An essay by Caleb Neelon
Like ‘Kilroy Was Here’ to G.I.s of the second World War, the three words Cool “Disco” Dan resonate in the memories of Washington, D.C. residents in its most difficult ‘Murder Capital’ years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The
name, if not the man behind it, became legend, a symbol of survival of the city’s most difficult years. It was a graffiti nickname, written in marker and spray paint throughout Washington, D.C., clear and legible, never fancy. Any resident of Washington, whether young or old, stick-up kid or Congressman, couldn’t help but be intrigued by its omnipresence. Who was this Cool “Disco” Dan?
Cool “Disco” Dan is an anomaly: He lived in tough neighborhoods of Southeast Washington, D.C. during the height of the crack era, yet he never took or sold drugs. Though his father was abusive and died young, Dan was raised by a stable family, and only as a young adult did he become homeless. He witnessed at short range the spiraling street violence of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that earned D.C. the dubious title of America’s “Murder Capital”—yet Dan was gun shy and hated to fight.
At the same time, Cool “Disco” Dan was an enthusiastic member of Gangster Chronicles, one of the most notorious of the District street gangs. In an era when gangs and crews (the terms are fairly interchangeable to Dan) were demonized, due to the brutal 1984 murder of Catherine Fuller by the notorious 8th and H Crew, Dan wanted in. The crews offered too much of a reputation boost to pass up. And so did graffiti.
“Graffiti is a good way to get out of hard times, and I wanted to be big. Like big big,” he says. “I wanted people from out of town talking about me as much as people in town.”
Graffiti was really where Dan wanted to make his mark. He saw his heroes writing their names—such as R.E. Randy and Sir Nose 84—and wanted to be among them. Gradually, he wrote his name enough to get their attention, and to meet these street legends himself. But Dan took it farther—much farther—than any of them. “Writing was like my girlfriend,” he laughs.
By the early ‘90s, Cool “Disco” Dan was D.C.’s biggest underground celebrity after painting his moniker all over the city until it seemed as though no wall, rooftop or street sign had been forgotten. He wrote on every Metro bus, and took his name to every neighborhood, crossing socio-economic boundaries in a way that no other graffiti writer in the city had ever done. He was obsessed with making a name for himself with graffiti street fame, but at the same time hated the attention he got for it—including being sent in and out of institutions by his mother as they tried to deal with him throughout his teenage years.
Despite the name, Dan doesn’t like disco music. The soundtrack to the story of Cool “Disco” Dan isn’t disco, but the Go-Go beat, a fusion of funk and hip-hop largely overlooked outside of the Beltway. With big names like Chuck Brown, E.U., Rare Essence, Trouble Funk, Junkyard Band, and Dan’s favorites, Class and Ayre Rayde, these Go-Go bands were some of the biggest names in town, yet they stayed local. Their shows were a sweaty, continuous beat, and a place where the Washington, D.C., community came together, both in peace and violence.
In the mix of the story of Cool “Disco” Dan are other fellow legends of Washington, D.C. The crack lord Rayful Edmond III, who led a $300 million-a-year operation at age 24, was king of the town, and provided the personal style blueprint for a generation of non-drug-dealing individuals to follow. And of course the other king of the town, Mayor Marion Barry, whose years of womanizing and drug use led to his downfall, though to most of Washington, he was still Mayor for Life.
Dan is as much a fixture of Washington, D.C., as anyone, and it’s his city. He knows the city like no one else: Even today, he has a better knowledge of D.C.’s streets and back alleys than any cab driver’s, yet he’s never had a driver’s license. From the time he was 19 years old, he was homeless, largely by choice, for the majority of his adult life. Yet he made himself so much a part of his city that his spray-painted name is on permanent display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, that he is a starring presence in the current exhibit Pump Me Up, and the subject of the new documentary film The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan.
Most importantly, the legions of his peers who are dead, incarcerated, or utterly adrift all speak to who Cool “Disco” Dan truly is: a survivor who made it out alive. And in the process, he became a legend. Cool “Disco” Dan’s story is the story of the Washington D.C., completely bypassed on school field trips, that gentrification has all but erased and whitewashed—the real Washington, D.C.