Hi-NRG aka Chicano Disco

Stop-Wake Up (Very awesome video filmed in Los Angeles and popular Hi-NRG song)

Over at my personal blog, I’ve been doing a series of posts based on a book I’ve been reading called Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco. I was fascinated to read the chapter on Hi-NRG or what I’ve come to call “Chicano Disco” (my nod to the moniker “Chicano Oldies”) and the music’s influence on a generation of Eastsiders.

In Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco, author Peter Shapiro explains how the influence of the European musicians’ love for synthesized music fundamentally changed the essence of dance music. Whereas disco used to be based on funk, live beats and real drummers bands like Kraftwerk showed there was another way to create a rhythm. The synthesizer with it’s fake handclaps, hi-hats and bass drums helped create a whole new genre of disco music: Hi-NRG.

Hi-NRG had a huge following amongst Mexicans and Chicanos in the Los Angeles area in the 1980s. It was the musical fuel for an amazing DIY scene of DJs, backyard parties and dance clubs that ruled over large sections of the city. It’s a movement that isn’t well known outside Chicano circles in Los Angeles, back then most people could not care less what was going on in our communities.

I wasn’t part of this scene but my brother was a DJ and a member of Boyz in Kontrol, one of the hundreds, if not thousands of party crews that existed at the time. The crews were responsible for organizing parties, dance contests, DJ battles and cruising (cars) spots. While punk may get a lot of credit for being a DIY scene, the disco scene of 1980s rivaled punk in it’s “let’s organize ourselves” philosophy. Unlike punk it wasn’t a political choice, the self organization was done out of sheer necessity. Our neighborhoods offered very few forms of entertainment or diversions for youth.

Towards the late 1980s, the backyard parties started attracting the attention of the authorities, and by using the excuse of minor incidents of violence, these authorities begin to systematically shutdown and target the parties. Some involved with the scene said this heavy handedness by LAPD and the sheriffs department helped to create the revival of cholos and gangs on the Eastside. During the height of the disco scene, to be a gangster or cholo was the epitome of being uncool. Kids would snicker at the site of old veteranos riding on the bus with baggy pants like some anachronistic figure of the past. The disco scene had Latino kids going from neighborhood to other neighborhoods across the city to attend parties and to battle each other on the dance floor. The rivalries that existed and any tension were quickly diffused through dancing and partying. The violence that occasionally happened at these parties was mostly due to fights over girls/boys and the usual love dramas.

When the authorities started cracking down on the party crews and cruising, the essentially were forcing teenagers with lots of energy to stay home. And who was waiting for them? The old gangs who provided them with diversionary outlets. Many of us saw this process play out in front of our eyes. I’m not saying this was the only catalyst for the upsurge in gangs but it was a significant one and gives us a few clues to how we can deal with our current gang problem. The more you try and control youth, the greater the eruption of chaos. Young people need something to do, they have a lot of energy and excitement for their new world that cannot be bottled up and funneled into a path that adults approve of. Let the kids party!

Hi-NRG is still popular among successive generations of backyard partygoers. Go to any baptism, quinceañera, wedding or birthday party on the Eastside or in the San Gabriel Valley and there will be at least one DJ set devoted to the pantheon of Chicano Disco aka Hi NRG.

Please see Pachuco 3000’s post: 30 Years of DJ Culture from East Los Angeles for further reading.

15 thoughts on “Hi-NRG aka Chicano Disco

  1. I bought a CD at the Star Light Swapmeet about 15 years ago called “Garden of Disco.” That CD has been played at every party at our house ever since. Thanks to this post, I am looking forward to the weekend!
    Have lots of fun and be safe, Eastside.

  2. u made me tear :.)

    No diss on Punk: I would started going to shows at both Casa Camino Real for Disco and The Olympic Auditorium for Punk. The girls were in greater numbers and more beautiful at the disco parties. Sometimes Friday would be Punk, Saturday Disco.

    BUT yes Punk gets the big spotlight maybe becuz it was political? maybe becuz it was closer to whiteness? maybe becuz record labels had more control? radio support? IDK

    The numbers of youth involved in the DJ/disco scene, just look at the number of events, DJs, promoters, and retail support network way out numbers anything Punk.

    I know one day the Chicano DJ scene of the Eastside will have the same respect if not more than our punk, lowrider and any other scene we had because it was so huge and influential on today’s music and raves. And it was about being brown n proud, without saying it, just being it.

  3. “And it was about being brown n proud, without saying it, just being it.”

    That’s an awesome statement!

    I was into the punk scene and my brother into the disco scene and the scenes shared many similarities the exception being, I think the disco kids had way more fun!

    Caxcan, what tracks are on that CD? Glad to inspire some weekend revelry!

  4. Chimatli,

    Just to name a few tracks:

    “Stop-Wake Up”
    “Two of Hearts”
    “Living on Video”
    “Spin It”

    and my favorite
    Party song

    “Capital Tropical”

  5. oh oh we busting out play lists?

    here’s six from me:
    (I tried to find the longer mixes of ea song and if they were played at the speed we played them at)

    also something that is very unique to how Chicanos in ELA played these records is that we sped them up really fast. I’ve heard DJs from Chicago play some of these tracks at regular speed and they sucked! IMO
    That’s what we do take what is out there and put our own flavor in it.

    “Vamos A La Playa” 2 Man Sound

    “The End – The Party” Destination

    “I Need Love” Capricorn

    “Plastic Doll” Dharma
    (it’s skips, like a really used piece of vinyl but it’s at ELA speed)

    “Spin It” Sunbelt

    “Searchin'” Hazel Dean

    (one day you might put the Doc Martens away and wish you kept your Zodiacs)

  6. Caxacan, yup Capital Tropical is a nice one!

    Gerry, thanks for the playlist! I forgot about some of those songs like Plastic Doll. Some of the Youtube comments for that song are awesome. Who knew history would be recorded through Youtube comments? It’s truly one of the best source for obscure musical documentation.

    “Party at the Casa on Saturdays and D.Q’s on Sunday. That was my routine as a Copa Dancer”

    “WOOOO LA stylw “The Alley Lover Boyz” I used to party at the casa camino real on washington and oak st then head to tommys on rampart to eat. this is music. Carver Jr. High and Jefferson High. we used to throw some killer parties in LA at Moe’s house, with “Gentz of Private Society”

    A couple of my fav songs that made it into Hi-NRG playlists (played super fast of course):

    Haircut 100 – Favourite Shirt/Boy Meets Girl

    Spandau Ballet – To Cut a Long Story Short

    Didn’t there used to be a Hi-NRG DJ show on KDAY, Friday and Saturday nights?

  7. Punk was really good at documenting itself and being obsessed with authenticity. It was always engaged in the “production of knowledge,” and canonizing itself. It failed to be authentic according to its own standards, but may have succeeded in being authentically intellectual.

    Disco and dance music seems to get support mainly when it appears to be from Europe.

    I used to get annoyed that the big labels wouldn’t (or was it didn’t) put out stuff by R.A.W. and DJ Irene.

    Then time flew by and it was ten years later.

    What’s needed is a People’s History of Disco, by the reincarnation of a Funky Howard Zinn.

  8. Thats a cool video! My parents were disco bunnies so unfortunately much of the genre to me is filled with memories of wanting to go farken home late at a party and another of my mom’s jams coming on and her getting back on the dancefloor/driveway. It also reminds me of stealing mojitos from open tables, and drunken tio tequila or beer breath.

    Chimatli, I was fortunate to have been neglected enogh and from a cholo/party family to have seen the NRG to deep house transition. A lot of the older homies would throw on the Hi NRG when I was younger, im 30 and this is generally the pre Dr. Dre era heads that are 5-10 years my elder. My parents are both in their late 40s and were in the middle of this scene, my pops was a full on disco cholo akin to Lil Puppet’s brother in Boulevard nights. I’d seriously bet I was conceived to one of the songs noted here, unless tower of power or al green snuck into the playlist.

    You are right about the institutional response to this music, its their response to any growing trend amongst barrio youth. Thats why the gangs last, because it is so marginalized and taboo that it thrives when its attacked. Now all the kids wanting to get away from the cholo BS jumped into this trend, like punk, graffiti and party crews; but rather than see that this is an alternative to gangs the powers that be use it as an excuse to arrest more kids.

    Anyways, beyond the intitutional harassment, the scene never really died, it transitioned to deep house and techno. I saw this happen, it was just before Operation X got big in 90-91 (remember the X hats and cross colors?). I thinkt he advance and proliferation of music technology also was a factor. Either way, I was in junior high sneeking to raves when they were called industrial parties and chicanos were a strong presence. I remember low riders at these parties. That is a bit different than the party crew scene, which I was also in the middle of.

    When deep house became king, Hi NRG kinda faded out with the prior generation and our parents. Plus a lot of folks associated it with disco, which became a target for bashing and ridicule as being outdated.

    I had a lot of pnker friends, and went to a few gigs; but I grew up in the eastlos house party scene. I think a nice analysis of that transition is what this topic has begun. Whose the vato who did the chicano djing narrative again (no offense, Im writing this off the cuff), Im sure there’s plenty of knowledge from that source.

    I grew up with hip hop and graffiti as well, which was mixed with the house party scene. My first serious offense was shooting at some K-Dubs (KWS) who were jumping me 8-1. Once the authorities clamped down, and the inevitable eastside genre becoming more choloish it was all over. But that whole early to mid 90s graff- party crew scene deserves some documentation and analysis.

    Props to alienation for noting RAW! How about DJ Dan and charlie the cat?

  9. DJing and making music are kind of two separate things. One is marked by mixed tapes which were made and sold in large numbers by independent labels who had to pay licensing fees for ea track; something major labels didn’t understand. Record labels understand a guy or girl with a microphone on a stage putting on a show for the people. Dance music is about the DJ and the people working together to make the party happen.

    Major labels would hire DJs to remix artists on their label to get a club mix and give an artist some street cred.

    RAW is a recording artist in so far as he produces music and he is one BAD ASS DJ. But many artists from the underground stay clear of mainstream labels for a variety of reasons. I won’t say RAW did but his genre of drum n bass/jungle/dub step are at the very edge of underground dance and thus the further from the label’s radar.

    Most DJs made some money from selling their mix cds and gaining new fans and thus gigs from the mix cds. Bad Boy Bill fr Chicago would sell his mix CDs out of his car truck for a long time making lots of money and getting his name and mix style all over the mid west. Later he would be one of the biggest sellers of mix CDs on a national level via his own label.

    Other LA DJs who made a lot of noise locally, nationally and globally are:
    Doc Martin, Taylor, David Alvarado, Orlando, Richard Vission, Ron D Core, Barry Weaver, Steve Loria, Dr. Sisko, Flashback, Thee-o, Marques Wyatt, Christopher Lawrence, Fabian, Mark Lewis, and of course Tony Largo. Largo began his DJ career in East LA in the late 70s and has moved through the various styles of dance music LA dance floors have loved thanks to his selection and mixes up til today.

  10. If anyone still wants to check out the still alive and grovin HNRG scene it never died check out http://www.backtodisco.com
    They are still producing the same type of parties from the 80’s and 90’s and still spinning the same HRNG sounds.
    In fact the same DJ’s that were the scene are still around spinning the ancient 12 inch vinyl.
    You can also listen to chicano disco on the internet at

    This is one cool internet radio station brings back the memories from old Salesian and Cathedral high gym parties as well as the disco nights at circus, fantasia, papillon, el paso cantina, the Mason’s lodge at Chicago and brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez bl), florentine gardens, gino’s, and many more places but I was way to wasted to remember.

    from a real vato loco and not one of those poseur bozo’s claiming to be down for the barrio.

  11. from a real vato loco and not one of those poseur bozo’s claiming to be down for the barrio.


    Orale hoomes, we don’t want no “poseurs” doing any claiming.

  12. “While punk may get a lot of credit for being a DIY scene, the disco scene of 1980s rivaled punk in it’s ‘let’s organize ourselves’ philosophy.”

    totally agree, chimatli. those kids were just as organized as we punker kids were, if not more so. hung out with the destination musique and trans-x dj crews when i was a kid and went to a few disco backyard parties early on and was always amazed at how organized they were, especially in comparison to the backyard punk parties. lord knows they had better equipment, they knew how to pack a yard and their flyers were definitely more professional looking, too. they also transitioned to halls and clubs more swiftly and more effectively than we did.

    with all respect to p-3000, i think the reason the east los punk scene has gotten the attention it has in recent years is not because “it was closer to whiteness,” especially when one takes into account that disco was often similarly dismissed as a “white” version of funk, but rather because so many of us are making noise about the east l.a. punk scene now. after the demise of the small cluster of bands centered around the vex, there was no label interest at all, nor was there any radio coverage, and for a long time the backyard punk scene and even more familiar bands like los illegals and the brat were just as marginalized and swept away into the same corners of los angeles’ cultural history as the disco party crews were. as is alluded to in this thread, however, there was some level of interaction between the two backyard scenes, especially by the mid-80s and beyond, when the tribal silliness (anyone remember all the different “clubs” named after various metal groups — JP boys, maiden boys, etc.?) that accompanied so much of the youth culture back then started to soften and mellow.

    i’m excited that east l.a.’s dj culture is starting to get its deserved propers now. i seem to remember a book was in the works. can’t wait to read it.


  14. Also worth noting: Disco music had been popular in Chicano/Mexican-American circles since the mid-seventies throughout the US Southwest but particularly Southern California until about the late 80s when House music set in; later followed by Techno/Rave in the 90s (which was heavily Chicano as well). The thing is that outside the Chicano underground street/club scene, Disco (and later House music) was only listened to by gays; however, the Chicano scene was anything but gay, you could almost say homophobic. In those days Southern California was not as ethnically diverse. Southern Cali was either black, white or “Mexican”. Even the terms Latino/Hispanic are fairly new terms since back then 99% of Spanish speakers were of Mexican origin. Yeah, I remember those days fondly. It was a time when Mexican Americans were content having their own scene and culture and withdrew within their own communities for recreation and entertainment. Mexican Americans had their own slang, dress, dance moves, and style. A far cry from today’s Chicanos who take their cues from MTV and whatever fashion trends are dictated by their local mall shops.

    Our parents used to send my brothers and I to school in the suburbs of the valley and I remember once, in class when the teacher asked us each what kind of music we liked and I replied, Disco. (This was back in 1985.) I vividly recall my teacher’s puzzled look as she asked herself, “Disco?” and all the other white kids in the class burst into laughter whereas all the Mexican kids in the class, we all just looked at each other and just smiled thinking, they’ll never understand.

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