When it comes to strapping eight wheels on your feet, rollerblades are like listening to music on MiniDisc. Simply put, inline skates are a 90s relic now collecting dust in your parents' garage. Roller skates, on the other hand, are making a serious comeback from their 60s and 70s heyday.
Style skaters have been innovating insane dance floor moves while circling the rink since the 1960s. In fact, as Electronic Beats pointed out, "skating has been vital to both the evolution of popular American dance and dance music for decades," and occupies a space at the core of America's civil rights struggles. Chicagoan Ledger Smith, better known as Roller Skate Guy, even skated all the way from the Windy City to the nation's capital for the 1963 March on Washington of "I Have a Dream" fame.
With midtempo soul, funk, old-school hip-hop, reggae, r&b, and of course disco as their soundtrack, roller rinks nurtured a now integrated dance music subculture that has moved from the vintage rinks of Chicago and New York to suburban rinks nationwide for multi-day skate jams. Styles and DJs that are huge on the skate scene are virtually unknown elsewhere (ever heard of the JB or DJ Big Bob?). With hardcore skate culture coming together with electronic music's cognoscenti with increasing frequency, however, that's all about to change.
Moodymann's biennial Soul Skate party at Detroit's Movement last year was one of the festival's highlights. Little Louie Vegas played the 2014 edition, but also readily admitted to a long history of playing skate parties when coming up as a DJ in New York during the 1980s. But the Masters at Work legend was arguably not as much of a draw to the rabid skate crowd as DJ Big Bob, resident at the Saturday outdoor Central Park skate jams, or the nearly forgotten Brooklyn rap group Whodini.
Still, Soul Skate has been going strong since 2007 and Red Bull Music Academy even coaxed the reclusive Kenny Dixon Jr. (the Mann behind the Moody) to deliver a vinyl-only set for a London roller skating jam in 2010 that also featured a heavy dose of funk from San Francisco's B.Bravo. More recently, Ed Banger's Breakbot fired up his electro-disco sound in January to celebrate the Stevie Wonderland crew's second birthday at a massive Manchester student union.
On this side of the pond, roller disco is getting more exposure beyond the skate or die contingent thanks to Flavorpill's Magic Hour parties at the LeFrak Center in Prospect Park, the deluxe rink in Brooklyn's green oasis. Metro Area kicked off the series in July, Wolf + Lamb took to the decks in August, and Afrika Bambaata and The Rub's DJ Ayres close it out today.
There are many more wobbly skaters and wipeouts on the LeFrak's rink than the effortlessly executed splits, lunges, and B-boy moves to be found at the Crazy Legs Skate Club in Bedstuy (sadly on hiatus as its founder, who skated into his 80s, passed away in July). And the skaters indulging in craft beer and cocktails are a sure sign of the amateur (pro tip: real skate jams are a dry affair, and the dance floor is all the more stylish for it). But the crowd at Magic Hour is always game, with plenty of hot pants to go around, and whether or not you can skate, it's a chance to hear top-flight DJs on a gorgeous summer night.
"It's hard to do 100 BPM at a club but here is the perfect environment," says Wolf +Lamb's Gadi "Baby Prince" Mizrahi, surveying the scene approvingly in his Brooklyn Nets jersey after the August edition. Zev Eisenberg, the other half of the duo, wandered over on his skates and vintage basketball shorts, paired with knee-high socks and headbands to complete the look.
"I skated at The Roxy back in the day. They played slamming house music. We're looking to bring that back," Zev explains. The Roxy, a New York nightlife staple in Chelsea, originally opened as a roller disco competitor to Studio 54 before becoming a weekend gay nightclub with weekday skating. It finally closed its doors in 2007 to the despair of clubbers and skaters alike, the latter of whom also lost the Bronx's Skate Key and Brooklyn's Empire Roller Skating Center (supposed birthplace of the roller disco) in the last decade.
The slow, sexy vibe that Wolf + Lamb have been churning out in recent years with their extended Crew Love family has now manifested itself in a quest for roller disco bliss. Over the summer, they rented out Skaters World in the Catskills Mountains of upstate New York, where Zev has a house, for an invite-only bash that could have been cribbed from a That 70s Show re-run. Last November, they hosted Not Your Mama's Roller Disco with crewmates Midnight Magic, Navid Izadi, and Lonely C of Soul Clap as part of Red Bull Sound Select Presents: 30 Days in LA.
Back on the East Coast, this summer also saw the second annual Donna Summer Memorial Roller Disco in Boston, thanks to the folks behind Together Festival. Even the mayor was on board, granting permission for a temporary rink on City Hall Plaza to honor the queen of disco. Re-edit king DJ Kon hails from the same Boston neighborhood where Summer was born and honored her legacy with the choice cuts of a true crate-digger.
Roller discos are poised to evolve from quirky one-off to a legit nightlife format, just like they've been for decades in the skate community. "For the first time I felt our music fit perfectly into a pocket," recalls Gadi of the LA event. "Club land and festival land being the way they are, it's tough to fit in with a more chill sound." Now the duo is scouting roller rinks and gymnasiums nationwide with their eyes set on a roller disco tour. If they pull it off, Roller Skate Guy may have to come out of retirement.
Magic Hour with Afrika Bambaata and DJ Ayres, presented by Flavorpill, is Saturday, September 19 from 5-9 PM at the LeFrak Center in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.