‘Let’s blow up this black music!’: The ugliness and unrest of 1979’s Disco Demolition Night

‘Let’s blow up this black music!’: The ugliness and unrest of 1979’s Disco Demolition Night

likened to a “Nazi book-burning” in the tense, segregated climate of ‘70s Chicago. Chicago house music pioneer Vince Lawrence, who was only 15 years old in 1979 and was at Comiskey Park that crazy day working as an usher to buy his first synthesizer, is one of those people.’ data-reactid=”16″>But many people claim that Dahl was, at the very least, naïve and irresponsible to stage what Chic’s Nile Rodgers once likened to a “Nazi book-burning” in the tense, segregated climate of ‘70s Chicago. Chicago house music pioneer Vince Lawrence, who was only 15 years old in 1979 and was at Comiskey Park that crazy day working as an usher to buy his first synthesizer, is one of those people.

“Steve Dahl went on a popular rock radio station at a time when rock radio in Chicago had a probably predominately white listenership. He would regularly play black music and then rip the record off the turntable with a scrape sound and add an explosion sound effect. He would do that repeatedly, in a segregated town — like, ‘Yo, let’s blow up this black music!’” Lawrence recalls. “Chicago was extremely segregated, and a lot of people would say that in the ‘70s there were racist undertones, especially in certain neighborhoods, [the Comiskey Park-adjacent] Bridgeport being one of them. … So, I don’t know if Steve was walking around with a bag over his head, but if he wasn’t, then he had to have been cognizant of the fact that there were racist underpinnings amongst his fanbase, which were middle- and lower-middle-class white kids. I mean, you’d almost have to be walking around with your head in the sand in order to ignore that that was there.

The Loop advertised that if fans brought a disco record to be detonated on the baseball field on that hot July night, they’d get in for the discounted admission of 98 cents. Fifty-thousand people turned up, which was more than three times the average attendance for a game, and 5,000 over the venue’s official capacity. It was the job of Lawrence and his fellow ushers to collect the records and put them in dumpsters by the entrance gates. That’s when Lawrence first noticed something wasn’t right.

Steve Dahl stands beside of a crate full of unwanted disco records con Disco Demolition Night. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Gritty, black-and-white images captured by official photographer Pat Natkin (who declined to be interviewed by Yahoo Entertainment) do look like they were taken in a war zone. “I mean, the photographs that I’ve seen of Steve Dahl wearing an army jacket and helmet, holding his hands up over a pile of disco records, bear shocking resemblance to Hitler [rallies],” Lawrence says. “Wars are not always fought with guns.”

Chicago DJ Steve Dahl leads the crowd in anti-disco chants during the Disco Demolition Night. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Chicago DJ Steve Dahl leads the crowd in anti-disco chants as smoke from the exploded crate of disco records lingers behind, during Disco Demolition Night. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Lawrence emerged unscathed, but he walked home that night after work brandishing his baton-like flashlight as a weapon, just in case. “I won’t say that I was afraid for my safety, but I was dang sure alert and ready to defend myself, considering my circumstances of being identified as ‘disco’ out of a crowd of thousands of people.”

recorded disco singles. Even radio DJ Rick Dees’s goofy parody song “Disco Duck” had gone to No. 1. So, it could be argued that disco fatigue had set in after all this market saturation, and Dahl was simply in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, when music fans were eager and ready for a change. (The backlash to disco after Dahl’s stunt was immediate: Nile Rodgers told Spotify Originals, “Prior to that I never had a single that wasn’t gold, platinum, double-, or triple-platinum. But we never, ever had a hit record again after that.”)” data-reactid=”91″>The disco movement had been spearheaded by many marginalized people, artists who were LGBTQ or of color, and had initially appeared to those audiences — which is why it’s so easy to assume that Disco Demolition Night had been a bigoted event. But by 1979, disco was as mainstream as a music genre could get. Saturday Night Fever was a box-office smash, with its Bee Gees-helmed soundtrack going 16 times platinum. Rod Stewart wasn’t the only classic rock artist who’d gotten in on the act: KISS, Queen, Blondie, and the Rolling Stones had also recorded disco singles. Even radio DJ Rick Dees’s goofy parody song “Disco Duck” had gone to No. 1. So, it could be argued that disco fatigue had set in after all this market saturation, and Dahl was simply in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, when music fans were eager and ready for a change. (The backlash to disco after Dahl’s stunt was immediate: Nile Rodgers told Spotify Originals, “Prior to that I never had a single that wasn’t gold, platinum, double-, or triple-platinum. But we never, ever had a hit record again after that.”)

Steve Dahl and fans in Disco Demolition Night crowd, some wearing ‘Disco Sucks’ T-shirts. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

really racism, that was ‘something else’? Everything from the colonial-ization of America forward has been a parade of the majority inflicting its will on everybody else and under the guise of something reasonable. And that’s the problem, in my opinion. So, Steve Dahl in his behavior wasn’t just Steve Dahl in his behavior. It’s so much bigger than Steve Dahl, honestly.”” data-reactid=”114″>Lawrence continues: “Time and time again throughout our country’s history, they do s***ty things to marginalized people and then we fluff it up, we brush it off as innocent or say it was an isolated incident. This guy was screaming from the top of the hills, like, ‘Hey let’s get together and burn all the n****r music. And a bunch of white people show up and burn all the n****r music, and then they say, ‘But that wasn’t racist, it was something else.’ How many other times in America’s history has some inherently, obvious, horrible, racist thing happened when they say that wasn’t really racism, that was ‘something else’? Everything from the colonial-ization of America forward has been a parade of the majority inflicting its will on everybody else and under the guise of something reasonable. And that’s the problem, in my opinion. So, Steve Dahl in his behavior wasn’t just Steve Dahl in his behavior. It’s so much bigger than Steve Dahl, honestly.”

Anti-disco protest banners at Disco Demolition Night. (Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

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