Nicky Siano Reflects on Chicago House History, Brings '70s Groove to New Club Disco

Brad Barket/Getty Images for Republic Records
Nicky Siano spins on stage during I Feel Love in celebration with Absolut on Sept. 10, 2016 in New York City.  

As a pioneering DJ at the Gallery and Studio 54 during the '70s, Nicky Siano helped dictate the pulse of New York City's dancefloors, aiding disco as it made a move from underground to mainstream. But despite his importance on the East Coast, he had never played in Chicago until recently. "I had a few offers, we tried," he tells Billboard Dance. "But it never really happened."

This is made even stranger by the fact that Siano played an important role in the beginning of Frankie Knuckles' career — giving him a job in the early days of the Gallery — before Knuckles moved to Chicago and jumpstarted the rise of one of the city's most important musical exports, Chicago House. "I learned so much from Frankie," Siano notes. "His temperament, personality, dealing with people — he was always very calm, always very kind. Even when he was insistent, he said it very nicely; he didn't get angry. I'm just starting to find that, where I'm easier to get along with. He was who I want to be."

When he steps behind the decks in Chicago for the second time on October 22, Siano will be playing at a recently opened club called Disco. The two seem to be well matched. "I'm a very big fan of and highly influenced by the '70s in general," Daniel Alonso, a partner who helped design the space — it sits on top of Celeste, which Alonso refers to as "one of the classic, great cocktail bars in the city" — says. "It was a very sleek era, very refined. I try to vibe off that, keep the space monochromatic, simple. Give a wink to the design element of that era, but also let the two elements of disco that I most want to shine, shine: the musical program and the dance floor itself."

Alonso — along with his music supervisor, Saam Hagshenas — are hoping that Disco can add a new flavor to Chicago's nightlife. "Chicago had hit firmly a rut in what you could call the nightclub game or the dance club game," Alonso says. "You can count on one hand how many decent late night venues there are, let alone ones that are fully promoting and implementing the old art of dancing, cutting loose, and having fun." "We have these rockstar DJs — people go to watch them and they aren't really dancing," Hagshenas adds. "Back in the day, it was [about] the club, it was the atmosphere."

According to Alonso and Hagshenas, Disco's emphasis on a retro groove will also make it an outlier in town. "Every club you go to in Chicago is playing house, progressive house, top 40 remixes," Hagshenas says. "I was really wanting something more curated." He suggests people are gradually getting used to Disco's different soundtrack. "We opened six weeks ago, and people would come up asking for Justin Bieber or hip-hop," he remembers. "I'd be like, we don't do that here. Now people come up asking for Abba. We smile at each other. It wasn't that much effort: creating concepts, sticking to our guns."

"It's not That '70s Show," he continues, wary of those who might pigeonhole Disco as a kitsch novelty. "It's just incredible dance music. You don't even care that we didn't play a song from the 2000s — you just danced and had a great time."

 

So far, Disco has managed to draw a diverse crowd. "We don't want to fall into Chicago's natural tendency to be very segregated by neighborhood and by nightlife and overall," Alonso says. "We see that not just in Latino, black, white, straight, gay, but also by the ages: I'd say that you come in any given night, you see girls in their 20s, but we always have a healthy dose of every age group, people in their 50s, even going into the late '60s."

Some of those patrons will be old enough to remember Chicago's combative history with disco: in 1979, a White Sox game served as host of Disco Demolition Night, in which a heap of disco records were blown up in a barely veiled outburst of racism and homophobia. It was an effective catalyst for a wave of anti-disco sentiment that reached even Nile Rodgers, whose group Chic is one of dance music's most vital institutions. "You want to go blow up records? That was funny to me," Rodgers said in an interview in February. "But then I saw the violence and the vitriol … And the next thing I know, nobody wouldn't answer our calls." "I was so down after 'disco sucks,'" Rodgers added. "I'd had six failures in a row and nobody would call me." 

Though disco went into hiding, its lessons were too valuable to be thrown aside — it served as the backbone of Chicago house, it was heavily sampled in hip-hop, and countless pop hits have borrowed its template. Many of the genre's key '70s figures are now enjoying career renaissances, including Rodgers, who had his first Dance Club Songs No. 1 in 23 years in 2015, Giorgio Moroder, who also dusted off his DJ equipment and put out his first record in decades last year, and Siano. 

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"I'm coming into a real sweet spot with my music," Siano says, talking excitedly about new edits of Beginning Of The End's "Funky Nassau" and Love Committee's "Law And Order" that he can't wait to drop into his sets. "In the '70s I was considered the best DJ for five years until I was taking drugs and ruined my life," he explains. "I've always had it. It's just a matter of me being sober and paying attention and moving garbage away from the essence."

Club owners like Alonso and dancers are able to reap the benefits. After Siano made his Chicago debut, he had a conversation with one club-goer. "I guess he was old enough to know Frankie and to have been with Frankie," Siano recalls. "He said to me, 'I came out to hear my favorite DJ's favorite DJ. And I was so glad I did.'"