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History Revision: The art of the disco edit

The controversial practice still shaping modern dancefloors

  • 14 April 2021

The line between thief and innovator is a thin one. "Good artists borrow, great artists steal" goes the infamous Pablo Picasso quote. In music, we regularly see these parallels hotly contested and everyone seems to have an opinion. Fact of the matter is that the re-contextualisation of someone else's music is the reason we have the club culture we have today. The nefarious practice of disco edits are still shaping modern dancefloors today.

Editing has been around ever since music was committed to tape, but in the scheme of dance music, New York was the starting point. The city's budding DJs realised the short run time of the radio tracks they wanted to play wasn't optimal for their sets. In order to blend tracks, they needed drum breaks at the start and extended breakdowns. So with a DIY, almost punk spirit, they set about using the tools at their disposal: a tape deck and cassettes.

"My first tape machine was an old Sony PC30 and then I bought a TEAC that I learned you mark at the playback head and you cut at the record head,” legenadary producer and remixer John Morales, responsible for over 650 reworks with his M+M Music label, tells us. “I mean you would listen to some of those mixes now and you’re like ‘holy fuck it’s in the wrong place’. We were just figuring it out." Morales name-checks Eddie Kendricks' 'Date With The Rain' in 1975 as his first edit.

To begin with, edits were personal pieces of work that artists would do for themselves until bootleggers got hold of copies and started to sell them. The hustle became real. Tuesday was record day in New York and Morales would roam the stores with a group of 15-20 budding DJs and editors, looking for this new form of music. It was a community that included the likes of Jay Negron, François K, Tee Scott, Jelly Bean Benitez, Shep Pettibone and Bruce Forest, to name a few, and it was a family affair according to Morales.

"Everybody knew when somebody had a new release and we’d go ‘Yo, we need to go see Atlantic because they got the new CJ & Company," he says. "The DJ thing back then was more of a community and more of a friendly family atmosphere than it is today where everybody’s a DJ and everybody’s trying to cut each other’s throats."

Eventually these homemade techniques were taken into the studio where legendary producer Tom Moulton basically invented the 'extended mix' despite not being a DJ. Eventually Gibbons, Morales and co made the move into properly facilitated digs like Sunshine Sound and the rest is history.

While edits were making up a major part of New York’s underground disco culture, from Walter Gibbon’s mix of Double Exposure’s ‘Ten Percent’ and Moulton’s extension of BT Express’ ‘Do It (Til You’re Satisfied)’, it took awhile for the practice to reach the UK. Legendary DJ Greg Wilson tells us edits didn’t really come into play in the UK until the mid 90s, as exemplified by DJ Harvey and Gerry Rooney’s seminal Black Cock label, which was inspired by the edits of Ron Hardy. “DJs were much more tuned in by the time Chicago came into play in the mid 80s, but much of what had happened in New York was only understood retrospectively,” Wilson says.

Black Cock’s records were unlicensed edits, sampled from records hooked up to an Atari Mega 4. They were original pirate material, to borrow a phrase, and rarely mentioned the name of the song and were rarely credited to an artist. Their edit of Made In The USA’s ‘Never Let You Go’ is perhaps the most distinguished release of theirs, a track that simply loops the last minute of the original and was made incredibly expensive by an appearance in a Motor City Drum Ensemble Boiler Room set.

UK institution Joey Negro’s first “pure edits” also came in the mid 90s but via a more legal route for famed disco label West End Records. “One of them was a record by Master Dance & Boogie. Before I heard the actual record in its entirety, I heard this West End Mastermix and it was Tony Humphries. It came out on vinyl and it just had a minute and 45 seconds of various tracks, you know like about 20 tracks in a 15-minute mix. I heard a bit of this track and I thought, ‘This sounds like a wicked track’. When I actually got the record, he’d only used a bit of the record and I thought, ‘This is a bit disappointing, actually’. So when I did my edit, I tried to edit a full-length five/six-minute version to make it sound like that bit I had heard in the mix.”

What he ended up with is a track perfect for the DJ, with an extended break at the start for mixing and the best bit of the groove as the main focus of the track. Both of these are perfect examples, both legal and illegal, of why edits are important. One artist’s vision can revolutionise another’s while still maintaining the lineage and heritage of the original. Little tweaks made for an ever evolving dancefloor.

“Some people might say, ‘I really like that record, but I much prefer what happens after 5 minutes’. Some records that were made, especially in the 70s, the nine-minute records, there might be a point where it breaks down at six minutes and then it goes off in a completely different direction, so you might base your edit on just the second half of the track. Or, there might be an edit where you think, ‘I really don’t like the vocals in this track’ – there are definitely records that came out in that era with pretty crap vocals,” explains Negro.

For Greg Wilson, his edits are made from the “mother of necessity”.

“[I make an edit] If I have a track I’d like to play out, but there’s something that makes it difficult for me to programme, perhaps too short an intro/nothing to mix out of, or maybe I love everything about the track, except the cheesy verses that are best left in the past.

“There are lots of great tracks that weren’t made with mixing in mind, so there’s no intro or outro as such to mix into or out of. Then there’s the issue of tempo – a lot of older tracks in the pre drum machine days were recorded without a strict tempo, so quantizing is necessary to put them in time.”

But while they are clearly staples of dance music culture, edits have always been regarded as the black sheep of production practices. Unlike a remix, which uses the original stems of a track and is usually licensed to a producer the artist wants to work with, or a sample which is usually an artist completely re-contextualising a sound, edits walk a grey line between reinventing an old classic while also benefitting from someone else’s art. In 2010, Soul Clap had their ‘R&B Edits’ of a Kanye West and Jamie Foxx tune released five years before, come under heavy scrutiny. It’s detractors called it out as lazy and opportunistic. Others made the point it wasn’t much different to things that had happened been happening in music over the last four decades.

Wilson has said in the past he feels as though it’s every artist for themselves out there and now it’s 2017, that statement couldn’t feel any more relevant. The advent of the computer has changed everything. Producers have gone from working with tape to digital audio workstations. Edits can be knocked up during your morning commute. Tracks don’t even have to be sampled from the original record; instead they can be ripped off YouTube (albeit with the producer opening themselves up to some serious sound quality issues). So does this change the parameters of what can be considered an edit today?

Gergely Szilveszter Horváth is a producer from Hungary who has released under the aliases Route 8 and Q3a. Recently he dropped a disco-inspired EP on his own label This Is Our Time under his DJ Ciderman alias. These tracks certainly aren’t edits in the original sense, but they also aren’t remixes and there is just a little too much of it to be claimed as a sample. If anything, it’s an example of how producers can rework disco tracks into palatable club weapons for 2017. The drums have been beefed up on ‘Summer Groove’ a track that takes its cue from 80s boogie band Mirage’s song of the same name. ‘Be Mine’ is given a pumping kick drum, cuts out the sugary verses and uses filters to build tension. Horváth says he isn’t just here to cut, he wants to create something new.

“The sound has changed a lot [since the original edits] and everyone wants a really pumping, compressed sound and those disco tracks were kind of soft. But if you put some more drums in it they can go really hard," he says.

“I’ve loved disco for a long time and I always did some small edits of random disco tracks but for this DJ Ciderman project I wanted to not just cut some tracks, I also wanted to add some synths and some drums so they kind of turn into a new track.

“Sometimes I think it is a bit easy because they didn’t change anything and they just put a 909 or a random drum on the whole track and that’s all.

“I just listen to tracks and I’m looking for that kind of plus you know. That kind of melody that really pulls you in and you want to dance and hug the people around you.”

Artists like Ron Basejam, Late Nite Tuff Guy, Rahaan and labels such as Razor-N-Tape, Disco Deviance and Make Believe Disco all seem to have a similar attitude to the edits and disco-flecked house they release: big on reinvention while still maintaining credit to the original. They don't operate with tape anymore and using a DAW these days to make a ‘pure edit’ of a track is like going to an ice cream factory and only eating vanilla – why restrict yourself when there are so many more options at your fingertips? The disco edit category is broad and its essence always seems to have an element of duality about it. They’re both legal and illegal. They either seem to be incredible or lackluster. They’re an example of dance music ingenuity but also dance music’s laziest characteristics. But maybe this grey area that they reside in is also its biggest strength. Maybe the art of the disco edit is in the freedom this style of music instills in people.

Louis Anderson-Rich is Mixmag's Digital Producer. Follow him on Twitter

Lawrence Abbott is an artist and freelance creative designer. Follow him on Twitter

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