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Say Hallelujah! 

NorCal expats the Rapture and Out Hud return from NYC with a 20-year legacy in tow. Get ready to dance, punk.

Wednesday, Nov 12 2003
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Think New York City's "rock renaissance" is all about the Strokes? Think again. The city's other high-profile new band, the Rapture, is one of many that've helped configure a subscene loosely termed "dance punk," which has emerged with a gritty, experimental, and funky attitude that's repositioned NYC on the hipster map. Gotham bands like the Rapture (which moved there from San Francisco), Out Hud (which originated in Sacramento), and Radio 4 have smeared the indie rock blueprint with elements from rhythm-centered genres like house, disco, electro, and dub. They've forged a diverse and infectious sound that's brought together indie and club kids on hip dance floors worldwide.

Now that sound is poised to crash the pop party. After a year of rotation in the clubs, the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" -- a frenetic snapshot of urban rock boys liberated by dance-floor culture -- has begun to score airplay on commercial new-rock radio. That's good news for both the brewing scene from which the tune sprang and the similar New York-based scene from 20 years back that inspired it. And it could prove to be the creative kick in the ass that mainstream music so desperately needs.

Luke Jenner, the Rapture's singer/guitarist, thinks young America is ready for the high-quality, edgy funk proffered on both "House ..." and the band's long-awaited debut album, Echoes. "My dream has always been getting music to 14-year-old kids," says Jenner via phone from his Manhattan apartment. "I'm really over being hip or whatever. I remember as a kid how any single record could change your life. I'm just excited that it could be our record." Clearly, punks are ready to dance and dance-floor kids are ready to rock. But is a two-decade-old hybrid called dance punk finally ready for the big time? If Jenner and his crew have anything to say about it, the answer is yes.


Dance punk's emergence in New York City revives a legacy born in the Lower East Side's arty early-'80s club community. Back then, the district had just witnessed the noisy no-wave scene, as bands like DNA and Mars fitfully trashed punk's already-apparent stylistic conventions. In 1980, as hip hop birthed itself in the boroughs, downtown rock bands such as Bush Tetras and the Contortions were tweaking hybrids of jazz, funk, disco, and Latin music, and adventurous black and Puerto Rican dance bands like ESG and Defunkt were playing downtown artist spaces and clubs. However, as fertile and influential as it was, New York's first punk-funk scene flamed out in obscurity, with one famously tangential exception: The melody of minimalist funk band Liquid Liquid's 1981 tune "Cavern" would be lifted by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five to create one of hip hop's first and most famous crossover tunes, 1983's "White Lines."

Ed Bahlman released "Cavern" through his label 99 Records, named after his Greenwich Village record shop, which had become a meeting place for the scene's kindred musicians. The financial and emotional toll of his arduous but successful lawsuit against the Furious Five's Sugarhill label over the tune's appropriation in "White Lines" would eventually dissolve 99. This was tragic considering that 99 was known for releasing work by crucial bands like Bush Tetras and ESG, as well as no-wave guitar experimentalist Glen Branca.

The kind of chances that Bahlman took with 99 inspired indie-bred production team DFA -- James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy -- to record some of the local bands starting in 2000. By 2002, they'd started DFA Records, which is widely considered the key label in New York's current dance punk scene. Having met or worked with experimental beat bands like Out Hud, politically minded groove rockers like Radio 4, and party bands like the Rapture, Murphy (a veteran of underground rock bands Pony and Speedking) and Goldsworthy (a U.K. expatriate who's worked with hep acts such as David Holmes and UNKLE) sensed a burgeoning sensibility. But before releasing their first record, the duo built their audience by throwing wildly eclectic parties.

"We'd throw parties where a lot of people can get fucked up," Murphy remembers. "We'd play music to a crowd of house kids, some smelly punk rock kids, and, say, a bunch of old-school break dancers. We'd play Can, then Donna Summer, and everyone would dance without thinking twice. It was just a good, refreshing vibe. Then, as DJs we wanted more good records, so we recorded [the Rapture's] 'House of Jealous Lovers.' Now we had a new record that would kill on the dance floor."

Over a year after it released "House of Jealous Lovers" as its first single, DFA is 10 releases down the road paved by 99. Bands on the roster include Brooklyn noise-rockers Black Dice, the electro-tinged Juan McLean (solo project of ex-Six Finger Satellite John McLean), and Murphy's own act, lyrically smarmy house/rock hybrid LCD Soundsystem. And, of course, the duo produced Echoes, the Rapture's highly anticipated debut album. "When we started the label," Murphy continues, "we said to ourselves, 'Dance music is fun. We like going out dancing, and we like Liquid Liquid and Can.' And we saw this huge void, and we saw a chance to do something intriguing and necessary."

Beyond influences and genres, Murphy boils down the link between '80s dance punk and today's variety to two essentials. "For one thing, just like back then, I think people now are bored with what they're hearing on the radio. For another, just like back then, people feel really free to simply try doing things differently."

The Rapture's pairing with Out Hud for Thursday's show at the Great American Music Hall brings into focus dance punk's contrasting flavors and stances. Both bands formed in Northern California, heartily toured and burned out on the country's indie circuit, and left for New York by 2000, partly because of what the Rapture's Jenner calls NorCal's "low ceiling" for ambitious bands.

Besides Sacramento's staid band scene, Out Hud bassist Nic Offer posits other factors in his group's NYC move. "This city's the best example of the melting pot," he says, "and you're constantly bombarded with stimuli, which is great for us as musicians. But as far as dance music, there's just no comparison with anywhere else. Hip hop and dancehall are everywhere, and people understand them as cultures. When we first moved here, we realized the old soul station wasn't playing conventional oldies, but, like, gay disco classics. You can hear the most insane shit at 4 in the afternoon."

Between them, the Rapture's Echoes and Out Hud's debut from last year, S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D., span dance punk's broad stylistic range. Released on Universal subsidiary Strutter, Echoes' mostly uptempo funk tunes feed off of growling bass lines, thumping percussion, and Jenner's high-pitched, desperate vocals (which alternately evoke Public Image Ltd.'s John Lydon and the Cure's Robert Smith). Obvious as its influences are, the Rapture's blend of hedonistic house tempos and emotive rock dynamics comes off as the genuine impulses of enthusiastic pop music lovers. And those impulses just may garner the band crossover success.

Like many albums that have emerged from the scene, S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D. reflects dance punk's more autonomous streak. In contrast to the Rapture's more Manhattan-bred polish, Out Hud shares both members and living space in a Brooklyn warehouse with fellow altfunksters !!!, and it has released its album on indie stalwart Kranky. On S.T.R.E.E.T.D.A.D. the foursome inject their electro- and krautrock-inspired instrumental jams with shimmering, U2-ish guitar and brawny cello, mixing the whole mess live in a noisy, dubby style. They give their tracks names like "The L Train Is a Swell Train and I Don't Want to Hear You Indies Complain" and "Dear Mr. Bush, There's Over 500 Words for Shit and Only One Word for Music. Fuck You, Out Hud." This is not a band that's especially concerned with airplay and reaching the kids.

But who knows? If dance punk breaks on its second time around, will it be as a graceful nuance absorbed for the betterment of the pop music machine -- say, the way that bhangra and dancehall have permeated hip hop? Or will Gotham's rhythmically centered mood morph into a manufactured "movement" à la grunge, and launch a thousand Rapture clones?

DFA's Murphy, a generally skeptical music industry observer, is cautious in his optimism. "I hope the machine knows what to do. I'm scared that the music-industry army is trained for the wrong war. I always worry: Do the people pushing this album have any idea about what's good about these bands?"

Feeling freed from indie constraints, Jenner is simply ready to go. "We just came through this whole mentality in the '90s with bands being really happy in their little world. [Bands have been] totally cynical and expecting no one to understand them. I think that's over now. We expect people to understand us. We have faith in people. [This] may be a failed experiment, but it might not."

With the pop marketplace generally voracious for any heartfelt new approaches, failure for the Rapture -- indeed for dance punk in general -- doesn't seem likely. Back in the early '80s, with the industry at the time monopolized by conservative major labels, most of the Lower East Side bands resigned themselves to releasing EPs -- or, at most, an album -- on an obscure, altruistic label like 99, and never dreamed of playing outside the city's club circuit. But today's dance punk bands draw on indie rock's infrastructure of labels, booking agents, PR firms, and media that lets them record and world-tour their way to a living, if not widespread fame.

Jenner recalls a conversation between the Rapture and the re-formed Liquid Liquid when they both played this year's Montreux Jazz Festival: "They told us not to fuck it up. They were like, 'Look, you guys have a lot of opportunities that we never had, so you better not screw up. Make the best of it, because one day you'll be fortysomething and you'll be getting your equipment out of your mom's garage like we are, and [you'll] just be stoked to play.' Just to hear that from someone you look up to is really affirming. So they got our back, and we're going for it."

Get Your Kicks

Behind high-profile figures like the Rapture stands a boogieing buttload of bands, labels, and releases that speaks to dance punk's past, present, and future. These essentials represent just the tip of the iceberg.

Various Artists
Compilation #1
(DFA)
An overview of what's crackin' at dance punk's top label. Includes hits like the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" and LCD Soundsystem's "Losing My Edge," along with tunes by Black Dice and the Juan McLean.

Various Artists
New York Noise
(Soul Jazz)
This comp offers a true history lesson on NYC's rich late-'70s/early-'80s underground scene. Includes tracks by no-wavers like DNA and Mars, original dance punk stars Liquid Liquid and ESG, and previously unknowns such as Konk and the Bloods.

Radio 4
Gotham!
(Gern Blandsten)
Wearing influences like the Clash and Gang of Four on their sleeves, these heartfelt Brooklyn groove-rockers celebrate the city with a huge, percussive energy.

!!!
"Me and Giuliani Down by the Schoolyard" 12-inch
(Touch and Go)
Pronounce this band's name with three noises in a row (most say, "Chick-chick-chick"). Put on this absurdist, nine-minute grit-disco epic when you want your next house party to truly ignite.

Tussle
"Eye Contact" 12-inch
(Troubleman Unlimited)
These San Francisco instrumental upstarts beat many Gotham bands at their own game, melding elements of dub, disco, and krautrock into a gorgeously pounding mess.

About The Author

Ron Nachmann

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