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How Gay Clubs Created Pop As We Know It

The attack in Orlando was an assault on one of our most important cultural institutions

By Miles Raymer

In 1970, Sanctuary, a foundering nightclub in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, rebranded itself as a gay club, hiring a local disk jockey named Francis Grasso to provide the music. Grasso was unlike any other DJ working at the time: He pioneered the idea of blending songs together seamlessly to keep partygoers dancing. Grasso favored Latin music, African rhythms, big beats, and body music, and found dance-floor devotees in Sanctuary’s diverse clientele. A deconsecrated church decorated with a mural of nude angels engaged in kinky sex acts, the Sanctuary was designed for transgression and excess, and the crowds of gay men reaching ecstatic states en masse to the drum-crazed sounds Grasso was spinning fit the bill perfectly. Few of the revelers could have known that they were witnessing the dawn of a musical revolution called disco, or that their radical idea of how to spend a Saturday night would eventually evolve into modern clubbing and spread to every corner of the world.

When mass murderer Omar Mateen opened fire last weekend on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, he took aim at an institution. Gay clubs have had immeasurable worldwide historical and cultural value to popular music, particularly to the development of electronic and dance music in all their forms. While the mainstream music press has worked overtime to canonize rock clubs like CBGB and the string of venues along L.A.’s Sunset Strip, the gay clubs of the 20th and 21st centuries have played a crucial role in shaping the soundtracks of our lives.

Dance music as we know it was born in the early 1970s, when the first wave of clubs to spring up across the U.S. after the Stonewall riots spread outward from their origins in tiny Greenwich Village bars and downtown lofts. Disc jockeys like Grasso and Nicky Siano took soul, funk, and rock records and distilled them into pure mood and groove, and in the process they not only pieced together the stylistic foundations of disco (and the obsessive focus on rhythm that the style would use to conquer the globe), but also invented beat-matching, the two-turntable setup, and most of the other fundamental tools and techniques of modern DJing. In their seminal book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton call Grasso “the ancestor of all modern DJs, the godfather of the craft, the first DJ that we would recognize as doing the same thing as DJs do today.”

Meanwhile, dancers at all-night parties on the gay enclave of Fire Island inspired record exec Tom Moulton to alter popular songs to isolate and extend their groove — a process we now call remixing — and weave them together into seamless mixes that wouldn’t let the beat drop for hours at a time. Moulton would soon be instrumental to Grace Jones's career. At the same time as punk’s manifesto was being worked out in venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City — by acts like Blondie and The New York Dolls, who looked to gay clubs for inspiration — the dance music revolution was erupting in places like The Sanctuary, The Gallery, and The Sandpiper, whose names haven’t been as widely remembered.

“At a certain point, dance music became self-aware,” says Chicago DJ The Black Madonna. When the scene springing up in gay clubs started to recognize itself as a distinct culture, she says, “immediately we have some of the first openly gay records that address homosexuality in very explicit terms,” citing Carl Bean’s 1977 gay pride anthem, “I Was Born This Way.”

By the time disco broke into the mainstream, on its way to oversaturation via straight clubs in the mold of Studio 54, the core of dance music’s avant-garde had relocated to the Continental Baths on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where DJs Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles spun in a nightclub located inside a gay sex club. Levan eventually left the Baths for Paradise Garage, where he lifted disco’s beat-centric approach to an ecstatic, psychedelic experience. Knuckles relocated to Chicago, where his residency at a gay club called The Warehouse — opened as an alternative to a white gay scene that excluded blacks and Latinos — brought dance music into its next era while also providing it with a name: house.

The electronic four-on-the-floor beat of house music initially filtered into the pop mainstream through Madonna, starting when her 1983 single “Holiday” took her from the club charts to the Hot 100. Like most every pop diva that has followed in her wake, Madonna’s career flourished while working with DJs and producers who had refined their talents in gay clubs. The first was “Holiday” producer John "Jellybean" Benitez, who spun at the Paradise Garage and spiked her debut album with the Hi-NRG sound that producer Patrick Cowley developed in the late '70s while he was resident DJ at San Francisco gay club The EndUp (and in-house composer for a gay porn studio). But while undiluted house music swiftly conquered European pop from top to bottom, in the States it remained largely confined to gay clubs for many years.

Beyond their role as enclaves for dance culture when the rest of America was still reluctant to move past rock and roll, gay clubs have long provided safe spaces for all stripes of expression. Away from big cities, punk clubs and art spaces can be hard to come by, but there are gay clubs all over the hinterlands, from the Rust Belt down to the Deep South, coast to coast, that offer patrons a level of liberation from a society that has long looked at homosexuality as a scourge.

“In life, gay people don't have that privilege to express themselves in certain ways that straight people have, like fashion or makeup or even sex,” says rapper Cakes Da Killa, who got his start playing gay venues. “So when you get these people all in one place, it becomes a safe space for all that — drag queens, glitter — because we finally have the space to express ourselves, uninhibited.” As a result, gay clubs have long been hothouses for creative experimentation and innovation, birthing cultural invention through outrageous and transgressive ideas that couldn’t be realized anywhere else. In San Francisco in the 1970s, you could see a group of glitter-drenched queer bohemians perform hilariously profane, LSD-inspired acts that blurred the line between drag revue and performance art. In Chicago today, you can hit up a club called Berlin for a monthly radical body-positivity pizza party hosted by bearded sci-fi drag queen Lucy Stoole.

“It's a place to be yourself,” says New Jersey–based DJ/producer MikeQ, a major name in the underground gay ballroom scene who also reaches larger, more mainstream audiences through connections to EDM brands like Mad Decent. “In gay clubs, it's a family and underground community. It's a whole way of life — and freedom.”

Some of gay club culture’s wildest inventions end up spreading far and wide. Club kids and drag queens repeatedly take fashion to psychedelic new levels before their innovations are copied by high-fashion houses and trickle down through the mass market. Clubs connected the underground ballroom scene to artists like Madonna and FKA Twigs, who exposed two generations of pop listeners a quarter-century apart to dance styles like voguing. And when fading teen pop stars need to refresh their image with a little more edge and a little more sex, they inevitably turn to gay clubs for inspiration. Whether it’s beats or choreography or fashion or even slang, pop music has been getting regular touch-ups from the gay club scene for decades now. From one angle, it's simple cultural appropriation; others see it as a small but intensely creative community flexing an outsize influence on the world around it. “If you ask me,” MikeQ says, “gays pretty much run the world in music, fashion, and dance. All these big celebrities, their stylists are gay, their choreographers are gay, or they're doing voguing moves or different things like that. Of course, all the people use the gay language now.”

Shifting standards for equality and flourishing connections between subcultures and the mainstream have brought a lot of gay club culture out of the gay clubs. Pop in 2016 sometimes seems like a massive gay dance party turned inside out and spilled onto the street. “Those things don't stay underground, because those things are really important,” says Cakes. “They're beneficial to everyone, whether you're gay or straight. People need to do their research and understand where those things come from, because sometimes those things get lost in the sauce.” House music’s life-giving thump is all around us. Sidewalks and malls are full of young people remixing several decades’ worth of club-kid fashion, with help from designers like Jeremy Scott. People of all genders and sexualities regularly gather by the thousands to strip down to a minimum of clothing, slather themselves in glitter, and spend hours upon hours dancing to a ceaseless groove under the influence of mind-altering chemicals — essentially repeating the same ritual that gay men nearly 40 years ago would enact every Saturday night at The Warehouse.

In recent years, the mainstreaming of EDM and the blending of gay and straight clubbers seem to have robbed the gay club of some of its central role as the radical laboratory of dance music culture. The Black Madonna feels that gay clubs lost touch with the dance music underground — but, she adds, “That is changing right now.” Across the country, there’s been a resurgence in interest in reconnecting dance music to its roots. San Francisco–based DJ collective Honey Soundsystem is touring the world playing the type of disco and proto-house you’d hear at places like The EndUp. (Member Josh Cheon runs the label Dark Entries, which has been reissuing Patrick Cowley’s lost work.) Parties like Queen! in Chicago and Honcho in Pittsburgh are bringing some of the glammy, transgressive energy of clubbing’s earliest days, while New York’s GHE20G0TH1K wraps it in cyberpunkish futurism.

This weekend, in cities around the world, parties and fundraiser nights are being hosted at gay clubs — in defiance, solidarity, and celebration of the culture targeted by the Orlando killer. At a concert on Sunday night in Antwerp, Adele acknowledged the tragedy by dedicating a couple songs to the LGBTQ community — not any of her mournful ballads, but some of the torchy dance songs she’s made that would have blown up the dance floor at any gay disco in the '70s.

“People grieve differently,” Cakes says. “A lot of people have #prayfororlando as a hashtag, but for me, my friend made a post that was like, ‘It's not about praying for Orlando. It's about voguing for Orlando. It's about fucking for Orlando.' To me, it just fires me up to continue living my life.”