[jahsonic.com] - [Next >>]
Large Standing Figure with mirror I,II,III (1998-99) - Steven Harvey
IntroductionSteven Harvey is special to Jahsonic.com because he wrote one of the first articles on the development of club music in the USA during the 1970s. It was entitled Behind the Groove and reproduced verbatim below.
It was the first article to point out the inherent bias in music journalism regarding genre and race:The brief 10 years of disco history have provided popular music with one of its most creative periods - one too often passed over by critics. Even the faddish embrace of things danceable has failed to encourage critics to muster the same seriousness for the synth-anthems of Brooklyn duo D Train, as they do for Soft Cell or Yazoo. While much of this can be ascribed to racism, disco has never cultivated the same personality cult inherent in rock. The concern has been more with good records than concepts.
The history of this bias has yet to be fully explored. Probably this bias can be compared to other ruling biases in general journalistic practice. [Nov 2005]
How me met
Note by Steven Harvey on 9 jan 1999:
(...) Yes, I was really enthralled by your site. It put together a lot of information about underground dance music with particular focus on people whose music I love. In your description of Francis Grasso you mention my piece, "Behind The Groove: New York City's Dance Underground" from Collusion #5 back in the early 80's. I guess you know that David Toop and Sue Steward published Collusion in London back in the 80's. This piece featured interviews with Walter Gibbons, Jellybean, David Mancuso, Shep Pettibone, Francois K. and Larry Levan. Unfortunately it is pre-computer so I only have a hard copy of it and so cannot attach it as a document.(...) It was also published in the Face in a shorter version with more photo's. Anyway, congrats Meta Vibes has to be one of the coolest sites I've ever stumbled across.
Steven Harvey (born 1953) is a American writer and visual artist based in New York.
Behind the Groove (1983) - Steven Harvey
[behind the groove]
an article on new york's burgeoning club scene written by steven harvey, originally printed in underground zine "Collusion" in 1983 and reprinted by dj magazine sometime late in the 1990's.. apologies for any OCR typos i may have missed..
The brief 10 years of disco history have provided popular music with one of its most creative periods - one too often passed over by critics. Even the faddish embrace of things danceable has failed to encourage critics to muster the same seriousness for the synth-anthems of Brooklyn duo D Train, as they do for Soft Cell or Yazoo. While much of this can be ascribed to racism, disco has never cultivated the same personality cult inherent in rock. The concern has been more with good records than concepts.
From the mid-70's disco heyday through to the present there has been a shroud of illegitimacy cast onto the music. As a field of small independent labels releasing numerous oneoffs and buying completed tapes from producers rather than cultivating artists' careers it was seldom seen as the legitimate heir to the Black R&B tradition. Despite its means of production being the same; despite its embrace of great Black voices like Loleatta Holloway, Aretha Franklin, Bettye Lavette, Gwen McCrae and many others, disco has been branded with 'killing off' funk (to paraphrase both Grandmaster Flash and Kool And The Gang's Kool). Too often the whipping post for everyone from Black political progressives, b-boys, white pop music fans and even dance music afficionados themselves, it's not surprising that it's practically impossible to find informed reference books on the subject of disco.
The first discos to open in New York were Le Club in 1960 followed by Arthur and others in 1965. These were the earliest manifestations of the disco as upper-class watering holes where the rich could see and be seen in a colourful setting. This syndrome continues through Studio 54 and Xenon. Under these circumstances the music has to be considered secondary - a backdrop. It was not these clubs that sustained the new music, even with Studio's major impact and the great DJs who played there. Rather it was the underground clubs which catered to Blacks, Latins and gays.
The first of the underground clubs was Salvation in 1969 where Terry Noel played, followed by The Haven, where Francis Grasso worked with Steve D'Aquisto and Michael Cappello. From there, the three DJs moved to Sanctuary in 1970. Sanctuary was located in a former church in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood, evolving into a wild frenzied scene of druggy abandon. The DJ, Francis Grasso, was the first DJ-as-auteur/artist/idol. To quote Albert Goldman in his 1978 book Disco:
''He invented the technique of slip-cueing; holding the disc with his thumb whilst the turntable whirled beneath, insulated by a felt pad. He'd locate with an earphone the best spot to make the splice, then release the next side precisely on the beat... his tour de force was playing two record simultaneously for as long as two minutes at a stretch. He would superimpose the drum break of 'I'm A Man' over the orgasmic moans of Led Zeppelin's 'Whole Lotta Love' to make a powerfully erotic mix... that anticipated the formula of bass drum beats and love cries... now one of the cliches of the disco mix..."
Francis was extremely influential with his mixture of soul, rock 'n roll and percussion tracks like Olatunji's. .He taught Steve D'Aquisto and Michael Cappello who alternated at Tamberlane, a crucial uptown club. David Rodriguiez was playing at The Ginza and David Mancuso started to have parties in his home on Lower Broadway, The Loft. By the early 70's the new culture of discos as underground social clubs was in full swing. In those days white gay clubs still played R&B 7 days a week. DJs played constantly and without the influence of record pools and radio, an oral tradition developed - storytelling with whatever songs they could dig up.
The soundtrack was changing from Motown and soul obscurities towards Gamble and Huff's Philly Sound. The fast instrumental section of MFSB's 1973 'Love Is The Message' has remained to this day perhaps the ultimate NYC club anthem. When in 1975-76, the first disco releases per se on Salsoul came out they were recorded in Philadelphia at Sigma Sound. Producers like Norman Harris, Ron Baker, Earl Young and Vince Montana utilised the same cast of instrumentalists for the Salsoul Orchestra as MFSB Records likes Manu Dibango's 'Soul Makossa', Barrabas' 'Hijack' and the crossover hits 'Rock Your Baby', 'Rock The Boat' and 'Never Can Say Goodbye' (George McCrae, Hues Corporation and Gloria Gaynor respectively) initiated the industry's infatuation with disco.
In 1975 Mancuso moved The Loft to his current location in Prince Street and created the first DJ record pool, an organised format for DJs to receive new releases from record companies. The first promotional 12 Inch singles began to circulate in 1975 - while nobody seemed to know which one came out first, 'Dance Dance Dance' by Calhoun is mentioned as one of the earliest. The first commercially released 12 Inch single was 10 Percent' by Double Exposure on Salsoul. It was appropriately revolutionary for a genre that had just found its own medium. Walter Gibbons' extension of the three minute album track into a musical landscape of nine minutes defined the possibilities for a DJ/club influenced and oriented music The next two years saw the peak and decline of disco as mass-market enterprise, with Saturday Night Fever as centre piece. By 1978 record companies were retrenching and purging their growing disco promotion departments.
In 1979-80 the music went back underground to the cult status which has nourished it through its current resurgence. The [Paradise] Garage had opened, b-boys were rapping to the slow funky drum tracks that were beginning to take hold. Patrick Adam's production of 'Weekend' by Phreek in 1978. Kenton Nix's production of Taana Gardners 'When You Touch Me' and 'Work That Body' as well as Jimmy Bo Horne's Spank' in 1979 and Loose Joint's 1980 'is It All Over My Face?' are examples of the underground classics that continue to reverberate in today's clubs. 'Weekend' was redone this year by Class Action (using the original vocalist, Christine Wilshire, on Sleeping Bag Records) due to the lack of availability of the original - a hard-to-find promo and import. Kenton Nix has just returned to producing for the first time since his work with Gwen McCrae on 'Funky Sensation.
1980-81 was a turning point for Street music Both 'Rappers Delight' and Taana Gardners 'Heartbeat' sold outstanding amounts by independent standards. 'Heartbeat (on which mixer Larry Levan had a larger Centre label billing than producer Kenton Nix) was rumoured to have sold around 100,000 copies the first week of its release in New York. At a little over 100 beats per minute it revamped the pace of dance music - the dense druggy sound the perfect foil for Taana's metallic vocal plea. Rappers Delight' has sold 2,000,000 copies to date (the highest of any 121nch) and has propelled the new rap language around the world.
In 1982 NYC disco expanded its perimeters to include dub, electronics, jazz, Latin, afro, new wave - a cauldron capable of melting down any ingredient. Records by The Peech Boys, Sinnamon and D Train allied the Black R&B tradition with high-tech mix/electronics. The emergence of labels Tommy Boy and Streetwise under Arthur Baker and John Robie pushed the hard electronic/beat box edge to the fore. To turn on one of me city's three dance radio stations and hear a DJ mixing three records together at once seemed like an impossible dream of the avant garde infiltrating the market place.
Over this extraordinary resurgence hovers the spectre of 1978. Will the major labels now practically insatiable in their quest for new dance music, retract as they did before? Will the formularisation of production styles and techniques eliminate inspiration? Will the gentrification of disco by dance rockers and Flashdancers effect the same loss of visceral soul as it did before?
In the following interviews I chose to focus on the DJs and remixers rather than the artists and producers (though many of the best DJs are fast going into production). Further writing is necessary on the artists as well as longtime industry people, yet the DJs are in the unique position of being the medium of disco (literally in between producer and consumer). Their extraordinary power in getting the music across to their audience makes them the mirror for a music's history. Who else can actually remember the 1000s of one-off releases except the DJs charged with wading through and creating with them? In addition, DJs as artists are working in one of the newest art forms - playing records. What more modernist criteria can there be than the collaging of found materials? It is a wonderfully nascent field, where young DJs come up fast and styles change with the development of the medium. What started as storytelling with songs ties moved toward a technically oriented sonic overlaying of elements. Disco has always revolved around the cult of the DJ and the club and, as such, record spinners have shaped the music in a way that is unique.
Outside a disco Walter Gibbons is the least known of the mixers profiled here. This in no way diminishes his importance. Walter not only mixed the first 12 Inch single '10 Percent' by Double Exposure - he completely transformed it from a three minute album track into 11 minutes of break after break. It was a revolution - a record designed specifically for the underground club scene in New York.
"You really have to think that every time you change the record, the title or something about the record is going into people's heads. For me, I have to let God play the records, I'm just an instrument."
His trademark was a concentration on the percussion, the song and the singer. Where many of the period releases by Salsoul were heavily orchestrated, Walter stripped down his tracks to essence. Two Salsoul albums, 'Disco Boogie Vols 1 & 2' (the first disco party album) and 'Disco Madness' feature his mixes. The latter has him singing 'It's Good For The Soul', a perfect slice of what he is playing now and the reason he no longer works in the dance music industry. When he became a born-again Christian he stopped playing songs that were not uplifting. That pretty much eliminates the majority of dance music dealing with sexuality.
Walter was considered to be one of the most impeccable live mixers of his time. He could play the impossibly slow intros to 'Love Is The Message or 'Love Hangover' and still keep the dancing going by his edits of the segues. He anticipated breakstyle mixing with his percussion blends of tunes like 'Two Pigs and A Hog' (from Cooley High soundtrack) a one minute break that he would cut up with two copies.
Many people think that in the vastly competitive dance music business, once you drop out you are through. If Walter's faith keeps on, some record company might realise that he would be the perfect mixer for a new Philly style release or a gospel dance track. Perhaps 'Faith' - the unreleased track he mixed and produced with Steve D'Aquisto - would be a good place to start
From the beginning of playing records, the issue was getting a message or narrative across through the songs. Now it's 'in the mix'
''I think I did that. I used to keep a book of what were my top records every week, Looking back it scares me - at that time I wasn't very Christ minded. Music is too easy to make - there are Spirits in records. You really have to think that every time you change the record, the title or something about the record is going into people's heads. For me, I have to let God play the records, I'm just an instrument.''
That's appropriate to DJing as a modern art form where the DJ is basically the instrument, the medium for other people's music.
' Unlike most DJs, I do requests I like to know what they're thinking too, The thing about requests is if you can change what they're thinking into something positive. This girl used to like 'Nasty Girls' so I'd play it. My thought behind that would be a record like 'Try God' by the NY Community Choir which is the total opposite."
Sort of advocate style spinning. "The last time I saw Tee Scott I bought a record for him. it was a mix of 'Law Of The Land' by Undisputed Truth with a little bit of 'Ten Percent' and the Ten Commandments spoken. He played it and the crowd roared like I've never heard in my life. Especially after the part where he's saying 'thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shall not steal. thou shall not kill' - there was such a roar. it was like WOW, compared to what they hear normally. It was very interesting."
Francois Kevorkian is a surprising element in the New York DJ/remix scene. Arriving from France in the mid-70's he was not brought up on New York music. He brings a whole different perspective to the science of mixing, both live and in the studio.
Just off the boat, without job or money, he was hired to drum along to Walter Gibbon's live mixing at Galaxy 21 in 1976, Situated out on the dancefloor and reacting to what came over the speakers; not knowing the tunes - it was an inspiring place to learn about the NYC underground disco scene (these days it's common for big clubs to have synthesiser players accompany the DJ).
From his earliest studio blends (Musique's 'In The Bush', 'Disco Circus' by Martin Circus) to more recent (Hamilton Bohannon's 'Let's Start The Dance III' Jimmy Cliff's 'Treat The Youth Right', Planet P's dub 'Why Me') Francois' mixes have all possessed a sterling sound quality, the result of carefully cleaning up each individual track before reshaping them, and a radical sensibility in terms of the shaping of music as architecture. His first D Train mixes suggested what a marvellous marriage there could be between Jamaican dub mixers like Augustus Pablo and the street/studio musicians of the New York dance scene.
As a live DJ he has been like a fast gun for hire, Having worked most of the city's major clubs, including the now defunct AM-PM, he has now retired from spinning, though he occasionally replaces Larry Levan at The Paradise Garage and David Mancuso at The Loft. He now mixes freelance, having moved on from Prelude Records, and his next step seems production. The first moves in that direction are work with Jah Wobble for an English LP and rhythm tracks with Sly and Robbie at Compass Point in a co-production with D Train's Hubert Eaves for an unannounced singer.
It took months to finally get a chance to sit down and talk with him. His talk is quite different from all the other DJs. He is more pragmatically negative about the upswing in dance music interest, having a brooding self-critical humour that struck me as a very good basis from which to evolve into a music producer.
"The first day I went to Galaxy 21 to play the drums was the first time I'd ever gone into a modern day disco - black, gay, afterhours - the beat was like a hammer. I think a lot of people started reacting negatively to that but it's much harder to make people dance if you don't have that constant poom..poom..poom"
Except Walter Gibbons' mixes on record use lots of hand drums and are really quite delicate.
"I know exactly what you are saying but I'm describing my perception of it. It still has that percussion-heavy drone, You don't hear subtleties. Certain records have those qualities, really masterful playing, really inspiring combinations of sounds, something that truly uplifts you. I was not versed in the 1970-75 music, the pre-disco stuff. The beat wasn't so repetitive. The dynamics were way different. Now it's become very uniform, very one dimensional, the way we perceive the music, digest it, assimilate it. like it and then reject it because we are sick of it has become alarming. There's too much fast food music and we become addicted to it instead of looking forward to something a little more challenging. The way people work with multi-tracks these days you can literally make the demo of your song an the same tape that you end up putting the master on. The way certain people work and try and capture the magic of the instant is not encouraged by all those records synching two synthesisers to a drum machine, all to the magic synchronisation time codes and pulse.
"I think in the future people will have to have an ability to do lots of different things - synthesis as opposed to specialisation. It used to be a time when there would be a recording studio and an artist and the engineer and the producer. The producer, all he was doing was making sure everything was going alright onto tape. So now more and more people are being added to the way it's happening. I can somehow see that the future is going to belong to those who can really comprehend the totality of that process. "
"I'm going to get two more turntables so that as the night goes on, I can upgrade the sound. So I use cheap cartridges in the beginning and upgrade - I have $150 Grace cartridges which I'm really into but you can't backcue with them. At five AM you'd say 'what is that?' because a record should sound as good as a tape."
When I first went to The Paradise Garage I felt as though I'd finally found the perfect nightclub. With a clear door policy members and their guests only - a kind and courteous staff, no liquor, an awesome sound system continuously expounding the most serious Black music and an audience of thousands of dancers whose inter-connected energy often makes the main dance room feel like a rocket at the point of lift-off. Here was the antidote to all the glacial pose palaces passing as dance clubs.
In a balcony above the dancefloor Garage DJ Larry Levan guides his three turntables, Bozak mixer and custom-built Richard Long sound system, playing club classics like Ed Kool, 'Weekend' by Phreek, ESG's Moody', Eddy Grant's 'Time Warp' and a host of other great Black music. He alternates these songs with three-turntable disco dubs, utilising a spare bassline here, a sound effect record there, all twisted and forged through the simple control of the Bozak into gigantic tangible dubwaves flooding every crevice of the huge room. Tonight, dressed in a white cotton cap and light clothes, he dances as he mixes. it's as if this Brooklyn-born romantic soul was the lead dervish for what he and other regulars used to call Nicky Siano's The Gallery five years ago Saturday Mass.
Levan's move from spinning and studio mixing into music production with the Peech Boys is the result of his collaboration with keyboardist Michael deBenedictus (who played synthesiser along with Levan s live mixing at The Garage). Their work together inspired 'Don't Make Me Wait', a studio production with singer Bernard Fowler and guitarist Robert Kasper. That song, played at The Garage for months before its release, could have been the club's anthem with its epic male plea of erotic yearning. With The Peech Boys' move from ole-time NY disco-indie West End to Island Records they have been polishing and refining the tracks for their debut abum. The first evidence of it is, in typical idiosyncratic Levan fashion, a 7 inch-only 45 of one track, 'Dance Sister'. As I write it's just hitting the clubs in promo form.
Michael deBenedictus described Levan's dance-mix style as a dialogue with individuals in the room. In a medium which employs exclusively found material, Levan's ability to personalise the art of playing records, to achieve an intimate dialogue in the grand confines of The Garage space, has enabled him to fulfill the criteria for the best DJ since the early 70's He has forged his own style by making the medium speak with his own voice.
"When I listen to DJs today they don't mean anything to me. Technically some of them are excellent - emotionally they can't do anything for me. I used to watch people cry in The Loft for a slow song because it was so pretty." - Larry Levan
When I first heard you play, I noticed you would sometimes leave spaces in between songs or create introductions for them
"That's from Nicky Siano. He believed in sets. Out of all the records you have, maybe five or six of them make sense together. There is actually a message in the dance. the way you feel, the muscles you use, but only certain records have that. Say I was playing songs about music - 'I Love Music' by The O'Jays, 'Music' by Al Hudson and the next record is 'Weekend'. That's about getting laid, a whole other thing. if I was dancing and truly into the words and the feeling and it came on it might be a good record but it makes no sense because it doesn't have anything to do with others. So, a slight pause, a sound effect, something else to let you know it's a new paragraph rather than one continuous sentence.
"Lately my thing has been the video. One set of music and then - bang - visual. It stops the feet. The first time it freaked me out when I saw the whole dance floor sit down and start to watch the video. Nicky Siano, David Mancuso, Steve D'Aquisto and Michael Cappello, David Rodriguez from The Ginza - this is the school of DJs that I come from. David Mancuso was always very influential with his music and the mixes. He didn't play records unless they were very serious."
It's unusual to hear DJs play slow songs now.
"It's gotten to the point where if you play a slow song people think you're crazy. The way people party now, the drugs that are in the street, everything has got to be wild and crazy and electronic."
How did you move from being a dancer/enthusiast into DJing?
"The first place I played at was the Continental Baths. I got pushed into the job. I was doing lights and the DJ walked out. The manager who was like, a six foot three inches Cuban guy, said 'You're going to play records tonight!' I told him that I didn't have any records. 'You've got five hours" It was Memorial Day weekend. I went back to Brooklyn and borrowed records from my friend Ronnie Roberts, who had everything. I went back and worked three straight days. I did the Continental for about a year and then Richard Long approached me. I used to go to a club called Planetarium and Richard used to collect the money at the door. ''
Richard Long being the man who designed the sound system at The Garage?
"Yes, and he always like me because I was courteous to him. By this time Continental was jampacked and I had outgrown it. Then the whole thing came with Richard - I went to see the place. It was at 452 Broadway, called The Soho Place. That was like 10 years ago and I was 19. The club went from being empty to being so crowded you couldn't walk. So eventually the club had to close, and just before the last party Michael Brody approached me. He had a club at 143 Reade Street, a nice little club with good turntables - the mixer was a Bozak - I turned around and there's a Macintosh amplifier plus Klippschorn speakers. I started working there and it got so crowded I just used to open the window and let the sound go out on the street. Michael was so satisfied that when the club had to close because Of overcrowding, he asked me not to play anywhere else until the new club opened."
Did you design the sound system with Richard Long?
"First Richard told me what he thought would go in. I wanted Klipschhorns all over the place. Klipschhorns were a speaker made in the 1920's by Paul Klipsch because he was upset that there wasn't an amplifier decent enough to run a speaker He made a speaker that would require a little amount of power but would sound that it had a massive amount of power driving it. David Mancuso still uses them in The Loft. The old Loft had four speakers, two bass speakers and tweeter arrays (four JBL bullet tweeters hung together in the calling just producing highs). David didn't like turning up the bass and treble. He liked to run flat. So he had Alex Rosner build tweeter arrays."
It would be a kind of pyramidic sound. "Sure. Since the speakers all speak at the same time you hear the speaker that's closest to you first. David called up Cerwin-Vega and they made these 1000 watt bass drivers. They sounded incredible and he would do things like play the sound system with the bass and tweeters off and at 2.30 for whatever record was peaking - banging! - they would all come on. It sounds good anyway and then shh-boom! Now I'm ready for something different. I want a round room."
You use three turntables?
"Yeah, I'm going to get two more so that as the night goes on, I can upgrade the sound. So I use cheap cartridges in the beginning and upgrade - I have $150 Grace cartridges which I'm really into but you can't back-cue with them. At five AM you'd say 'what is that because a record should sound as good as a tape."
Billboard called 'Life Is Something Special' by the Peech Boys state-of-the-art recording. When you hear it live, the bass sound is really gigantic and that doesn't really come across on the 12inch.
"Right. No way can you put that on a record. When we did 'Special' I did the bassline and we programmed the drum machine together."
You mean back when it was an instrumental called 'City Fever'? "it was influenced by 'Jungle Fever' by Chakachas. That was one of my welcome-to-New York City records, That was when I realised the train went all the way into Manhattan,"
How did you start studio mixing? "Tommy Baratta, who works at West End, was my friend. He used to collect money at the door at Reade Street. One day he said to me 'you want to mix a record?' So I went to this engineer named Billy Kessel, who was my age, which was great, because it wasn't intimidating. There was this song from Sesame Street, called 'C Is For Cookie', and I mixed it, not serious, not getting paid for it or nothing. After that 'I Got My Mind Made Up' was about two weeks later. Then either 'Give Your Body Up To The Music' Billy Nichols or Dee Dee Bridgewater 'Bad For Me'.
If you had to paint an image of The Peech Boys what would you describe?
"It's like a group of men that have managed to capture that feeling from being a boy. Youthful and energetic, no matter what. Very positive strength spiritually. One has a cold and the other sneezes, I see them as energetic men able to capture that realness of being young, because that's something you lose very fast in New York City."
Everyday in Manhattan's art gallery district, Soho. people wander by the open doors at 99 Prince Street. Often they stop and gaze in at what looks like a children's wonderland. Hundreds of brightly coloured helium balloons cover every inch of the cavernous ceiling. They wonder if it is another an gallery and are often drawn up the steps to find that it is in fact a private residence, the home of David Mancuso.
For 13 years, every Saturday night, originally nearby on Broadway and for the last eight years at his present home, David Mancuso has been throwing rent parties for about 500 guests. Entrance is by invitation only. Liquor is not served. Juice and food are given away and the raison d'etre for everyone coming here is to dance to what is reputed to be one of the world's finest sound systems.
David is the parent and progenitor of much of NYC's dance scene. In 1975 he, along with Steve D'Aquisto and Vince Aletti, wrote the charter for the first DJ record pool. He has also consistently popularised new music, bringing the Barrabas LP back from Spain and selling it at cost in The Loft as well as playing a major role in getting Eddy Grant's music over to the hardcore dance audience.
He long abandoned the use of either a mixer or headphones, There is no overlaying or re-mixing of records at The Loft. They simply follow after each other as rhythmically as possible and Mancuso's editorial input is restricted to the narrative of the song's sequencing and the fidelity with which they are reproduced by the custom-made Paul Klipsch speaker system, Mark Levinson amplifiers, Mitchell Cotter turntable bases and line amplifier and the Koestu hand-crafted cartridges.
As I interviewed him, David and company barbequed out on Prince Street. Guests come and go and the ambience reminds me of the best parts of the 60's. During the interview he apologised for his tentative verbal style. In some ways David, who was an orphan, has created the ideal surrogate family with the friends who help him maintain the energy of The Loft and the guests who come to dance. He discovered many a worker's dream when he told me that his weekend really starts on Wednesday evening and ends the following Wednesday,
SH: How would you define the spirit of the house party?
DM: "It's very simplified. We don't sell food. We don't sell cards (memberships). Therefore, we are able to keep it in the spirit of invitation. It was my own way of socially rebelling."
You have very specific ideas on sound. Could you talk about them?
"Music came before the word and I've found over the years that music has become an expression of individuals, of groups, of tribes, etc. Each one has its own sonic personality to it, The excitement and sensationalism of the musical event and the time and space in which it's happening should be left up to the musicians entirely. Adding and subtracting things electronically will take away from that. Therefore it doesn't come through clear. That's what we're striving for here. No new ideas - it's all physics and fundamentals. The whole idea is what's in the groove is transcribed as close as possible to what the musician intended. No attenuating highs, no adding boom boxes - try and do it as naturally and simply as possible.
"The people who build these electronics and the speakers are into that. They're all craftsmen. The person who made the cartridge did it by hand (holds up cartridge showing a handpainted Japanese signature). He used to make swords. If the ambience is in the groove it'll come out. When you can listen to a recording and tell what make the instruments are, you're getting close."
John Jellybean' Benitez
"DJs are so aware of what's happening. We're there every week and we have the audience right in front of us and our job depends on what we play."
The ascendance of the 'beat box' - the Roland, DMX or Linndrum computers - is an emotionally charged issue in contemporary NYC disco. Originally coming out of rap, where a simpler manual model added punch to record scratching styles, it has become the dominant mode (along with a panoply of synthesisers) in dance music making. Many older DJs, musicians and aficionados dislike its replicant unerring beat. The drum computers are perfect for modern producers thinking in multi-track terms, where vinyl - as opposed to a live performance group - is the ultimate product. For kids in New York, electro-beat music comes right off their nervous systems. Its hard-edged scrambled sounds are in perfect sync with urban street life.
The Funhouse, where Jellybean plays records every Saturday from around midnight till Barn - for an audience of between 1000 and 3000 Italian, Latin and Black kids - is the seedbed for electro bop. The dancers, possessed and gymnastic, are the perfect test audience for producers who bring their reference discs, master tapes and test pressings to check over the clubs monster sound system. On my first visit it reminded me of a meeting between hardcore punk and disco.
Jellybean overlooks the dancefloor from the gaping mouth of a clown. A teenage-looking 25 year old, he grew up going out to clubs with his friends from the Bronx. Jellybean is the most vocal adherent of the DJ as producer (the phenomenon already in action) of the club mixers I spoke with. While he was already involved in studio mixing as early as 1979 (Mantus' 'Dance It Freestyle' and Novella Edmunds' 'Hotstuff') his work really took off after he forsook freelance spinning at Xenon and Electric Circus to build a consistent following at The Funhouse. He mixed many of the new Streetwise/Tommy Boy style releases including the seven inch version of 'Planet Rock', 'Pack Jam' by The Jonzun Crew, 'Walking On Sunshine'. and Quadrant Six's 'Body Mechanic'. His connection with the production team of Arthur Baker and John Robie has been widely noted in articles on The Funhouse but his first production work was done with writer/producer team Lottie Golden and Richard Scher. They progressed from freelance song writing to producing the all-electronic 'Nunk' and 'Light Years Away' for vocal trio Warp 9 with help from Jellybean.
As I write their latest venture is for Baker's Streetwise label 'Girls Night Out' by Ladies Choice, which will feature vocals by Golden, Catherine Russell, Tina B (of Rockers Revenge) and Ada Dire of Warp 9. The collaboration between Jellybean and the various musicians/producers who frequent The Funhouse underlines the friendly competitor status of the various independents. Their work is a new school of New York dance music springing from a direct interchange between the clubs and the producers.
SH: How do you see the history of mixing?
J: "I know that when I started buying a lot of records, Tom Moulton's name started showing up. They were already doing remixes when Joe Palmentari was on WPIX, Disco 102, back in 75 probably. That's when I was still a DJ in my bedroom, stealing my sister's turntable out of her room, using a Radio Shack mixer with no cue. I couldn't figure out how to get in in the exact spot."
The first promo 12 inch was Walter Gibbons' remix of '10 Percent'? "That was released and there was one on Sceptre at the same time -'Nice And Slow' by Jesse Green."
Weren't there some promo 12inchers before that? "The first promo 12inch I ever got was 'Mellow Blow' by Barrabas on Atlantic and Doug Riddick was supposedly the one who invented the idea of putting songs on a 12inch."
You said the first DJ to inspire you was Walter Gibbons. "There were DJs before that who inspired me. I was sort of like a DJ groupie. I used to read about them in Melting Pot magazine of N.A.D.D. (The National Association of Disco DJs). I thought I was the best DJ in the world until I heard Walter Gibbons play. Everything he was doing back then, people are doing now. He was phasing records - playing two records at the same time to give a flange effect - and doubling up records so that there would be a little repeat. He would do tremendous quick cuts on record sort of like Bboys do. He would slam it in so quick that you couldn't hear the turntable slowing down or catching up. He would do little edits on tape and people would freak out."
How would you describe your mix sound? 'It depends on the record. A lot of mixers have a certain sound of record that they mix. I try different types of music, A lot of mixers only do records that work for their audience but their audience is sort of locked in whereas I have a young, predominantly straight, Latin crowd which is a little more openminded to different types of MUSIC.''
How would you characterise your live sound at The Funhouse?
"Maybe a lot of Latin percussion. I know my sound is a combination of Walter's and mine and of the hip hop culture from the street from my early days."
How do you see hip hop music as having influenced the discos? "Not discos - rock clubs. The black clubs find it's putting them down, The people who go to clubs in suits don't really relate to the street at all. I find that more White people are into raps and Scratching than Blacks unless they're young."
At The Funhouse do you tease them with little bits of other songs? "I do. I like finding songs that sound like other songs. This week I was playing I Hear Music In The Streets' by Unlimited Touch) and I had 'The Music got Me by Visual. The guy goes 'I hear music in the streets' and when he's going to sing 'music' I switch to Visual but just the beginning where there's no downbeat and then go back."
What the DJ brings to remixing and producing is a real sense of specific audience. "DJs are so aware of what's happening. We're there every week and we have the audience right in front of us and our job depends on what we play."
From your perspective how do you see the music changing now? "A lot of people seem to be copying the Baker/Robie sound which is going to get boring. I got to the point where I was playing and it seemed like I was in a video arcade. Certain records come out and influence a whole sound. The influential records that I'm playing now are Visual, David Joseph and Warp 9."
For a long time it was impossible to live in New York without nearing 'This is a KISS Master Mix... Mix... Mix... by Shep Pettibone!' resounding across the airwaves and into the streets. While there had been disco radio mixes before Pettibone, there was never anything like the buzz that kept building on the streets until demand was such for his remixed tapes that Prelude released the landmark KISS Master Mixes LP This documented for the first time the state of the art in NYC club-style mixing (volume 2 forthcoming).
Fierce, the word popularised by Pettibone, is the best description of his own mixing style. If 'turntable jazz', the term coined by critic Michael Freedberg for the vinyl legerdemain of b-boy and disco DJs is apt, then Pettibone could be the new form's Charlie Parker, working with three Technics 1200 turntables and a Bozak mixer. It's a bit easier to accept the stop-on-a-dime repeats and starting juxtapositions and you know they are pre-recorded on tape but when you see the same bravura cut-ups improvised live, the complexity of Pettibone's musical re-shapings becomes clear.
During his hiatus from radio remixing, Pettibone has been playing records live at Better Days, a Black gay bar in the Times Square area. Every club's sound reflects its demographics and, at Better Days, Pettibone spins almost exclusively Black urban post R&B style disco. He constantly mixes over the records, dropping in extra hand claps (like the delayed intro clap in Prince Charles' 'Jungle Stomp') and effects and hardly ever seems to let a record play through. The peak comes when he juxtaposes an acapella version of Chocolate Milk's 'Who's Getting It Now' with the instrumental version of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean', creating a new song that remains perfectly in sync for minutes. He is constantly teasing the discs with his finger and tapping the rims of the turntable to bring records into sync.
It's 3.30 in the morning, the lights are flashing, the men screaming and I'm exhausted yet riveted to my spot as Pettibone initiates a new cycle with Sylvester's 'Don't Stop'. The gigantic synth-drum break erupts, the surging vocals climax and the slightly calmer synth melody keeps sneaking back. Build it up and put it back over the top. The young man responsible for this aural mayhem startles me with his cleancut appearance. While he describes his personal pre-remix history as 'boring', he also tells me that his mother was an opera singer and that between the ages of five and 11 he travelled around the European opera hall circuit with her.
As I write Pettibone has just resumed doing Master Mixes for KISS-FM and producing mixed dance parties for the radio by DJs Jellybean, Larry Levan and Bruce Forest. From the intensive listening he has been doing over the last few years he told me that he cannot experience music without hearing it as separate tracks.
SH: How did the idea of radio mixing get started?
SP 'It was Frankie Crocker's idea (programme director at WBLS). Back then the idea of a remixed record was to backbeat it - two records together - to phase it. My idea was wow, you ve got this opportunity: take the record, cut it up, extend breaks, re-arrange it the way I wanted to hear it. I learned about the actual concept of radio tapes from Ted Currier. He was with WKTU for two years and with WBLS for two years and then with EMI/Liberty. He was the first person who ever did those 92KTU dance parties, back when it was Studio 92, The average club DJ can't come along and make a tape and expect it to sound fantastic. You can't think 'club' because it's different. It's all to do with the station's compressors and the levels where you have your mix riding."
The turntables are quite different, aren't they? "They are similar but they're quartz locked. Usually you touch a turntable to slow it down and speed it up - with these you had to put all your pressure because of the quartz lock."
The Master Mix tapes for the radio and the album were all done with records - never the master tapes? "A hundred percent with records and whatever tape recorder echo effects I could find. I'd go back and forth between tape recorders to get effects but you start to lose Sound quality.
At Better Days, besides the air of sex and excitement it seemed to be about the nostalgia people feel for old classics. "True. The music right now is not good. I'm sick of hearing drums and synthesisers, I'd like to hear music again. Strangely enough, all these computer records started after 'Thanks To You' by Sinnamon. It was kind of like that computer sound within a black vein."
'Thanks To You' and 'Don't Make Me Wait' came out and started the whole dub thing in disco. "Peech Boys started that - like what are the handclaps doing? You never heard handclaps used. Not always - Witch Queen was one group to use wild handclaps. It was a sense of dub. Now what seems to create excitement in 'Planet Rock' type music is the dub factor. If you just let the record sit through all the way it would be a bore."
If you're a mix conscious producer you can do what the Peech Boys are trying to do with Larry Levan - use the mixing board as a sixth instrument in the recording process.
"There are a lot of producers out there thinking that way now. I think the one who really started it was Arthur Baker. The first record he ever did, I worked on."
'Jazzy Sensation'? "A big garage record. It was the beginning of that sound. There weren't any records out that sounded like Kraftwerk, except Kraftwerk,''
It was intriguing to me on the Master Mix album how you were redoing tracks that had already received a pretty definitive mix by Francois. ''He's another person I respected. He always gave me the tracks I needed, that drum track with one instrument playing on top of it that I need for a remix. Within his arrangement of the mix he would simplify it enough so that I could loop certain parts."
Like the two repeated elements in Jeanette 'Lady' Day's 'Come Let Me Love You' - the drum break and the descending flute and vibes lick. "That actually came off another record entirely."
One of my favourites is the B-side dub you did for Sinnamon's 'He's Gonna Take You Home (To His House)'. The A-side was sort of disposable but the 10 minute instrumental was like radical trance music. Do you ever want to put dub versions on A-sides? ''The A-side of 'Thanks To You' (Sinnamon), she was singing on those breaks. It was very mixed. I slowed it down incredibly, it was like 130-136 beats. 'Thanks To You' was one of those records I came home with four or five reels of tape on it. I just took every way possible and put all those ways together on the 12inch."
Like a number of the people I've spoken to you don't seem very positive about current trends in disco. What are your favounte records to spin and listen to from the past?
"They seem mainly to be Salsoul records and 'Spank' (Jimmy Bo Horne), 'Love Is The Message', T Connection's 'At Midnight'. I listen to classical music all the time. It is the most beautiful form of music to me. Mozart is my favourite. He s powerful. Dance music, in general, has to be powerful to get over. I guess I carry over what I get from his music into what I do."
-- Steven Harvey
Scan of the paper edition of the article
your Amazon recommendations - Jahsonic - early adopter products