Make People Happy: Disco DJ Daniel Wang

DG: Daniel, from Berlin to Tokyo, you are known for your infectious, bop-a-long disco energy, behind the decks and on the dancefloor, where you often join your punters. The Demented Goddess has a jazz musician friend who plays Ashford and Simpson’s ‘Get Up And Do Something’ every morning, with revolving disco lights, to help him get out of bed and to the next gig. What tunes would you play to motivate someone who doesn’t love disco?

Hmm, what might I play to someone who doesn’t like standard disco tunes?  That depends that person’s starting point. I imagine a moody teenage boy, or maybe a stodgy old upper-class lady. If they’re into prog rock or blues, I’d start with Pink Floyd “The Wall” or Alan Parsons “Mammagamma” or Rolling Stones “Miss You” as examples of where the white male rock thing meets a funky floating bass groove. On the other hand, a stodgy old lady who only likes classical might get into Walter Murphy’s “Mostly Mozart” or Richie Rome’s jazzy version of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”! These are slightly obvious examples, but I myself don’t listen to Donna Summer at home all the time either. Some ears are beyond rescue. I mean, all these EDM and tech-trance DJs… a jazz musician wouldn’t need much convincing anyhow, because great disco music WAS often simply good jazz chords on a 4/4 beat.

DG: Well, so much of our best music – disco, electronica, Bowie, Radiohead – is influenced by jazz.  How did working in a New York synth shop – and with Dr. Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer – affect the kind of music you wanted to play as a DJ and produce as a music maker?

To be clear, I spent 4 or 5 days of my life in the presence of Dr. Bob Moog and it was largely thanks to a girl named Pamelia who is considered the best theremin player around. But that music store job, in New York, 1996-2001, was an enormous apprenticeship, in not only the theoretical and technical matters but also in the human side of the music business. I went to visit Roy Ayers’ home, had conversations with Brian Eno and Grandmaster Flash, got free front row seats with Joe Zawinul at the Blue Note. Less famous but fantastic musicians would hang out with me after business hours, and we’d sing Cole Porter and Jobim tunes together.  I got some incredible ear-training there.

DG: You’ve mentioned the late, great Godfather of house, Frankie Knuckles as an influence. What do you love about him? Are there particular clubs or moods that encourage you to play house music and do you ever play the more spare, Chicago drum-machine sound?

I heard Frankie Knuckles about 5 or 6 times between 1993 and 1998. And I DJ’d at a party with him in London a few years before he passed away. In fact, in my memory, he NEVER played any of those sparse drum machine tracks (like DJ Pierre or Jamie Principle) which people associate with Chicago. House music WAS disco, even in the mid to late 1980s. Frankie’s sound was smooth, melodic, groovy – Rod Temperton, Ashford & Simpson, and some Eurodisco too – not “jungle drums” like the Ron Hardy sound, or “wannabe Afro Latin” like Louie Vega and other New York djs into the 1990s. He never broke up the flow with sudden unexpected transitions – not at the gigs which I heard, at least. A philosophy stood behind his mixing, which respected harmony, commonalities between diverse sounds and the deep communal feeling generated by everyone on the dancefloor.  That’s what inspired me, most of all.

DG: True, early house music was closer to disco than people think.  Though The Demented Goddess likes getting down to a cold spanking from K-Hand at a hot point in the dance.  You are unabashed at playing records others find kitsch – music we’d hear at a wedding or a kiki party. Do you feel that kitsch nostalgia is good or bad?

The kitschy sound question! It’s kind of complex! This might surprise people, but I  don’t like a lot of kitschy or sing-along tunes either. I still don’t own a ABBA’s Greatest Hits CD… something metallic about those ladies’ voices always irked me and the arrangements are mostly too square. But when a certain type of woman or gay man in my audience requests “Gimme Gimme (a Man After Midnight)”, I am happy to oblige, because my desire is to make “regular people” happy,  not to impress the “chin strokers”.

Then there are songs like the Salsoul version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which I can’t stand – because Jocelyn Brown’s vocals on it are just awful. It’s sacrilege to say that about anything mixed by Larry Levan, but hey.. she’s out of tune.
But the “kitsch” judgment often comes from the dullards who don’t actually enjoy dancing. Disco music has a fundamentally “camp” aspect, an exaggeration of certain musical as well as emotional gestures.  The dancefloor is a special place where such fun gets let loose. It’s where the Philharmonic orchestra can groove and rock out the string sections along with the choir girls! That’s the WHOLE POINT!

DG: Is disco music queer?

That’s a hard one, too… the truth is, identity politics bothers me a great deal, lately.   I’m not a right-wing supporter obviously. To me, good music contains intrinsic mathematical and harmonic truths.  When I think of music I love, the composers or arrangers were of different types, of dark or light skin.  Many were  heterosexual. But they communicated universal human feelings of desire, happiness, physical energy.
I see a LOT of DJs being booked nowadays because they can claim a queer or alternative sexual identity, but the content they offer is pretty dull. In fact, I can’t stand that noisy, narcissistic, banging 1990s house music which some are reviving.
DG: Agreed.  90s house is the cue for The Demented Goddess to get some fresh air….
Of course, these people are not disco.. they’re just DJs.  Good music has a universal core which all humans can adopt into their world view – queer, Latin, European, suburban, even purely consumerist or nihilistic.   The disco genre, up to a point, respected that core.  Not all disco, but some of it, was the queerest music ever made!
Daniel Wang was in conversation with Soma Ghosh
One of our favourite Wang-Banger nights, at La Mona, Paris:

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