Today was a historic day – The SCOTUS ruled that love is actually more powerful than hate, and gave equal rights to our LGBT brothers and sisters. I’m so overcome with joy that I feel like shouting about my happiness from every rooftop. And then I remembered that I have been resurrecting my old #BreakbeatTuesday columns and so though that this is a perfect time for me to revisit this piece that I wrote about Carl Bean for the Fool’s Gold #CosmosCrates series, originally posted on January 11th, 2011 courtesy of my Fool’s Gold friends … Enjoy!
What’s good, Fool’s Gold massive? Your favorite record nerd is back again to drop some gems on you, and when I say “gems” I really mean useless shit from the treasure trove that is La Cabeza De Cosmo. Now it’s fucking crazy to me that, here in the 21st Century, there still isn’t equal rights for the LGBT community in America. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that 2 people who love each other and devote their lives to one another, that are gay, do not share the same rights as those who are straight. One day, people will look back at this time and just be ashamed of themselves. Another thing that drives me absolutely batshit crazy are those people in the DJ and dance music community who are completely (consciously or not) homophobic. Don’t you know, if it weren’t for the gay community, none of this shit would even be here in the way it is? But that all might be another discussion for another time, and my time is so very precious, so let me get right to the music this week with “I Was Born This Way.”
To frame how good this song is, last summer me and Eli Escobar were doing an outdoor party and we were playing all vinyl. We thought the crowd was going to be mostly people that came to hear really good dance music, you know, house and disco. But it ended up being more of a “weekend warrior” type of crowd that closely resembled an all Asian prom. Because we only had vinyl we were pretty much locked into what we could play, so we just had to take the brunt of all the requests for Rihanna or Biggie. But, being the dudes that we were, we stuck to our guns and made the most of it, turning the party out. The highlight of the night to me was when Eli played Carl Bean’s “I Was Born This Way” and the dancefloor was packed with what seemed to be a group of South Philly Cambodian thugs, all of them just losing their shit, hands in the air to the song. Eli and I just looked at each other, speechless… Power of the groove, I guess.
This disco anthem and gay liberation touchstone was written by Chris Spierer and Bunny Jones. Jones, a straight, Christian, Black woman from Harlem decided to pen the song in tribute to the gay employees who worked at her hair salon. She realized they were experiencing terrible oppression both in everyday life as well as internally, with a society that wouldn’t allow these folks to express themselves for who they really were. And with that, a protest song was born in 1971. 4 years later it was recorded by a little known singer named Valentino and pressed up by Jones and sold out of the back of her trunk, Too $hort style. It was a stripped down version utilizing a schaffel beat that sounds more like a Partridge Family ’70s pop record than a disco tune, but the song began to pick up steam and started getting a lot of play, even going to #1 in the UK. Sensing a hit, Berry Gordy decided to option distribution rights for Motown, but decided to wait 2 years and rerecord the song with established (though not large by any means) singer Carl Bean. Bean was openly gay but the folks over at Motown were completely ignorant to that fact, merely choosing him because of his powerful, gospel infused vocals. Having matched that with impeccable TSOP production by Norman Harris, they were golden with a silky and sublime groover of a tune – a tune that was the first true gay anthem to come from within the community itself. The song still packs the floors from Christopher Street to the Castro. Bean himself never really had another hit as big, but he did fine with himself, eventually becoming an Archbishop of the Unity Fellowship Church Movement.
By the late 70s disco had transformed from an extension of soul music to a bland pop formula that anyone (and Ethel Merman) wanted to cash in on. Mark Ronson speaks a little bit about that in this fantastic interview. And then the “Disco Sucks” movement was born, a backlash that not so subtly masked it’s latent racism and homophobia in the guise of being “shocking,” dictating that something that was just so much fun just wasn’t cool anymore. It was around this time there was a shift in public taste back towards a more hetero, testosterone infused frat boy rock sound. All good, and I love “My Sharona” as much as the next man, but come on… can’t you let the people live? But of course disco never really died, it just went underground, to places like The Paradise Gagage, and places like The Warehouse in Chicago. And this shift helped give birth to a brand new sound – House Music.
Now OBVIOUSLY if you’re reading the Fool’s Gold blog then you’re no stranger to house and dance music in general. But it has a long and rich history, dating back to the bathhouses of NYC to the Mecca of Chicago through the one and only Frankie Knuckles. House music IS soul music though, in the truest sense of the term. It’s something that gets within you and doesn’t let you go. Shit, in a lot of ways early Techno music is soul music as well. It was a bunch of Black guys from Detroit that wanted to be P-Funk but instead of getting instruments they got drum machines. Anyway, Chicago is arguably the Mecca but New York was still the epicenter of dance culture, and by the late ’80s and early ’90s it had birthed it’s own crop of homegrown artists and producers. And one of these guys is Pal Joey.
You know Pal Joey’s records even if you don’t know who he is. He’s the man behind the all time dance classic by Soho, “Hot Music,” which is perhaps the strangest, funkiest, most progressive dance record of all time. I don’t know how he thought of that but I picture him in the studio saying “Okay, let me loop up this random jazz piano vamp, play some hard as fuck drums on top – but not a four on the floor style, let me play this house beat like a hip-hop breakbeat…” But that’s probably because he comes from the school of DJs – AND LISTENERS / DANCERS – that would fuck with rap music, classics, reggae and house at the same time. That real New York shit you know, where in the ’80s and ’90s rap and dance music all shared the same shelf space. And for the record, Joey has done plenty of hip-hop productions for KRS-One, MC Lyte and more.
But back to “Hot Music,” it’s like he has an uncanny knack for hearing a short segment of music, a small piece that the average listener wouldn’t even catch, and he’ll say “THAT’S THE ONE.” (And be advised, yes, I do know what the “Hot Music” loop is but I’m no snitch.) Another example of Pal Joey’s golden ear is his other group Earth People and their all-time classic house crate staple, “Dance.” This is another one of those songs that you just know. I see Joey on some shit: “Yo, let me peep this Carl Bean record, flip that shit over to the instrumental side… OH SHIT what was that really cool sounding break right in there? Lemme loop that shit up, speed that shit up and put some of the hardest drums known to man on it.” And just like that, another classic is born… Ahahh, I see what you did there.