Beyond Italo Disco: The Sounds of Neapolitan Funk

Italo-disco-1244.jpg“Italo disco is not a genre. It’s everything made for the discotheque in 1980s Italy,” says Dario Di Pace via Skype from his home studio, West Hill, outside of Naples. Di Pace, who makes music as Mystic Jungle, is chainsmoking as he speaks. His longtime friend Raffaele Manny Arcella, aka producer and DJ Whodamanny, is beside him. “When you get the people dancing to these Italian records, you get them dancing all night long,” says Arcella, with a bit of self-assured bravado.

The pair are co-founders of the Periodica imprint, which, along with like-minded label Early Sounds Recordings, are helping to revive the ‘70s and ‘80s sounds of Mediterranean funk, boogie, Italo, and electro. Neapolitan artists like Pino Daniele, Tony Esposito, James Senese, and the supergroup Napoli Centrale brought jazz-funk and tropical prog-rock to the dancefloor in the ‘70s. Francesco Napoli, Hans & Romeo, and I Leros, from the area around Mount Vesuvius, helped develop Italo disco in the early ‘80s, with its arpeggiated basslines, drum machines, and gloriously cheesy vocal hooks. (Arcella finds those vocals to be “the most important part of the track.”)

Marc Cerrone and Giorgio Moroder became Italo’s poster boys around the globe, but hundreds of DJs, record collectors, producers, and labels across Italy helped grow Italo from the grassroots. In Napoli, Italo producers struggled to break out. The fractured state was, and to some extent still is, controlled by the Camorra crime syndicate, who operated a lucrative music industry arm as part of their empire. They signed dozens of artists a year making whatever music was hot at the time—but this illicit operation was also incredibly insular. Today, these excruciatingly hard to find records barely escape Naples for less than $150.

“Italy has always been a huge musical container, but Naples is a state of mind, an approach to life, a way of living that you take with you in your language and your expressions,” says Early Sounds label owner Pellegrino S. Snichelotto, who now lives in Berlin. “This feeling does not disappear by moving elsewhere.”

“Neapolitan music was everywhere growing up, from the barber shop to the streets,” says Periodica signee Filippo Colonna Romano, aka Modula. “Our music is a mix of the cultures we’ve had in our lands: you recognize Arabian scales, Afro influences, and Spanish guitar riffs in our music.”

Pellegrino’s 2018 LP Zodyaco was an homage to the Neapolitan records he was raised on—his father played drums on the title track. And the Vesuvian influence can be heard on the modern Neapolitan classic Nu Guinea’s Nuova Napoli, a joyous album that also references Neapolitan jazz-funk and library music. Pellegrino describes its sound as “Neapolitan melodic disco.”

Before Nuova Napoli came to be, Massimo Di Lena and Lucio Aquilina of Nu Guinea had been making music together for a number of years. They’d flirted with house and techno production, but over the years the Neapolitan influence was too strong. Their first release as Nu Guinea—a self-titled EP in 2014, and The Tony Allen Experiments in 2016—found them collaborating with the former Fela Kuti drummer and Afrobeat pioneer. Nuova Napoli’s wild success has been a bit of a surprise—and a delight. “People have discovered a sound from my city that was little known. I don’t think even Nu Guinea expected such a response,” says Pellegrino.

Mystic Jungle’s Jurakan, on the other hand, represents the other side of Naples, away from Mount Vesuvius and towards the islands of Capri, Procida, and Ischia. It’s breezy, American-influenced electro boogie, like The Fantastic Aleems or Midnight Star, with a spattering of Tom Tom Club for good measure—perfect dance music for an island vacation.

The Boudoir Club, a 150-capacity club in the old city of Naples, is where Arcella and Periodica artist Milord have a regular late-night monthly home, going from 2AM to 8AM with “music that’s super electronic, and with a heavy kick drum,” Arcella says. “We try not to take the easiest route,” he continues, his voice growing louder with the enthusiasm that underlines everything they do. “We are like a child when we discover new sounds. When we make a record we take time to study the synthesizer we’re using, understand what type of music was made with that synthesizer before us. We do our things our way: maybe it’s wrong, but it’s our way.”

Judging by the Periodica label heads’ endless stream of side-projects and alter egos, this approach has worked in their favor so far. Mystic Jungle is Di Pace’s solo project, but he joins with Arcella and Milord for a live outfit known as the Mystic Jungle Tribe; the latter two also create dancefloor exotica as The Normalmen.

Periodica also has a mostly reissue-focused side label, Futuribile, based out of the record store of the same name (owned by Di Pace and Cristiano Cesarano). The record store is a Neapolitan hub for the odder edges of Afrobeat, house music, and mutated disco. For instance, “Carnevale Da Buttare,” a would-be Balearic classic soon to be reissued on Futuribile, was penned by Arcella’s father in the 1980s with his band Il Giardino dei Semplici.

Another artist with a unique take on the Napoli sound is Modula, from Montenuovo. On Alba, Tempesta, & Notturno, he blends Italo with Belgian EBM, grainy new wave, and field recordings from the lush forests of Vinales, Cuba.

On Argonauta, Modula weaves in Italian horror film scores, too. “Descending the Abyss” is the theme to a lurid imaginary film, somewhere between John Carpenter’s Halloween soundtrack and the memorable work produced for Italian slasher flicks of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

“I’m a fan of directors such as Claudio Caligari, Carlo Verdone, and Umberto Lenzi, but I focus on their soundtracks,” says Modula. “I scare easily, though, so I can’t stand watching some of those films. I still have difficulty sleeping thinking about The Exorcist.”

From the chilling to the euphoric, the Napoli sound is ever-changing. Here is some further listening.

Various Artists
Napoli Segreta

Napoli Segreta roughly translates as “a secret history of Naples.” On Early Sounds Recordings, curated by Nu Guinea and local Neapolitan crate-diggers Famiglia Discocristiana and DNApoli, this compilation features some of the best of Neapolitan jazz-funk from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Giancarlo D’auria’s “Follia” is extra sleazy Studio 54-style glitter-disco, and Oro’s “Stop the War” sounds like a mix of The Brothers Johnson and William Onyeabor.

Robotalco
“X​-​Lines”

Born in the small town of Vico Equense on the Gulf of Naples but now based in Milan, Robotalco fuses a deep set admiration for old disco records and golden era hip-hop B-boy breaks with squelching basslines and halcyonic synth pads. It’s a modern day incarnation of a sound that came to be known as dream house, an Italian take on the euphoric house music championed by the likes of Frankie Knuckles and 808 State throughout the 1980s.

Tullio De Piscopo
“E Fatto E Sorde! E? (Club Mix Edit)”

Tullio De Piscopo may have made his name as a percussionist and singer across Italy, but he was born in Naples and remains one of the few names from the Neapolitan ‘80s scene to have made international impact. His 1983 single “Stop Bajon (Primavera)” reached number 58 on the U.K. charts; a whole new generation is now finding out about him, thanks to labels like Strut Records, who’ve given it a dancefloor-ready tweak on their reissue single. Archer Recordings has also reissued an LP of his drum breaks for DJs, Suonando La Batteria Moderna.

Nu Guinea
Nuova Napoli

After two years and several vinyl repressings, the jazz-funk juggernaut that is Nu Guinea’s Nuova Napoli shows no sign of slowing down. Few albums better personify the cobbled streets and humid hustle and bustle of Naples, so much so that Nuova Napoli even comes with tasting notes. “We recommend listening to Nuova Napoli while walking in the alleys of Napoli’s historic center, around wet clothes hanging and street vendors on tiny three-wheelers,” suggests the album bio.

SuperMegaFunkinMachine
The Funkin Machine

SuperMegaFunkinMachine are a Neapolitan supergroup of a dozen musicians that continue the jazz-funk legacy of their predecessors, Napoli Centrale. With passionate saxophone melodies, funk organ, and an insatiable beat, “The Funkin’ Machine,” the A-side of this single, is a cut that’s sure to send any dancefloor into overdrive.

Piero Umiliani
Switched On Naples

The richness and complexity of Nu Guinea’s Nuova Napoli echoes the orchestral sounds of Italian library music, where producers made records specifically for television adverts or radio jingles. Often, as these records were supposed to nestle into the background unnoticed, musicians would have free reign to experiment in whatever madcap way they liked. That’s how Piero Umiliani’s 1972 masterpiece Switched on Naples was born. These reworkings of popular Neapolitan songs with sci-fi synthesizers and drum machines make for a truly out-of-this-world experience.

Gigi Testa
“Sentimentally It’s You (Gigi Testa Full Dub Edit)”

While original Neapolitan Italo disco is hard to find beyond the city, rest assured it’s still very much alive and kicking. The Naples born-and-bred Gigi Testa honed his DJ craft hosting private parties in apartment buildings. Now, on records such as “Sentimentally It’s You (Gigi Testa Full Dub Edit),” he crafts unabashedly cheesy arpeggiated hi-NRG that kicks at 130BPM.

Jack Needham

3 Comments

  1. Erik Vehmeyer
    Posted May 30, 2019 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Awesome read about one of my favorite musical realms, paired with a treasure trove of massively-cataloged labels I had no idea existed? I’ll take it.

  2. Sean Ramsdell
    Posted May 28, 2019 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Future funk Italiano?

  3. Posted May 23, 2019 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    Naples is where the true European soul is nurtured

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