The Building Blocks of Boogie  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

An essay by Greg Wilson on boogie.

Full text[1]

Back in mid 1980s London, the term Boogie was used to describe a style of dance music, mainly from the early 80’s, but also the late 70’s, that was popular on the black scene. Many of these tracks had originally featured at the time of their release at specialist club nights in venues like Crackers and the Electric Ballroom, but had subsequently been revived during the Rare Groove era.

We never used the term in the North, although many of the same tracks had been massive with the black music audience following their arrival as US imports. We regarded them mainly as Disco Funk, or in some cases Electro-Funk, which utilised elements of the (then) new technology (Disco Funk being recorded in a more orthodox way, with drum kit as opposed to beat box).

It was also an unfamiliar genre name in America, where these records had originated. London DJ and collector, Sean P, renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Boogie, plus other forms of dance music, recalls some friends going into record shops in the US and receiving blank looks when they asked for Boogie; the staff even enquiring if they wanted recordings about ghosts! This misunderstanding was down to the fact that what we call the Bogeyman in the UK is the Boogeyman in the States.

The word itself has a somewhat dubious background. Here’s something I found online about its origin and evolution, written by American columnist, Cecil Adams:

"Boogie" seems to come, via a circuitous route, from the Latin Bulgarus, an inhabitant of Bulgaria. The Old French term boulgre was used to refer to a member of a sect of 11th-century Bulgarian heretics, and "bougre" first appears in the English writing in 1340 as a synonym for "heretic." By the 16th century, "bougre" grew into "bugger," a practitioner of vile and despicable acts including "buggery," or sodomy. "Bogy" (or "bogie") first appears in the 19th century as an appellation for the devil; later it came to be used for hobgoblins in general. Hence, the bogeyman, which may be the source of the use of "bogey" and "boogies" to mean "Negro". Shortly after these usages became common (in the 1920s), there appeared boogie woogie music, and I guess you can figure out the rest.

So it seems that, with regards to black culture, boogie was originally a racist slur, which was intended to demonise black people, before it was adopted in connection with music and dancing by those it was meant to put down. In this way it became a name used for ‘Rent Parties’ within US black communities in cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York during the 20’s, where musicians played in someone’s home and a hat was passed around the audience so they could put in money, which would help pay the rent. It was at such parties that Boogie Woogie emerged, a style that would have a huge influence on the course of black music (interestingly, Disco pioneer, DJ David Mancuso, cites the Rent Parties of 60's New York as a major inspiration for his Loft parties).

The sub-genre of music that Londoners dubbed Boogie was, in essence, the direct continuation of Disco in its purest form. Many people have forgotten that the genre evolved from the Soul and Funk of black musicians. Later, of course, Disco would become increasingly commercialised, culminating in the blockbuster movie Saturday Night Fever, which elevated the Bee Gees, a white Pop band, to Disco superstardom, whilst a white suited John Travolta would become an iconic figure – the great white hope of the dancefloor. Disco went global, but its original audience, before Studio 54 stole the spotlight, knew that its true stars of the screen were afro haired black kids, who’d been busting all the best moves on Soul Train since the early 70’s.

Throughout the 70’s, the word boogie could be found in the title or lyrics of countless Funk and Disco records, but as the decade rolled on, it was beginning to sound increasingly cheesy to our British ears, especially when a Spanish holiday hit called ‘Yes Sir I Can Boogie’ by Baccara, topped the UK chart in 1977. By the early 80’s a new low had been reached, with Children’s TV character, the robot Metal Mickey, further devaluing the word via his annoying catchphrase ‘boogie boogie’.

However, it began to claw back some of its former credibility thanks to huge underground tracks like Rafael Cameron’s 'Boogie's Gonna Get Ya' and 'Caveman Boogie' by Lessette Wilson, plus the Gunchback Boogie Band’s ‘Funn’, and with the emerging Electro scene it's recuperatation was completed (Extra T’s 'E.T Boogie', West Street Mob 'Break Dancin' - Electric Boogie', Man Parrish 'Boogie Down (Bronx)' etc).

From a London perspective, the Boogie scene, if not yet born, was conceived in the late 70’s at the West End club, Crackers, where DJ George Power would refer to the dancers, regarded as some of the best in the capital, as ‘boogie boys’ and, as Crackers veteran, Terry Farley, informed me, would frequently use the word whilst talking over the microphone (as DJ’s did in those days). Power was a true pioneer of UK dance culture who has only received a fraction of the full credit he merits. Later down the line he’d be the co-founder of Kiss FM, originally a pirate station, which would play an absolutely pivotal role in bringing London’s dance underground to wider recognition.

But it wouldn’t be until after the Crackers days were long gone that Boogie gradually became a category in its own right. A young Sean P remembers going into a shop in Brixton, called Red Records, in the early 80’s and finding a ‘Soul/Disco/Boogie’ section. It struck him as odd that an old-fashioned word was being applied to such a cutting-edge music.

The sub-genre really came into its own around 1985, when Kiss FM (named in tribute to the seminal New York dance station) took to the air and DJ’s like Gordon Mac, Norman Jay, DJ Tee (Tee Harris), Desi D, Tosca and, of course, Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson began playing club tracks from earlier in the decade (along with other pirate radio DJ’s like Trevor St Francis on LWR and Lyndon T on JFM), describing them as ‘Boogie’. The word Disco had been out of vogue since the 70’s, with the music played on the black scene, pre-Kiss, usually coming under the blanket terms of Soul or Electro, but then a new movement of mainly black kids from South and East London began to refer to this post-Disco groove as ‘Boogie’. The sound was typified by Leroy Burgess, and the big labels included Prelude, West End and Sam, with club support coming from DJ’s such as Trevor Shakes, Dez Parkes, Cleveland Anderson, Henderson Yearwood, Fitzroy Da Buzz Boy and Derek Boland (aka Derek B).

Former Black Echoes writer and Kiss head of music, Lindsay Wesker, a noted black music historian, remembers the station, during its formative period, featuring as much Boogie as Rare Groove (which focused on relatively obscure 70’s Funk), making its way onto the playlists of now established names like Jazzie B and Trevor ‘Madhatter’ Nelson. It was such a big deal in London that Kiss would even release two volumes of their ‘Boogie Tunes’ compilation on Graphic Records in the late 80’s, making a number of highly sought after tracks available on vinyl at an affordable price (echoing Northern Soul, collecting Boogie and Rare Groove was both time-consuming and a drain on the pocket).

But, returning to the question of how the term Boogie came to represent a category of music in the first place, the first clue I could find was in a copy of Blues & Soul from September 1981. This was in an advert for the launch of Jazzifunk Club’s Saturday night at Camden’s Electric Ballroom. George Power, headlined, supported by Paul Anderson (who’d cut his teeth alongside Power at Crackers), Chris White, Colin Parnell and Boo, with the ad referring to the venue’s 2 floors, which proclaimed ‘Jazz On Top! Soul, Funk ‘n’ Boogie Down Below’.

During the early 80’s, specialist club nights would list the music featured as Jazz, Jazz-Funk, Soul, Funk, Disco, and later Electro or Electro-Funk, but never Boogie – the Electric Ballroom was unique in this respect. The only exception I’m aware of was a little known venue called ‘Gemas New Caprice Club’ in Watford, which, in London’s Groove Weekly magazine, advertised ‘Up-Front Jazz-Funk and Boogie’ in August 1982, having previously used ‘Jazz-Funk’ on its own). However, the trail came to an abrupt end at that point and I couldn’t find any further mention in either Blues & Soul or Groove Weekly during the coming years. It certainly wasn’t classified as a genre by the main London import specialists, like Groove, City Sounds and Bluebird.

I wondered if there was any direct link to Roller Disco, which had come to the UK, with limited success, from the US. Interestingly, a cash-in Hollywood movie called ‘Roller Boogie’ had highlighted the craze in 1979, and, by co-incidence, the Electric Ballroom would launch a mid-week Roller Disco night in 1982 with Paul Anderson as DJ. Andrew Mason, from New York’s Wax Poetics magazine, had told me that Danny Krivit, who both deejayed at New York’s legendary Roxy (which originally came to prominence as one of the top Roller Rinks in the country) as well being an accomplished skater himself, explained to him that the slightly shuffled clap / snare on the 2 and 4 (as opposed to a steady 4 on the floor beat) was best suited for skaters, who pushed off on alternate legs to that rhythm. Vaughan Mason’s ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll’ is an obvious example, as is Chic’s classic ‘Good Times’ (which, of course, includes the line ‘clams on the half shell and roller-skates, roller-skates’).

So, basically, the best music to roller skate to, especially in New York, where the most impressive skaters were generally black or Latino, was funkier edged Disco, including many tracks that would later be regarded as Boogie classics in London.

Doing some further detective work, I checked with Danny Krivit to see if the term Roller Boogie was widely used in the US, and he informed me that it was only ever something people might say on a mainstream level, following on from the film, and definitely not how hardcore skaters would refer to the music. It seems that, just as over here, the word boogie was actually considered corny, rather than cool.

So, it wasn’t until a mainly black audience of dance music enthusiasts from London re-adopted the term, to describe the retrospective groove they were into, that Boogie reclaimed its credibility. “Nowadays”, as Sean P points out, “thanks to eBay and the general spreading of the word over the past couple of years, people from the US, Europe and wherever use ‘Boogie’ as a generic term, to describe early 80’s dance music of black origin”.


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