Guru & Run DMC spilled the beans

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Queen Róisín is a disco machine

Queen Róisín is a disco machine

Former Moloko singer, Róisín Murphy’s solo career has been one of misdirection, divergence and canny swerves. She’s now five albums deep, skipping between singing in Italian, making some of the best vocal anthems of the past 20 years, and working with innovative producers like Crooked Man and DJ Koze. We spoke to her during the pandemic, where she was holed up at home writing songs on Ableton.

Interviewed July 2020 by Bill

Tell me a bit about your relationship with Sheffield. Even though you’re not there any more it keeps…
Drawing me back?

Moved to Sheffield and started Moloko there. I’d been really into music in Manchester but I didn’t know loads of people who made it. In Sheffield it was impossible not to meet people who made music or ran record shops, or DJed, or all of the above. They were the first people I met. I just met people doing things. It was really a DIY atmosphere when I moved there. 

When was that?
I was 19, born in ’73

Did you go to college there?
I started going out with a guy who had to go to college in Sheffield after he’d had a year in an architecture practice in Manchester. So when I went I didn’t have much to do. Those were the days, you know. I had housing benefit, I had the dole, and I didn’t really have to have a clue about what I was doing with life. One of the first people I met in Sheffield was Rob Mitchell from Warp, and his wife Michelle, they were good friends with my then boyfriend. After I broke up with him they sort of looked after me. I used to go round and they’d feed me. He said to me round then that he didn’t know what I was going to do but I was going to do something. Which is a phrase that’s been said a few times to me, before I became a singer. 

When you moved there what was in your mind in terms of ambition or career?
I did a part of a foundation course in art. I couldn’t afford to finish it, couldn’t afford to pay the bills at the end of the year, so I didn’t get anything to show for it in the end. I did have a year of playing around with film, photography and editing. I probably would’ve found myself at university doing art or something. But I got a record deal instead. 

How did you meet Mark Brydon? 
I met him in a scruffy basement house party. I went up to him and said, ‘Do you like my tight sweater,’ cos he was quite fit. And he liked that, so we actually recorded that night in Fon. It wasn’t the first studio I’d been in. In Manchester I’d been in and out of Strawberry Studios. One of my first boyfriends in Manchester had his own home studio and that’s really a long time ago. He was making hip hop. He actually put out a few records. P Love and Blue I think they were called. He brought me down to Strawberry a few times. It was the most beautiful studio. Fon was gorgeous too, it was based on the Starship Enterprise.  

How do you feel about those early albums looking back, because you seemed to get pigeonholed as a trip hop band in the UK. 
The trip hop thing was such a shock to us. We felt like we were working in a complete bubble when we made that record and then the first thing that happened was we finished the record and it was about to come out and Portishead dropped. Honestly, there was no similarity other than the singing. The tone of the vocal was, I can remember being like, ‘Oh God somebody else sings a bit like me’. Just the tone, like, she was going for that soul thing. Actually, she wasn’t going for that, she was that, she is that. Brilliant singer. I’m just a massive admirer of her. But my record was finished and I’d never heard the Portishead before. We came out at a similar time, within a few weeks of each other. Then the NME and everyone put it together as a trip hop thing. It was horrifying for us. We didn’t think anyone was making that kind of music. Not that anyone did specifically make music like us. We weren’t making a trip hop record, we were making… We were more about what we weren’t making. 

What was inspiring you musically at the time?
The Timbaland stuff was pouring in. It was the tail end of the LA hip hop thing.

Dr Dre?
Exactly! Dre was a big influence, the way he was sampling and being into Funkadelic. Acts like Betty Davis. That was a reference point as well. A bit bold, a bit naughty, a bit irreverent funk, but also experimental. I listened to Sonic Youth as a kid. Things like, Grace Jones, Laurie Anderson, as a kid, I remember ‘O Superman’ being a hit. Mark liked the ones that did the cover versions?

Flying Lizards?
Yeah things like that. We were looking anywhere but at four on the floor. At the time it took me going to New York a couple of years later, to re-find house music, as I’d enjoyed it as a teenager. But as I’d got through to the mid ’90s, Mark and myself had already lived quite a number of years going out clubbing to that kind of music and we felt it was going round in circles and surely wouldn’t last forever. We knew that good house music was good and Mark certainly knew that. He had a massive collection of it. He was very burnt from his Acid Jazz experience [Cloud Nine] and that really fed into the first Moloko record too. Let’s just do something totally different because that didn’t work out.

When did you meet Parrot?
Very soon into being with Mark. They were best friends. 

Was the first collaboration the Spook record [a cover of ‘Feel Up’]?
Was that before the Pulp record, because didn’t I do ‘Sorted For E’s & Whizz’ with Parrot as well? Took a while, Jesus it’s taken years to find a balance that’s really productive for me and Parrot. There’s just a million reasons why it’s always been very stop-starty until now. 

Any particular reasons?
Just the way it was. When we did ‘Simulation’ we just did it as a single and I was in that mode of, ‘Let’s just put out a few singles.’ I’d had a baby and I couldn’t really commit to an album. We put out a single but I think we hoped there’d be more of an uptake than there was, so there wasn’t much of a reason for him to break his heart making records with me until recently. 

It perplexes me why you’re writing all these amazing songs that should be on Radio 1 but they’re not…
They’ll never be on Radio 1. That’s just not gonna happen. 

Maybe it’s an indication of what pop music is like at the moment. 
But I’m not a pop star. I’m not even made out of pop star material. What I’m made of, that people don’t get, is the same shit as you. That’s what makes me different from other singers of electronic music. Because I love it and I’ve lived and I’ve done it. I respect it. I have loyalty and I believe in it. So many producers don’t want that, they want a singer who’s just going to come in on top of stuff and not be ingrained in it somehow. Most of the girl singers who make music [sighs] and I’m not – some of them are great – but most of them are not into clubs, they’ve never even been in fucking clubs, dancing till 6 o’clock in the morning. They’re not steeped in it. There’s a dissonance. Even people that are not me don’t even wanna know that! They think I was a lovely girl, it’s safer to think of me like that. This imagery that went with ‘Time Is Now’ and ‘Sing It Back’ that doesn’t really tell you anything about me. 

But those songs aren’t really even very representative of the music you made with Moloko, it’s much more diverse than that. 
That’s true. It’s that beautiful Timotei advert for the ‘Time Is Now’, the glittering dolly in a glass box that ‘Sing It Back’ video was. They were great videos but once I started showing a bit of northern soul and a bit of grit underneath the persona, then you become less poppy, as an icon. 

The internet seems to have freed you up to do lots more interesting things under your control and you have become more agile in your decision making. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
Well I do everything from the gut. Everything is done because it feels right in the moment. But I’m so visual as well. It works in that medium. I enjoy it in that medium. It’s not a chore for me to make little films and put up imagery and work within a visual field, as well as an audio one. I’ve got a good sense of how things should be presented, visually. I always have. I’ve always been very controlling over. 

Is that easier as a solo artist working with an indie label?
No. Nobody has ever told me what to do. 

So you had a good relationship at Echo and with EMI?
Echo never stepped in at all. Talk about lovely bubbly English people, they were lovely. At EMI… I had complete control. I signed the deal through one of my best friends who was an A&R there, God help him, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to do. I worked with Scott King, who was fucking brilliant [on visuals]. That was the first time I ever worked with a Creative Director, somebody who had a vision for the whole thing. And this idea of the Man Who Fell To Wimpy, it was a perfect idea, perfect for me. That is my life, in a way, this extraordinary creature who has to get on the bus and the Tube, and picks up food from McDonald’s for her kids. I’m not famous. I get this a lot: She must be someone! They don’t know who I am but they know I must be somebody. Story of my life. 

Maybe you were destined for this. 
But I feel like my catalogue is what matters. Every single thing I’ve done, especially in the last few years, you have a good run and you put out a few good singles, it consolidates everytime, everything that’s gone before. I’m actually proud of every record I’ve made and that’s an amazing thing to say. Very proud of every record. Couldn’t pick a favourite. If there’s going to be an ultimate success story with my career it would be what that catalogue’s going to mean in the future. And now I’m going forward. There’s been a lot of work done with my manager Rhianna, so I’ve re-signed to BMG, they have all my publishing, from Moloko to Overpowered and picked up the recent stuff. So I’m proud of every single song I’ve written but now I’m thinking about my catalogue and how I can consolidate it and keep it alive. 

How are the new songs shaping up for the new album?
You know most of them already. There are some new bits and bobs. There’s a new track coming out that was more or less written by Amy Douglas for me, which I’ve never done before. It’s a new song called ‘Something More’, which is ace. Have you heard it?! Amy mainly wrote it. Usually I write my own lyrics and melodies but I asked her to write something. She sits down on her Bontempi organ and she writes songs like… I’ve never seen anything like it.. I asked her to write one song and six brilliant songs poured in, it was like… she farts them out. I did tell her what to write about and we totally changed the arrangement but basically it’s her song. First time I’ve done that. 

What’s it like working with Skint.
Well it’s working with Damian isn’t it? He’s a very nice man. 

And Parrot, how do you two actually collaborate?
I try to work remotely, but it’s never good enough for him. I’ve got a setup at home. Suits everyone else. [DJ] Koze never complains but fucking Parrot, it’s like… ‘You’ve gotta come up. All the vocals are pure class on this record, I’m not fucking havin’ that!’ So I have to go up. 

Are your collaborations normally quite quick?
Well as I just said I’ve been working with Koze for four and a half fucking years and that’s nowhere near finished. Parrot’s quick as you like. It’s logical the way he works. It’s within a boundary. He has to be able to sit and close his eyes and imagine, but how he makes them sound like the perfect club record when he never goes out to a club is another amazing thing. He must have the most incredible visualisation skills. He’s very strict. 

Is that easy for you?
It was my idea for him to start making dance music again. He’s very disciplined in every way. You’re talking about… Although he’s stopped going to clubs, he knows it, he knows it inside out, he closes his eyes and he’s there so he knows how it should work. Maybe if he was trying to make a northern soul record it might get more complicated. I do love to go into a studio and come out with a song at the end of the day. That’s my ideal. Always. And I do it mostly. 

And do you go in there with lyrical ideas or it is all ad libbed?
I didn’t do much writing in the studio with Parrot. It was mostly written remotely. In fact I don’t think any of it was written face to face. He insists I go up to the vocals. Usually I sit at home and write. I wrote ‘Simulation’ in a studio in London. But now I’m all Ableton. I’m full on Ableton at home, which is a new thing for me and has made me write in a different way. 

In what way?
A bit more breadth. I have a bit more time to think so I can go away and come back the next day. Also, I discovered harmony! Who knew?! I mean, all these years I just had to be… Parrot did the harmony. I has to be this and I’d do it. Sitting there working on it on my own I actually uncovered some secrets there and it blew me mind and it was only in the last six months. Now I’m not scared of doing harmonies in front of people. 

What are the plans over the next year or so.
Haven’t thought about anything more to do with music, but I do know I want to move into film in my 50s. I’m 47. By the time I’m 50 I’d like to have to my first feature in production. I’ll be writing and directing. I might get help with the script, but I’ve got the story. It’s an Irish film. 

Would you still be making music?
Well once a singer… I think I’d be heartbroken if I could never get up on stage again and sing. But I’ve got it in my head that I’m going to focus on film in my 50s. 

Róisín Murphy live in Zagreb, 2022.

It’s such a strange time to think of plans given the current circumstances. You must thrive on live performances, how are you coping?
Well, it’s even harder to get on with my husband. Going to gigs every weekend. It’s my life. 

How have you rearranged that?
I have the very best nanny, pay her a fortune. Great partner who’s there for me. The way it’s been the last few years it’s not touring but you’ve got a festival weekend, you’ve got a gig that other weekend. So I come and go a little bit, but it keeps me sprightly. 

How are you orienting your weeks now we’re not allowed to do what we normally do?
I did loads of writing. Loads of it. It was genius that I happened to have that Ableton set up, it’s just a joy to have it there whenever you need it. A constant stream of producers bringing tunes to me like cats with a dead mouse.

That must be great.
You have to say no a lot. The type of guys I work with wouldn’t want me to going around singing features, left and right, while they’re trying to make album statements. For a girl like me to do a feature, it’s a bit pain in the arse, because I’m so visual, and you have no control over that when you’ve done a feature. I turned up to do a video and it was this famous fashion photographer and, well, it’s just not me to lie on a fucking Lamborghini! 

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Mantronix’ word was fresh

Mantronix’ word was fresh

Kurtis el Khaleel, better known as Kurtis Mantronik, was one of the most innovative electronic music artists active in the 1980s. He made his first demo in his mum’s tiny Manhattan apartment, armed only with a Roland 606 drum machine and a TB-303 Bass Line. His early releases, on Sleeping Bag Records, prefigured the tweaking sound later perfected by Phuture on ‘Acid Tracks’ by a few years and his productions for artists like Joyce Sims and Just-Ice, moving effortlessly between hip hop and dance music, still stand among the finest of the era (many made while still in his teens). These days, he lives in South Africa.

Interviewed 15.12.20 by Bill

How did you first discover hip hop? Because you moved around a lot when you were young.
Yeah. I grew up in Canada and so the first album that my uncle bought me was Queen, and that’s the one with the robot on the front, with ’We Will Rock You’. That whole album was just absolutely fantastic, and then I found Uriah Heep and Nazareth. Then I found Kiss and I wanted to be part of the Kiss Army. Canada was completely rock. But there was a little station that was picking up a transmission from, I think, New York, and they were playing disco. I was like, ‘Oh, I like this also’. I was about six months away from moving to New York with my family. I’d seen people on TV doing disco dancing, and I thought, ‘Oh, shit, I’m going to be the disco king. I’m going to be a dancer.’ Then I went to my cousin’s house in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and this is where it all changed. 

So I get to Brooklyn and I’m on the G-Train or something, really shitty and seedy and scary. And I’m wearing really tight pants. Now, I just looked odd and I was very skinny on top of that. Really tight pants and a leather jacket. I didn’t fit in. I get to my cousin’s house and they’re playing this stuff, and I’m like, ‘What is this?’ It was rap. And what they were doing, they were passing cassette tapes around of rap groups rapping in the parks. They would record it on their cassette and then someone would copy it and give it to somebody else. And it was really distorted. They’re sitting on the stoop, hot summer day, and I’m trying to get my head around this, because I’m a rocker. I mean, this doesn’t make any sense to me.

I remember waking up the next day and my cousin said to me, ‘You want to come to a park jam?’ Basically what happened was guys would have two turntables and speakers, and they would set up their DJ kit in the park and plug it into the lamppost. Then they would start playing and people would come around. And then I saw the crowd and I just said, ‘Wow, this is cool’. My uncle had an old stereo system, one of these built-in units where it had the speakers and it had a little record player inside. And I thought to myself, ‘Okay, let’s put a record on. Let me try to scratch with that.’ It wasn’t happening. These guys had Technics 1200s or whatever they were called back then and we didn’t have much money. So what we did, we took apart my uncle’s stereo system, this old wooden thing, and I somehow made a crossfader, and I found a turntable. I tried to make a crossfader and I managed to do it, but the scratching, it still wasn’t happening. But we were able to play some records and pretend that we were doing the thing. Then eventually, after being completely smitten with this music, I left Brooklyn. I’d been there for about a week. Went back to my mom’s small place in Manhattan, and I took some pocket money and went out and bought a little drum machine. It was a Casio or a Dr. Rhythm or something. It had pre-set beats on it and I was flipping through the beats, not waiting for the bar to finish, sort of interrupting it, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I got something else which I could program, the Roland TR-606 and then I bought the Bass Line, and I’d sync the two of them up together and started playing-

Do you mean the Roland 303?
Yeah, the Roland TB-303 Bass Line. I synched the two up together and I started recording stuff on cassette tape and just playing it back to myself. And then I managed to get two turntables. Technics. And so while my mom was at work, I was at home making beats and practising my scratching. But I had nobody to really show it off to. And some of the stuff I was doing, I never released. Basically what I was doing is what ended up being called acid, because that’s the basic sort of sound that you get out of the 303 without an EQ.

I was going to ask you about that because tracks like ‘Bassline’ obviously use the 303 in much the same way that DJ Pierre did later on.
Yeah. So I had these things, but I never released them. But the one that stuck with me was ‘Bassline’. That’s when I started learning how to sort of filter it, tune it and get it. And I always kept that sequence recorded and that’s where ‘Bassline’ came from; me playing around.

How did you get from that to meeting guys like [Sleeping Bag owner] Will Socolov?
My mother told me that I needed to go get a job, because I was home all day eating all her food and doing nothing. And remember, hip hop was nothing back then. It was two turntables and a 303 and 606, all this equipment sitting there on her dresser. So anyway, I went out and I walked to a record store. It was called Downtown Records.

I know it very well.
It was a guy named Frankie Ramos that owned it. And I got a job in there. Was stacking records and then they had a turntable set up in there. They would play the records for the DJs that were coming in to show them the new product and so forth. So I asked him if I could do that one day and he said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not? Just give it a shot and see how good you are’. So they put me back there, so I wasn’t stacking records anymore. I was now playing tracks that I thought would impress potential buyers, DJs that were coming in. So there was a lot of imports coming from the UK and a lot of domestic stuff, and I started playing it, and I started getting a bit of an audience, especially on a Friday when these guys got paid.

There was a messenger guy that came in, his name was Touré Embden [aka MC Tee]. He came in and I said to him, ‘Listen, I’ve got a little beat here, but I don’t have a rapper. Would you mind writing some lyrics to this?’ 

He goes, ‘Well, I’m not really a rapper. I write poetry.’ 
Well, I didn’t have any other choice, so I said, ‘Well, let’s give it a shot’. So I booked a little studio. We went in and I made the beat. He did the rap over it, and I bounced it down to a cassette tape. Then I brought it into the shop. They had one of these … Back in the days, you had dual cassette decks so you could make copies and you could EQ it while you’re copying it.

Then when I would be pushing new releases for the DJs and customers coming in, I would put the cassette on every once in a while, and I’d see people bopping their heads. So one of the managers, Albert. He said to me, ‘There’s a guy that usually comes in. I’ll introduce you to him, and his name is Will Socolov’. Will owned Sleeping Bag, so he would bring in product to sell to them. So Will comes in one day and Albert introduces Will to me, and I said, ‘Will, here’s a tape of mine. See if you might be interested’. About two or three days later, he comes back. He said, ‘Kurtis, I really love this, but I’ve got partners in my company’. Now, at the time, like I said, barely anyone was doing rap. Just very small independent labels, and Will had Arthur Russell and he had…

Ron Resnick worked there as well, didn’t he?
Yeah. Ron and Juggy Gayles.

Juggy Gayles was a legend.
I hadn’t met them. But Will says, ‘Kurtis, they’re not going to understand this at all. But out of my own money, I’m going to pay for it and I’m going to convince them that this is going to work’. 
I said, ‘Okay, good luck’. So I remember meeting Ron and Juggy, old scratchy Juggy, and Ron was just smoking the ganja and was just like, ‘Hey, whatever.’ And then sometimes he was cool. Sometimes he was a bit of a dickhead. And so anyways, we ended up getting the record done. I think it was Juggy who was like, ‘What are you doing? I’ve been 50 years in radio. What is this shit?’ Whatever. And so Will had to deal with that. And Will says, ‘Kurtis, I don’t care what they say. I’m a partner with Juggy in this label’. Ron’s his son. So Ron was just sort of there because of Juggy. But Ron always had his two bits to say. So, Will pressed it and then started taking it around, and then it started getting traction. People started liking it, and that’s pretty much how it all started with Sleeping Bag.

Do you remember the impact ‘Fresh Is The Word’ had?
Oh, yeah. My mom went from, ‘You need to go get a job’, to hearing it on the radio, saying, ‘Oh, son, this is really good. You might make a lot of money’. So she wasn’t pressuring me any more to go get a job.

Typical mum.
Yeah, and it just started getting more and more traction. Then Roman Ricardo one of the DJs from The Roxy, I was a bit of a pest to him, and I gave him my tape. Roman had that place rocking. He had the Friday night, Saturday night and that place was packed. I was always like this little gnat in the DJ booth, ‘Roman, let me DJ.’ 

‘No, no, no. Just go away.’ But he was a nice guy. Anyhow, later he calls me up and says, ‘Listen, Kurtis, I think this track is fantastic. I want to book you before anybody else does.’ 

So I remember what we got paid. It was $800, and 800 bucks back then, that was a lot. So they started advertising on the radio, Mantronix is going to be at The Roxy. Now, this is the early days of the track. So the adverts were on KISS FM, WBLS, and 92KTU, the disco station. So we get there and we do the show, and that went sort of fine. It wasn’t packed as Roxy normally is, but now, this is only two or three weeks. The record hasn’t even been really released and it’s just starting to get airplay.

About six weeks later, Roman goes, ‘I want to book you again. This time I’ll pay you a lot more money’. I think it was $3,000. This is where everything changed. So now the record has taken off and it’s very popular on the radio, being played eight, nine times a day on each station and The Roxy was sort the Mecca for hip hop in those days because it was just so big and so many people could fit in it. So I remember  I was pretty confident like, okay, I’m going to rock this even though I’d only done one show before. And enquiries were coming in about me doing other shows in Philadelphia and everywhere.

You know, we’re kids. We were like, ‘Wow, that is a lot of money.’ We don’t have that kind of money. Parents aren’t going to give you $3,000 or even $800. They sent a car to pick us up, and this is completely different now, because the first time we went to the Roxy, we took our own taxi down there. So this time we have a Lincoln Town Car that picks us up. A block before we get there, we see this crowd of people. I thought something had happened on the street. Maybe there was a car accident or something. We’re getting closer and it’s people trying to get into The Roxy to see us. And that’s when I started getting nervous.

The lines were around the block, in front of the door. The people were across the street and I thought, okay, well, these are the people that are trying to get in. So we get there, and then one of the bouncers came over to get us, and we couldn’t even get into the club. People were just pushing to get in. It was a lot of people. We get inside the club and we go up those steps. I turn the corner, the place is rammed, wall to wall people. I started shitting myself. I was getting nervous. And the DJ setup was in the middle of the stage, so it was a circular club. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there before.

Many times. Large and very wide.
Yeah, and really good sound system. So it’s like, ‘Shit’. I was getting really nervous. And I think this was around midnight or something. I’m not sure when we went on. So I had the 808 with me and I pre-programmed the beat to ‘Fresh Is The Word’. We’re about to go on. We get through the crowd, we get on the stage, turn on the 808. MC Tee is ready. They made the announcement, KURTIS MANTRONIK! The place is going, ‘Aaah!’ So, MC Tee does the introduction. ‘Mantronix, are you ready?’ I’m shaking. There’s a sea of people looking at me and he gives some sort of cue. I hit play and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, what the hell is that?!’ Everyone is looking like, ‘What’s going on?’

What I didn’t realise is that the tempo was set at like 256 bpm.

So I reset it. He does the intro again and this time we nailed it and it was boom ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch, and the place just absolutely exploded. That’s when I got the bug to make more music.

That must have been an amazing feeling.

How did you discover the potential of the 303? Because ‘Bassline’ was the first instance I can think of anyone really using it in the way that you did.
That’s all I had available to me, and I didn’t know other people weren’t using it. It was just something I was just… Yeah, I don’t know. It matched the 606, so I just thought it would be cool. 

Mantronix performing live at Street Sounds showcase at Town & Country, London, 1986

Out of those early tracks that you did, which ones are you most proud of making?
Well, I’ll always go back to … especially when it comes to hip hop, would be Just-Ice’s ‘Cold Gettin’ Dumb’. To me, that’s the pinnacle of hip hop beats for me. I don’t know about anybody else. I can’t top that. Just the way it came out, and it was done sort of almost live.

Yeah it still stands up now. It’s a classic record. You started working with singers like Joyce Sims. I think ‘All And All’ was probably the first one that you did?

Was it a natural move for you to go from that kind of raw hip hop style that you’d been making to working with Joyce?
I always liked dance music, so I wanted to do it. I had never done it before, and Will gave me the chance. It was a demo in his drawer. I was going through this drawer when he said, ‘Kurtis, this is a demo that this lady sent in, and we’ve been trying to get it right, but we just can’t seem to.’ 
I said, ‘Well, I really like this. Can I have a shot at this?’ 
‘Okay. I’ll put you in the studio.’ Because I didn’t have all the equipment at the time to pull it off. So I just stripped everything back except her vocals, and I put the 808 beat and did the bassline and the brass line, which is – if I can remember where I stole that from – It was from Propaganda.

That’s a Trevor Horn production.
Yeah. I loved that record, and I said, ‘Let me do it and try to flip it around’. So we took the demo back and they loved it and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll put you in the big studio now and let’s finish it.’ That was my first foray into dance music. So I had just done ‘Fresh Is The Word’ and I think I did ‘Johnny The Fox’ with Tricky Tee. Then I did Joyce Sims, and that was huge. 

That presumably got a great response as well?
That did very well. So I was basically doing all the music for Sleeping Bag. I had a ton of stuff to do. The Joyce Sims album and the songs that came after that, and then in the middle of that, they threw Just-Ice into the mix with hardcore… So I was just sort of doing all of that at the same time, keeping everything having its own sort of identity.

I’m wondering what influence Will Socolov had on you at Sleeping Bag, because he seemed to give you a lot of confidence, put a lot of trust in you, that maybe you didn’t get when you were at places like Capitol? Would that be fair?
Will was very instrumental. He was always there. I mean, I was in Unique Recording Studios and those places aren’t cheap, for days on end, not sleeping. And I’d say at two in the morning after he’s been running the company all day, ‘Will, I’m stuck. Can you come in and help me? Just give me some ideas.’ And he’d come in. Will’s a funny guy, and he would crack me up and then I’d get tired of his jokes and then we’d get into a fight, and then something would happen. But no, he was very instrumental. He just let me do what I wanted to do, and he would tell me if it doesn’t sound right. But most of the things I did, he just sort of let me go with it. Because it was also very new, so there was nothing to compare it against.

And you missed having that rapport with someone when you were at Capitol.
Well, yeah, you nailed it on the head. I was on my own. I remember when I did the deal, it was a lot of money, but now I’ve lost Will. We’re fighting, we’re not friends. I remember crying. I was out of my comfort zone. I didn’t have anyone to rely on now but myself. So I started making some really weird, stupid shit, and had no one to stop me. I don’t want to say weird, stupid, but it just wasn’t on point. It just wasn’t hitting the mark. Before, I would see Will every day. We would joke, we had breakfast together, we would have fights in the office, all sorts of stuff. We were friends. Now the relationship had broken apart. And Ron Resnick was instrumental in that, you know. 

Was Juggy instrumental in you moving to Capitol?
We had records that were doing well. The figures were like 50,000 or 100,000 12 inch singles. But it was only reaching the east coast. So I was getting frustrated because it wasn’t going to the other parts of the country. And I said, ‘Will, we need bigger distribution. We need more money for this’. And that’s how it all started. So I was doing all of this stuff, and then I remember Will came in one night and he said to me, ‘Kurtis I was approached by Warner Bros. They want to sign the label.’

I said, ‘Oh, okay. Well, that’s a start. They have the distribution machine, and that will go a long way. What are they offering?’ I think it was two million or three million for the label. Meanwhile, I was never getting a royalty. So I was basically getting whatever equipment I needed. I mean, I had everything, and some pocket money. So the money I would make would be pretty much from my shows. But I was up there churning out tunes for Sleeping Bag, and so they’re going into this deal now. I said, ‘Well, how much am I going to get out of it? I wouldn’t mind $300,000 or something, you know?’ 

I just pulled a figure out of my ass. I had no idea. And he’s like, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t think Juggy and Ron would go for that.’

‘Will, I’m doing most of the records here.’ 

That’s when it started falling apart. I don’t blame Will. He had a business deal with Juggy, and he had to sort of deal with that. So I started becoming upset. So I said, ‘Well, Will, I’m going to have to move on.’ What I found out later, was they were buying the label to get to me to do productions and so forth. And there were a lot of people that were interested in having me do production for them. Lots of labels. I had no idea. Will and I had a bit of a falling out over that. I mean, we speak today. I still love Will, but back then, that was just business. So Will gets me a lawyer, and the lawyer says to me, ‘You realise that you’ve only actually signed Sleeping Bag for one single? So you can move on.’ I didn’t know because I signed it when I was a kid. The lawyer says, ‘I’ve got some better news for you. I started mentioning you might be leaving and every major label’s interested.’ I said, ‘Really?’ I was completely in the dark. ‘Well, what about Sleeping Bag?’ 

He said, ‘They’re not interested in Sleeping Bag. They want you.’ Because I was the guy at the time, the new upcoming kid. Oh shit, how’s this going to work? Because Will’s my friend now. I’ve done all this work with Sleeping Bag. I live right upstairs from the label. How’s all this going to work? The offers were becoming huge. I’m a kid. Of course, I’m going to jump at that. The relationship broke apart. Sleeping Bag sued me. 

I went to the New Music Seminar at the Marriott Hotel and I’m not pumping myself up, but I get there, and it’s like everybody from every label, ‘Kurtis, I hear you’re leaving Sleeping Bag. I want to do a deal. Here’s my card. Give it to your lawyer, blah, blah, blah.’ Warner Bros boss Benny Medina flew me out to California. But that didn’t really work out. Then I don’t know if you know this guy at Virgin/10 called Mick Clark?

Joyce Sims performing Come Into My Life on TOTP

Yes, I do. He died about three years ago.
Has Mick passed away? Oh, shit… Well, Mick got wind of what was happening because there was a license deal between Sleeping Bag and Virgin/10. I was comfortable with Mick and they put in an offer but I don’t remember what the offer was. But Capitol put in the biggest offer. When Mick found out I was signing with Capitol, he lost his shit: ‘How the fuck could you do that? We go way back.’ 

I spent about two, three weeks of looking at offers from the different labels and Capitol came through big time. Basically they gave me carte blanche. The way the contract was worded was I could deliver thin air. That’s how good the contract was. Anyway, they paid me all this money, I relaxed for a little while, but I’ve now lost my friend Will and they were suing me. I was on my own. All this money on my own, not knowing, not really sure what to do. And that’s where ‘Got To Have Your Love’ came in. Capitol sent it to EMI in the UK. EMI in the UK loved it. It took off there. So, my new home was now in the UK. 

When I interviewed Will Socolov several years ago, he told me some nightmare-ish stories about Ron Resnick, and I’m just wondering what your experience of working with him was.
I remember we had just finished, ‘You’re My (All And All)’, and we were in the studio all night and we had to get to a mastering session at 10am with Herb Powers. Herb was a very popular mastering engineer back in the day, so if he gave you a time, you had to get there exactly at that slot. Will and I were battling against time, and there were no computers then, so we were cutting tape to do the edits, put it together and get it ready for 10. Ron arrives all fresh. We let him hear it. We’re in the elevator going up to Frankford/Wayne Mastering where Herb is, and we’re absolutely exhausted and Ron comes out with some really smart-ass shit: ‘Oh, this is fucked up, and this is… etc, etc’ I almost lost it with Ron. I wanted to turn around and punch him in his fucking face. We didn’t listen to him. But he was always talking shit. So, that’s Ron. He’d smoke his ganja and just sit there and talk shit.

You must be proud of the catalog of work you’ve done over the years. What sticks in your memory most?
It’s a little bit of everything, I guess. One of the things which wasn’t my original work was when I did the remix with Shirley Bassey’s ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. That I really liked. Some of the Joyce Sims stuff. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that I do like. Some of the stuff, I’m like, did I actually do that? Some of the stuff, like ‘Ladies’. I know people like it, but I’m thinking, what was I trying to do there? But I was just trying to do different stuff, and yeah, I was having fun. Where I didn’t have fun, and to be God’s honest truth, is dealing with MC Tee. I mean, some of the shit that he would say, I would go, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?” And then I would have to push him to write lyrics because we had to get the album done, and we’d get into big fights in the studio. We had moved up to very expensive studios. But it became more of a pleasure when I started working with Just-Ice and T La Rock, because those guys are ready to go, you know? Yeah, those guys were just good. 

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Sleeping Bag went bang

Sleeping Bag went bang

From its early days as a conduit for the out-there ur-disco of Arthur Russell and the innovative electro of Mantronix to house era hits with the likes of Dhar Braxton and Dionne, Sleeping Bag was one of the most influential New York labels of the 1980s. They saw themselves as the anti-Studio 54 kids coming to shake up the music establishment, and for much of the decade they did. Eventually, the label became mired in vicious disagreements on direction, building up insurmountable debts in the process, a tale as old as the industry itself…

1981 was the year that the movie Escape From New York was released, an apocalyptic vision of a future in which Manhattan had become a high security prison. On the real streets of New York, things were equally grim. ‘Back then, I had no dreams: I had nightmares,’ said Curtis Sliwa, who had recently formed the Guardian Angels to patrol crime-ridden neighbourhoods. ‘I was a night manager of Mickey Ds in the Bronx. I had crime problems in the restaurant. I had to go over the counter and deal with them individually. I was getting rheumatism arthritis from dialling 911. It was a joke. Instead I had cops coming in and tryin’ to scam me for free food.’ There were 2,166 murders in 1981 (in comparison with 648 in 2013) and reported felonies had reached a record level of 637,451. 

But things are not always necessarily as they seem. Escape From New York was actually shot in St Louis in Missouri and amid the desolation were explosive pockets of activity that made New York City arguably the most creative musical place on the planet.  ‘I liked the bleakness, because you could dream in that,’ said Andy Warhol collaborator Penny Arcade.  ‘You could dream new things. The Lower East Side was like a marketplace. All the sidewalks were covered with blankets and people were selling things like broken light bulbs.’

The disco scene, which had begun in the downtown area of Manhattan in the late 1960s had, by 1981 (despite the crash of disco elsewhere in the US), blossomed into a vast array of clubs from the artful and grubby, to the glamorous or sanctified: Danceteria, Mudd Club, Paradise Garage, The Loft, Better Days, The Funhouse and Studio 54. At the start of 1981, the original owners of Studio 54, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were released from prison after serving sentences for tax evasion. 

Dance music was in flux. No longer dominated by disco, DJs’ playlists had opened up to include Latin, early hip hop, rock, post-punk, funk and pop music. Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ was one of the big hits of the year, there were also unlikely club smashes for Modern Romance, former Buzzcock Peter Shelley, Ian Dury, ESG and Talking Heads’ offshoot Tom Tom Club. Club music had not been so varied since the early days of disco. 

Enter Sleeping Bag Records. With its cute koala bear logo and off-the-wall name, few record labels epitomised the straitened, evolving circumstances of the 1980s than Sleeping Bag. It was born in total opposition to the slick business operations at Salsoul and Prelude and its output couldn’t have been more different, either, taking in the leftfield manoeuvres of Arthur Russell, Konk, Class Action’s nifty reading of ‘Weekend’, Mantronix, Joyce Sims’ electro-swoon, Nocera’s freestyle, Dhar Braxton and Hanson & Davis’ house-not-house and, if you include sister label, Fresh Records, EPMD, T La Rock, Todd Terry and Just Ice. 

Jump to the beat

It all began on the corner of Thompson Street and Prince Street when Will Socolov and Arthur Russell bumped into each other. They had originally met through the Loft, where they were both regulars (Will’s father was David Mancuso’s lawyer). When Arthur’s Loose Joints project had run into financial difficulties, Will had persuaded his father to lend them some money to finish it. Will had recently returned from a sojourn in Hawaii.  ‘We started talking and after about half an hour Arthur said, “Would you like to start a label?” And I said, “Sure.” It was as simple as that.’ 

They both agreed it wasn’t going to follow the rules of other leading labels in the city – and with Arthur Russell’s involvement, there was little chance of that. ‘It was a reaction to the smooth disco look of Nehru collars and Jheri curls. Arthur and I never fitted into that and never wanted to fit into that,’ says Socolov. ‘We were young kids who were into dancing. We hung out with friends who were very hippie-ish in their mentality. I wasn’t but I was a New Yorker and I really enjoyed a lot of different things and different cultures and I wasn’t going to be stereotyped. So we made Sleeping Bag as a reaction to that whole Salsoul, dressing sharp Studio 54 thing. We wore dungarees and sneakers.’

Their first breakthrough single, ‘Go Bang #5’, certainly delivered on that promise. Written by Arthur Russell and culled from his Dinosaur L album, 24 —> 24 Music, and remixed by François K, it had an immediate impact on the city and carried on the trajectory that Russell’s previous explorations in disco (Dinosaur’s ‘Kiss Me Again’ and Loose Joints’ ‘Is It All Over My Face’) had begun. ‘My view of what I had to do with those tapes is organise and focus them,’ recalls François of the ‘Go Bang #5’ sessions. ‘I had to give it an appeal where at least people would listen to it and get into the marvellous and incredible things he had in there. As a mixer, I feel that when I did ‘Go Bang’ I really focused that record. I stripped it down. I spent hours and hours going over each track until I found the elements that were really strong. And the less things that were around them, the better they sounded.’

François gets extra bang for the buck

Will Socolov remembers the first time he took an acetate to the Loft.  ‘I went to get in line with everybody else and one of the guys called me over: “Hey Will, David’s been waiting for you.” He opened the door and said, ”Come in.” I went in and said hello. David was cueing up the next record, but he took it off and he was very particular how he played and how picked his music so this was unusual. He put “Go Bang” on, and people were just coming up to me, one after another saying, “Fuck Will, this is incredible”. They loved it. So of course I called Arthur and he came down.

‘When he heard it, he came up to me and said, “I’m ruined!”
“I’m ruined. Did you hear those drums? They’re muddy.”
I just started laughing. He laughed too. Arthur was kind of like that. He would say very dramatic things but he would either realise or know what he had said or he had done it for effect. He started laughing and I started yelling at him, “You’re out of your fucking mind! Have you ever seen this place go as crazy?”’

Hot on the heels of ‘Go Bang #5’ came ‘Weekend’, a cover of the Phreek tune that Larry Levan had made massive at the Paradise Garage. ‘Bob Blank knew I went to the Garage and was friends with Larry and he said let’s do a cover of “Weekend”,’ recalls Socolov.  ‘I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ I wasn’t really into the idea of doing covers generally but the reason this was so appealing was because Atlantic Records fucked up the original release. They didn’t do the right version and they just fucked up constantly. So we were like let’s do this. Everyone wants to the right version of “Weekend”. I asked Larry about it, he flipped out, he was excited about it.’

‘Class Action was my production,’ claims Blank. ‘I’d engineered the original Phreek version in 1979 with Patrick Adams. Anyway, Chris Wilshire, who was the backup singer on the original sessions, one day said, “You know, we do ‘Weekend’ and it’s a big hit in the clubs”. So I got together with Fred Zarr, before he worked with Madonna, and we put it together. It was very Prince derivative, it really sounded like Vanity 6.’ With a Larry Levan remix and full support from the Garage resident, the new version of ‘Weekend’ became a big New York hit. 

Sleeping Bag’s greatest hits

One of the reasons for the success of these two singles was the support they both received from the doyen of New York R&B radio, Frankie Crocker, whose show on WBLS was instrumental in breaking many new dance records (Crocker was a regular patron at the Paradise Garage and friend of Levan). One of the legends of the New York recording industry, Juggy Gayles, had been assisting Socolov in promoting the records to radio. Gayles was already in his late 60s when he first met Socolov and had been promoting records since the early days of the record industry, working as a song plugger on hits like Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, before setting up his own publishing company United Music and scoring further smashes (though whatever profits he made often disappeared down the race track). Juggy was also a regular fixture at disco clubs in the 1970s, working on hits like ‘Fly Robin Fly’. 

 ‘I met up with Juggy a couple of times and paid him,’ says Socolov. ‘He really liked me and we ended up starting to talk a lot and when “Weekend” was the next release and he came up to me and said, ‘I’d really like to be involved. I think you’re gonna be great, kid, you got great ears, you really understand it.’ He really knew how to rub my ego up. So I got involved with him. One thing I knew about the business was that neither myself nor Arthur really liked the record promotion side, because I was very ignorant about it.’

Will Socolov’s business relationship did not last long with Arthur, primarily, according to Socolov, because Arthur seemed incapable of delivering music for the label. For his part, Russell felt he was being frozen out of the label when songs such as ‘In The Light Of A Miracle’ were not deemed suitable for release. However, Russell did have a problem with finishing songs. ‘When a song was done and it was a record and it was out and was successful, he would be saying, “Now we have to work on it and improve it”,’ remembers Blank. ‘He had no perspective that it was done.’ Even though Sleeping Bag was delivering interesting leftfield music, it was essentially a dance label and Arthur’s work was veering off into all manner of interesting directions, few of them capable of moving a dancefloor. Not a bad thing, for sure, but not necessarily something that would enable the label to stay afloat. Despite this, Socolov and Russell maintained a relationship. 

After Gayles joined the label, he bought into the company as Socolov’s partner and shortly after brought in his son Ronald Resnick, who he had been rescued from drug problems in Los Angeles.  ‘Juggy would tell people: “I’m bringing him back to save his life”,’ says Socolov. ‘My joke would be: “And yeah, to ruin my fuckin’ life!” He was a real fuckin’ asshole. He’s dead now and whatever but he was a really bad guy and theirs was a fucked up relationship. We’d be having meetings and they’d get into screaming fights. It would be so embarrassing for me to be in a meeting and completely oblivious to the fact we’re sitting with other people and how embarrassing this is.’ This dysfunctional partnership would eventually cause the company to implode. 

The next phase in the company was driven by a teenager Will Socolov met through Danceteria DJ Freddy Bastone. His debut single sold 70,000 copies and launched the career of one of the most influential producers of the 1980s. ‘I was with Freddy Bastone and Mark Kamins and this kid is talking to Freddy and says, “Please Freddy can I come?”,’ remembers Socolov.  ‘Freddy’s looking to me to make the decision. I turned to him and said, “What’s your name?”’
“I’m called Kurtis but they call me Mantronix.”
‘I said, “Come on, you can hang out.”

‘He told me he had a demo he was working on, it was just an instrumental, and so he said, ‘It’s really hot and people love it.’ 
“Is that true Freddy?”
‘He said, “I’m telling you the truth. Everytime I play it in the club people go crazy.”
‘That’s all I needed to hear.’ The following week, Socolov came down to Danceteria to hear Bastone play the demo. ‘Freddy put on the track, an instrumental of “Fresh Is The Word” and the place went crazy. I turned to Kurtis and said, “How soon do you wanna do the record?” And that was it. We went in the studio and started recording.’

Fresh is the wuuuurd

Kurtis Mantronik’s impact was immediate. His hand was on many of the big records enjoyed by the label over the next three or four years: Just Ice’s ‘Put The Record Back On’, ‘Hungry For Your Love’ by Hanson & Davis, Joyce Sims’ ‘Come Into My Life’ and the Lyrical King (From The Boogie Down Bronx) LP by T La Rock, as well as an amazing run of his own productions that brought a brave new approach to hip hop and electro. (Interestingly, Socolov tried to get Russell and Mantronix to collaborate, but the partnership never really yielded anything:  ‘Arthur had met Mantronix, they didn’t work together at all well. Kurtis was a kid and Arthur was too… esoteric. ‘) 

Sleeping Bag began to compete with other labels in the field like Def Jam and Profile, led by the inspired hand of Mantronik. ‘It’s important to us to break apart the stereotypical notions surrounding hip hop,’ Kurtis told Jack Barron in the NME. ‘That’s why I say we aren’t simply a hip hop group. We’re into hardcore confusion and we’d like to be as influential and groundbreaking as Art Of Noise or Kraftwerk were in their day. ‘

In the dance world, as disco became memory and the electronic instrumentation on Italo-disco and forward-thinking labels like Prelude began to dominate, so a new sound emerged. In Chicago, they called it house. In New Jersey and New York, they simply called it club. Whatever it was called, Sleeping Bag were on it. Dhar Braxton’s ‘Jump Back’ was one of them. Although the production was credited to Jhon Fair, who’d had a hit the year before with Chocolette’s ‘That East Street Beat’, much of the work was done by a young kid working in the office packing records. ‘Robert Clivilles was the guy that really made that a hit,’ says Socolov. ‘It wasn’t Jhon Fair. He was furious because he said he produced the record. But it was one of those situations where I couldn’t give Robert credit, because it was Jhon’s record.’

There were other hits for Sleeping Bag as it glided through the post-disco period into house music, aided by producers and remixers like Timmy Regisford, Frankie Knuckles, Bruce Forest and Bob Moss and Jerry Ferrer, who delivered one of its greatest singles, Kariya’s ‘Let Me Love You For Tonight’, a club smash in the States and minor chart hit in the UK. Although it went on to be sampled heavily (most notably by Bizarre Inc’s ‘Playing With Knives’), it proved to be one of the label’s final hurrahs.

‘I know why the label collapsed,’ asserts Socolov. ‘I stopped working there. Ron would talk his father into stuff then Juggy would start busting my balls. It was two against one. We bought a building in Fulham. We spent a ridiculous amount of money. None of my other friends had opened up a company there. We were licensing our records and people were putting them out. We were making a lot of money. But Ron said we were going to have our own label but we didn’t have the infrastructure. We didn’t need it. Anyway, I asked Juggy to buy me out for $400,000 and he said no. So I offered him the same and he said, “Fuck you. This company is worth £20m. Give me $20m for my half.”
I said, “Juggy you’re crazy.”

‘He tried to get people to back him but nobody did because they knew I ran everything. They fucked everything up. I said to Juggy look I’m gonna stay home. I’ll come in and sign the cheques but I’m going let the company go. I stopped working and that’s what happened.’

Sleeping Bag continued trading for a while, releasing music that was already on the schedules. They released a new Joyce Sims album but without Mantronix’s sure hand on the tiller, there was no hype and no interest. ‘Ron freaked out and started screaming at his father: “We’re gonna ship 50,000 copies!”, recalls Socolov. ‘His father went back and did these deals, they took tons of product and then they returned it all. We lost a fortune on that. All of a sudden the European operation was eating up money like crazy so we had to shut that down. From being a thing that was supposed to produce money, it became a disaster. Believe me a record company can fall apart quickly, especially when the main person is just not involved anymore.’

To make matters worse, Mantronix jumped ship and the label became embroiled in a law suit, which they eventually won, but at great cost. ‘It fucked up my relationship with Kurtis because he said, “Get rid of Ron, get control of the company and you run the label and I’ll make the records”’, says Socolov. ‘I didn’t want to do it. We ended up winning. We spent about $100,000 and we won about $20,000. That’s how we won on that lawsuit. It was a mistake but Ron kept pushing it.’ Shortly afterwards, Sleeping Bag folded. 

Success in the music industry is built on confidence and sand. It’s surprising how quick that can disintegrate. Sleeping Bag was no exception. It all ended suddenly and acrimoniously. Socolov went on to found Freeze with former Sleeping Bag cohort Todd Terry (where, among other things, they released Jay Z’s debut album), Juggy Gales died in his sleep, aged 86, in early 2000. Ron Resnick also died later in the decade. 

What is left is a treasure trove of music that perfectly plotted New York’s development in the 1980s, from the post-disco sounds pioneered by Arthur Russell, via Mantronix’s re-imagining of the nascent hip hop scene, to the last cries of club and house by Kariya and comrades. It’s all in here.
Bill Brewster

This piece was originally included with the The Sleeping Bag Records Anthology, which came out in 2015. You can buy the compilation here >

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Will Socolov bagged it up

Will Socolov bagged it up

As disco evolved into the many-headed dance stylings of the ’80s, Will Socolov and cosmic cellist Arthur Russell founded a label to match – the always influential Sleeping Bag Records. During the house era, Socolov brought us Freeze Records with long-term buddy Todd Terry. He also released Jay-Z’s first record, discovered Kurtis Mantronik and had a string of European hits with artists like Joyce Sims, Mantronix and Dhar Braxton. Here he tells the tale of one of New York’s most iconic labels and how it became mired in disagreements, bad decisions… and freebasing.

Interviewed 31.1.15, by Bill

How did you first meet Arthur Russell?
My father was a lawyer for David Mancuso who had a club called the Loft. Steve d’Acquisto and David had this on and off relationship and this time it was on. I went to the Loft and met Arthur one night. Maybe even Steve introduced us. Basically, they needed money to finish Loose Joints and I talked my father into giving them the money, so he gave Steve and Arthur money to finish it. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Loose Joints project. 

Is It All Over My Face’?
Right. What happened was it was a disaster apart from that song, but basically Larry Levan was mixing it when he had free time and the guy who ran the studio came in saw that Larry was working and it wasn’t on the clock, so he kicked him out. So they left with the mix they had done which was a very raw mix and they ended up putting it out, which happened to be a great thing because it created a new style in dance music at the time, a much rawer sound than the Salsoul Records that were coming out then. Basically, the thing fell apart, West End dropped them and Arthur and I had become friends. So I had been away, I’d been living in Hawaii, and I had an apartment on Thompson Street, in Soho, and I’m walking down West Broadway and Arthur is walking up. We ran into each other and started talking and after talking for about half an hour or an hour Arthur said, would you like to start a label? And I said sure. So Arthur and I then became good friends and collaborators on Sleeping Bag Records. 

Where did the name and logo come from?
The interesting thing was we were very…Arthur came from Iowa, I came from a middle class family were my mother was an editor and my father was a lawyer. My mother graduated magna cum laude and all this stuff. I think they aspired for us to become intellectuals. I don’t want to say snobbery, but there was a reaction to the disco look of Nehru collars and Jheri curls and there was a this whole smooth disco thing where you were…

The Studio 54 look?
Yeah. Arthur and I never fitted into that and never wanted to fit into that. We were like young kids who were into dancing. We hung out with friends who were very hippie-ish in their mentality. I wasn’t but i was a New Yorker I really enjoyed a lot of different things and different cultures and i wasn’t going to be stereotyped. So we made Sleeping Bag as a reaction to that whole Salsoul, disco Studio 54 thing, dressing sharp. We wore dungarees and sneakers. Arthur had a lot of artist friends and so did [Arthur’s boyfriend] Tom Lee. Tom at that time worked for a picture framer, who did a lot of work for artists. He came up with the idea of the koala bear. Basically, when we were kids there used to be a publication called Highlights and they’d always have a picture of the woods and it would have animals in it and they’d be camouflaged and you had to find them and circle them. I gave the idea to Arthur of having a campground scene. We’d just vibe with ideas and just laugh. The name was a riff on James Brown’s ‘Papa’s Gotta Brand New Bag’. I was listening to the radio while talking to Arthur and James Brown came on and I said to him, ‘James has got a brand new bag; I’ve got a sleeping bag’.
Arthur said, ‘That’s it, we’ll be Sleeping Bag Records.’ I was kind of like into it, too. We didn’t have the money or anything to promote the records like big established labels. For us the only way that labels like us could do it was to stick out and do things like that. 

Was your first big breakthrough record ‘Go Bang’? How did that come together?
What happened Arthur had already been working on 24/24. Matter of fact, the guys that played on Loose Joints, was the Ingram family from Philly. Arthur loved working with them – or some of them. I don’t know if you know who Butch Ingram was but he was more of an established R&B star and didn’t really get into Arthur, he thought he was a bit crazy and his music was a little bit, too… you know.

But Jimmy and Timmy, they really got into it and just jammed. Arthur would just jam with them and that’s what Go Bang was, it was a jam. Arthur had gotten some money, some grants. He always seemed to able to pull some rabbit out of his hat. He did this 24/24 Music, which was a lot of jamming with the Ingrams and others. The Ingrams were the main players on that record. When he met me we decided to put it out and he thought that ‘Go Bang’ could be a big record but he thought his mix was too obscure. It was his idea: he said we need someone like François K to do it. He asked François, who was really into it. The rest is history and François turned in a great mix. When Arthur first heard the mix, it was standard Arthur. We were in the Loft and he said, ‘I can’t believe François is trying to destroy me’.
I said what are you talking about?’ 
He said, ‘Listen to the drums, they’re so muddy.’
‘Arthur, it’s part of the mix.’
Arthur was kind of like that. He would say very dramatic things but he would either realise or know what he had said or he had done it for effect. He started laughing and I started yelling at him, ‘You’re out of your fucking mind! Have you ever seen this place go as crazy?’ And every DJ that was there, they’d all come up and say, ‘Will, when can I get a copy?’

What was it like working with Arthur on a creative level? It’s been said he would struggle to finish things. 
Arthur was prolific in making music. How many records came out? Very few. That’s the thing about him. It’s all coming out now, because of Steve Knutson and Tom Lee. They’re putting it out post his death. He was prolific, he was making music all the time, but we released very little of it and that was one of the reasons our partnership broke up. That’s why I had all these fights with him. Even though he made records very inexpensively we never put anything out. I’d rather make records more expensively and release them! He’d say, ‘Well this isn’t ready’. Arthur had real issues getting stuff out. He was never satisfied. 

I ran into Arthur all the time, because I lived in Soho and he lived in the East Village. And he would always love to come over to the Westside. One because Arthur was gay and there was a gay community there, but the other thing is he loved the sunsets. I would meet up with him him and he’d be sitting crosslegged right near the Westside Highway just looking at the sunset. He would talk to me about the value of that. Arthur said something to me that was so profound and really affected me, he said, ‘I really believe that music can heal’. I think I agree with him. I think that a lot of his thoughts about music were correct in terms of music having a healing quality. That’s why we stopped being partners, because it was incredibly frustrating. He was filled with self-doubt. Arthur had pretty beautiful vocals. But he always shitted on his vocals. I remember when we heard Leroy Burgess singing on some song. He said, ‘Leroy Burgess can sing like a bird, he’s got a beautiful voice. I can’t do that’.
‘But Arthur, your voice is different. Leroy Burgess probably can’t sing like you.’ He was very difficult. 

It must have been a real battle to get things like the 24/24 album album.
That one, for some reason, he’d already finished it. It wasn’t that difficult, or as difficult as other things. I don’t remember exactly why, but it came out pretty quick and we got it out. We worked on the single. I don’t know why it was so easy to get that out compared to other albums.

How did [Class Action’s] ‘Weekend’ cover come about? 
Bob came up to me and knew I went to the Garage and was friends with Larry. He said, ‘Let’s do a cover of “Weekend”.’
I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’ 
I wasn’t really into the idea of doing the cover but the reason this was so appealing was because Atlantic Records fucked up the Phreek version. They didn’t do the right version and they just fucked up constantly. So we were like, let’s do this. Everyone wants the right version of ‘Weekend’ and they keep putting the wrong version out. I asked Larry about it, he flipped out, he was excited, that’s great! Nobody can get the right version. The funny thing is Atlantic re-released it when we put our version out and they fucked it up again! They put out the wrong version the 2nd time. The version that Larry wanted was the one with the piano at the end. They never put that version out. They shortened it and edited and never put the right version out. That’s what happened at big companies, there was a level of ineptitude there. So that’s why we did it. We did Jamaica Girls too, ‘Need Somebody New’, Arthur wasn’t against that. He knew it was a commercial record. My problem with Arthur was he didn’t make any records! We’d be going back and forth and I’d say, ‘Well what can you give me?’ 
‘I don’t have anything right now.’ 

When you were promoting records, I guess you’d be going from one club to another, which clubs did you go to and which DJs’ relationships did you cultivate?
I was friendly with David, but I became less friendly as time went on. I became very close with Larry. The truth of the matter was there were a lot of DJs I was friendly with. For example, Jellybean loved ‘Go Bang’. You have to remember back then the Funhouse, where Jellybean was the resident, had a huge Italian and Hispanic crowd who bought records. The Garage was the most important because they influenced everybody. Everybody would come and hang out there at night. If you played at a club and you finished at 4am and didn’t want to go home you’d go and hang out at either the Loft or the Garage and most people went to the Garage. It was more social, it had a ton of industry people and Larry always used to have all the industry people over, so everybody would be hanging out in the booth or downstairs in front of the booth. I used to see Jellybean, Bruce Forest, Timmy Regisford, Larry Paterson, Tee Scott, all the influential DJs. Shep Pettibone would come by, François would come by. I used to go to the Funhouse, The Garage, and a lot of time at Danceteria. I gravitated towards Danceteria the most. The problem with the Garage was that there was no alcohol but if you go to a place like Danceteria you could get beer and talk to friends. There’d be a lot of industry people there, too. Mark Kamins before he got crazy, was DJing there, and Freddy Bastone. It’s also where I became friendly with Kurtis Mantronik. There was also the Buttermilk Bottom, with Nicky Siano. The Mudd Club with Justin Strauss, I don’t know if Ivan was playing there. Area, I was very friendly with Johnny Dynell, I’d go a lot because Johnny would always put me on the list and it was near my house. 

Was there a hierarchy for distribution of test pressings and acetates?
I think the hierarchy would depend on the record. The hierarchy was all based on putting out good records. And if you put out good records, people were into you. There were labels like 99 Records, run by Ed Bahlman, he didn’t socialise with many of those guys, but man if he put out a new record they were eating it up. People were hungry for good music. 

It was also a very open time, wasn’t it? After the crash of disco it seemed like there wasn’t just the Salsoul sound, there were lots of other things happening. Sleeping Bag represented that in a lot of ways.
Exactly. There were a lot of good imports coming in. I remember a lot of labels like Emergency Records, I remember when Larry first played ‘Din Da Da’ [by George Kranz]. Someone had sent him a copy of the record. Everybody was trying to find out who put that record out in Europe so they could license it. When that record was being played, Bobby Shaw and everybody was listening to it and the crowd’s going crazy. Everybody was freaking and Larry played it like five times that night.

How did you meet Juggy Gayles?
I was using Freddie Taylor to distribute my records when we first started. She wanted to be a distributor, but she was really a one-stop. What happened was she said, ‘I’m friendly with Juggy and I think you should talk to him about your label.’ Frankie Crocker plays ‘Go Bang’, she had gotten it played on WBLS and literally the next day we had sales. So Juggy started getting some airplay and the record sold. Not huge amounts but it sold. Charlie at Vinyl Mania said, ‘When Crocker plays the record, people come and ask for it. They don’t even know the name, but the one that goes Baaaang!’

So I met up with Juggy a couple of times and paid him. He really liked me and we ended up starting to talk a lot and then ‘Weekend’ was the next release and he really knew how to rub my ego up. He said, ‘You’re gonna be great kid, you got great ears, you really understand it.’ So I got involved with him. One thing I knew about the business was that neither myself nor Arthur really liked the record promotion side. I was very ignorant about it. I thought it was the really seedy side of the business, but the truth is it’s not that seedy. It’s almost the same as I did going to DJs, I just didn’t realise it was the same but on a maybe more professional level. It was mistake I made, I believe. Juggy wasn’t terrible but his son was a fuckin’ loser.

We’ll come on to him….Did you know about Juggy and his history, because he was such an amazing character wasn’t he?
I knew a little about him, but got to know more and more about him. I became friendly with him and I became friendly with Frankie Crocker. That was the reason why I was into doing something with Juggy because he had such a good relationship with Frankie that I figured I’ll be good. Truth is I don’t think we took advantage of that relationship as much as we could or should have. Frankie took care of Juggy and Juggy took care of him. I think Juggy looked out for him. It was an interesting relationship. 

Was he a good people person, because they’re often the best promotions people?
I don’t know. Juggy was interesting. He really fought with a lot of people. He really had a cantankerous side to him and he really had screaming fights with people. Juggy was a mixed bag. A lot of people like Juggy and a lot of people didn’t like Juggy. He could rub people the wrong way pretty quick. For kids like me, he had so much history and knowledge about the record business that he’d tell you stories about Atlantic Records when they first started and you’d be mesmerised by him. So from that point of view it was great. And the truth is Crocker loved him for some of those reasons, too. Juggy knew all this kind of stuff. Chris Blackwell hired Juggy and really liked him. He had a lot of history, a lot of interesting stuff. 

He was already quite old when he started working at Sleeping Bag wasn’t he?
He was already in his late 60s when we first started working together. Juggy smoked a lot of weed and that’s what ingratiated him with a lot of kids. That’s why he did really well. He could relate to kids pretty well. I saw him in the elevator once at Sony. I don’t remember who it was that got in, but it was somebody big. He said to him: ‘You got a hit record’. 
‘What record Juggy? Tell me.’ Juggy knew, cos the kids would tell him. 
‘Ah not gonna tell you yet, I’ll tell you later, but you got another hit record.’ That’s over now, cos there’s Facebook and a lot of different ways of communicating and sending out information that somebody like Juggy took advantage. They don’t need a Juggy now. 

How come Ron Resnick came to work at the label?
Ron was Juggy’s son and Ron was living in California and doing a lot of freebasing and getting high a lot. Basically Juggy had set him up out there with people he knew, because Juggy was close with a couple of people. But Ron still fucked up. He brought Ron back, basically to save his life. That’s what he would tell people: ‘I’m bringing him back to save his life’. My joke would be: and yeah, to ruin my fuckin’ life! He was a real fuckin’ asshole. He’s dead now and whatever but he was a really bad guy. It was a fucked up relationship. They had a love/hate relationship. We’d be having meetings and they’d get into screaming fights. It would be so embarrassing for me to be in a meeting and they’d be completely oblivious to the fact we’re sitting with other people and how embarrassing this is. 

Was he still having issues with drugs when he moved back to NY?
Not as much, but Mantronix tells a story that they went over to do Top Of The Pops or something. Kurtis calls me up freaking out. He told me that he knocked on Ron’s door, Ron didn’t open up, he pushed the door open, Ron’s sitting on the floor naked with some girl and they’re freebasing. They’re doing crack. Kurtis was a straight kid, then, and he was very young. He called up and said, ‘I’m coming home now, I don’t wanna be with this guy, I don’t want him representing me.’ Juggy got on the phone and was screaming at him. Then Juggy would say that’s it, I’ve had it with my son, I’m firing him.

When you were going out in the evening would you be going out with Juggy in a posse?
No very rarely, if it was a company party or something. I didn’t socialise with him much. My brothers couldn’t stand Ron. At one point I fired Ron, but that created all kinds of issues with Juggy and me and I hired him back. We didn’t socialise and he was getting older and also Crocker eventually wasn’t on the radio. He had a couple of periods where he had troubles and he was off the radio. Juggy then became very big with  the pop radio stations. When Crocker was gone, Juggy didn’t retire, he ended up being friendly with Scott Shannon on Z100. These were not guys in the dance world. He kept working in the pop field. He could always work pop and club. He had the Crocker connections, the pop station connections. Also when hip hop came in, Hot 97 was selling records. The major labels, there’s a lot of research done, they know where to go to make thing happen. 

When did you first meet Mantronix?
One night we were going to the Blank Tapes studio. Bob Blank was no longer the engineer. Matter of fact he had already gone he got bought out by some brothers, forgot their name. I was with Freddy Bastone and Mark Kamins. He’s talking to Freddy and he says, ‘Oh we’re going to the studio.’ 
He goes, ‘Please Freddy can I come?’ 
Freddy’s looking to me to make the decision. I turned to him and said, ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m called Kurtis but they call me Mantronix.’ 
He told me he had a demo he was working on, it was just an instrumental, and he said, ’It’s really hot and people love it. I said, ’Is that true Freddy?’ 
He said, ‘I’m telling you the truth everytime I play it in the club people go crazy.’ 
That’s all I needed to hear. I said, ‘Next weekend I’m gonna come to Danceteria, play me that demo.’ Freddy put on the track, an instrumental of ‘Fresh Is The Word’ and the place went crazy. I turned to Kurtis and said, ‘How soon do you wanna do the record?’ And that was it. We went in the studio and started recording. 

That was completely a different vibe from the early releases with Arthur and so on?
Yeah well it’s funny because I introduced Arthur to Kurtis and I introduced Arthur to Dana Vlcek who was in Konk and Arthur wanted to work with them. I think Arthur was too uptight about his weaknesses or what he perceived them to be. Get me with someone who’s young and hip. That’s why he worked a lot with Walter Gibbons because I think he liked Walter’s ear and Walter DJed and whatever. So Arthur had met Mantronix, they didn’t work together at all well. Kurtis was a kid and he couldn’t get into Arthur’s vibe, he was too esoteric. 

How old was he when the first record came out?
He was over 18 but just barely. 

When you started Fresh Records was that as direct result of meeting Kurtis?
No not at all. Fresh Records had to do with our distributors. We were trying to get money out of our distributor because I had these projects I wanted to do and money wasn’t moving fast. A company came up to me and said, ‘If you give us some records, we’ll give you money’. When they said that I went up to our distributor and said, ‘We got all these projects we wanna do, but we need some money’. And the guy basically said we don’t do that. 

So I said let’s open up another label and give these guys some records. We were all in favour of doing of that so that’s what we did. Nothing to do with Kurtis until further down the line. Hanson & Davis’ ‘Hungry For Your Love’, he had done, but he had a huge fight with Aaron Hanson and wouldn’t work with them anymore. But it didn’t matter, he’d made that into a huge hit. Kurtis did Just Ice early on but really his first song that he brought to the label was LaToya.

Looking back at the labels now, it looks like Fresh was tapping much more into the growing hip hop/freestyle market. 
It absolutely was. Yes. It was much more of a freestyle label. And I guess Kurtis was a part of that in a sense that we got into that world. The world of hip hop, but again it’s going back to music. I like hip hop. I like house music. I like all kinds of music. 

But Kurtis did produce quite a lot of stuff on the label, was he hanging out in the office a lot?
He lived upstairs. We ended up in this weird building and we got the floor upstairs and Kurtis moved in. So Kurtis was there all the time. That was the relationship. It was a very relaxed place and Kurtis was there all the time. 

How did you come across guys like EPMD?
They walked in the door. They had gone to a couple of labels before us. We weren’t the first choice. i think they went to Def Jam and Profile first. One of my guys listened to it and said, ‘Will you gotta listen to this. These guys are really good.’ I listened to it and said OK. The difference with us was that if we liked something, we signed you on the spot: I just said fine, ‘Let’s do the contract and do a deal’. Kurtis heard things, too. Kurtis heard ‘All & All’ [by Joyce Sims]. We were gonna sign that but this guy Robbie Watson who brought it in. I said, ‘Robbie this record has a lot of potential. It’s good but it’s not good enough it’s not capturing it’. Kurtis begged me to do it. He said, ‘Give it to me and I’ll make it hit’. We’d signed her already. Robbie had two goes and then ended up paying for it himself but it wasn’t happening. So Kurtis went in and made it a massive hit, he changed the record and produced it. That was a fast learning experience for me. Joyce wrote and Robbie produced the demo but it wasn’t really happening. Joyce was signed to us through Robbie so he was in control and that was a fucked up situation. So we ended up not making that much on the record because I had pay Robbie a producer’s fee and royalty and Kurtis a producer’s royalty and he was flipping because Robbie was earning more than him when he was the one that made the record. 

So by the time she did ‘Come Into My Life’ there’s no credit to Robbie. What happened?
Robbie got bought out. He took money and left. Joyce didn’t want to work with Robbie, she wanted to work with Kurtis. So instead we paid him a sum of money and he was gone. 

Can you tell me a little about meeting some of the artists… like Just Ice?
Just Ice came up to the office. He was hysterically funny. We just started goofing around. He was knowledgeable about music. A lot of reggae. I’m going to tell you something very bizarre about him: he liked soft rock. He would listen to Lite FM. He would listen to things like Yellow Tree. He had this bizarre taste in music, but he definitely had a Jamaican sensibility. I had this guy named Michael Scott working for me. He had an incredible knowledge, he was like an encyclopaedia. Him and Just Ice were like. I remember the first few days he started coming up, he’d talk all kinds of shit about music and that was it. 

He played us ‘LaToya’, I loved it and we signed him and DMX. Again: a lot of people came up to the office. Todd Terry came back to my office and again I had loaned him $400 to buy a keyboard, he brought us Giggles. We put it out and started putting out his stuff. Robert Clivilles used to work with me. Little Louie Vega, I bought him equipment. I don’t know if he would ever give me credit. But I gave him $5000 when he was DJing at the Funhouse. He’s another person who, if Ron had not been around, I would’ve had a much stronger relationship with. Ron didn’t like him. Robert Clivilles worked with us packing records and his first record he ever did was Dhar Braxton’s ‘Jump Back’. And he’s the guy that really made that a hit. It wasn’t Jhon Fair. I think it even said the record Drum Programming but he was furious because he said he mixed the record. But again it was one of those situations where I couldn’t give him credit, because it was John Fair’s record.

How did you come across T La Rock?
Kurtis developed a relationship. Kurtis wanted his LL Cool J. Kurtis loved LL Cool J. And there were only a couple of people that were on LL’s level. And the truth of the matter…. LL became a huge star. T La Rock, unfortunately, was a one note rapper. He’s not bad, he’s great but.… Kurtis worked with Just Ice and T La Rock and T La Rock was definitely courted by Kurtis and he wanted me to sign him which I did. And I’m happy I did. But T La Rock’s records, the thing about LL or any good rapper is you evolve but T stayed the same style. Today he does records and they’re the same. People shopped Big Daddy Kane to me and it was the same shit. 

There were a lot of people you worked with early in their careers like Craig Mack. 
Yeah. I loved Craig. He was great. I worked with him again. Unfortunately, i worked with him with that Wooden Horse but i worked with him with Scutchie Robinson who was involved, too. Craig did a record [‘Wooden Horse’] with a Frank Sinatra sample: ‘High Hopes’. That record could’ve been huge but Craig was loyally involved with Scutchie. He’s one of the sons of Sylvia Robinson. 

When you started releasing this stuff, were you hanging out in more outer borough clubs?
No the Roxy was the big hip hop club. I’d still do the same clubs. 

The one Kool Lady Blue did with Bambaataa?
Blue was great. I loved Blue. There’s another person who was in on it in the early years. I’d go to the Roxy, the Loft, The Garage, Danceteria. Stopped going to the Funhouse. And yeah I always used to go to clubs in Queens or wherever but usually because we had a reason to go there, or three people with from three different labels were going out to see someone in Brooklyn and we’d all go together. I also went to the Latin Quarter in Times Square, there were some other uptown clubs I went to, but i can’t remember now. Used to go to Payday when Patrick Moxey did those parties. 

Why do you think the label eventually collapsed?
I know why it collapsed. I stopped working there. I couldn’t get Juggy to buy me out. I couldn’t buy Juggy out. I asked him to buy me out. 

When was this 91 or 92?
Something like that yeah. I asked him for $400,000 for my half. He knew I ran the label. We couldn’t make money. When we were very successful in Europe. Ron would talk his father into stuff then Juggy would start busting my balls. So it was like two against one. We bought a building in Fulham. We hired staff like Mervyn Lyn. It was a ridiculous amount of money. $1m or $2m in Europe. None of my other friends had opened up a company there. It wasn’t worth it. We were licensing our records and people were putting them out. We were making a lot of money. We dealt with London and Virgin. But Ron said we were going to have our own label but we didn’t have the infrastructure. We didn’t need it and we didn’t have it. We had all these labels we worked with who loved us. Joyce had been a huge star. London had done very well. Ron had a very nasty relationship with Roger Ames. Roger couldn’t stand him. 

Anyway, I asked Juggy to buy me out for $400,000 and he said no so I offered him the same and he said, ‘Fuck you’. He said this company is worth £20m. Give me $20m. for my half. I said, ‘Juggy, you’re crazy’. I went down to $200,000 and he said no. He tried to get people to back him but nobody did because they knew I ran everything. They fucked everything up. I said to Juggy look I’m gonna stay home. I’ll come in and sign the cheques but I’m going let the company go. I stopped working and that’s what happened. They put out whatever we had. They put out the latest Joyce Sims album, but Kurtis wasn’t involved. The album was terrible. I said, ‘Let’s just forget about it’. He said no and got this huge advertising campaign but when the orders came in they were terrible. There was no hype on it. Ron freaked out and started screaming at his father, ‘We’re gonna ship 50,000 copies!’ 
I said, ‘No we’re not, we don’t have any orders’. 
His father went back and did these deals, they took tons of product and they returned it all. We lost a fortune. on that. All of a sudden the European operation was eating up money like crazy so we had to shut that down. From being a thing that was supposed to produce money, it became a disaster. Believe me a record company can fall apart quickly, especially when the main person is just not involved anymore. 

When did Kurtis move to Capitol?
That was when the ship began to list. We still had EPMD and that brought in a lot of money, but the shit started to hit the fan. It fucked up my relationship with Kurtis because he said get rid of Ron, get control of the company and you run the label and I’ll make the records. We were very close. We still are.

So you said it fucked up your relationship with him, were there law suits involved?
It happened afterwards. I didn’t want to do it. You know what happened with the law suits? We ended up winning. We spent about $100,000 and we won about $20,000. That’s how we won on that law suit. It was a mistake but Ron kept pushing it. Kurtis and I had been friends. In the end, he left because he couldn’t stand Ron. 
Bill Brewster

Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through the Dancefloor

Dance Your Way Home: A Journey Through the Dancefloor

‘Dancing with other people isn’t passive, it is active, and it can create action,’ writes Emma Warren. And what this action generates, she tells us, is ‘…collective music created by the thousands of dancing bodies punctuating the tunes powering out of the sound system.’

The history of dance music is a love affair between the DJ and the dancefloor. The dancer is fickle and restless, always looking for new sounds and fresh excitement. In response the DJ invents new tricks, curates new styles, evolves new genres, to keep their mutual passion hot. This beautiful new book examines this call-and-response relationship from the inside, bringing us a dancefloor history with unparalleled intimacy.

The science of dancing can be mindblowing. Some people with Parkinson’s can dance to music when they can hardly walk. Seeing someone else in motion can make the corresponding muscles twitch in our own bodies, a phenomenon called ‘body mirroring’. Researchers have isolated a related effect, ‘aesthetic resonance’, where humans enjoying music enjoy it more if they can see others enjoying it too – this is why music is more dramatic when you’re dancing with other dancers. Music works better with you.

‘Powerful dancefloors can be tied up with feelings of repair, of becoming whole again,’ Emma reminds us, as she meets a neurologist specialising in strokes and epilepsy who’s built himself a bass chair to send booming stimulation to your vagus nerve. She calls it ‘a calm-down button, a hug from the inside.’ We learn details of how the brain/body calibration you get from moving to music measurably improves balance. And how movement therapy can reduce ADHD symptoms in children (perhaps making up for a lack of movement in their screen-filled formative years). Motion is only a letter away from emotion.

Emma treads lightly through the science, however, making it support her real subject, which is how dancing is central to being human. She shows how we each evolve our own personal dance, the culmination of the cultural and interpersonal lives we’ve led. She makes us see dancing as a language we all speak, and shows us dance history as the evolution of different dialects. ‘Dance your history,’ Toni Basil tells her. ‘People dance their story,’ says veteran house DJ Frankie Valentine.

The main thread of the book is memoir, and in a life devoted to dance music – as a writer and explorer for The Face, Jockey Slut, Caught by The River and Brixton’s Live Magazine – Emma has moved on significant dancefloors in many memorable scenes. Her personal dance moves took shape in a sequence of places familiar to many: from school discos, via her student union bop, to Flesh at The Haçienda, via Heaven, Land of Oz, the last night of Shoom, Rage, Manchester’s Electric Chair, through the many faces of Plastic People, up to the live jazz of Stoke Newington’s Total Refreshment Centre. We see these famous clubs through new eyes as she takes us down into the crowd and colours in the dancers of each congregation.

She gives generously of herself, telling us about the exuberant high kicks she instinctively gave at her school disco, then, after a boy pointed and laughed, of the shame she felt for this, followed by the pressure to rein in her movements for the sake of teenage cool. In time she casts off this reserve and revels in the freedom of not caring how her dancing looks on the outside, ‘…recognising how my body liked to move, how it could stretch and contract on its own terms, without having to consider how this affected my status as it related to being fanciable… I was there to dance and I would dance for hours and hours.’

Transposed to Madchester for college, she changes her dance style to suit. This personal shift is a process we’ll all recognise but have probably never thought about: ‘I needed to tune in again, absorb some new information, lose some accent, add some accent.’ Another dramatic change comes when she starts having seizures and finds her motion restrained by the fear of bodily failure and the need to out-nerve the strobes. She muses on the futility of ever separating mind from body. Years later at a dance class she finds herself useless at choreographed steps despite a life of dancing. The teacher reminds her, ‘You can’t think yourself into it. You just have to feel it and trust that your body knows where to go.’

The responsive relationship between dancer and music-maker runs through the whole book, pinned down by vivid recollections. And when she describes in detail the dubstep crucible of DMZ at Plastic People, we get an unprecedented dissection of how the evolution of music is guided by the DJ but led by the dancefloor. She sets the scene:

‘At DMZ, little else existed bar the sound and the movement. Someone pulled up the tune and you paused. A synth line or a snare signalling the opening of a big tune and you prepared for the moment, winding up inside, becoming ready. The tune dropped and – pow! – there was a mass upsurge of arms and a collective dancing style that mixed a cockney knees up with the militant skanking and stepping embodied by men and women in Brixton reggae dances three decades earlier.’

In this small dark cocoon, with key DJs and producers on the dancefloor themselves, and with the booth as close to the dancers as possible, the perfect venue for dancing with abandon met a scene of wild musical experimentation. The result was dubstep, a distinct new genre that swept the world. There’s no doubt dancers led the way: ‘The listening entity on dancefloors like DMZ’s indicated what it collectively wanted through gesture. And what a small but growing part of the dancefloor wanted was even more energy. This request, made with gunfingers and a grimey pogo, resulted in a record that perhaps contains more energy than any record ever made: a 2007 release by top producer Coki titled “Spongebob”.’

By going deep into the spatial history of British dancefloors she gives us the personal stories of several venues, showing the ripples of lives changed and communities enriched. She emphasises the huge cultural contribution made by youth clubs, reminding us just what we’ve lost through the Tory’s vicious austerity. She traces the characters and creators who flourished in these spaces, showing a pre-teen Dizzy Rascal’s DJ debut and a young Winston Hazel kickstarting Sheffield dance culture.

Dancing is collective action, and an important chapter takes us into the rebellion that it can embody. Whether unifying a march or offering refuge from a hostile world, dance has been important to protest and evolved as a result. Emma’s style throughout has a sensitivity that’s rare in cultural history, and when we read about the militant reggae cellars that a movie like Babylon brought to the screen, or the dance-focused repudiation of the National Front racism in ’70s Lewisham, she’s careful to bring us the protagonists’ voices and feelings directly. Always, this is history from the inside, from the floor.

It’s memoir, anthropology, reportage, cultural history, but most of all ‘Dance Your Way Home’ is a plea to keep moving, to ignore the conscious voice that says you’re too clunky, too much, too old. A call to close your eyes and feel the amazing gift of movement: sinews pulling, hips bouncing, fingertips tracing. To know that what you’re doing might be older than language, deeper than love; that dancing built our venues and directed the DJs and music-makers and their tunes. This landmark book is nothing less than the dancers’ history of our music. Frank Broughton

Emma’s membership card for junglist ground zero, Rage

Frank Broughton: It’s an amazing book. So personal and so deep. I was blown away by how great it is, and how emotional it made me. I guess it was a very personal book to write as well.
Emma Warren: What were the bits that made you feel something? Is there anything in particular?

It was your approach throughout. The way that you gave so much of yourself. You’ve taken the story much deeper and made it much more personal. It’s the best kind of history because it shows what it was like to be there.

Your lifetime has been on so many of the right dance floors. Were you aware of that when you started writing – that you’d connected so many famous or significant dancefloors?
I mean, I definitely knew I’d been to some good spots. Some of the very first things I went to were so culturally powerful that I knew what that meant. However, like yourself I also know a lot about the bigger picture. I’ve always also been aware of the places where I wasn’t.

Sometimes people talk to me about the places I’ve been, in the context of them having missed out. I find myself saying repeatedly, ‘You have not missed out!’ None of us that are in this thing have missed out. No, we just all happen to be located in different parts of the map. I’ve been on certain parts of the map; you’ve been to places that I wish I’d been to – all those New York clubs, for example. I went to Shelter once, that’s it pretty much. I don’t think the feeling of having missed out is a useful one. For those of us that value the culture, we just need to be really glad about the places we have been, and respectful of the places that we haven’t.

It’s easy for history to write about the songs and the movements and the significance and the DJs. So it’s great to read the history from the floor, from the grassroots.
Histories take the perspective of certain groups: the DJs, the producers, maybe sometimes if you’re lucky, the coat-check person. But the vast majority of the people are the dancers. Ordinary dancers. And yet, you don’t usually see things from their perspective, you get it from the DJ booth, or you get it from the studio. But because I’m not a DJ, I’m not a producer, I’ve always been aligned with the people on the dancefloor.

I remember when I was in Manchester, when we were doing Jockey Slut, just having that feeling: If I’m not on the dancefloor, what am I doing writing about it? If I’m not on the dance floor, what the hell am I doing here? If I was just propping up the bar, I probably shouldn’t be writing about it. I felt my contribution was only really valid if I was in it.

It’s funny because in writing the book I’ve selected certain dancefloors that I’ve been on. And they tend to be the ones that are more what I would call ‘culturally powerful’. But I’ve been on lots of other dancefloors as well. Like Basement Jaxx’s night Rooty, which I went to regularly. At one point I was thinking, maybe there’s something I can weave in, but it just ended up not quite fitting the story I wanted to tell. which ended up being about these foundationally, culturally powerful, dancefloors.

So could you draw a map? The dance map of Britain
Collectively, we can probably do something like that.

You and I, we’ve shared many a dancefloor. And we’ve rarely met in other places. And it made me think there are so many people in my life that I know that way. And I wonder if that’s a generational thing. Has there been a generation before or after that has that intense social life based on the dancefloor?
I think it’s tempting to imagine that that’s the case. But I’m pretty sure that there will have been generations before who knew each other on the dancefloor. And that there will be generations after. Maybe the difference is to do with the numbers. When we began going out more people than ever before were on a certain type of culturally powerful dance floor, house- or techno- or rave-related. By the early ’90s, everybody I went to school with had been to a rave: everybody, maybe minus like two people. There just came a point where you didn’t have to be very specialist to have gone to some kind of rave or warehouse party or specialist music night.

What’s the dancefloor that you’d go back to first?
None of them. The only thing I want to do is go to the current iteration of all of that. Last week, a friend took me to an amapiano night at Pop Brixton, run by DJ Super D. And it’s just such a perfect, perfect, example of the way UK music culture just keeps on evolving and generating new things. The crowd was demographically quite broad. Most people probably in their 20s or 30s. But there were definitely people in their 40s, definitely people their 50s and above, and some little young ones as well. And lots of very nice cars parked outside this building. London is still alive.

Thinking back, phones changed the dancefloor vibe in clubs massively, but I think the smoking ban made more of a dramatic difference. It forced that shuttling in and out and lack of concentration. Restrictions of any kind are damaging to the dance, aren’t they?
I think when the smoking ban happened, in terms of just the flow of the night, it definitely made it harder to have that ongoing intensity where everybody is in the spot, in the zone, for hours at a time.

I was talking recently to someone I shared a dancefloor with at DMZ, who was only 16 when he started going there. And he was describing how as a 16-year-old he entered into that clubbing environment in a place where the bouncers weren’t really bothered. They might check your ID if you looked 12 – like he did. But your slightly crap fake ID, it wasn’t a barrier to entry. People just got in. He later found it quite hard to be in environments where you had a big pat-down, and lots of roving bouncers trying to stop you from doing bad things.

You do lose something of the freedom that you feel when you’re in a space where you’re welcomed in, when nobody’s coming around to check on your behaviour, where you can just basically do what you want, within reason. As adults, why not? But clubs are increasingly policed aren’t they? At entry and inside.

It’s tricky, they’ve got to protect their licence and show they’re doing the right thing. But ultimately it takes away that sense of abandon, doesn’t it?
It’s to do with councils, cracking down on licensing, because as far as I understand, you know, the police want an easier time of it. And they think that by applying greater controls to clubs, they make it easier for themselves. But the kind of places we’re talking about are not the kind of places that generate trouble – quite the opposite. They undo the kind of things that cause trouble, because they allow people to dance it out.

The positive effects of dancefloors are all so obvious to people who spend time on them. But people who make the laws might never have experienced any of those things. So they just don’t know their value. Like your great chapter about youth clubs, and all the dancers and DJs and musicians who got their start in them. One of the saddest things in the book was thinking what’s been thrown away in such a clueless way with the Tories’ austerity cuts.
Yeah, youth clubs was just such a massive subject. Like you’re saying: the people who made the rules don’t understand. Maybe the leaders need to be socialised in advance. Maybe a qualification for having a position of power should be you’ve spent a certain amount of hours on a culturally powerful dance floor.

I’d campaign for that
On a subcommittee that wants to empower the sub-bass.

School disco shenanigans 1990. A Bernard Achampong Production, flyer by Xavier Fraser

You describe dancing very beautifully as a personal language. That was a really nice thing running through the book. How distinct do you think that can be?
Very. You can tell someone by their gait, how they walk, before you can see their face. I once recognised someone even though she was wearing full hijab – niqab, actually. And I was like, ‘Sara, is that you?’ I could tell by the way she moved. Yeah, everybody’s way of moving is incredibly individual. I think the police actually use movement analysis sometimes to convict people. It’s as accurate from a policing point of view as a fingerprint. So when you’re dancing, you’ve got that basic thing, which is incredibly individual, but then you’ve got the way that you’re feeling that day, that morning, that evening, that year. How happy you’re feeling, what life stresses you’re carrying, whether you’re in love or whether or not you’re in a break-up… You dance differently depending on how you’re feeling, maybe even the weather as well.

Do you think you could read someone’s history? I mean, from watching someone dance? Could you do some detective work? How much could you tell about a person?
I think I could tell a fair bit. I mean, you can always be surprised. And you can only tell what someone is prepared to show you that day. So if someone’s controlled, you might not tell very much. But I think you can tell whether or not someone has a certain degree of knowledge of the dancefloor. Just by the way they hold themselves.

So could you do a blind taste test – like a wine tasting – from the way people dance? Could you see what cultural input they’ve had over their lifetime?
Yeah. I think you can tell a lot about where people are coming from. If they’ve got some sort of ’90s garage moves, like what are their feet doing? I just spend a lot of time now looking at people’s feet. I love it. It’s just endlessly fascinating. Looking at someone like, ‘You’ve definitely done some raving. I think you went to quite a lot of UK garage nights’. Or, ‘You don’t feel very comfortable doing this, and maybe you haven’t done this a lot.’ You know.

That’s a Channel 4 programme right there, The Dance Doctor, or something.
I did have an idea for something I wanted to do as a sort of event, which in my mind was called Hesitant Dancers 101, something like that. And it was for people who just feel really, really, really hesitant about dancing, who are like, you know, those ones who just clam up, quite literally, when a dancing situation comes up. And I was thinking, How could you do it to make it comfortable? People could just start to get a little bit of kind of comfort and confidence in just finding the moves.

Like a motion makeover. Do you remember that programme Faking It? The very first one was a classical musician who became a DJ, and she was amazing. And one of the things they did was boxing training. They got her to be more assertive by hitting a punchbag. I’ve got a friend whose daughter has an eating disorder, and I’ve often thought that’s the kind of physical thing someone like her should do – use your body to affect the world. And you’ll come out of it feeling a little stronger, and you’ll feel like you don’t have to hide so much.
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s so healing. There’s a quote in the book from Brian Belle-Fortune from his book All Crews. And he described a night where a big guy comes in all pent-up and they’re saying, ‘Boy, he’s going to be trouble’. And then at the end of the night they saw the same guy skipping out: ‘I love you, I love you!’ The dancefloor in its best and most powerful modes just can be such a site of repair. For teenage girls, for sure. I just think that for all those kinds of life stresses it can be good repair.

Comic strip from Labrynth in Hackney. Note Captain Twylab who can rave for 96 hours straight without a break

Do you think we have a BPM?
I don’t know. Maybe. I do know about something called tempo entrainment. It’s the degree to which your body locks into rhythm. And you can either have a high or low amount of it. If you have high tempo entrainment, you’re probably going to start bobbing if you hear a tune, regardless of whether or not you like it, a bit involuntary. If you have very low tempo entrainment, you’re unlikely to be moving unless you actively choose to.

I’ve sometimes found myself on a dance floor where I’m like, I like this music. But it’s just too fast for me – and that’s a physical feeling. The other thing is what I call the noodle factor. My body prefers the groove, it likes something cyclical. Going to a drum and bass night, I might love the music, love the sonics. But there’s something that stops me really enjoying the movement, because it’s too surprising. Those rhythms are just a little bit too ungroovy, it’s the high surprise factor or something. Drum and bass, I would always dance the half speed. And then I’d feel like I’m not putting enough energy into it. I would definitely argue that there’s some sort of inbuilt motor. I don’t know if it’s biological or learnt. That’s the big question, isn’t it?
Preferences? Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, that people have a preference, don’t they, for a certain tempo or feel. And maybe that’s to do with your kind of dance ability as well. Where you feel comfortable finding the bits of music that you can easily move to.

Do you think we have a national style? A national dance?
Well, you know, in the book, I’m arguing for the electric slide. As a new national dance, if a national dance is a dance that most people know how to do.

I’d purposefully swerved really talking about Morris dancing too much in the book. It’s not really the kind of dancing that I’m interested in, but actually it appears a little bit in there. James Mary, who is Björk’s headwear designer, his sister Alex Murray has this troupe called Boss Morris. And they were dancing at the Brits when Wet Leg were performing. And it looks wicked. Really! A bit lairy, a bit aggie, and lively and fun.

It’s all stories and it has that pagan thing going for it. Just the fact that it’s so old makes it quite interesting.
It’s a workers’ dance. You have Morris dancing, there used to be Molly dancing. And that was much more about workers making themselves a bit non-recognisable, going out and doing slightly menacing dancing at the landowners.

Or clog dancing. They’d have the metal segs in their clogs so that the wood didn’t wear out so quickly. And then when you danced, they’d make sparks on the stone. I guess that’s British tap dancing, isn’t it?
I remember I had Blakeys in my shoes because I wore all my shoes out really quickly. I’d tap noise out of them as well.

What are the great dancefloors at the moment?
I really like what Marsha MarshmeLLo and Leanne Wright are doing with their Moonlighting events. They did one at Servant Jazz Quarters and then one at one at Spiritland before it closed. It was Marsha, Leanne and Zakia Sewell, and Josey Rebelle was their special guest. And the music was just wicked. They bring different musical styles, but they’re all really, really schooled in the dancefloor. I’m sure there are amazing things happening left, right and centre. Even without knowing exactly where the amazing places are, I just feel very confident that they’re happening.

What makes a great dancefloor?
This is a bit of a personal preference, I just like places that are small and dark, where everybody is actively listening and actively moving and responds to the music – even if they don’t know it. You know that thing: a crowd who know a good track, even if they’ve never heard it before.

What guidance would you give for someone who doesn’t have that history but wants to put on a great event and wants to create a great dancefloor.
Go out a bit first.

And what about the age make-up? Are we getting more segregated by age in dance floors? I do think there’s a bit of a rebellion against that.
I think there’s a mix, like always. When I first started going out there would have been places that were for the older lot. Places that were just teenagers, places that were mixed. And I think now’s the same. You’ll have places that have a mix of older people and younger people. Where most people are average clubbing age, late teens, or into the 20s. And then you’ll have places where everybody is under 21. And then you have a lot of house nights, where you’ve got to be over 25 to even get in.

We’ve lost a lot of nightclubs. And we can’t underestimate the effect of that – it is awful. But there are still a lot of people making it happen. And the spectrum of things that we have still serve lots of different generations in lots of different ways. We just need more of them. Especially under-18 nights. I know it’s difficult from a licensing and insurance point of view. But we really, really need to make sure the young ones have a chance to experience it like they did in the jungle and garage times, when there were loads of underage teens nights. I really, really want people to put them on, to make it their mission.

It can be hard being an older person on a young dancefloor
I was talking to a friend of mine, the American writer Piotr Orlov. He and I share kind of parallel lives and dance on different continents. I was talking to him about what it’s like to be an older person, but to still want some of that dancefloor feeling. And to know you can still find your space on the dancefloor, where it’s okay for you to be there. And he pointed out that as soon as you move, people can see that you know what you’re doing. You’ve been around. So your movement indicates the fact that actually it’s completely fine for you to be there.

What do you think about TikTok. How has that changed things?
It means a lot of people know a lot of dance moves.

It’s kind of different from the communal thing, though, isn’t it? It’s about learning something and being precise.
Maybe. But so was learning dance moves off MTV. You know, I really feel a tendency to want to flatten the negatives, you know. There will always be something which means that people are behaving differently. I think the only reason why it’s a problem really, TikTok and online life, is because there aren’t the physical spaces for people to use.

I remember when my daughter was about six, seven, this is pre-TikTok, but ‘Gangnam Style’ was the thing, and that was the first communal craze of her dancing life, and it was so great to see her and all her friends suddenly just want to do this one thing together. I don’t see TikTok as negative, I just think it’s quite a different thing, because it’s talking about precision. And emulating. But you’re right. It’s just like watching Soul Train or Top of the Pops, or all those things that everyone’s always done.
Exactly. And I think it also probably helps move us away from that slightly gendered way that dancing happened before. It’s made it much more acceptable for boys to move their bodies and to dance, and that’s really healthy. TikTok and online dance means that a whole generation of kids under 15, under 18, are very dance literate. They’ve got lots of different styles, they’ve got lots of different dance moves available to them.

They just need more places to get together.
I’ve got a little series of intentions for the book, things that I want to be conveyed, or things I’d like to happen. So we can collectively get more dance in schools, encouraging school leaders and school governors to advocate for dance on the curriculum. I want school leaders to have more language to advocate for dance, to have more language and authority to advocate for space.

You uncovered a few DJs with professional dance pasts. I didn’t realise that Fabio had actually been a pro dancer. And Gerald.
I think there’s a higher than acknowledged number of really seminal figures in UK dance music – in its broadest sense – who share that. There are many of those originators, who you could describe as DJ/dancers. Like Paul Trouble Anderson, Gerald, Shut Up And Dance, Fabio, I think Colin Dale as well. There’s this one guy. Travis Edwards, who was in that Spats, Crackers era, early-to-mid ’80s London jazz-dance scene, who ended up making this amazing, early ’90s rave record under the name Satin Storm. Those jazz-dancers were probably quite young when they were doing that, and by the time the’90s came around they were still on the scene, but it changed, it was no longer jazz-dance, it was now hardcore. And there’s a strand, which I wasn’t aware of beforehand, of jazz dancers who ended up having this really important role in the early days of house, techno, hardcore, into jungle, etc.

I suppose in some way, a really good dancer is a bit like a musician – a musician without an instrument. So when you start producing records in the way that happened in the late ’80s, early ’90s, where it’s all about rhythm patterns, being a dancer is almost more helpful than being a DJ.
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lovely quote from [A Guy Called] Gerald, where he says the most important piece of kit in the studio is the dancer in your head.

You use these metaphors a lot in the book, that there are those moments where you’re so in the dance that you feel you’re creating the music rather than responding to it.
But don’t you think that actually the dancers are dictating, they are generating?

Oh, yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
It’s a feeling, but also, I think, it’s a reality. If you’ve got a whole load of people who are really responding to what the DJ is playing, then the DJ is going to go a certain way, aren’t they, because of how the dancefloor is responding. And if something brings the energy down, then the DJ might decide to bring it down even further, for a wheat-from-the-chaff moment. Or they might decide to bring it back up again, or stay at a certain level. They can’t do that without the information they’re getting from the dancers.

No, absolutely. In my experience of DJing, the feeling that the dancers are guiding you is so powerful. I remember the first time I played records with people in front of me, it was so much easier than doing it in your bedroom. Because in your bedroom, you’ve got no feedback, it’s just you. Whereas when you’ve got people in front of you, it’s so obvious what’s going to bomb and what’s going to hit, that they are totally guiding you. I guess the ideal is where everyone is literally feeling that they’re just in the same moment, isn’t it? It’s like, you’re not even guiding it. You’re just in it together.

One of the things I loved about uncovering history was realising that people have always had pretty much the same urges and the same desires. Were there any amazing little surprises and nuggets that you found from a long way back in time?
I absolutely loved the idea of Anglo Saxon lairy raves in ale houses. The girls going off in the woods to dance together. I can imagine like, ‘C’mon ’Chelle, let’s get away from all those stupid annoying boys for a bit. Let’s just go, we can hear the music from the woods.’ Or bringing their own little drama with them or something. So that made me feel really connected to the lineages and histories that just seem otherwise completely impenetrable. Somehow by imagining those dancefloors I could imagine my Anglo Saxon self wailing around the hay bales. It’s a nice feeling of connection, connectedness.

On a more serious note, there was a historical thing I wanted to ask you about – this fascinating story I’d never heard before about white men can’t dance being a kind of a learned, constructed thing that happened after the first world war. Your quote, ‘white middle-class men are rarely reduced to their bodies,’ I thought that was so powerful, because right there, you’ve got this economic and colonial understanding of why some people historically didn’t like dancing.
I remember, friends of mine, writers of colour, describing to me how the white middle-class men in the dance will be the ones who are trying to explain to you how the tune was constructed… While the drop’s happening! I kind of had a sense of this thing, but I didn’t really have any way of articulating it, until I spent time reading around the subject, and talking to Maxine Leeds Craig, who wrote the book, Sorry, I Don’t Dance: Why Men Refuse To Move. She really helped me understand the context, which is learned and is cultural, and does relate to histories of colonialism, it does relate to issues of control. It’s a very tricky area. And it’s a sensitive area. But it made me think, maybe if men who fall into that category read it, they might know that they’ve got choice. If they knew that their disinclination to move might be cultural, they may decide to test out a different way of being.

We know that dancing makes people like each other more. So why not build connections? Why not actively try and build relationships in the powerful nonverbal ways that dance can offer? Just, you know, moving a little bit in a space with other people, you’re indicating that you are of something, not separate from it.

There’s a lot of unspoken politics going on on a dancefloor. Just the feeling of togetherness is such a powerful thing. The feeling that you’re constructing something together. My most powerful times were at the Sound Factory, and that felt like we were all actually working. You know all those lines: ‘You better work!’ It did feel like that. People would turn up in shorts with a towel tucked into their waistband because they were going to sweat. That feeling on the dancefloor that you’re all aiming at something, and trying to create something, is really, really powerful.
Yeah. And all of that is condensed in the Theo Parrish quote at the very beginning: ‘People say that the dance is all about escapism, but really, it’s about solidarity.’ That’s much better understood by communities that have experienced oppression in some shape or form than by those who haven’t. Which is why I feel the importance of writing about things from that perspective. Because it is really powerful. And I think it really does matter. And at the end it is about solidarity.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Love Goes To Buildings on Fire – Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

Love Goes To Buildings on Fire – Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever

In January 1975 in New York City a bomb went off in the name of Puerto Rican liberation; a young man named Soulski was gunned down by the police, inspiring his cousin to leave gangbanging behind, rename himself Afrika Bambaataa and take his DJing efforts more seriously; An established DJ named Hollywood was riffing on adapted Isaac Hayes lyrics to rhyme over records at his next gig; a near-riot hit ticket outlets as thousands of kids trying to see Led Zeppelin were met by armed police; Blood on the Tracks came out, the result of Dylan’s intensive secret studies in visual art; a band named Television was planning a Friday night gig at CBGB’s, confident they were close to being signed by Island, but unsure whether they’d remain intact; on the same bill a band named Blondie had just found a new drummer, having narrowly avoided losing him to Patti Smith; Watergate revelations were rumbling on, and The Jeffersons debuted on TV.

That was just January. In February Malcolm McLaren arrived in town, Mingus played at The Bottom Line, Talking Heads double-billed with The Ramones, Springsteen was recording ‘Born to Run’ in Times Square, and Billy Cobham’s ‘Funky Kind of Thing’ with its nine-minute drum solo arrived in the collection of Joseph Saddler, giving him the perfect raw material to perfect his quick-mix DJing technique, a skill he’d make famous under the new name of Grandmaster Flash.

Everything everywhere, all at once. Only not everywhere, just New York City.

It’s an epic crime chart, with a thick web of red string connecting hundreds of musical innovators and every kind of music. Even a world as incestuous as the downtown punk scene had fibres leading to and from every other style – from avant-classical, loft-based jazz, street-level Latin, blue-collar rock, disco, hip hop. The joy of this book is seeing chance inspiration and unlikely influence, as scenes cross-pollinate each other and wildly different imaginations drop grains of sand into each others’ oysters. It’s an epic job of cross-referencing, mapping scores of biographies and genre histories into an all-encompassing soap opera.

New York 1973-77 was a wasteland of crime and cheap rents, the city abandoned by the federal government to go broke as an example of liberal profligacy. New waves of heroin washed its shores, cryptic serial killers stalked its streets. And in this exciting breakdown, human minds had the time and space to create so much.  

Will Hermes makes it all sing; he sketches everyone so they feel real, and he immerses you in the wide creative life of the city like never before. Travelling chronologically, but with an aerial view, is a new kind of omniscience. If you can juggle enough plates in your mind, the experience is like living it. Or at least a whole lot closer than a traditional music history. There’s a fashion for this kind of storytelling, and this book joins Stuart Cosgrove’s masterful soul trilogy at the top table.

The only downside is that it makes you nostalgic for a time when so many fundamental genres were new enough to take your breath away, and when there was a deep revolutionary spirit in every kind of music. Or, to put it another way, for a time when city centre rents were cheap and New York was on fire.
Frank Broughton

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Johnny Dynell is the Daddy of Downtown

Johnny Dynell is the Daddy of Downtown

Johnny Dynell’s huge influence on club culture outpaces his fame, thanks to a life-long love of connecting people and an incredible breadth of friends from all walks of creativity. He pitched up in New York as an artist in the late ’70s, quickly becoming a conduit between the uptown artworld of Warhol and Hockey, and the punky craziness happening below 14th Street. Johnny’s other great cultural connection was between the downtown scene and the emerging hip hop DJs from the Bronx. He once tried to get Grandmaster Flash to collaborate with Alan Vega of Suicide, reasoning that both made music about repetition. More enduringly, he ended up playing with Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Afrika Islam at hip hop crucible The Roxy.

Johnny’s DJing career started as a complete surprise, with a residency at post-punk epicentre Mudd Club, followed by a residency alongside Mark Kamins at Danceteria. Having a deeper taste for dance music than most of his peers, he developed a uniquely eclectic sensibility with serious dancefloor chops. A brilliant DJ, he was taught to mix by none other than Larry Levan, whose inspirational tuition he remembers here.

Johnny’s made some great records, too, like 1983’s ‘Jam Hot’, with the much-sampled line ‘Tank, fly, boss, walk, jam, nitty-gritty / Talkin’ ’bout the boys from the big bad city / This is Jam Hot,’ and 1989’s much-followed ‘Elements of Vogue’, and worked with Malcolm McLaren, Arthur Baker, Kenton Nix and Junior Vasquez. His DJ residencies read like a New York club history: Mudd Club, Danceteria, Pyramid, Area, BoyBar, Palladium, Tunnel, Limelight, The Roxy, Crobar, The Ice Palace on Fire Island, not forgetting the legendary beacon of Jackie 60, which he created with his wife Chi Chi Valenti and helmed through the ’90s and beyond.

Among loads of great stories, Johnny recalls the mastery of Levan at The Garage, a nervous Madonna preparing to go onstage there, living next to Sid Vicious, and Loleatta Holloway showing off his ‘pretty ass’ to an audience at Lincoln Center.

Interviewed October 1998, by Bill in New York

How did you end up living in New York?
I came here in the late ’70s to go to art school. I came from Syracuse. I was born in Chicago. When I arrived here I got involved in the performance art thing. I met a lot of people from the art scene, like Andy Warhol and David Hockney, right away. I went to Studio 54. The first clubs I went to were gay clubs – places like the Loft, the Chalice and the Paradise Garage.

When did you first go to the Loft?
I moved here in 1975, so almost straight away. It was on Prince Street.

What was your impression of the Loft?
It’s hard to say, because I’d just moved to New York and I was seeing everything for the first time, like Max’s Kansas City. I just remember that being very dark, sweaty and crowded. Very sexy. The music was really loud. But so were the other places, too.

Were you a record collector when you were younger?
No, not at all. Through the arts stuff I got involved in the performance thing. At that time it was very arty. I was in this art-rock band called DNA, who went on to become good after I left. I played the bass. We played the kind of stuff that ended up on Brian Eno’s No New York compilation.

With the Teenage Jesus and the Jerks tracks and other No Wave stuff?
Exactly. That was the stuff I was into. I was playing at CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. At the same time I was one of the few people who was going to discos, too. They were all very rock, but I wasn’t just into that. I always went to these other clubs. Some of the gay people from that scene would go, too, because the gay clubs were the hottest clubs.

I would have this punky, downtown avant-garde sensibility, but then musically I was much more attuned to disco and dance music. In 1979 or 1980, I got my first DJ job at a club that is really legendary, the Mudd Club. It was a punky, arty take-off of Studio 54. It was like a disco, but it was a punk disco. It was totally genius.

When they were starting, all these people that hung out on the scene were given jobs. Like you can be a bartender, you’re a door-person. Somehow I was a DJ. I didn’t even own any records, so making me the DJ made no sense at all. But then the club made no sense at all. It was bizarre, and crazy. The fact that I was the DJ made sense in this context. I’d never even thought about it.

Anita Sarko is the one who taught me how to DJ in the beginning. She taught me how to go from one to the other and what a mixer was. I started playing the records I liked, which were disco records, Michael Jackson, Latin, James Brown and soul. I kind of made a name for myself by playing – but certainly not mixing – records to dance to.

The other DJs were playing punk and new wave and they were making a name for it as a downtown, punky, new wave club. I also played really early hip hop, like Grandmaster Flash. It was sort of unusual to do that, so I guess that’s why I was successful as a DJ. It certainly was not because of technical ability.

Who were the main DJs there?
David Azark and Anita Sarko. I certainly wasn’t the main DJ by any means. I was sort of the specialty DJ. What happened was people from Studio 54 were coming down to the Mudd Club later, after it finished. It became chic to go to this dirty downtown club. It was really hip. Lauren Hutton, who became a friend, started bringing friends from Studio 54 down to the Mudd Club to hear me play. She was a big supporter. That helped me out a lot. Not that I wanted to become a DJ.

You still had no interest in DJing?
Oh no. I was doing it for the money! I like it, but I never thought in a million years that 20 years later I’d still be a DJ. Then I started DJing at other clubs too. Club 57, where Keith Haring started. I began working in the after-hours clubs that were big at that time and I kind of got a following.

I always thought of myself more as an artist. DJing I never saw as artistic or creative. But then in 1979, I went with this friend to a church basement and I saw this battle with Grandmaster Flash, Hollywood and all those early guys. Flash was DJing with his toes. He was scratching, which I’d never heard before. He just rocked my world.

They were playing the same records I was playing, like James Brown, but what they were doing was taking two copies and going back and forth and making this new thing out of them. To me, coming from the art world, I thought it was brilliant. I thought, “I’m going to have to tell Andy [Warhol] about this. This is incredible.”

I talked to the DJs and invited them to the Mudd Club. I went to [Bronx club] Disco Fever with them. I actually became friends with all those early rappers, like Sequence. When I started working with Malcolm McLaren later, that’s how he started working with people like Angie Stone, because I brought them in. I guess it was on the opera stuff, the Fans album I think.

Seeing those early hip-hop guys was when I became interested in DJing. I just thought, ‘This is new.’ The feeling in that room was just so intense. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Just the tension of these battles was incredible. It also reminded me of seeing people like Suicide.

Alan Vega was the one who got me started first of all – him and his girlfriend. He was like, ‘Yeah, you can do it, just pick up a guitar and do it.’ Those early Suicide concerts were the same thing as these battles – that amazing, hot and sweaty atmosphere. What Alan was doing seemed so similar to me, that repetition. I tried to tell Alan about Grandmaster Flash and I tried to tell Flash about Alan, but they never… Whatever. You get the idea. I tried to get these people together.

The only other people from the downtown scene that you would see at these things [early hip-hop events] were Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. They were always at the same places I went to. They would be at CBGBs, but they also would be at Studio 54 and after-hours clubs. But they were into rap really early. Debbie and Chris Stein were on the same tip. We’re still good friends to this day.

In 1983 I made this record, ‘Jam Hot.’ John Peel was really the one who was playing it and it did really well. I ended up meeting a lot of English people through that record: Boy George, Leigh Bowery. I went to London and it was a big club record. Well, big in my world, which was perhaps three clubs! That’s all I cared about.

So then I was much more interested in DJing and the possibilities of what you could do. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is art.’ So I started experimenting, putting turntables through phase shifters and all this crazy electronic stuff. They were good ideas. I did a show, which was so art school, where there were all these television sets that blew up while I was DJing. And I used to DJ with a live drummer. I started DJing with this guy who, to this day, still turns up with drums at clubs. I only did it a few times. I was trying to push it.

I guess it’s kind of good to experiment, but none of these things really worked. I mean, putting your turntable through a phase shifter was just a mess. Now, all DJs do that stuff with samplers and stuff, but I was trying to do that without the equipment. That’s when I first started wanting to be a DJ and to learn to mix.

I’ve basically worked in every club in New York. Not that I was some great DJ – I would just bring a crowd. These were mainly downtown clubs and what happened was the whole new wave/downtown scene took off. Then you get clubs like Danceteria, which really was one of those little downtown clubs, but now it’s like four floors and holds 2,000 people. So now, instead of DJing to 50 people on a Saturday night, you’re DJing for a lot of people. You’re being taken seriously.

When did Danceteria open?
’82 or ’83. There were a couple of Danceteria locations. There was one between 30th and 39th Street, but it was kind of illegal, then they opened the one that everybody knows on 21st Street. People like the Smiths, Fun Boy Three and Sade played there. It was really connected with London and they had the money to fly people over. As all this emerged, Danceteria became famous and all the DJs sort of became famous, too.

Who were the DJs?
Mark Kamins, Richard Sweret and Anita Sarko DJed there. Then they gave Mark Kamins and me the second floor. Mark was a very knowledgeable DJ. He played disco and he also played the other stuff. He really truly liked them both. The dancefloor was just open, decorated black, very simple. I would play dance music. Afterwards, I would go to the Garage.

Danceteria started getting a lot of Latin kids, the sort that went to the Fun House, and black kids, too. And now they were starting to get into the new wave thing. Because of Mark and I – who were really playing their kind of music – they could come to the club, go to the second floor and hear the music they liked and knew.

After a few months, they saw how the other kids were dressing and they started dressing like the new wave kids. So you started getting Puerto Rican kids with blue hair and leather jackets. Then there was this sort of connection between Danceteria and Fun House, which was really because of Mark and I. Arthur Baker and people like that were hanging out. The Beastie Boys were Danceteria kids who all used to work there. And then of course there was Madonna.

So she was knocking about then?
Oh yeah.

Was she going out with Mark Kamins at this stage?
Yeah. She used to work in the coat-check. Mark was starting to take off as a producer/mixer. So in 1983, he signed Madonna and me to make records. She was signed to Sire and [head of the label] Seymour Stein liked me. I think he really wanted to sign me, but the commercial side of him said, ‘No.’ He already had one arty person in David Byrne. It was basically, ‘This girl is gonna do good, the boy is not gonna do good.’ He knew.

So I waited and waited and in the end signed with this new label called Acme Records and I was their first release. My band, Johnny Dynell and the New York 88, was made up of a rhythm machine, tapes, electronic stuff, synthesizer, three black girls, horns, a percussion section and me. It was very Latino. It was very soulful, but there was no proper band.

Not unlike Pigbag, in fact?
That’s exactly what it was. The thing is I was getting these ideas, but I couldn’t always follow them through. Here’s my dilemma. I’ve got this Latin-influenced band and I’m playing at Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, where everyone sounds like the Sex Pistols. I lived next door to Sid Vicious. I knew all those guys. Crass? I lived with them!

When were they in the States then?
In 1977 when punk was starting, they came to New York. Somehow they met me and we lived together. They thought it was going to be all punk like it was in London. It was such a clash of cultures. I was taking 16-year-old Steve Ignorant, the lead singer, to this black transvestite club, the 220 Club.

Did you take him to any discos?
Yeah, I took him to all these places. It was not what they expected at all. Of course, they went to CBGBs and Max’s as well, they just were not expecting Buttermilk Bottoms, a black after-hours club which we were next door to. I have to say that they were open to it. They were definitely different after being in New York, and I was different after meeting them. Steve Ignorant and I actually made a rap record together one time but it never came out. Living next door was Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders. I knew all those people, including Nancy Spungen.

Anyway, so I was on the same scene as Sid Vicious and all these people, but I was playing this Latin-y stuff. It just didn’t really work. I wrote ‘Jam Hot’ in 1980 just after I’d seen Grandmaster Flash. It was a rap record when no one was rapping downtown.

If you look at the first records Madonna and I made, Mark used exactly the same musicians, engineers and studio. She thought my stuff was weird. My song [‘Jam Hot’] was all about the rappers and graffiti artists that I had seen. All about the different characters I was meeting in the after-hours clubs; it’s all about transvestite hookers, dealers, prostitutes, but nobody knows.

I never wanted to be a rock star. She always wanted to be star, so I guess we both got we wanted. I was just going along for the ride. Both the songs went on the radio in 1983, and it’s hard to imagine now since she’s just a huge star, but back then both our songs were on the radio equally. Of course, she was signed to a major label and I was on a label nobody had ever heard of.

At the time there were three main stations in New York, and because I had Spanish lyrics it started taking off amongst the Latin kids. Nobody was buying it downtown. One of the Latin DJs at WKTU was at a party and heard it and took the record and played it on a Saturday night. The phone lines started ringing like crazy, because it didn’t sound like anything. It had this cheap Casio on it, but I wanted that sound. Mark kept saying, ‘Do it on the synthesizer or Fender Rhodes.’ No, no, no! ‘I want it be a toy. I want it to sound like that!’ I was trying to be weird.

So Michael Ellis, the programme director, heard it, and he had every DJ on Monday play it as their opening song, which was really quite bold. After a couple of days it went on to heavy rotation. When you got all three stations playing your record, it was called a ‘grand slam.’ Then we started touring together, me and Madonna, going round the clubs. That’s when I started playing the Roxy with [Kool Lady] Blue and Afrika Bambaataa.

What was it like playing the Roxy?
It was fabulous. It was such a great feeling.

Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier told me once she thought it was one of the important clubs because of the way it mixed up cultures and races.
They did. That was the great thing about it. For me it was great, it was like both of my worlds colliding. I would actually see both groups of my friends in the same place. That was really unusual. An American couldn’t do that. It took an English person. It did. Somebody American couldn’t have done it, I don’t think.

Why do you think that is?
There’s a lot of racial prejudice.

Do you not think that they’re scared rather than prejudiced?
Why wouldn’t Alan Vega go see Grandmaster Flash? When I went to London, I went to Brixton and all these other places. You’re right, you don’t have that fear. The Bronx means something. It’s really different when somebody comes from outside. Blue came in and she really pulled this whole thing together. It was a really exciting scene.

Do you remember musically what it was like?
A lot of classics like ‘Soul Makossa’ and stuff by James Brown. Bambaataa is very smart. He’s very knowledgeable about music. I would just watch him and listen to these records. It’s different now, but back then a DJ could really create a whole scene and take certain records and really make them popular. Look at Larry Levan. Larry played ‘Stand Back’ by Stevie Nicks. First time you heard it [at the Garage], you were like, ‘Stevie Nicks! Really?’ It was a huge club record because Larry liked it.

Bambaataa could do the same thing. He had this whole scene and he could dig up something, like Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express,’ which makes no sense at all. But he would play it, and play it, and play it. After a while it became a huge record. Certain DJs can take a record and make it their signature, make it their sound.

Do you think it has to be with the strength of their personalities?
Oh yeah. Talent, too. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is a great record. Some of these records he pulled out, and lord knows where he got ’em from, they really were good records. He would see the brilliance and would have the conviction to know that. He pulled ‘Soul Makossa’ out and that is a great record, but it wasn’t trendy or hip.

Wasn’t that a Loft record?
Oh yeah, that’s right. It was a Loft record. Actually, you know what? David Mancuso’s another one who can take a record and make it a Loft record. Jellybean, too, could create a Fun House record.

Which ones do you think defined the Fun House?
‘The Mexican.’ The Babe Ruth one, then he remixed it later.

I thought Mancuso was the first to play ‘The Mexican’ as well?
You’re right, he did. Jellybean’s art, and Arthur Baker is the same I suppose, is to take things that are well known on the club scene and recast them in a more pop, mainstream context. Arthur is very honest about it. He really is.

Going back to the Roxy, we knew people there so it was great for us: graffiti kids, girls in sequins. They were coming downtown. It was really a great scene with a lot of warmth. The criticism I have of New York right now is that it’s so racially segregated. Modern hip-hop, for example: I wouldn’t play those records now, not in a million years.

That’s what David Mancuso was aiming for at the Loft, though, wasn’t he? The melting pot? He wasn’t critical of the Garage, but he said that introducing straight and gay separate nights was not something that should necessarily be applauded.
I personally like it better having a gay night and straight night.

Because you would get there and the gay night wasn’t 100% gay and the straight night wasn’t 100% straight. It was the orientation of it and you could choose which one you liked. The gay one was better because the Saturday was always better. That’s when the best acts were there, and Larry played better on a Saturday.

You told me recently that Larry Levan taught you how to play. What did you mean by that and how did you meet him?
So I joined the record pool, For The Record, and Judy Weinstein thought I was such a freak. Mark Kamins had joined just before me, but Mark was really more of a DJ than I was. Mark was a disco DJ first, that’s his background. Then when new wave came in he was really early on that sound.

But For The Record was it. All my idols, including Larry, were in that pool. When I say I went to the Garage, I wasn’t friends with Larry, I didn’t know him [at that time]. I didn’t know Judy – I was scared of her! When she used to walk into the Garage, all of a sudden Larry would start really playing. She was a goddess. I was one of those kids on the floor. I paid my admission and went to dance.

You got in free with a For The Record membership card, didn’t you?
Yeah. God, that changed my life. Getting in free to the Garage, oh man, I thought I was it! Then I started meeting these other DJs like Danny Krivit. I used to go listen to Danny at One’s, because he was an amazing DJ. Danny Tenaglia is another one of those.

He’s so shy that I never thought he would make it. He’s an amazing DJ, just like Danny Krivit.

They’re very similar, those two. DJing is all about what’s inside, because what’s inside is projected on to the floor. Once you handle the records, touch the needle, use the mixer, it’s like taking your soul and projecting it out on to the dancefloor. Whatever’s inside you comes out on that dancefloor. If you’ve got love inside you it just projects. And if you’ve anger and bitterness – not mentioning any names – it is bitter on that dancefloor.

So Larry sort of saw something in me. Somehow I made that transition and I would hang out in the DJ booth. That was probably because of being in the pool. At that point Danceteria started to become more famous. All of a sudden I was quite a big DJ and I had a record on the radio.

Did you ever take people like New Order to the clubs?
Oh sure. And Boy George.

Boy George said he did his first line of coke at the Garage with Larry.
It was just so funny, because George never took any drugs at all. I don’t take any drugs. I don’t even smoke pot. I took George to the Garage. I also DJed for Sean Lennon’s 10th birthday party. He had a little birthday party in his bedroom with some friends and stuff and I DJed in his bedroom. All the kids wanted to scratch and DJ.

Through Andy [Warhol] and Keith [Haring] in the art world, I sort of knew Yoko a little bit. At that party I said to her, ‘You’ve no idea, but “Walking On Thin Ice” is a huge record at the Garage.’ I said, ‘You should really see it. You won’t believe it.’ I explained what Larry did, taking the bass out and then slamming it back in. He played it forever. She was so interested, so she came and saw it. It was a big thing for her to see all these black kids. She loved it. And I think she went back a few times, too.

So Larry saw what I was doing and came to hear me play. Larry was another one who was very open. He saw my world, saw what I was doing, met all these different people and he basically said, ‘You gotta learn how to DJ.’ So he would take me to the Garage in the afternoon and he wanted me to learn on the Thorens. I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ He had the headphones in monitor.

What do you mean?
I don’t know how to explain it, but he had his own way of doing things. He could have the headphone connection coming out of the monitor. I would get dizzy. I just could not use these Thorens turntables.

They’re very sensitive, aren’t they?
Oh, jeez. What he really taught me was practical. I would go over to his house and for hours he would say, ‘You’re too abrupt. You can’t just go from this to that.’ He explained to me that you’re taking people on a journey. I’d never even thought about that. I never thought of how much power there was.

He said, ‘You don’t realise how much power you’ve got up there. All these people you’re playing to and you don’t even realise what you’re doing to them. These people are on drugs. You go from this to that and you send them on a bad trip.’ He also said, ‘You’ve gotta be more sensitive.’

Larry was very critical. ‘That sounded like a chipmunk when you were through with it. What were you speeding up that for?’ All that kind of stuff. He gave me a crash-course in DJing which I never forgot. Then what he would do is come and hear me DJ and sometimes I wouldn’t even know he was there. Then he would come in and say, ‘Why did you change that thing there? Everyone was just getting in to it. You’ve got two copies right? Everybody loved it, so why didn’t you use them?’

If Grandmaster Flash was the first to make me see the possibilities, Larry was the one, I have to say, who took me and showed me what to do. But he didn’t want me to be a little him. He didn’t want a Levan clone, because he liked what I was, this punk sensibility that I had.

Well, he had that, too.
Totally. He would play my records at the Garage. He’s the one that brought ESG there. He played ESG. We were playing it at Danceteria, but to play it at the Garage was a whole different thing.

Which ESG tracks did he play?
‘Moody’ and ‘Standing In Line.’ That was a big Garage record. Records sounded so great at the Garage. Even my records sounded great at the Garage, I have to say. So then Larry brought me in and I even performed at the Garage with Loleatta Holloway. Oh my God, the fact that I was on stage with Loleatta Holloway was amazing.

Did you feel over-awed by it, or was it the fact that you felt you couldn’t sing?
Oh, I knew I couldn’t sing. The thing about my recording career is that I liked it and it was a lot of fun, but I just didn’t know how far I could go with it, really. But I was opening for George Michael and Wham! Sometimes I would play stadiums in front of 30,000 people. I don’t even remember the words to my songs, so I would write all the words on my arms. So I’d be up on stage in front of 30,000 people reading the lyrics off my own arms. It was pathetic. I’d be up there singing and all I’d be thinking is, ‘God, I am really bad!’

What do you think set the Garage apart from others?
The Garage was a real family place. This is it in a nutshell: one night, Chi Chi, my wife, she was bartending at the Garage, although they didn’t sell alcohol. Having worked at the Danceteria bartending, she couldn’t believe it when she saw these boys making everything so clean. The boys would take the garbage out and then wash and scrub the garbage can out, then dry it, and put a new garbage bag in.

She was in awe at the love those kids showed that garbage can, because to these kids it’s the temple. It’s sacred. This isn’t just a garbage can, this is a garbage can at the Garage. It’s very Old Testament. For everyone there it really was the temple. It was sacred ground.

It always went through stages of being trendy for a little while, then for a while it would fall off. Which meant 50 people that used to go weren’t going. Of course, it was always packed. All of a sudden there would be Loleatta Holloway or Jennifer Holliday performing and they wouldn’t tell you in advance. They would come in the back of the club and walk through the crowd. It would be so magical. There was so much love in that place and that started at the top.

How involved was Mel Cheren?
He was involved, but I never dealt with him. To me it was Michael Brody. He was the owner.

What reception did you get when you performed?
It certainly wasn’t like Sylvester! It was probably as good as Madonna got. She played there and she was scared to death, because she knew that it was a tough crowd. If they didn’t like you, they would let you know. It was like playing at the Apollo.

I called it Loleatta’s blessing, because Loleatta really let them know. She just liked us. I don’t know why. One time, she invited us to Chicago. ‘Oh, you and Chi Chi gotta come stay with us at the house.’ We were like, ‘Yeah, great.’ So she says, ‘There’s just one thing. It just burned down, but don’t worry, the pool’s still there. We’re gonna build the house again.’

I just reminded her of this the other night when we did a show together at the Lincoln Center. She called me out onstage one time and I thought she was gonna make me sing. She said, ‘Johnny, come on up!’ I was petrified. I thought she was gonna make me sing ‘Love Sensation’ with her or something. Yeah, right. So she brings me out on stage, and she just goes, ‘Turn around, Johnny.’ So I turned around and she says, ‘Look at that ass. Ain’t that a pretty ass?’ And of course, everyone starts screaming!

I played at Area on a Wednesday and Larry would come, right to the very end just before he died. He would always come into the booth and yell at me. He would tear into me no matter who was in the booth. Not all bad, though. Sometimes he’d say, ‘You were great tonight.’

When Larry died we were in England touring around. We were with Arthur Baker. All of a sudden Larry came into my head and I started thinking about him. I think I fell asleep and I had a dream about Larry. Afterwards, Arthur and I start talking about Larry. And that was right when he died. There was more to the dream, something to do with Larry’s mother, but I can’t remember. It was very strange.

He was pretty sick by then anyway, wasn’t he?
Yeah. He hadn’t been in a good place for a while.

Do you think the Garage closing had an effect?
Oh yeah.

Danny Krivit said he felt that Larry had always been in control of the drugs, but once the Garage closed it was the opposite.
Yeah. Larry told me this story one time. He was dating David Mancuso at one stage. He told this story that one time he was laying in his bed asleep and David Mancuso put acid in his mouth while he was asleep. He would do things like that. When Larry woke up he was tripping.

That was the other thing about the Garage, the drugs. What made the Garage different from all the others was that it was always psychedelic. When you walked down the block and into the Garage, you would always find drugs. Acid, mushrooms and stuff like that. It wasn’t like Studio 54 and these other places, where it was coke. Awful and aggressive, nasty coke.

Being in the Garage was a psychedelic experience. Larry used to have his own lighting rig, which he could pull over and override the lights. If you saw that, it was, ‘Get ready for a ride. It’s gonna be a trip.’ If he was playing well and he was really into it, he would kick everybody out of the booth and slide this thing over.

They used to do these blackouts and they would switch all of the lights out – exit lights and everything. Totally illegal – you can’t turn exit lights out! You couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. And he’d be building up to this peak and then, Bam! The lights would go on and the vocals from ‘Weekend’ would kick in. There’s never been a club like that: the soundsystem, the lights.

Sure, everybody did blackouts, but nobody would do one like the Garage where every light would go out. I don’t even know how they did it. There was so much electrical stuff there. You see, Larry was originally a light man. When he would do the lights, oh man, it was fabulous. He would just take control. It was incredible.

I learned a lot from Larry. Other people like Junior [Vasquez], when he did the Sound Factory, he really tried to create the Garage. You know, physically. He even had the sign. It was a scandal! When the Factory first opened he had that neon sign, the Garage sign, and he put it up. He had to take it down right away, because people were like, ‘This not the Garage.’ I can’t believe he even did that.

Was he friends with Larry that much?
He was in the booth, because I used to see him. He even used to do lights I think.

So David DePino was doing Tracks and Junior was doing Bassline?
Tracks was great. Bassline was too. I liked what Junior used to play, certainly a lot more than what he’s playing now. Junior’s a good DJ. We worked together one time. Somebody wanted to remix ‘Jam Hot’ and Junior did a remix. Junior’s very funny when you get him relaxed. We were friends.

Sound Factory got good when it purged itself of its Garage pretensions, don’t you think?
You’re right. Then Junior started to get his own personality and not be a Larry clone. At this point, Junior has his own sound and scene. Junior’s a major force, just like Larry or David Mancuso. He’s an incredible mixer even with old-school records, like ‘Love Break.’ I’ve heard Junior overlay two old records with live drummers absolutely flawlessly. He can really mix. Stylistically, I tend to go more towards Dan [Tenaglia] or David or Frankie Knuckles.

One of the things I learned from Larry was to seize the moment. That’s what I’ve always tried to do with Jackie 60. One time we did this theme, Backroom Bodega Beeper Boys At The Barrio, with these gay Latino porno stars. We had India singing and Louie [Vega] did a little DJ thing. It was an incredible night.

Another night, India and Louie came just to say hello and she got up on the mic and started singing. I put ‘Love Hangover’ on and she started singing along with it. So I grabbed the other copy of ‘Love Hangover’ and ran it back and forth and extended it, almost like Grandmaster Flash. And India was singing, ‘Sweet, sweet love hangover.’ People gassed. That was very Garage: taking the moment and running with it. That doesn’t happen at these other clubs. It’s not that they’re not good, or not fun, it’s just that the Garage was built on love. And Jackie 60 is built the same way. The Garage ran 11 years and we’re on nine. I started DJing on a card table. The bar was a door. That’s how the Garage started. Did you know?

You’re talking about the construction parties, right?
Yeah, they went on for years. It was a really big deal when they opened the dancefloor, when they finally had a wooden floor.

Do you know when that was?
See, I’m no good at dates. It’s all a blur to me. There was always building going on, always something new. Any new technology, Larry was always the first to have it. Always. Any kind of new lighting, the Garage would have it.

Danny Krivit said Larry was really into flashing lights and bright lights?
Oh yeah. One time I walked in, it’s all full of smoke and all of a sudden you heard Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: ‘You’re not in Kansas any more.’ This delay sound would come in. Actually I’m not sure if it was a delay, or the acid. It could’ve been in the mind, but there was definitely an echo somewhere.

You’d have all this crazy Wizard of Oz stuff and then Larry would just go into the music. Jungle stuff, what we’d call tribal today. He was the first to do all that jungle stuff. Wait a minute, though. Every time I say this one was the first to do it, I think back and realise that David Mancuso was the first to do it. He used to play that bootleg edit version of Rare Earth’s ‘Happy Song.’

Danny Krivit did that.
Yeah, that’s right, but I don’t know whether Danny would want this known.

He said he doesn’t mind. He wasn’t the bootlegger, just the editor.
What people think of as ‘Love Is The Message’ is Danny’s edit. Even though I know it’s not the real one, to me, that is ‘Love Is The Message.’ I also grew up with Larry playing Danny’s edit of Chaka Khan’s ‘Clouds.’ One time I was doing this show, DJing, where Chaka Khan was also performing. She did ‘Ain’t Nobody’ and all this newer stuff. The place was packed with 3,000 or 4,000 kids and as they were Garage heads, they wanted to see their Chaka Khan. They liked it, but this wasn’t what they wanted.

When she finished, I did what Larry taught me and took a chance. I played ‘Clouds.’ She almost fell off the stage it was so loud. She looked around at these kids going nuts, much more so than any of her other songs. She walked back and said, ‘I hadn’t planned on doing this song.’ But she started over the record and she turned it out. This was the real Chaka Khan.

The funny part is I was playing the Garage version, which is not the original song, and she didn’t know it. Larry used to play the bootleg, Danny’s re-edit. She started singing and then said, ‘Well, I thought I knew this song, but apparently I don’t.’ She looked at me in the booth. But I was re-creating Larry’s mixes, because that’s what the kids wanted to hear, too. To me, that’s DJing, when you’re creating that magic on the floor. When they’ve thrown their hands up in the air and they’re totally lost in this other world. And you’ve taken them to that other word. That’s what DJing is. Before that I was playing records, which is not DJing.

It’s changed a lot. Larry was one of the first DJs to mix a record. Before that they had mixers, there was no such thing as a DJ/mixer. So what happened was after DJs began making remixes, you didn’t need to be as creative as a DJ, because the DJ mixes added the drum break already. You didn’t have to add an intro, because it was already there. You could easily get into a record and you could get out of it. You could get out in the middle if wanted. Basically, DJs created on vinyl what they did in a club.

Today they don’t do the mixing like DJs used to do. I don’t even mix like I used to. I mean, what’s the point? It’s already done. Today you get a ten-minute record and it sounds good already. It used to be that you’d get a three-minute song with nothing else, and you would turn it into a ten-minute song with breaks, peaks, valleys, everything. The old-school DJs, the magic would happen live, in the club. Nowadays the magic is happening while the DJs are in the recording studio, when they’re mixing it. Today, with a few exceptions, they’re just playing records. You can still have fun, and it’s great. I have to say, even though I’m from that other generation, I do it too.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Chi Chi Valenti took back the night

Chi Chi Valenti took back the night

A true goddess has the power of creation in her fingertips – able to conjure meaning and joy from the sludgy soup of life. One such deity is Chi Chi Valenti, writer, journalist, poet, performer. Her mind has willed into existence thousands of hours of reality substitutes, showing clubland how much artistry you can pour into a night out – not just music, lights and people, but art, poetry, theatre, costumes, choreography, drag, politics, comedy, theatre and cultural commentary. Guided by the confrontational philosophies of Situationism, and most often in partnership with her husband, DJ Johnny Dynell, Chi Chi brought us some of the most hilariously twisted nights in clubland history, most famously at Jackie 60, their long-running Tuesday weekly.

Jackie ran from 1990-99, founded by Chi Chi, Johnny, fashion designer and dominatrix Kitty Boots and dancer/choreographer Richard Move, with Pyramid Club legend Hattie Hathaway joining in its later years. With a devoted crowd adhering to the detailed xeroxed themes, the night was so successful that in 1994 Johnny and Chi-Chi were able to buy the building that housed it, renaming it Mother.

Do The Jackie Hustle: Chi Chi and Johnny and friends pose to promote their 1992 single

Like many downtown club faces, Chi Chi was sparked into motion at the dawn of the ’80s by the Mudd club, where she worked the door. ‘Those early years drew me in and began my life’s path,’ she says, recalling the grittiness of the city, when she had dead birds thrown at her, and was even shot at. Mudd club was their ‘cradle of civilisation,’ where Johnny cut his DJing teeth alongside Justin Strauss and Anita Sarko. As he enthuses, ‘Punk was new, disco was new – DJing, scratching, rapping, breakdancing, graffiti – it was all new.’ Johnny quickly found himself spinning at many an after-hours, and from 1982 at Danceteria, and he had a dancefloor hit in 1983 with ‘Jam Hot’. After marrying that year, the couple’s clubland ambitions grew, until they debuted the Jackie 60 formula at 14th Street nightspot Nell’s.

Nightlife power couple: Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, early ’80s

As well as the weekly Jackie 60, there was its spin-off, the annual Fleetwood Mac extravaganza, Night of 1000 Stevies, and spoken-word extension Verbal Abuse, which became a poetry magazine, Motherboards, set up as an online clubbing directory and archive, and from ’96 the flourishing sex-positive Click and Drag night, billed as a ‘cyber/fetish/gender-hacking’ party. But with the rampant gentrification of ’90s NYC, Mother found itself surrounded by the forces of money and dullness, and the couple made the brave decision to end on a high in 2000 rather than wait for the inevitable pressure from their new neighbours. Mother closed on the last Tuesday of the twentieth century, with all concerned proud that while the Dadaists’ Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 had opened the ‘nightclubbing century’, they had closed it. Frank Broughton

Through the noughties Jackie went on the road, and the following piece was written in 2005 when the club came to London as part of Arthur Baker’s Return to New York party.  

Taking Jackie Further, 2005

from Time Out London, by Frank

It’s no secret that in post-Giuliani New York, nightlife is not, shall we say, looking its best. Thanks to a resuscitation of the long-ignored cabaret laws, more than three people moving rhythmically can lose a bar its liquor license. Thanks to the new mayor’s puritanical anti-smoking rules, all sense of relaxation is out of the window, as nightbirds are forced to choose between their drink, which they can’t take outside, and their smokes, which they must. And most devastating of all, the accelerated gentrification brought about by the axing of rent controls means all the interesting, creative, warped or freakish people – all the different people, proudly incapable of holding down a nine-to-five – have been priced out of town. Today’s typical Manhattan joint has acres of interior design, a grave No Dancing sign, roped-off £200 tables, and a plague of identikit rich kids mewling into mobiles.

Given this atmosphere it’s great to hear that Jackie 60, New York’s omnisexual theatre of clubland provocation, and for a decade at the end of the twentieth century the unerring Tuesday end-up place, is still on its feet. Known for fabulous costumes, diverting performance, splendid music and above all, that rarity in clubland: intriguing ideas.

People wrote entire plays for Jackie 60, designed whole fashion collections, choreographed performances for its stage that went on to wow mainstream halls of culture, such was the creative energy it inspired. Jackie was a centrepiece for glamorous, decadent, thoughtful silliness, with drag, bondage, kitsch and sex never far behind.

Jackie lived (and occasionally died) on its elaborate weekly themes. How about ‘Santa Is Burning’, a Christmas vogueing spectacular; or ‘Backroom Bodega Beeper Boys’, or ‘Mermaids on Heroin’, or ‘Kittens With Attitude’ or ‘Fiddler In The Hood (The First Kosher Gangsta Musical)’. If you’re feeling a little mediaeval, there was ‘Jackie 1360 – The Dark Ages’, and at the other extreme, who could forget ‘Klingon Women’, with a dress code that included ‘Romulan formal wear’ and ‘Horseshoe crab foreheads’.

The club ceased trading as a weekly in 2000, forced out of its once grim meatpacking neighbourhood by clean streets, sushi bars and ‘yuppies with an angry sense of entitlement’. Since then the founders have had time to produce ever more opulent one-offs. ‘For the closing Wigstock, we did a complete Gilbert and Sullivan production,’ explains Chi Chi. ‘At Coney Island we took over the sideshow and did a club piece called Dreamland, based on exactly the kind of entertainment that would have been there in 1910. We did a Halloween night in a New Orleans wax museum, and we’re going back this year. We’re bussing people out from the French Quarter to this derelict ante-bellum plantation house.’

Jackie 60’s current events, titled ‘Jackie Further’ to distinguish them from the original club, are resolutely site specific. And so the London night, of course, is built around… Paris. Ever contraire, Jackie started its obsession with fin-de-siecle France just when mainstream America was rabid with Iraq-war-borne anti-French sentiment [France refused to join the invasion]. Johnny and Chi Chi persisted with the theme for Cabaret Magique, a weekly East Village burlesque soiree, and this is what they’re bringing us on Saturday. Ruling ‘big mama burlesque queen’ Dirty Martinez will perform, Kitty Boots and her House of Domination will give their split-knickered twist to the can-can, Johnny will be throwing French cafe music into the dance mix, and Debbie Harry, a Jackie regular (and occasional bartender), will drop by to join the party.

So start putting together your outfit. The (suggested) dress code includes ‘Twenties glamour, Full Evening Dress (Oughts through Forties), Montmartre Bohemian vs East Village Performance artist, Weimar homage or the ever-popular Moulin Rouge on Crack style.’

To get a flavour for the event, visit, the huge online community they’ve created in the last few years. Here you’ll find a catalogue of themes, photos, graphics and dramatics from Jackie’s long, inventive history, not to mention a vast living, breathing collection of peacocks, deviants and creative freaks. New York nightlife may be spluttering a little, but this New Yorkest of clubs is doing just fine. Frank Broughton

2005, Chi Chi Valenti

interviewed by Frank

I’m sure you miss doing Jackie 60 as a weekly, but it must have been pretty frantic coming up with all those themes. That’s a decade where you’re thinking of something pretty in-depth, every week. How long did it take you?
Literally, it would take at least three full days. We’d come out of one – I’m sure for people that do certain kinds of TV filming, it’s the same thing – we’d be completely dead the following day, and then start production for our next night the day after that. For instance, the whole place would need to be decorated. The new soundtrack, the costumes, it was incredible. There was a bigger team of people through most of those years than just us.

What was the process?
We all kept separate themes that we liked… We all had ones that were on our list. Kitty’s tended to be very punk or Bowie or something, and mine were like the really intellectual ones that no one ever wanted to do, and Johnny’s were really accessible and boy-driven. Occasionally one of mine would really take off. Night Of 1,000 Stevies was mine.

Three Stevies among a thousand: Miss Guy, Chi Chi and Jackie 60 regular Debbie Harry in 2005. Photo Jackie Factory

That was a long-running theme, the Stevie Nicks thing? It’s like Steviestock.
That’s still going on. We get a thousand people a year now. That has outlived everything. We’re coming up on our 14th edition of that. It’s going to be at Irving Plaza. That is something. I just really love her and thought it was a really sick idea for a night. I had no idea.

We did a night called Low Life, based on the Luc Sante book, which was totally fabulous. That’s the kind of thing of somebody reading that book and then saying, ‘Let’s do this as a theme.’ Maybe because that was up my street, because I love New York history and stuff. We did the whole Suicide Bar on stage, with the girls. Interestingly, the actual Suicide Hall building, 295 Bowery, right by CBGB, is being torn down by the city after this long fight. One of the tenants is Kate Millett, the feminist author. She’s on the floor that actually was the Suicide Salon, and before it goes down she wants to give it to us to do a Jackie, so that will have to be very impromptu, and right before the wrecking ball.

Johnny’s themes were more accessible. like when Adam Goldstone’s record ‘Up All Night (Won’t Make The Gym)’ came out, he had an idea to do a whole night of Chelsea queens and rebuilt the David Barton gym onstage. David gave us the towels to put on everyone.

There were a few themes where we always said, ‘If we ever do this, it’s been so long in coming that either the world will end or Jackie will end.’ One of them was the thing that started Martha, the dance series that Richard Move does, and that was the Acrobats of God. He kept saying, ‘Next year we’ll do it,’ and then he finally did it. It was his Martha Graham – he performs as her but he speaks as her as well… and then he has a whole company doing Martha-like dancing. It got so big he started doing it as a series when we opened the club as Mother. It got so big, his next performance after Mother was at the Town Hall. That was one Jackie theme that took years.

We still speak a kind of shorthand with each other that no one else would get. Having done all that research, having learned about all of that music, has been incredible for everything we do. But I would never want to go back to that. We did that production for a decade. And we did it for four years, while owning a full-time venue. We probably aged a lot in that time. I feel a lot younger now.

And the city’s changed so much. Without dwelling on the negatives too much, New York nightlife isn’t what it used to be.
And that’s really why we started doing something again, for the very same reason we started Jackie. We wanted to have a place to go… but our work was subsidised in the beginning by Nell’s. It began as a free series. We’ve been lucky that it’s still important to people that we do our work in New York, so we get help from people, because it’s not even the financial climate that it was when we started Jackie. It wasn’t great then, but so many people have left… they’re not drop-ins and they can’t just walk across town any more.

I was reading an interview you did when you closed Mother, and one of the things was that there was no longer the local audience that would come and understand what you were doing. You also talked of the animosity of the people in the new Meatpacking District, even though you were the spearhead of why that was a cool place to live.
I’m glad we did what we did. We had no way of knowing everything else that happened. So many people have totally lost their businesses. We got to make the decision.

Are there silver linings? Is there anything underground emerging to react against what’s going on?
The tremendous silver lining for us… After we closed the club, we started this big online community called the Motherboards. That’s been the silver lining. A lot of the work we do… like this enormous art show that we did in May, which took club-based artists – costume designers and performers – from all over the country, and they collaborated on this show of the visual work that was at CBGB for a month, and it was a whole big performance night. A lot of them had never met until three days before the show, when they started coming into town. We did the entire Major Arcana of the tarot, with people portraying different cards in tableaux, and they created digital work, costuming. There were about 50 people who collaborated on it.

That’s been incredible, even in terms of feeding events, because people are so spread-out, to Philly and other places, but they can just read that this thing is going on, come in with their costume and introduce themselves as a performer. So there are these levels of collaboration that are possible, and ways for people to reach us and reach what we are doing that never existed before.

For me, that’s been a big old silver lining. It doesn’t tie us into paying these insane rents, or mean that we have to be at the same spot every night. You bring people together online, then throw occasional events and bring them together in the flesh.

Even the smoking thing, even though that’s been devastating in general for nightlife, it’s actually been really great for us, because we’re in the East Village and people are regularly driving by and see me standing out there smoking and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is where the new place is.’

Where is the new place?
Tapis Rouge [now permanently closed] is on Avenue A at 1st Street. It says ‘Salon Prive’ outside. We found it because they have this huge African night on Sundays, and we would go past and go, “Wow, what’s going on here?” It’s a perfect size. It holds on two floors, maybe 300 people, so it’s half the size of Mother, but two distinct floors.

Does it have a dancing license?
It has a dancefloor, let’s just put it like that. There are really interesting things going on with that, and I’m very involved with that ‘legalize dancing’ stuff.

People are fighting that?
It really moved forward in June, especially by Legalize Dancing NYC, which is an umbrella organization I’m involved with, which also includes the original Dance Liberation Front people. All the different organisations that were doing it on their own kind of banded together. That’s been a help. Norman Siegel has been involved in our legal stuff, the great civil liberties dude. We’ve been banging away, meeting with City Council people, doing these events, drumming up the press. Then in June, really out of the blue, Commissioner of Consumer Affairs Gretchen Dykstra, contacted the group and said, “We’re doing these hearings about the cabaret laws, because we’d like to remove dancing from the cabaret laws. ‘Well, that would be OK.’

So, it would no longer apply against dancing? You could dance without a license?
In venues below a certain size.

Well, that’s what it was all about, anyway.
Sadly, anything over that size is Webster Hall, and has the money to get a cabaret license. So, they had these hearings and in the public sections of these hearings 60 people spoke, including me and everyone from ballroom dancers to the director of Summerstage, agents for DJs that had gone out of business because no one was bringing people to play here, record store owners who have gone out of business… Everybody was saying, ‘Here are the numbers, and this is not related to 9/11.’ That didn’t help, but Giuliani had already destroyed it.

Post-Jackie 60, what direction have you taken things?
For these shows, which are actually called Jackie 60 Further, it’s been a lot of one-off, on-site things specifically for the site we’ve done them in. We did the Siren Festival at Coney island, where we took over the sideshow for two hours and did a long club piece called Dreamland, based on exactly the kind of entertainment that would have been there in 1910. So, it uses all the elements – the MCs, Jackie’s DJing, the House of Domination, the costumes – but it specifically makes it for one place and one time.

For London specifically, we’ve decided to do Paris. Johnny [Dynell] and I are also doing a weekly series here called Cabaret Magique, and we’ve got this repertoire of French incoherent, pre-Dadaist influences for the performances. People think it’s insane to be doing a French-influenced night in New York, especially since it started during the [Iraq] war.

Because of all the anti-French feeling…
A lot of the music we use for that is in French, but it’s also a tongue-in-cheek take on Frenchness, with lots of French cliches, like ‘Sexy Eiffel Tower.’ When we were thinking of what Jackie Further should do there, we thought it’s even weirder to bring Paris to London through New York. We always like to have that second twist in things.

You probably revel in being contrary, with this “freedom fries” thing going on.
We’ve always had close connections with Situationism and obviously Dada – this sort of bridge that we felt – and then, like a month before the war started, we thought, let’s actually do a French cabaret. This is more fun, because a French cabaret that you’re doing every week is great, but to take it one more step and bring it to London, I’m really curious to see how it goes.

What specific things can we expect?
Well, performance-wise we have several members of the House of Domination, and they’re going to do updates on the can-can, their own version.

The original was pretty risqué.
Well, they have the split knickers. We’re doing showgirl elements that are based on – not reconstructions, but definitely a homage to – the can-can costumes of Kitty Boots, who’s our fourth partner in Jackie and a legendary costume designer. We’re also bringing over a burlesque queen. I think she’s played in London before, she’s really incredible. Her name is Dirty Martini. She’s absolutely the best of the whole burlesque wave here, in terms of incredible reconstructions, being able to do all the physical things involved in burlesque.

There’s an enormous burlesque renaissance in New York. We were involved in seeding some of that, but there’s a whole thing that goes along with that other school of burlesque, that’s more like Frank Sinatra. It’s a little too straight, the ’50s, ’60s burlesque. So, even though Dirty is fantastic at that, what she loves to do, and we asked her to do, is step back. Our showgirl is much more tied in to the late 19th century and then 20th century, up to about the ’20s. Those are our references.

And this is what’s going on at your weekly night Cabaret Magique?
Yeah, and we have spoken word, and people do the shadow puppets that used to be done in Montmartre. It’s very retro, but picking out an incredibly wide range from, say, 1870 to 1950 at the absolute latest, so it’s not retro to one period. And even musically… Like, at Jackie, the way the dancefloor room always has a dance track, and there’s another room… There’s a lot of charleston, and Django Reinhardt and stuff like that, and you’ll actually see people doing the charleston. So that’s been fun, but we’re very clear about not wanting to re-do Jackie.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Take Back The Night, by Chi Chi Valenti, 1990

All who remember basement rooms or the promise whispered in afterhours stairways,

take back the night.

All who have lost their way to drugs or cures and all who have simply lost their nerve,

take back the night.

All who have grown up restless in a thousand sleeping cities,

only to come here and ask

‘Where is the magic city I have dreamed of?’

take back the night.

Take it back from mere attitude and return it to grand gesture.

Take it back from every futures trader yearning for a new life.

Take it back from sweater consultants and out of town investors.

Return it to ruined men with no feeling for the masses, and no stomach for the shameless sell.

Take it back from the understudies of understudies.

Take it back from little black cocktail dresses, and the girlfriends of near-famous men.

Return it to difficult women,ragers,top girls who blow smoke defiantly

and slouch in fashion’s face.

Take it back from gay-bashers and gay supremists alike,and return it to

lonesome cowboys and rock-and-roll fags.

Take it back from crusading police captains and self-appointed neighborhood saviors.

Take it back from vodka companies and crack dealers.

Take it back from New York Magazine.

We have heard it whispered every now and again.

Somewhere a monster is feeding that will raise its head angry and swallow

everything in sight.

Somewhere, angels wait in cheap rooms and lush apartments,

and even now they are dreaming.

Of a six o’clock dawn with the music beating down sheer voodoo and nobody ever again afraid of a disease. Take it back.

Of a great light returned to the city that never sleeps.

This light will burn away the usual well-placed spots and flashbulb radiance. Take it back.

Illuminating arches of perfect young spine on crumbling staircases,

Cigarettes held meaningfully as scepters.

And the grand march on that morning:

Glistening bleached blondes and righteous sissies

Boys with angel faces and checkered pasts

Exhausted painters/ Elegant junkies who fell off fire escapes too early

dreadlocked camel traders from afterhours black markets

the Teutonic diva who began with Madame Butterfly and ended up playing Camille

the obscure stars of super-8 movies and Times Square backrooms

Children so ancient at sixteen they seemed destined to die of old age

The fragile slum goddess who traded all her chiffon and fame for a gift of prophecy,

Kamikaze poets with tongues sharp as sacred hara-kiri knives.

At once they will rise out of restless beds and rush out secret doorways.

No press kits will proceed them.

They’ll come silently, by taxi, through the ruins of the night city, to a basement lost

to the sleeping world.

They will push past the doorway curtains

Back to a room where the real Loleatta Holloway is wailing and a baby Jean Harlow waits

in bias-cut satin just beyond velvet ropes.

They will roll down the rugs or sprawl carefully on couches.

Their makeup will be perfect.

They will take back the night.

Chi Chi Valenti, 1990

Originally published as the last page of the last issue of the original Details Magazine. Republished 1992 in Verbal Abuse #1

Rebel Threads – Clothing of the Bad, Beautiful & Misunderstood

Rebel Threads – Clothing of the Bad, Beautiful & Misunderstood

‘The thing I most remember about these funfair visits was being truly terrified, intimidated by, and yet in awe of the leather clad, greasy-quiffed Rocker kids that worked on the rides. Like car mechanics, their hands, faces and clothes were engrained with black swarf, oil and graphite from the rides. But to me they looked just like James Dean, Billy Fury and Gene Vincent, in their black leather biker jackets, and navy donkey jackets, always styled with the collar turned up. They also wore T-shirts, brand new to this country, and drainpipe jeans, battered winkle-pickers shoes, cowboy boots or steel toecap work boots.’

You couldn’t find a better spirit guide to the delightful and delinquent subcultures of our septic isle (and our sister septics across the pond) than Roger K Burton. Not only has he witnessed teds, mods, rockers, hippies, dandies, punks et al in their natural habitats, but he also has an unmatched understanding of the youth movements that preceded them – the spivs, wide boys, swing cats, hep cats and Bobby soxers – and an unerring eye for the divisions and details that marked their boundaries. He knows the full stories of how each of these styles came about – the inspiring films, the maverick tailors, and the various peacocks and ace faces who wore them and changed the world.

This book is a life’s work. Burton was the stylist and costume designer on films like Absolute Beginners, Quadrophenia and Young Soul Rebels. He’s dressed Bowie and Jagger, he supplied Westwood and McLaren with much of the vintage schmutter for their punk-era Let It Rock and Seditionaries stores, even helped them design the World’s End incarnation. He ran his own boutique for years, the Blitz-era PX in Covent Garden, epicentre of New Romantic. Roger has 20,000 items and counting in his collection, which started with a clutch of his grandad’s hand-printed silk ties. It’s now a commercial library for fashion and film, Contemporary Wardrobe Collection

And the book is perfection. The clothes themselves are unbelievable – styled, accessorised and lit immaculately, in ghostly groups that are almost alive. Despite being on headless mannequins, you feel like you’re in the room with these bad boys and girls, adrift in the ’40s, ‘50s, ’60s, ’70s. These are clothes that had the power to make their mark – even occasionally to terrify – and even in less shockable times they possess a certain magic. You find yourself scanning the cut and the detailing, imagining a world inhabited by these bold characters. You’re looking backwards, inevitably, but the realness of the clothes makes it less like nostalgia and more like time travel, as you mentally slip into the outfits you’d steal for yourself.

Throughout the whole book, Burton’s mod aesthetic is to the fore, making sure it’s right in every detail. The amazing clobber is surrounded by brilliant text and contemporary street and movie photos from all the right sources, brimming with those cultural nuggets that bring the story to life – the news stories that created an antihero, the films that brought a particular style into view, the tailor who brought back a new cut from Italy. Every effort has been taken to make sure you’re getting the best references and the full story, and it’s full of little extras that get you closer to the characters who wore it all, like a pair of mod cufflinks with a secret compartment for stashing your Dexys. Frank Broughton

Buy the book here

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Guru & Run DMC spilled the beans

Guru & Run DMC spilled the beans

A uniquely revealing meeting of hip hop giants. Towards the end of the first wave of hip hop, Run DMC grabbed the mic and changed the face of rap. Their unique blend of tough lyrical artillery and fat-laced B-boy stylings put the street firmly into a genre that had previously modelled itself on the cosmic outfits of ’80s funk bands. They ripped the rhymes, rocked the set, and consigned everyone that came before them to a museum case marked ‘Old School’. Their 1986 album Raising Hell was a compulsory purchase for UK music-lovers.

DMC (Darryl McaDaniels), Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), Run (Joseph Simmons)

But hip hop always kept it fresh and fly, and by the ’90s Run DMC’s trailblazing style had been superceded by a whole new generation. Guru, the lyricist half of Gang Starr, was one of this new school, with his unmistakable downbeat vocals making him one of the coolest. His beatmaster DJ Premier quickly claimed legend status as one of the era’s greatest producers. Guru was no slouch in the studio chair either, as his Jazzmatazz series brought jazz musicans together with beats, rappers and vocalists.

Guru, mid-90s, outside Harlem’s Lenox Lounge. Photo Thierry LeGoues

In 1993, Run DMC – Joseph ‘Run’ Simmonds, Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels and Jason ‘Jam Master Jay’ Mizell – returned after a hiatus, during which the group’s musical and personal fortunes had fallen so low many had written them off completely, including themselves. On the release of their comeback album, the god-friendly ‘Down With The King’, British mag Hip-Hop Connection asked Guru to interview them, with Frank holding the tape recorder. Fresh out of the studio himself after completing his first Jazzmatazz album, Guru confessed how much of an inspiration the group had been for him, and asked them about the old days rapping in the parks and wearing glasses with no lenses in.

A much shorter version of this interview appeared in Hip-Hop Connection, 1993

Guru: When I first heard your shit, that was one of the things that inspired me to take rapping seriously. I was a freshman in college and you were going ‘After 12th grade I went straight to college…’ I was like ‘Oh shit.’

DMC: We went to college for two semesters, and that’s when ‘Sucker MCs’ came out. We got a gig in North Carolina, we flew down there, and when we came back home we got more gigs, like Florida, and we had to take a leave of absence. So we’ve been absent ever since.

Guru: You’re never too old to go back and finish.

DMC: You’re never too old to go back. That’s what’s good. This career, it’s fun, you get to see a lot, you get to learn a lot, and then when you find that you do need to go back to school for something there’s less schooling to do, and then you’re complete.

Frank: Can you see yourself sitting at the back of a lecture hall?

DMC: I can. Sometimes you know I get the urge to go back now. I just went to college because I passed the entrance exam for St Johns, business management, so I went to St Johns ’cos it was right in Queens. Back in high school I didn’t even know that I was gonna be a rapper or nothin’. Jay, he had his little crew from two-fifth street, and they called themselves ‘Two-Fifth Down’, and they was the ones from the neighborhood that would bring the turntables to the park, bring out the crates of records and they would just DJ.

I was reluctant, I wouldn’t get on the mic at first. Run used to go into the park and kick his rhyme, cos they knew him – DJ Run – and I would DJ for him. But then I started going to Rice High School up in Harlem, 124th and Lenox, and I used to see the Cold Crush out there, giving out flyers, and they had tapes going around, for like eight and 12 dollars. I would buy the tapes, bring them back home, ‘Yo, check this out, listen to this!’ and boom-bam. Then I just started writing rhymes in English class, and I had a book of rhymes, and you know…

Russell [Simmons, Def Jam label founder and Run’s brother] told Run, ‘Yo, I’ll let you make records but you got to get out of high school first.’ Run was like the professional in the neighborhood. He used to rap with Kurtis Blow, go into the park and kick his rhyme, ’cos they knew him – DJ Run. Everybody else was just nervous and learning, so Run would come and bust his rhyme. It took a long time before I would get on the mic with him. I would DJ for him, or sit in the park holding my beer sayin’, ‘No you go over I’ll see you later.’ I didn’t really start rapping with him until he came and said ‘Yo D, we got a record.’ When we graduated he came, ‘Yo D, the name of the record is “It’s Like That”, the second record be “Sucker MCs”. Go home and write rhymes about, you know, the world.’ So I went home and we went and put it together. And boom!

Guru: That was it.

DMC: It hit. I remember when I first heard ‘It’s Like That’ on Kiss. I was sitting home, ‘They’re gonna play your record today’. I’m like ‘Yeah right’. It was about eight, eight thirty, ‘Its Like That’ came on — yeah!!!

Guru: That’s dope. I remember when I heard that too.

DMC: Then ‘Sucker MCs’ dropped’…

Guru: ‘I’m driving a Caddy, you’re fixing a Ford’. That one too, ‘Rock Box’ was dope. All of ‘em.

DMC: ‘Rock Box’ got us on MTV. I remember we made two versions, Russell and them had put guitar on it later, so when me and Run heard it we was mad, ’cos we just wanted the beat and the rhyme, with a little echo, with the Tramp beat, boom, and me and Run. When they said they’re gonna put a rock guitar on it, we was little kids, we were like ‘Oh man!’ But then it dropped. What sold me on it was my man Yogi that lived up the block from me. He’s giving me all these praises about ‘Rock Box’, and I’m looking at him like, ‘You like it?’ So then it started to grow and I said yeah. its not corny. It’s new and shit but it was still in there.

Guru: It was something different that nobody ever did.

DMC: That helped us. We did a rock tune on this new album, with Rage Against the Machine. But it ain’t like were gonna try and make ‘Rock Box’ over and over, you know.

Guru: So who did you all work with on the new album?

DMC: Pete Rock did two, EPMD did one, Q-Tip did one, Specialist, who does Mad Cobra and Shabba, he did one, Jermaine Dupri did one, Diamond D did one, and the guy that Jay did Onyx with, he did two.

Guru: Ah yeah, he got some fly beats. I know Onyx. We were trying to get to that video, but we had a show that weekend, we got back like one o’clock in the morning, you guys were all done.

DMC: We got finished at two o’clock, A lot of phone calls. A lot of people came down.

DMC: And Hank shocklee did one.

Guru: You got all the fat producers on your album. I cant wait to hear it all man. I just did a jazz album with these three old cats from records that we be samplin’: Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston-Smith; and three of the new cats: Branford Marsalis, this saxophonist from London, Courtney Pine, and this guy Ronnie Jordan from London, who plays guitar. I did all the production, all the beats. It’s a fusion of hip hop and jazz. I didn’t sample nothing they did, but all my beats are like regular hip hop beats. They played and I just rhymed. Its called Jazzmatazz. I did it because we were one of the first groups to use jazz in rap. Plus, my pops, my uncle and all of them, they love jazz. so that was a tribute to them. But it ain’t like I’m a ‘jazz rapper’. People want to label you.

DMC: Like they labelled us ‘rock rappers’.

Guru: It’s a blessing to be able to do music for a living. That’s a lesson right there in itself.

Frank: What were you doing before?

Guru: Working as a case worker for foster kids. Hustling and running around. Frustrated!

DMC: It’s cool. It’s cool when you get to do something that you like, too.

Guru: Some of these chumps be taking it for granted though.

Run arrives

Guru: We just been talking a little bit, but we was waiting for you. D was talking about when you used to be rocking a mic in the park, and he used to be DJing for you.

Run: Who, D? At Doug’s block? You was good!

Guru: How do you feel about the rappers that come out now? They’re successful and all that, but they don’t know much about the old school, or about the history, the artform.

DMC: What I think they should try to do, I think a lot of rappers should really try to learn their history.

Guru: Does it get to you if these new jacks come up and you can tell they don’t know nothing about the old days and the history of rap. Does it irk you at all?

DMC It doesn’t really irk me, but a lot of the new jacks’ll come out and make hit records and they’ll think that everything before them was wack, weak and abolished. They won’t give the respect that is due to the whole artform.

Guru: I think that’s how you have longevity when you…

Run: …know what it’s about

Jam Master Jay arrives

Guru: We was hanging with Jay at a club in Brooklyn, Rendezvous, the night they had a crazy shoot-out. They had to show up in there. We did something at SOBs I think you were at, too. Branford played with us. He just played with us as a guest.

I wanna talk more about the old school, and stuff like the influences and what it was like. Like when did you all start wearing the sneakers with no laces?

Run: Back in the end of high school. All through high school, way before. We’d wear one red and one green, or one Puma and one Adidas. You brought the girls out comin’ out with no shoestrings. Jay was the man in high school. Old Jay with a big velour, and then sneakers with no shoestrings, and then glasses with no shades in them. That was the move, right there. That was fly.

Jay: Hip hop has a lot to do with fashion. Before Run DMC started we we would go look at Cold Crush, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, I mean we really looked up to these kids, you know what I’m saying, and when we go see them on stage, they dressed a whole ’nother way. They was dealin’ with a whole ’nother lifestyle. They was on some rock’n’roll trip…


Jay: Just out like George Clinton or something…

DMC …Rick James!

Jay: They was dressing and beatin’ and buggin’.

DMC: That was like Fearless Four, and Flash, even Cold Crush got into it after a while, wearing all that stuff.

Run: What happened was they got confused because they started going on tour with Rick James, and they saw how much the crowd would respond to them dressed in all like that.

Jay: I was so much of a true B-boy there’s no way in the world I could do that. So when we got our chance, we just dressed the way we dressed in Hollis. To get fly to us was just to be to put on a fresh pair of adidas. Funky fresh out the box. No dirt on them. I never understand how D kept his sneakers so clean. A pair of Lees, and a fresh Al Paco you know what I’m sayin – to match the Adidas. And a velour or a Panama, with the ribbon that’s matching your sneakers.

Run: That’s that pimp shit.

Jay: It’s that pimp shit, but the pimps ain’t rockin’ the Lees, the pimps ain’t rockin’ the jeans. We put that feeling to the public. We let people know that hip hop is not just about the music, its about the style, the culture and the lifestyle. Like I used to be amazed to look at artists the way they drew on the trains. Some kids was crazy dope, a train’d go by, there’d be a gun, and somebody getting’ shot, with their name tagged up.

Guru: Sneaking into a train yard to do that. Just so somebody could notice it, that’s fly.

Jay: Its hectic.

Guru: When you get your tracks together, how do you get your concepts for your album, and your tracks? Do you get your titles first? How do you go about it?

Run: We know what we’re gonna do before we get there. Like we know that it’s gonna fly up, and then it’s gonna drop. It’s hard to say how we made our tracks. We made ’em and we made the vocals at the same time. It was a mixture.

Jay: D would go boom-bap, and then we just had to make you do that again D: boom-bap, ka-boom-boom-bap.

DMC: Or sometimes we would write a rhyme, and just by the way the rhyme go, Jay would say, ‘Yo D, start at the pillar right there, go bang, gonna drop that, like that.

Run: Like when we made ‘Hit It Run’, we wasn’t sampling back then, so we would make verdrrrrrum kish, vrun-de-dun-kish kuf-kuf-kit kuf-ke-kuf-kit.

Jay: Beats!

DMC: Just sit down and play it.  Just play it with the drum machine.

Guru: That’s coming back a little, ’cos people are tired of loopin’ breakbeats, so they take samples, chop ’em up, and make your own beat that’s a little similar but new.

Jay: Q-Tip did that.

Guru: All this stuff with sampling, what do you think about that? You got people’s albums coming out late because they gotta clear all the samples.

Run: Truthfully, I love the way this samplin’ stuff sounds, but I wish that the whole thing flips back in a way. I kinda wish it would go away a little bit, ’cos it’s buggin’ me out with getting samples cleared. They want to flip! How much? I’m charging you this, I’m charging you that. I’m tired of having to pay these people.

DMC: I think it is going away.

Run: It needs to go away because it’s buggin’. It’s wack now. It sounds good the way Pete Rock does it, it sounds so def. He’ll muffle the bass a bit and it sounds different. It definitely was a feeling, a whole spirit. But it can go the way where regular tracks sound just as def, like Dr Dre.

Guru: Dr Dre uses a lot of them

Run: He knows what he wants to sample, but he says, maybe I can make this bassline sound like something else. Dr Dre did it so def that you know it can be done.

Jay: Usually, when you sample, you sample just a bassline, then you go somewhere else and get somebody else’s.

Guru: You weave different records and stuff.

Jay: Just like Teddy Riley do. He used different records but he’ll play ’em and he’ll change ’em a little bit.

Guru: The people who are against sampling, they don’t understand that rap music started with turntables. Now it’s a billion dollar industry, but it started with catching a beat, and then the machines came out so you could do more.

Jay: I think rapping evolved from us not wanting to hear disco.

Run: One thing I like is that rap is straight from the ghetto. And God loves to work way down in the dirt. He doesn’t deal in no high industry. That’s why Dr Dre’s video is so cool [Nuthin’ But A G Thang] . His mother screams ‘Snoopy!’ and you know his name was Snoopy when he was a kid. It’s that whole thing what rap stands for. She’s yelling ‘You know if you break something and you can’t pay for it!’

Guru: There ain’t no people dancing or nothing in it. They ain’t trying to play hard, they just…

Run: I like the fact that they already know that Dr Dre is a large producer. ‘I heard your album’s a bomb.’ They ain’t even tryin’ to front for Dr Dre, but he’s large and he’s saying he’s putting my brother Snoop Dog on. That’s what I love so much about the way Dr Dre produced that video. It just shows you what rap is about, and what’s really dope, and you’re still a mystery to a lot of people. Once they get to know you too good, you kind of lose your appeal, but when you start and you’re coming from the street, people be like, ‘Damn, I wonder where that Run is at?’

Jay: Right, they wonder what we’ve been up to.

Run: So now we’re a mystery again. I don’t mean a mystery as in not known, I mean they just want to know more about us again. That’s what makes Snoop Dog so large, and even Dr Dre, as big as he is, he’s still a mystery, ’cos damn, you went and found a nigga named Snoop Dog in Longbeach, and he’s your man now.

Jay: He put Longbeach on the map because the only thing they knew Longbeach for was that riot that they had.

Run: What makes rap really dope is the ghetto aspect – that it’s from the street, and people love to want to know about that, man. They want to know where you from, like what is Guru about, man?’ They saw your video, and just to get a rep the kid bust the bottle and the sneakers, and you’re like, woah, Gang  Starr!

Guru: Let me ask you this. How do you feel if somebody say to you, ‘Ah, you’re making a comeback’? As far as I’m concerned you’ve always been here.

Run: My personal opinion about the word ‘comeback’ is that it don’t bother me man. For some people over in Nebraska somewhere funny, they ain’t seen me in a while. You leave somewhere and you’re not hitting that market. You come back! I’m back and I’m hitting again, so the word ‘comeback’ doesn’t bother me.

DMC: I met Madonna the other day and she wants to know what’s up with Run DMC, and I said we trying to come back in the ’90s, come one more time, she’s like, ‘Uh-huh you guys gotta come ten more times.’ I like the people that go ‘You’re still down, youre still together. Run DMC coming again?’

Guru: You were talking about God earlier, how important is religion in y’all lives? I know obviously it is but…

Run: It’s the most important thing. Its the number one thing. In our whole life. God made the world, He made everything. He made us who we are. He made us be larger than everybody. We’re praying all the time. It’s bringing us back into this thing stronger. People used to say Run DMC is dead and stinking. We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back, but we knew, it was up to God, so now we’re hitting again.

Guru: ‘Only G.O.D. could be a king to me, if the god be in me then a king I be.’

Run: Exactly correct. The thing with God is this is our whole life. We get something by the way we hold that God’s doing something. Another person would just think it’s by chance, but things don’t happen by chance. You get a blessing. And we just got blessed. That’s how we take everything. Everything to us is God. And I think I’m speaking for the whole group.

DMC: Since day one. Our whole thing was watch your day.

Run: When we started we was, ‘We gotta watch our day,’ ‘Watch your day, Jay,’ and we just go out of our way to help a brother, or just know that God’s looking at us.

Jay: Just checking your day. You wake up in the morning, you do something positive, go out of your way to do something positive, you will receive a blessing. It comes back to you. If you wake up in the morning and you’re thinking negative, you think, ‘Man, I’m gonna go get with the niggas and shoot these mothers, or I’ma rob up motherfuckers, word – you gonna wind up getting shot, and killed.

Run: That comes back to you.

Jay: In that same life, you wake up in the morning and say regardless: I’m gonna do something positive. I’ma do something good today. I’ma make a difference. That’s faith.

Run: We stand up on faith cos people didn’t think Run DMC had a chance to come back. But we knew that it was up to God, so now we hitting again.

Guru: Tell me about the album and the time in between, like recently. What made this all come together?

Run: We went through seven, eight years of straight success, and then we had to gather it back together. We was making rhymes, I was writing rhymes, Jay was busy producing other acts, we were opening record companies. It wasn’t nothing much. I called D and we met up. I got this thing, let’s write this D – how should we kick a ill style? You know trying to grab time, hang out with each other. That’s all. It was a building process.

Jay: I think when we were on top, even though we used to rock everybody at the shows, we was holding back. We would hold back as a group. There was a lotta ideas I wanted to do, a lotta ideas Run and D wanted to do, that we would never do…

Run: …because we had so many hit records,

Jay: We had so many hit records. It was working.

Guru: How was it working with the different producers?

Run: Diamond’s real old school. So working with him was a lot of fun, EPMD, Hank Shocklee was a pusher, a hard worker,

Guru: He seems real intense.

Run: Jermaine Dupri is a little genius. He knows what he knows. He was good too, and working with the Specialist, he knew what he wanted.

Run: I was kind of dazed, but you now it was cool, going from person to person. I was nervous trying to gather this together. I just wanted to go into the studio and come out with things that I knew were dynamic. I put my input in, and I let them put in their new stuff, ‘cos I didn’t want to be stagnant. I didn’t want to be like, Prince or something. Like ’cos he feel he gotta do it all his self.

Guru: You have a whole album here where you’re working with new producers. Is that the way forward or are you going to go back to working as a self-sufficient unit? What about Run DMC as just you three guys?

Jay: I want a hit record for my group, we’re a professional group. Go in the studio, whoever got the fat tracks, I don’t care if it’s Joe Schmo from the basement. He comes up with the fat track we’ll do it. No, I don’t care who makes our hit. Michael wasn’t like ‘Well I ain’t letting Quincy Jones do that, I’m Michael Jackson…’

Run: A producer don’t mean nothing. Oh, ‘They went platinum this time because Pete Rock helped them,’ so what? Pete Rock didn’t write me my rhyme. Larry Smith made ‘Sucker MCs’, Rick Rubin helped with ‘Raising Hell’, and Russell. These people are producers… Pete Rock didn’t write my rhymes. Pete Rock gave me some music… I did that. I rapped over it. Thank you very much for producing me, see ya. He can’t come and do it on stage for me.

Jay: Let Pete rock go platinum, my whole thing is it’s still Run DMC. We’ve been down for 10, 11 years and we’re not going nowhere. As far as what we’re doing on stage. This is going to be us.

Run: We ain’t got no ego like that. People are going to say what they’re going to say, but the point is, we coming out with these records and they’re hit records. Their beef is, this is just producers. So what? We’re rappers, we’re not producers.

Jay: I want songs, right. I want songs. We didn’t write ‘Walk This Way’. I want songs. I want hits, I want longevity. We have love so we give love. We’re not greedy. The only reason not to take tracks from other people would be money. But if Pete Rock has a fat track, I’m not going to tell him I don’t want it, I just want mine, mine, mine.

Everyone laughs

Run: You’d go stale like that…

Guru: That’d be fucked up!

Run: The only person I know that do that is Prince and he bugs me out when he comes out with an album that don’t hit. But he does that – he don’t want nobody to do nothing for him.

Guru: Like Premier did five tracks for KRS for BDP’s new album; I didn’t say ‘Yo man you can’t do that because them shits is dope. I knew Premier always wanted to work with somebody like that, I’m not going to say, oh ’cos you’re my DJ, you can’t.’ It’s not about that.

Jay: I’m mad that Premier didn’t do nothing on our tracks…

Run: You were telling us all the time.

Jay: I always wanted Premier to do something on this album. This is a crazy fat album. I know Premier would have helped a lot.

Guru: Future’s bright!

Guru: What about all these so-called new styles that came out? I heard about five demos trying to sound like Onyx. I like certain groups who are doing it – Das EFX, Treach, and Fu Schnickens – but it seems like after that a whole bunch of groups started coming out with the rolling the tongue and that. And those are styles that have been done before. Biz Markie used to do it, when he was just telling stories, and Slick Rick. Even you: you was like ‘riggy rhyme’ and all of that.

Run: Cold Crush was doin’ it too, ‘a lama lama lama.’

Guru: Little 14-year-old kids come up to me, battling me in the street, ‘Yo, you can’t do the triple-tongue-twister, Guru, I’ll burn you! And I’m like, ‘Yo, money, here’s the address, put your stuff on tape, and send us a tape. If it sounds good on tape then that’s how you know. But how do you feel about that whole thing?

Run: About tongue twisting? Its def, sometimes. It’s corny too, man, when all I hear is ‘rhymin’ a riggedy rock the shop and…’ Don’t give me that, know what I’m sayin’. Come to me and give me something that’s real dope.

DMC: Substance.

Guru: Certain groups perfected it though.

Run: Das EFX was incredible. And then Fu Schnickens does his thing. My personal thing is, I don’t really want to hear this new guy, that I never heard, comin’ with a whole lot of that jiggedy rock da dack da jiggedy ’cos you heard Das EFX and now that’s what you want to do.

DMC: Exactly.

Run: You dont wanna do that now ’cos they did it already. That’s fake, man.

Guru: Just like after you came out other groups came out using rock. They tried to rhyme the way y’all rhyme, the whole thing. Like when Chuck D came out a lot of groups came out trying to rhyme like Chuck…

Run: …and be Afrocentric and all that.

Jay: But that’s positive I think what they was talking about was cool.

Run: Its good for that awareness, but if you do it and its wack its just wack anyway, it ain’t going to hit, just sayin’ ‘I’m black’.

Jay: But somebody gonna see it. Just getting that message across to one other person, I still think that’s positive.

DMC: The whole thing is positive.

Run: It’s definitely positive.

Jay: I mean we was talking about styles, but when you start talking about what they talking about, that’s positive, because when we was comin’ up, there was nobody talking about ‘black’ nothing. In the late ‘70s there was no young black folk on TV.

DMC: It was all disco and John Travolta.

Guru: How is it like, playing live, playing big shows again? Like at Radio City everyone came to see Naughty By Nature, but you killed the show.

Run: People didn’t know what to expect, but Naughty knew we was gonna be dope.

Jay: Naughty looks out man. When nobody cared about Run DMC, Treach was going around doing his interviews, saying. ‘Yo, my favourite people are Run DMC.’ I mean we were dead and stinking to everybody, but he always gave us mad respect and he didn’t lose no face. West coast was going mad, blowin’ up, Treach was like, ‘Yo, I’m down with Run DMC, Run’s my idol, I rap like Run. When we first met him, he was like I love you. I give y’all mad props.

Run: Our record wasn’t even out yet.

Jay: He was ‘Oh, y’all about to do your record? Yo, we coming out about the same time, let’s go on tour together.’ Promoters didn’t want to go with us but he was like if Run DMC ain’t going, we not going.

Run: He was looking out for us. He knew we wanted that and we needed that.

Guru: That’s loyalty…

Run: That’s loyalty and he’s hot as a fire cracker.

Guru: But he’s real, he ain’t like souped or nothing. He’s real.

Jay: On the strength of that I always give them props. We go on stage, we battle we leave the stage. After Radio City, we hung out all night: me and my man. For all the people out there that’s trying to diss, I don’t want to say no names, but y’all niggas need to chill.

Guru: It’s like we went on the EPMD tour for the Hit Squad, we opened up for all of them, we didn’t care. And after that we all had fun together and that was just how it was, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. But what the media does, sometimes – and people in the industry – they make you feel like there ain’t enough room for everybody to get some. They ask you, ‘What do you think of this artist, what do you think of that artist?’ Just because I did a record with jazz in it, what do I think of Digable Planets. They alright. I got nothing against them. I met them and they was cool people. They doing their thing, I’m doing my thing. It’s not the same thing but it’s all involved in rap and hip hop. Each group is different, has their own style and originality, but why always do we have to get compared from one to the other?

Frank: Well, that’s marketing, that’s how the business does it…

Guru: It’s not cool. When I get asked questions that could be worded like I dissed a group, I’ll be like, ‘Man, listen, I ain’t saying nothing.’

Run: Ain’t no reason to diss. There’s room for everybody to get busy.

Guru: If you concentrate all your energies on dissing you get nowhere at all.

Run: Jesus, you get nowhere at all.

Guru: One thing I always noticed with y’all. Stage is like y’alls home, man.

Jay: Out of all this shit, the interviews, the making the records, the sampling, all that, the stage is the real shit. The stage is like being in the park. Everything else is like, you know, working, bugging. These two years we’ve toured a lotta clubs, we did a lotta club gigs and what-not, and we just got crazy mad tight as a band.

Run: That’s the love. That’s the flavour.

Guru: Y’all have always had that. That’s one thing they can never take away.

Run: I don’t wanna boost us up, but we know we’re a band live. All we got to really do is perform in front of these people that have heard that Run DMC’s fallen off. They’ll see we’re the def, the real fly band. When Jay comes out and scratches live, we will hurt up a group so bad, hurt up a rap magazine so bad.

Jay: Even when we fell off. Even when the whole world was saying we were wack, we were going to a club…

Run: …and hurting!

Jay: Behind anybody, in front of anybody, whatever, Shabba Ranks, whoever was hype at that moment. We would go into a spot and give them a run for their money. Like you know – hits are hits.