During the pre-dawn hours of nearly any given night in the early 1970s, a group of young men who would change the face of the music industry could be found eating omelets and talking about records at a Manhattan restaurant called David’s Pot Belly. The names in this rotating group of friends are unfamiliar to most: David Mancuso, David Rodriguez, Michael Cappello and Nicky Siano. They were not musicans but DJs at dance clubs like The Gallery, The Loft and Le Jardin, and through their taste in music and their obsessive search for new material, they would collectively bring a thing called “Disco” into existence. Their power to shape popular culture would first become evident on this day in 1973, when a song called “Soul Makossa” entered the Billboard Top 40 as the first-ever chart hit definitively launched by the infant disco scene.
“Soul Makossa” was a 1972 recording by the Paris-based Cameroonian artist Emmanual “Manu” Dibango, and it is now best remembered as the source of the rhythmic chant—”Mama-ko, mama-sa, maka-mako-sa“—that appears in Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”” (1982) and Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” (2006). Issued on the French label Fiesta, “Soul Makossa” might never have been heard on this side of the Atlantic had David Mancuso not pulled it from a shelf in a Jamaican record shop in Brooklyn one day in the spring of 1973 and, after hearing it, immediately recognized its percussion-heavy, Afro-Latin sound and repetitive chorus as absolutely perfect for the dance floor.
While DJs like Mancuso scoured every corner of New York City for new dance records to spin, the record industry paid absolutely no attention to the club scene, never having considered that it might offer a way to “break” a new record. “Soul Makossa” would change all that. As soon as Mancuso began spinning it at The Loft, his fellow DJs had to have their own copies, and so did their fans. Rolling Stone and Billboard magazine noted that the street price of the rare import had shot through the roof in New York City as devotees of the largely black, gay and Hispanic club scene tried to get their hands on Manu Dibango’s surprise hit. “People went wild trying to find that record,” Nicky Siano recalled in Love Saves The Day (2003), Tim Lawrence’s history of American dance culture in the 1970s. “No one had ‘Soul Makossa.’”
Taking note of its underground success, Atlantic Records licensed “Soul Makossa” from Dibango’s French label and released a domestic version of the single. When it entered the Top 40 on this day in 1973, it awakened the music industry to an important new cultural and commercial phenomenon, laying the groundwork for the disco explosion to come.