Titanic’s part in the birth of disco

The current incarnation of Norwegian rock legends Titanic are doing two shows in Norway this weekend: August 19th at Olsen in Oslo, and August 20th at the Jugend Festival in Ålesund. To celebrate, here’s my interview with Tim Lawrence, author of the book Love Saves the Day, about the band’s contribution to the birth of disco culture. More on the tune here.

ØH: What can you tell me of Titanic’s «Sultana», and its relevance and longevity in the American disco scene?

TL: Titanic’s «Sultana» was released by RCA in 1971. This was the moment when underground dance parties had started to gather momentum in New York, and pioneering New York DJs such as David Mancuso, Francis Grasso and Steve D’Acquisto played the record regularly. They’d grown up with Santana, and would play Santana’s cover of Olatunji’s «Jing-Go-Lo-Ba» – titled «Jingo» – at their parties.

«Sultana», which played on the name «Santana», captured the feel of that record, and appealed to New York dancers, who experienced rock music when it was at its most aesthetically and politically radical, and were particularly drawn to the form when it was given a danceable groove. That was the case with «Sultana», and the record also received heavy play from another pioneering DJ, Walter Gibbons, who went on to remix the first twelve-inch record in 1976. Before then, Gibbons perfected the art of mixing between the percussive breaks of two records, just like DJ Kool Herc, who was developing a similar technique in the Bronx.

Herc would go on to be credited with pioneering the sound of early hip-hop, but in fact Gibbons was working the same technique with much greater precision, and the percussive sound of «Sultana» was prime material for him.

ØH: «Sultana» was never officially released in the US, but was only available on import. Do you think this lessened its mainstream hit appeal, but at the same time strengthened its appeal among the important DJs? I guess exclusivity and novelty value was as important then as now…?

TL: The DJs of the early 1970s always had to work hard to find music to play at parties because the music industry wasn’t geared up to their needs at all. This led them to play a lot of soul music and R&B, and it also led them to scour record stores for imports that would sound unusual, especially if those imports were highly rhythmic. There were quite a few bands who provided New York DJs with unpredictable hits, including «Woman» and «Wild Safari» by Barrabás, and «Sultana» was another favourite.

ØH: Do you know anything about the longevity of «Sultana» on American dancefloors? Was it mainly played in the early 70’s, or did it survive into the second half of the decade and beyond?

TL: It was played mainly in the first half of the 1970s. But hip hop DJing didn’t emerge until the end of 1974, and Herc and the rest were always on the lookout for records with strong breakbeats, so it’s very likely that they would have continued to draw on Sultana, as well as other funk and soul records that contained breaks from the late sixties and early seventies. David Mancuso played for twelve hours a night, which is a long stretch, and was always willing to play a broad range of records from different eras, so he might well have continued to play it as well.

But it didn’t gain quite the same kind of cachet as a record like Eddie Kendricks’ «Girl You Need a Change of Mind» or MFSB’s «Love Is the Message», which were played again and again and again.

ØH: Has the influence of «Sultana» and Titanic showed up in other forms in American dance music? I am thinking of cover versions, sampling, edits and artists who got directly inspired?

TL: I’m not aware of anything in particular, which is not to say it’s not out there. Overall I think «Sultana» typified an era in which a certain kind of rough, rootsy, highly rhythmic musicianship came to the fore, and appealed directly to the dance floor. Certain DJs (including Danny Krivit, David Mancuso and others) are still willing to dip into that energy, because contemporary dancers respond well to it, so a record like «Sultana» has experienced an extended afterlife.

 

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