Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll

  Empire Roller Disco, 1979, © Bill Bernstein from DISCO: The Bill Bernstein Photographs" (Reel Art Press, 2015)

 

Empire Roller Disco, 1979, © Bill Bernstein from DISCO: The Bill Bernstein Photographs" (Reel Art Press, 2015)

From Moodymann's famed Soul Skate party in Detroit, to the long running JB Skating sessions at The Rink on East 87th Street in Chicago, roller skating continues to be an important cultural activity for black communities across America. In these strongholds and others like Atlanta, the house and hip hop generation firing skating into new and exciting directions. But New York was the original home of roller disco. 

The history of skating in black America goes back to at least the 1930s. But it was in New York in the 1970s where the skate scene became a cultural force, rivalling the downtown clubs and breaking new music. 

Largely unrecognised, though, is the scene’s interaction with dance culture and the inspiration it gave to the nightlife underground.

New York’s skate story really begins in the 1940s. Would-be impresarios Henry and Hector Abrami took on the Empire Rollerdrome, east of Bedford Avenue in the Crown Heights neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Nestled between a row of gas stations and storefront churches, the Empire was originally frequented by the eastern European immigrants who made up the bulk of the local population at the time. Brooklyn’s demographics changed rapidly in the following decades, with areas like Crown Heights becoming home to a large black community.

Empire Roller Disco, 1979, © Bill Bernstein from DISCO: The Bill Bernstein Photographs (Reel Art Press, 2015)

Empire Roller Disco, 1979, © Bill Bernstein from DISCO: The Bill Bernstein Photographs (Reel Art Press, 2015)

“When I arrived at the Empire in 1957, just about all the skaters were black,” scene lynchpin Bill Butler recalls. Raised in Detroit, Butler was introduced to the Empire as a young serviceman newly stationed in Brooklyn. 

“When I got there it was all organ music. Nothing related to black people and how we danced. So I brought my own music with me, and asked Mr [Henry] Abrami if he would play a number I had, Night Train by Count Basie,” he says.

The owner obliged and the Empire changed forever. Its organ sounds were replaced by jazz and R&B. The skaters responded to the new musical direction; Butler was at the forefront of this new age for skating. 

“They say I changed it, because I introduced a different type of skating,” he states, “I had been working on what I called the ‘Jammin’ technique’ when I was stationed in Alaska and brought it to the Empire.” 

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By the 1970s, New York’s downturn saw areas like Crown Heights become blighted. With its brightly coloured murals and neon palm-trees, the Empire provided both a sanctuary and an escape from the realities on the streets. “The Empire had its roots in the projects, so it played out a different role than the Manhattan skate clubs would,” explains future skate DJ, Julio Estien, “It was a big part of a lot people’s lives from those poor communities and it became a real family thing.”

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This community ethic was epitomised by 8 Ball and The Blue Guerrillas skate club. Established in 1971 by Brooklyn skate scene elder Tom Neverson, this cross-generational collective was set up to empower inner city youth. It did so throughout the 1970s, offering hope and direction to what became some of Empire’s best skaters. Card-carrying members included the first spinners of the golden age such as DJ Chuck and DJ Horace as well as future skating stalwarts like Pat the Cat. 

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While nothing should take away from the various DJs who span at the Empire throughout the early seventies, it was the arrival a spinner known as Big Bob (born Robert Clayton) who would take the rink to the next level during the roller-disco era.

“He was the type of DJ who had the knack of harnessing the skaters,” says Bill Butler, “That is the kind of DJ you need to have for skating.” 

Not only was Big Bob an intuitive DJ at one with his crowd, he was also a skater who was keenly aware of its importance for the soul of the community and its members' self-belief. “Skating is a spiritual expression of who you are,” he explained in an interview on WNYC radio. 

Through the seventies, the Empire was a platform for the city’s best skaters, responding to Bob’s bass-heavy sound with ever more acrobatic and flamboyant moves. Earning the title ‘The Godfather of Roller Disco’, Bill Butler became a teacher to the next generation of skaters as new faces started to appear, wanting a taste of this in-vogue scene.

“They called me and wanted me to be Cher’s date for the evening,” he recalls. “That was the beginning of the tables being turned, as we saw the Empire becoming more integrated.” 

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Although the Empire deserves its place in New York skating folklore, for Julio Estien the roller disco boom owes just as great a debt to a small Greenwich Village rink called Village Skating. It was here that he held court as DJ Julio from 1976. “I think we were the first place to really connect with what was happening in the clubs,” he suggests. 

Marion Green, a long time skater at the Empire, saw the scene take off as it crossed over to Manhattan: “The timing and location of Village Skating could not have been better,” he recalls, explaining how it was a scene built on the ethics of family and a celebration of diversity, fulfilling the dream of the venue’s founder Richard ‘Dick’ Clammer. 

“You had all types of people at The Village,” says Julio, “It had everyone. Old, young, gay, straight, black and white. I’d play Donna Summer’s Macarthur Park, the Star Wars theme, I’m A Man by Macho, and of course Disco Circus by Martin Circus, that was a huge tune at the time.”

Disco Circus was one of the many tunes that crossed over to the clubs at places like Xenon where Julio would go regularly to hear DJ Tony Smith. “I was heavily influenced by him and also the flamboyance of Studio 54,” he says.

Like all great skate DJs, Julio was a skater himself and a founder member of one of New York’s best-known skate groups. “I was one of the original members of The Village Wizards,” he says proudly, “To be a skater you have to have a certain rhythm, a certain beat, and as a DJ you have to recognise that. Big Bob and Danny (Krivit) had it and that’s why we connected so well with the skaters. It was all on a certain beat and we knew which tunes had it and which didn’t.” 

Talking on WNYC Radio, Big Bob concurred with the importance of these disciplines. “With skating you got to learn how to really mix… because that’s what they skate to – that beat.”

Empire Roller Disco, 1979, © Bill Bernstein from DISCO: The Bill Bernstein Photographs (Reel Art Press, 2015)

Empire Roller Disco, 1979, © Bill Bernstein from DISCO: The Bill Bernstein Photographs (Reel Art Press, 2015)

Other members of the Village Wizards included Michael Bellgrave and Marion Green, who would later become the venue’s manager. They were soon joined by one of the city’s finest skaters, Khahil Kain, who began at Village Skating when he was just 14. 

Other troupes followed in the Wizards’ wake included Khahil Kain’s own ‘Stylist’ skating group, Dwight Toppin’s ‘The Striders’ and Fred Tantao’s ‘Scramblin’ Feet’. But perhaps the most important skate troupe of the late seventies, and certainly the one with the biggest legacy, was ‘The Good Skates’. 

The Good Skates grew from an idea of a Judy Lyn, as one of their press releases from 1979 explains. 

‘Judy envisioned a new world of feet on wheels… people transporting themselves daily and dancing nightly in Roller ballrooms, spinning and gliding to jazz, blues and disco music. Healthier, happier people – even breathing cleaner air,’ it says. It was in Central Park where the vision became a reality as The Good Skates began one of the longest running skate sessions, continued till today by the CPDSA skating association.

New York DJ, Body & Soul’s Danny Krivit, recalls his first exposure to The Good Skates. 

“I was skating a lot and I was actually quite good but more like a hockey skater. Around ‘78 I did a block party with a friend for these roller skaters, and it was a new experience for me. They had The Good Skates there and I really enjoyed playing for them. It was a little different than I had experienced before.”

The skate styles that developed during this time were a big influence to the dancing in the clubs – in particular the fluid movement that developed around clubs like The Loft. 

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"I think the swirling and jumping has definitely crossed over from the skate rinks to the clubs, and that’s because pretty much everyone I knew that skated also went to the underground clubs as well,” explains Brooklyn DJ Donna Edwards. With its newly installed Richard Long sound system bringing even more dynamics to the floor, the Empire became a breeding ground for future DJs like Edwards. “My brother and I would often go to Empire Skating Rink to hear both Big Bob and Tee Scott spin,” she recalls, “They used to wear me out. I loved that someone could make music continuously flow without interruption. At that instance I decided I wanted to learn how to spin.  I would go in the booth and talk with them and watch what they were doing.”

While Big Bob has earned his crown as the top DJ at the Empire, Tee Scott’s time there was also important. Donna Edwards who was a big follower of Scott equates his time at Empire with his notable tenure at Better Days. 

“His playing had the crowd stompin’ the floor out,” she says, “I used to pray that old floor hold up under the madness. Hearing him in the ‘Rink was mind blowing because the system was awesome. You could hear it blocks away. I'd rather go roller-skating and listen to Tee instead of going to the [Paradise] Garage or other events that were happening at the time.”

Scroll to the bottom of the page for Donna Edwards' Tee Scott top ten, with links to the tracks – Ed.

Patrick Pagnano, Empire Roller Rink, Brooklyn, NY 1982

Patrick Pagnano, Empire Roller Rink, Brooklyn, NY 1982

With the Empire and Village Skating competing as the premier skate spots, DJ Julio moved to another Manhattan rink in the summer of 1978. Metropolis was just one of many rinks at the peak of roller disco like High Rollers on 57th Street, Coco's in Greenwich Village and Busbies on 14th Street. But there was one venue that came to epitomise the zenith of the Manhattan skate scene. 

Located in Chelsea, The Roxy was founded by Steve Bauman, Richard Newhouse and Steve Greenberg in 1979. While the venue would become known as the meeting place for uptown B-boys and the downtown art scene, the 10th Avenue club had actually been designed as a skate rink. 

Danny Krivit recalls how he began his tenure there: “My personal taste in music at that time just happened to be kind of like what happened to be the top skating tunes. It was a very specific sound; you know things like, Just a Touch of Love by Slave, Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover, Shalamar’s Right In The Socket and a lot of other records on the SOLAR label.”  

While the music crossing over from the underground dance clubs to the mainstream charts has been well documented, the influence of the skate scene on the charts is less well known. 

“If a record was a success at the skate parks it sold,” claims Krivit, “So I had a lot of people from record companies that would come and pick from that scene.” He was soon joined by DJ Julio and female DJ Elise Sokol as The Roxy became Manhattan’s premier rink. Because of the recent closure of rinks across the New York boroughs it’s hard to believe how fashionable skating was at that time. But The Roxy became a regular hangout for the likes of Andy Warhol and Cher. “Compared to the Empire, The Roxy was more of a ‘red rope’ venue. So I guess you could call it the Studio 54 of the skate scene,” says Krivit. 

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Although skating and disco shared many of the same classics there were clear distinctions between DJing in the clubs and at the rinks. “The skaters influenced me extremely,” explains Krivit.

“Occasionally I would think about chord structure and all that but I wasn’t thinking so much about the rhythms. And the skaters really made me focus more. At the skate clubs they had a very specific idea of what perfect skating music was. It was a certain tempo and didn’t get too fast or slow… which was why Good Times was such a big song. There was this thing where it wasn’t just beat, clap, kind of rhythm but an extra-pronounced beat or snare so when you were skating it propelled you and gave you an extra footing.”

At the height of the Roxy’s popularity, DJ Julio also witnessed some interaction between skaters and the B-boys. 

“It was very interesting because when hip-hop came to The Roxy there were a lot of people who were against it. Danny and I thought it was great, though, and you soon had people checking each other out and copying each others moves.” 

However, in the end it was the hip-hop nights that sidelined the skating. Despite skating returning to The Roxy in later years the nights lost their appeal, and were dropped in the mid 80s.

Around this time, the skate scene over in the outer boroughs came under increasing pressure from the same factors blighting the projects where the rinks were located. 

“You had Reaganomics, gangs, crack and gangsta rap,” said Tyrone D Dixon, associate producer of Roll Bounce, a 2005 roller disco homage starring rapper L’il Bow Wow. Although skating certainly faced a number of problems, by the 1990s a new school of skaters had emerged. Combining freeform street dance (including break-dancing or house dance), and gymnastics with old school moves, these Jam Skaters move in a space somewhere between Bill Butler and renowned breakdancer Crazy Legs. 

Despite the hallowed status it enjoys in the nightlife underground, the New York skate scene has found itself pushed to the very edges of the city. The Roxy finally closed its doors in 2007, a year after the padlocks were put on the doors of Skate Key in the Bronx. And in what appeared to regulars as a direct attack on the community, the Empire was sold for an alleged $4.5 million in 2007, to become a storage facility. Unprepared to roll over and die, the scene has moved out to rinks like Branch Brook Park in New Jersey, and Big Bob’s new session at Hotskates in Lynbrook where a multi-generational family of skating diehards continue to keep the flame alight. 

But to experience a taste of old school New York there is no better place in Manhattan than the skate circle in Central Park, where from spring to fall DJs like Big Bob and Danny Krivit continue to spin to the faithful.  

A version of this article was originally published in Wax Poetics magazine in 2012. It remains dedicated to DJ Julio Estien who sadly passed away a few months after being interviewed.  

Words: Andy Thomas

DJ Donna Edwards remembers Top Ten Tee Scott Skating Tunes from The Empire

1 Peech Boys - On A Journey

2 Willie Hutch - Brothers Gonna Work It Out

3 Pam Todd - Let's Get Together

4 Donna McGhee – It Ain't No Big Thing

5 Donald Byrd - Love Has Come Around

6 Brian Briggs - Aeo

7 Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime

8 Mick Jagger - Lucky In Love

9 Millie Jackson - Phuck You Symphony

10 Russ Brown - Find A Way

Bonus Tracks!

Michelle Wallace - Tee's Happy

The Trammps - Can We Come Together

Wally Badaru - Novela Das Nove

B.B. - Philadelphia

Issue ThreeSteve Beale