We've drafted in Greg Wilson, the former electro-funk pioneer, nowadays a leading figure in the global disco/re-edits movement and respected commentator on dance music and popular culture, to bring us four random nuggets of history; highlighting a classic DJ, label, venue and record each month.
Count Suckle (born Wilbert Augustus Campbell) along with friend and fellow Jamaican Duke Vin (Vincent George Forbes), stands right at the roots of British bass culture. He enabled a gateway for ska to find a wider audience than the Caribbean immigrants who provided its original devotees via his early ’60s residency at London’s Roaring Twenties. Largely overshadowed by key West End mod haunts like The Flamingo, The Scene and The Marquee, the Carnaby Street club was one of the era’s most influential venues.
Suckle started out selling records in Jamaica, whilst Duke Vin was a selector with one of the early sound systems, Tom The Great Sebastian (started by Tom Wong in 1950), which he supplied via his US import connections. After World War II, with radios more widely available, Jamaican’s began to tune into the music broadcast from the Southern United States, New Orleans especially, where singer/songwriter Fats Domino inadvertently laid down the ska blueprint via 1959’s ‘Be My Guest’ (the prototype ska style can be heard as early as 1956 however, in ‘My Boy Lollypop’ by New York teen Barbie Gaye, later covered in 1964 by Jamaican Millie Small as ‘My Boy Lollipop’).
In 1954, Suckle and Vin stowed away on a banana boat to England, settling in Ladbroke Grove, London, where Vin established the UK’s first JA styled sound system in ‘55, with Suckle following suit a year on, originally playing mainly at blues dances and shebeens (unlicensed gatherings, where alcohol was sold in private houses) within London’s black community. At this point they both played US rhythm & blues.
With the advent of ska as the ‘50s gave way to the ‘60s, Suckle and Vin would bring this new music to London’s city centre, playing it alongside American records during appearances at The Flamingo, the famous club on Wardour St. that had become a magnet for black UK-based US servicemen.
However, it was Suckle’s three-year residency at The Roaring Twenties, commencing on American Independence Day 1961, that cemented his legend. It was here where he attracted a mixed black/white crowd into central London, packing the club out throughout the week with regular attendees including members of the emerging British pop nobility - Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger was even said to loan some of Suckle’s records from time to time.
In 1964 he became the proprietor of his own nightclub, The Cue (later Q) Club, which he ran for the next 2 decades – it was one of black London’s main venues, located on Praed St., Paddington, where Blues & Soul magazine would later open their offices. Suckle would also front a couple of singles on his own short-lived label, Q Records, in 1970. He died in 2014 aged 82.
As the energy of New York spread globally in the 1970s, one place its nightlife resonated with new possibilities was Northern Italy where, throughout the latter half of the decade, a new direction that would come to be known as afro-cosmic began to ferment.
When local tycoon, Giancarlo Tirotti took over the lavish Baia Degli Angeli club, situated near to Rimini, in 1974, his idea was to bring the hedonism of New York’s nightlife to the Adriatic, and with the help of previously unknown Big Apple DJs Tom Sison and Bob Day he achieved his objective.
As well as featuring upfront imports that no one else in the region had access to, Sison and Day also unveiled the concept of mixing in Italy. In 1977, following their return to the US, the baton was passed to a pair of young Italian DJs, Daniele Baldelli and Mozart (Claudio Rispoli).
The two DJs, sorcerers apprentices to their American preceptors, soon found their own distinctive styles, the more spontaneous Mozart juxtaposing the meticulous Baldelli, who’d spend hours beforehand obsessing over which records fit best together. The club soon reached new peaks in popularity, finding an even younger crowd, but its increasingly debauched reputation ultimately led to its closure.
Baldelli re-emerged at a new venue in Lazise, Lake Garda, called Cosmic, which opened in April 1979, whilst Mozart remained at Baia for its brief re-launch later that year (the club would shut permanently following a death there). At Cosmic, Baldelli continued to keep the music mainly within the slower 90-105BPM range that had been cultivated at Baia – this was said to chime with the audience’s drug preferences of the time, heroin then on the rise. Baldelli might mix pitched-up dub reggae into slowed down disco, play 45s at 33, utilize sound effects and drum machine rhythms, whilst all the time busily mixing and matching a diverse selection of styles to create his own unique sonic approach, often strange and surreal. Taking its name from the club, this sound came to be known as ‘cosmic disco’, and later ‘afro-cosmic’ due to the rhythmic influence Baldelli, Mozart and other DJs in the region, most notably Beppe Loda, took from African music.
Cosmic closed in 1984 when the scene, hampered by its drug associations, started to fade out. Baldelli has enjoyed a renaissance during more recent times, with a global touring schedule plus online access to earlier mixes bringing his legacy to a new generation, whilst Cosmic’s lasting influence is perhaps most apparent in the space disco of Scandinavian artists like Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas and Todd Terje.
On the NYC underground during the late ‘70s the ‘no wave’ movement took shape, resulting in a new dance hybrid, where punk met funk at a time when these two distinctive areas of music were regarded as unlikely bedfellows.
A creative young community had formed in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a part of the city long connected with artistic endeavour and the avant-garde, and had begun to experiment in areas like fashion, theatre, film, literature and, of course, music (with Brian Eno’s ‘No New York’ compilation setting the tone). They were influenced not only by punk, but by the free jazz of Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, the work of composers like Stockhausen, Glass and Reich, and the no-holds-barred approach of earlier artists like the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart, as well as the wide range of dance music that dominated the city’s clubs, particularly, from ZE’s perspective, the more art-based venues like the Mudd Club, Club 57 and Danceteria.
It’s somewhat ironic that ZE, the epitome of New York hip, was launched in ’78 by an Englishman, Michael Zilkha, and a Frenchman, Michel Esteban. The label soon caught the attention of Island Records’ supremo, Chris Blackwell, who licensed it in 1980, bringing the music to an international audience during the following years. To help promote ZE in the UK, Island mailed out the impressive ‘Mutant Disco’ 12” box-set to its DJ list, myself included. The tracks were by Kid Creole & The Coconuts, Was (Not Was), Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band, Material, Coati Mundi and Gichy Dan, and it’s sub-title, ‘A Subtle Discolation Of The Norm’, summed-up the package perfectly.
ZE’s most celebrated artists, Kid Creole & The Coconuts, led by the zoot-suited August Darnell, linked back to Dr Buzzards Original Savannah Band, who’d made their mark via their big band styled disco singles, ‘I’ll Play The Fool’ and ‘Cherchez La Femme’ in 1976. Material was formed by bassist Bill Laswell, who would go on to play a major role in unleashing hip-hop on an unsuspecting planet, via ‘Rockit’, his Grammy winning collaboration with Herbie Hancock in ‘83. Don and David Was were also pushing at the boundaries - they’d enjoy commercial success later in the decade, but many would regard their early ‘80s output as their most creative, with a trio of leftfield dance tracks ‘Wheel Me Out’, ‘Tell Me That I’m Dreaming’ and ‘Out Come The Freaks’ amongst the finest Was (Not Was) releases.
ZE would close in 1984 but the label resurfaced in 2003 with Estaban, who’d returned to France, re-issuing much of its back catalogue plus remixes of classic tracks, as well as releasing new material.
The birth of the UK hip-hop movement can be dated back to the summer of 1983 when the original wave of British breakdancers took to the streets entertaining bemused shoppers with astounding moves most had first seen via a truly revolutionary video. This accompanied the release of ‘Buffalo Gals’, a single issued in late ‘82 by the celebrated punk Svengali and former Sex Pistols manager and mentor, Malcolm McLaren, who’d re-invented himself as a recording artist, becoming Britain’s unlikely ambassador for NYC’s South Bronx.
As often happens at these pivotal points of cultural pollination, it all came about by complete accident. McLaren, in New York looking for a support act for his then current charges, Bow Wow Wow, was taken to see ‘something that couldn’t possibly have ever existed in England’. This ‘something’ turned out to be a block party, an open-air gathering where he was exposed to the full-force of the still concealed hip-hop subculture in the presence of Afrika Bambaataa, the figurehead of the Bronx ‘Zulu Nation’.
Watching the DJs at work he observed: ‘it was extraordinary ‘cos the sound coming out was totally inarticulate, a load of rough noises, noises that sounded a little like guitar, but had a sort of concrete chisel sound I realised was actually coming from the way they were messing around with their hands on the decks, moving records backwards and forwards’. But that wasn’t all; ‘people would move to the sides and a group of kids would start freaking out in the middle doing all this incredible gymnastic dancing!’ What McLaren had witnessed, although hidden at that moment, would be globally recognizable within the next few years.
Profoundly affected by what he beheld that night, he incorporated the hip-hop style into his debut album project, ‘Duck Rock’. With top British producer Trevor Horn at the controls, the LP broke new ground taking the recording studio on the road and across continents, juxtaposing different musical styles in a unique way - ‘Buffalo Gals’ taking its title from a 1844 minstrel song, a recording of which was included in the much-loved Frank Capra movie ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, just over 100 years on.
The ‘Buffalo Gals’ video would mark the first time that all four hip-hop elements (MCing, DJing, b-boying and graffiti writing) were placed together, and featured breakers, the Rock Steady Crew, as well as NYC radio duo, The World’s Famous Supreme Team rapping and scratching (the first time many people outside of New York had viewed this technique). The record would reach the UK top 10.
Written by Greg Wilson
Edited by Josh Ray
'Mr. Suckle' illustration by Pete Fowler
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