Gianni Zuffa is the owner of one of the most important record stores in Italian dance music. Located in the northern resort town of Rimini, Disco Più opened its doors in 1979 and became a focal point for dancers and DJs on the hunt for the soundtrack of what would become known as the Afro-Cosmic scene. Pioneered by selectors such as Daniele Baldelli and Claudio “Moz-Art” Rispoli, this sound was a spaced-out collage of disco, funk and world grooves, many of which were originally sourced by Zuffa.
While highly localized at the time, this music has gone on to influence successive generations of Italian DJs, and today Zuffa’s shop remains one of the country’s key outlets for electronic music. In this archival interview with Bill Brewster, Zuffa remembers the roots of the Afro-Cosmic sound and his role in fomenting the phenomenon.
Where do you come from?
I come from Imola, [in Bologna]. I used to go right up on the racing circuit at night with a high antenna and we could get Radio Luxembourg. It was 1974/75, and we’d listen to all these records. It was music we couldn’t find in Italy, until three or four years later. So, I had a passion for looking for these records. I was interested in DJ culture, but far from imagining that you could put two records together in time. I’d buy 45s…back then there was no concept of mixing.
How did the shop Disco Più come about?
On 19th June, 1979, I started Disco Più. I took over an existing shop called New Reels. When the [Afro] phenomenon was starting, some people would go to New Reels, but there wasn’t a special shop you could go to. We started importing records. I was probably the first that started to connect with these people. I’d take the records to them in the club.
Most importantly, I’d spend hours and hours and hours listening to records. At New Reels, the owner used to come down maybe once a week, whereas I was there all the time. I had the idea of working with the DJs. There was also [a store called] Dimar, but Dimar didn’t let people listen to the records. You’d have to go to Dimar blind, or if you’d heard a song on the radio and you knew what it was. There was also a local called Mike Clark, a Scottish DJ, who played locally, but he played things like “Funkytown” [by Lipps Inc].
It wasn’t like today where it’s easy to mix. It was like a bolt of lightning, hearing Bob Day and Tom Sison.
Tell me about Bob Day and Tom Sison, the American DJs who played at Baia Degli Angeli.
Bob and Tom were from another period. Nothing to do with cosmic. They were the historic DJs of Baia. Their success was due to the fact that they were the first to work in a club that was ten years ahead of anyone else. It was a beautiful club, by the sea and full of rich people. Everything was beautiful there.
They were the first to mix records. No one had thought of that. In 1975 and 1976, when 12"s first came out, we didn’t think anything of them. “What are these for?” We didn’t know they were for mixing. I was still buying 45s or albums. It was beyond our conception. They were the first in this area that showed you could mix. We just thought, “Waste of plastic!”
These two guys arrived and maybe they weren’t even very capable, because if you go back and listen to the reels that have been preserved, lots of it was out of time and off-beat. Sometimes they got it right, but it wasn’t like today where it’s easy to mix. It was like a bolt of lightning, hearing them.
The main thing – the first thing – was the location of Baia. It was incredible. I went to Baia a few times as a kid. You felt overwhelmed in this place, a bit intimidated. “Where have I ended up?” It was like being in a film. And DJs would go to see this phenomenon. Just prior to this, DJs were changing records with these big knobs and with talking between the records, whereas these two were putting records in time and mixing them. They didn’t have mixers with faders – you have to remember what the equipment was at that time. The people were quite amazed by what they saw. All around the DJ booth, people were looking, but the record players at that time were belt-driven, so they really weren’t made for it.
You couldn’t say how good they were, because you’d have to go and hear someone like Larry Levan in the States [to know], or in England where there were places that were definitely better than here. It could be that they were just some ordinary DJs that had landed in the right club at the right time.
The Baia had become a myth in all of Italy. People would come from all over – beautiful people. The DJs had become names as DJs. DJs tried to imitate them. Moz-Art had tried to get [Bob and Tom] to help him and had tried to learn from them. The crowd, the punters, were involved with the music, but it was more the context of it. The people there were people you don’t see any more. It was like something you might see in Monte Carlo. Very elite and very exclusive. You felt small and you were humbled by it all. I didn’t really see it through normal eyes. I saw it through the eyes of someone who was interested in what was going on behind the decks and in the booth. I didn’t go for the women and the dancing, so it’s difficult to know what it was like for normal people.
What were Daniele Baldelli and Moz-Art like?
In the beginning, Moz-Art and [fellow DJ] Rubens were good friends. They lived quite near to each other. Baldelli and [his alternate] Claudio Tosi Brandi came from the Rimini area. The most methodical, but less artistic DJ was Baldelli, and he wasn’t seen so positively by the other people who were into a lot of the drugs – heroin and hash and stuff like that. Those people who were off their heads and into drugs didn’t really see him much as an artist, but technically he was the best. Moz-Art, he’d done conservatory, which was the traditional school for musicians, so he knew how to play music. The others improvised, but they were self-taught.
Baldelli, because he didn’t have a strong following, like Moz-Art at Baia, he moved on. Later, the whole phenomenon degenerated, because they all just got lost in drugs. Baldelli was the one that remained lucid and he was more commercially minded, making his own tapes and so on. He had more of a managerial approach to his career. Brandi wasn’t even very good technically, but he was always full of himself, you know… He didn’t really follow the public, he played for himself. Within a few years, he was burnt out and finished. The others just got lost and ended up in clinics and overdosing… Baldelli was very professional and stayed the course. Moz-Art concentrated on making records, and he managed to make some quite important music, so he came out of the clubbing world and didn’t get into doing any of the revival stuff.
After a while, anything that was rubbish, they’d play at the wrong speed and say it was cosmic.
I went to Baia between 1979 to 1981. It became bullshit for me, though. It eventually became too commercial. From northern Italy up to Austria and Germany, everything that was shit became Afro or cosmic. And this whole thing about playing 45s at 33 and 33s at 45 had become completely ridiculous and completely detached from what we were doing in the late ’70s, when it was really about research and digging. We’d do a lot of digging through lots and lots of records and choosing things that were musically really valid and good… After, anything that was rubbish, they’d play at the wrong speed and say it was cosmic.
What are the roots of Afro-Cosmic in your view?
No one in particular started this phenomenon. Those I mentioned had more personality and they had more opportunities to express themselves in the clubs they were working in. Baia was a great situation and cosmic [at Lake Garda, northern Italy] was also important – these were the clubs that were ten years ahead of any other club. They weren’t using music that – even though it was good – was being played in other clubs. We’re talking about a period of music that is after Prelude, Salsoul, Philadelphia. Instead, they were going through records looking for one track on an album, or those 30 seconds of something that they could play, like some Brazilian tune.
It was all about attentive research of records. It was still something that was really appealing and quite beautiful, but it wasn’t something that was being played by everyone, and that is what created the whole phenomenon. That’s what made the craze, not all these drugged-out people. This whole drug thing made people ugly, and those people made the clubs ugly. A normal evolution, you could say.
As far as you’re concerned, both Afro and cosmic are completely independent of each other, then?
Moz-Art didn’t have anything to do with the cosmic sound. He was more into Afro, Brazilian, whereas cosmic started at Club Cosmic. So, for me the Afro thing was an evolution and something that detached itself from the conventional commercial music of the time. It went off on its own and evolved. You could define it as commercial and non-commercial. It split up into factions, some would say that Moz-Art was the number one, or Badelli was the best…Also because of all this research they did, they had all these records that only they had – unique records. And then, when they played these records for four or five months after, everyone else was like, “What the hell is that record? What can it be?” It’s not like now, when a record comes out and after three days everyone’s got it.
Moz-Art started playing John Forde’s “Don’t You Know Who Did It” and for three months everyone was looking for John Forde. It was a B-side of a record I’d got in a pile of rejected records that no one else wanted. I gave it to him, and he started to play it and push it. He identified himself with that record, it became part of his identity. Like Baldelli would identify himself with Sea Level’s “[Sneakers (Fifty-Four)],” which he got from a rock album where no one would have imagined there could be a playable track. But they were looking for alternative stuff in those days. They’d find a track and play it out and then people would be like, “Fuck, what’s that song on Baldelli’s No. 16 tape?” or “I heard it at Baia, Moz-Art played it.” The cosmic sound wasn’t just born, it was an evolution. Afro, the same thing… an evolution. I used to give them the records, but the problem was that they’d keep them in their house and pull them out six months later, and then you couldn’t get them any more.
There were five or ten records that would typify Moz-Art. The same with Baldelli. They had them. Maybe, at the same time, I’d give them to one or two others or maybe to Brandi as well, to cite an example. John Forde was a record that really defined a period; it was a record that Moz-Art played for months. I’d received three copies of it. I’d given them to Brandi, Moz-Art and Baldelli. Brandi played the other side. Baldelli maybe didn’t even play it and Moz-Art started playing “Don’t You Know Who Did It,” but he started playing it five or six months after I’d given it to him. When you go and look for it again, a record label like Sidewalk, an English rock label, how can you find a 12" after five months? And he’d been playing it constantly!
Another example – everything that arrived, Baldelli wanted at least one copy. Everything. Because he was doing this digging, I was also trying to dig stuff up on albums. If there was a record, whether it was jazz, rock or pop, I’d get a copy. He was the one who had the most patience, the most desire to look for things. When he moved to Verona, I’d send two or three packages a week. In contrast to Moz-Art… I’d go to Baia, and the thing that really surprised me was that one night he’d play the records straight away… I’d be in the booth with him and when he liked it, he’d play it straight away. But it wasn’t always like that. Sometimes, he’d keep a record – God knows why – and then, a few months later, start playing it. And then the people on acid, like he was, would go off and try and find that record!
Baldelli was more difficult, because of the distance. It was difficult to understand what side he’d be playing. And then there was the thing with the tapes. Tapes were a business for him, but also a way for pushing music. Every week, he’d do a tape… the people who followed him would have tremendous trust in and loyalty to him, and they’d find out the names of these tracks. He’d go and find too many tracks from rock albums, and then people would come and ask for them and it wasn’t easy. I’d have to go and find that track. It would be continuous digging and looking. When I asked Baldelli what it was, nine times out of ten he’d tell me what it was. But then there were those times when he didn’t and everyone would go mad looking for it for months.
To get records, I spent hours and hours all night. I tried to get at least one copy of everything. I’d always be looking for alternative stuff. Certain things, they’d just give me, like, five copies. I had a big advantage. I created a network for myself, listening for hours, to find all the alternative stuff. At that time, even faxes didn’t exist. I’d speak directly with David in New York, my seller. Now a seller will do 50 shops, but back at that time I’d spend an hour and a half on the phone with him. After doing me, he’d be exhausted and maybe would do one more shop!
If the big DJs played a record, what impact did it have on record sales?
Going back to the summer of ’79, Johnny Harris’s “Odyssey” came out and George McCrae’s “Don’t You Feel My Love.” I’d get 30 people a day coming asking for them. They’d be trying to sing them to me. I could never get enough of them. After an hour, they’d be gone. George McCrae was the hit of summer 1979. I remember other records like Candido’s “Jingo” and “Living In The Jungle” by John Tropea. These tracks, you could sell for months and months… 500 or 800 copies. Difficult to say how many, because maybe after two years they’d come out again, thanks to the tapes. Someone would start DJing and they’d have the tapes from Moz-Art and cosmic, and these tapes were a reference point, so two years later someone would come in and say “I want the records on that tape.”
There were a lot of bootlegs as a result of the popularity of these tunes, weren’t there?
The bootlegs started in 1981 or ’82. You could find John Forde in industrial quantities on bootleg with a black cover or the original cover, but you could tell because the opening was at the side. There was a guy who worked in radio [in the city of] Forli – he made these bootlegs. He started making these collections, Best of Moz-Art Vol. 1, and he’d advertise them on the radio…
Why didn’t they just license these tracks from the labels?
There were some small labels, the ones that came out in the mid-’80s, Italo disco, there was Full Time and there were a few others. There were two or three major labels and a few private initiatives, like Full Time. [Afro] was an alternative phenomenon, marginal. It’s difficult to say whether, if one of the labels had taken one of these tracks, they would have had commercial success with it. If I sold 300 copies of a title, I’d be selling a big slice of all the imports that were selling – like 50%.
25 years ago, 1,000 copies was a fart, a blip. Nothing. We worked in big quantities, thousands of copies. La Bionda, Rockets, Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder… big quantities, but that was CBS, Casablanca, Columbia, and they’d do thousands of copies and, consequently, albums. A thousand or 2,000 copies of a record… That, today, might be considered important, but then it was just negligible. Later on, with the Italo disco thing, there were some labels like Discomagic that were all born in the second half of the ’80s – they were distributors who became labels, but with a totally different identity and style, which was probably an advantage, because today Italy doesn’t have an identity. Before, we did have an identity and we exported that. Remember “Dolce Vita” by Ryan Paris? You can criticize it all you like, but it sounded Italian.
Why didn’t anyone write about it?
Publications? They didn’t exist. The music industry was totally disinterested. Later, we invented Discoid [magazine], because there was nothing.
Who did you supply with records?
All of the main DJs: Moz-Art, Brandi, Baldelli, Rubens… No one talks about Rubens and Ebreo and Spranga. They were all friends. They’d be the record-box boys of the older DJs. Rubens was more capable than Moz-Art, but less of a public relations guy, less good at getting on with people, and then drugs… He lost it before anyone. He lost his lucidity way before the others.
Had these DJs stayed together and not let themselves get carried away with the drugs, and had they been in New York or London, with some management behind them, who knows what might have happened? A lot of the people who followed them said that Rubens was the best. He was hardly ever together, though. Bob and Tom and Moz-Art also made their names because of the club they worked in. If Rubens had worked at Baia, maybe he would have had a name.
Why do none of the new DJs tell anyone about the Afro scene?
It’s back to the media. Times had completely changed. It was all word-of-mouth, and now it’s submerged. It’s part of our Italian nature… Here, you are for a team, you are for Moz-Art or Rubens, like it’s a football team. You tended to divide – that’s the mentality – and then throw shit at the others. In America it’s the opposite, if there’s a movement they support it.
This interview took place in June 2005. Thanks to David Colkett for interpreting in Rimini and Liam J. Nabb for the translation. © DJ History