On the face of it, New York’s ballroom and voguing scene is possibly not the most obvious inspiration for the deluxe Soul Jazz compilation treatment. As a movement, it was an integral part of NYC’s LGBT scene in the 1980s, rising to international prominence in 1990 with the release of Madonna’s “Vogue”, the pop queen’s slightly cynical tribute to the dance and house ballroom community. Yet musically, it was never a fixed thing, reflecting instead the sounds that dominated NYC’s gay club scene over two decades. The music was an important part of the culture, of course, but it was not the be all and end all.
The scene’s roots lie in the Harlem ballrooms of the 1960s and 70s, where groups of gay, bisexual and transgender individuals would gather together in “houses” – basically groups of like-minded individuals watched over by a “house mother” (often a drag queen or transgender individual) or “house father” – and compete in dancing competitions. The dance of choice was voguing – an angular dance that featured poses inspired by the models featured in the pages of Vogue magazine. The scene’s obsession with the glamour of high-end fashion was often reflected in the name of the “houses”; many took their moniker from the name of a famous designer.
By the time Madonna was turned onto voguing by scene stalwart Xtravaganza (father of the “House of Xtravaganza”) at Sound Factory in 1990, the ballroom scene was already well established. Its 1970s roots can clearly be seen in the high number of glamorous disco cuts featured on this deluxe, three-disc retrospective. Both Salsoul Orchestra’s “Love Break” and MFSB’s thrilling “Love Is The Message” (as remixed by Tom Moulton, whose version is arguably one of the definitive records of the disco era) became scene staples; so much so, in fact, that elements of both featured heavily in later voguing-inspired records (Madonna’s “Vogue”, for starters, but also Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 cut “Deep In Vogue”). Here, many other voguing disco staples are included, too, including well-known cuts by Cheryl Lynn, Inner Life and Diana Ross.
As house music began to take hold of New York City’s clubs in the late 1980s, so the ballroom soundtrack changed. First, it was the likes of McLaren’s “Deep In Vogue”, Nitro Deluxe’s brilliant “This Brutal House”, the Spanish Fly version of Raze’s landmark “Break For Love” and Junior Vasquez’s “Just Like A Queen” (released under the Ellis-D pseudonym).
Later, it was the tribal house preferred at clubs such as the Sound Factory that dominated the scene. It’s perhaps this side of the “ballroom” sound that hits hardest here. Certainly, there’s a brutal, masculine, angular feel to tracks such as Masters At Work’s “The Ha Dance”, Rageous Projecting Kevin Aviance’s “Cunty” and Junior Vasquez’s typically robust “X”. See also 2 Bodys’ “Body Drill” and Armand Van Helden’s voodoo anthem “The Witch Doctor”.
Vasquez himself proved to be something of a focal point in the scene’s later years (or at least those covered here). It’s perhaps fitting, then, that the third disc features a mix from the man himself. This writer was a touch disappointed with the actual mix, to be honest, but it puts the tracks in context and offers an insight into what a pure ballroom soundtrack may have sounded like sometime around 1992.
Really, the truly exceptional highlight of this package is Soul Jazz’s detailed sleeve notes in the accompanying booklet. As ever, these offer a true history – with pictures, more of which can be found in a separate book (well worth a look) – and put the music into some kind of context. Musically, it’s a fascinating compilation – admittedly stacked high with tracks many disco and househeads will already own – but it’s this extra material that makes Voguing And The House Ballroom Scene of New York City a very worthy retrospective indeed.