No one said disco would stay dead forever. Meet A Digital Needle, a local DJ duo intent on celebrating the revival of a genre that’s influenced much of the music that came after it.
At The Piston, on Bloor West, the smooth, sexy sounds of disco live on. John McLeod and Dylan-Thomas Childs, longtime pals and Toronto transplants from dreamy Port Dover, are two self-described “music-obsessed fools.” They also form A Digital Needle (ADN), one of the raddest DJ duos I’ve come across this year. Dating back to November 2010, the ADN story is just as pure as the music they play. Together, McLeod and Childs mounted their first disco party, Hot Blooded, in July 2011 at The Piston and, last September, reincarnated that night as Beam Me Up, a monthly jam that endeavours to make people move without ear-crushing beats or blinding LED light shows. This is when I stumbled across them.
For these two, it’s always been about dusting off retro sounds. McLeod and Childs started out in 2008 throwing a ’60s party called The In Crowd for three years with Lindsay Darling, who would later became one-half of Bangs & Blush. Childs left the city for a minute, and that party moved to Tattoo Rock Parlour on Queen West (“where I was fired for playing disco,” McLeod claims). Then there was a stint at The Ossington with something called Sexual Healing and a night of gospel called Word at Tequila Bookworm. “It went over very well with the few people that did come out,” Childs says, “but never took off as we’d hoped.” And that’s the thing about musical trial and error: You’ll eventually get it right.
Disco, though, is a peculiar genre that time may have given a bad name, but a genre that time certainly didn’t leave behind. Despite the fact that it is (popularly) underrated and uncredited, disco’s had ample influence on everything from ’90s deep house to every EDM resurgence. After Chicago’s famed “Disco Demolition Night” in July 1979—a response to the genre’s ubiquity and commercialization from fiercely devoted rockers—disco love went underground and the word became a taboo musical qualifier.
But disco simply became dance-pop, and would go onto influence rave culture. The last Beam Me Up party focussed on disco’s intersection with—and influence on—early hip-hop. It’s a deeply political and social movement, a cultural phenomenon credited with bridging sexual spectrums together and giving marginalized, underground communities arenas in which to dance, socialize, and feel free. (The only film I saw at TIFF was a documentary on this.) There are parties like Horsemeat Disco, which team up with jams like A Club Called Rhonda, and they travel from town to town. For what feels like years now, there’s been talk of this revival. Yup, disco is so back, but it never left.
You’ll find that the ADN boys, then, are maestros of experimentation with the sounds of yesteryear without being precious about it. There are no wigs or polyester suits. They recently began incorporating live performances, another evolution that’s helped the genre become legit popular through the melding of big band flavours. ADN broadcasted last Saturday night’s Beam Me Up online and they also produce their own edits of classic tracks, too. McLeod and Childs are the types of guys you just want to hang out with and get to know while listening to records all day. So let’s do that… digitally.
Describe Beam Me Up as an elevator pitch in 60 seconds. Go.
Dylan-Thomas Childs: Beam Me Up is a classic disco party that we put on with our friend Cyclist [a.k.a. Mark Penner] in the best-sounding back room in the city. It falls on the second Saturday of the month at the Piston, and is our chance to show people what disco is really about, while we help to carry on the sound and spirit of our idols, like David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Larry Levan, and Canada’s disco king, Rob Ouimet. It’s also the name of our favourite modern disco song, by a group called Midnight Magic out of Brooklyn.
How would you describe your sound?
John McLeod: Our sound comes in two parts: Dylan is soulful and uplifting, and I’m dark and funky. Dylan plays stuff to get you lost in music, while you dance and chant along, and my selections will wake you up and get you moving in spastic ways.
Let’s talk disco. From being a bottom-shelf genre coming out of the ’70s to basically influencing all of house music and the revival of EDM, there’s obviously this mad respect for disco again. It’s… “cool”—and not in an embarrassingly retro way either. What makes you passionate about it?
DTC: I feel that there is a sort of mass misconception about disco; our sense of it is as far removed from polyester and disco ducks as possible. To us, disco defies genres—it’s a soulful and funky collection of music, tailor-made for the dancefloor. We focus more on the kind of music that middle-America wasn’t listening to, like the stuff played at The Loft, The Gallery, Paradise Garage, and Galaxy 21, largely for black, hispanic, and gay crowds. It’s the expressive and uplifting side of the music that I’m passionate about.
JM: The music is so deep and wide-ranging, almost without a formula, and not clearly defined—which is why it never gets old. It’s just music to fill dancefloors, and what’s not to love about that? As somebody who absolutely adores dancing, it’s perfect.
What gave you the idea to start Beam Me Up after doing your ’60s party?
JM: I became disco-obsessed after going to a party called Love Disco Style in Montreal. There were only about 25 people there, but that night ranks up there musically with the times I saw Stevie Wonder or Daft Punk. The atmosphere was magical—poppers ‘n’ lockers, guys with white towels whipping the dripping sweat off their brow, and the music was on-point. I came back to Toronto on the prowl to learn as much as I could about the genre. I lucked upon a Larry Levan compilation at Soundscapes, and it was like when I first heard The Beatles or Fela [Kuti]: The man was a king of the dancefloor. We both threw ourselves head-first into the wonderful world of disco and reside there to this day.
DTC: It felt like a natural progression, going from the soul and funk of the ’60s to their ’70s and early ’80s incarnations. We approached our friends Tyler and Branko [throwers of some of Toronto's best parties, like Funk Off and What's Poppin'] with the disco idea in mind, and together we held a party at the Piston for a spell, which morphed into Beam Me Up after they left.
You recently started incorporating live performances. Tell me about that.
JM: We just do stuff we would want to see at a night on the town. Cyclist knows everyone on the live-music scene from his days in disco/funk band Moses Mayes, so we’ve been mainly booking his friends to date. Our first guest vocalist was [ex-Sugar Jones member] Maiko Watson and she killed it. I felt like I’d been transported back to a Jocelyn Brown or Jackie Moore show! We’ve got a blond-haired, blue-eyed disco tribute in January with singer Shelley Hayes, and hopefully February will allow us to take the Lord’s name and run it through your veins with some live gospel disco.
How has A Digital Needle—and your parties—changed since you started?
DTC: In the beginning, as we learned what we loved and our style developed, we played a lot more hits, which was fun, but now we don’t really let the popularity of a tune—or lack of it—guide what we do. We play what we love and what moves us most, by which of course I mean moves John, who is the crazy-legged dancer of the two of us.
What do you think is Toronto’s nightlife strength?
DTC: I think Toronto’s greatest strength is that it’s such a diverse spot, with a bit of something for everyone, encompassing all types of people and genres of music—not only modern or Western, but from all decades and all corners of the earth. In my own experience, Torontonians are a discerning and open-minded lot, which is why a night like ours is even possible. We are really lucky and grateful to live here.
When you’re not doing your own thing, where do you like to go in the city? What parties do you like to hit up?
JM: My favourite monthly in the city is Footprints at the Rivoli—they play amazing tracks from every genre and every corner of the world and the dancers give their body up to the music. They just celebrated their 10-year anniversary [a few weeks back] with Dom Servini guesting, which was off the wall. I also like to catch Alister Johnson (a.k.a. DJ Catalist) playing, because his taste and mixing are second to none. There’s also the Evening Standard parties, and Wrongbar have been booking great DJs consistently. And I also love Para-sol‘s Room Temperature parties—I can’t wait for the next one to pop-up!
What do you want to see more of in the city’s nightscape?
DTC: We’re both from Port Dover, which doesn’t have much going on when it comes to the nightlife scene. What the city is lacking in terms of disco artists and disco DJs should be taken care of in the new year, as we have a trick or two up our collective sleeve.
What’s next for the series?
JM: We want to continue to play with our idols and learn as much as we can. We are looking to book international and local talent in 2013 and have a couple of our favourites on our radar. It looks like we will have our first vinyl release soon, sharing the bill with Cyclist on a label out of the U.K., so it should be a very good year!
The next Beam Me Up—featuring a performance by Shelley Hayes—happens Jan. 12, 2013 at The Piston (937 Bloor St. W.).