If Boston, Massachusetts has a musical identity, then it is probably ‘Rock’. The home of Aerosmith, The Pixies, The Cars, Galaxie 500 and um, Boston. A city which in the UK’s eyes at least, has the Wahlberg brothers and the working class Irish diaspora at its supposedly emerald green heart. But like everywhere else, there is always more to the story. Boston is also where the Queen of Disco Donna Summer hails from, legendary producer Arthur Baker, Tavares, Bobby Brown’s New Edition, all funky amendments to the standard vision of the tough town on the Northeastern seaboard.
The suspiciously named Serge Gamesbourg has, therefore, done a great service to his hometown by shining a disco light onto some of the lesser known but great funk and disco acts that were playing, recording and rocking Boston and the wider Massachusetts area in the '70s and '80s. His essential new compilation ‘Boston Goes Disco’ out now on BBE Records comprises rare small release and private pressings of ridiculous quality. How did these tracks lay hidden for so long?
Another thing that makes this compilation stand out is that many of the tracks are edits by Serge himself. This tweaked my curiosity. If I didn’t know the original, how can I tell what he had done? They all sound natural, as they were meant to be. Why so many edits?
Serge is a native of Boston, a DJ, producer and a fine bass player but little was known about him prior to this release so I hooked up with him at the BBE store at The Institute Of Light in London Fields to find out about the man, his life in music and the art of the edit. We found we had quite a lot in common.
JT - Before we move onto the record and editing, can we talk about you first? About your background, your digging history, how you’ve got to where you are?
SG - So, I’ve been DJing since ‘92, and I kinda started doing it for fun but before I started DJing I played bass. In high school I’d be doing little jam sessions, nothing serious but then i got into DJing cos a friend was getting rid of his equipment to fund a trip to Amsterdam with his girlfriend so I bought his whole set up for 500 bucks. Two Technics 1200s, 3 crates of records, you know..
JT - Aah, $500 for all of that?
SG - I mean those turntables were $450 a pop! Once I got that, I just got obsessed with DJing, I was a big hip hop guy back then.
JT - I’ve kinda checked you on Facebook and your’e still big into hip hop right?
SG - Yeah I’ll always be hip hop, it’s in my DNA you know, but that was the music of my generation when hip hop in the late '80s, early '90s was unreal. From there I got into all this other stuff, like jazz and funk and soul and disco. Because of hip hop! Because of samples. So I started DJing and getting obsessed with collecting vinyl, digging and digging and digging...then I started getting into making beats in about ‘95 so I had an Ensoniq ASR 10 keyboard, which was the joint to use back then. It was either that or the MPC.
JT - Is it similar to an MPC?
SG - It’s not, it’s a keyboard, everything is totally different about it. The MPC is more like a drum machine, the keyboard is more like a sampler, you chop it up across the keys. To me because I played a little piano as a kid, I liked the feel of the keys you know, playing out the bass lines, I liked it. Plus I’m awful at learning new equipment, so if I learn one machine I stick with that. So I mastered the Ensoniq and got pretty serious with it and I put out my first record in ‘99 with a friend of mine who rapped...we were just doing the indie hip hop thing. Then I stepped it up and got introduced to Ed O.G. who was a legendary MC from Boston and I hit him up with some beats, you know back in the beat tape days? I gave him a cassette and he bought a couple of beats off me and one of the tracks ended up being a track with him and Guru from Gang Starr and this was on Ed O’s comeback album that came out about 2000 on Truth Hurts. And I was on it! With DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Spinna, Black Thought, all the greats! (Serge was working under the name Supreme One).
And I was on that album and I had Guru on my track so it was crazy you know? And then I kept on working with Ed O and I did a whole album with him and in 2002 we put out an EP which was all my production , him rhyming, which was really dope, called ‘Wishful Thinking’, and nobody knows it fucking existed (laughs)! It went totally under the radar,
JT - I’d like to hear it.
SG - I know, people are like, what, this came out? It was cool man and the funny thing is now, I’ve got a little band now, a live band, my man is a nasty drummer, he’s a pro...
JT - I caught this on your your FB, its tight, three of you right?
SG - Exactly, we’re a trio...the keyboardist and the drummer are pros. I can play bass, I consider myself decent but that’s not what I do for a living, these guys do the GB band, what we call General Business bands, weddings, all kinds of gigs, they play jazz you know? But the thing about the three of us is we are all beatheads. We all know the classic breakbeats, classic samples, so we usually just pick apart golden era tunes and do instrumental covers. Then I brought in my boy who’s a dope DJ because the drummer wanted me to be the DJ but as much fun as that is its much more fun to play bass. So my boy is a battle DJ and he’ll be cutting up Biggie acapellas and...
JT - And you all know the beats...
SG - Right, so we get busy on it. Long story short, I hit up Ed O.G. last year and I pitched him to do some shows doing his first two albums, the classic albums that came out in the early ‘90s. He had a massive record ‘I Gotta Have It’ in 1991 which was number one on Yo! MTV Raps, which was massive...so his first two albums are very sample heavy, musical type joints, which if you do it with a live band, it would be dope! So we got this thing where we’re gonna do these shows and while we’re doing that, I’m saying we should do some of those joints that me and you did together on that EP in 2002. So I’m sitting in the band practice, replaying my own beats which is kind of trippy you know?
JT - So stuff you produced on your ASR back in the day and now you’re playing it live?
SG - Yeah, from my Supreme One days and now I’m Serge Gamesbourg jamming out on these beats, it’s funny man. So hopefully we’ll be doing shows in Europe where Ed O.G. is always gigging, the golden era MCs have got it on lock.
So going back to your original question which is the background on me right? So from the '90s, I was a club DJ, doing the beat making, and in about 2005 I got a little annoyed and discouraged by the hip hop thing, everything went a bit belly up. The Serato thing came in, vinyl sales were in a slump,
JT - it collapsed.
SG - Right, the late '90s, the indie scene was thriving, you could put out a 12”, if the beats were dope, the rhymes were tight, you could sell 5000 copies!
JT - I used to work for SRD, a big indie distributor in London back then and people were putting out 4 pack vinyl and selling up to 40000 copies!
SG - Yes!
JT - And now if you can sell 1000 it’s a hit!
SG - (laughing) I know right! So last thing I did on the hip hop tip was a project which I initiated with Ed O.G. and Masta Ace, we did an album called A&E for Ace and Ed O but when the record eventually went out the A&E (network) sued them and hit them with a cease and desist and they changed it to Ace and Ed O (laughs) but by this time I’d lost creative control of it and I’d done some of the tracks on it but that was the last time I wanted to deal with the whole hip hop thing. I was bored with it.
I’d always like dance music, i was always collecting, in the '90s buying house music, I was never pigeon holed. Back in those days you were either a hip hop guy or a house guy you know, rarely the two crossed.
JT - Maybe in the UK you could be both a bit more, it wasn’t as tribal.
SG - Unfortunately it was like..what is that house shit? What is that rap crap?
So when I wanted to rebrand myself and do more dancey shit, disco was my natural progression cos all kind of roads lead back to disco for me. It’s funky, it’s danceable and I feel comfortable in it. I mean I like house, I’d done a track for the Soul Clap guys a few years back and I’m sitting on some tracks but disco is more my comfort zone. I started getting heavy on the edits and seeing what was popping and started doing a party in Boston called ’Disconnection’ which I did for about 5 years and was a cool little thing. A Tuesday night so it was tough sometimes to get people in but other nights were incredible. I brought in John Morales, Johnny D from Henry St, Kon as well, he’s from Boston..
JT - I didn’t realise!
SG - Me and Kon go back over 20 years...so we did the Disconnection thing which was cool, got to test out some of the edits I was doing .. (we get interrupted by a guy from Berlin praising the record)
JT - I checked out that Ted Taylor edit you did which is great!
SG - Oh yeah, that’s on Ghetto Disco, came out a year or two ago..before that I did two edits on Street Edits which is Rahaan’s label..one was very well received, a Bobby Womack rework of ‘Trust Your Heart’.
JT - There’s people I know who know who YOU are, when I mentioned your name people were like whoo!
SG - That’s so funny!
JT - Especially in the edit world, there’s edits/reworks I’ve had out on Midnight Riot and ISM so I know the process but in the edit world there’s way too much edits, Soundcloud is a nightmare of edits but the best shit is noticed and you have been noticed, people know who the better names are, they know it’ll be strong!
SG - (laughs) that’s good to know, dope!
JT - So being more of a guitar head in my teens, Boston was the city of The Pixies to me and only later did I realise the other side of your city.
SG - Right, it’s a rock city mainly.
JT - But you have all this dance royalty like Donna Summer and Arthur Baker?
SG - Right, in fact we do a tribute gig in the city to Donna Summer (the Donna Summer Roller Disco Party)..
JT - I saw the photo of you playing there, massive crowds, totally sick..
SG - Yeah man, bucket list gig. This was the very first one I played but it’s the fifth one, Kon did a couple...and this year they hit me up with Joey Carvello who’s an original Boston DJ from back in the day..it was great man. I was happy to do it once, if they ask me again, I’ll be happy to do it again (take note Boston!)...to see something like that in that city is refreshing, it is so stale bro, it's pitiful, it’s sad.
JT - This is something I wanted to ask about. Friends who’ve been to Boston have said there are loads of walk-in bars especially in the ‘80s but how was it for venues? This ties in with your record, all these amazing bands you’ve showcased, where were they getting to perform?
SG - Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s (the scene in) Boston was a lot more thriving, nowadays it’s not like that at all. There are some venues for live bands here and there but it’s not Nashville with live music everywhere, in Boston it’s few and far between..but back then all these groups, and speaking to the members, they’re like, this was THE spot right here, three nights a week..
JT - You listen to these tracks on your record and they can play! That’s not rehearsal play, that’s people who play all the time, pop shield up and go.
SG - Oh yeah, one take in the studio and boom!
JT - So there are some original tracks on here as well as edits?
SG - Yeah, on the vinyl and digital format...but some of the tracks like The Chris Rhodes Band ‘Wait Until Dark’ I’ve literally done nothing to it...if I can’t enhance something I leave it alone..I don’t want to ruin something. The whole edit thing is out of control right now, people are just butchering shit. So the few that I just left alone, the Chris Rhodes one, Cojo’s ‘Play It By Ear’..
JT - Ah yes! That tune is all about the bass line isn’t it? The whole track is great but the bass..
ST - It’s so dope...I’m going to do a video of me playing along to it..
JT - So I’m going to cut in here like an edit...I’ve seen some of your videos of you playing bass and heard your bass line on that Bosq track ‘Feel it’ on Ubiquity Records..
SG - Oh the new one!? Wow, dope!
JT - And I can hear why you chose quite a few of the tracks for the compilation, the bass lines are like your style,
SG - Yeah man, I’m very big into bass lines, especially with that kind of music man...it’s funny cos when I was first heard that Cojo record I was like, the BASS man! I bet you the song was written by the bass player..
JT - The whole piece is really good but then you focus on the bass and you’re...it’s THAT!
SG - It’s that, its driving it...and when I finally met the guy behind Cojo, my man Joe Sumrell, he’s the bass player, singer, producer...he’s that dude! He’s super cool, he owns a gym in Boston and I sometimes go to get my fitness on...it’s so crazy, the connections, the relationships I’ve made from doing this, I’m friends with all these people now!
JT - Boston is twice the size of city for you now?
SG - Exactly...it’s crazy though, all these people I know, at least some of the members I’ve dealt with directly, I know them and we’re friends. Like Larry Wu (Larry Wedgeworth & Clique ‘No More Games’ on the comp), me and Larry go to lunch like every other week (laughs), he loves me! Some of these people they’re old now and to meet a younger guy who’s totally digging their stuff..and it’s fun for them you know...but to me, I’m meeting the legendary Larry Wu! Going back to the original versions though, there’s only so much you can fit on the vinyl versions, but here’s the thing, I wanted this project to feature me as much as a digger, curator, compiler, as much as being an editor, remixer, producer type guy.
JT- That’s what surprised me when I noticed that, woah, they’re nearly all edits!
SG - I didn’t know how that would be seen by the purists you know but for example, the Carrie Mimms ‘I’m Gonna Get You (Meeow)’ track...
JT - Which is awesome
SG - Right, but my edit came out ace, it’s Peter’s (Peter Adarkwah, founder of BBE) favourite joint on it and I wanted to put the original on the CD too (it’s on the vinyl and digital formats), it’s a 45 that I’ve spliced sides one and two on the CD but MY edit is totally different, it’s almost a different song. The first one and a half minutes has a totally different musical thing going on then it drops to that bass hook but then she’s singing every single moment of the track! First time I heard it I was like, no, does she ever shut up? The groove was so nasty but she was meowing all the way through the track so I knew I had to really edit this thing and it was so much chopping, that edit was a nightmare…
JT - Mate, that track kills it but I don’t know any of the songs and I guess a lot of people don’t?
SG - Some of these records are completely unknown..
JT - So as far as I’m concerned, without hearing the original 7”, that IS a tune, it’s so slickly put together.
SG - Word.
JT - Tracks like ‘Feel The Music’ by Dreamflight sound like a rework, I can hear that, it’s been ‘moderned’ not that that’s a word, the way you’ve cut it is more like house chops, but most of the other stuff I can’t hear what you’ve done!
SG - That’s the one where the original version is dope but you can’t really play it out, it just doesn’t bang!
JT - It bangs now..
(Dreamflight - above)
SG - Right, it does and the group liked it... but I’m really careful about how I approached this because you don’t want to suck the funk out of these things, that’s the key. So on the ones you can’t tell, I was very careful how I approached the reworks, tracks like the Hypnotics (‘Fire Funk’) or the Second Wind (‘Free For All’), they were full on reworks. If you hear the original, that’s cool but I’ve changed them.
JT - So a real rework? I get what you’re saying, in this time of Ableton,beats shunting to lock points, that’s not what real funk is! No surging and slowing...
SG - You know what drives me crazy? That UK sound called Ghetto Funk? It’s everything but funky...stuff like that drives me crazy!
JT - It’s got ‘funk’ sounds but the sounds don’t make it funky..
SG - Dude, you’ve sucked the funk right out of it! It sucks but I guess if it bangs in a club you know...
JT - Not in the clubs I play in...then you have other tracks where you’re playing extra bass?
SG - Yeah...the edits are just edits ok?
JT - Just cutting and splicing..
SG - Right, that’s what an edit is. You take the original song and rearrange parts or you remove something, that’s it. Everything else if you're adding drums or doing additional production that's a fucking rework or a remix.
JT - That’s the problem with the word ‘edit’ now..
SG - Everything is an edit! With that logic, Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ is an edit, Bucketheads, that’s an edit! Every disco-house track is an edit! So approaching these tracks, if I’m adding some drums they’ve got to be disco drums! I’m privileged to have some drum tracks I can dip into and use real drummers...
JT - A real live sound that fits into the tracks..
SG - Exactly.
JT - This is what I noticed with your bass playing, it would have been natural to want to push it right up but you don’t, you’ve got it sat like the original mix.
SG - I remember with the Hypnotics tune, I had to get my bass to match the bass on the record, I had to run it through some different shit. Everything is software based now so I got it through some vintage amps to get it really close to it.
JT - I concentrated my ears on it cos I read you were playing bass on it and I was, is it that bit or that bit? It was hard, I couldn’t hear it you know?
SG - I did another drum track on it cos that 45 had no low end whatsoever, it sounds really flat so with that extra roll through with the kick...you see I don’t mix myself, my man who mixes my shit, he’s dope, he’s a professional. He did a really good job. When I did my own mixes like on Dreamflight, he sent his back to me and I’m, aah. you didn’t put the reverb on the congas and he’s like, dude, the way the original record is, I don't hear that, it’s very clean so if you add these other elements, you’re changing it, you need to get it to sound the same. So that’s why now they’re properly mixed, they gel together much better.
JT - So, some tracks I loved straightaway, ‘Cop Bop’ by Portable Patrol feat Disco Cop.
SG - Oh yeah, so this guy, he went to Berklee College of Music as a lot of these cats in these groups did, this guy Craig Boyd from Portable Patrol who used to be in another group called North End which was Arthur Baker’s group and had a single on West End called ‘This Kind Of Love’ and he played on that, and he’s from Long Island (NYC) I think and he moved back there and started working as a traffic cop though he’s a musician, and he was known as the ‘Disco Cop’ (because of the way he moved while directing traffic). He was in commercials, a Burger King commercial or something...anyway that’s a dope joint.
SG - Justin, which one is your favourite?
JT - There’s a few, the obvious one is ‘I’m Gonna Get You (Meeow)’, it’s got that pre-disco thing going on, I could imagine that being played at a Mancuso ‘Loft’ party and people utterly losing their shit and I’m going to lie next week when I’m playing at Houghton Festival and find a way of squeezing it in and saying its African!
SG - Yeah like it’s Nigerian!
JT - This Nigerian proto-disco/funk thing! The Cojo one which is just amazing, ‘Fire Funk’, the Hypnotics one...did you do a lot to that?
SG - I did.
JT - Right, cos that’s really got a house thing, there’s a lot of time and space in it, constantly locked, totally in the pocket from start to finish. That explains a lot because that one feels like a band wouldn’t play like that.
SG - If you listen to the original, it’s cool but it’s not as on it.
JT - That is absolutely hitting it. One of those tracks where people might be ignoring it but after a minute or so it’s, YO...
SG - Those horns and that bass line, you can’t go wrong with that kind of pocket, it’s undeniable..
JT - It reminded me of a lot of stuff, it sounds like loads of people..
SG - That’s it, when I heard it I was like maaan, this could be murderous!
JT - Loop it and loop it, you left so much space in it, nothings happening but it’s all happening. It doesn’t need anything more.
SG - Word!
JT - When I first got the promo, ‘You Make Me Happy’ by The Christopher Michael Band was the standout, I absolutely love it, I love the mariachi style horns on it!
SG - Yeeaah! It’s kind of like that, it’s a weird record, that’s one I’ve had for a long time..
JT - You’ve said in your liner notes that they kind of just knocked it out and it sounds it and that’s why it’s so good!
SG - Sonically it’s the oldest sounding, this one is more raw, really raw..
JT - But full of life!
JT - I guess another thing is, you’ve spent a lot of money on records?
SG - I’ve had my moments where I’ve shelled out some money but I’m not nearly as bad as some of these other guys that I know. I’m very careful about what I buy now especially if it’s expensive stuff you know? I have a lot already and I’m really picky about what I really need but for some of those records on the compilation I’ve had to come out of pocket, I couldn’t even find them locally.
JT - A lot of them you had to virtually meet the band?
SG - The Carrie Mimms ‘Get Up & Dance Don’t Want No Party Poo-Pershere’ 12”, I bought that record from somebody in the UK and that was $100 or something, not too crazy...but there are definitely records in my collection I’ve shelled out some serious bucks for.
JT - Do you still have a big (buying) list?
SG - There’s always a list.
JT - I try not to have one anymore, if it turns up it turns up but I'm not getting involved with Discogs maniacs...
SG - It’s a never-ending thing.
JT - What future plans have you got? This is your first comp right?
SG - This is my first comp, this is my baby, I’ve been working on this for a long time..
JT - Did BBE approach you?
SG - They did. What happened was, I did a track on the Kon and the Gang album which was a more housey track, kinda Detroit house meets boogie and I played bass on the Bosq track called ‘I’m Going Out Of My Head’ which is heavy disco bass I played. Now I think about it I’ve done about five tracks with Bosq playing bass.
JT - I’m a big fan of Bosq.
SG - He’s dope, he’s doing his thing...so that gave me the in with BBE and Peter hit me up and we started talking and I tell him I’ve got an idea for a project and he's just, lets do it!
JT - You’ve put Boston on the map now, this stuff hardly made it out of the city..
SG - Well, that’s why it’s called Boston and the surrounding areas cos acts like Dreamflight, they’re from Worcester which is about 45 minutes away from Boston but you could never do Worcester Goes Disco as there’s only one disco record from Worcester! I really wanted to nerd out on the project and get as much rare and obscure unknown shit.
JT - Do you want to do more? Is there another list?
SG - There is. There’s volume 2 in the works, it’s gonna be more on the boogie side, I didn’t want to blow the whole load, it made no sense...
JT - These tracks all fit nicely together..
SG - Exactly, they need to be sonically cohesive..
JT - Especially when you’re doing a mix CD!
SG - Exactly, that’s what I was thinking..so that’s the plan, volume 2 ,and also put out some of my own stuff, some edits and shit. Lets see where it goes. I definitely want to line up some gigs in Europe, do something.......
Since this interview took place, ‘Boston Goes Disco’ came out, the record was playlisted as ‘Record of the Week’ on Lauren Laverne’s BBC 6 daily show and has garnered praise from every angle. Serge is definitely doing something!
Words by Justin Turford (Ex-Friendly)