I had a moment on Saturday where I realized that my first introductions to disco, house, and hi-NRG music came from listening to KTU (“The Beat of New York”) while my mother was driving my sister and I around in the 1990s. I was reading at a cafe near my house when I was suddenly greeted with early to mid-1990s pop songs with serious house and hi-NRG elements that I had not heard in a decade or two—songs that I first encountered on KTU. In 1996, WKTU 103.5, a reincarnation of the Disco 92KTU station that played disco and R&B songs from 1978-1985, launched with a dance-based CHR (contemporary hit radio) format. The launching soundbite of WKTU from 1996 boldly declares, “You told us you wanted a radio station that plays music you don’t hear enough of on Hot 97, Z100, or WPLJ.” As someone who listened to Z100 and sometimes WPLJ in the car and Hot 97 on my own, this was definitely true. At the same time, the early to mid-1990s was a time when songs such as CeCe Pinston’s “Finally” (1992), SNAP!’s “Rhythm is a Dancer” (1992), and La Bouche’s “Be My Lover” (1995) all charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Disco had not actually died in the late 1970s but had spawned off into house, hi-NRG, and techno (amongst other genres), with the former two slowly creeping into pop music during the 1980s and into the early 90s.
In other words, disco went underground, free to once again cross-pollinate as it did before its height in the 1970s. As Tim Lawrence notes in Love Saves the Day: A History of Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, before the days of Saturday Night Fever and disco departments at major record labels, disco DJs pulled from a plethora of genres, such as rock, R&B, salsa, soul, and funk. A recent symposium at NYU organized around Lawrence’s new book, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983, explored the incredible four-year-long period when the NYC underground embraced new incarnations of disco and also punk, new wave, and hip hop. The respondents on the first three panels (I had to leave at 3:30pm) were adamant that there was something uniquely creative and democratic about the music that arose via the sprouting numbers of independent music labels, never mind in the sense of community provided by select downtown night clubs. And then in 1983, which multiple panelists deemed the point when the effects of neoliberalism and Reagan conservatism began to be felt in New York City, this newfound potential for musical and democratic potentiality suddenly evaporated. This could not possibly be the entire story.
Without a doubt, the underground music and art scene in downtown Manhattan described by the panelists was indeed special and unique to its time, a result of the people involved in these spaces. At the same time, if we believe that corporatization (and there was incredible record company consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s) rendered all musical creation as purely for profit, then we might as well give up now on imagining alternative possibilities of the world through music and other kinds of artistic creation. As I noted in my post on Janet Jackson last month, coming into musical consciousness in the mid-1990s—and specifically through big money radio formats such as Z100, Hot 97, and KTU and stations such as MTV, BET, and the Box—taught me a lot about the wide range of pop music. Having access to so many different kinds of music set me up to be become passionate about the infusions of R&B, pop, and electronic music that have been driving both indie and mainstream (whatever that means in an age of Spotify) music since 2010. The below three-hour-long play list is comprised of some of the songs from the 1990s that have most stayed with me. They are some of the first songs where I began to (subconsciously) realize pop music’s potential.