V. STONEWALL: THE BEGINNING
House music and the modern electronic dance scene grew out of an oppressed peoples' need to build alternative communities in which they find refuge from the bigotry and racism of mainstream culture.
It was unimaginably painful for me to deal with the prejudice and outright hate that was directed towards gays in the 60's and 70's. From the stories I've heard from those who grew up in prior decades, my experiences pale in comparison.
Before 1969 the gay subculture was really an underground, secret society. For good reason. All states outlawed gay sex by prohibiting sodomy and related non-standard sexual practices (and some still have these laws on the books). These laws were often enforced. Further, same-sex dancing was prohibited. Most pre-69 gay dance clubs were a lot like ug raves or 20's speakeasies. But the punishments for getting caught having an illegal party were far more severe than packing up the equipment and possibly getting a citation. Police regularly raided gay clubs and other meeting places, packed the participants off to jail, charged them with a variety of morals related offenses and, the worst part for most, published their names in local papers. Once exposed as a homosexual the person usually lost his job, family and friends, and any hope of continuing as a functioning member of the larger community. Hate crimes went unpunished. Gays were sick and perverted and deserved harsh, brutal treatment at the hands of righteous citizens. The emotional impact of this active repression was devastating to the individual's sense of self-esteem. Suicide was common.
In June of 1969 the police were making their usual round of raids on gay clubs when they reached the Stonewall bar in the Village in NYC. And something strange happened. When the police rushed bar with one detective waving a gun and shouting "Let's kill some faggots." The police then started dragging a lesbian out into the street. She resisted and, I understand, kicked the officer in the balls. That was the spark that set the streets on fire for days with gays fighting riot police and, for the most part, winning. For the first time gays fought back and the world saw that this minority could no longer be trampled upon without consequence. Gay liberation was born.
In a very short time the psychology in the gay community in NYC turned from fear and acquiescence to pride and defiance. And the building of a safe, alternative community was underway.
Almost overnight it was for the first time "legal" for gays to dance. And dance they did. It is important to note that one of the first post- Stonewall gay political activist orgs in the city, the Gay Activist Alliance, chose music and dancing as the cornerstone activity in creating a new communal consciousness for gays. The GAA opened a building called the Firehouse in, appropriately, an old firehouse and threw dances every Saturday night with, amongst others, the very talented DJ Barry Lederer. The Firehouse crowd was an eclectic mix of activists, hippies, drag queens, students, machos, and bohemian art types.
I don't think I need to explain in detail to this audience the power of music and dance to bring people together in solidarity and love. Music and dance preceded language as communication and, to my mind, are much more effective than rallies and rhetoric in creating cohesive alternative communities. The gay community vigorously embraced this power, and still does, to raise collective consciousness and facilitate social interactions in a positive, safe environment.
In the early seventies gay dance clubs opened all across the city and, indeed, in most major cities in the states. In NYC there were clubs like Andre's, Mr. D's, the Round Table, Tamberlane...the list goes on. And the music played in these clubs was generally not top-40 but, rather, a mixture of often obscure funk, rock, soul, and Latin and European imports that could provide somewhat consistent danceable beats.
Virtually every major and minor figure - music executives, producers, DJs - connected with the creation of house music and modern electronic dance culture was involved in one way or other in this early underground gay dance scene, including two black teenagers from Brooklyn, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan.
Of all the clubs to open in the early seventies, one particular venue stands out as an apt metaphor for this blossoming alternative dance scene and, indeed, for the vibe that characterizes much house music to this day.
The club was called the Sanctuary and it was the first really big gay dance space in NYC. The Sanctuary was located on West 43rd Street in Hell's Kitchen and it was a converted Baptist church. The club owners intentionally retained the religious decor, stained glass and all. But there were some interesting additions. Pagan and erotic imagery was everywhere and, as I recall, there were depictions of angels having at it. And, of course, the DJ booth was constructed where the altar once was suggesting, among other things, the evolving status of the DJ as priest and shaman.
So we have a church where the DJ is priest, the "religious" iconography is both soulful and sexual, and where an oppressed people come to dance in a "sanctuary."
A sanctuary is a place of refuge from evil and in the early days of the church if one requested sanctuary the church was obliged to protect you from even civil authority. So the dance venue is a safe place where people can dance joyfully without fear.
The imagery was intentionally and decidedly of pagan spiritual origins. Pagans often incorporated sexuality into religious ritual and did not separate body and soul completely as does the Christian church. Here sensuality and pleasure are not to be feared nor is the body to be subjugated. Rather the intention is to bring body and soul back together again through the ancient pagan rituals of dance and music. What better "religious" venue for a group who have been told their bodies and sexuality are evil and their souls have been damned by their natural behaviors? Sex and spirit, soul and sensuality. Tribal rhythms. Liberation.
The Sanctuary was also a center for musical experimentation by the very gifted DJs Francis Grosso, Michael Capella and Steve D'Acquisto.
Francis was truly amazing on the turntables considering the technical limitations of the day. He developed a technique called "slip-cueing" where he put a pad between the record and turntable so he could hold the record in place so he could cue in on the right segment for the next song while the turntable kept spinning.
"You had to really know the records, especially the beginning, because we didn't have headphones back then. Francis would say, "Just listen over (the speakers), because you know what you want to hear, and they're not hearing it yet. They are out there dancing to the previous record, while you're listening deep into the one that's coming on." Most of the records had natural introductions. We'd use a downbeat or a drum roll, and at that point we'd bring it in, on the beat with the other record." - Steve D'Acquisto
At the time many gay men had a love and admiration for all things black, especially music and dress. The music played at Sanctuary, and at many gay clubs, was thus very heavy on soul and R&B (Kool and the Gang, Motown, Isaac Hayes, for example) and African and Latin percussion with danceable rock blended into the mixes.