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?
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?
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