During one of my first visits to New York in the early '80s, I was invited to a "private party." I was told not tell anyone about it or even reveal where it would be. So — of course — I went, intrigued by the clandestine, members-only vibe.
It was held in a dinky basement somewhere on the Lower East Side, where some guy had set up his home stereo in a corner while drinks were sold in small plastic cups for five bucks (cash only). There was a killer mix of disco (the '80s, remember?) and tracks like Led Zepplin's "Kashmir."
Only many years later did I discover that these ad-hoc party spaces existed because it was against the law to let people dance in commercial establishments without a license, due to the so-called "Cabaret Law," which had been in effect for decades.
That law was abolished recently by the the New York City Council. It was originally intended to keep an eye on speakeasies during Prohibition but it became a tool of those who preferred to keeps the races separated in jazz clubs in Harlem and other minority neighborhoods. Then it became a source of revenue for the city and the bane of existence for bar and nightclub owners who could be shut down if someone dared to shake their booty in the open.
Imagine that: for 91 years dancers in NYC were restricted in enjoying the joys of moving to songs that shaped the sound of 20th century American popular culture.
DJ and producer Louie Vega in fact did just that. Vega compiled 91 songs, 10 from each decade going back to the '20s, and created a special Spotify playlist called "Dancing in New York 1926-2017." (You can scroll to the bottom of our interview to hear it.) Vega was one-half of the groundbreaking dance crew Masters At Work, so he knows a thing or two about moving people onto a dance floor.
Felix Contreras, Alt.Latino: How does what we dance to reflect our life and times?
Louie Vega: What we dance to becomes associated with a time in your life — a song can instantly trigger a memory that's decades old. Dancing does that too, it can bring a song to life, and triggers memories and emotions. Dance floors are places where you share unifying moments with everyone and anyone beside you, or even just lose it by yourself in your own confined space. Those moments will stick with you forever. The soundtracks to dance floors are directly impacted by social context, as they are places where community forms in response to external factors, a place to escape oppression and find solidarity. That's why they are such powerful spaces. I have 35 years of memories dancing and listening to music, magical memories of all manner of dance floors — clubs, house parties or family living rooms.
How did popular dancing define certain populations? Like Afro-Cuban big band dancing, which is in your family background. How did that help you discover your cultural roots?
In many genres of music, it's the dancers and the bands that led the way with respect to style, fashion and dance steps. Music labels like Motown and Fania Records created their own dance movements that burgeoned out into wider music and fashion scenes. Each scene has their own little dance and style... these start on the dance floor and ripple out from there into the wider culture.
Upbringing is vital in shaping musical taste. When you are young, you listen to what your parents are listening to. It starts there. Then your horizons expand as you grow older and experience life. My uncle being an artist on Fania Records; my dad being an accomplished Latin and jazz tenor sax player; the music my parents played at home and what I heard on radio; my sisters dancing in clubs like the Paradise Garage, The Loft in New York City... all helped connect my cultural and familial roots with dance music. I was pretty lucky! Once I started my record collection, it opened a whole new door as far as my knowledge of dance music.
Despite the law, people danced. Doesn't it sounds like the construct of a movie? "No one is going to keep me from dancing, dammit!"
What do people do when you tell them not to do something? They do it! We all need to dance and lift our spirits, feel free and release. Nothing can stop that. It's crazy to think how long this law endured, how much history passed through New York in that time. All those dance floors, all that music, all those dancers. It would be a hell of a movie... it's a hell of a soundtrack!
- Benny Goodman, "Sing Sing Sing"
- Al Goering's Collegians, "Up and At 'Em"
- Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra, "Charleston"
- Various Artists, "Messin' Around"
- Duke Ellington, "Ain't Misbehavin'"
- Louis Armstrong, "Jeepers Creepers"
- Art Landry, "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue"
- Bix Beiderbecke, "Riverboat Shuffle"
- Annette Hanshaw, "Happy Days Are Here Again"
- Duke Ellington, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"
- Count Basie, "One O'clock Jump"
- Chick Webb, "Heebie Jeebies"
- Glenn Miller, "In the Mood"
- The Andrews Sisters, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, "Single Version"
- George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Ethel Waters, "I Got Rhythm"
- Charlie Parker, "Tune Z, "Alternate Take 9"
- Django Reinhardt, Quintette du Hot Club de France, "Anniversary Song"
- Cab Calloway, "Minnie the Moocher (Theme Song)"
- Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, "Caldonia"
- Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five, "Beans And Cornbread"
- Charlie Parker Septet, "Mama Inez"
- Arsenio Rodríguez, "Dame Un Cachito Pa' Huele"
- Beny More, "Babarabatiri"
- Tommy Dorsey & His Clambake Seven, "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby"
- Charlie Parker, Cole Porter, "I Get a Kick Out of You"
- Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, "Halloween Spooks"
- Putney Dandridge, "The Skeleton in the Closet"
- Benny Moré, "Ay ! Come Me Gusta"
- Peggy Lee, "Why Don't You Do Right (Get Me Some Money Too)" (1998 Remaster)
- Tito Rodriguez & His Orchestra, "This Is Mambo"
- Tito Puente, "Ran Kan Kan"
- La Playa Sextet, "Separala Tambien"
- Ray Charles, "I've Got A Woman"
- Fats Domino, "I'm Walkin', "2002 Digital Remaster"
- Little Richard, "Lucille"
- Frankie Lymon, die Teenagers, "Why Do Fools Fall In Love"
- The Monotones, "The Book Of Love"
- Chuck Berry, "Rockin' Robin"
- Willie Colón, "Hustler"
- Dave Pike, "Sandunga"
- Gabor Szabo, "Spellbinder"
- Nina Simone, "See-Line Woman"
- Joe Cuba, "El Pito (I'll Never Go Back to Georgia)"
- Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, "Batucada"
- The Doors, "Riders On The Storm"
- Archie Bell & The Drells, "Tighten Up, Pt. 1"
- The Isley Brothers, "It's Your Thing"
- Lonnie Liston Smith and The Cosmic Echoes, "Expansions"
- Eddie Kendricks, "Girl You Need A Change Of Mind"
- Lamont Dozier, "Going Back to My Roots"
- Loleatta Holloway, "Hit and Run" (12" Mix)
- Booker T. & the M.G.'s, "Melting Pot"
- Babe Ruth, "The Mexican" (2007 Remastered Version)
- Phreek, "Weekend" (12" Extended Version)
- Barrabas, "Wild Safari"
- Fela Kuti, "Zombie"
- Love and Rockets, "Ball Of Confusion" (Single Edit)
- Malcolm McLaren, World Famous Supreme Team, "Buffalo Gals"
- The Sugarhill Gang, "8th Wonder"
- Unlimited Touch, "I Hear Music in the Street"
- The Strikers, "Body Music"
- Gwen Guthrie, "It Should Have Been You" (Larry Levan Mix/Bonus Track)
- Visual, "The Music Got Me"
- Raze, "Break 4 Love"
- Eric B. & Rakim, Marley Marl, "Eric B. Is President"
- Quincy Jones, "Razzamatazz"
- Nuyorican Soul, Jocelyn Brown, "It's Alright, I Feel It"
- Frankie Knuckles, "The Whistle Song"
- Roy Davis Jr., Preven Everett, "Gabriel" (Live Garage Mix)
- Nuyorican Soul, "The Nervous Track" (Ballsy Mix)
- Groove Collective, "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"
- Susan Clark, 111 East House, "Deeper"
- Those Guys, "Tonite"
- Jamiroquai, David Morales, "Space Cowboy"
- Nuyorican Soul, George Benson, "You Can Do It (Baby)"
- Elements Of Life, Lisa Fischer, "Into My Life" (Roots Mix)
- Black Coffee, Bucie, "Turn Me On"
- Fish Go Deep, "The Cure And The Cause" (Dennis Ferrer Mix, Remastered)
- Jon Cutler, E-Man, "It's Yours (feat. E-Man)" (Distant Music Mix)
- Kings Of Tomorrow, Julie Mc Knight, "Finally"
- Elements Of Life, Blaze, "Brand New Day"
- Eric Roberson, "Change For Me"
- Peven Everett, "Stuck"
- Louie Vega and Elements of Life, Anane, "One Dream (feat. Anane)" (Big Game Mix)
- Little Louie Vega, Monique Bingham, "Elevator (Going Up)"
- Karizma, "Work It Out"
- Black Coffee, Nakhane Toure, "We Dance Again"
- Stones & Bones, Toshi, "Amahloni" (Manoo Remix)
- Loleatta Holloway, Little Louie Vega, Josh Milan, "Can't Let You Go"
- Thundercat, "Walkin'"
- Funkadelic, "Ain't That Funkinkinda Hard On You?"
- DJ Zinhle, Busiswa, "Renato Xtrova (Remix) [feat. Busiswa Gqulu]"
- 3 Winans Brothers, The Clark Sisters, "Dance" (Louie Vega Latin Soul Version)
- Josh Milan, "Your Body" (Louie Vega Radio Mix)