Disco evolved in the early 1970s in inner-city New York nightclubs, where disc jockeys played imported dance music. With roots in African-American and Latin American music and gay culture, even white artists associated with more sedate music had disco-influenced hits, such as Barry Manilow with "Copacabana". By 1977, disco was popular in the United States, especially after the release that year of the hit movie Saturday Night Fever. The fact that its star John Travolta and musical performers the Bee Gees were white and presented a heterosexual image helped popularize disco. As Al Coury, president of RSO Records (which had released the bestselling soundtrack album for the film) put it, Saturday Night Fever "kind of took disco out of the closet."
Some felt disco was too mechanical; Time magazine deemed it a "diabolical thump-and-shriek". Others hated the music for the lifestyle associated with it, feeling that in the disco scene, personal appearance and style of dress were too important. The media emphasized its roots in gay culture. According to historian Gillian Frank, "by the time of the Disco Demolition in Comiskey Park, the media commonly emphasized that disco was gay and cultivated a widespread perception that disco was taking over." Performers who cultivated a gay image, such as the Village People (described by Rolling Stone as "the face of disco"), did nothing to efface these perceptions, and fears that rock music would die out increased after disco albums dominated the 21st Grammy Awards in February 1979.
In 1978, New York's WKTU-FM, a low-rated rock station, switched to disco and became the most popular station in the country; this led other stations to try to emulate its success. In Chicago, Steve Dahl, then 24, was working as a disc jockey for local radio station WDAI when he was fired on Christmas Eve 1978 as part of the station's switch from rock to disco. He was hired by rival album-rock station WLUP. Sensing an incipient anti-disco backlash and playing off the publicity surrounding his firing (he frequently mocked WDAI's "Disco DAI" slogan on the air as "Disco DIE"), Dahl created a mock organization, the "Insane Coho Lips", an anti-disco army consisting of his listeners. According to Andy Behrens of ESPN, Dahl and his broadcast partner Garry Meier "organized the Cohos around a simple and surprisingly powerful idea: Disco Sucks".
According to Dahl, in 1979, the Cohos were locked in a war "dedicated to the eradication of the dreaded musical disease known as DISCO". In the weeks leading up to Disco Demolition Night, Dahl promoted a number of anti-disco public events, several of which became unruly. When a discotheque in Linwood, Indiana, switched from disco to rock in June, Dahl arrived, as did several thousand Cohos, and the police were called. Later that month, Dahl and several thousand Cohos occupied a teen disco in the Chicago suburbs. At the end of June, Dahl urged his listeners to throw marshmallows at a WDAI promotional van at a shopping mall where a teen disco had been built. The Cohos chased the van and driver and cornered them in a local park, though the situation ended without violence. On July 1, a near-riot occurred in Hanover Park, Illinois, when hundreds of Cohos could not enter a sold-out promotional event, and fights broke out. Some 50 police officers were needed to control the situation. When disco star Van McCoy died suddenly on July 6, Dahl marked the occasion by destroying one of his records, "The Hustle", on the air.
Do ya think I'm disco
Cuz I spend so much time
Blow drying out my hair?
Do ya think I'm disco
Cuz I know the dance steps
Learned them all at Fred Astaire?
—Steve Dahl, "Do You Think I'm Disco?" (1979)
Dahl and Meier regularly mocked disco records on the radio. Dahl also recorded his own song, "Do Ya Think I'm Disco?", a parody of Rod Stewart's disco-oriented hit "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?". The song characterized discotheques as populated by effeminate men and frigid women. The protagonist, named Tony after Travolta's character in Saturday Night Fever, is unable to attract a woman until he abandons the disco scene, selling his white three-piece suit at a garage sale and melting down his gold chains for a Led Zeppelin belt buckle.
A number of anti-disco incidents took place elsewhere in the first half of 1979, showing that "the Disco Demolition was not an isolated incident or an aberration." In Seattle, hundreds of rock fans attacked a mobile dance floor, while in Portland, Oregon, a disc jockey destroyed a stack of disco records with a chainsaw as thousands cheered. In New York, a rock DJ played Donna Summer's disco hit "Hot Stuff" and received protests from listeners.
Since the 1940s, Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck had been noted for using promotions to attract fan interest; he stated "you can draw more people with a losing team plus bread and circuses than with a losing team and a long, still silence". His son, Mike, was the promotions director for the White Sox in 1979. Mike Veeck wrote in a letter to a fan before the season that team management intended to make sure that whether the White Sox won or lost, the fans would have fun.
Early in the 1979 season, on May 2, the Tigers–White Sox game at Comiskey Park was rained out. Officials rescheduled it as part of a on Thursday, July 12. Already scheduled for the evening of July 12 was a promotion aimed at teenagers, who could purchase tickets at half the regular price.
The White Sox had had a "Disco Night" at Comiskey Park in 1977; Mike Veeck, WLUP Sales Manager Jeff Schwartz, and WLUP Promotions Director Dave Logan discussed the possibility of an anti-disco night promotion after Schwartz mentioned that the White Sox were looking to do a promotion with the station. The matter had also been brought up early in the 1979 season when Schwartz told Mike Veeck of Dahl and his plans to blow up a crate of disco records while live on the air from a shopping mall. During a meeting at WLUP, Dahl was asked if he would be interested in blowing up records at Comiskey Park on July 12. Since the radio frequency of WLUP was 97.9, the promotion for July 12, "Disco Demolition Night" (in addition to the offer for teenagers) was that anyone who brought a disco record to the ballpark would be admitted for 98 cents. Dahl was to blow up the collected records between games of the doubleheader.