In the world of dance music, Walter Gibbons’ reputation is an all or none kind of thing: People either revere him as an immensely talented and creative pioneer of both live turntable-based mixing and studio remixing or they’ve never heard of him. I’m guessing most people fall into the latter group which is a shame because the people in the former group have it right. Walter Gibbons was a monster.
Gibbons became widely known in the very early days of the underground dance scene in New York when he became one of the regular DJs at Galaxy 21. He was exceptional at extending breaks and beat matching records and could handle the turntables with a precision that rivaled Grandmaster Flash. Galaxy 21 was an after-hours joint and Gibbons became the DJ the other DJs went to see when their gigs ended.
Ken Cayre, one of the owners of the foundational disco label Salsoul Records, heard Gibbons mix two recordings of Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” during one of Gibbons’ sets and asked him if he could do the same thing in the studio. Gibbins said no problem and Cayre asked him to make a remix for Salsoul. Cayre gave Gibbons three hours in the studio to do it. In those three hours Gibbons extended the album version of the song by almost three minutes and gave Salsoul a remix that outsold the original by two to one and was widely seen as opening record company eyes to the fact that remixes could provide a lucrative revenue stream.
As Gibbons’ life as a studio remixer grew, his career as a live DJ waned. His career in the studio would soon follow. A good deal of his professional downslide was due to Gibbons’ personality and his approach to music. Gibbons was a creative and original artist who focused on the quality of the music he was making to the exclusion of what anyone else wanted to hear. As a result, he was often way out in front of the curve making music that many in the dance audience weren’t ready to listen to. “Set it Off”, the first release from a label Gibbons partially owned, is a good example. It combined elements of early hip-hop and contemporary dance music in ways neither audience was prepared for. When first played in clubs it would clear the dance floor. However, DJs who heard the value of the track made it a regular part of their mix and audiences came to demand it once they became familiar with it.
Gibbons was an intensely focused man and when his interest in the Bible and Christianity turned to zealotry, he became very difficult to work with in the studio. He refused to work on songs that contained lyrics that he didn’t find uplifting or that celebrated what he saw as the degrading and promiscuous side of homosexuality. He was intolerant of other’s views and given to delivering sermons in the studio. Working with him became more trouble than it was worth. Gibbons spent the last weeks of his life living in a YMCA in New York. He died of complications from AIDS in 1994. He was 38.
The core of Gibbons’ musical talent lay in his exquisite understanding of and appreciation for rhythm and percussion. That talent is on display throughout the 14 tracks on Jungle Music‘s 2 discs. The first disc focuses on his early mixes for labels like Salsoul and includes remixes of tracks by Gladys Knight, the Salsoul Orchestra and Bettiye Lavette among others. Some of this material may sound like standard disco remix fare until you realize that when Gibbons built these tracks, there was no standard disco fare. He was making the mold that so many others would use.
The second disc focuses on his later remixes and it is easy to hear how unique Gibbons was and how far beyond most of his contemporaries he had moved. It’s no accident that two of the remixes on disc two were done for Arthur Russell, another recently rediscovered giant of the early underground music scene. Some of Gibbons’ remixes wouldn’t sound out of place today.
Gibbons has been criminally neglected in terms of making his music available for current audiences. Jungle Music stands as the exception. The collection includes two discs of high-quality remixes coupled with a booklet with an extensive essay about Gibbons written by Tim Lawrence the author of the superb Love Saves the Day. Jungle Music may be hard to find but if you like highly creative, rhythmic dance music or if you have an interest in the pioneers of underground dance music or DJ studio remixing, grab a copy while you can. There is some exceptionally good music here.
Gibbons’ 12″ mix of Strafe’s “Set It Off”