One of my recent posts on Facebook triggered a response that few other topics or themes do. I wrote about disco music and the scene here in Miami. The reaction to my simple, seemingly superficial post was overwhelming — visceral and heartfelt.
You see, disco runs deep here — the culture of disco is still an important part of the city’s identity.
And while Miami played an important role in the origins of the sound and fashion of the fad, which became the rage in the 1970s, the unique aspect of Miamians’ relation to the culture of disco occurs long after the musical genre was declared dead and buried around the nation.
Miami is the place where disco never died.
In the 1970s, disco took Miami by storm the same way it had conquered the imagination of the rest of the country. Miami’s growing ethnic communities, especially Cuban Americans, took to the new sound and embraced the lifestyle. South Florida was a focal point in the nascent dance-music culture as Henry Stone’s TK Records produced the likes of George McCrae and KC and the Sunshine Band. Chart-topping acts like Foxy and Ray Martinez’s Amant also punctuated the scene.
By the late 1970s, disco had unquestionably become the soundtrack of quinces, weddings and piñata birthday parties. However, what distinguishes Miami’s love affair to disco’s DJ-driven culture is what happened in 1980.
After 1979’s Disco Demolition night at Comiskey Park in Chicago, where a stunt by a Chi-town radio shock jock ran amok and turned into an ugly, intolerant affair where fans ran onto the field setting disco records ablaze, disco music was officially declared dead.
Disco’s demise coincided with Miami being cast off the mainstream radar. South Florida had become too dangerous, too unruly and too foreign for most chroniclers of culture. In 1981, Miami was declared “Paradise Lost” on the cover of Time magazine. The next time the nation heard from Miami, it was on Miami Vice, and audiences were floored. The fashion, the music, the clubs — they were emblematic of a place where the dance scene not only was still alive, but also flourishing.
Local superstar disc jockey, Ciro Llerena, who has regaled South Florida with disco for more than three decades, told me the cultural shift from New York to Miami was palpable. “I was getting my feet wet as a DJ in New York when the whole disco world shut down, packed up and moved to Miami. South Florida became the epicenter of the dance music world.”
While clubs were closing down around the country, there seemed to be nightclubs popping up all over South Florida. “The name of the music was no longer disco, that became a bad word across the country,” DJ Alex Gutierrez said. “In the 1980s it was called Italo-disco, high energy and freestyle, but to all of us who had grown up listening and dancing in Miami, we recognized it for what it was — disco.”
“The music (disco) was also the backbeat to the growth of South Beach,” Louis Canales one of South Beach’s creators explained. “Disco was popular in the gay community as well as with the Northeast transplants and, of course, the Cubans. Disco club life is what South Beach was built on.”
Becky Diaz, a recognized Miami dance club partier, added that, “We never bought into the Travolta disco that was sold to the nation. From the dancing to the clothes to the décor of the clubs — we redefined it and made it our own.”