Body & Soul was NYC

Bill BrewsterThe Face, March 1999

SIX O’CLOCK on a freezing Sunday evening on Hubert Street, down by the Holland Tunnel on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. The street is deserted save for a truck backing up to a loading bay. You have to look hard to find the open doorway up past the sloping pavement and, even then, there’s nothing out of the ordinary — no lights, no crush barriers, no wide-shouldered bouncers in nylon jackets. Nothing to suggest that this is the entrance to Vinyl, home of New York’s club-of-the-moment, Body & Soul. There isn’t even a queue.

Once inside, however, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Passing through the warren of corridors, past the unobtrusive security, the first thing you notice is the chill-out area, with its collection of welcoming and obviously well-worn sofas. Beyond that, a couple of makeshift stalls sell Body & Soul T-shirts, hippy sweaters and hats. Even the main part of the club — a large plain square bathed in simple spotlights — seems surprisingly intimate for a venue which can hold up to 1,200 people. There’s just the dancefloor, a raised stage and, up to the side of DJ booth, a compact bar area serving energy drinks, sodas and mineral water. There is no alcohol on sale.

Body & Soul is a club which exists purely for the appreciation of music. It’s not a place for copping off with drunken strangers or getting ripped on E and pogoing all night on a podium. Aside from a few joints being passed around, there’s scant evidence of the heavy drug use — Ketamine in particular — which blights many New York clubs. Besides, the resident DJs at Body & Soul have seen it all before. Between them, François Kevorkian, Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit have been instrumental in providing a nocturnal soundtrack for New York City for the past 25 years.

Not that Body & Soul is just some trainspotter’s heaven. People don’t come here for a Sunday afternoon chill-out session — they come to dance. New arrivals pause at the edge of the dancefloor, stripping off coats and sweatshirts, stowing their outer layers in holdalls and bags which they then stack neatly behind the huge speaker stacks — a process we only fully appreciate after spending 50 minutes in the queue for the cloakroom. Out on the floor, it’s easy to see what makes the club special. The crowd is a unique composite of the New York club scene: colourful young ravers; groups of black and Puerto Rican club veterans; bare-chested gay musclemen. At the bar a clutch of DJs and musicians swap tips and records. As veteran DJ Kenny Carpenter puts it, relaxing at the bar: ‘You never see a crowd this mixed in the city.‘

As if in sympathy with the cross cultural mix, the music constantly shifts, from New York disco classics like First Choice’s ‘Double Cross’ to current dance hits and underground house mantras. There are some tracks, though, which everybody knows. Tracks which are the essence of New York club culture. When the guitar lick from Frontline Orchestra’s 1981 perennial ‘Don’t Turn Your Back’ bursts from the speakers, there is a chorus of knowing cheers. And, despite the early hour, steam starts to rise up in wispy plumes from the dancefloor, mingling with the knots of balloons and coloured paper butterflies suspended over the dancefloor.

IT’S NOW three years since an English ex-pat called John Davis approached François Kevorkian with an idea for a club. Davis wanted to hold a weekly Sunday afternoon party with Kevorkian as one of the featured DJs. Amazingly, Kevorkian — one of the longest-serving DJs on the New York club scene — agreed.

‘I was going to do something on a Sunday with [late New York pioneer and resident at Paradise Garage] Larry Levan,‘ says Kevorkian. ‘But we were playing together in Japan and when we came back he died, so it kind of took the wind out of me for quite a few years. I’d forgotten about it by the time John Davis came on the scene.‘

The idea that Davis and Kevorkian had was simple: they would host an evening that, despite being staged in a club, would feel like a house party. Sofas would be strewn around for people to chat on. There would be balloons suspended from the ceiling, along with cheap, gaudy trinkets that enhanced the DIY aesthetic. As for the music, there’d be none of the hard house and techno that powered the city’s big clubs like Twilo, Limelight and the Roxy. The music would create a mood rather than pound the dancers into submission. In fact, the whole atmosphere would be dictated by the music. Even alcohol would be off limits, with only soft drinks available at the bar. Another unique feature was the trio of DJs who, rather than play distinct sets, would play on-and-off throughout the afternoon and evening.

The idea was nothing new; Davis and Kevorkian would be the first to tell you that. In many ways it was a return to the past, when people went to clubs like Shelter and the Sound Factory specifically to hear one particular DJ. With dance music in general still an underground phenomenon in America, many promoters have turned to the UK dance press for ideas and inspiration. Over the past five years many clubs have started hosting ‘theme’ nights featuring, say, house one night and techno the next. Some even went as far as booking British DJs like Sasha and John Digweed as residents.

So when Body & Soul opened its doors in July 1996, it was as much a cultural statement as a nightclub. From the decor to the DJs, it offered a new experience to seen-it-all New York clubbers. As musical director, Kevorkian took responsibility for hiring the DJs. But rather than just hiring the newest, most fashionable spinners in town, he, ‘decided to call the two people I felt were the most talented I could think of’. Their names were Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell.

Krivit, now in his early forties, has been DJing in New York since the seventies. His stepfather Bobby used to run Ninth Circle, a gay hangout in the West Village, and managed Chet Baker for a time. His mother was a jazz singer on the New Jersey circuit. Danny also has probably the most revered collection of dance music in the city. Joe Claussell, meanwhile, ran an early New York house label, Jungle Sounds, and is now part-owner of the Dance Tracks record shop and a label, Spiritual Life.

As for Kevorkian himself, you could almost trace the entire history of New York nightlife through the experiences of this famously eccentric, French-born DJ, remixer, producer, studio proprietor and label owner. ‘He is, basically, a genius,‘ says Charlie Grappone of West Village record store Vinylmania. ‘He really knows dance music. He’s been in it since its inception. He’s mixed records that still have strength today. When he said he was going to start a label I just knew it was going to be successful. There was no way it could fail.’

Yet when I ask François himself about Body & Soul, he remains silent for a time, as if unwilling to draw too much attention to himself.

‘As far as the party goes,’ he says, finally, ‘John Davis is my partner and equally responsible for the party. I find it unfair to be the only representative of Body & Soul; I can only tell you what it’s like to be part of it. I very much value that team, whether it’s the staff at the door, the host or the coat-check people. It’s a whole bunch of people who love doing it. And I think it shows.’

NEW YORK has long been regarded as having the best clubs in the world. Not only are the clubs themselves legendary — Paradise Garage, Shelter, Sound Factory — but so are the DJs: Larry Levan, Timmy Regisford, Junior Vasquez. In this sense, Body & Soul is merely the continuation of a great tradition. One which many in the city feared had died with the closure of Timmy Regisford’s black gay mecca, Shelter, in the early ’90s (the club has since reopened).

Of course, this past can be restrictive. More than anywhere else, New York’s club history looms ominously over every promoter who discovers an old disco, every DJ who cues up a record, every keyed-up punter in search of a new place to dance. But at Body & Soul, the past is actively celebrated rather than treated with reverence. The days of the ‘Fun City’ which existed under Mayor John Lindsay in the early ’70s may be long gone — the current mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, is the most reactionary New York has seen for decades. The club population may have been decimated by Aids — many people will tell you that once Aids took hold, they couldn’t face going out to clubs because all they could see were the ghosts of friends who were no longer there. But Body & Soul is the living proof that New Yorkers — black and white, gay and straight — still know how to party like it’s 1979. As the veteran DJ Kenny Carpenter puts it: ‘You know what I feel like? Since I come from that era of DJs, I feel like I’m still running with the torch.’

Even so, there is far more to Body & Soul than ’70s classics: the evening’s soundtrack shifts effortlessly from Donna Summer to Armand Van Helden to Basic Channel’s minimal techno masterpiece, ‘Phylyps Track’. Context is everything. As far as Kevorkian, Krivit and Claussell are concerned, you can’t chart the future without a map of the past.

ON A DRIZZLY Saturday afternoon we meet François K at Axis, the recording studio he operates 16 floors above the site of Studio 54 on West 54th St, Manhattan. Typically for a man whose CV encompasses almost every genre in popular music, sessions here have involved such disparate talents as fellow DJ Danny Tenaglia and Mariah Carey. More recently, though, this has been the room where he fashions the strange, compelling fusions of dub, house, techno — or whatever else takes his fancy — that are the hallmark of his label, Wave Music.

François became a DJ by accident. After arriving in New York from his native France in 1975, he wanted to pursue a career as a drummer. The idea was to find like-minded musical buddies and form a group. However, he landed a job playing drums along to the DJ at gay discotheque Galaxy 21 on 23rd Street. It was there that François unexpectedly found himself at the centre of an explosion of club culture.

Coincidentally for Kevorkian, one of the foremost revolutionaries was the resident at Galaxy 21, Walter Gibbons. Gibbons’ trademark was drums. Indeed, he was cutting up breaks and drum tracks well before Grandmaster Flash. He was also one of the first to remix records purely for the effect they would have on the dancefloor. ‘He had an amazing instinct for drum breaks,’ says Kevorkian, ’creating drama with little bits of records.’ Kevorkian’s first forays into production were re-edits of drum mixes Gibbons played live, like Rare Earth’s ‘Happy Song’ or ‘Erucu’, a Jermaine Jackson production that first surfaced on the Mahogany soundtrack. As a result of these early edits, François was offered the post of A&R at fledgling disco label Prelude. In his first week in the job, he remixed Musique’s ‘In The Bush’. It ended up going gold.

‘It was really my first experience in a studio,’ François says, his French accent now submerged in a New York drawl. ’And the record just blew out. Everywhere you would go in the summer of ’78, they were playing that fucking record.’

At the time, not only was François a regular fixture at all the major rooms — The Loft, Better Days, Paradise Garage — he would often be found playing at downtown after-hours gatherings like AM-PM. ‘John Belushi would be there all the time,’ he says. ‘Billy Idol would be lying on the floor half-drunk.’

Yet, by the early ’80s, Kevorkian had more or less stopped DJing altogether and he wouldn’t start playing again on a regular basis until 1990. Instead, he began to concentrate on remixing and production, developing a unique, dub-influenced style inspired in part by reggae producers like King Tubby and partly by an early UK dance track incorporating dub elements: Funk Masters’ ‘Love Money’. It was a style which proved equally effective whether applied to disco — the reprise of D Train’s ‘You’re The One For Me’ on their eponymous album; rock — Dinosaur L’s ‘Go Bang!’ and The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’; or early electronica. ’I pride myself on being the only person that has worked with most of the major electronic music figures,’ he says, ‘whether you’re talking about Depeche Mode, Erasure, Kraftwerk, Eurythmics or Jean-Michel Jarre.’

Great dance music is constructed as much from silence as it is from sound; what gets left out is as important as what goes in. And part of what makes François Kevorkian such a great producer is his unerring sense of what to leave out. Two decades on from those classic early mixes he continues to conjure new rhythmic textures — from the strange, echo-laden depth of recent Wave productions like ‘Time & Space’, ‘Mindspeak’ and ‘Hypnodelic’ to the sparse, dub-orientated tone poems he has wrought from Talvin Singh’s ‘Vikram The Vampire’.

In fact, over the past year, Kevorkian’s profile has risen steadily thanks to the quality of the Wave releases and the label’s burgeoning old-school offshoot, Wave Classics. Yet the release most likely to transcend his specialist-shop status here in the UK is the mix CD released as part of the Essential Mix series on ffrr.

‘It’s just a take on our scene here,’ he says, simply. ‘I think it’s incredible when someone just says, ”Pick what you think’s really great and let’s put it out.” What else can you ask for?’

BY 7PM THE dancefloor at Body & Soul is packed, the crowd growing more excitable with each record. Yet at times the response to the music — as when the O’Jays’ classic ‘Love Train’ comes in — is strangely devotional. An alternative form of Sunday worship. As one of Kevorkian’s contemporaries Steve D’Acquisto told the New York Post 25 years ago: ‘Nobody goes to church anymore, and if you listen to those songs, you’re getting religious and political instruction.’

Just after 10pm, the lights go up. To round off the evening, Danny Krivit throws on Lyn Collins’ rare groove anthem, ‘Think’. The crowd go into a wild hip-shaking frenzy. I look up and see François himself excitedly jumping up and down in the DJ booth. Then, as the track plays out, a Puerto Rican girl called Rosie accosts me. ‘It’s the bomb! I been meaning to go here forever,’ she shouts. ‘I cancelled a flight out of town so I could come here tonight. I had to. And it’s great, everybody getting off on the music, not the drugs. It’s the vibe, man.’ Bill Brewster

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton