Moodymann's Soul Skate party embodies a long tradition where rollerskating and club music intertwine. We spoke with Kenny Dixon Jr., Traci Washington, Louie Vega, Danny Krivit and more on one of America's richest subcultures.
Back in 2007, I showed up at Northland for the first Soul Skate. A free soul food buffet was on offer. Around 3 AM, the rink cleared out for "roll call," in which skaters showed off different regional styles—JB (James Brown-style skating) from Chicago, fast backwards from Philly/Jersey, Detroit's slide-heavy "open house" variant—while onlookers lined the rails. The event felt convivial, wholesome, about as far from the hedonistic Movement afterparty scene as you could get.
A decade and change later, Soul Skate is on the map as a national skate jam. 2018's edition was basically a small festival, with three rinks and a four-day programme that included things like an indoor picnic, a documentary screening and an adult prom.
"That was truly a mistake," said Kenny Dixon Jr., AKA Moodymann, on Soul Skate's escalation from local party to national festival. I spoke with him in the iconic, purple-curtained house he owns on Grand Boulevard, just across the street from Submerge, a noted local record store and headquarters for Underground Resistance. "Really it started out as, 'How can I put everybody in one room and focus on them buying my T-shirts?'" he said. "I wanna put everybody in there and smother them with my record label, my artists, my T-shirts. That was one of the ideas for Soul Skate, and then that flopped and people didn't give a fuck about my T-shirts or my product or my records. They were like, 'When's your next skate party?'" He laughed. "Yeah, it's its own monster now."
Since the mid-20th century, skating rinks have been an extraordinary staging ground for music and DJ culture, to say nothing of their importance within the civil rights movement and as a gathering space for black communities. As real estate in American cities becomes more scarce and rinks in black neighborhoods disappear, national skate jams like Soul Skate have become a crucial environment for a scene steeped in a tradition that continues to flourish.
Louie Vega, who fell in love with music and DJing as a teenage skater during New York City's early '80s skate boom, returned to the rink to DJ Soul Skate in 2014. "It's beautiful that Moodymann and the Soul Skate team stick to the roots and show where it comes from," he said over the phone. "Skating music has a lot to do with R&B and dance, just as much as discos and house clubs."
Style skating—a skate-dancing style that has splintered into hundreds of regional variants—got its start, in a roundabout way, in Detroit. Bill Butler started skating in 1945 at the Arcadia Ballroom on Woodward Avenue in Detroit on the one night black people were allowed in. At the time, skating rinks were typically scored by chintzy organ music, but on black nights they played records like Count Basie's "Night Train," "Ella Fitzgerald's "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" and Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues." Years later, as an air force sergeant stationed in Alaska, Butler won money for a pair of skates in a game of craps and started developing his signature "jamma" style, his movements mirroring the solos on the jazz records he'd skate to. He was assigned to an air force station in Brooklyn in 1957 and showed up at the nearest rink, Empire Rollerdrome, where mostly black skaters were rolling to live organ music. He approached the woman in charge and asked if she would play "Night Train." The needle dropped and style skating changed forever.
Legendary skate DJ and Soul Skate regular Big Bob Clayton refers to the now-closed Empire Rollerdrome as the "the birthplace of roller disco." Clayton, a New York native, has been DJing for 50 years.
"Most of the dance skating today, you see them holding hands and doing their moves, that's jam skating, that's Bill. That's Bill Butler all day," Clayton said. "I used to go to Empire in '69, but I wasn't worried about DJing in the skate world, I went there because I liked the hustle. I'd go there and dance, I'd skate for the first two hours, then the next two hours, I would hustle in the middle. We were all skaters and dancers, so a friend came to me once in '77 and say, 'Yo Bob, you ever think about DJing in the skate world?" I said, 'Nah man, I'm a club head, I like the club scene.'" He rattled off a list of legendary NYC haunts. "The Loft, Better Days, that's where I liked to be at... I've been playing club music and house music ever since the '70s. That's what I came from."
Clayton started DJing for skaters in '77, eventually landing enviable rink residencies at The Roxy, then at the mecca itself, Empire, both of which were outfitted with soundsystems designed by Richard Long, the legendary audio architect who built the systems at Paradise Garage and Studio 54 in New York and Warehouse in Chicago, to name just a few. Clayton began immersing himself in regional music and skate styles. The folk music anthologist Harry Smith used to have a party trick where he'd identify the county a singer was born in from one verse of a song. Clayton is the skate world equivalent.
"Every state and city had their own style," he said. Locking arms and traversing the rink in trains came from Detroit, for instance. "The hitch-kicking in the line came from Detroit. When you do a bow-legged move like this on your skates"—Clayton spreads his knees in his chair as though he's on skates—"it's called a grapevine. Came out of Detroit. If you want to see all the fast backwards stuff, that came out of South Jersey and Philly, and the Delaware area. I could talk to you about this for hours."