so little is because his sampler is broken and has been for a long time, but he assures me that Balihu is ready to unleash a new series of lethal groove on the world.
What I thought would be a light-hearted discussion of his aspirations with his label has become a discussion of where house is coming from, where it’s going, and where it shouldn’t go. “I think there’s a real racial factor going on here. White people who live in America have a very poor understanding of what black music is all about. As long as you have white people, who know nothing of the R&B tradition, making dance music then dance music is going to be a failure. I’ll qualify that point, knowing R&B roots doesn’t mean you have to consciously articulate them, because there are people who say they are doing black music, but they’re not. What they’re doing is just repetitive, soulless and ridiculous, like those black guys doing all those stupid tracks. I think that’s incredibly boring. I lived in Chicago for two years, I know that scene really well, the Cabrini Green ghetto is totally real, but why pretend that black music is so soulless, so mechanical and so desperate. Black music is not a music of desperation, the music from New York that inspired house is a soulful, evolved and extremely sophisticated music. If tracks now represent black music that’s an abomination, they represent everything that’s repetitive and soulless and uncreative. But, don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Chicago completely, I have the utmost respect for Larry Heard, Braxton Holmes, and Ron Trent.”
Daniel is critical, but just as critical of his own music, “To me my records are more like ideas. Chris, you’re very perceptive in that you pointed out that “Afroasiatechnubian” is just like “33⅓ Queen.” Give yourself a pat on the back for that, you’re the only one who spotted the inspiration that EP had on me. Records like “33⅓ Queen” contain ideas about how music should be made. As a single musician there are lots of things I can’t do, I mean I can’t play seven minutes of congas with a drum machine, but I hope my music is a blueprint that other people will pick up on. All my music is based on a canon of house music and that canon is those fifty or so unlabelled bootlegs out of New York, lost classics and anything by Salsoul Orchestra or MFSB; the Philly sound and Salsoul is basically the same thing as the same musicians played on those records. House music isn’t going forward or back. Latin music has a profound influence on black music, the rhythms are ultimately from Africa, but have been filtered through the latin experience. Some black music, like Motown, was very mediocre though canonized by an unthinking music press. Black music became exciting when it was fused with latin rhythms.”
“Contemporary R&B is the equivalent of Motown, sophisticated pop music music based around a simple hook, garage is the real R&B, whether classic or contemporary, it’s a high brow music based on technique not silly hooks. The mainstream in America can’t understand it because of its racism and homophobia, white America just doesn’t realize what it is missing in the black American arts, dance music being one of these. America in general preserves culture badly. However, that is what makes so many things possible in this country. If you look at France, nothing is possible on a subcultural level because French society puts culture on this austere pedestal, which is immovable, there is no fertile ground for new production. It is because America is so standardless that interesting things happen.”
A discussion with Daniel Wang could go on forever and touch on all the bases of dance music. His two EPS “Afroasiatechnubian” and “Look Ma No Drum Machine” are cult records because of their quality, simply because the mind behind them is very keen, very aware of the past and the present. “There are too many things to say, but everyone should start speaking their minds, we should all become militant house producers (incredibly big laugh). I have no plans, I just want to keep producing good music. I think it’s important that the kids who dance get involved in making the music, a lot of the breakdancing, voguing, and freestyle dancers hold the key to the future of dance music and when the music becomes divorced from the dancers music is going to be shit, the dancers’ bodies hold the key to rebuilding the music. The DJs don’t dance, they are too busy standing around worrying about who is playing what, most of them are anally retentive, but indiscriminate collectors. Why carry 20,000 pieces of vinyl when all this house music is summed up in 200 pieces vinyl? The rest is derivative, just a variation.”
Finally I ask him who he would choose to sing on a vocal project if he was given a free hand. “In my mind a real vocalist is someone like Jean Carn, Teddy Prendergrass, Dee Dee Bridgewater or Lolleata Holloway. These are jazz singers, real R&B singers. The singers I love from this generation are Ceybil Jeffries and Ultra Naté, they have real jazz voices, but they got some shit productions, except for Ultra Nate with The Basement Boys, and Ceybil’s first two records were fabulous. Lastly I give props to Tee Scott and Francois Kevorkian. Tee Scott mixed “Love Thang” and was the original DJ at Better Days (a classic, militant, black, gay club in New York). Kevorkian is profound, he was a drummer, he knows what a groove is, his mind is like an ocean, very deep, the same thing could be said for Danny Krivit, a New York DJ, you might not have heard of him, but his contribution to dance music goes beyond the people you regularly read about.”
As you read this, Daniel is currently working on a project with ex-members of Dinosaur L. These guys also played on classic cuts like Loose Joints’ “Is It All Over My Face.” They plan to create a modern take on the classic Garage sound, but by using live instrumentation and percussion. Balihu 004 is due in the new year, 002 will never be, and disco’s revenge continues.