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Kai Fikentscher

Related: dance music - musicology


KAI FIKENTSCHER holds degrees in jazz performance and composition from Berklee College of Music and Manhattan School of Music, as well as in ethnomusicology from Columbia University. When not teaching music courses and lecturing on topics in expressive African American culture, he works in New York City as a music producer, freelance guitarist, audio consultant, and sound technician.

From Soundscapes

"Supremely clubbed, devastatingly dubbed"

Some observations on the nature of mixes on 12-inch dance singles Winter, 1991

by Kai Fikentscher

Columbia University

From its inception in the mid-seventies, the 12-inch single became a vehicle for the emancipation of the disk-jockey, documenting his development from a more passive role as turntable operator to more active ones in the fields of song writing, production and engineering. Via the 12-inch single, many a DJ has risen to the status of artist, and this has necessitated a redefinition of such familiar concepts as musical instrument, performer and the role of audience in performance. Here Kai Fikentscher tells about the history of this record format and the way it was used by DJ's to change their role in music production.

1 This essay draws from my ongoing fieldwork in New York City. My observations concern the main medium of contemporary urban dance culture, the 12-inch dance single. Since its inception in 1975, the 12-inch dance single has developed as a creative outlet for songwriters, producers, recording engineers and disk-jockeys working in the art world of dance music, [1] as this category of urban popular music is generally referred to, often in close association with each other, to the point where, in the process, more than one role may be assumed by the same person.

2 I will focus on the nature of what, in this art world, is referred to as mix and remix. Since these terms are part of the vocabulary of people concerning themselves with the production of vinyl recordings in general, a comparison of form and content of the 12-inch dance single with those of its more familiar vinyl siblings, the 7-inch single spinning at 45 rpm, and the 12-inch LP, also known as album, turning at 33,3 rpm, will be offered. I will also refer to particular performers and records where I believe that they are characteristic of the developments that have helped make dance music culture as a distinctive and self-contained part of contemporary urban popular culture.

3 The 12-inch single was a late and unexpected child of the recording industry. It was therefore given a name to distinguish it from its older vinyl siblings. "12-inch" refers to the diameter of the record which it shares with the LP. "Single" refers to the quantity of songs per side as on the 45 rpm single. Whereas 45s and LPs have been common fare since the late 1950s and 1960s, respectively, 12-inch dance singles were issued first in mid-1975, and then only to a small clientele: disk-jockeys, alternatively known as DJ's, who were perceived to constitute the only group to become attracted to the new format.

4 The association of 12-inch singles with the term disco is not surprising. It is correct on several levels. Whereas disco was a style of music and dancing with increasing popularity in 1975, "disco" also stood for "discotheque," the location where disco, the music and dance, could be heard and seen, thanks to the presence of a disk-jockey. Eventually, disco became more than a style of music and dance. Fashion, hairstyle and personal attitude were shaped by disco, to the extent that disco as a lifestyle is now historically framed as well. In terms of urban dance music, the 1970s are known as the disco era. [2] This is confirmed with the simultaneous disappearance of both the features in terms of style bell-bottom pants and octave bass lines are out-of-fashion in 1990 and the usage of the term to denote its associations former discotheques are now referred to as "clubs," the music is now known under many other names, such as House, Go Go, Hip-Hop, Techno etc.

5 A brief chronology of the history of the 12-inch single will contextualize the present state of affairs. Shannon (1985: 205), a former disk-jockey, explains the emergence of the 12-inch format as "the only logical alternative ... for record companies to place longer versions on special promotional album-size ... records." He continues: "These ... would enable longer cuts and a different studio mix to be used, compared to what was available on an album or 45 and would also assure that a song's reproduction would ... have better sound quality and greater volume" (Shannon, 1985: 205). These concerns then reflect a compromise between what DJ's wanted record companies to provide them with, and what advantages and risks record companies saw in terms of marketing.

6 Only "after the longer cuts ... on promotional 12-inch singles began to increase in numbers and in popularity through discotheque exposure, record companies realized there was a potential commercial market for 12-inch singles" (Shannon, 1985: 206). They subsequently started to issue 12-inch singles for commercial release in the fall of 1976. To differentiate the new format, 12-inch singles were marketed as Giant 45 or Giant Single. This was supposed to underscore their nature as singles, and to avoid confusion with the similar looking album, for which 12-inch singles quickly came to serve as a promotional tool. The packaging was also different, from the beginning. Many 12-inch singles were and are often dressed in a plain one-color record jacket with the center cut out to show the sticker bearing the song titles on the record.

7 Initially then, early 12-inch records contained extended versions of songs which, in most cases, were also available in shorter form on 45s or LPs, with the B-side often providing the same music without vocals. This latter version was called instrumental or instrumental version, even if remnants of the voice track were present (e.g. Grace Jones' "Perfect"). Over time, the term mix was used synonymously with version, and eventually the former term displaced the latter, both in terms of usage and in print on vinyl records and record jackets. Thus, a term used primarily in the recording studio became adopted in the environment of the discotheque as well.

8 In the former context, a mix denotes the phase following a stage of multitrack recording, or the product of that phase, during which the final balance of all tracks to each other in terms of volume and timbre is determined. In that sense, a mix is comparable to a score is to a composer in the context of Western art music: it's an authoritative text. In the context of a dance venue, however, a mix refers to the blending of records and, perhaps, sound effects, accomplished with less sophisticated equipment and in real time, by a DJ at a dance venue. The result of a DJ's effort then actually constitutes a remix, since he uses previously fixed mixes on vinyl recordings.

9 In the course of the 1980s, however, particularly with advent of sampling technology, the same procedure, eventually made its way into the recording studio. Not only were sections stretched, through the repetition of previously released material, but individual tracks were redone, either by using different mixing technology (e.g. echo, different equalization) or by actual rerecording using additional musicians, often recruited from the production team (e.g. the work of Clivilles / Cole). These results became known as re-mixes, to differentiate them from the "original" mixes found on 45s and LPs. A DJ using recordings of this kind for his "live"-mix at a dance venue only adds another dimension to the remix concept.

10 The early 1980s were a period in which the lines between studio producers, engineers, songwriters and disk-jockeys became increasingly fuzzy. Many DJ's, in addition to spinning records at clubs, ventured into dance music production, bringing many of the workplace concepts and techniques into the recording studio. In the process, the art of mixing using a multitrack console and recorder, and of mixing at a dance venue, using two or more turntables and a comparatively unsophisticated audio mixer, moved closer to each other. The more savvy DJ's were the first to feed the knowhow thus acquired back to the dance venue. As a result, the number of versions found on a 12-inch single has increased from two (A-and B-side) to about four to six.

11 To account for this new flexibility, different categories of versions or mixes were developed during this period, as DJ's became increasingly involved in the songwriting, producing and engineering of dance music. The oldest of these now more or less standard categories is the dub. [3] In addition to containing one extended, one instrumental and one or more dub mixes, contemporary 12-inch dance singles often feature at least one of the following:

13 The interaction or overlap between the technological approaches characteristic of the recording studio on one side and the DJ booth at a dance venue on the other is exemplified by the way the aesthetic domain of the latter former has affected that of the former. When moving from record to the next, the DJ bases his choice of sequence on his assessment of the compatibility between the two songs, in order to make as "good" transition as possible. [4]

14 This compatibility is measured subjectively, in terms of several factors, the most important of which are tempo and thickness. The less thickness there is, the easier it is to execute the transition from one song to the next. A low level of thickness is primarily expressed through the absence of instruments devoted to melodic and harmonic functions. The most common use of music with a low level of thickness is to employ the break. This term refers to instances of drums/percussion with or without vocals. "Songwriters and producers, aware of the ... DJ's heavy dependence on breaks for blending, have released more records in which breaks are included ..." (Shannon 1985: 255).

15 For DJ's, it is important to consider the divergent styles of dance music and the corresponding tastes that exist. Although it is not always the clientele's taste that the DJ follow (some draw a following just because of their own choice of dance music), matching categories of dance music styles and audiences are in use. This concept functions mainly as a marketing tool of record companies which aim to maximize the profit they make from dance records. For that purpose, market are labeled by customer group, to be matched musically. Clubgoers as well as record buyers are distinguished by such factors as age, ethnics, sexual orientation and geographical provenance. (In New York City, for example, to avoid the B&T people from Long Island and New Jersey, [5] one should go dancing on a Thursday night instead of Friday's or Saturday's).

16 Clubowners tailoring the image of their venue may enforce this concept on the DJ's they employ, who in turn have established corresponding categories of music. Not exclusively, but most obviously, 12-inch remixes of mainstream pop material, particularly by artists trying to crossover to the dance music market, are promoted by supposedly corresponding to this or that style or audience category. Two recent examples are Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli, both of whom have issued albums containing dance remixes of material previously available on 12-inch records.

17 We have seen that the 12-inch single, originally a child of the disco era, serves as an indicator of a variety of changes in popular urban dance music on several levels since the demise of the disco period. As record companies became more aware of its commercial potential, the 12-inch single became an attractive way to test the commercial chances of new dance music under what seemed like ideal laboratory conditions. Via the networks of record distribution (DJ's and record pools in addition to radio), a feedback system was constructed, enabling record companies to direct their product to new audiences by way of recycling and revamping old material, to the extent that former stiffs have thus been re-mixed and resold to become hits. Natalie Cole's "Pink Cadillac," remixed by the Cole / Clivilles team, is just one of many examples of this kind.

18 Economically, and aesthetically, the 12-inch single as a format has built up a validity which shows a greater deal of resistance to the economic pressures that presently encroach the LP and the 7-inch single in the form of cassettes and CDs. As a cultural force, it has been instrumental in the emergence of new dance music styles and dancing styles. As such, the 12-inch single has been and still is, a medium for musical innovation. This cannot be said for the other vinyl formats, cassettes or CDs.

19 Perhaps most noteworthy from a musicological point of view is that the 12-inch single became a vehicle for the emancipation of the disk-jockey, documenting his development from a more passive role as turntable operator to more active ones in the fields of song writing, production and engineering. Via the 12-inch single, many a DJ has risen to the status of artist, and this has necessitated a redefinition of such familiar concepts as musical instrument, (for we are now asked to consider the turntable), performer (using music to make new music) and the role of audience in performance. The commonly assumed unidirectional line of music from composer to performer to audience may thus have to be redrawn. --http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/TRA/Supremely_clubbed.html


  1. You Better Work: Underground Dance Music in New York City - Kai Fikentscher [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    You Better Work!" is the first detailed study of underground dance music or UDM, a phenomenon that has its roots in the overlap and cross-fertilization of African American and gay cultural sensibilities that have occurred since the 1970s. UDM not only predates and includes disco, but also constitutes a unique performance practice in the history of American social dance.

    Taking New York City as its geographic focus, "You Better Work!" shows how UDM functions in the lives of its DJs and dancers, and how it is used as the primary identifier of an urban subculture shaped essentially by the relationships between music, dance, and marginality. Kai Fikentscher goes beyond stereotypical images of club and disco to explore the cult and culture of the DJ, the turntable and vinyl recordings as musical instruments, and the vital relationship between music and dance at underground clubs. Including interviews, photographs, and an extensive discography, this ethnographic account tells the story of a celebration of collective marginality through music and dance

    New York City readers will surely enjoy his tales of a thousand and one club nights at the Tunnel, Mars, Twilo, the Garage, and the Palladium, where we find such dominant turntable masters as Junior Vasquez, David Morales, Little Louie Vega, and Danny Tenaglia working and creating." -- Boston Phoenix

    "'You Better Work!' is not just the only serious book about underground dance music in the U.S. It is also a very good book. Fikentscher documents several crucial music scenes before they mutate into the night." -- Andrew Ross, Director, American Studies Program, New York University

    "In 'You Better Work!,' Kai Fikentscher takes you to dance music paradise, as he makes the interactivity -- the synchronicity -- between DJ and dancer, booth and floor, music and movement come alive. 'You Better Work!' correctly locates underground dance music (UDM) within the context of African American cultural practices and brilliantly traces the complex interweaving of black, gay, and other marginalized cultures in its development. Fikentscher understands the historical importance of disco as few writers do. He guides you effortlessly through the evolution of the DJ from spinner to mixer to remixer to producer. He offers insightful and pathbreaking connections to the black church and to gay expressivity. And he is able to translate the emotional language and transformative experience of music and dance into engaging, readable prose. It's the next best thing to dancing itself!" -- Reebee Garofalo, author of Rockin' Out: Popular Music In the USA

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