Disco’s ’80s Mutations

Panicked by the backlash and other problems caused by disco’s market oversaturation, most of the big record labels had abruptly shuttered their dance-music departments by the end of the decade. Yet they overlooked something that should’ve been obvious: A whole lot of people hadn’t tossed out their boogie shoes.

And so those dancers found new havens in places like the Paradise Garage, where DJs like Larry Levan and François Kevorkian fostered new innovations in the art of the mix. In so doing, they inspired musicians to try their own experiments in disco science. One Paradise Garage regular was a downtown cellist and composer named Arthur Russell who began releasing a more avidly peculiar brand of dance music under names like Loose Joints and Dinosaur L. Elsewhere in New York, punks and no-wavers developed their own take, with labels like ZE Records and 99 Records becoming hotbeds for the “mutant disco” sound pioneered by acts like ESG (pictured) and Liquid Liquid. Meanwhile, hip-hop began its move from the Bronx to Manhattan, the first step in a burgeoning revolution.

Back in the overground, labels like SOLAR and acts like Shalamar and the S.O.S. Band ruled the radio with a shiny, synth-heavy sound that bridged the gulf between disco and the urban pop that would define the new decade. A 1979 masterpiece that built something shiny and new out of the old aesthetic, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall had already shown what was possible. Rick James and Prince had their breakouts next. In Chicago, DJs and producers found new ways to sate their dancers’ undimmed appetites for disco by integrating the sounds they wanted with Italo disco and electro, and the result became known as house. Meanwhile, a New York club kid named Madonna was paying very close attention to everything that was going down.

As wild and adventurous and modern as this music could be, all of it had disco in its DNA. And as this playlist of post-disco essentials demonstrates, many of these mutations have proven to be just as hardy.