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Flying High 

Do you remember disco heat?

Wednesday, Jul 1 1998
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A skinny black man with pencil-thin dreads stands on the sidelines of a packed dance floor, eyes closed, head bobbing in rhythm with the music. His white shirt, matted to his back with sweat, is unbuttoned and swings at his sides, flashing Hershey Kiss nipples at the crowd. Loose-fitting pants flap out from his legs, one of which is pumping furiously; the other anchors him in place as he bounces up and down on the ball of his foot. The DJ's serving the old Ecstasy, Passion & Pain disco hymn "Touch and Go," and like Precious said, it's the definition of a track: Barbara Roy's real diva vocals, lisping high-hat, words of love-gone-wrong. Horns, taut percussion and sweetly sung boo boo boos underscore the song's drama. As the vocals drop away and the DJ sits deep in the cut, the dancer clasps his hands to the sides of his head and almost imperceptibly sways his shoulders and hips; unless you look closely, he appears to be frozen in place. He keeps his eyes shut tight.

The boy is having an Audrey Rose moment. He's been snatched back to the arms of the legendary New York club Paradise Garage and its late DJ Larry Levan; an entire era is shining down on him. Next on the turntable is the goofy and gorgeous "To Each His Own" by the aptly named Faith, Hope & Charity, who chant-sing the lyrics: "The best of business/in the line of business/is to mind your business/If you got no business/then make it your business/to leave other people's business alone/To each his own/that's my philosophy/I don't know what's right for you/and you don't know what's right for me . . ." It's all the boy can do not to weep.

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There was a time when the dance-floor tempo was pitched somewhere between 'ardkore madness and ambient sleepiness, when the grooves - pure but multidimensional R&B - hugged everyone and everything from Hamilton Bohannon's "Foot Stompin Music" (a deep-pocket jam that makes most contemporary acid jazz seem anemic by comparison) to Jerry Knight's "Overnight Sensation." The latter was one of those tunes that, in its day, was unabashedly derivative yet still had an extra little sumthin' that made it click in the mind; think of Next's current hit, "Too Close," a track identical to every other bit of Negro boy-group product out right now, only . . . somehow not. In between there'd be space for Linda Clifford's timeless, thumping overhaul of the show-tune standard "If My Friends Could See Me Now."

Those songs and more than 30 others are gathered on Super Rare Disco, Volumes 1 & 2 (Robbins Entertainment), a collection that dispels a lot of myths. Lost beneath nostalgia's glare of Spandex, sequins and black-girl cleavage are the overwhelming contributions of black male singers (and not just Sylvester) to the disco genre; it wasn't all bubblegum, kitsch and endless loops of "Shame" and "Got To Be Real." In these two discs alone, there's Jimmy Ruffin's Al Green-ish "Tell Me What You Want," the magnificent Trammps' "Hold Back the Night" as well as their soul-drenched cover of Judy Garland's "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," and Mike & Bill's "Somebody's Gotta Go (Sho Ain't Me)." Jerry Knight, the Main Ingredient, Eddie Kendricks and even Gil Scott-Heron are just a few of the other brothers who also clocked time on the dance floor. Digging these titles up, brushing them off and putting them under the disco banner they originally occupied reconfigures the memory of what disco was, both musically and culturally.

That these tracks - shoo-ins for old-school funk and R&B retrospectives - were once disco mainstays will surprise many. That a lot of the scene's black male energy was anything but swish will shock keepers of the stereotype flame. What's neither shocking nor surprising is that the boundaries of contemporary dance music - which have been blasted wide open only if you believe the hype - have been drawn along lines that still exclude Funky Black Maleness, especially that which doesn't sashay or shantay. But that doesn't mean FBM isn't still one of the most crucial arteries in the heart of the music.

"Don't you wanna go back, back to paradise?" croons Byron Stingily on "Back to Paradise." The second track on his recent CD, The Purist (Nervous), it functions as both tribute to and lament for the Paradise Garage. The album is a mission statement; "Back to Paradise" is the album's thesis.

Starting with the title cut, Stingily throws down a gauntlet. Naming his collection The Purist and then backing the gesture with an album of defiantly soulful house music is the radical fuck-you gesture that Prodigy will never pull off. There's no speed-garage, nu garage, Big Beat nonsense - no concessions to ham-fisted genre fusions that desperately scream out "white youth demographic" - nor any infusion of "punk" attitude to make the music accessible to suburban lads. This is music whose lineage is unmistakably hot, stank Harlem rent parties from the '20s, sepia soul shouters and blues crooners spread over decades, and prophesying sissies crowded into dark, sweaty New York discos and Chicago warehouses circa the late '70s and early '80s. "Do you remember, do you remember?" asks Stingily, his trademark falsetto veering dangerously out of control - that's what happens when bittersweet memories, shadowy grief and snatched joy all try to huddle within a single note.

Stingily and his producers/collaborators (such stalwarts of American-style, inner-city house as Masters at Work, Frankie Knuckles, David Morales, Basement Boys, Paul Simpson, et al.) dip into the past to invigorate the present. "Get Up" (best dance single of '97) nicks the chorus and energy from Sylvester's "Dance (Disco Heat)" to create a new, fuck-electronica anthem; the cover of Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" deftly incorporates fragments of "Devotion," the signature tune of Stingily's former house group, the iconic Ten City. One acquaintance, when hearing the Basement Boys-helmed "It's Over" for the first time, exclaimed, "Larry [Levan] woulda rocked that shit!" But The Purist isn't simply an elegy for what's gone before - it fills a void.

From the lush and romantic opener "Flying High" to the Morales-produced "Don't Fall in Love" (a cold-hearted but fierce player's anthem) to the churchified new single "Testify," Stingily & Co. operate under the belief that house is lifestyle music: You pump it while getting dressed to go clubbing, while cruising in your buddy's car, clowning on the dance floor, getting a serious groove on, flirting madly or chilling by yourself with headphones. A good house groove is applicable to a variety of situations; a great one encompasses enough colors to fit any given emotional moment.

The Purist isn't flawless; if anything, its weakness is that it's too much of a good thing. In working with over a dozen producers, Stingily left the door open for an unspoken competition; everyone tried to come up with a stomping anthem, and listening to the set in its entirety can be wearisome. Taken as a whole, the album contains lulls that vary from listen to listen, depending on your personal endurance level - a track that's initially the perfect groove will later feel like monotonous overkill. Best to break the album up into bite-size portions, as is helpfully suggested by the set list on the disc's back sleeve: Early Evening, Crowd Pleasers, Garage Set, After Hours, Sunday Morning.

By returning to antiquated notions about soulfulness, complexity of emotions, melody and sexuality, Stingily and his crew offer to change - if not save - your life. That was the promise held out by disco (the real stuff, not the cheese), and that was the promise kept by Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage.

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