By A.J. Mistretta
They say experience often leads to success. So does innate talent. In music, these ingredients often give rise to great artists. And when talent and experience combine with an instinctive understanding of what audiences want, some amazing sounds can happen.
In the last 18 months, longtime Houston DJs Mark De Lange and JD Arnold have created a new brand that is making waves on the Billboard dance charts. After spending decades spinning in the booths at local gay clubs, these two business partners are taking their knowledge of what the crowds want and producing it themselves. Their Dirty Disco label has so far churned out three hits that rose to No. 5 on the charts, with plenty more in the works. “We both realized that we knew what music the people wanted to hear, inside and out,” says Arnold. “It was stupid not to be creating the experience ourselves.”
What’s more, they are generating a sound they say hearkens back to the heyday of club music right here in Houston, and exporting it to dance floors around the world.
Rivals Become Partners
JD Arnold, who is openly gay, got his start DJ-ing in the ’70s disco era in Great Britain where he even worked at the famed London nightclub Heaven. In 1981, a friend who had recently moved to the States asked him to pay a visit. He assumed his buddy had settled somewhere like New York or San Francisco. “He said, ‘Come see me in Houston,’ and I said, ‘Why?!’” Nevertheless, Arnold made the trip and quickly found what had drawn his friend to the Bayou City. “There was something about the people—I just loved it here. I still do.”
A Houston native, De Lange started spinning for the club scene in 1984. He left the city a few times, but always made his way back home.
By the 1990s, De Lange was the resident DJ at Roxy, Club Pacific Street, and 104.1 KRBE radio while Arnold was DJ-ing at the legendary mega-club Rich’s and on air at KISS 98.5. The two were friendly rivals who often ran into each other, which led to shop talk—which tracks were blowing up the dance floor, or what was overhyped. Both also held a lot of power as Billboard reporting DJs, charting what was making waves in H-Town and sending that information to be compiled on Billboard’s club/dance chart. “It was always so fun getting a new record in the mail, ahead of everyone else, and featuring it that weekend,” Arnold says. “It was truly a time of acceptance of new music and support for true club music, not just remixed radio hits.”
De Lange and Arnold began collaborating in 2012 on a series of high-energy dance parties around Houston— some of them classic disco, and others more club circuit-oriented. “We figured Houston was a big enough town, the fourth-largest in the country,” says De Lange. “It was time we did something that helped put us on the map.”
But those initial events were a little overly ambitious, and Arnold and De Lange soon realized they could create a solid event that wasn’t so big. They retooled their approach, focusing on smaller, more intimate venues while bringing in major artists like the Freemasons, Moto Blanco, and Danny Verde.
At a bear party at Eagle Houston in early 2015, the duo caught up with DJ John LePage. LePage had just released a song titled “I Believe in You” and was working on a remix package. He asked Arnold and De Lange if they wanted in. That was the start of Dirty Disco.
Shortly thereafter, the label had its first big hit with “Lift,” a song Arnold and De Lange wrote with dance and rock diva Debby Holiday. “It’s a piece that I think defines our group,” De Lange says. “We want music that makes people feel good, that lifts them up. The song speaks to coming from a place of not knowing your strengths and being downtrodden, and being lifted up and becoming strong.”
The song hit No. 5 on the Billboard dance charts in April 2015. Another track, “Was That All It Was,” also hit No. 5 in October. One of their most recent songs, “Stranded,” climbed to No. 4.
As for the name of the label, De Lange explains: “We loved the era of The Saint in New York City—that really good, high-energy music. The era of the black disco diva.”
“We’re both dirty boys, as well,” Arnold adds with a wry laugh.
Since this was a side gig for the partners, they could create what they wanted without fearing how it would be received. “We were able to do the stuff that we enjoyed, and we’re lucky that others are enjoying it, too,” De Lange says.
Enjoying it, indeed. Dirty Disco has gotten calls from radio stations as far away as Melbourne, Australia, for new music, and the guys received a request late last year from a UK record label to remix a pop single titled “Angel” by Alexx Antaeus, featuring Tommy Lee Sparta. “That was the first time anyone ever came to us and said ‘Here’s a check, we want you to do something,’” says De Lange. “The fact that
it was a record label in the UK and not here, that was a huge deal.” The single was released in June, about the same time Dirty Disco put out a Pride compilation with vocals from Pepper MaShay titled “I’ve Got My Pride” which they shared freely with DJs around the country. Feeling the need to do something positive after the Orlando massacre, De Lange and Arnold put out a new mix of “Unspeakable Joy” by Kim English, a 1999 dance anthem that they believed would be newly poignant for the community.
Bringing Back the Soul
Perhaps no other medium captures a place and time in our minds like music. A song can set the tone for a summer party scene, remind you of a lost love, or give you all the feels when you hear it for the first time. On the dance floor, a good track can make an entire crowd move with the same rhythm and feeling.
But De Lange and Arnold believed much of what was being played in the gay clubs had been slowly robbed of its soul through the years. “There was a glut of overproduced Top 40 remixes,” says De Lange, who is bisexual. “We wanted to return to the sounds of The Saint.” Put simply, Arnold says, “We wanted to put the soul back into dance music.”
What’s more, the trend through the years has been to shrink tracks to shorter lengths, making them more palatable to radio DJs. “You can’t take someone on a journey in 31/2 minutes,” Arnold says. “We’re bucking that trend because we’re not aiming at radio, we’re aiming at the dance floor.”
DJ Michael Kessler has worked in the club circuit with Arnold and De Lange on and off over the last 15 years. Having seen the energy they bring to the dance floor, he’s not surprised by the quick success of Dirty Disco. “I personally love what they’re doing,” Kessler says. “Up through the late ’90s and even the early 2000s, people still went out to dance and got lost in the music. You don’t see that as much any more.”
Kessler says part of the change stems from the way the music has changed, but the other part is the audience. “We’ve forgotten how to connect with the music and with each other, we’re so busy on our phones or on social media,” he says. “What JD and Mark are trying to do is bring that groove—that soul—back. And I think they’re doing it.”
And perhaps Dirty Disco is elevating Houston’s image in the club scene at the same time. “We think Houston deserves to be on the dance-music map, and we think we can help do that,” Arnold says. But does a crowd dancing to a mix in Chelsea or the Castro really know where the music originated? “It’s really about the networking and making sure the DJs know where it’s coming from,” De Lange says. “If that happens, we’ll get the reputation and Houston will benefit.”
A Creative Laboratory
Somewhere between the DJ booth and Dirty Disco, De Lange became the owner of a number of clubs in town, including Bayou City Bar in Montrose. Devotees of the club scene will note that Eagle Houston moved to Montrose from its downtown location in the summer of 2014. As Dirty Disco began to develop, the partners used the new Montrose club as a testing ground for their music.
“JD would play it night after night, and we’d gauge the reaction of the crowd and make changes,” says De Lange. The bar essentially served as a music laboratory, allowing them to fix songs before they put them out.
In early January, the Eagle was heavily damaged by an accidental fire and closed for repairs. The bar reopened in late June, just in time for Pride.
“We were thrilled to be able to get Eagle open again for our community’s biggest party,” says Arnold, who adds an upstairs lounge area is still under construction and will debut in the coming months. “We think we’re offering something unique for the community, and I’m thrilled to see such an active and thriving local bar scene.”
As for Dirty Disco, Arnold and De Lange say there is plenty more in the works, including several projects with Debby Holiday, whom they love working with. They’ll release “Music Is My Way of Life” with Holiday later this summer. “Honestly, we’re just getting started,” De Lange says.
A.J. Mistretta is the editor of MyGayHouston.com and the author of 100 Things to Do in Houston Before You Die.