Magazine \ Features \ Features

Disco inferno

Henry Street and the story of disco house, pt 2

2016 Feb 08     
2 Bit Thugs

Our in-depth look at the history of disco house continues, from 'Professional Widow' to 'Get Lucky' via Chicago, France, Italy, Detroit and NYC

"I was a hip-hop kid who made house music," says Armand Van Helden plainly. "My management company would come to me and say 'Do you want to remix Ace Of Base? Do you want to remix Jimmy Sommerville?'. I had no idea who these artists were, so I'd just say yes, take a few words or a line out of their track and build the remix around that. I didn't really care what was going on in their original version and, I have to admit, it was exactly the same with Tori Amos. I don't mean to disrespect her by saying that. These days I know a lot more about her and I think she's an amazing artist. But back then that's how it was."

Tori Amos had launched a successful career in the early 1990s with the critically acclaimed album Little Earthquakes. By 1996 she was releasing her third album, and for Atlantic Records she was a big deal. Although oblivious as to her history and standing, Armand Van Helden was about to embark upon a remix project for her that would mark a high point in both their careers, the ramifications of which would be felt through several sub-genres of dance music.

"Vicky Germaise, the head of marketing at Atlantic, called me and said 'We're going to have dinner with Tori Amos'," recalls Johnny DeMairo. "So we go to dinner and I presented her with this scenario that I was going to get these mixes done and have 3,000 copies sent to DJs globally, and the worst thing that could happen was that people who didn't know her records would get to hear of her. I sent out copies of the album to some of the harder mixers I thought could do something with her, not MAW, but people like Junior Vasquez, MK and Armand. I was such a big fan of MK, I could listen to him all day. So I gave the LP to MK and he wanted Professional Widow. Armand just told me he'd do anything. He'd kill whatever I gave him."

"My manager was Italian and Johnny D's Italian, so we would all go out to this place on 8th Avenue to get Italian food," recalls Van Helden. "One time, Johnny said, 'I have this artist, Tori Amos, she's really cool. She's more on the rock side. She's looking for something different and I thought of you.' I don't think I was really listening to him at the time, but I just said 'Yeah, send it me'. I'd done several remixes before and what did stick in my mind was that the artist themselves, in this case, was specifically asking to try something different. I guess with the success of Funk Phenomena, Johnny had thought of me. I was in a pretty good place at the time, I'd just come back from my first run in Ibiza and I was vibed from that."

Inspired by this first trip to the White Isle and fresh from the success of Funk Phenomena, Van Helden approached the project fearlessly. "There are certain architectures in music, especially in dance music,” says Van Helden. "Certain ways things groove and sometimes there's predictability. Sometimes you can get a record that's totally crazy, like The Bucketheads. That song had a different architecture, it was a different way to build a house song."

"With the Tori Amos remix, I was trying to do a different architecture. I think the reason that remix worked so well in the UK was that I've always been a big drum & bass fan. I never DJed it so it was difficult to keep up, maybe I only bought the big records, Metalheadz, DJ Hype, things like that. With the Tori Amos mix, that was really influenced by the rave breakbeat era. All of those records, specifically the early drum & bass records, had drops. No drums, just an ambient drop. So the Tori Amos mix, yes, it's a funky disco house record but, in my mind, what I was trying to do was a drop like in drum & bass.

"That and the fact I was trying to copy MK with the vocal chop! I didn't do it as good as he does it. But my idea for the remix was to copy his style, only to put it more into a funk/disco format rather than the deep house thing he does. That Nightcrawlers record, with that kind of vocal chop, was huge. It had lasted years. The oddest thing for me was, when the Tori Amos record came out, the two remixes on there were me and MK. I'd had no idea he was also doing a remix."


"Armand actually came back with his mix first," explains DeMairo. "I got the DAT back and I'm in an office where next to me is the heavy metal guy and on the other side of me is this girl doing college promo. I'm basically surrounded by all these rockers. I put the DAT in the machine and the thing just takes off. Suddenly I have 20 heads in my doorway because they all know it's Tori's voice."

"I'm thinking 'What the fuck is this?' because the bassline is absolutely huge. Then there's the vocals: 'It's gotta be big… honey bring it close to my lips' and I'm thinking 'What the fuck? She is gonna freak out!'. She'd famously addressed this rape that had happened to her. But the track was undeniable. I told Armand 'This is the nastiest, most ridiculous shit I ever heard in my life' and the truth was I was shitting my pants to send it to her.

"MK's mix came in a couple of weeks later and I made a tape of some of the mixes to send to her, deliberately putting the MK mix on first, because he'd used a lot of the vocal, and leaving the Armand mix until last. I didn't hear anything for a couple of months."

"I didn't know her well at all," admits De Mairo, who was obviously nervy having had no response. "I didn't know where she was at. I just attributed not hearing from her to her being so offended by 'Honey bring it close to my lips, it's gotta be big'. But I kept hitting Vicky back every few weeks, tip-toeing around it, 'Have you spoken with Tori yet?'. Then I got a call."

"Tori says, 'My bus broke down in Germany. I had the cassette in my bag, I put it in and the bus went nuts. That Armand thing is totally crazy, we gotta do it'. That was a great moment, because it could so easily have gone the other way. It just goes to show you what kind of an artist she is. Other artists would have had a hard time with it, but she embraced it. I was so happy."

Armand's Star Trunk Funkin' Mix was a major hit all across Europe, hitting No 1 in the UK and Italian pop charts and on the US dance charts. Its disco bassline was perhaps the best to hit the clubs that year; certainly it was the most memorable. It's cited as being a major influence, alongside the productions of Todd Edwards, on the UK garage scene that was emerging at the time, and it marked the beginning of a trend of drop-outs in dance tracks, with producers attempting to ape the formula Van Helden had employed. It is Armand Van Helden's most successful remix and Tori Amos's biggest-selling single.

"At no point in my remix history has an artist ever thanked me personally," says Van Helden. "But she did. My management company called me and told me the Professional Widow remix I'd done had gone to No 1 in the UK. I was like 'Okay'. I didn't know they'd meant No 1 in the pop charts, I just thought they meant the dance charts and besides, I didn't live in the UK! They hit me up again a couple of weeks later and said, 'Tori Amos wants to talk to you'. She went out of her way to call and thank me on the phone, which was sweet, and she sent me a little basket of strange cheeses and jams, champagne, all this British stuff, the kind of thing you could go to the park with and have a picnic. Kudos to her. An artist like that, reaching out to do that for me. It was really cool."

But after The Funk Phenomena and the Tori Amos remix had made Armand Van Helden one of the biggest remixers globally, the producer seemed to shy away from the buzz around him. "When I've had times that I've hit mass appeal, I've never been very good at taking advantage of it," he admits. "If I had a certain success, it's almost like I've run away from it. The next thing I'd do would be totally weird so people wouldn't like me any more and I'd have to build it back up. Back then, having a hit record was kinda cheesy. These days, if a DJ has just one minor hit they end up with a whole team behind them and it turns into this super big business. Back then we didn't have any of that. We'd just drive away from it."

Although high profile remix work came flooding in thanks to Professional Widow, it wasn't until three years later, in 1999, that Armand returned to being a name that was simultaneously in the charts and hot property among DJs. That occurred with the release of two original vocal singles. Massive hit U Don't Know Me, featuring Duane Harden, was to become Armand's second UK pop No 1. Brash, filtered disco house that was very much of the time, it could be heard in every commercial club.

Flowerz, on the other hand, was released with little fanfare. Built around a live disco bassline, its hypnotic groove faded in and out as seasoned vocalist Roland Clark delivered a rambling, freestyled vocal atop. It caught the attention of the deeper side of club culture, Armand slaying both the underground and the charts with these first two singles from his 2 Future 4 U album.

"Those two tracks were 100% a copy of Daft Punk," concedes Armand. "Especially Stardust. I was blown away by that. I think anything I was doing in that era, I was just trying to be Daft Punk. Maybe they don't sound like them, but that's what was in my head."


"That and Bad Boy Records," Van Helden continues, "which was really blowing up in New York back then. The formula with Bad Boy was, take something familiar and put some new drums over it. Of course the mixdown would be great and the singer, Biggie or Mary J Blige, would be awesome, but it was a relatively simple formula for a hit record. Like a bowl of pasta, simple but amazing."

In the mid-90s, Bad Boy Records and its producer Puff Daddy had, via hits with Mary J Blige, Notorious BIG and Faith Evans, hit paydirt recycling grooves by the likes of Rose Royce, Curtis Mayfield, Mary Jane Girls, Diana Ross, The Trammps and Chic. Their distinctly New York sound echoed not just around that city but also around the world, and this formula's success was mirrored in the similar efforts of New York's disco-indebted house producers.

In 1996, Henry Street associates Little Louie Vega and Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez released their critically acclaimed and most musically adventurous project, the Nu Yorican Soul album, working with disco era artists Vincent Montana Jr, Roy Ayers, Jocelyn Brown and members of the Salsoul Orchestra on a wondrous release that documented their influences and included a faithful cover of the latter's disco hit Runaway.

From neighbouring New Jersey, Gusto appeared with a timeless filtered hit. The epitome of disco house, the one-off nature of Disco's Revenge perhaps indicated that its success could be attributed to high strength of the source sample.

On Henry Street, the disco house would keep on coming and in 1997, New York's Mike Delgado delivered a club hit that was to become a favourite with the label's fans. Byrdman's Revenge sampled a small section of jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd's Think Twice, a wonderful song produced by the Mizell Brothers that combined elements of soul, jazz and funk. The influence of Delgado's version would extend well beyond the year of its release, going on to be reissued by Henry Street and influence a remake by The Detroit Experiment in 2003, a studio project produced by iconic Motor City techno producer Carl Craig (the track gaining further shelf life when it was later remixed by Henrik Schwarz).

Former Patrick Adams and Cerrone collaborator Jocelyn Brown, who had also sung with Inner Life, Chic, Change, Salsoul Orchestra and Dazzle, appeared again, alongside ex-Weather Girl Martha Wash. These two new tons of fun were a natural choice when another Henry Street associate, Todd Terry, came to reworking Musique's disco song Keep On Jumping into a chart hit, as Brown had also contributed vocals to the Musique original.

This trio reconvened not long after for another vocal in the form of Somethin' Goin On, these two singles, alongside Terry's Everything But The Girl remix, being the biggest hits of his career. In the mid-1990s, American disco house was at an all-time high.

But by the late 1990s, the baton for disco house was snatched from the hands of these US figures. The music's new standard bearers wouldn't be from New York, where much of the disco source material had emerged and where disco house had it's biggest hits. They wouldn't be from Chicago, where the sound had been nurtured, filtered and tripped out. They wouldn't be from Murk territory, Miami, where the well-produced, disco-derived soulful house grooves of the Soulfuric stable had started to transfer from the clubs to the charts.

They wouldn't be from Italy, where some of the earliest non-US disco house came from. They wouldn't even be from London and its Yankophiles like Defected Records, run by original soul boy Simon Dunmore, or Farley and Heller (the latter had covered disco classic There But For The Grace Of God as Fire Island on Junior Boys Own, where Ashley Beedle's Black Science Orchestra also remade The Trammps's Where Were You).

No, the new claimants to the disco house crown would come from France.


Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, AKA Daft Punk, gained their first international recognition in 1995 with the release of Da Funk, a single that, despite being initially released on Glasgow techno imprint Soma, was well below regular house tempo, instead displaying hip-hop and 1980s electro influences.

The Chemical Brothers were early supporters of the track and after a major label re-release it became hugely popular. Its original b-side, Rollin and Scratchin, was a techno track that was tellingly indebted to the sound of Chicago's Relief Records, an offshoot of Cajual, and specifically perhaps the material of label head Cajmere as Green Velvet.

"They were pretty big friends of mine back then," says Van Helden of Daft Punk. "We would hang all the time and they were really big fans of Relief Records. I mean, they were obsessed with Cajmere's label. They really based their whole careers on that. They weren't following New York. They didn't want to be Masters At Work or Todd Terry, they were into Relief. If you listen to their stuff from back then, maybe not Da Funk, but everything after, like Trax On Da Rocks, they're all trying to be Relief, no question."

Bangalter would mine his Relief Records inspiration further across two EPs in the Trax On Da Rocks series, released solo on his own Roule Records, but Daft Punk would display less of a techno affinity and instead nod towards disco on their second major label single, Around The World (which was remixed by Masters At Work).

Bridging his love of the Relief sound and the disco direction Daft Punk had first shown on Around The World, Bangalter released Spinal Scratch in 1996, again on Roule. Although Van Helden freely admits to being so enamoured with their sound at this time that he was trying to recreate Daft Punk in his studio, it's not difficult to hear the mutual influence occurring particularly at this point, with Spinal Scratch sounding more like the Hard Steppin Disko Selection EP than anything else around, an EP was released on Relief at almost exactly the same time by Van Helden and DJ Sneak.

In the middle of 1998, Bangalter would ditch the Relief edge of previous Roule releases but maintain the bright production for a collaboration with Alan Braxe and vocalist Benjamin Diamond that was pure disco house, and one of the biggest house music singles of all time. Music Sounds Better With You, released as Stardust, ended up being a one-off. But it left an indelible mark.


"When Daft Punk and Bob Sinclair sound started to come through, man, still to this day I don't know how they got those records to sound like that," Johnny DeMairo confesses. "Daft Punk records sound like Bob Clearmountain records or something, I just don't know how they did that. Incredible. Even Stardust... I knew that Chaka Khan song, but I don't know how they managed to get that out of it. They must've had some kind of magic box because they all sound great. We were bringing out records that were a six or a seven; theirs were all 10s."

"Some of the Relief Records they'd been influenced by sound pretty good," offers Van Helden, "but a lot of them sounded bad, in terms of the mixdown and the actual vinyl. The difference in audio quality between Daft Punk and the records that inspired them was the key. That and the fact there's so much going on musically underneath what is essentially disco-looped house. At the time I was really naive to how they were doing it. It took me years to figure it out. I'd listened to Stardust so many times and tried to work out how they'd got all that warmth and sub-bass out of the sample, but I couldn't.

"In the end they had to tell me: they have analogue synths playing in exactly the same chord and key underneath the disco loops. That's what makes it explode off the vinyl. The Chicago guys didn't think of doing that. I'm sure they were capable, but a lot of them were just using a 909 and a sampler, which is in itself genius - not unlike hip hop - but Daft Punk came along and beautified it. You just couldn't match it. At the time, their stuff in the nightclub compared to other stuff was like night and day."

Almost simultaneous to issuing Music Sounds Better With You, Bangalter co-produced Bob Sinclar's Gym Tonic, which was set to follow Stardust's track as a chart-topper and cement the French's reputation as the global kings of disco house, before a licensing dispute over its Jane Fonda fitness video vocal sample stalled its rise. A different act called Spacedust quickly and cynically capitalised on the idea and released a re-recorded version with a new vocal, titled Gym And Tonic, which took the superior original's place at the top of the charts.Not long after Sinclair, who had first emerged via Yellow Productions and his downbeat/hiphop-influenced The Mighty Bop alias, would flip styles yet again and readdress house music's underground with his Africanism project, the influence of which can be heard in the contemporary sounds of South African house producers like Black Coffee.

Gym And Tonic wasn't the last time the sound popularised by Bangalter and co. was to be copied for chart success. A raft of inferior soundalikes and descendants followed Music Sounds Better With You, everywhere from independent house labels to major label pop releases like Phats & Smalls's soul-destroying Turn Around. Disco house had gone overground and it wouldn't be long before underground producers were left with nowhere else to go with sampled, looped disco house.

This is perhaps best indicated by the fact the same samples would appear across several independent releases. Carl Bean's cover of Valentino's gay pride song I Was Born This Way turned up in two New York house classics, Underground Solution's Luv Dancin and Earth People's Dance and later in French house with Pour Homme's remake Born This Way.

A better example may be the following three tracks. From Detroit, Terrence Parker's Your Love; from London (via Chicago label Prescription) Heaven and Earth's Prescription Every Night and from Glasgow, East End Trax's Chalk Line. The fact they all sought to create a deep house track from the same segment of First Choice's Dr Love shows how, by the end of the 1990s, many of the best disco samples had already been mined.


In the mid-90s, just prior to disco house reaching its commercial peak, a variant of the sound emerged that, while using the same ingredients, would sound radically different from the disco house which was appearing in the pop charts. Its producers would, in typical fashion, begin with looped samples and progress to creating more musically intricate, original songs. But such was their choice and treatment of samples that, unlike much of the more simplistic, immediate and familiar disco house of the late 1990s, their productions sounded incredibly fresh.

These new producers gave the impression that, in their hands, disco house could continue indefinitely. And disco house would indeed continue as a considerable force in underground music, long after the 1990s chart sound had ebbed out of favour.

Glenn Underground was part of the aforementioned second wave of Chicago house producers. His early productions varied between the techno loops heard on Relief, original, lo-fi but highly melodic productions that paid tribute to the sounds of Detroit and his native Chicago (such as his GU Essentials EPs and debut album Atmosfear) and disco house on labels like Cajual, where he would rip samples from records like Sylvester's I Need You or his famous melding of Giorgio Moroder productions The Chase and I Feel Love.

Establishing a production crew, Strictly Jaz Unit, with Boo Williams the most consistent participant, Glenn Underground's disco productions from the mid-90s hit a new level of finesse. Highly influenced by the 1970s, his drums sometimes became more like disco itself than house, while his samples became more subtle and his own, often jazzy musical additions became more confident. Tracks like GU's 70s Trip and Chica Soul were, in essence, pure disco for deep house heads.

Detroit producer Kenny Dixon Jr, AKA Moodymann, first came to prominence via a string of EPs on his own KDJ Records. His early efforts like The Dancer and the epic Marvin Gaye tribute The Day We Lost The Soul were pure disco house, with trippy original flourishes. But by 1997's I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hitshe'd begun to take sampled disco house not to new heights, but to new depths.

An uncomplicated record, it boasted a relatively simple, but drawn-out and relentless sample of a Chic record. Its monotone bassline effortlessly flowed in and out of prominence over an almost 10-minute period. The result was a record that sounded like a disco house version of one of DJ Pierre's Wild Pitch mixes under the influence of Mogadon. It was almost without equal in terms of its hypnotic properties. This epic drawing out of a sample would become a formula he would repeat time and again, including on Black Mahogani (which sampled Walter Murphy's Afternoon Of A Faun) and Don't You Want My Love (which used Spiral by The Crusaders). The musicianship atop these samples would grow ever more creative and intricate and, when sales of vinyl were at their lowest elsewhere, Moodymann records would fly out of specialist dance stores.

This Detroit disco house inspired a countless number of new, young house and disco devotees. Like Glenn Underground, he helped form a production crew and though none of the 3 Chairs collective - Moodymann, Theo Parrish, Marcellus Pittman and Rick Wilhite - would stick to producing disco house solely, they would all operate within the genre at times, with considerable flair.


Disco never really left dancefloors, either in its original form or in the form of its house music offspring. Many house music contributors like Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries and indeed Henry Street's Johnny DeMairo had bridged the two styles, either as longstanding DJs or via first-hand inspiration. And tthrough its use of samples, disco house lead many house fans and DJs who were too young to know the source material into a world of discovery.

Longstanding DJs such as Francois Kevorkian, Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell, though playing in a contemporary mode, paid direct tribute to this formative disco heritage - the clubs, DJs and the music they played. Their mid-1990s Body and Soul residency, a Sunday afternoon party, was for a period rated as one of the best running. Krivit himself had re-edited countless disco songs and some of these, alongside hard to find favourites from the playlists of clubs like The Loft and Paradise Garage began, on bootleg vinyl, to leave the NYC record stores where they were a staple and travel overseas.

The internet played a huge part in introducing a new, younger audience to the stories and playlists of DJs like David Mancuso, Larry Levan and Nicky Siano and their respective Loft, Paradise Garage and Gallery residencies.Prompted at first by the success of disco house and incentivised by this new, global appreciation of these infamous NYC clubs, labels such as Harmless, BBE, Irma, Strut and Nuphonic began releasing compilations dedicated to undergound disco, these DJs and their clubs.

Though it had never died for many who were older, by the mid to late 1990s a full-on disco revival seemed to be in motion, the influence of which, like the original music itself, would shape much of what was to happen in dance music. Official disco reissues began to appear on 12-inch vinyl as disco labels such as NYC's West End were reborn, with contributors such as Blaze and Masters At Work readdressing and adding to their catalogue. And as the hunger for underground disco music increased in connoisseur quarters, every aspect of vintage disco began to be discovered by ears new to the sounds.

New York's punk-funk and new wave disco scenes proved twice as popular second time round. The catalogues of the likes of ESG and Ze Records were reissued, and even Kid Creole, AKA August Darnell, was transformed from being regarded as the leader of a 1980s Latin cabaret disco act to being rightly appreciated as the subversive lyricist and wayward producer he really was. These leftfield, latter day disco excursions also proved highly influential to a new disco music that began to emerge.

First were perhaps the UK's Idjut Boys and Daniel Wang's mid-90s Balihu project, and not long after the more electronic original material of Metro Area. The impact of new wave disco's rediscovery, including the music of acts like Liquid Liquid and James White & The Blacks, was undeniable in the sound of DFA Records, founded in 2001, and some of its most high profile acts such as LCD Soundsystem, The Rapture and The Juan Maclean.

The internet again played a valuable role in uncovering the playlists and fables of bygone disco residencies. It finally managed to break the language barrier that had prevented word of the 1970s and 1980s innovations of Italian DJs like Daniele Baldelli and Beppe Loda, at places like Baia degli Angeli and Cosmic Club, travelling much outside Italy.

Their playlists were picked over by DJs and producers who had already absorbed most of what the USA had to offer in terms of vintage disco. This often more subversive sound went on to influence a new breed of so-called 'Balearic' disco DJs and new disco producers from places like Scandanavia and the UK.

This new, broad church of often rare and obscure disco sounds along with masterboard mixes of more mainstream, classic disco that were now travelling electronically with ease across the world, became the catalyst in creating a new culture of re-editing music that still continues, for better or for worse.

With the introduction of all these new strands of disco, disco house itself had ceased to be the dominant sound it had been in the late 90s. But it had ensured, for a time, that the melodies, songs and spirit of original disco music had never left the dancefloors. And it had directly influenced a resurgeant interest in its predecessor, original disco.

Henry Street Records ceased vinyl releases early in the 2000s. For a while, this New York independent had held the attention of the underground and the pop charts with its reimagining of disco. In the latter half of its catalogue, although nothing compared to the chart hits of its first few years, the music would continue to be inventive, loved by the underground and tip its hat to disco, as when DJ Duke sampled Manuel Gottsching's E2-E4 for D2-D2. DJ Duke would further explore this trance-like sound on Amor, which would be a favourite at several European clubs.

Though disco house was never again to be the chart-topping force it was in the mid to late 1990s, disco itself continued its revival. It has remained a sound regularly heard at the top of the charts, from the early 2000s in records like Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out Of My Head, right up to the modern day, with Daft Punk scoring a No 1 hit in 2013 thanks to a pure disco collaboration with Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers of disco titans Chic.

Johnny DeMairo, though, never chased after such success. His day job at Atlantic was where pressure existed to shift big numbers. He achieved everything he wanted to achieve with Henry Street and remains satisfied with its output and the contribution it made to disco and house music.

"I didn't do the label for money," he says. "That wasn't what it was about. If you look at a label like Strictly Rhythm, Mark Finkelstein was doing that from a business standpoint. He hired Gladys Pizzaro and others to do the A+R and be the creatives, but he was the money guy - and there was nobody better at it! Sure, people at labels like Strictly and Nervous were music fans, but they were business people first, whereas I was the opposite.

"I wasn't trying to be the next Atlantic Records, I was content being in the underground. Having my fifth release go to the top of the pop charts and become this incredible, worldwide thing, that wasn't planned at all. It gives me great personal satisfaction to look back and know that Kenny's biggest record was with me. Same with Todd's biggest record, and Armand's. That, to me, gives me more satisfaction than any money I could've made."

Words: Marc Rowlands

20 Years Of Henry Street Music: The Definitive 7" Collection Pt 1 is out now on BBE