Triumphantly countering the racist, homophobic chumps who burned records during the Disco Sucks movement in the US in the late-70s, disco has continued to thrive in the past four decades. The frequently bombastic, sometimes camp and always danceable art form has gone through cultural peaks and valleys since emerging from a primordial soup of nightlife cultures during the 60s and 70s, and now it’s back on top of the mountain.
Look across festival line-ups this year and you’re likely to see in-demand DJs such as Jayda G, Dan Shake, Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, Folamour, Horse Meat Disco and Hunee playing obscure disco treasures, and this year’s charts, airwaves and streaming playlists have been awash with big, brash bangers made out of disco classics, including Oliver Heldens’ I Was Made for Lovin’ You, Majestic’s Rasputin and Belters Only’s I Will Survive.
But there’s another side to the genre’s longevity that is rarely appreciated. Quietly keeping disco ringing out in clubs since the 90s has been the growth of a culture around disco edits: tracks that subtly chop up and give oomph to old disco songs – and the current UK No 1 single is arguably the first modern disco edit to top the charts. LF System comprise two young Scottish producers, Conor Larkman and Sean Finnigan, and their single Afraid to Feel is now sat above Harry Styles, Kate Bush and Beyoncé – the UK’s most successful dance record since Joel Corry’s Head & Heart in 2020.
It’s an unconventional banger, based entirely around a slow, seductive Philly disco obscurity by a band called Silk. Released in 1979 on the Philadelphia International Records label (also home to Billy Paul, the O’Jays and Teddy Pendergrass), Silk’s I Can’t Stop (Turning You On) is the basis for the looped verses and chorus of Afraid to Feel. “We found the Silk track around 2019,” explains Finnigan. “I was deliberately digging around for samples, going out of my way to find loops and vocals to use.” LF System jacked the tempo up from 85 to 130bpm, as well as adding big hoofing drums on the drops, some clever filtering of bass frequencies during the low-key bits and an excellent sweeping tempo drop. “That came from just messing about with the tempo in Ableton Live,” explains Larkman, saying such software allowed them to “do pretty much anything with it”.
It is not a remix, nor is it a case of merely wielding a catchy hook and looping it up (like the Bucketheads’ evergreen The Bomb!, which samples Chicago, or Big Love by Pete Heller, which samples Stargard). Afraid to Feel has the integrity of the original song, which makes it closer to a disco edit than anything the charts have ever seen before.
But what is a disco edit, exactly? In 2022, the term is so wonderfully broad that it essentially refers to an old record that has been tweaked or embellished to sound banging on a dancefloor. But it was not always thus: the first disco edits heralded the beginning of what we recognise as dance music culture today.
It started when New York’s Tom Moulton began experimenting with reel-to-reel tapes to extend the duration of danceable soul and funk hits of the early 70s, bursting them past the confines of a radio-friendly play length in order to keep dancers on the floor for longer. As music began to be more dancefloor-focused, a new type of producer emerged: someone who could slice and dice the tapes to reimagine the structure of a song and create the most energy.
While Moulton himself was never a DJ, fellow pioneers such as Walter Gibbons, François Kevorkian, Danny Krivit and John Morales would use their experiences in the booth to inform their incredible disco edits. Other DJs such as Larry Levan and Ron Hardy would craft edits for their own signature use. But as the use of digital hardware grew during the 80s – making songs easier to remix from top to bottom – the era of cutting and chopping faded.
At the start of the 90s, with disco largely seen as passé, two men – DJ Harvey and Gerry Rooney – still held a flame for that original form of editing, slicing up tracks (released under the puerile and irresponsible name of Black Cock) to keep the spirit of underground disco alive. In the 2000s, a new generation of editors came to the fore. Norway’s Todd Terje produced a staggering amount of edits, bringing a drama-inducing glacial dub and a bit of cheekiness to pop classics such as Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes or the Bee Gees’ You Should Be Dancing. Those same trippy, dubby touches could be heard on edits by Idjut Boys, while fellow Londoner Dave Lee reworked a fleet of disco treasures on his Z Records label. For the crate-digging heads of the era, Theo Parrish’s Ugly Edits and Moodymann’s psychedelic sampling of Chic and Bob James offered a Detroit perspective; while for more casual fans, two CD compilations – Danny Krivit’s Edits by Mr K in 2003 and Greg Wilson’s Credit to the Edit in 2005 – also helped spread the word to a new generation unaware of the glory of disco’s underground past.
Good edits work for a variety of reasons. Frequently they might increase tension by tightly looping a section before finally dropping into a bassline, chorus or refrain – providing an ecstatic release on the dancefloor that a song’s composer never would have conceived of. Other times, they might bring music from unlikely genres into a disco space: take Erol Alkan’s classic rework of Metronomy’s The Bay or, more recently, Oden & Fatzo’s edit of Lauren, which was once a gentle slice of chilled indie. And then, according to esteemed collector, DJ and producer Nick the Record, there are edits that “take a record that is unplayable in its original form due to some terrible bits – like some over-the-top vocals or a big cheesy key change – and salvage all the good parts to make something new”.
By contrast, fellow collector and DJ James Hillard from the pivotal Horse Meat Disco collective used to eschew edits for years because they largely “took all the fun bits out”. But as he has played to bigger audiences, he has appreciated edits by producers such as Opolopo, Dimitri from Paris and Michael Gray, who “make sure the original vibe isn’t lost, but also bring the songs up to modern production standards”. This includes having beats that are quantised, making disco records easier to mix. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a clear kick in there, for example, if you’re playing after DJs who are playing more banging sets.”
As disco edits became cool again, they were commonly disseminated in two ways: either through fan-run music blogs that hosted MP3s for nothing, or deliberately small and anonymous runs of vinyl pressings aimed at DJs. The reason for this speaks to an awkward aspect of the disco edit scene: most were never officially licensed.
It’s possible to have sympathy for DJs and editors here. Many have spoken of the herculean task of finding requisite legal rights holders to obscure songs, especially for musicians dating back to the 70s or before, when music contracts were a hazy entity even for the artists involved. But the line between reverential edit and shameless, exploitative bootleg can be uncomfortably slim at times, and this problem persists. A search of edits on digital record store Bandcamp will often return genius rejigs of obscure works, but it might also find full versions of not-obscure songs with just 16 bars of an opening drum break tacked on and lazily looped, with the money going to the editor, not the original artist.
And when a song with a big disco hook crosses into the charts, the original artists might be making less than you would think, too. Despite their track sounding almost identical, LF System didn’t technically sample Silk’s I Can’t Stop (Turning You On). “We actually got a replay on that sample,” says Finnigan, referring to a growing trend for major labels to commission teams of musicians to do a replica version of the original. Instead of sampling the original, they’re interpolating it – meaning they only have to get approval from the songwriter or publisher, not the owner of the recording itself. “It’s an interpolation of Silk, that’s why it sounds slightly different,” confirms Finnigan. “Obviously there are copyright laws and publishing laws and all those kind of things. So that’s the way it is; that’s the way to do it.”
It’s easier to get an interpolation cleared as there’s only one set of people to persuade – but it also means there’s only one set of royalty payments, as you don’t have to also pay to use the sample. On the one hand, Silk’s songwriters are credited on Afraid to Feel and getting an unexpected royalty payday. On the other, depending on who now owns the rights to the original recording of Silk’s I Can’t Stop (Turning You On), they could have earned more besides if it had been directly sampled, rather than re-recorded.
Is it right that major labels enable a process that curbs incomes to songwriters, singers and musicians whose talent is clearly still in demand? Warner Music Group, home to LF System, recently reported 10.1% year-on-year growth and an annual revenue of $1.38bn (£1.16bn). More broadly, this interpolation becomes part of a wider pattern in dance music, where white dance acts benefit from the artistry of black musicians. This has been predominantly called out in the EDM scene, which made billions from music – house and techno – that was ultimately rooted in black creativity, but less attention has been paid to the underground scenes where disco edits have resided until recently.
These ethical quandaries need to be seriously considered by disco editors, but it is nevertheless still worth celebrating how dancefloors are heaving to records that young listeners may never have otherwise heard. “The fact that these records are 40 years old and still sound fresh on the dancefloor is incredible,” says Horse Meat’s Hillard. “It’s not just old farts like us that like them either: the kids love it as well.” It is a delicate trade off, but if edits keep the fire burning for a style of music that middle America once tried to incinerate, they have to be a force for some good in the world.
10 great examples of modern disco edits
The Pointer Sisters – Send Him Back (Pilooski edit)
Some edits reorder a song so profoundly that the original ends up sounding instantly second-rate in comparison. Here, French producer Pilooski turns an average Northern Soul stomper into a six-minute riot of yearning, handclaps and brio.
C.O.M.B.i. – It a Late
Total, utter filth. Ruthlessly chopping down a forgotten Village People single into a few tight loops, it is packed with hazy euphoria and sleazier than a House of Commons bar.
Secret Squirrels #2 – Track A
A take on the Coachhouse Rhythm Section’s Time Warp, using nothing more than an obscure, robotic Eddy Grant groove and some deft cuts and delays, this cut from the vinyl-only Secret Squirrels series is a masterclass in editing.
Blamma! Blamma! – Beyond 17
Proving not every edit has to be strictly disco, this slow burner from 2010 steadily chugs Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen into nirvana; it waits almost four and half minutes before releasing the vocals and letting that white-winged dove fly.
Teddy Pendergrass – Only You (John Morales M+M mix)
Only a true master of the craft could create the moment – at 1.21 – when vocals and baseline finally, orgasmically, synchronise.
The Bee Gees – You Should Be Dancing (Todd Terje re-edit)
Terje’s edits are wondrous and many, but I had to pick this one because a team of Strictly dancers asked me to play the original at an awards after-party once. I only had this interminably long and teasing edit, which hilariously confused them no end.
It’s a Fine Line – Edit Service 8
Edit culture has a knack for serving up more than just grooves. An emphatic piece of anti-Thatcherite prose from Pete Wylie (recorded in 1983) was reworked beautifully in 2013 by Tim Paris and Ivan Smagghe.
Patrick Cowley – Lift Off (ft Paul Parker) (Alan Dixon DJ Friendly mix)
A great example of what James Hillard refers to as an edit that doesn’t lose the vibe of the original. God-level producer Patrick Cowley receives a tiny tweak to make it sit alongside any 2022 banger.
Daphni – Sizzling (ft Paradise)
Another modern gem that combines an irresistible sample with a canny use of frequencies and kicks to make it boot off every time.
Mella Dee – Techno Disco Tool
The title does the all work here. Sister Sledge’s Pretty Baby gets replanted into a modern tech-house garden and unexpectedly thrives.