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Life After Dark 

Godfather Mel Cheren's eternal dance floor

Wednesday, Jun 13 2007
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The Godfather of Disco promises to be a musical highlight of Frameline 31, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival. The 2007 documentary offers a vivid snapshot of Mel Cheren, a music and nightlife innovator of the '70s and '80s. Cheren was the proprietor of dance music label West End Records. He also co-owned (with late partner Michael Brody) legendary New York nightclub Paradise Garage, the edgier and more discreet alternative to Studio 54. The venue broke artists ranging from Jennifer Holliday to Madonna, and although it's now a parking lot, its legacy of harmonic diversity endures in modern house music.

With an arsenal of quirky, left-field tunes, West End spawned a number of underground dance hits. It also dictated an adventurous policy for discos and became popular in the burgeoning New York hip-hop scene. In the film, old-school hip-hop pioneers like Kool DJ Red Alert and producer Marley Marl speak with tenderness about records like Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face?" Cheren also relates how Grandmaster Flash was inspired by West End's first record, Sesso Matto by Sessomatto; Flash duplicated a snippet of reversed sound live on his turntables, a technique that later became known as scratching. Another West End classic, Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat," has been sampled on more than 70 recordings, including Ini Kamoze's international No. 1 hit "Here Come the Hotstepper" and Musiq Soulchild's "B.U.D.D.Y.," which recently reached No. 2 on the Billboard R&B charts.

The Godfather of Disco — directed by Gene Graham and executive produced by Cheren and current West End president Kevin Hedge, with an admittedly positive slant — is a dedication not only to Cheren's musical legacy, but also to his work as one of America's earliest AIDS activists. In 1981, Cheren helped in the formation of Gay Men's Health Crisis by donating operating space and other fiscal sponsorship. He went on to form the nonprofit 24 Hours for Life in 1987, which in turn became the first financial supporter of LIFEbeat — The Music Industry Fights AIDS when it began in 1992. The film captures the importance of the musical contributions of the gay community in the '70s and '80s, but also gets into the destructive impact of AIDS on that same demographic. "I used to have so many friends in San Francisco," Cheren says in a telephone interview from New York, "But they are all gone now."

While the over-arcing theme of The Godfather of Disco is of cross-cultural unity, the documentary places distance between the music that was actually played in clubs like Paradise Garage and the mainstream connotations of the word disco. The latter is shown as an obnoxious marketing catch-all that encouraged even the terribly un-hip Broadway star Ethel Merman to try her hand at making a party record. "I don't mind them calling me "Godfather of Disco,'" Cheren says with a chuckle. "But I don't know why, 'cause I never put out a disco record!" Cheren prefers the term "danceable R&B" to describe both the Paradise Garage playlist and West End's catalog of soulful cuts. To wit: Taana Gardner is no Disco Duck.

No matter how it's tagged, the music Cheren helped foster carries on — but now he yearns for the camaraderie of it as well.

"People always ask me why [Paradise Garage] was so special and different, and the best answer I can give is that it brought black, white, straight, and gay together," Cheren says. "And my belief is if you can dance together, you can live together. And that's needed now more than ever, because there's so much separation."

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Tamara Palmer

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