The Men In The Glass Booth: The Origins of DJ and Club Culture

The Men In The Glass Booth: The Origins of DJ and Club Culture

Today, club and DJ culture is a multi-billion dollar industry, employing legions of people and firing the aspirations of an equally huge number of individuals who want a piece of the action. It has morphed immeasurably since its beginnings and continues to evolve, for instance, with advances in playing formats and the advent of social media. There are now entire festivals devoted to this culture and a global audience who, for decades, have been shaped by the sound of dance music and who are only too aware of the pivotal role of the DJ within it.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the not too distant past, the role of the DJ was a very different one within an industry unrecognisable to the one we know today. Global acclaim, releasing your own album, first class international travel and five star hotels would have been as alien to the pioneers of DJ culture as it is today to the everyman. Just 5 or 6 decades ago, the DJ would have just been the guy in an unkempt, darkened corner of the room who helped a bar or club sell more beer. Even at an incredibly low rate of pay, particularly compared to today’s sometimes astronomical DJ fees, more often than not, he probably would have been regarded as little more than a rather costly alternative to a jukebox. As we know, all that has now changed and the spotlighted DJ is respected and revered as the focal point of the club culture and dance music industry.

“Back in the beginning a DJ got work because of their taste in music and their skills on the decks,” says well informed enthusiast, dancer, producer and DJ Al Kent. “The production was secondary. Nowadays you need to have a hit record in order to get press or gigs. There are so many producers today who might be able to make the most amazing record, but they can’t really play in a club. But they do, because they have a record out.” 
Propelled by media and advertising concerns, this modern, back-to-front valuing of music making over actual Djing talent is the complete opposite to how this story begins. On Men In The Glass Booth, Al Kent traces the origins of the tale to a point where it was a DJ’s skill that enabled that jump into the studio.

Unlike other histories of modern culture, such as the story of rock n roll or the evolution of jazz, the comparatively recent beginnings of DJ and club culture have a definite and irrefutable starting point. Documented well in book form by the likes of Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, BBE’s new compilation shines new light onto the very beginnings of the DJ’s changing role and the evolution of club culture that lead to what we see today. In a labour of love that has taken 6 years to produce, Al Kent has exhaustively researched the birth of DJ culture from that mid 70s moment when soul music spawned disco. His compilation is the first to exclusively focus on several ‘big bang’ moments for DJ and club culture; the emergence of the 12” single as a format, the re-editing of records as a DJ tool, the changing role of the DJ as he entered the production studio for the first time and the construction of a still evident template for dance music productions.

“I originally approached BBE with several ideas, one was for a collection of acetate stuff, another a collection of remixes,” says Kent. “But that was six years ago and as we got into it, this coherent single project emerged.” From the very first 12” single to the first DJ re-edits and remixes, via introduction of the now standard, DJ-friendly beat intros and the “watershed” moment of Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent”, on Men In The Glass Booth Al Kent shows us the genesis of DJ and club culture. 
Much more than just a musical document, Men In The Glass Booth is also a historical one. In the epic, painstaking and thoroughly well researched sleevenotes included with the compilation, Al Kent manages to lead you through these radical, revolutionary moments, placing them within a clearly defined and logical tale of advancement that encapsulates exactly what happened and why it happened. In doing so he makes today’s culture, perhaps for the first time, wholly understandable.

“Between the sleevenotes and the music, what I’ve tried to do is tell the story of where we are now with DJ culture and remix culture and how we got there,” says Kent. “This is the roots of it, the first time that DJs started to actually make music, because they knew what would work on the dancefloor.” 
Within this tale several key players emerge, each offering unique contributions to the advancement of the culture. Some such as Francois Kevorkian, Walter Gibbons and Jellybean Benitez are extremely well known, but Men In The Glass Booth defines exactly just what important steps they took and what skills they utilised. Others such as Tom Savarese, Bobby Guttadoro, Jay Negron, Tee Scott and Tony Gioe are less acclaimed but, in some instances, no less relevant.

“I don’t there’s anybody on there who people who collect disco 12”s wouldn’t recognise,” says Kent, “but I do think it sheds a new light on the importance or abilities of some of those names.”
 Navigating the minefield of major label licensing, the music Kent brings to his compilation finally places in the hands of anyone interested many releases that were previously the exclusive property of a select number of DJs and collectors. Though very much made for club play, some of these versions are now key to understanding club culture and all the more accessible thanks to decades of music they spawned.

Included on the compilation is music essential for understanding. On Tony Gioe’s pioneering remix of Marboo “What About Love” you can hear the very moment that the path of disco emerges from soul music. On the Sunshine Sound mix of the classic disco 7” The Sunshine Band “Black Water Gold” you can hear why these pioneers instigated the changes we accept as norms today. On Ruby Andrews “I Wanna Be Near You” you can hear how genius mixer John Morales makes contemporary the sound of an idolised Northern soul singer. And in Walter Gibbons’s peerless inclusions you can hear the madcap genius in full flight, testing the possibilities of the extended version, his wild imagination granting a new perspective on much loved classics by Double Exposure. And then there’s his remix of “It’s A Better Than Good Time”.

“The Gladys Knight remix is, I think, not only his greatest remix, it’s also one of the best records I’ve ever heard in my life,” says Al Kent of one of the rarest and most coveted records of the disco era. Issued as a 12” in 1978, Walter Gibbons was commissioned to provide a remix of the former Motown stars in 1979. That remix came out only in Canada and only in a savagely edited 6 minute version. Though Walter Gibbons’s full version has appeared on bootlegs and compilations previously, they were mono mixes ripped straight from vinyl. Having sourced the original master tapes, Al Kent has been able to include, for the first time anywhere (aside the original promo 12”), the full 12 minute remix, in stereo, as Walter Gibbons intended it to be heard. Its inclusion is, to many, alone worth the price of purchase.

In every piece of music included on The Men In The Glass Booth you can find a near comparable worth. These days he’s frequently associated with disco, but Al Kent can never really shake off his soul music roots and, as a result, his selections are ruthlessly vetted giving priority to the song. Aside from the obvious focus on the integral work of club culture’s godfathers, The Men In The Glass Booth contains musicianship and vocals that often rivals the best of what the soul music of the era had to offer. Via the hands of the pioneering manipulators who are the hero of this story, we learn how that music came to design one of the most prevalent and important areas of modern culture.

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Words by Marc Rowlands