François K hasn’t stopped
There’s no-one quite like François. He’s driven, a genius, encyclopaedic, undimmable. Since lockdown Mr Kevorkian has been tearing it up on YouTube with his ‘Stems’ project, using cutting-edge AI to shred classic songs into their component parts, then weaving them back together on a roomful of CDJs to creating astonishing 15-minute live remixes. With the robots firmly under his control he reshapes familiar classics like Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, into warped-out improvised dub masterpieces. He plays regularly in New York and round the world, has a monthly show on Worldwide FM and a big presence online. Yet incredibly, this 21st Century tech maverick is the same guy who ruled the dance charts back in 1982 as the dominant remixer of the disco era. As a DJ he learnt his trade in the first great wave of New York club jocks, alongside his great friend Larry Levan, absorbing the Loft ethos and the Garage energy. He played at The Loft, the Garage, Better Days, even Studio 54. The edits he made in the ’70s and ’80s are still played today, with many lodged in our culture as the definitive version. He was the first remixer to see an album of his mixes marketed with his name in the title, above the artists’. Through the ’80s he graduated to big-name production duties for the likes of U2, Diana Ross, Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and many more. He created Axis Studios, one of New York dance music’s most important, and launched Wave Recordings, a label known for its experimental take on ’90s house. Then returned gloriously to DJing with his Body & Soul club and DJ collective, creating a loving melodic home for the Garage and Shelter heads, an important thread linking past and present. As an interviewee, he’s unmistakable: complete recall and stories told in paragraphs. This remarkable 1998 interview was conducted for the first edition of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, when he provided a lot of historical help (and phone numbers), with some extra quotes folded in from a later interview about Body & Soul. It all started with François as a keen jazz drummer newly arrived from Paris, learning from Miles Davis’s sticksman while working nights bashing a kit in the middle of the dancefloor, trying to keep up with Walter Gibbons.
interviewed by Bill and Frank in New York, 6.10.98, and by Bill, 9.01.99.
How did a French jazz drummer end up as a New York disco DJ?
I was born in 1954 in Rodez in the South of France, very beautiful. I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. Then, instead of becoming a good college student, I decided to do music and join bands. Just get myself involved in situations. I was a drummer. I was into jazz funk; Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, all the electric period of jazz. They were all being made here in New York, so I thought why wait for the records. I listened to Coltrane, Pharaoh Saunders, Santana, Jeff Beck. There’s not a chance in hell that if you stay in France you’re gonna get something like that going on. So in 1975 I came to New York, to play music. I decided I wanted to play in bands here and get more instruction.
How did that work out?
I became a student of Tony Williams. He was Miles Davis’ drummer, but at the time he had his own thing, Tony Williams’ Lifetime. I started playing with whatever little band I could get a gig with. Really, really rough. In the process of doing that I came across this club. For whatever reason I spoke to the owner. I wondered if he might need an assistant. He was not really interested in that, but he asked me what I was doing and he said, ‘Well, I could probably use a drummer.’ And he asked me to come and play in this club, where a DJ was playing. The DJ was Walter Gibbons. It was a big club, Galaxy 21, and my job was to sit on a little dancefloor with my drums playing along with the music the whole night.
There was a lot of learning. There were a lot of songs I knew, but a lot I didn’t. Through that I became involved in the whole early disco scene which was very underground at the time, very downtown, very black, Latino, and quite a bit gay, too. Those worlds weren’t ones I was very familiar with but it was a very friendly and very sweet scene overall. And I got to meet a lot of people, go to clubs, parties.
Describe Galaxy 21
It was on 23rd St, an old five-storey, big brownstone building between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, next to the Chelsea Hotel on the same block. Because it was an old brownstone, it had a long narrow vibe. When you came in, you had the bar, long and drawn out. In the middle there was a separation, and a sitting room, all the way out there was a dancefloor the length of the building, with the booth all the way in the back. It fitted about 400 or 500, with steps along the dancefloor, minimal lights. The light man was Kenny Carpenter. And the sound system was good for its time. Upstairs, there was more of a restaurant, a lounge, a big chill-out area above the dancefloor, with big pillows and no music where people would mellow out. Then offices, then right on the top, on the third floor it was divided into two sections, a bar area, and sitting area. In the front, a movie theatre, showing X-rated movies. On the outside of the offices was a cabaret where Juanita Fleming would perform. She had a full jazz band and sang standards. They could have over a thousand people in there.
How did that you go from drumming to DJing?
It seemed pretty obvious to me that however much skill and practice, how many hours per day I had to do to be a drummer, the DJ’s job was very basic in comparison. Quite simple and straightforward. I liked the music they were playing in those clubs, so I figured, well, instead of struggling so hard to make money as a drummer, why don’t I do what these guys do and get some DJ gigs. So I started listening to the radio non-stop, 24-hours a day until I knew every possible song on WBLS. And going to other clubs and checking out what people were playing. By that time Galaxy 21 had closed and I was working as busboy at another club called Experiment 4, doing all kinds of things, running errands. But I was already starting to make audition tapes to give to club managers.
So you started buying records by then, too?
Yeah, I only had 30 or 40 but I had enough to make a really good tape. I didn’t have access to a mixer, but I could make tapes on a reel-to-reel, in mono on each track and mix them perfectly from track to track. Eventually, the main DJ that was playing where I was working, his name was Jellybean, he called in sick one day and I was the only person they knew who could possibly do the music. So of course I did it and everybody was happy and from then on, I got more gigs.
Like this place in 45th St. It was called the JJ Knickerbocker, a drag-queen place where they had DJ contests the first Thursday of every month. You’d play for an hour, then they’d judge who was the best DJ. A lot of people would go there. I won a few times and one time there were these promoters from the downtown scene who saw me and had me play for them.
During this time I was taking care of someone’s house and they had a reel-to-reel tape deck. I started teaching myself how to edit, using scissors and Scotch tape. No fancy editing. I started making acetates, dub plates of my own edits. The first one I made was called ‘Happy Song’, a drum thing. It was just a copy of what Walter Gibbons used to DJ live. I made all these little dubplates which were concentrated energy at the time.
You’re making them as tools for DJing?
Yes. It was difficult for a DJ to do all these fancy moves all night. My dubplates were really a kind of greatest hits formula. I would come to the audition for the DJ contest, and I would put them on. It was a shot of adrenaline. And when these guys from Chase Gallery saw this, they were like, ‘Oh we have to have this guy’.
They had a couple of parties at the Buttermilk Bottom, which were very successful. Eventually, in the summer of 1977, the year New York had the big blackout, they rented out the Flamingo. Because when Fire Island starts on Memorial Day the whole white gay population migrates, and the Flamingo used to close for the summer. These guys rented it from [owner] Michael Fesco, and so we had this incredible club, one of the premier gay clubs in the city, along with 12 West, which was an all-black crowd, and I was the DJ there. Downstairs from us was Nicky Siano’s Gallery.
In the same building?
Almost. Round the corner, 20 feet away. I think you could actually hear the bass from our party in the Gallery. Nicky would sometimes get upset because we were getting big crowds. So that was my introduction into that scene, I had never been to the Loft, I had never been to Reade Street, and when I started playing there I was immediately propelled into this whole thing.
At the end of the summer when the people came back, the party had become quite something, and they had big crowds, so they tried to move somewhere else – to a ballroom in midtown Manhattan on West 43rd St. They got involved with some shady types, because they needed a lot of money to make this huge ballroom into a club. I played three parties there and it just didn’t happen. Forget it. I returned the favour to Jellybean and got him a job back, because he wanted to play a Saturday gig and I didn’t want to play there any more. Times were quite hard actually, and I’d had to get what you’d call a ‘straight’ job, so I decided to audition for a big disco just opening called New York New York. And I got the job doing the main Saturday night party.
That was one of the Studio 54 rivals, wasn’t it?
It was made by the same people that did [Studio 54 precursor] Le Jardin: John Addison. It was not really per se a rival when they built it, but it became so because they were obviously vying for the same crowd. Studio 54 was nice, but it was really for the uptown, glitzy crowd. You’d go there once in a while. You cannot say anything but that Studio had the biggest venue, the best lights, the best sound. It was quite superior in some respects to New York New York, just because it was so vast, and so spectacular and theatrical. Then from Saturday nights, I ended up doing sometimes five or six nights a week. The problem was that it was more in the straight, Saturday Night Fever circuit. But I was happy just being able to play records and make money at it. Then while all this was happening, we all discovered the Garage. In 1977 they had the construction parties.
This was before they’d opened it properly.
Yeah. That was in the back, in the coat check. They had set up the sound system, they were still building the dancefloor. The guy that hired me at New York New York was called Joseph Bonfiglio; he’s really a very important figure in that whole Francis Grasso, early period. He was the DJ who quit one night at the Continental Baths in the middle of the night and the light man got to play records. The light man was Larry Levan.
Joseph had been working for John Addison since Le Jardin. He was very up on the whole scene, and he was very good friends with Larry, and he introduced me. I started going out to the Garage quite a lot, and this is also when the record pool was started: For The Record. When you were a member you were automatically given free admission to the Garage. There were all these other little clubs going down. A whole scene that was buzzing like mad. I was so new to all of this. I was literally propelled onto the scene overnight.
In the meantime, Walter Gibbons had moved to Seattle to do a club called Sanctuary, by the same owners as Galaxy 21, a guy called George Freeman. Anyway, Walter returned a year later and was converted to Christianity. However it happened, I don’t know, but Walter was just playing little parties on the side, and there were 20 people coming and it was really sad. From the Walter Gibbons I had known, who was the most flamboyant DJ I had ever seen. Walter was so fierce, nobody even understood how fierce he was. Nobody saw what he was physically doing with records. He was just outrageous.
What set him apart?
He had an amazing instinct for drum breaks, creating drama with little bits of records, just like a hip hop DJ. He was incredibly fast at cutting up records. So smooth and seamless that you couldn’t even tell that he was mixing. You thought the version he played was actually on the record, but in fact he was taking little ten-second pieces on the vinyl, two turntables. You know the whole thing: his selection, his mixing technique, his pace, sense of drama, sense of excitement. And he was featuring all these big drum breaks that nobody else was really using. He was really into drums.
Once Walter turned into the whole religion thing, he stopped playing a whole section of music and only concentrated on songs with a message. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it really limited the audience. He was really into this whole clean lifestyle thing. Unfortunately, it mainly fell on deaf ears. In fact, it didn’t fall on very many ears at all, because there weren’t many people going to his parties. You can’t say anything bad about Walter, because he followed his vision. It’s just his vision was more difficult. People didn’t have the interest to understand it. At the same time the Garage started to become an incredible force.
I was really not into the 12 West thing, that whole bare-chest and torso white male, tambourine poppers culture. It’s just not for me. It’s not funky. It’s a different scene. I’m not into cruising guys, so I’d go just for the music and the atmosphere and, you know, the atmosphere’s very nice, but the kind of music they were playing – all this la la la and these strings. I could only tolerate it for a little while. I was always at the Garage or the Loft. I had discovered David Mancuso.
When was the first time you were at the Loft?
Either late ’77 or early ’78. The first time I went it was on Prince Street. I never went to the Broadway one. I didn’t know any of the crowd that hung there, like Steve D’Acquisto, Michael Cappello, those early DJs. I had never met Nicky [Siano], I never went to Gallery, because when Gallery was open I was playing upstairs. I really don’t consider myself one of those early guys in that sense. I really only started going to a club in February ’76. I had seen a couple of DJs beat-mixing in ’75. I came after the big bang had already occurred in New York. But there were still not many people who were into it. There were only 200 or 300 people who were seriously into being DJs. There were not many stores; there was just Downstairs Records.
What about Colony?
Ronald Coles was working at Colony. He had been a promotion man for Atlantic. There was a vast selection of 7-inches, you could find a lot of catalogue stuff, but it was not a very good store. Except at the back when Ronald was working. It didn’t have the atmosphere of Downstairs Records, where you’d walk in and there would be all the imports. Everything laid out. Then in the back you’d have 25,000 45s to choose from. Downstairs was really the best. Walter had a job at Downstairs; Yvonne Turner, David Rodriguez. That’s how I met David. I got to meet David Rodriguez after he was a DJ, I never really saw him play, though we became quite good friends.
What was your impression of the Loft the first time you went?
It was so magical, so incredible. The Garage was impressive because of its size and the system and because Larry was so fierce. At the Garage you felt that the sound system was so powerful that it smothered people, except when they had huge peaks, which were much bigger peaks than at any other clubs. But the Loft had a more delicate quality about it. The Loft was not the kind of place where you’d go to find a date or something – you would feel so awkward. If you went to the Loft you felt, I better not bother this person because he’s having a good time, or he’s busy dancing. You’d just be there to feel part of the group, to be there with people. Everybody was so into the music and they’d be calling the names of the records; screaming. At the Loft you could hear people’s voices at any time because the music was much lower. And there was more of an interaction between the people and the music. It was not at the level where it was a tidal wave just sweeping the dancefloor. It was something more deep and spiritual, touching you in other ways. Not just through the body, but the mind, too. And he was playing stuff that nobody else played.
David always had records that he was the only one playing. A bit later down the line he was always championing Eddy Grant. David was playing Eddy Grant for years before other people caught on, including Larry. ‘Living On The Frontline’, ‘Walking On Sunshine’, ‘Nobody’s Got Time’, those were David records that you only heard at the Loft. Until a year or two later, when we were like, ‘This stuff is incredible’. ‘Nobody’s Got Time’ and ‘Timewarp’ became huge Garage records, but I don’t think ‘Living On The Frontline’ ever did. ‘Macho City’ you had to hear at the Loft to understand. That was later.
There was a real evolution to the way David played. In the earlier part I remember David playing things were a lot more mainstream, or experimental, or rock. When I first went I remember hearing songs that were fairly current and well-known, like the Bee Gees, for example, as well as things that were entirely his own. In the later part I think he defined the style as being the more spacey, trippy, movie kind of records. A Russian guy, Boris Midney, would give him tapes before anyone else. He made that USA European Connection. So David had these things very early on.
I remember hearing the Bee Gees’ ‘More Than A Woman’ where it had a special meaning. It was not the same record that was being played on dancefloors uptown. You played ‘More Than A Woman’ at the Loft, it was being heard along with Barrabas’ ‘Woman’. All these things were about songs having a message. The lyrics speaking to the audience. Establishing a storyline with the songs or the titles. And he would play all the big records, like ‘Love Is The Message’, but he played it in his own way, which was from beginning to end. Not mix. I saw him when he was still mixing. It was really funny, he had little speakers – he didn’t use the headphones – and from the turntables, you could heard him cueing up, ktcheh, ktcheh. He would never really mix on beat; he had no interest in it whatsoever.
The Loft was a place unto itself, you really had the sense immediately, that this was a place so special. If you weren’t a friend of somebody, there was no way they were going to let you in. There was a living room, you had furniture there, people all over the place just being real mellow and relaxed. In some ways the Garage was more a really gay club. They had these policies about Friday membership [mixed] and Saturday membership [gay]. It was a big operation. At the Loft you never knew who was going to be at the door, who was the cashier. It did encourage a different interaction between people. People who used the backroom, sort of David’s office, DJs would hang out while he was playing. We’d just be sprawling out, 11 o’clock in the morning, playing crazy song after crazy song. The Loft had this scene that was real peaceful, real beautiful. The Garage was more heavy duty.
More business oriented?
No, just more… When Larry was playing a record you just had to pay attention, because it was just so strong. It was intense. You’d just be hypnotised by that dancefloor, the way it was moving. At the Loft, we were letting it all down, being more mellow. Really digging into a trippy vibe. When you did get to see Larry, especially in the early days, his music was so mad. So intense. He obviously studied from David and Nicky, so he had his pile of Nicky records, he had his pile of David records. He took from them all these good ideas, and I think really the Garage was just an over-sized version of the Loft. He basically copied the Loft’s sound system and made it much bigger, much more powerful. He understood everything about what these places did, but very quickly took it beyond all that into his own domain. I think what Larry did was nothing short of absolutely astounding.
How did he compare to Walter Gibbons?
You could say that Walter was just an outstanding a talent as Larry was, but at the end of the day if somebody has an audience of thousands and somebody has an audience of twenty, there’s a difference. Larry started to influence people. The Garage became so strong that it became a focal point, and everything started revolving around it. It created gravity, became a planet and it had other planets gravitating around.
There’s nothing else that will remotely compare to what the Garage was. Being that it was a downtown, black, Latin gay club, a lot of people never even knew it existed. After Saturday Night Fever and the disco backlash: ‘Well let’s forget about disco, now it’s punk; let’s go to our little nyahh nyahh nyahh guitars and suburban white dreams’. But the Garage was forging ahead with a cultural evolution that was so ahead of its time that those people didn’t get it. Most people that went there sort of got it, but I remember some people hating the Garage and thinking it was really a bad club.
Why do you think they thought that?
Because it was too much. It was an assault on their senses. It was a kind of tribalistic ritual, that I don’t think they could relate to. They’d never been prepared. If they’d been watching Bob Newhart or Johnny Carson or whatever else they’d been spoon-fed, as Americans, it did not prepare them for that experience. For you to enjoy these clubs, you have let yourself go a basic level where you can be free. And not cling on to any preconceived notions. You just have to accept it and see how beautiful the dance is. A lot of people are not ready to do that. They go to a club to be seen, show off their clothes, find a date, get drunk. I can remember some people saying that they thought the Garage really sucked. I think there was a very famous review in New York magazine that said how bad that club was. It was so far ahead of its time.
Anyway, these parties defined a whole sound. I’m not saying they were the only parties. Better Days was also important. Six days a week, Tee Scott playing. The crowd there was incredibly intense. It was very black, very gay. Sometimes I think Better Days was almost better than the Garage because it was closer and small and more intimate. The energy level when people were dancing was just so amazing. A lot of the Better Days people would go to the Garage, of course. I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest DJ at the Garage, the Loft and Better Days fairly often. Tee Scott would be in the studio a lot and would call me at the last minute. Sometimes I’d be playing at Better Days once or twice a week because Tee couldn’t do it. I didn’t play at the Garage all that many times, maybe ten, and the Loft about the same. To me it was really incredible, because there were not that many people that did that. Ever. I think at the Loft you had Freddy Taylor, Steve D’Acquisto once in a while, that’s it. At the Garage, Larry Paterson played a couple of times, Tee Scott played a couple of times. I’m talking early days ’81, ’82. After that, I quit DJing so I was not so interested.
What was Tee Scott’s style?
He was less experimental than Larry, because Larry would have that David thing where he would try things that were awkward, spacey or out there. Tee was more focused on real soulful grooves that would work the dancefloor to an absolute frenzy. I remember one day, I think I was playing at Better Days and Tee Scott and Larry Paterson came and at the end of the party, it always ended at 3 o’clock on the dot. I was playing Olatunji ‘Jingo-Bah’ and I went directly into [Kraftwerk] ‘Numbers’ after that. I think to them, that was unheard of. They had never seen that kind of juxtaposition. Tee was not into those experimental downtown things as much as Larry or David. Tee was more into playing a very solid, steady no-nonsense. And very beautiful. But Larry would always try and play all these European records. God knows where they came from, these Italian records.
Tee was a little more conservative in that scene, but he was more into squeezing the last drop out of a record and make it into a hit, whereas other people might have thought it was just an ordinary record. It might not a very strong record to begin with but just the way he would work it, cut it, and make his crowd like it, it would become a hit. We all shared the common baggage at the time, but there were specific nuances that everyone had. When Tee Scott played at the Garage everyone would get their fill of that powerful Tee Scott groove. When Larry Paterson was playing he tended more towards gospel with an eclectic selection. A very message oriented set.
And Mancuso discovered the most records?
No offence to David, but there was a whole crew of people like Steve D’Acquisto and others, who were really record pickers for David. I could see when I went to the Loft that they were showing him, you know, ‘Play this. Here’s a new record. This is good.’ And after David trusted you, if you brought him a record he would not even listen to it, he would just put it on. So if you were gonna bring a record to David, you got so scared. Because if you brought a bad record to the Loft, he would play it. And you would be so embarrassed because everybody knew that it was your record. So nobody would ever dream of bringing a bad record to the Loft.
In all fairness, I have to say David DePino told Larry a lot of times, or Judy Weinstein, told Larry what to play. Because they were sometimes more up on records than he was. Certainly Judy Weinstein having the pool was uniquely placed to get access to music before anybody else got it, including Larry. She would hear about things before they were even made.
Tell me how you got into production with Musique?
I didn’t have access to two turntables and a mixer. I had access to one turntable and a tape machine. Because of my musical background, I was always into experimenting, doing a lot of my drum recording with microphones, tapes delays and special effects, flanging, phasers etc.
This is at home?
Yeah. Using people’s gear when I could. I would bring my crazy Scotch taped edits reel to this mastering place called Sunshine Sound, which was in the same building as Strictly [Rhythm] was in years later. Sunshine was where all the DJs would go to get their acetates cut. Bring a tape in mono, and Frank Tremarco, the owner, would make an acetate for $10. This was in 1976.
And were these acetates of people’s own edits?
Yeah. But he would sell the best ones. Like there there was one called Hollywood Medley that was very famous at the time; it was like a cut-up of that year’s greatest hits. Like Stars On 45. So he would have those, for example, or he’d have some edits that DJs had done, and he would sell them to other DJs. The point is DJs wanted them. Sometimes he would have things under the table, maybe unreleased versions etc. But I was never privy to that.
For whatever reason, he caught on to me. From the first time I brought in that ‘Happy Song’ he was like, ‘Wow! This is cool’. I started doing more and he approached me and asked me whether we could make a deal. ‘I want to have your stuff; I want to make it available to other DJs, but I’ll pay you, every time I sell an acetate’. Of course this was not very legal, but it was on such small scale, it was more to disseminate and propagate the music. So there were certain edits I did which became very popular.
‘Happy Song’, which is now a bootleg. I did some of ‘What You Wanna Do’ by T Connection; I did some of ‘Erucu’ which is an early Walter track, an instrumental. It was on the Mahogany soundtrack, but there’s this longer version on an album of Motown instrumentals. It’s credited to Jermaine Jackson. It’s a real incredible track. After that, Frank started getting more friendly and he asked me, ‘You know, there’s this record that’s really good that a lot of DJs are asking me about. Why don’t you take the record and make an edit of it.’ That was ‘Bra’ [by Cymande]. So I did a very early edit of ‘Bra’ which was very basic. Repeated the break three times. That was it. I did an edit of ‘Magic Bird Of Fire’ [Salsoul Orchestra]. All these little things were helping me to understand the component parts of the music. I started doing quite elaborate medleys where I would overlay things on top of each other. Almost like pre-sampling.
I was DJing at New York New York non-stop at that stage, and I got to meet these people from Prelude because we were doing the rounds of record labels. I was with another DJ Rene Hewitt, and Prelude had just moved into this office and Marv Schlachter and Stan Hoffman wanted to play us a couple of tapes. They played us a couple of songs and asked Rene for his comments; then they asked me for my comments. ‘Thank you very much. Okay, Rene, you can leave, but could you stay?’ And on the spot, they offered me a position doing A&R. I sat there not even knowing what A&R was. I said I’d better think about it.
I started the following week and they put me in the studio to do this record they needed remixing. It was busting out in the New York marketplace: Push Push ‘In The Bush’ [by Musique]. It was my first experience in a proper recording studio, so I would do a listening session and take a tape home of the individual tracks on the multi-track. I would listen to each track and make a song map, so by the time I came back to the studio I would know exactly what was on each track. I’d make note of which vocal parts were really good, which drum breaks I could use, guitar parts and so on. When I went back in the studio I was with this engineer, Bob Blank, who was quite a talent. Immediately, I was into editing.
Didn’t he work with Arthur Russell?
Yes but that was on the side. Bob Blank did half of the Salsoul records made in New York. Many were made in Philadelphia, but he was involved in many of the New York ones. He worked on the Patrick Adams records, he was a major major engineer. We did a whole pass with different sections and cut it together to make it work. And the record just blew out. I mean, it exploded. Anywhere you would go in the summer of ’78, they were playing that fucking record. I brought it to the Garage and Larry loved it. He would not stop playing it. It went gold. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and still sells today. The original version was out, people were like, ‘Oh, that’s nice’. But when the remix came out it was so DJ-friendly.
So my first record becomes a huge hit and they put me in the studio night and day. It would not end. I got to pick whatever I wanted. I ended up doing a lot of records for Prelude. Two or three records a week on average. It became like an assembly line. We’d sometimes meet the producers and I would have to start traveling to them to tell them how to make it right, or what Prelude wanted. Whether it was Moses Dillard or Jessie Boyce [Saturday Night Band and Gloria Johnson producers] or Rodney Brown and his partner Mainline productions [Sharon Redd, Bobby Thurston]. I got to meet all these different people. I worked in all these different studios. I went to France and started signing records of my own.
Things I have to take credit for would be like ‘Disco Circus’ by Martin Circus. It was only a license but for some reason people seem to remember it on Prelude. And I signed this other thing that Tee Scott and Larry used to play forever, called ‘Body Music’ by the Strikers. You could not get that record. There were only 100 copies made, on the blue label: Cesaree Records up in Harlem somewhere. So for six months that record was getting played at Better Days and the Garage and nobody knew nothing. You could not get a copy. I finally made a connection and I brought it to Marvin. By that time I was really close to Larry so I asked him to come in the studio with and we did the mix together.
I found this other import at Downstairs on Elite Records, ‘Double Journey’ by Powerline, It actually didn’t do too well, only sold about 5-10,000 copies. It was a record that a lot of people at the Garage or the Loft would play consistently. The day I bought Powerline, I remember it so clearly, because it was the first time I was playing at the Garage and I was at Downstairs picking new records. There was only one copy of Powerline and Tee Scott and me were at the counter (and Funk Masters ‘Love Money’ had just come out that day). So I said to Tee, ‘Listen Tee, lemme have this record. I think I can work with it.’ And Tee said said, ‘No problem, have it’. Powerline became a classic in its own right.
Any other notable ones?
I found this other record that Larry was playing on a French 45 called ‘Shake It Up (Do The Boogaloo)’ by Rod. It was a nice earthy, African pop-French thing. I subsequently remixed it and went to France to do a whole album with them. Mostly, when it came those big artist like Sharon Redd, D Train, they found them. Sharon I had nothing to do with. France Jolie was packaged in Canada by Tony Green. I did a couple of the mixes later down the line.
Not only did I work at Blank Tapes, but I also worked at Sigma a lot. Sigma New York. Sometimes Sigma Philly. And I met all these different people; and because I was so interested I learned very quickly. A couple of years down the line, Bob Blank would set me up in the studio with the tapes so he could go get some rest on the couch. He would leave me on my own to do the mix, which I hated. I ended up engineering entire records by myself.
How did you come to do things like Sharon Redd’s ‘Can You Handle It?’, because that was pretty different for the time?
There was no point in redoing the original, I wanted to go somewhere else. It was a beautiful, moody song with these strings that were fabulous. We went back in and recorded some extra vocals. Then I wanted to double the guitar solo, the George Benson thing. Then she did all this talking and extra ad libs. I felt it was appropriate to do a remix like that since the vocal version was great as it was. But, honestly, there wasn’t much thought put into it. It was never like, well here I am standing at the crossroads of history. No! Just go in the studio and do it.
At that time I also got to play in this club AM-PM which was a very very crappy dirty illegal after-hours which went from three in the morning until ten or eleven. John Belushi would be there all the time, Billy Idol would be lying on the floor half-drunk. He was just a barfly. He had ‘Dancing With Myself’ out, but it was only an underground hit. At AM-PM I had to play ska, punk, reggae, disco, electro, whatever. I had to play everything. They wanted to hear the Go-Gos mixed with Bob Marley and James Brown. It opened me up to a whole bunch of other records that had a different attitude. ‘Turn To Red’? by Killing Joke. ‘Shack Up’ by A Certain Ratio. British bands that had a certain punky sound, but were really just recycled disco.
The British were obviously much more aware of that dub reggae thing, because there were all these reggae engineers working there. Some of them would do a B-side version with the heavy effects. I became aware of Jah Wobble, Public Image. Suddenly, I had all these points of reference that gave me ideas to go into the studio and do things that were a lot more experimental.
You’ve said Funk Masters’ Love Money was a very influential record for you.
I think I was the first person to play Funk Masters at the Garage. Because, as I was saying, I picked that up the week I was playing – and I’m talking about the original, not the remix. It had so much more bass than any other record around. When the remix came out after we’d been playing the original for a while, it was really was mind-blowing. It opened me up to this whole reggae, dub thing. That was the first record I heard that was dubby but not a reggae record. When I heard a dance music thing with all those big reverbs, those stops, those crazy effects where a piano comes in, cut off and decay. To me that was a revelation. Oh, you can do that? I immediately started searching out those sounds, records that had that in it. Then going in the studio and playing with tape delays and all kinds of crazy regeneration effects. You can hear the result of that – and some heavy-duty editing – on D Train ‘You’re The One For Me (Reprise), the short one that was only on the album. It’s an instrumental with dubbed-out vocals. To me that version was the real shit. Because people already knew the original version, when I played the dub it was insane. People would go mad at the energy of it. It created something on the dancefloor that you couldn’t just get with a beautiful Quincy Jones-style production. It was about breaking it up and making it go wild. There was that element of wildness that I think I really think I picked up from Larry. Cautiously | wanted to put that into the records.
A lot of the mixes being done were just regarded as disco mixes, like Tee Scott or Larry or Jim Burgess. I started going outside of the mainstream. I’d rather work on an Arthur Russell track than some commercial thing. By that time – ’82 – I’d started taking a lot of freelance things, although sometimes I couldn’t get credit for it, because Prelude were starting to get increasingly unhappy with the fact that I was doing these outside records. I did Yazoo’s ‘Situation’, which was a mega-hit here. Went gold. I did ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ [by Dinosaur Jr] that became a sort of Loft anthem for that year. So some of them I had to do anonymously. I helped Larry do the edit on ‘Is It All Over My Face?’ [by Loose Joints], but I had to do it without a credit.
I forget if I got credit on ‘Play At Your Own Risk’ [by Planet Patrol] on Tommy Boy, but I was part of that. There’s a couple I did for Polygram. By that time, I think I’d become a consummate remixer, where I could actually go in the studio and do things by myself.
Did the outside remixes come as a result of your name credits on Prelude releases?
You’ve gotta understand: that year when I did Yazoo and ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ I had the most number ones on the dance chart. Between D Train, Dinosaur L, Strikers, Sharon Redd, Yazoo, whatever it was. I had so many more number ones than anyone else on the Billboard Dance Chart. Everybody in the world was trying to get me. I would get calls from London. Prelude got kind of pissed off when one day CBS, our UK licensee, came up with an album that says ‘François K’s Best Mixes’.
That’s an important moment: as a remixer you were credited above the artists. The label had noticed that it was your mixes that were the attractive element.
Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve made any difference to how big a hit D Train would’ve had. Maybe I helped some. Maybe in the clubs, some of the versions I did. But overall, I would say I was instrumental in defining… or clarifying a lot of things. Like, say, that special dub I did of D-Train ‘Keep On’. That was very much a defining thing where a lot of people copied that stripped-down style.
Less is more!
It’s like, however much Gilles Peterson is into the original Dinosaur L album today I think that album’s a fucking mess. No offence to Arthur [Russell], but Arthur is a mess. Arthur’s music is that rich, luxurious unbelievably complex and ever-evolving and changing mess and chaos that is music and music that is life. My view of what I had to do with those tapes is organise it and focus it. Give it an appeal where at least people would listen to it and get into the marvellous and incredible things he had in there. He really did have some amazing things, but I don’t think he knew how to present it. People can call him a visionary all they want, and I will not deny that Arthur was an absolute visionary, but I don’t think he really knew how to sort out what he had created. It was too much. Certainly as a mixer, I feel that when I did ‘I Wanna Go Bang’ I really focused that record. I stripped it down. I spent hours and hours going over each track until I found the elements that were really strong. And the less things that were around them, the better they sounded. When you hear those [original] album versions It’s like being in swamp you can’t get out of.
Anyway, the point is that I’m not really sure how much I can say was my creation. And how much I was just lucky to be there. Maybe if I wasn’t there somebody else would have done it.
The dub reggae influence had an obvious impact on you. Was it the same with Larry?
I mean, some, but I don’t think he was listening to all that much. I don’t ever remember Larry playing heavy dub tracks in those early days. He would play the Delfonics, he would play Isaac Hayes, downtempo, moody, really experimental R&B ballads. Psychedelic records, but I don’t remember Larry getting so heavy into dub until later. When I was playing at the Garage I would bring heavy Jamaican records; experimental reggae things. We all shared. It permeated. We started mixing tastes a lot of times. He was into that powerful thing; I was into the dub thing.
What about the Sly and Robbie stuff?
That was later. Once Larry got to do all these records for Chris Blackwell at Island and got to work with those Compass Point people, with Sly & Robbi, and working with Steven Stanley, who became his favourite engineer, of course he was into it. That dub phase really started happening when he worked on the Peech Boys. Before that, though, he was more into heavy beats. He was into creating his own sound, which was quite chunky. Larry didn’t do so much effects, he was more into the hard rhythm tracks that were so powerful they would overwhelm you. Hearing Instant Funk ‘I Got My Mind Up’ – schtlackkkk! – It was like getting hit by a tornado. There’s just no other way to describe it.
Do you think Boris Midney’s productions had an effect because they were really dubby?
Yeah, they did, but it was more about arrangement and sonic precision. His studio was like having a giant headphone on top of your head. You felt that you were right in the middle of the bass drum. His music was kind of like that. He had these beautiful classic arrangements, but very trippy melodies.
How did he get that kick drum sound, because it was so huge?
He would just record it himself. He was a master engineer, he had his own techniques just like Giorgio Moroder had his. It was live. I know the kit he had in there was a metal drum kit, small drum booth. His sound was all dead drums, no ambience, nothing.
How do you think house changed things?
Machines. That was the end of live playing. The most significant thing to me about house: you didn’t have live musicians any more. You had people programming boxes. So it had a sound of its own. When it came out it was so special, so raw. Primitive, yet very compelling. It was the start of that refining process where, instead of music having all these flourishes, you just had raw, to-the-bone, simplistic, dancefloor-only oriented music.
The people that made house music weren’t interested in anything other than having the maximum amount of impact on the dancefloor. So when those first tracks came out there was an enormous explosion. Of course, there are a number of tracks that do stand out today as being exceptional music. But no matter how much of it has aged very gracefully – Mr. Fingers, Jungle Wonz, Virgo – some other things sound disgracefully bad. Because they were just a product of their time. They were over-utilising those gated reverb snare drums and those mechanical kicks, without really having any inspiration to it. Just gimmicks.
I think house also marked the dusk of those great, fabulous, legendary studio musicians, like MFSB in Philadelphia, that were playing day in, day out in the studio and had years of playing together, and refined their groove to the point where they became so absolutely incredible. You don’t have that any more. You don’t have those teams of musicians that are used to playing together on sessions for months and months. And they do produce masterpieces which I think will far outlast that mechanical thing. Some mechanical things are good, there’s no question in my mind, the positive thing about house was that you could music on a budget. It enabled a lot of people who were not fortunate enough to have access to a studio to go in and make music.
But why did Nuyorican Soul hire Vince Montana to do the vibes solo when they did a remake of ‘Runaway’? It’s because they cannot duplicate what Vince Montana does. You have to hire Vince Montana. If you want someone to play like George Benson, well maybe you need to hire George Benson. What was really important when Nu Yorican Soul came out was that it did indicate there’s a respect for those kinds of mega talents. for people whose energy and talents have defined a whole movement. For me, if I could, I’d love to get Herbie Hancock to play on one of my songs.
How did house alter your approach to studio work?
It didn’t really, because I quit DJing in 1983. When house arrived I was producing rock bands like Midnight Oil or working with Mick Jagger. Doing things that had a lot more to do with pop and R&B than hardcore dance music. What did I do’86, ’87? I mixed ‘Solid’ which was Ashford and Simpson’s biggest hit ever. I was working on Kraftwerk’s new album. I had graduated from being a dance remixer to being an at-large kind of guy. I was very aware of [Steve Silk Hurley’s] ‘Jack Your Body’ and [Marshall Jefferson’s] ‘House Music Anthem’. I was still going out a lot. I went skating every week in Central Park, where they had the sound systems. I was going to the Garage still. But as far as being in the studio, I can’t say that I really wanted to copy Chicago house. I was excited to work on a Mick Jagger record because Herbie Hancock and Jeff Beck and Sly & Robbie were playing on it. That, to me, was a lot more meaningful. Working with Kraftwerk for a year was very satisfying. That’s where my head was at. Quite honestly, as much as I thought it was like a real mind-blowing thing when I first heard [Mr Fingers] ‘Mystery of Love’, it didn’t have an immediate impact on what my productions were like.
Retrospectively, I think the more significant thing than house was Detroit. Because what was really interesting about Detroit was that they really vibed on all these Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, early electronic records. And they made it into a sound that was more abstract. Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s more important. Historically, you might say it has more far reaching implications.
Was that because they isolated and less driven by the dancefloor?
Yeah, it’s possible. I’m not denying that I play less Detroit records than I play early house. There’s always a couple of old house records in my crates. I don’t have that many Detroit. But I think that over the course of time, I think it perhaps had a more profound influence on some of the European things. It might be that house is much more successful, because it’s spawned all these genres. Also in Europe it’s done incredibly well on a pop level.
When you eventually started doing house, it was still different, but very you.
What happened was I started DJing again in early ’90. I decided become a DJ again, so I would call people and say, ‘Hey, can I come and DJ at your party?’ I started trying to get DJ gigs because I just missed it so much. From there it became a lot more apparent that because I was spending so much time in the clubs it was changing the sound I had when I was in the studio. Quite honestly though, in the early ’90s, I didn’t get much work at all, mixing or anything. I was working with Loleatta Holloway a lot, trying to get an album’s worth of material. We had a studio, and I was investing a fair amount of my time doing music. I was not very successful in placing many of my songs with people. We did a song with Select Records, ‘Strong Enough’.
How did your label Wave come about?
After I left Prelude people were always telling me, ‘Why don’t you do your own label?’ But I had the studio which at its peak was a major facility with 20 employees. An operation like that just doesn’t take care of itself. Once it became apparent that having a studio was not my goal as an end result, I was refocusing into the DJ thing again, and going back into that underground vibe. So I started making music again that fitted more in that groove. What I was really into in the early ’90s was the more experimental end of things: Deee-Lite, LFO, A Guy Called Gerald.
But the truth is most of what I was doing was not getting signed. A&R departments are literally handcuffed by the risk-taking factors of their jobs. People are looking for the short-term solutions. They need to sign the Salt Girls or Pepper Girls or Pizza Girls: something that can cash in a little flavour of the underground, the house sound of the moment, but really it’s about moving a lot units of a disposable thing.
I never felt like that about music. I always felt that music was really deep inside me. It was a very magical thing; it was a very mystical thing. And it’s not something you fuck with. Since nobody wanted to release what I liked, I figured I might as well just put it out myself. So I thought it was the right time to start a label. We really haven’t had a lot of releases, but we seem to have had a good reaction so far. The first EP I did, most of the tracks are rejects of remixes I did for other people. I called Warp Records because I wanted to do a mix for LFO, so they sent me the pieces and I did a mix which I thought was a take on ‘Baby Wants To Ride’. They hated it. I was really mortified. And the fucking single sold nothing. But then I re-did it, put it out on my EP as ‘Mindspeak’ and guess what? People loved it. Now it’s blossomed into a full blown label. My primary commitment. We’re signing a lot more acts as we speak.
With the fragmentation of dance music in the ‘90s, where do you think that has left DJing as an artform? Is it too easy now?
Well, it’s a different vibe. There’s an analogy that I don’t mind using because it’s very accurate. It used to be that we had landscapes, with little hills and gentle valleys, and they’ve just taken a bulldozer and made everything flat. I don’t want to take anything away from people building great hypnotic tracks that are based on repetition, and I’m not denying that mixing tools are great: records that can only be listened to in clubs. But music used to be something you could listen to at home, something you could listen to in more than one situation.
I pride myself on being the only person that has worked with most of the major electronic music figures: Depeche Mode, Erasure, Kraftwerk, Eurythmics, Jean-Michel Jarre. I feel that most people have completely misunderstood these people’s music and they’re taking the easy path to making records. They’re not really trying to get in touch with the magical aspect of making music. Because of the machines, and the ability to produce music at home that sounds very professional, they’ve removed the composer, the arranger, the bands, all of that. Sometimes you have geniuses who are able to do it in their bedroom, but most of the time, I think, most times we are left with a culture of mediocrity. One that does not value the story, or the trip that music used to take you through. Perhaps it has to do with drugs, but being that I’m completely not into the drug thing. I’m very very much a proponent of electronic music.
Are these thoughts some of the reasons you started your club night Body & Soul (in 1996)?
Body & Soul is not about playing relentless house music all night long. The reason I got into this Body & Soul thing is because I wanted to expose people to a variety of music, some of which you would call house, some of which not. And make them peacefully co-exist, and bring a crowd that appreciate that variety. On the music part, my idea for it was that I really didn’t want to be just playing by myself. I wanted to maybe explore the possibility of exploring more of a team effort. A true joint effort, where you could be drawing on the talents of various DJs to present an afternoon’s worth of music that was really special and different. I just decided to call the two people I felt were the most talented people I could think of for doing that in a team context.
That’s Danny Krivit and Joe Claussell?
Yeah. It’s not about, this guy plays for an hour, that guy plays for an hour. We are actually playing together as a team, at the same time. So we can very easily be in each other’s way, but so far it hasn’t been like that. My basic idea about this was that I wanted to give people a sort of continuation of a certain feeling that I’ve always enjoyed as a party-goer: a no attitude, kind of living room vibe. Put couches around the dancefloor, where you could lounge and talk with your friend, or dance. It’s really not anything that we’ve invented. That was really the concept behind the Loft and a few other downtown places.
And it’s working.
These parties we’re having right now are amongst the very few parties that I go to where the crowd goes nuts. They’re screaming and hollering, singing and stomping, they don’t wanna leave the club. Every week now it’s become this habit where we put the lights on and everybody keeps dancing. We turn the music off and they sing their own songs! And we have to put more music on.
Where does it sit in the New York club tradition?
The Garage was a copy of the Loft, but much more amplified. Larry decided to take the concept of the Loft and blow it up many times: in the size of the room, in the size of the sound system. There was a little bit of the Gallery and a little bit of the Loft in the Garage. The same thing for Body & Soul, whether consciously or not, there’s still a little bit of the Loft in there certainly, because there’s phases to the party where it’s very moody and spaced out for a number of hours. It doesn’t get frantic till much later on. Then, when we get to the bit in Body & Soul which is more intense you can’t really think that there isn’t some link to the Garage, but I don’t think it’s something we’ve done voluntarily. You look at Joe Clausell, Danny Krivit and François K, those are the kind of musical backgrounds we have.
I’m not trying to say we are the only ones keeping that alive, but I do think it’s important to keep that music alive and vibrant and heard and exposed today because, to me, it was the roots and foundations of everything else that’s going on today. It’s not about doing a memorabilia trip. We’re not the New Orleans Jazz Preservation Society. It’s a continuation of New York history
Which other DJs do you think uphold this eclectic attitude?
Recently I saw Jeff Mills play in Europe. I was completely blown away. I think he’s a fantastic DJ. The way he’s using all these different records and layering on top of each other. And Andy Weatherall, who puts his heart and soul into it. You could really see that guy is feeling his music. And that’s something that projects to the crowd. It’s not abstract. I am absolutely awestruck by Gilles Peterson. Whenever I see Gilles play it’s just like back to the drawing board, reduced to taking notes. This is what it’s all about. There’s a whole element that’s lost out there of how grand a party can be. What drama and what can really happen when somebody plays music that is not just a succession of beats, or a collection of this week’s new releases, but is actually an inspired reading. It’s a message, it’s a telling.
The greatest DJs have an emotional approach, don’t they. They create drama.
You can create drama on the dancefloor by just stopping the music. Using these sound effects on the vocals to feel like you’re really touching people on a direct level. That to me, is the most significant thing about the old days: that there was a message in the music. The music was touching people on an individual level. People were there, thinking that the DJ was playing that record just for them. Sometimes the DJ would be using the song – and Larry was so incredible at that – you’d feel that that song was directed at you. Like he was telling you something with the lyrics. If you asked me cold what the main difference is between today and the golden era of disco. The main difference? You wanna know? They had peaks. There were moments of excitement on the dancefloor where the entire room would be going out of their heads screaming, hollering, jumping up and down, because the record was bringing them to such a peak. But the peak was only possible because there were mellow parts to the song.
I specifically remember an incident at the Garage when Larry decided to play a movie at the end of the night He played ‘Altered States’. What’re you gonnna do? There’s 2,500 people there and you suddenly play ‘Altered States’. That’s the kind of freedom that I think people need to know exists. People can say what they want about Junior Vasquez, but I think Junior Vasquez has a terrific sense of drama. When you go and hear Junior play, he will entertain you. He will challenge you. You might not like it. But he’ll create those dark atmospheres. He will stop the music and make something really grand happen.
We had Nicky Siano play at Body & Soul and he wanted a milk crate so he could stand up and start acting the records out. He was on a stage! He was feeling every word of the songs, and the crowd would respond to it.
It’s interesting that, some of these places like the Loft and the Garage, or some of the people, Like David Mancuso and Walter Gibbons, are becoming icons. And people who never even knew them or saw them, are suddenly admiring them. Obviously there is a significance to all this. It’s taken a very long time for some of this to surface, but you can see how strong, dense and rich it was because it’s finally getting understood.
There’s a whole generation of producers who grew up going to the Garage. So many people acknowledge that the Garage was the thing that turned them on. Where is that Garage today? At least in New York? Where is it in London? I am not the kind of person who will accept hearing one thing all night long. It just does not agree with me. I feel an important part of what those early DJs were doing is mixing a lot of things that were not made to be together. That was the magic of what they were doing. They were able to pick all these quirky little pop records. All these funny B-side instrumentals. All those early electronic experiments. And all those rock records that really didn’t even know they were funky. The DJs put these things together and made it into something that was like creating a new world.
© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton