“D.C. has tons of cool freaks. Quote me on that.”
That was the most memorable gem of wisdom that I got from my interview with Harvey Jessup.
Off a first or even hundredth impression, you can tell Harvey doesn’t fit the stereotypical Washingtonian aesthetic. He’s not a lobbyist. He probably doesn’t watch MSNBC. And he abhors the eye roll-inducing “young professional” label.
If anything, Jessup is a full-fledged geek and proud of it. He knows ‘80’s anime like the back of his hand. He shit-posts behind Twitter pseudonyms like “Harvey Chulo” and “White Norbit.” And most importantly, he is DJ Mike Harvey, the go-to guy for Italo disco nights in the DMV.
When coming to the District for its vibrant nightlife, you’ll find a variety of raves at week’s end. Whether it’s house, techno or UK garage, the region is littered with dance options. But when you’re scrolling through Resident Advisor and find a night labeled “Italo disco,” you start asking questions like “Is this a throwback night?” or “Who the hell does this cater to?”
Because in all honesty, disco has the worst reputation.
From Reddit opinions to corny sitcoms, disco is a punchline beaten as bad as the Valley accent. Americans can’t hold a straight face when it comes to disco because all it elicits is the image of someone’s dad wearing bell-bottoms and an awful perm. It’s a genre that many claim is dead and buried. Except now you’re being told there’s an Italian version?
Such a phenomenon like Italo disco is something that needs a deep online dive to properly fathom. First off, it wasn’t simultaneous with American disco. As soon as rock-obsessed Americans started burning Donna Summer albums in 1979, that’s when European variants started to pop off.
Disco wasn’t killed. It simply spent the ‘80’s backpacking in Europe.
Secondly, you can’t make sense of the aesthetics from a quick glance. With one image search, you’ll see anything ranging from knock-off John Travoltas to glossy rip-offs of Duran Duran girls to business formal robots. It’s a cheesy hodgepodge of tacky nonsense with volumized hair.
With that being said, I naturally became obsessed with Italo and needed to talk out my obsession with someone who practically resides in this esoteric rabbit hole. That’s where Harvey comes in.
He’ll say he’s by no means an Italo scholar, but this charismatic DJ knows more than he lets off. Coming into the interview, I strived for a sense of who Harvey is and how he came across this specific genre.
Funny enough, it wasn’t far off from how I found it.
A story like this is too real to have some glossy origin story like a semester in Milan or a cool Italian grandma.
With Harvey, Italo disco first made itself known when he was a band geek growing up in South Carolina. While browsing the strangest corners of the internet, the meme-cultured teen stumbled upon “BearForce1,” a gay Dutch pop group that praised large men and referenced Italo influence in some of their viral videos.
From there, Harvey went to the University of South Carolina and centered himself at their radio station. Initially playing a mix of experimental and prog, Harvey eventually dove deeper into Italo disco and found music that transcended high culture standards.
“It has the benefit of being accessible and strange,”Harvey says. “It’s cheesy yet sexy.”
“Totally campy,” he continues.
All thanks for the Italo disco revival is due to the hyper-obsessive internet.
According to Harvey, music site Intergalactic FM was a major player in this niche fandom. An online cult station based in The Hague, one channel on this still-running address made waves by calling itself “Disco Fetish” and playing iconic Italo hits.
On par with Intergalactic’s contribution, you also had German producer DJ Hell giving Italo a place at his label, International DeeJay Gigolo Records, the home to iconic producers like Fischerspooner or Miss Kittin & The Hacker.
But even more remarkable than Hell or Intergalactic was Flemming Dalum. A Dane said to have amassed a collection of 20,000 vinyl records, Dalum is by far one of the internet’s most trusted Italo archivists and supporters.
With this much hype around Italo disco, you’d think the genre was once the height of pop culture. But oddly enough, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Italo disco only had five or six years of good music. It’s a handful taken from a handful.”
It turns out Italy has completely forgotten their disco era. Instead of Milan, Chicago was the premier spot for 80’s Italo. Mixing with local sounds and new demographics, Italo became a building block for the highly-regarded and EDM-defining Chicago House scene.
But regardless of popularity in Italy or Illinois, there’s no question that Mike Harvey is doing this genre justice in the District. Seasonally, Harvey takes it upon himself to host IL DISCOTTO, an Italo disco night that’s popular amongst a significant number of D.C. bohemians and DIY enthusiasts.
And in terms of what Harvey hopes for more of in District arts, it’s kindness.
“Self-reflection and understanding. It shouldn’t be multiple crews fighting.”
To Harvey, the push for an involved and welcoming DIY community is the key to a better dance scene.
An Italo Disco Setlist Curated by DJ Mike Harvey
My Mine, “Hypnotic Tango”
This is more or less the only italo “mega hit” I never tire of hearing. A Chicago house classic in its own right, the iconic maracas, bass, and supercharged octave chorus makes this one of the Italo tracks everyone needs to hear.
Big Ben Tribe, “Tarzan Loves the Summer Nights”
Very freaky and dubbed out song where a woman is fantasizing about Tarzan. Both the vocal and instrumental cuts are killer. There are quite a few Italo songs that cover “jungle vibes” for a lack of a better phrasing and one big hit that is also about “tarzan,” this is the crowning jewel of that Italo micro-tradition. This group also did a cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
L.S. Manera, “Sombrero”
Stupidly rare, stupidly expensive and stupidly good. Mixes and matches mangled Spanish and English then throws some perfect cheesy sax on top. But what will keep you coming back is the transcendent layered chorus and ear-worm baseline.
Lara Orfei, “Se Mi Rompi Non Ci Sto”
Italo disco on 7 is its own world in some ways. I keep coming back to this track as a favorite because of its heavy, heavy baseline and over the top emotive power. If you “get into it” you’ll be pumping your fist at the “oh, oh, oh.” If you don’t want to pay big bucks for such a little record there’s a very nice edit by the Italo digger and edit lord supreme George Hysteric’s Mothball Records bandcamp.
Italo disco on acid. A truly unique track with insane energy.