Category Archives: Interviews

Fab 5 Freddy made it fresh and fly

Fab 5 Freddy made it fresh and fly

‘Fab 5 Freddy told me everybody’s fly,’ rhymed Debbie Harry in Blondie’s ‘Rapture’, before namechecking Grandmaster Flash and François Kevorkian in the next line. Graffiti artist, film-maker, MC and TV presenter Fred Braithwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, was early hip hop’s most dedicated ambassador. As downtown Manhattan caught on to the exciting noises brewing in The Bronx, Freddy was the key connector zipping between scenes – bringing DJs downtown and introducing them to the no-wave clubs and galleries, and taking Lower Eastsiders uptown to meet the protagonists on home turf. While most commentators saw rap as a fad, Freddy was determined to gain it critical respect, specifically by unifying the somewhat separate street cultures of graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and MCing, and by staging gallery shows that propelled graffiti into artworld magazines and auction houses. He made the classic movie Wildstyle with director Charlie Ahearn, a film that’s near as dammit a documentary of the early hip hop universe, and which makes up in authenticity and period detail what it lacks in Hollywood polish. In 1988 Fred cemented his role as hip hop’s most vocal champion when he presented the groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps, the TV show that took hip hop into living rooms globally. This interview was for the first edition of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and as well as the roots and shoots of hip hop, Freddy was a fount of knowledge on the black mobile DJs who were the scene’s direct antecedents – entrepreneurs who used their sound systems to rock college beach parties and bourgie jams in Manhattan restaurants. He was also great on The Paradise Garage, a club very close to his heart, and on the inevitable connections between disco and hip hop. As he says here, despite the rappers eventually taking centre stage, for him it was always about the power of the DJ.

interviewed by Frank in Manhattan, 5.10.98

Frank Broughton: I guess the first question would be, when did you first hear what was going on in the Bronx?
Fab 5 Freddy: I grew up in Brooklyn, and before I knew about hip hop in the mid ’70s, I grew up with the beginning of DJing. There were people who inspired the guys in the Bronx, DJs who came from Brooklyn, possibly Manhattan. These are the guys who invented disco. Long before disco was borne into the public’s consciousness by way of Saturday Night Fever etc, it existed in black and gay clubs – I didn’t go to the gay clubs I went to the black and Latin clubs – where DJs became the icons of the street.

The DJs were people like the first Grandmaster, who was a guy named Grandmaster Flowers, who died about six or seven years ago, a guy by the name of Pete DJ Jones, a guy by the name of Plumber, guy named Maboya – and there were several other guys – who would give parties and they didn’t do any cutting or scratching, but what they did is mix. They had two turntables and a mixer, and the most incredible thing that they did was the music never stopped – ’cos that was the beginning of seeing that for the first time – and they played records that you didn’t hear on the radio. They played the extended versions of records like ‘Fly Robin Fly’ by Silver Convention, records like ‘Love is The Message’ by MFSB, records like ‘Rock The Boat’ by George McCrae.

And there was a radio DJ at the time in New York who was very influential in black music across the country, a guy by the name of Frankie Crocker, who programmed a station called WBLS. He innovated FM radio programming and sophisticated the presentation of black music on the dial. He was tuned into these DJs and he started to play these records before anybody, and he broke the whole mould of radio station DJs who just followed a playlist. Frankie Crocker broke these records nationally and it became this media thing known as disco.

Those DJs, I went to those parties, I was a young person dressing up trying to be older, going to the parties where these guys were god. What they were doing was incredible. You would ask: who’s DJing? who’s the DJ? That was what made the party hot, and if Flowers or Pete DJ Jones or one of these guys was on the flyer it was a must-go-to event.

They didn’t even play clubs. What you had were these independent party promoters, who would rent restaurants in Manhattan for the weekend, take the chairs out and put up a few lights and you would consider them discos. Coming from Brooklyn and the outer boroughs, a lot of people didn’t realise these places were average restaurants in the daytime, but the whole sense of coming into Manhattan, coming into these pseudo-posh joints gave you this whole air that you were doing something really special and added to the whole excitement of it.

WBLS would advertise these parties heavily on the weekends, so you would know the names of the different clubs. They were places like Nemo’s or Nell Gwynn’s. Sometimes they’d give these big holiday events at a hotel, there was one at the time which was infamous, the Hotel Diplomat, where they’d give these big extravaganzas. Or there was this place on 34th Street, I think it was called The Riverboat. With Grandmaster Flowers, Pete DJ Jones, Plumber, Maboya etc.

So that was the big attraction There were these promoters, you could tune into this radio station that was reflecting what you would get at these parties, this supercool radio DJ who would give credibility to the scene. I can’t describe what you could go to now and have that same feelings that you had as a kid going to one of these places. Like going to Carnegie Hall…

How old were you?
I was a teenager. These parties were promoted as college parties. I was high school age but I was playing like I was already at college. It was a fake bourgie scene as well, they would put on these flyers, ‘NO SNEAKERS’.

So after having my flirtation with that scene, I got this whole thing as the DJ as god, or the club as a shrine – I made all these analogies when I was a kid back then. Because these DJs became icons. Then there started being another kind of DJ. Everyone in the urban areas wanted to be a DJ. So you had guys going out, getting their speakers, getting their two turntables, any how, any way, wiring them up and trying to be DJs. Like these DJs that were gods.

That’s what Flash said: he was inspired by them.
He was completely inspired by them. The first wave of hip hop DJs were all inspired by those guys. That’s where Flash got the name ‘Grandmaster’ from, was from Grandmaster Flowers. He was the first Grandmaster. That’s really important.

I’m sure when you talk to Flash, or when you talk to some of these other guys, they can bring you some of that energy, like, ‘Yo money, this is the real story.’ This is where they got their inspiration. Very few people know about it.

So for me, a kid in Brooklyn, figuring it out, I didn’t have a clue about Flash or anyone at this time. But these local guys in the area started trying to be DJs on their own. Particularly a guy named Frankie D, and Master D, these were our local guys in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, who would play in the parks and the block parties. And they started doing something a little different to what Flowers and Plumber and Pete DJ Jones would do: they started manipulating the records a little bit. Nothing too phenomenal…

When did they start doing that?
I don’t have exact years, I would have to sit down and get with some other heads to really lock into years, but this is mid ’70s now, moving into late ’70s, let’s say from ’74 to ’78, as a rough span. Now these new guys are coming out into the streets and every other guy becomes a DJ. Now I started noticing them playing a different group of records, that you didn’t hear, even from the disco parties, a record that had another kind of a feel than a disco record.

More like funk?
They were basically breakbeats, is what I’m trying to say. You would hear things like ‘Apache’, and you’d be like, ‘what’s that?’, and it made you move a little differently. They had a very crude and early version of scratching: very, very minimally, but it sounded incredible. And they had MCs. Their MCs weren’t great lyricists, at the time it was more the call and response: ‘Wave your hands in the air,’ ‘Somebody say hooo,’ and they’d mostly talk about how dope their DJ was. Which was the emphasis to this whole era for me. One of the reasons I wanted to do this interview was because the DJ has always been the focus of this whole thing. When rap became rap, the focus moved and a lot of people forgot the DJ. But for me, and closest to my heart, even to this day, is the effect that the DJ had on me.

I was one of the kind of kids when you went to jams I’d have to stand in front. You had your gangster kids… everyone came for the music, but within the party there were different things going on. But at every party you had a group of people that stood at the rope, watching what the DJ did. Those were the guys that wanted to be DJs and MCs.

And you would stand there… watching. That was still the era of chilling at a party in a b-boy stance. You would stand a certain way, because that was about being cool, but it was also about ‘I’m not to be fucked with’, because you were always intimidated that there were some really dangerous guys at these parties. So you wanted to chill in the b-boy stance. [he adopts it: arms crossed tight, shoulders turned inwards]. I was joking with my man, reminiscing: ‘Remember when you used to go to a party and stand like that, with your feet in a certain way?’

This is all in Brooklyn?
For me, yeah. Grandmaster Flowers was also from Brooklyn, so Brooklyn was important in the scheme of things. And he also was a graffiti writer, which was highly influential on me, ’cos that was where I came into the scene, as a painter, a graffiti writer.

So how does it fit in with the scene in the Hevalo and the Bronx in general?
Im’a tell you. Here’s the thing about me. I was mad curious, always, so when I began to go to a lot of jams and began to figure out the science of it, and observe the DJs, the things you would talk about was how much amps he had: ‘Oh money, that muhfucker, he got five-hunnerd amps, he got 500 watts, son.’ ‘Really? Yo, my man got two thousand,’ ‘Worrrd?’ ‘Yo he got 18-inch woofers, he had the piezo tweeters.’ This was the conversation around the DJ and his set. One thing Brooklyn guys were known for was having really strong, clear-sounding sets. ’Cos later, when I began to venture uptown to parties, the guys were much more advanced in terms of turntablin’ and rap but the sets were horrible.

So as I began to go to more parties I asked ‘Yo money, where did this shit start? Like what do you call this?’ And guys would say, ‘Oh it’s the uptown sound,’ or, ‘It’s from uptown,’ and uptown used to be a combination that could either be Manhattan or The Bronx. And then you began to hear a very slight inkling about a guy named Flash. who was supposed to be the fastest DJ, ’cos speed became the thing.

So I asked questions, asked questions, couple of times I even ventured out on the train up to Harlem and just walked around. In Brooklyn in the summers you’d look for a jam. You’d roll up on some heads on the corner, ‘Yo money where they jammin’ at? Anybody jammin’? Just to be out, the energy, just the classic shit, tapped into the street pole [for electricity], 2 o’clock in the morning some hot hazy Saturday night, you’re just bored, literally on the verge of doing some ill shit. It definitely kept me from doing some crazy shit.

I heard there were these tapes you could buy, from these uptown guys. Through some graffiti connections, in Manhattan, on the Lower East Side, this is now about ’78, I met Lee Quinones. That’s when me and him were getting ready to do the whole Fab 5 thing, bringing graffiti out into the mainstream. So I got with this kid, and he had a Flash tape, and that’s how I heard my first Flash tape. I’ll never forget because it was still the Furious Four. It wasn’t even the five of them at the time.

He was tellin’ me that they sometimes play in the community centre in the projects on the Lower East Side. So this was where I saw Flash with the Furious Four, but they were introducing Raheim, as the fifth member. He had just joined the group. I could remember it as if it was yesterday.

An interesting ironic fact, I went up to Melle Mel in between the sets. I was like ‘Yo man, wassup. Are you aware of how big this is? You guys should make a record.’ I remember him going, ‘Yo, who would buy it?’ I said, ‘Well at least all the people comin’ to these parties.’ But it wasn’t about that. It was just about being somebody. I’ll never forget that. So I got to see Flash do his thing. It was amazing, it was state of the art.

This was on the Lower East Side?
Yeah, at the Smith projects. Community Center of the Smith projects.

Do you remember the date or the month?
It was probably September, November ’78. ’Cos it wasn’t freezing. But anyway, boom! And when you went to these parties, there would  always be guys giving out flyers, which were a kind of connect the dots for other joints where I needed to go. I can remember all the imagery and shit. Began to get my hands on a few more Flash tapes. So I could hear the differences between what they did and what guys in Brooklyn did. Once I plugged into Flash I started getting a few flyers, I started seeing the other names.

And that was who?
Shit, money, it was Grand Wizard Theodore, and Fantastic Five MCs, it was Flash, it was Bambaataa, it was, ohmygod, other DJs? It was Charlie Chase from Cold Crush…

You haven’t mentioned Kool Herc.
No, I missed Kool Herc. When I asked people where they learnt from I began to hear ‘the legend of Kool Herc.’

A great clip from Wildstyle, with Grandmaster Flash cooking up a beat for Fab 5 Freddy as Lee Quiñones and Lady Pink throw up a piece and The Rocksteady Crew run through their moves.

Tell us about Wildstyle
Not long after that whole experience I got this idea that a movie should be made. I was serious about trying to be a painter, and I wanted graffiti to be seen as a serious movement like Futurism or Dada, or other great movements in painting. I didn’t want us, through racism and ignorance, to be looked on as folk artists. I was aware of Andy Warhol, who had become an icon for me, and I wanted to let people know that this was a complete culture, which I had read somewhere included dance, painting and music. So I wanted this film to demonstrate that this graffiti thing which was the focus, was a complete culture: that it was related to a form of music and related to a form of dance. Prior to that nobody had seen these things as being connected.

And that was the inspiration for making Wildstyle. I hooked up with Charlie Ahearn, we collaborated on making the film, I ended up starring in it, doing all the music, Charlie wrote and directed, and we basically produced it together. But in the pre-production and research process, I had to take Charlie up to the Bronx. We took a year going up to parties and researching, doing research on the whole hip hop scene.

And you made original music for it.
Well nobody was sampling yet at the time, and the rap records that were being made were just replaying the popular tunes, like what Sugar Hill and Enjoy was doing. But we wanted to capture the energy of these breakbeat records. We’re making this little independent film and Charlie was real scared about being sued. So I said I know what we’ll do. I’ll go into the studio and we’ll make our own breakbeat records. I went in with some musicians, created ten little one-minute pieces of music that would give the feel of different breakbeats, that the DJs would then take and then pick the beats they want, and then that would be our soundtrack.

I remember the day I took them up to the DJs so they could rehearse, they were saying, ‘This is incredible. You made records?’ I was like yeah, and y’all should be able to do this too. You guys are my heroes.’ But they weren’t thinking like that at the time.

Later, the best producers in hip hop were DJs, but this was before they could see the process of making records. Sampling wasn’t even a part of the game yet. That technology wasn’t there. But the ideas were there. Flash actually did it first, if you think about it. ‘Adventures on the Wheels of Steel’ was the precursor to sampling. He just did what he would do at his show. And recorded it all.

The DJ was always the focus in the development of hip hop. His name went first. It was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, representative of their status. That the DJ used to own the set. And he was giving them a reason as a rapper to have a reason to rhyme.

Was there any Jamaican connection for you? Herc says he was directly inspired by the Jamaican parties of his youth. And you’re coming from Brooklyn where there’s a big Caribbean community.
No inkling. None whatsoever.

None at all?
No. What was dope about it, it was parallel. It was a parallel cultural development. Journalists have liked to imagine that everybody in Brooklyn or everyone in hip hop knew everything that was going on in Kingston, it was totally not the fact.

What’s incredible about Jamaica to me, where I’ve spent a lot of time, Jamaica to me is a combination of Africa and New York. In terms of the sensibilities. There’s this very African vibe, feeling, climate, aesthetic, mixed with this very modern thing.

Herc brought it to a point where he started to play these beats and talk over them in a way that inspired a lot of people. But I’m not sure that Herc predates Plumbers, Pete DJ Jones and Maboya. But Herc was a perfect link, in terms of what he brought to the picture. If he did experience Jamaican dub in its early form: a guy talking over the mic, use of the echo chamber. If he did hear that first it could very well be the case.

And later when Herc and them freaked it with the echo, there was a way they used to rock it: ‘And I’m going all the way-ay-ay-ay down to the last stop-stop-stop.’ That’s how Flash used to rock the echo. And DJ Breakout of the Funky Four. They were known for the echo. ‘And this is the sound-sound-sound, of the Funky Four-four-four. Plus one more-more-more, into the girls Shara-ra-ra.’ It used to be ‘Ohmygod, what are we hearing?’

It used to be so ill, the energy and the vibe. Motherfuckers used to smoke dust [angel dust, PCP] on the scene. Like back then in the hip hop scene it was very weird, it’d be really dark, the DJ would have a couple of light bulbs rigged up on a board. There might be one strobe light, and that was the lighting. And a lot of guys would sell angel dust. At least up in the Bronx, that was a popular drug at the time, and it makes a really fuckin’, sickly ill smell, when guys are smoking that, in a fuckin’ hot funky room. It used to be a really ill vibe. There used to be a lot of heavy dust-heads. That might have inspired a lot of the sound. I don’t know. I’m not saying any DJs were smoking that shit, but the scene was weird. It was cool though.

I just know, for me early on, I can remember looking at a big stack of speakers and going, ‘Money, this shit is like some kind of altar.’ ’Cos that used to be the big thing: How high a DJ could stack his shit up. How big his speakers went up. ‘Oh shit!’ Come to a party and be looking up.

And you heard some of the early MCs?
It’s really before rocking the mic was a big issue. It was just about these DJs, it was just about this energy. But they had heard Kool Herc at the Hevalo and seen his MCs Coke LaRock and Clark Kent rock the mic. They wasn’t rhyming about nothin’, they was just, ‘Yes, yes, y’all-y’all-y’all.’ That’s all they were saying, but it sounded like the coolest shit. And then later that summer everyone went out to try and do it. And the rest is history, man.

When did the battles start?
Battles seemed to start early on. I remember some ill sound system battles. I remember one back in the day in a big-ass armoury in Brooklyn. Four sounds in there. It was Frankie D, Master D, might have been Divine Sounds, and maybe the Disco Twins from Queens. Who actually I’m working with now.

The Disco Twins were real foundation DJs, as important as Frankie D and them. What was fly was they were identical twins with big Afros, They were the foundation of Queens, they’re from those projects called Queensbridge, which later gave birth to Marley Marl, the whole Juice Crew, and then Nas. Identical twins, and they would do this thing called going around the warpath, where they would move around this table cutting one after the other, and go bam, bam, bam, and then the other one would be bam, bam, bam, moving around the table, cutting up ‘Apache’ or ‘Good Times’: good time, good time. good time. good time. Oh shit!

That final scene in Wildstyle, that energy we captured, where D.ST’s cutting ‘Good Times’: good, ga, ga ga-good, ga-good, g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g ga ga good g-g-g-g-g-g-g GOOD TIMES!!! That’s how DJs played back then, they used to build you up, ’cos they knew, that was your favourite part of the record.

It’s a tease.
Pure tease, money. Just tease. That’s the skill of it. It’s the right time of night, and when you let that shit go, it‘s like aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. You so happy. It’s a science. A lot of motherfuckers don’t know how to do that no more.

The epic Wildstyle finale.

Could you hook us up with any of these Brooklyn guys?
Let me tell you a tragic story. It’s about six years ago. I’m in the middle of directing some video. We’re doing MTV, the whole shit, and I’m running around town in pre-production. So I have to run into Tower Records to buy something, on 4th and Broadway. I’m in a van with some people on my crew, a million things on my mind. And there’s a couple of guys panhandling, begging, outside Tower Records. Busy day, people walking up and down Broadway. I’m about to step into the door, and I glanced at this guy, disheveled, obviously he’s a crackhead or something. And for a second, I pause, looking at him. I’m literally in mid-step, and the guy makes eye contact and he goes, ‘You recognise me, you know who I am right?’ He’s with some other guy and he goes, ‘See, he knows me.’ And I don’t know where the fuck I know this guy from. I come back, I stop and I turn. I walk back to him and I’m like, ‘Who are you?’ And he goes, ‘You recognise me, you recognise me right. I’m Flowers.’

I felt, in a second, the whole shit just came out. I went in my pocket. I musta had about 25, whatever I had in my pocket I just took it out put it in his hand. I said, ‘Yo, you’re Flowers, you’re Grandmaster Flowers.’ I didn’t want to ask what happened. It was obvious. This was when crack still had a huge part of the community under grips. It was sad, money. Anyway, this brother I was vibing with, a year or two later, said, ‘Yeah, I seen him too, and I regret to tell you that he died. He passed on.’

That crack epidemic. If heads didn’t go to jail and get incredible, unrealistic amounts of jail time, then you know, they died. Just like Cowboy, Grandmaster Flash’s first MC. That’s another part of the whole story of rap.

Tell me about how you helped to bring hip hop downtown.
I brought it downtown in pursuit of my career as a painter. Started meeting people like Blondie, David Byrne, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, John Lurie. I was in the midst of that whole new wave scene.

It was from graffiti becoming a part of the artworld?
Exactly. For me, people like Glenn O’Brien, the original editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview, he was like a mentor to me. Chris Stein and Debbie from Blondie, they kind of were patrons to me. And I was allowed to flow on their scene. I was introduced to the Mudd Club, the whole downtown swirl, which was a very small scene at the time. People like Jean-Michel Basquiat were coming on the scene, trying to be a painter too. I was making my moves, I was meeting heads that were open to what I was talking about, what I was doing.

Which of the galleries was it?
The first gallery to really represent us effectively, was the Fun Gallery. Which was run by Patty Astor, who starred in Wildstyle as the reporter. She was a good friend of ours, an East Village icon. It was my idea that she become a gallery dealer. I said if SoHo had Mary Boone, who was a hot sexy brunette, East Village should have you as the bombshell blonde. She didn’t know too much about selling art, but she loved to give a party. The idea of the Fun Gallery was that the artist was supposed to change the name of the gallery every month. Kenny Scharf, he was on some fun-type shit, so when he had a show he called it Fun.

We were in preproduction on Wildstyle at the time and I said, ‘Well I’m gonna call it the Serious Gallery. I’m gonna flip my shit like serious.’ But Patty didn’t have any money to change the stationery that she had made for Kenny’s show, so she asked if we could still keep it Fun. It was the first gallery in the East Village; within two years there were 60. That’s how fast it happened.

I met Keith Haring who was also trying to become a painter. I also met Jean-Michel [Basquiat] around that same period. Art was the hot thing and we were this new crew trying to get a piece of it. Keith had put together this big show at Club 57 called the Invitational Black Light Art Show, where everybody had to make art that somehow or other glowed in the dark. And anybody who knew me at that time, I would tell them what kind of music I was into, which was rap. And Keith was like wow, I’ve heard some of those rap records. So I told him, look, I know the real guys. And I had Afrika Bambaataa come down and play at Club 57. And everybody was like, ‘Wow, who’s this DJ playing this new music?’

Where was Club 57?
57 St Marks Place. It was the answer to the Mudd Club, for that whole little scene. John Sex, Keith Haring, Anne Magnusson, that was their own hip little nightclub they invented for themselves, ’cos a lot of them weren’t cool enough to get into the Mudd Club.

Was that the first time a DJ came downtown from uptown?
Yeah. Effectively and officially, but it didn’t really become official official until I was asked to curate an art show at the Mudd Club, and I called it Beyond Words: graffiti based, rooted and inspired work. In which I included a lot of graffiti artists but also a lot of downtown punk rock type artists, whose work I thought had a graffiti thing, like Alan Vega from Suicide.

Which year?
1980. There was a big art frenzy going on because the Times Square Show had just happened, which was in June 1980, so it was later that same year. Even before that, I performed at the Mudd Club. Steve Maas, who owned the club was like, ‘Why don’t you bring in some more of this rap stuff? I was never trying to be a rapper. I just did it ’cos it was a great way to earn some rent money. I never tried to present myself as a rapper. I was experimenting with different shit, like two DJs cutting in and out of each other. It was kind of crazy, but it looked cool, because I knew nobody downtown had seen that.

Who were the DJs?
It was a kid from my block named DJ Spy and this white kid that used to DJ for me named DJ Nick the High Priest. He was cool, he used to DJ for Jean-Michel. He was a good friend of Jean-Michel. So when I curated a show, Steve Maas was like, ‘Let’s do some rap,’ and I was like, ‘OK, but I’ma set this shit off right.’ By this time we’re in pre-production on Wildstyle, so I’m well-connected with all the big uptown DJs. So I was able to get Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Romantic, I had Bambaataa come down, I had Cold Crush. It was like a rap review. Three or four groups came, Bambaataa DJed all night.

Bambaataa’s title was Master of Records. He would always play some crazy records in the midst of this whole b-boy frenzy. He would put on a Monkees record and people would be like ‘What the fuck?’ but the uptown crowd would love ’em. People would invent dances, like there was this dance called the Patti Duke, that was inspired by some of these sounds. Bam always wanted to play for a white crowd like this, ’cos he’s got these kind of records in his collection. And that inspired him to go and make ‘Planet Rock’. Because now he had played for this audience, he had a feel for what they would like.

He hooked up with Arthur Baker at these downtown parties?
More or less. I forget how exactly that happened. That was a Monica Lynch, Tommy Boy thing. Somehow that was her idea to make that record.

It inspired so much.
Unbelieveable, the way that record just opened up a whole thing.

Taking that Kraftwerk sound…
Six months ago, Kraftwerk played in New York for the first time in about 15 years. I went to see them and it was so incredible, because they were such a big influence on me, when I was a kid in Brooklyn. Discovering that record, and buying that album. And just being into that whole attitude. And now 20 years later, with everything from websites to samplers, to the fucking Powerbook, all this shit connects to Kraftwerk. While they were playing I was thinking of everything you can connect back to them, that’s cool now, that they did first. Those sounds, they were so new to hear.

How did people react uptown to those kind of records?
They loved those kind of records.

They didn’t care where they came from?
Oh, nobody knew where they came from. They just sounded… The whole major thing about all of these records that were played: None of them, NONE of them, with the exception of maybe one or two, were heard on the radio. The records that were the foundation of hip hop, it wasn’t about the hot record of the moment. Maybe one or two would be played – like Parliament Funkadelic hits or some hot Michael Jackson record like Off The Wall. But what made hip hop parties were these records you didn’t hear anywhere else. It was ‘Apache’, ‘Dance to the Drummers Beat’. You went to the parties to hear these kind of records. Like ‘Welcome aboard disco airline flight 78, dum-dum dah d-dah [Eastside Connection’s ‘Frisco Disco’]. Records that made breakdancers want to breakdance. Or Chic’s ‘Good Times’, that became an anthem way after the record was a hit. ‘Bounce, Rock, Skate’ [by Vaughan Mason]. All those records you can buy now on series upon series of breakbeat compilations. Those were records that these particular DJs made their careers on.

Tracking them down.
Yeah, they and only they had those records. They would soak the labels off, so you would never know what the fuck is that record? Records like ‘Super Sperm’ [by Captain Sky], that you never heard on the radio. Records that’d just make you go crazy. That’s what made it so cool, even as a kid, you knew you were gonna hear something you couldn’t hear anywhere else. That’s why you wanted to go, you wanted to be a part of that world, hear that sound, just be in a cloud of angel dust smoke, all that energy, just funky perspiration odour. All that shit was a part of the party. Some stick up kids that could rob you. It was a whole world. that’s what hip hop was at the time.

And the DJ for me was literally god. In the ghetto. To be coming of age in a time when that person was the star that I looked up to was just incredible for me. It’s affected my whole life.

But it took so long for people to catch on that this was happening.
Well that’s why films had to be made, and stories had to be told. Our reasons for making Wildstyle were not for me to be sitting here being interviewed by you, it was just to make a film that the true hardcore members of the culture would go and see. Our dream was to have a movie that would play on 42nd Street in Times Square for like a year.

And they’d see themselves.
Exactly, that was our key thing. We wanted to make something that was real, to the real heads of the game. And we were happy as all hell that we did that. Now it’s revived, I know they just re-released it in London. It’s where this culture starts, as far as doing your research, as far as rap, it starts with Wildstyle, there’s no earlier record of this stuff on film. And there’s no truer record, which is why other Hollywood films, which were done for a lot more money, are glanced over. ’Cos you look at Wildstyle, you’re seeing Crazy Legs, you’re seeing Flash, you’re seeing Cold Crush, you’re seeing Fantastic. These were the stars of the streets at the time. It really does capture what those parties were like then. When I look at the movie it feels really old, even though it was late ’70s, early ’80s, but kids were still rocking Afros and shit… and tight jeans!

I used to be so embarrassed about the movie, technically. ’Cos we didn’t know a thing about all that real technical shit. And I used to watch the movie thinking about why this scene ended up like this, or that one like… Now I just laugh the whole way through. I’ve forgotten all the nightmare stories behind making it.

Can you date when people started using the term hip hop?
Technically it didn’t become known as hip hop until the early ’80s, but I knew early on that that was the one unifying term. And the reason that became the name of the culture was because that was the one thing that almost everybody said at a party: ‘To the hip, the hop, the hibby-hibby-dibby-dibby, hip-hip hop, and you don’t stop.’

It was coined by Lovebug Starski wasn’t it?
Either Lovebug Starski started saying that, or DJ Hollywood. Between the two of them. When you would be describing to somebody what kid of party you were at you would say, ‘Yo it was one of them hibbedy-hop things, you know, that hibbedy-hop shit.’

But it wasn’t seen as a culture. When I came up with that idea to show all these things in a movie, it wasn’t like every other breakdancer, or every other graffiti artist, was thinking about these other two forms as a part of their world.

Breakdancing and graffiti came long before the music.

They were self-sufficient cultures that kind of got roped in?
Totally. It was all roped in by Wildstyle. The perception that these things were one world. Nothing had put it all together like that, until Wildstyle. Prior to that graffiti was the scourge of the city. It was looked at by the administration like dogshit on the street. And although a lot of it was very aggressive and angry, within that anger and aggression there was great art. It challenged a lot of shit. It still does. ‘I’m gonna spray paint on your fuckin house!’ That’s really what it’s saying, ‘…and you can’t catch me!’

Then it was about communicating to other heads like you. Sayin’, ‘Oh, that muthafucka got more heart than the next nigga, ’cos look how many times his name is up.’ Muthafuckas was loving the idea of fuckin up the system. I didn’t want people to be dwelling on that. I wanted to play off the whole aesthetic attitude: ‘I’m an artist.’ It was insane, money. You’re running around spray painting, stealing paint, every chance you get, your whole life is consumed with acquiring paint, and painting. I still get an ill fucking chill when I think about painting. Or when I’m around graffiti. If I even smell spray paint I still get like – ‘Oh shit.’ That shit drove me, money, and I tried to translate that energy into everything else I did. Try to project my shit to the top.

Tell me about the Roxy parties. Were you involved with Kool Lady Blue right from the beginning?
Uh-huh. She was a really great girl. She come offa that Blitzkrieg scene or whatever [he means the Blitz club], – I’m sure she told you – Boy George and them, New Romantics. She didn’t have a clue. But she was a great girl, she had great energy, and she knew all the cool English heads on the scene at the time. Hooked up with a guy named Michael Holman who I knew, who went on to manage the rival breakdancing crew to the Rocksteady Crew [New York City Breakers]. They decided they would give a party, a la the parties that used to happen uptown, at a joint downtown, called Negril.

They had put my name on the flyer without contacting me, so I saw my name on this flyer, I’m like, ‘Who’s this Lady Blue?’ So I stepped to her, and she quickly smoothed me out, I see she’s connected with the Rocksteady, which was already my peoples. So she gave a couple of parties at Negril. I was on the mic, as the house MC. Then she came to me said, ‘Listen, I met these guys that have this rollerskating rink,’ which was the Roxy. I said, ‘Damn that place is so big. How you gonna fill it?’

What I was instrumental in doing for her was I would give her advice on people to book, because we had did the movie, so I knew who was who, uptown. She’d heard about Grand Wizard Theodore, who she put down as one of the first DJs. But the first night, Theodore didn’t show up, and the Roxy’s house DJ was playing. But this kid named D.ST was around for some reason, ’cos I think he used to be a breakdancer too, and he had a crate of records. Nobody knew him, he wasn’t a name uptown. But I knew him because we had used him for Wildstyle. He cut the final scene. Blue was standing there waiting for Grand Wizard Theodore to come, and I said listen, this shit is not happening, honey. And she’s like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ And I said ‘This kid right here. Grand Mixer D.ST, he’s incredible.’ He got on. The rest was history.

What was the greatest Roxy party for you?
The pivotal party was the night when Blue got Malcolm McLaren to let her show a copy of The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle. It was hot, because everybody was still conscious of that whole punk rock thing, but nobody had saw the film, because it was never released. So she arranged a screening, and right after was around the time when the uptown heads from the Bronx, the hip hoppers, would start coming in. These two scenes had never been mixed on this level. I had did it somewhat at the Mudd Club, but the downtown scene was pretty much predominantly white, and the uptown scene was black and Hispanic. And I couldn’t imagine it was gonna work. I just anticipated kids from the Bronx beating the shit out of weird looking punk rockers.

And true to form, she had all the fashionable on-the-edge punk rock people, the new wave people, the English glitterati, in the Roxy for the movie. And when it ended, I expected all these heads would leave. But a lot lurked around, kinda curious. And sure enough, here come all the little b-boys and b-girls, the fly guys and fly girls coming in. I was waiting for some shit to jump off. But kids was coming in, just dancing, energy was right. And it seemed to me, from that point on, you had this great mix.

From that moment on that became what the Roxy was. You had a big forum now, where uptown can meet downtown, and everybody mix, and got to hear and see what each other were into. You had punk rock kids with mohawks, standing next to b-boys [does the b-boy stance] It was the first time each other was seeing each other.

Was there much mingling, did people make friends or were they just checking each other out?
A lot of fucking going on. In short. Lot of fucking going on, because the hot dance at the time, this is when Madonna’s ‘Everybody’ is a new record. We were all moving in that same crew. ‘White Lines’ is coming out. The hot dance at the time was the Webo. It was this dance that came out of the Latin scene, where you would get all up on a girl and really rub your two pelvic areas together, furiously. Like really wind and grind on each other. If you were cool with the girl or if the girl was really wild, she would let more than one guy hop on. So you would sometimes have a guy on the front and a guy at the back. It was called the Webo, or the Freak, doing the freak.

The black and Latin girls wouldn’t want to let just any guy jump on them. But a lot of the white chicks, at the Roxy, they didn’t know that it’s cool to do this, but not like all the time, and don’t let guys get too carried away with it. So, you would see three or four Puerto Rican dudes all around one girl, and she would be like [dizzy abandon] ‘Aaah, this is greeat!,’ and them guys would be like, ‘Yeeeahhhh!’ There’d be a lot of energy like that. Just people rubbin’ on each other. Kids would be hookin’ up, you know.

So that was what brought the two scenes together.
You know… It helped! It was a really really good era. You’d see people checking out what each other’s doing. You got Madonna, a good example of that whole cross-pollenisation, cos she made her initial style what hip Puerto Rican chicks were wearing, mixed with some b-boy shit. Like, c’mon, that whole nameplate belt-buckle, that was a b-boy fuckin’ staple. That was official shit. So she incorporated that with the whole Puerto Rican disco club girl look. Took it to the world, money!

It’s quite a trip that the club was run by an Englishwoman.
There was also a kid named Jon Baker, that runs Gee Street records. He used to be the doorman at the Roxy. We used to call him Mole. He was part of that whole English crew that was running behind the Roxy. I guess through Blue, the English contribution was really important. Also for us, as far as Wildstyle, some of the first money we got was from the fourth channel [Channel 4]. So I’ve always felt a kinship there. The England scene, they gave us some money, ’cos nobody was trying to hear us over here.

What about McLaren, was he just poaching?
I had met Malcolm back then. When he first came to New York, Blue was the one taking him around. Pointing him in the direction, because he wanted to do something. But I had been connected with the punk rock scene really well. I was tight with The Clash, so I knew how people felt about him. Blue brought him to a gig I was havin’, with the Rocksteady, when he first came to town. ‘Oh, he wants to make a record!’ But I didn’t warm up to him. I was like, ‘He ripped off fuckin’ punk rock.’ So she took him over to the Supreme Team – they had one of the first hip hop radio shows – and the rest was history. Malcolm made good records. I had a lot of respect for him, I just couldn’t get down with him.

The DJ was overshadowed very quickly. Why was that?
Because of the prominence of the rapper. I just think culturally that’s how it was supposed to go. But I think the DJ’s influence is still there, just is for obvious reasons, the rapper coming out front, the DJ has a somewhat diminished role.

In any form of music, there’s not that many innovators, a handful that defined the culture. And from that handful you can make lines, drawing out, spanning out to everybody else. So as long as you understand who those key originators and innovators were, just make sure that we acknowledge who they are.

It’s not who made the most money or who sold the most records, but who made the most impact. Let’s balance who sold 50 million records with who was the first to do this. Who really invented this type of flow. This is what the real heads are conscious of. And that’s what keeps this culture so vital today. You have so many of the practitioners there still spitting game and stating facts.

You also went to the Paradise Garage
It was through my friendship with Keith Haring, I went to the Garage. That redefined his life, Keith became a part of that whole scene, he became friends with Larry, and in terms of club music, he was god. I would be able to go up into the booth. And it was indescribable, the energy in there. It was fucking incredible, you understand, it was incredible to be in that room.

The other day, I was in my car and I made a turn, and I saw King Street, I looked in my rear-view mirror, and I was like, ‘That’s where it was!’ THE ENERGY. ’Cos to be up in there was just another world. It was the only place I ever saw, where in between a DJ playing a 20, 30-minute sequence of records. When he would come out of it, people would just clap, on the dancefloor, spontaneously.

And he would play records so far before you would ever hear them anywhere else. I can remember ‘Din Daa Daa’, I remember Imagination. [Sings] It’s just an illusion. You’d hear that record six months at the Garage. Grace Jones, every time she would come out with something new. Hear that at the garage for six months. Peech Boys, ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’. Being at the Garage for that first night. The excitement. I can’t believe it, it was just fabulous.

Even after seeing how people talked about Flash, there was never a DJ I ever encountered, who people spoke about like Larry Levan. ‘Oh Larry, was OK, he wasn’t playing great.’ Or if Larry was angry, people would be like, ‘Oh shit, Larry’s not happy tonight. Something ain’t right.’ But if you were there on a great night, it’d just be ‘Oh my god.’ It was really that incredible. The way the lights would be working, it’d be phenomenal, money, the effect that shit had on the senses. I cannot describe it, man.

Nothing makes you feel like that no more, There’s nothing that’s going on with that kind of excitement. Just being in the room, waiting.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Chris Stein delivered the rapture

Chris Stein delivered the rapture

Chris Stein is the quiet genius (and guitarist) whose interest in New York street culture drove his band Blondie in all kinds of interesting directions. For many kids in the suburbs, ‘Rapture’ was their first contact with hip hop, while ‘Heart Of Glass’ was their homage to disco and producers like Giorgio Moroder (with whom they later worked). We talked to Chris in 2014 about hip hop, hippies, heroin and financial calamities.

interviewed by Bill in London, 28.2.14

What was it like growing up in New York in the ’60 and ’70s.
It was great. I was a teenager in the middle of that folkie scene, going to New York every day on the subway, it was a great period. I saw Hendrix walking round the streets. I saw Richie Havens all the time, he was always hanging out on Washington Square. The West Village, Bleeker Street, MacDougal Street was the nexus, where everyone went to hang out. It was the December’s Children period [psychedelic rock band from Ohio]. That was a really big record when it came out for all of us. I was born in 1950 so my life parallels the rise of rock’n’roll to a certain extent. I was at Woodstock. I went to Haight Street in 1967. I was at home in my communal house there when someone came running in shouting, ‘George Harrison was just on Haight Street!’ I went to San Francisco in ’67 and ’68. I got to LA the weekend of Monterey Pop,  and I was so horny to get to San Francisco I didn’t go to the festival, which I’ve always regretted. Debbie went to Woodstock, too. 

How did you move from the flower power to the Velvets. 
Well you know my Velvets story is from 1967. My friend was working for Andy Warhol as like a gofer. He was a kid, just 16. He came to my house in Brooklyn one night and said the opening act for the Velvets has not shown up, do you guys wanna do it?  So we went to the Gymnasium which was uptown on the west side and opened up for the Velvet Underground which is really a great moment for me. They let us use their amps. Maureen Tucker let us put her bass drum right side up. They were awesome. We were always aware of them in that period. I went to art school in like 1968 then I took a couple of years off and went back in the ’70s. Then I started seeing flyers for the New York Dolls in the lobby and I thought it was a drag act. And I went to see them and fell in with Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps. Everything was connected to Andy Warhol, everybody had some connection to him.

Was that stuff widely known outside the downtown scene?
The art scene was only downtown. Max’s was an art hangout but there was a music situation a little bit later. We got the Velvets record when it first came out in the middle of the flower power thing. 

You came from an arty background didn’t you?
My mom was a painter and my dad was a frustrated writer but he just had to have a normal job. They had met in the Party, and he was a Labour organiser. They were pretty leftwing. The FBI had come to my house when I was just a baby, was the family story!

What was the vibe when you left school?
My mom got me into this private school uptown called Quintano School For Young Professionals. It was across the street from Carnegie Hall. There were actually a few kids who were in showbiz. I think Patty Duke went there. Johnny Thunders went there later, too. They just wanted to get you through high school successfully so you could take a degree. 

What was your ambition when you left school?
I’d always been into music, I’d been playing since I was 12 and being in bands. But you didn’t think of it as a career in those days. It wasn’t like the kids now who see themselves like that now. It was just what we did. I was still involved in that revolutionary hippie ethic, too. Now, everyone aged 20 – 30 is a hipster. In those days, if you were a hipster you were an outsider. You weren’t part of the mainstream. 

Tell me how you first discovered hip hop.
[Fab Five] Freddy brought us to this event uptown in 1977 and it was a big moment. It was me, Debbie, him, Glenn O’Brien and Patti Astor. It was just exciting. I’d never seen it in person before, you know? The energy level was phenomenal. It was a kind of a festival in a police athletic league which is kind of like a civic centre. It was just great. And it was like a parallel of what was going on downtown, but they were completely separated. So it seemed like a no-brainer to do something with a rap in it. It just seemed the obvious way to go. 

Where did you meet Fab Five Freddy?
Maybe TV Party [Glenn O’Brien and Chris’s cable access show] or hanging around on the scene. He used to do that TV show with us. I’m not exactly sure of the timeline. 

Steinski discovered you through a WPIX guest slot.
Yeah we got close to the Funky 4 + 1 and Rodney and Sharon. We went on Saturday Night Live and they let us pick another guest artist and we brought those guys on, Funky 4 +1,  and the guys on the show just couldn’t get it together to get the turntables to work so they wound up with a tape and it was really disappointing because they didn’t get to do real scratching. But that was still the first hip hop act on either local or national TV on America. They still put them on at the end over the titles. They were just nervous about the whole thing. 

Why do you think they were nervous? 
Just all this fucking stuff. The late ’70s that period I talked to a lot of people in record companies and 100% of these guys told me: hip hop is a fad and it’s going to go away. Everyone of these fuckin’ guys. And it was racial aspect to it, gang kids etc. 

So tell me about the new album. Debbie says it was a more long distance.
Remote, yeah yeah. For most of the record I was in New York and Jeff the producer was in San Francisco. So we’d be sending things back and forth all the time, for about a year. I would send him a track, programmed, and Clem would come in a little later and play some drums, and we’d play some of the instruments, real instruments, but it just kept going back and forth. 

And a lot more programmed?
Oh yeah there’s a bit of my programming on almost all the tracks.

So how does Clem work around that?
We just put him in and he plays on top of that and it makes it sound more organic when you put the real instruments on. Real guitarists replacing programmed guitar, but I have a tendency to use guitar samples, it’s just easier to get a sound with a sample but I play it with a midi guitar. It’s just easier than plugging an amp and trying to get a sound, the sound can take an hour sometimes. If you use a sample it’s five minutes and it’s right there. 

Do you prefer working like that?
Now I really prefer working with the computer. Or I’ll just write in a guitar part with a keyboard frequently too. There are all these programmes now that will play a chord by using one finger. 

How long have you been working this way?
I was really lucky I had the guy who runs our fan club got me going with computers in the late ’80s/early ’90s. I remember when emails started and if I’d had any brains I’d have bought all those domain names! But then who the fuck thought of that? But this stuff I’ve been doing for six or seven years and still learning all the time. I’m not Skrillex, I don’t have that kind of skill, you know, all these songs that he writes just sitting on an aeroplane. 

What was the imperative to get the band back together?
When we broke up, interest in the band built up over the next ten years. Early on, I never heard people talking about it, but as time went on more and more did and then other musicians started referencing it. It seems like we’re much more accepted now than we were 40 years ago. Certainly 30 years ago, at any rate. 

When the band ended in the 1980s was it more to do with your illness?
Nah, it was management, bad financial advice. We ran out of money. We were just screwed over on so many levels. Bad management, bad accounting, our accountant, in the two year we made the most money, decided not to pay our taxes with these loopholes and we wound up owing $100k which kept going up every year with interest so it ended up being $1m. after five years. It was stupid, all that stuff. And we were doing drugs like crazy and there was no rehab in those days. Now it’s part of showbiz, the artist gets fucked up, you go to rehab

And then you write a song about it!
Send ’em away for two months and that’s it. In those days, at the same time all the A&R guys at the record companies were giving us loads of cocaine. But that was okay, because that was ‘non-addictive’ [smiles wryly] and there were tensions in the band and we’d been working for five years pretty much non-stop which didn’t help. 

Tell me about the Latin influences on the new album?
It’s what got me really excited. I started with a couple of compilation records and I wound up listening to Mega, this great New York Latin station, and I’ve always liked tracking stuff that’s a little obscure and even though there’s a huge mass of people listening to Latin music all the time, it’s not in the mainstream in America because of the language. Americans are very stubborn about the language so to me even though my Spanish is very lousy, it’s just very exciting and those grooves are very sexy. 

How did you find the collaborators. 
I had been listening to the first Systema Solar album and I was using that to reference the tracks, and I sent a track I was working on, ‘Sugar On The Side’, to our producer Jeff and then I sent some of the Systema tracks saying this is what I’m listening to, this is what it should sound like. And he said, ‘Let’s reach out to these guys’, they came back right away and Debbie has since sung on their second album which is also a really nice track. They’re great. We didn’t hear from one of the guys for weeks and we were waiting for a track from him and he wrote us an email saying, ‘Oh I’ve just been in the jungle! I didn’t have any email.’

How long have you been getting into this because it’s been a sound in New York for decades hasn’t it?
I’m much drawn to the modern electronic Latin the newer generation rather than the old school Latin stuff, Cuban etc. You know I always loved that stuff but this is just very fresh. 

How did your illness affect you and your creativity?
I had a lot of great visions while I was in the hospital. 

Was that morphine?
No I was still doing dope (heroin) too, to make my hospital stay a little better and it would be mixed with massive doses of steroids so I basically tripped out. I mean I can’t say I was in a coma, but I was in a very deep dreamstate and I had a lot of very strange visions. Maybe that helped my creativity. I can’t say that I regretted any of it.  It was interesting overall but there was a lot of annoying aspects to it. I had a spinal tap in the middle of all this. That’s fuckin’ painful. It was like getting shot. I certainly stepped back from the whole drug thing. But it still took a few years after that to stop doing coke all the time but at this point I can’t even have a toke on a joint I get too tripped out. Now I don’t do anything, I don’t drink anymore, nothing. 

Does it alter the way you view the world or music?
I think that probably smoking pot all the time it makes you see small and big things of equal importance. So if you pour coffee on your leg it’s the same importance as signing the contract and I don’t think that’s a good mental state to be in. 

How do you feel about New York with gentrification
Well it’s kinda sad, but financial everything is kind of sad. But you know it speaks more of the world situation. I really like Obama, and it’s exciting to break through. I don’t know whether 15 years ago I thought I’d ever see a black guy in the White House, but the banks still fuckin’ own everything including him. I don’t know what it’s going to take to change that situation. 

Do you think Blondie would exist now if you were 19 or 20 in New York. 
I don’t know. Who the fuck knows? If Debbie was herself and doing what she was doing back then we would stand a good shot. She was so striking and so amazingly gorgeous, nobody else looks like that but we would’ve still been in with a lot of other people doing the same thing. It’s kind of the inverse of what I would do if I could go back 40 years with all this knowledge.
Blondie’s musical influences

What was it like being part of the CBGBs scene, because they all seem to have Blondie as the write-offs. 
Oh yeah yeah. We were very scattered. A lot of the bands had a real tight focus about what their style was and our style was all over the place, but that became the Blondie style, this eclecticism. People I admired, like Bowie, were all over the place, too and reinventing himself all the time. Certainly we weren’t in the forefront of that scene, or not early on. But as soon as we got the recordings out there that all changed. 

Did that focus what you were doing?
Yeah it probably did. But we have this DVD coming out of us at CBGBs from 1977 which is terrific because these tapes are in colour,  have been lying around for years., nobody’s ever seen it before. But it sounds very punk compared to what the recordings sound like, more fast and manic sounding. 

I saw you play at Hammersmith Odeon when you blew Television off stage. 
You were at that show?

Yeah! And they were the big guys in the neighbourhood and they stole Fred Smith from you. 
Well yeah they were. I think their expectations over here (UK) defeated them and it’s always good to be the underdog. I remember it was written about and I remember a guy standing up in audience and yelling, ‘Prove it, Tommy boy’ which is obviously one of their songs and everyone was maybe a little sceptical as to whether they’d live up to those expectations. And fuckin’ Tony Parsons went and wrote how much he’d fallen in love with Debbie in the NME (he then proceeded to kill us next time we were over!). 

A very British reaction in the music press.
That was standard procedure. 

Coming over from small gigs in the US to Hammersmith Odeon must have felt like a breakthrough.
Well yeah, something about the brash American female. There’s the Lolita theory, which is one of my all-time favourite English language novels: young American seduces old Europe. So there’s an aspect of that in there. 

There was also the strong vein of Anglophilia in Blondie. 
Oh yeah.  I’d been over here twice before. I went to the first reggae festival up in Portobello. I was staying in the house adjacent to the one used in Performance, on Powis Square, which was such a big deal for me because Performance is still my favourite music movie. It’s the only good music movie. I first time I came over in 1971, I visited the Isle Of Man, I was with a girl visiting her relatives in the UK, an aunt who lived there and it was like going back to the ’40s. She had a pump in the kitchen for water and stuff. Fuckin’ amazing. I went to the witches mill. I went to the Gerald Gardner Museum. I’ve always been into the occult. He was the first one to write about witchcraft in the ’50s. 

What was it like working with Mike Chapman?
Mike was great, he was awesome. Recently I realised that one of the best aspects with Chapman was he wouldn’t let the fuckin’ record company anywhere near us. He wouldn’t let them send A&R guys in to tinker around with the music and try and influence what was going on. There was a point where he hijacked the tapes, I don’t remember why but he wouldn’t hand them over until we’d done whatever we needed to do at that moment. The famous story is he gave them Autoamerica and they said, ‘We don’t hear any singles on here’. It had two number ones on it! But he wouldn’t let the guys into the control room. 

Debbie said he was chosen by the record company?
No Terry Ellis brought him round.

Did you know about his pedigree in the UK?
Yeah yeah, we knew Sweet and stuff. 

What was he like to work with?
He was great. It was a whole different reality, we just learned so much on that first record because he just had so…. We hadn’t been in a situation where we’d been repeating things. And suddenly he was there asking us to do our part 20 or 30 times until it met his exacting standards. It’s something I’ve carried with me ever since. You have to be able to do something over and over and still keep it fresh and I think that goes into writing, it goes into everything. In spite of all his writing abilities he didn’t do that with us, he just drew out the best of our own material. 

Why do you think Blondie succeeded when everyone was saying you were terrible?
I think the recordings helped a lot. I’d always worked with recordings on my own with my four-track. I think all our terrible references just came from the live period when we were only represented by our shows at CBGBs. When we started playing out after we’d recorded, it changed. 

Did it give you self-belief hearing how it could sound?
Certainly, yeah. I always loved the idea of recording in multi-track. Even when I was a kid listening to the Beatles I was still always listened to the recording aspect of it, you know how they were doing this thing as well as the overall sound. 

What inspires you now?
A lot of stuff. Pop music, but I’m always six months behind what’s going on. There’s such a mass of stuff. We saw Drenge at the NME awards. They were fucking great. 

What’s the secret to your enduring partnership with Debbie?
We have a similar mindset. Some kind of connection in some past life, I’m not sure, it’s just what it is. We were just lucky to find each other. 

Did you feel that when you first met?
Pretty early on yeah. We never really argued much about things. Both of us will see how much the other is wanting something and then back down. It goes to a point in the middle where both of us know not to cross. 

You’d been through a few bands together before Blondie. You joined the Stilletos didn’t you?
Yeah I went to their first show. 

At that stage did you have a vision of what your band would be?
No. There was no masterplan even on this record. It was just one song at a time. 

So what’s the impetus for making music?
I’ve always had it going and trying to get it out. I spent a few months working on this photo book, working on music three months now, it’s out it in September, I wrote a lot of anecdotes in the captions for the photos. We did this other book Making Tracks with Victor Bockris, but it didn’t get much attention. 

What’s it like being a musician now compared to when you were having number ones?
We release the music ourselves now. External pressures now are just to make a living. The kids [eight and ten years old at the time] have changed my whole perspective because if I didn’t have them I wouldn’t care about money. I spend a lot of time with those guys. But suddenly I have to think about making money which was never such a priority for me. 

How did you meet your current producer?
Gee I don’t know. I can’t remember who suggested him, but he’s worked with the Killers and Fischerspooner. My wife is friends with one of the guys from Fischerspooner, so he gave him a big recommendation. It just worked out. 

In the early days how did it feel when Television nicked Fred Smith off you?
Oh it was annoying. It was like starting all over again. There was a moment when Clem was very supportive, we were really defeated by it and he was the big pusher: ‘I know all these musicians from New Jersey!’ Which turned out to be Gary [Valentine]. 

Also Clem’s look was perfect for you. 
We were all really attracted to the suits. We were all Anglophiles. He was a big Bay City Rollers fans. It really wasn’t thought out. In those days you could go to like fuckin’ Hoboken and these towns in New Jersey and there were stores full of ’60s clothing, tab collar shirts, narrow collar suits, it was there off the rack. There was amazing stuff in the thrift shops right up into the ’70s. 

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Debbie Harry has a heart of class

Debbie Harry has a heart of class

As well as being one of the most iconic pop singers of all time, Debbie Harry kept both feet in the underground club scene that had been the crucible for her band, Blondie. She organised a baby shower at the Paradise Garage for Grace Jones, was a regular attendee at both Jackie 60 and Mother, the legendary meatpacking district clubs run by Chi-Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, and was even know to occasionally put in a shift behind the bar. In our 2014 meeting, we asked her about the latest Blondie album, women in rock music, and her early love of hip hop.

So tell me about your new album, Ghosts Of Download.
It’s terrific. I love it. There have been a lot of contributors to this one, probably more than any other Blondie album before. Lots of different writers. Basically the musicianship was the Blondie group but there might have been some addition stuff that our producer Jeff Saltzman put on in San Francisco. The thing that’s interesting about this one is that it’s been done just through the internet. It was a very computerised delivery. Not necessarily the music on it but the way that we did it, we didn’t all get together and live in an area and go into the studio every day. Chris would build up the tracks and then he’d send it off to the producer and he would fiddle around with it back and forth; that kind of thing. 

And how does that work creatively? How does it feel from a creative point of view?
It feels fine actually. It feels pretty much the same for me, because I always get the track sent to me either on a CD or online and I would mull them over and Chris would maybe suggest a melody line or I would add to it and work on some kind of a lyric and then we’d send that back and forth so it’s pretty much the same for me. At the end, when all the tracks were done I’d go and put on some vocals. 

And how would it be finished?
Oh he would do that in the studio. 

You’ve used a lot of modern – dance – techniques to make this and the last album. Is that a conscious thing? Is it something that’s inspired you a lot over the years?
Well you know, I guess it is. We’ve always admitted to being inspired by our peers and what’s happening. We’re very urban and open minded listeners, I think it’s not that you’re copying somebody, but the stuff just seeps in. So when you have an idea you think, ‘I like that,’ and then it carries through and becomes part of your thinking. You do have to be careful not to copy somebody. You think you’re coming up with something original but you’ve actually heard it somewhere before. But I’m not responsible for that. I only wrote one song on this album! So I’m pretty safe. 

But New York is such a musical city, you have all these ideas and directions and sounds coming at you all the time, it must have some sort of influence on the music you make.
I don’t know. Growing up that way is one thing, but it’s the state of the world now.

In what sense?
Any kind of music is available instantly. 

Is that a good or bad thing?
I think it’s great.

What music inspires you now?
Well, I listen to music mostly in the car. I really like it there. I put on music when I have people or friends over but when I’m running round the apartment doing things I don’t like having music on in the background. I like to listen to music. In that sense I listen to whatever’s on the radio. I surf. We have the satellite stations. 

Do you still buy music? Do you download?
Occasionally. I have friends who are DJs who say, ‘Oh listen to this or listen to that’. I go out, I go to clubs and if I hear something. I’m lazy, I think!

I’m assuming the song ‘Mother’ from your last album was not about your mum but about DJ Johnny Dynell and Chi Chi Valenti’s club?
It’s something that I loved and I was bereft actually when they closed it. And actually this lyric happened so beautifully that I just think it’s completely succinct, and embodied what the club was about. Not in extended detail but “in a patent-leather life” sums it all up. 

I’m assuming you went to Jackie 60 as well, which was a bit before my time. 
I went from the beginning and performed there. It was fun and a great thing. When Mother closed I was really honestly… It was terrible. 

How does it feel in New York now it has been made a lot safer and more expensive. 
Well you know I think New York has that tradition of being some kind of a centre for communications and arts. Granted it has greatly changed and expanded. NYU has practically taken over the Lower East Side. But I sort of have faith in the tradition that New York will always excite people to come there and to look for people that are like themselves and do the communication thing or the arts thing. For a lot of artists, it’s the only place they can come in the US that makes any sense. Although there are some great galleries in LA, you know, it’s spoiled in a way. But it’s so expensive you can’t afford to live there unless you share an apartment with a couple of people. Where there’s a will there’s a way. It has spread out to Williamsburg and Bushwick now, though. 

If Blondie was starting out now do you think they would be living in Manhattan?
Don’t know, can’t say. I think if Blondie were starting off now, we’d probably all just go into computers [laughs] I dunno, we used to say that in past because the music business is so dire but as musicians we’d probably be keen on playing. But starting out now? I don’t know. 

Is that what drives you now as an artist, irrespective of an audience?
That’s the fun thing. It’s really satisfying. We like playing and having fun with a lyric that you can play with. 

Blondie’s musical influences

Do you feel under less pressure now than when you had number ones and the record company breathing down your neck?
We’re our own worst critics – or best critics. We know when something is good. 

Did you feel pressure from record companies?
Occasionally I’d hear a voice that said, ‘We wanna another ‘Heart Of Glass’ or we want another ‘Atomic’.’ You can hear artists that have tried to replicate those things on one of their hits. It’s never a good idea. It always sounds like a watered down version. I don’t think we’ve ever had that kind of ambition or reputation. We’ve always tried to move out and stretch out and I think this album is more of the same thing like that. Chris has been very influenced by some of the Latin beats and rhythms. We also have our keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohen and he’s a real pop songwriter and we worked purposely with him and the Blondie history and he’s written some really great songs. We have collaborated with quite a few people on this. Los Rakas from Oakland

Is that the one on Screwed Up?
Yes. And then there’s Systema Solar with ‘Sugar On The Side’ and I did that song ‘Mile High’ with Hector Fonseca. He’s a Brazilian DJ. He had a gig and brought the music down  at this big rave party for 5,000 people and he got the whole audience to sing the ohs which was just fabulous. I think we met at the studio when I was working on the vocals. Jeff said, ‘Why don’t you make up a song?’ and I said, ‘I don’t play an instrument’ so he said, ‘Well if you have any musical lines call me up and put them on my voicemail’. So I did, just three different lines. Then he came back to me and organised them. It was very simple. 

Tell me about your partnership with Chris.
Well, we can’t stand each other! I guess he’s my best friend. I love him dearly. We hit it off. And somehow it’s a good balance. It’s effortless. 

Even now?

Has it been like that over the years?
I think there have been some rough patches and it was a little bit of estrangement when we first split up but I think both of us were pretty stressed out by that point. We talk every day. He’s a great guy. 

Whose idea was it to get Blondie back together?
It was his actually. It wasn’t mine. It felt like it had had its day but he felt that if we didn’t put it back together at some point I think he was encouraged this guy who worked for a management company . He introduced us to Alan Kovac and he reassured us and was interested. He specialised in dealing with old contractual problems with bands. 

Can you tell me about the first days you started playing at CBGBs and the atmosphere in New York around that time?
It was very fun, there was nothing precious about it. It wasn’t about the money, it was about getting your shit together, basically. 

What was your relationship with other bands? Was it a cooperative situation?
In some ways, in some ways not. There was competition. It was kind of natural you know. You liked certain people and you disliked others. It was just a bunch pf people trying to make music. The credit should go to Hilly Kristal for allowing bands to play original music and that was probably one of the few places where you could do it. There was another bar called Monty Python and CBGBs became this mecca for bands who wanted to do their own material. Then eventually Tommy Dean Mills opened up Max’s, the second one, but by then the ball was rolling. There were bands who were formed and established, though not necessarily as recording artists. 

I saw you play at Hammersmith Odeon with Television and that must have been a big breakthrough that tour, because suddenly you were playing in front of big audiences. 
Sure, it was a big breakthrough. We were real Anglophiles. Wilko Johnson came over to New York when the Dr Feelgood album came out and their success was a real boost, you know. So there was definitely some sort of symbiotic relationship between New York and London.

I know Chris was really influence by glam bands, I’m wondering whether Mike Chapman’s background in glam was a reason for choosing him?
We didn’t choose Mike. He moved over to Hollywood and we were playing at the Whiskey for weeks and Terry Ellis said, ‘Oh you gotta come and see this band I want you to produce them.’ So he came over and he said he’d never laughed so hard in his life so he felt he had to do it. But he was so experienced at making songs and he was such a good songwriter he made us much more focussed. He was strict in the studio about recording techniques so we all had to knuckle down and work a little harder. He was used to making songs that sounded good on the radio. 

And the way the songs seemed to respond to different feels and styles, like ‘Rapture’ and hip hop, ‘Heart Of Glass’ and disco….
No that was Chris, it was his responsibility. Chris is a genius. 

Both of you were hanging out at hip hop jams very early on. 
Well that’s what I was saying earlier about the beauty of living in a metropolitan area. You have the availability of all these different kinds of music. You know we benefited from that and it was very inspiring. 

When I interviewed Steinski he said he discovered rap through hearing you and Chris guesting on WPIX and playing early hip hop. 
Yes and we have heard that before from someone else… I don’t recall their name, but they were heavy duty rappers and they said ‘Rapture’ was the first thing they heard. 

You’ve often explored the dark side of life in your lyrics which carries on that tradition started by Velvet Underground.
Yeah it’s also to do with being in a counter culture situation. We were breaking away from the flower power era and there was that little section of glam rock which was shortlived and not as big in the US. The Dolls never really got their full dues in the States. 

How does it feel to be regarded as an iconic woman in rock music, someone who inspired and paved the way for Lady Gaga, Madonna and others. 
I guess I feel lucky that I got in before them! [laughs] it’s funny, I’m glad it worked. 

And it was an incredible time for women breaking through with X-Ray Spex, Raincoats, Slits and Chrissie Hynde. Did it feel like a wave?
Absolutely. On the other side, on New York, there was also Wendy Williams, Lydia Lunch, Helen Wheels, a bunch of girls that didn’t necessarily translate commercially but they were recorded. Also Annie Golden. A lot of variety, a lot of stuff. 

ADDENDUM After the interview, I had brought an album for Debbie to autograph for a friend’s daughter’s birthday, which she did. I then interviewed Chris Stein immediately afterwards. At the end of the meeting, I collected my bag and said goodbye to Chris and Debbie came back out of her bedroom with an object wrapped in tissue paper. “Could you give this to your friends daughter for her birthday please?” When I got out of the hotel, I opened the wrapper and inside it was a lovely necklace with a heart-shaped pendant. A lovely gesture. Bill Brewster

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Kool Lady Blue brought hip hop together

Kool Lady Blue brought hip hop together

As unlikely as it sounds, the club that cemented the idea of hip hop as a rounded culture – presenting graffiti, breakdancing, DJing and MCing as elements of a whole (and throwing in Double-Dutch skipping for good measure) – was run by an Englishwoman newly arrived from London. It was at Ruza Blue’s legendary Roxy nights that B-boys and girls from The Bronx and Harlem partied with downtown’s arty punks, and where the stars of the Bronx saw that their unique music, art and dance was going to have an impact far beyond their local neighbourhood. Fresh from London’s Blitz scene, wearing a black and white skunk haircut, Blue initially teamed up with pioneering videomaker Michael Holman to throw hip hop nights at Negril, a reggae club the Clash had made their New York hangout. After a fall-out with Holman she partnered with fellow Brit Jon Baker (who later started Gee Street Records) and took the concept to the massive roller rink of the Roxy. Every Friday from 18 June 1982 to the end of 1983, Kool Lady Blue’s Wheels Of Steel nights showcased the newly christened culture of ‘hip hop’. With residences from the Zulu Nation DJs: Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Afrika Islam, D.ST and Grand Wizard Theodore, and a constant breakdancing presence from the Rocksteady Crew, the Roxy drew a uniquely diverse and dynamic mix of people. Graffiti hung on canvas sheets. Kurtis Blow, Sequence, Indeep, Madonna performed, Fab 5 Freddy MCed, a young Russell Simmons ran around networking, and Run DMC and New Edition had their first gigs there. ‘The night had a thousand styles, a hundred dialects,’ recalls club queen Chi Chi Valenti. ‘The Roxy embodied a certain vision of what New York could be – a multiracial centre of world culture, running on a current of flaming, uncompromised youth.’ ‘It was great,’ adds her husband DJ Johnny Dynell, reflecting on the Roxy’s melting pot crowd. ‘It was like both of my worlds colliding. That was really unusual. An American couldn’t do that. It took an English person.’

interviewed by Bill and Frank in Manhattan, 29.9.98

Kool Lady Blue: I came for two weeks and ended up staying… In ’81.

Frank/Bill: And you got into some scene here?

Well funnily enough I was staying in the Chelsea Hotel and one night, cos I was dressed up in World’s End gear, the whole World’s End look, from head to toe, I looked like little Annabella [Lwin, of Bow Wow Wow], and this guy came up to me and said, ‘I’m opening up a Vivienne Westwood clothing store. Would you run it?’ Just like that and I said yeah. And that helped me stay, I got my green card and ended up staying and was running Malcolm and Vivienne’s clothing business in New York. And from that, that’s how I got into promoting clubs. When I was in London I was like booking acts into some of the clubs there, like on the Kings Road there was this funny club called Wedges and I was doing some bookings. When I came over here I really wanted to do a club but wasn’t sure what to put in it. I just knew I wanted to get into club promoting and stuff.

And while I was working for Malcolm and Vivienne I came across the Rocksteady Crew and Afrika Bambaataa. One night Malcolm was doing a show at the Ritz with Bow Wow Wow, and he had Bambaataa opening up for them [booked by Michael Holman]. And I was just completely blown away, like what the fuck is this. And I just knew, that whatever it was I wanted to get involved in it. And I wanted to present it in a nightclub atmosphere.

What was it amazing about it?

Just the music. Just what he was doing and what he was playing. It was just completely…

Was he playing breakbeats?

Yeah, and just mixing weird records with each other.

And what was the crowd like?

It was a Bow Wow Wow crowd. they’d come to see Bow Wow Wow, they had no idea who this DJ person was.

How did they react?

From what I remember they were pretty wowed by it. And there were a couple of breakdancers too and it was like ‘What the hell are those?’ I just wanted to find out more about it.

Was that the first time Bam had played downtown?

I think not. I think he’d played at the Mudd Club. I think it was his second time maybe. But it was really like premature, like way… no-one knew what the hell it was. And after that show I just went up to all of them and started talking to them. Told them I wanted to open up a club end they were like OK, and that’s how it started and they started to take me up to the Bronx to check out what they were doing up in the Bronx. They took me to a club up there called the Fever, up on 165th St and Grand Concourse. That was the hip hop club. No-one downtown knew what the hell was going on up there, and that was wild. Flash was the DJ, Melle Mel was the MC and there were all these other MCs there.

And this is ’81?

Uh-huh. And all the Sugarhill Gang were hanging out there, so yeah I’d go up there and I’d be the only white face in the club, and that was wild, and I thought Ohmygod I’ve got to bring all of this downtown.

And then while I was still working for Malcolm and Vivienne I was looking for a club to host this whole new whatever it was, and I came across this reggae club called Negril, which unfortunately is no longer there. And it was a really cool spot because Bob Marley used to hang out there, on Second Ave between 10th and 11th, it was the coolest club, oh my god this club was so cool, and I convinced the owner to let me have a Thursday night there and he let me have a Thursday night and then I started promoting. It wasn’t very good at the beginning, hardly anybody came.

Who was playing?

It was Bam, the Rocksteady Crew. All the early guys, Jazzy Jay and [Grand Wizard] Theodore.

Can you remember the very first party?

Do you know, I remember the very first party was a bit of a disaster. You know what was really weird, what I started to do to get people to come down and just check it out, was to put people like The Clash on DJing, we’d have guest spots like Joe Strummer would DJ some nights, and that’s how I met [Clash DJ] Scratchy and Kosmo Vinyl. I remember one night we had, Johnny Rotten was down there, DJing, and some of the Clash, and we were the only people in the place having a party. It was just The Clash, The Sex Pistols and a couple of my mates. And then combining the hip hop scene with the dregs of the punk scene brought the general public down. ’Cos they were all like, the Clash are gonna be there DJing, we’d better be there. Once they got down there they’d find what was really going on: the hip hop.

Were they open-minded?

Oh yeah, definitely. Once everybody started checking it out that scene took over and people were coming down just to check out the hip hop scene, but to get it going it was like a bit of a… you had to sort of mastermind a way of getting people down there.

Do you remember the first night when it worked?

Yeah. It was that night when the Clash were supposed to DJ but they didn’t. They didn’t show up. It was really funny because one of them was supposed to DJ and they couldn’t do it, but hundreds of people came to check them out. In the end they got Bambaataa and the Rocksteady Crew. But they weren’t disappointed because in the end it was better than… what they were originally were coming down to see. So that’s how it got going. It was a bit of a scam.

How long did it take you from the first night to that night?

I would say, after a lot of experimenting, gosh, a couple of months, on a weekly basis. But once it broke, gosh – we were closed down because of too many people in the club.

What was the capacity?

About 400. It was really small and intimate, and there were Marley posters everywhere. It was this really amazing reggae vibe. And then when it was closed down I was faced with this dilemma of where the hell do I go with it now? So I took it to Danceteria for a few weeks and we were there for a few weeks and we were looking and looking and looking, and one night ran across the Roxy which was a roller rink. I just moved it there and everyone thought I was mad because it was so big. It was from 400 capacity to like a 3000 capacity – ‘She’s crazy!’ But you know, we moved and it grew and it blew up and it filled the place. And I guess the rest is history.

‘The Beat Street Breakers’ (played by The NYC Breakers) take on ‘The Bronx Rockers’ (played by The Rocksteady Crew), in the battle scene from Beat Street, shot at the Roxy. Jazzy Jay is on the decks. The movie was based on a (much grittier) story ‘The Perfect Beat’ by journalist Steven Hager, and produced by actor and civil rights legend Harry Belafonte.

Do you remember any special nights at the Roxy?

Oh god, there were so many. I guess one special night was Madonna playing. That was pretty funny. She was up and coming on the scene.

She sang?

Yeah. You have to remember, even though it was where the hip hop scene was spawned, I never used to look at it as just that. I used to mix it all up. I mean one night I had a whole troupe of Native Americans doing sundances on the floor with the breakers. And that was like a really weird thing, but it worked. They would do their thing, and then when they’d finished, the Rocksteady Crew would come on and do their thing.

Fantastic. Did they battle?

I guess, in a spiritual kind of way. But you know the Roxy was like a multitude of things. It was dance music, hip hop, dance, electro, whatever.

There must have been a feeling that there’s so much going on at that time, let’s cram it all in.

Uh-huh. The thing is as well, is that hip hop is not rap music. Hip hop was never supposed to be about one form of music. It was all kinds of music and you’ll hear that from all the original guys. And my club embodied that. It wasn’t just hip hop, it was a bit of everything. Punks: the Pistols were down there every week. As well as Debbie Harry, Joey Ramone, It was like all walks of life. Rock, funk, whatever. And everyone mixed. Everyone got along, it was very multiracial.

Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force wearing their finest cosmic battledress perform ‘Frantic Situation’ in a (staged) scene in The Roxy for the film Beat Street.

Lady Miss Kier once said to me that that was one of the few clubs in New York where there was a really good racial mix and everyone got on. Never any trouble.

No tension. When I stopped doing the club, that’s when the tension started.

And Bambaataa and Rocksteady Crew were regular fixtures?

Yeah. Bam was pretty regular but they all got their turn. It wasn’t just one DJ. It was D.ST, Afrika Islam, Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay.

It was mostly the Zulu DJs?

Yeah. the whole Zulu Nation. For sure. But yeah, I think the driving force was definitely the Rocksteady Crew, because of their energy, their dance energy, it was focused on dancing, and they brought a lot of good vibes.

And they would dance on the dancefloor or on the stage?

When they did their performance they’d be onstage, but they were all dancing all night anyway. I mean there was a show going on all the time, somewhere on the dancefloor.

How long did the Roxy go on for?

With me there it went on for a year and a half.

Quite short-lived.

Yeah, yeah.

When did it start?

I moved it there in June of ’82 and it was there until end of ’83, and then me and the owner had a huge fight, he became really greedy, so we parted ways and then when I left the club became violent, and lost its mix, cos I wasn’t bringing in the special mix. It became like the hood, it was gangs. It’s really weird how it reflected in rap what happened, because rap became very segregated. It’s just weird, it was almost like a reflection of what happened in the scene.

Were all the old school guys friends or were they split into sections: Here’s the Zulu Nation, and then the others…

No everyone was… see back then people weren’t even into making money, It was all about having a laugh. It was fun, that was the driving force. No-one imagined that this would happen what’s happened today and it would earn people millions. It was beyond their comprehension. ‘What, they wanna make a record with me?’ It was very innocent, like all scenes are I guess. It was really special. Everyone and their mother was there. Russell Simmons started there. I can remember Russell Simmons, poor and…

…not on the phone.

Poor and not on the A-list. Calling me every five seconds, ‘Oh, can you do this, can you do that?’ Now try and get him on the phone. They all started there. Like the Tommy Boys, everyone.

And then it turned into something else.

Yes, people started to realise there was something going on. All of a sudden, people making records. And then they were doing commercials, and then they were in movies, and then, then there were tours, it just kept snowballing. Actually, this is the first tou I actually did, with these guys [she shows us a poster]. This is the first time a tour actually went to Europe. [She reads the poster] Bambaataa, Rocksteady Crew, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, DST, Dondi, Phase II, Fearless Four, 27th Nov 1982 in Paris Hippodrome La Porte de la Campagne. That was the first tour ever to go to Europe, and then from France we went to England, the Venue. The tour started and people started to make money. And I guess that changed everything. And everyone and their mothers wanted to rap. And then all this crazy gangster stuff came out and we just submerged, we hated it.

Who were the first people to make money out of it. I guess Sylvia and Joe Robinson?

Yeah, I guess the Sugarhill Gang, yeah, Sugar Hill records. Tommy Boy with ‘Planet Rock’, Arthur Baker, and then Russell Simmons.

Were you involved with Bambaataa when ‘Planet Rock’ came about?

I wasn’t managing him, no. But I remember he met Tom Silverman and Arthur Baker at the Roxy, and they started talking about doing a record. And it was more of like, let’s see what happens.

What were the parties like in the Fever? Was it very much focused on the DJ?

DJ, dancing and the MCs. Yeah, they were great. If you were there to party that was your call. If you weren’t there to party you shouldn’t be there.

What did the club look like?

It was not very big, it kinda reminded me of Negril. It was small, intimate, probably held like 300 people, 400 people. The dancefloor, very small stage, then the DJ booth. Then there was a bar and that was about it.

You said there were MCs, were they like rappers?

No, they were just commenting. They were up on stage, commenting on the crowd: who was in the house, just sort of egging people on to party. Cos that’s how it was in the beginning. There was nothing to do with social comment and political jargon, or hoes and bitches and I earn more money than you.

More like something from the disco era?

Yeah. Definitely. Flash was playing more disco breakbeats, and mixing disco records in with whatever, than he was anything else. And so were all these other guys. I mean when hip hop started there were no rap records for them to play ’cos there weren’t any yet. They’d take breakbeats and you know, keep repeating them and looping them, and doing all this crazy shit with the turntables, so it was just different. It was like bits that you’d heard from a record but you couldn’t figure where you’d heard it before. And then the way they were playing it you were like, ‘Oh that sounds familiar, what is it?’ And then it would go on and on and on and you’d think it was another record – you know a record. But it was just them playing the same bit over and over again, so it sounded like a completely new record. And then the MC would be commenting on the party, over that. It was like, wow! It just blew your mind because it was so different.

Do you have any tapes of it?

Ummm, I do, but I don’t know where. I mean then you’d go up to Flash and he’d be scratching and mixing and you’d be like wow, what’s he doing? I’m lucky to have been around back then, it was pretty amazing.

How did it compare to what was happening in the downtown clubs?

Well what you had downtown was Studio 54 which I hated, which was very sort of disco. because it [hip hop] was so real… and also because I was a punk back then anyway…

What did you look like?

I think I had blue hair. It was either blue or black and blonde like the skunk look. But what turned me on as well was it reminded me of punk because it felt so real. because it was very street, it was very, you know, anarchic, because of what they were doing, so I was attracted to that as well. But compared to what was going on downtown. Downtown was very new wavy, which I hated too. And very…

What would they class as New Wave here?

Flock of Seagulls?

Very poppy Euro?

Yeah. Very Euro-ey, poppy.

Depeche Mode and those kind of things?


But wasn’t Bambaataa playing that kind of stuff as well?

He was playing some of it, but it was like I said, they would take certain bits of those records. They were sly, they wouldn’t play the whole thing. They’d take bits and pieces and make them sound interesting by mixing them with something else.

Like they had the same raw materials but…

…they would just twist it a bit, which I liked. I was like yeah. In the end it sounded cool, even though I hated it beforehand. Like Bambaataa played Gary Numan one night, I was like Uggh.

He says he likes to get people dancing to things they say they hate. Which Gary Numan record? ‘Cars’?

I can’t remember. I was like, ‘Oh god, not Gary Numan,’ but then he did something with another record, and it was like, ‘Oh, OK.’

You’re forgiven.

But also back then it was very gothic. Downtown was very sort of umm, like the American version of punk, which wasn’t really our version of punk, it was kind of like…

Around that time was when the early gothic records like ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ by Bauhaus were out.

Mudd Club was cool. I liked Mudd Club.

They mixed things up, didn’t they?


That was the first place Bambaataa played downtown wasn’t it?

I think so.

So they beat you to it.

Yeah. I can’t remember exactly the party. It was something to do with Fab 5 Freddy. I think he was involved with it. But I don’t really know the ins and the outs. I just came and dived into it. I had no clue as to what else was going on. Around me or whatever. Cos I’d literally only been here about two or three months. I’d just arrived so I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on in the clubs. I just knew I wanted to develop this, whatever it was, more.

Wow, you just dived in feet first

Yeah. headfirst.

Did you go to any other clubs uptown?

No, just the Fever, that was like the place, apparently. There was really nothing else.

And that lasted quite a while?

Yeah. It was going on for years, before. The Fever? I think that club had been going at least five or six years really.

Billboard wrote about it in 1978

You should go and see Sal [Abatiello]. I can introduce you to Sal, he was the owner of the Fever. The Fever was definitely where… If anybody I would say it was the first club, the first hip hop club.

People talk about the Hevalo as well.

It actually really started on the streets. Didn’t even start in a club. It was sound systems. In parties. Really small parties in community centres.

When Billboard first wrote about Kool Herc in early 1978, they described him as a mobile DJ, so you’d assume he was setting up wherever.

Exactly, exactly.

Did you ever go to one of his parties?

No, no. When I started he wasn’t even around. He was like Herc the mysterious, but no-one knew where he was. I would have loved for him to DJ for me but I’m not sure where he was, but wherever he was he wasn’t accessible. you should ask him that question: ‘Where were you?’

He gets so much respect for starting it all but he was completely absent when it all took off. I read in a couple of places that he started off by playing reggae.

Yeah he did.

Do you know how that progressed?

No, I don’t really know. But I know all these guys were inspired by him. Like Flash. They used to watch him and make note of what he was playing. But I think he was playing not only reggae but breakbeats. And he’s Jamaican, no getting around that. And he would have his MCs toasting, and that probably inspired all these other guys to copy him.

Who MCd when Bam was playing?

He had a slew of different people. Gosh, all the different guys that were in Soulsonic Force, like Pow Wow, and Globe.

And it would be more of an MCing type thing?

Not in the Roxy. I didn’t have too many MCs. It was very focussed on the DJ. I’d hardly ever have an MC. Because I just found that they distracted everyone. I just kept it strictly DJs and dancing. Or whatever act was on. If I had an MC I’d have Freddy, Fab 5 Freddy, he’d come and MC. But I hardly had MCs. I mean, yeah, Run DMC played there, that was their first gig. And New Edition, I gave them their first gig. Kurtis Blow, and whoever. Yeah, if it was a show, yeah. But during the party I steered away from too much MCing.

What were your most special nights at the Roxy.

There were too many of them. Every night was special. They were all good. I can remember one night when I broke my wrist when I was completely pissed. New Year’s Eve, completely sloshed. No recollection. I’d actually fallen down and broken my wrist and didn’t know about it. Until three hours later when someone pointed it out cos I was completely mangled. It was like this or like that [twists wrist into impractical positions] ‘Err look at your arm!’ But yeah, that was a very special night. Every Friday night was pretty amazing. you just never knew. It was just magic. What might happen? Who might come? Because everyone and their mothers were coming. People coming from all over the world, it was crazy. Japan, France, Germany, you know… Every week there was someone from somewhere.

How did they find out about it?

I guess after a while, word of mouth became magazines and papers and people just started writing about it. And word just got out.

Who was the first person who thought they could make money out of this, or who realised that these guys had changed music, rather than that they just had great parties?

I realised it. When I first saw it, being a music head and coming from London. I just knew there was something there. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have a clue what it was. But I just had this gut instinct about it. That’s how I felt. I don’t know about Freddy or anybody else on the scene. But…

The DJ was the star, the artist. Was that reflected in the way the billing worked?

Yeah, it’s funny you should say that but there’s an article in there, where I talk about the DJ being the new musician.


Yeah. I can’t remember what I said but I thought it was really good.

[She reads the article, from the East Village Eye, Feb 1983]:
‘Scratch DJs like Afrika Islam and Jazzy Jay I consider to be today’s most important musicians. they reconstruct the past to create new sounds without the help of conventional musical instruments, the turntable being the instrument. It’s an alternative direction in the sound. It’s incredible that from such a basic structure: a turntable, an amazing groove and the mixing and manipulation of beats is created. DJs take from all musical cultures: Kraftwerk, Bob Marley, the Supremes, Rolling Stones etc to do so. There are no rules or limitations as to what records should or should not be destroyed or, should I say, enhanced. Through the breakers and rappers you have a concept in live performance in which the magic is spontaneous and vivacious. It is a cultural experience which frees me to add in and around the event, whatever I feel fits, be it African dancers or double dutch girls. It thrills me to see all walks of life enjoy its overwhelming style. It excites me. The doors have now been opened to a spirit and identity tagged “fun”.’

That’s great

Every week we’d always have someone in the club, a friend of mine, taking pictures of everyone, so that everyone would always see themselves up on these humungous screens, like they’d be famous. They’d come back to see if they were there next week. It became quite a thing, because no-one knew who’d end up on the big screen for that week. And some of the pictures looked really funny because we’d try and catch people when they weren’t expecting it. Then all of a sudden there’d be this huge blown-up photograph of them on the screen and everyone ogling it.

[She reads another clipping, from Richard Grabel in the NME]
‘The feeling hits you when you walk into the Roxy on a Friday night the way it doesn’t hit you in any other New York club. Everywhere else it’s hesitation and uncertainty. At the Roxy You know you’re in the right place.’

Did you have Kraftwerk in the Roxy?

No. They did play I think a few years later.

Who were the other guests?

I can remember that night when Malcolm played, when he did ‘Buffalo Girls’. That was really funny, because he was really nervous. he didn’t want to do it.

Was he actually onstage with them, then?

Well first of all, he called me and said I’m going to the airport, I’m not gonna do it. ’Cos it was his first time in front of this crowd and I guess he got the nervous jitters. So he was like ‘I’m going to the airport, I won’t be able to do the show.’ I was like, ‘Oh no you’re not, you have to come down, ’cos everyone’s waiting for you.’ So anyway he turned up in disguise. In this raincoat. He thought no-one would recognise him and he could check out the crowd and if it was, you know, if he felt really nervous he could sneak back out. My friend Terry saw him and said ‘Malcolm’s here, Malcolm’s here. I saw him!’ So we grabbed him and we shoved him in a dressing room and had someone guard the room so he couldn’t get out, and then made him go on.

What was he actually doing?

He would walk onstage with a big megaphone. He’d just be shouting God knows what. I can’t remember if there were any dancers or if it was just him. I think it was just him and that’s why he was nervous, ‘cos it was just him and the megaphone.

You took him up to the Bronx to show him what was going on.

I took Trevor Horn up there. I didn’t take Malcolm up there. As soon as Malcolm decided that he wanted to make that album, Duck Rock, he had Trevor call me and asked me to introduce Trevor to what was going on. Show him scratching, show him breakdancing and stuff, so I did. I took him everywhere, I introduced him to everyone.

Did he go up to the Fever?

Took him up there, and he met everyone, and showed him the Double Dutch girls. ’Cos that was a complete fluke. I just saw them on TV one night in a McDonald’s commercial, and thought ‘They’d be good.’ and that’s how that happened. Double Dutch girls had nothing to do with hip hop whatsoever.

So where did that come from?

It’s old. It’s a competition thing. But all of a sudden, because it was showcased at the club one night, it was suddenly. ‘Oh that’s hip hop.’ And that was where Malcolm saw it. He got the idea and stuck it in.

What was Trevor Horn’s reaction?

Well, you know [she makes a glasses sign with hands] Buggles!? it was kind of weird taking Buggles around.

What did people make of him?

They were just, ‘Oh, another crazy English person. He was just as blown away as everyone else really. Trying to figure out how he was going to incorporate it. Wowed by it. ’Cos anyone and everyone that saw it was just like, wow! From an old granny, to… I mean we did a show for the Queen of England. I was managing the Rocksteady Crew at the time. And you know we performed at the Royal Variety performance and even she was like…

Did she whip her lino out then?

Yeah right! We met her at the end. We were told how to and what not to say to her. I think one of them screwed up. ’Cos you’re not allowed to ask her any questions, say anything, you always have to say Ma’am, or curtsey if you’re a woman. I think you have to bow if you’re a bloke. You’re not allowed to ask her anything. It was like the golden rule, and I think one of the Rocksteady Crew did ask her something. And I was like, ‘Oh no, we’re gonna get shot now.’ I can’t remember what he asked her, but it was like she almost clipped his ear.

Were they pretty impressed to be doing something like that?

Yes and no. Yunno. I mean, they didn’t really realise until a few years afterwards, the magnitude of it. At the time it was just like, ‘Oh another show. The Queen of England? Ok whatever.’ They were young. I mean I was 21, 22. Norman was 13, the tiny one. Crazy Legs was like 17. They were all between 16 and 19 years old, except for Norman who was 12, 13. I was almost their age, not much older. We were like teenagers. It was fun. Touring with them was another story.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Bruce Tantum went to everything

Bruce Tantum went to everything

Nightlife writer, DJ and gadabout Bruce Tantum is New York’s undisputed champion clubber. Sometime in the late ’70s, as the city’s infinite nightlife possibilities spread out in front of him, a friend advised him to either go to one club all the time, or to every club once. A born contrarian, Bruce resolved to do both. Since that decision he has rarely slept, his metabolism requiring little to sustain it beyond oddball twelve-inch disco dubs and vodka. His band Moot started with a 13-strong line-up supporting New Brunswick’s very own Celibate Sluts in a local parking lot. With their guitar-free, bassline-heavy no-wave stylings – and nine fewer musicians – they went on to span the ’80s, playing at Mudd Club, Danceteria and the Peppermint Lounge, and holding down a dependable Saturday slot at CBGB. DJing then took the strain and for the last 30 years it’s been a rare week in New York when Bruce doesn’t spin records in a dirty basement, or increasingly on air. He can look back fondly on a life lived on the dancefloor, with a memory of it all that would be encyclopaedic if it wasn’t so gloriously blurred. Time Out New York cottoned on to his unique clubland expertise in 1997 when it made him Clubs Editor, a role he inherited from the late Adam Goldstone (who caught the job description from my good self), and in which he spun golden letters for an illustrious 17 years. Despite never having written for publication before, Bruce emerged fully feathered as one of the most informed and entertaining writers on dance music, a skillset he now employs as Editor of DJmag USA. His brilliant seat-of-the-pants DJing makes him a favourite at Low Life which he plays on a roughly biennial basis, or whenever we can afford the gilded sweetmeats in his preposterous DJ rider.

interviewed 19.02.23 by Frank on ZOOM

Frank Broughton: I have a lazy mental shorthand for the Mudd Club as a parallel to London’s Blitz, because it was ground zero for so many creative people. I was reading Johnny Dynell’s interview recently because we finally posted it, and he calls Mudd Club the cradle of civilization. Was it?
Bruce Tantum: It really was in a way. It wasn’t quite as much of a dress-up kind of place as the Blitz. What it was – it was one of the first, if not the first, instances of the down-and-dirty punk rock scene, and the no-wave scene, and the more artistic scene, all merging together. That had been happening at parties, but I don’t think there’d ever been a club that kind of formalised it.

And by the artistic scene, you mean the post-Warhol people. Like Basquiat – who actually DJed there.
Yeah, not the fine art scene, more like the various strains of the underground art scene. All the new-wave filmmakers, and people in various visual arts. But at that point, I still felt like I was on the outside looking in, because I was still pretty new to New York.

Where did you grow up?
In New Jersey, and where I grew up was very rural, a little village called Dutch Neck. We didn’t even have mail deliveries. We had a general store where you would have to pick up your mail. I remember it was a big deal when we got street addresses.

Was there a particular moment when you decided you had to move to the city?
That started when I was five years old. Because where I grew up in Jersey was close enough that we would get the New York television stations. And so I would see on the news, crime and homelessness and the city’s turning to shit. And for some reason I was like, ‘That’s where I want to be!’ I always knew I would move to New York as soon as I had the chance.

I went to school at Rutgers University, which is about 30 miles from New York. And so 1976 to ’80, that’s when I started going out in New York, mostly to punk clubs. CBGB’s, Max’s [Kansas City], a bunch of other smaller places. But I was very much a New Jersey bridge-and-tunnel outsider at that point. Some of my friends had cars, but we usually took the train and we would just stay out till whatever time and then take the first train back in the morning. We were considered the art-punks of Rutgers. T-shirts, ripped-up jeans and Converse sneakers. But I mean, that’s kind of what everybody wore. First I moved to Hoboken, which is right across the river. But my whole social life at that point was already in New York.

Did the punk thing really feel like a movement? Or was it just disconnected bands? What did it feel like?
Well, by the time I started going to these places, it was already ’76. And bands like The Ramones and Blondie were already pretty big. By the time I saw the Ramones I think they already had two albums out. Blondie had their first album.

What were the most memorable gigs of that period?
I remember having some fun at Richard Hell and the Voidoids. A friend of mine was friends with the Misfits and they used to play Max’s all the time. Those were very fun shows because there would be a very strong element of danger. Like there’d be tables flying through the air. For somebody 18, 19 years’ old it was a blast.

In addition to the punk stuff, we were also occasionally coming out to discos as well. Even pre-’76 when I was in high school, we were going to the local New Jersey discos. My whole peer group was listening to Led Zeppelin and Yes, and for some reason, Foghat was really big in my school. But I was always drawn towards slightly weirder stuff, like Bowie and Roxy Music. And I was also one of the few of my friends that had a real thing for whatever disco, or proto disco, they were playing on the radio. At our local mall, Quaker Bridge Mall, there was a place called Duke’s, and they would actually have live bands playing cover versions of disco songs like [Dr Buzzard’s Savannah Band’s] ‘Cherchez La Femme’ and [Salsoul Orchestra’s] ‘Tangerine’.

Amazing! Live disco bands in your local mall.
Yeah, and you could drink underage back then too, so we were like 16 years’ old and we’d go and get drinks and have a laugh.

And in New York you would go to disco clubs as well as punk gigs.
I went to Studio 54 when I was still in college. This was after it had already closed the first time, so it had lost some of its allure. There was one night where we actually went straight from Mudd Club to Studio 54. Shockingly, we never had much of a problem getting in. Even though there were still huge crowds outside.

Well, that’s because of your innate coolness.
I don’t know about that. I think they just went, ‘Look there’s some punks’.

What were the other places?
I was going to Mudd Club a lot. I think the first iteration of Danceteria had opened, when it was on West 37th Street, I believe. That was great. We were still going to all the punk things as well, Peppermint lounge, and very soon, by 1981 I believe, Pyramid opened up. And that was a huge one for me. Because in ’82 or ’83, I actually moved into Manhattan, into the East Village. And Pyramid was essentially my local disco, my corner disco. And we were going there all the time.

I went to The Saint a few times. You supposedly had to be a member. But since we worked in what was their unofficial restaurant, they would let us slide in once in a while. I was working at 103 restaurant, which was right on the corner of Sixth Street and Second Avenue. And the building that kind of surrounded it was the Saint.

Of all the all the clubs I’ve heard described, The Saint just sounds astonishing, that whole theatricality. There are very few photos, was it as amazing as it sounds?
Yeah, it was. I mean, it really was a full on planetarium. I don’t know how they did it. Because it was originally a Yiddish theatre. Then it was Fillmore East, and then I guess, around ’79 it became The Saint. Some of those other big discos were pretty full on as well. Studio 54, of course, but I think The Saint was more impressive because they really did pay attention to the theatrical aspect.

Yeah, programming the light show to the music, it was all coordinated.
It was pretty amazing. But frankly, I was kind of happier going to places like Pyramid or the Mudd Club – with that dingy, falling apart kind of vibe.

Pyramid was where that alternative gender-fuck drag started.
That was sort of a thing. It’s where RuPaul and Lady Bunny and a number of others got their start. Johnny Dynell DJed there for a while, Mark Oates, Sister Dimension. The management always wanted the DJs to play new wave. But the DJs wanted to play more disco and funk and soul, and then early house once that started. So it was like a mix of all those things, musically.

And then Area opened in 1983 and from what I know about it, it kind of formalised things. It was like, ‘Okay, this really works. People love this kind of clubbing life. Let’s put some money into doing a really amazing version.
Yes. I do think they wanted to capitalise on that sort of uptown-downtown aesthetic. And they did it quite successfully for the maybe three and a half years that it was open.

People talk about the great mixing of people. Like Warhol coming down. Was he chatty? Was he hanging out?
I never saw Warhol at Mudd Club. I saw him at Area a lot. Yeah, he would just be hanging out. Usually just standing against a wall

And happy to talk to anyone?
Well, you could talk to him. He wasn’t going out of his way to talk to anybody. He would always have one or two of his assistants with him.

Who were some club characters we might not know of?
I don’t know, umm, Baby Gregor. He was always one of the people in the dioramas at Area. He’s no longer with us. He was a Pyramid person. And one of the co-founders of Wigstock.

And he’d be in one of the glass cases at Area.
He’d be in a glass case at Area. But so would a lot of people, a lot of that downtown underground art scene would eventually end up in a diorama.

Did you?
No, no, no. I wasn’t well-connected enough yet to sit in a fucking terrarium for eight hours straight. They probably paid people I think.

It sounds like clubbing was a full-time way of life. You were going out of your way to visit different places.
I was doing some of everything. Among my friends that was pretty much a normal thing. I mean, we’d just be out at clubs, easily, three, four nights a week, right? Not just out partying, but actually at clubs. My usual routine then was I’d go to Danceteria, which had cheaper drinks. Get kind of sloshed there. And then we had Area, where we knew the door people, so we’d get in really quick. And spend the rest of the night there.

What are some of the nights that stand out in your memory, blurred or not?
I don’t have many specific stories. I really don’t have all that many. Because it is all like a blur. One time somebody gave me some advice: ‘You can do it one of two ways. Go to one club all the time. Or just go to every club once.’ And for some reason, I’ve tried to combine those two things. Every club all the time.

So as I say, it’s all a swirl. Basically, my whole life from from 1980 to 2000 is a big swirl.

My first night of Paradise Garage was very much an anomaly of a night though. It was in ’83, New Order playing there. It was right after ‘Blue Monday’ got big.

I was at the Saint once for Sylvester to play a short little disco set. And I believe it was Two Tons of Fun as backup singers. Though I might be hallucinating that.

So you’re out everywhere, and as as new things came into view, like hip hop, you were aware of them?
Mudd Club was one of the first places that wasn’t a hip hop club that would play hip hop. And then right around that same time, first there was club Negril. Then the Roxy. We weren’t looking at it as a discovery. It was just the music that was swirling around.

How much were you aware of the earlier grassroots scene up in the Bronx, in Harlem?
Yeah, we were aware of that. I was fascinated by hip hop as soon as I heard of its existence, which would have been sometime in the late ’70s. Sugarhill Gang songs and Kurtis Blow ‘The Breaks’ – all those songs were huge on New York radio. Everybody knew where hip hop was at that point. By the time they actually started playing it in the downtown clubs, I was pretty well versed.

There were linking people who connected hip hop to downtown weren’t there? Like [scenester] Fab Five Freddy, [videomaker] Michael Holman, [promoter] Ruza Blue, who did the Roxy, people like that.
Yeah. And I think all of them were Mudd Club people as well.

Right. So it really was the cradle of civilization
Yes. Yeah. Johnny was correct about that. It was the beginning of a strain of clubbing that carried New York nightlife through the ‘80s, right up until the dreaded Giuliani time. It kind of laid the basis for clubs that were very different but that still had some of the same methods – like The Roxy, like Area.

Who were the DJs you were aware of?
Well, Justin Strauss and Johnny Dynell because they’re playing at Mudd. And I knew Anita Sarko, and Mark Kamins at Danceteria. And of course, everybody knew people like David Mancuso and Larry Levan. Then Tony Humphries over at Zanzibar. I don’t know if Tony had his Kiss FM radio show yet or not. But yeah, we knew the bigger DJs. But as great as they were, you didn’t really go to clubs specifically for the DJ, you went for the club. For most people DJing wasn’t really a thing. It wasn’t really a aspirational kind of career decision. Like at Danceteria, unless somebody told you, you wouldn’t even know where the DJ booth was. That was true of a lot of clubs. At the Pyramid, you were perched in this sort of crow’s nest about as far above the floor as you could get. Nobody could really see you.

What was your DJing debut?
That was a little bit later, around 1987. Me and my friend Mickey Hohl used to do a party in this little bar called Chameleons which was on Sixth Street near Avenue A. It’s now Club Cummings, a little venue owned by Alan Cummings. We were playing basically disco and house. People hated it. House hadn’t really caught on yet in New York, I guess? And disco… it was too soon for a revival. People would get into fights with us. But we stuck with our guns and we eventually started getting a crowd and had fun.

We did a night called Home Shopping Club, where we would have little shows and give away cheap, shitty merchandise. House, disco, and electro, dancier new wave. A mix of stuff. And eventually we brought that party to the Pyramid. Early ’90s.

Just how lawless was the city when you first arrived?
It was fully lawless. Yeah. I mean, there were like 3000 murders a year for one thing. So you could do whatever you want. There was very little police presence at that point. The restaurant where I worked at, one night somebody was shooting it up. So we had bullet holes in the window. You know, there was a lot of crime, there was a lot of homelessness. There still is a lot of homelessness.

That lawlessness brings freedom, though, doesn’t it? I always imagined that if I’d been there ten years earlier, it would have been even more amazing than the amazing time I had.
Well you’ll always say that. I wish I had been there in the mid ’60s.

The late ’70s just sounds so much fun.
Well you can see it, if you watch a movie like Downtown 81. Or any number of flicks from back then. There’s plenty of photographic documentation. And that is what it was like, that’s not an exaggeration. It was half bombed-out, people are shooting up all over. The trade-off is, you have 3000 murders a year – and you have $300 a month rent. You take the good with the bad. Actually, my first apartment was $300 a month, and I thought I was being ripped off because I had friends who had better places for $150 a month. Back then, even with the minimum wage being practically nothing, you didn’t have to work too hard to get your rent together.

So people were free to be who they wanted to be. You could do your art or your music, or just go out all the time. I mean, we really did party. I remember once we found an abandoned building, this would have been ’86, ’87. We found an open basement of a building. ‘Hey, this basement looks nice. Let’s do a party.’ I think there might have been some people living in the building, I don’t know.

There were all these little weird, like, not even after-hours. Some of them were like regular hours. There were places I didn’t even know the names of but like, basically, people would take a whole tenement building and turn it into a temporary after-hours club.

I was always amazed you and Adam [Goldstone] knew all these little speakeasies. That side of the culture was so established in New York, I remember going to that tiny place Brownies which was basically someone’s living room.
There’d be people snorting lines off the table. But if you swore, if you said ‘shit’, Brownie, or one of his minions would come over and say ‘You be careful.’

They were like, ‘You know the rule! No profanities!’
Right. They were very strict about that.

It’s a good way of keeping people’s voices down, because you’re trying not to swear so you watch what you’re saying.
There was another place called Frank’s, right on Second Street. between Second and First avenues. Classic sort of, knock on the door, the little thing opens up. And like, you have to say, I know Frankie, or something.

How were you making a living? What are you doing to pay the rent?
Well, I worked at at 103 restaurant until about ’85. Then I started working at the Museum of Holography, which at that point was still museum-worthy. Before they started printing holograms on cereal boxes. That was a really easy job. And paid fairly well.

What clubs really established house in New York?
There were already parties like House Nation and Wild Pitch, but I think The World was one of the first full-on house clubs. The World was a trip. Around 1990. That was another of my corner discos. It didn’t last very long. It was big, but it was incredibly decrepit, literally falling apart. Frankie Knuckles and David Morales were the residents. And that’s probably the first place I ever heard Frankie play. David Morales I’d heard one place or another before then. This was obviously well after the Warehouse, after Frankie had come back from Chicago. But I think The World was one of the first full-on house clubs in New York. House was being played everywhere. But there weren’t many clubs that were fully invested in it – yet. It was normal for people to mix house into their sets. It was unusual for there to be all-house nights.

Was that because of what drugs people were taking?
Well, there were a lot of drugs, everywhere. But it wasn’t like everybody was doing ecstasy, like it was in the UK. It wasn’t like a full-on ecstasy-rave kind of thing. There was a variety pack of drugs.

I think that’s the difference. The UK had this sort of Year Zero for this new thing of house music plus ecstasy, whereas New York had more varied drug tastes.
Yeah, we had much longer experience. I first did ecstasy in ’80, ’81 It was straight out of that club in Dallas, the Starck. Somebody had brought it up to New York – or Hoboken, ’cos I was still living in Hoboken at that point. And we actually, the first time – I hope none of my relatives ever read this – the first time we ever did MDMA, we injected it.

Oh my god. How come?
I think somebody had advised us to do it that way.

How did that turn out?
We had some classical music playing. And immediately the classical music in my mind turned into heavy industrial music. And I was floating in a universe of coloured bubbles. And then, after 15 minutes maybe, I settled down into a normal ecstasy experience.

So it was a kind of at-home thing, not at a club dancing?
Yeah. The first time I ever did it was at home. I mean, yeah, I had already been doing ecstasy for a long time before the summer of love over there. For you guys.

Tell me about your band, Moot. I guess a band was the more obvious route to stardom than DJing back then.
I think they were both highly unlikely. It was a band with some of my old Rutgers friends, formed in 1981. A minimalist pop band. We had a small degree of success. I mean, ‘success’ is being very relative. We had one 7-inch single come out, ‘Mavis’. But we played Danceteria, we played Peppermint Lounge. We opened for Toots and the Maytals once. Opened for the Bongos once somewhere. We played at Mudd Club once. This is in Mudd Club’s dying days I should add. For some reason Hilly Kristal took a liking to us and we would play headline slots on Saturday nights at CBGB’s. This is also after CBGB’s salad days, I should also add.

Too modest! Any chance of reformation?
I’ve sold my bass guitar. I just sold it like a year ago. It’s been sitting in the corner of the place for 20 years without me touching it.

When did you start writing for magazines?
That wasn’t until literally when I started at Time Out New York.

Seriously? Never before that?
Yeah. You had bequeathed the job to Adam. And it was still a part time job at that point. But it was getting successful enough that they were expanding. And I think they gave Adam a choice. You can either start working full time, or you can get an assistant. And Adam being rather, you know, allergic to work, said I’ll do the assistant route. And he asked me.

At this point, I was working at a shop called Air Market, which sold Japanese stuff, like Hello Kitty kind of shit. So I said, Yeah, I’ll give it a shot. I went in, the job interview consisted of the managing editor asking me, ‘So you want a job?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ She was like, ‘You’re hired.’ And then I started writing. And then immediately Adam stopped showing up.

Without any warning?
He had some battle going on. We had had to cut a lot of the listings because there wasn’t space. There was one party and some friend of the editor was like, ‘Make sure you get that in once in a while.’ And Adam was like, ‘He can’t tell me what to do. Until he backs down. I’m not going to show up.’ So the full-time gig was thrust upon me. And I was there for 17 years.

How did you meet Adam in the first place?
A party at Mickey Hohl’s house actually. Adam was already a known entity. He was Club Kid of the month in a magazine called Project X, which was basically the Disco 2000 fanzine. And he was friends with Colleen Murphy, DJ Cosmo, because they both went to NYU. And Colleen brought Adam to a party at Mickey’s House.

Disco 2000. That was the first club night I went to in New York. At Limelight, when techno was starting to be a thing.
Limelight had a pretty interesting history. They opened way back in ’84. It was owned by a Canadian guy, Peter Gatien, who wore a pirate’s eyepatch.

He’d supposedly lost his eye playing hockey and used the insurance pay-out to buy his first nightclub.
Yeah. There was a Limelight in London as well. Peter Gatien had two. In fact there had been a bunch of clubs called Limelight. There was a Limelight in New York beforehand, in the ’70s, that had nothing to do with Peter Gatien. The New York Limelight in a church opened in ’84, as a rock and roll club. well, different nights for every kind of music. But around ’89 or ’90 Disco 2000, which was Club Kid ground zero, was the big thing. That was actually kind of fun.

I remember at Disco 2000 they’d get regular clubbers to strip naked on stage as a competition. Was it Lady Bunny who compered?
It was Larry Tee. He was an oddball figure in New York clubbing history. He produced RuPaul’s ‘Supermodel’. He produced a Lady Bunny song too. I think I’ve got that.

Peter Gatien would hire the Club Kids as freaks to spice up his clubs. With Michael Alig as the prime mover. [Alig was famously jailed for murdering his dealer Angel Melendez, as detailed in the book Disco Bloodbath]
I used to go to a lot of the Outlaw parties. Michael Alig’s things. Michael Alig and his Club Kid minions. There was one in a McDonald’s, one at a subway platform. I think it was the First Avenue L train stop, if I recall correctly. Everybody got on the train. Up to Limelight, I think. There was one in a car park somewhere, I forget.

Did you go to the Sound Factory much? That was my home from home.
I went to the Sound Factory some. I didn’t go a lot at that point. What years was that?

I started going probably ’91. Junior Vasquez’ era. I missed Frankie Knuckles there.
Yeah, I saw Frankie there

What about Jackie 60. Did you ever play there?
I never played at Jackie. Johnny didn’t have that many guests at Jackie 60.

There was always a performance, so DJing wasn’t the whole story.
Yes. It was Johnny split up by various performances. Once in a while they would have other DJs. I know David Morales played there once or twice. I think Danny Tenaglia might have played a Jackie 60 night. But it was almost always Johnny Dynell. That was another of my real regular places when that was going on. I guess it would have been early ’90s.

I went to Jackie a few times. It was a Tuesday, wasn’t it?
Yeah, Jackie 60 was Tuesday. But they had the whole place, the building Mother, which was originally called Bar Room 432 before Johnny and Chi-Chi [Valenti] took it over. They had parties of various sorts every night of the week: Meat, which was their gay, techno night. Aldo Hernandez was one of the DJs. They had Click and Drag, which was their sort of proto cyber night. Clit Club, a lesbian night. And one or two others. Yeah, that was a real locus of fun, that place, while it lasted.

I remember a redneck bar next door.
Hogs and Heifers? That’s it. We’d often go there, get tanked up and then go to Jackie 60. That’s when the Meatpacking District was still the Meatpacking District. With actual meatpacking going on. And with the girls working the streets as well. They were all pretty flamboyant. And fun to talk to. That all went away, obviously. The Meatpacking District is a chi-chi upscale neighbourhood now.

We have to talk about Giuliani. Nowadays he’s known as Trump’s useless lawyer, but when he was mayor in the ’90s he was a real crusader against clubs. What was your experience of the whole Giuliani time?
The first half of it was fine. I mean, he had a war on clubs, but the clubs were still there. He really had it out for the Peter Gatien empire, which was Limelight and Palladium and Club USA. Palladium was opened by Steve Rubell and I think Ian Schrager still as well [creators of Studio 54]. Palladium was a great place. That was another of my corner discos, but on a much grander scale than Pyramid.

Yes. Giuliani had a real thing out for clubs – for closing them down. He would get red in the face and sputtering when he talked about them. And one of his Deputy Mayors, Rudy Washington, famously said, I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but not much, ‘We’re going to close down every one of these little buckets of blood.’ And he did close a lot of them down. With the Cabaret Licence thing. He enforced this law from 1926 that had been ignored for half a century that said you couldn’t have dancing unless a bar had this particular licence.

And this was at a time when suddenly there were scores of smaller places opening up: bars adding turntables and putting on interesting music nights, like a Brazilian night or a drum and bass night.
Right, this this little-used tool that he picked up on. He realised, hey, I can close places down with this. I was at a few bars, bars with turntables, that got closed down. They would come in like gangbusters, the Nightlife Taskforce. And there’d be like, 20 of them. They’d just come in and start shining flashlights in everybody’s faces asking for ID. Shut the place down.

Did that ever happen any way you were DJing?
Not where I was DJing, but parties I was at. So that started the era where every venue that did have music that didn’t have a cabaret licence had to have those ‘No Dancing Allowed’ signs up on the wall.

I’ve got one somewhere, for posterity.
Yeah, I should have saved a few. It got really petty. Then he was finally able to shut down the Gatien clubs and do some serious damage. Those got to be pretty dark days in New York clubbing. I remember doing the listings for Time Out New York around ’98 or ’99 and realising there’s not a single thing this whole week that I actually want to go to. It was a huge change. So Giuliani did a considerable amount of damage, then 9/11 happened, which also didn’t help things.

I remember, before he was mayor, on the day he got elected, all the police went crazy stopping cabs one night. Do you remember that?
What was the rationale for that?

A show of force to express solidarity. I got stopped. I was in a cab with Fritz coming home from Supper Club.
Oh, because you had a black fella with you.

I guess. They were literally doing roadblocks and looking into every cab. They got us out and we had to assume the position and everything, for no other reason. Giuliani was a nasty piece of work. The other thing I remember about him before he was mayor was when he led that police strike on the bridge. Whipping up a bunch of drunk off-duty cops.
Yes, he was rabble rousing. And rabble rousing in a very overtly racist way. Yeah, he was just an asshole.

I guess like Trump, everyone in New York knew that he was an asshole for a long time before the rest of the world figured it out.
Indeed. But one thing I should mention is that the crackdown on clubs started even before Giuliani. I really have to think of the Happy Land fire. At which 80-some people died. It was an illegal social club, that only had one exit. That was 1990. And that led the the fire department to come around and inspect every place.

Another thing that seemed to change in the ’90s, it just became a bit more mainstream. I remember when the Sound Factory reopened as the new Sound Factory around ’95. It was really above board, whereas before it had always felt like a big secret.
Yeah. Well, all of New York was being gentrified. It was been getting much more expensive to live here. Yeah. which meant the clubbing demographic was far different than it had been in the ’70s or ’80s or even ’90s. It was a more mainstream kind of crowd? So the clubs were more mainstream.

And that whole gentrification process has accelerated. I mean, it took the East Village 25 years. I don’t want to call gentrification a natural process, but it happened naturally or at least gradually. And nowadays, it’s just like, boom overnight. They just put a luxury high rise in the middle of a poor neighbourhood. And then the gentrification flows out from there.

But the club scene is fairly strong right now. Even with the pandemic having happened and a few economic downturns over the years. I don’t want to say it’s the strongest it has been since pre-Giuliani days – it’s definitely not as creative and full of wild abandon as it used to be – but it’s pretty good right now. There are clubs like Good Room, and Nowadays? and a whole bunch of smaller places.

They’re outside Manhattan generally. I guess that’s the biggest change, isn’t it?
Yes and I’m stuck in my rent stabilised apartment in the East Village where there’s basically no clubbing to be had. Mind you Nicolas Matar, who was the owner of Cielo, and co-owner of Output just opened a small venue in the Lower East Side, like 150 people. But yeah, it’s really strong. And they actually got rid of the cabaret laws. They’re not even a potential tool to be used.

That’s room for celebration.
They haven’t been enforcing them since Giuliani left at the end of 2001, but now they’re not even a thing. And the thought of it being gone is good. Now there are smaller venues that never would have gotten a cabaret licence back in the old days, a place like Jupiter disco in Bushwick, or Black Flamingo in Williamsburg. These are legitimate small clubs with small dance floors, where they no longer have to put up the no dancing allowed signs. And they get decent DJs. Yeah. It’s pretty kind of fun right now. I don’t go out to clubs three or four times a week, like I used to, but I’m out once a week at least.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

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

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

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

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.