Judy Weinstein made dance music count

Judy Weinstein more or less invented the workings of dance music as we know them. She’s a powerhouse of the New York dance industry, a fixture behind the scenes since the days of disco. With her party girl persona hiding a fearless approach to business, and an ease for making canny connections, she created a role for herself as the mother superior of the developing scene. She helped David Mancuso run his Loft and start his groundbreaking record pool. She followed that by starting her own pool, For The Record, which became her unassailable powerbase as it forged links between labels, clubs and DJs. She was effectively the artist liaison for Paradise Garage, and more or less manager for the largely unmanageable Larry Levan, a role she formalised later for Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie within her famous production and management company Def Mix. Through it all, her aim has been to fight for respect (and proper remuneration) for the DJ, gaining recognition for dance music within the wider industry. Today’s monster superjocks are reaping the rewards of things Judy Weinstein fought for.

Interviewed by Bill, 15.1.07

What has given you the greatest satisfaction?
The boys [Frankie Knuckles and David Morales] winning their Grammys. It was sort of the highlight of their careers, and of my efforts. Helping to get them there. That was such a great moment with Frankie and David winning the first two.

When did you start Def Mix?

And was it set up specifically to manage DJs?
No, David was working for me at the time and he had been taking off a lot of time to do some editing and learning his skills and I had to fire him because he was missing so much work, and then I managed him. It turned out the productions he was doing – or the editing or the mixing – were like re-producing from scratch. So we talked about starting a production company and I would be the business person and he would be the DJ. He came up with the name Def Mix; it was something he was using on his mixes. That was the beginning. Then Frankie, who was an old friend of mine for many years, was in town playing at a club called the World and I introduced him to David and then he joined us. He brought us Satoshi and then life goes on. You know, we all stuck together.

Judy with Larry Levan, Thelma Houston, and promotion guy Bobby Shaw and friends.

How has that changed over the years?
They’re more individuals now, they pretty much all work on their own. Satoshi made the biggest change, because he was the keyboard player. As the keyboardist, he was pretty much the sound of Def Mix for so long, but he felt stifled by it, I think, and so broke out of the mould first. He wanted to do his own music. At first I was resistant, because they were losing their keyboard player, but it worked out to everyone’s advantage, because it changed everything about Satoshi’s career, And Frankie went on to work with other keyboard players.

How has travelling affected the way the music has developed?
I think it gives them a better view of what’s happening around the world and that influences what they’re playing and making. But it’s all one world, which is interesting.

Judy with McFadden and Whitehead, Frankie Crocker and various Philadelphia International employees

Do you think the world has got smaller?
Very. The internet has a lot to do with that. Myspace is a big influence on all them. David was travelling through Europe and he was on Myspace and noticed that Junior Jack of Kid Crème was online. And so he said hello and suddenly they invited him to dinner at their house in Belgium.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your career?
David Mancuso, I guess, moulded me a lot. He was so special as far as influencing my taste in music and opening my mind to something new. Some of the guys out there are blinded sometimes and think there’s only one format of music but I’ve been blessed enough to have the owner of Ministry of Sound turn me onto opera on a dare. I listen to everything. Music is music.

Why do you think David had such a profound influence on so many people?
The man, the place, the drugs… everything. It was the early ’70s, you had Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, the Vietnam war, a lot of things going on in America. It was a runaway home, in a sense, and you were a captive. Just the whole experience of going to the Loft, it was all about the music, the speakers, the people you were with and you ran out the next day and bought the records you heard. It was fun. It was a fun time in the business. It wasn’t a business yet. The only clubs that were open were Régine’s, just fancy schmancy bars and DJs playing top 40 music.

Judy, Sylvester, DJ Howard Merrit and friend

Do you think that’s why it has retained its purity in people’s memories?
Absolutely. But it’s also remembering certain times in your life.

You’ve kept a lot of friends from that period, haven’t you?
Well the ones that are alive yes. During the ’80s, I lost 30 DJs to HIV which was a horrible time. So those that have survived, yes. They’ve grown up, and had children…

What does Ibiza mean to you?
Back in 1978, Richard Long, who installed the sound system in Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage, installed the system in a new Studio 54 in Barcelona and he needed someone to programme the music and the DJs and he hired me to do that. It was my first trip to Europe so I looked through the pamphlets and figured I’d better go somewhere else as well. And I ended up picking out Ibiza. So my first trip to Europe I ended up in Ibiza, not knowing anything about the island except that it was some of party society place. I lasted about 48 hours, I walked into the old town, it was raining, it was full of Germans, nobody would talk to me… so I went back to Barcelona. Then I came back to New York. Thirty years later suddenly [leading promoter] Danny Whittle is giving us some wonderful opportunities to be resident on Saturday nights in Ibiza. So returning there was actually a great moment to me. Here I am now, and we’ve got the Saturday nights, which, to me are the best nights to have. So it’s a special and magical place and I’ll always be appreciative of Danny’s attentions.

How’s that going for you?
It’s been great and every year it gets even better. I don’t know how long it will last, but to have a home every Saturday night from June until Sept to have an apartment in the old town, overlooking the sea, how lucky can I be?

Do you go there for the whole summer?
I did in the beginning, but I never got any work done. Nobody gets any work done in Ibiza; it’s a lie if they tell you they do. You get there, you set up a computer, I have a desk, I have all my papers and I’m ready… then all of a sudden it’s siesta time. Then the next day the morning doesn’t even matter any more; it’s siesta Day. You just can’t work there. So now I go for the opening and the middle of the season and then the closing.

What’s going on in New York at the moment?
Well, New York’s going through a very interesting transition at the moment. All the huge superclubs are almost all gone. There are too many problems with the drugs, and the police. We have this huge influx of small clubs that are very trendy. I think the ropes are bigger than the clubs themselves! But it’s a very interesting scene. The thing is though none of the music is very interesting or relevant in these clubs. A lot of them play classic oldies for people like Paris Hilton.

Do you think that will change for the better?

I don’t know. Sooner or later everything changes and cones back around. I’m waiting for vocals to show up again.

What gives you the biggest thrill now?
Fitting into something I wore ten years ago! I don’t know…. I still get a thrill seeing a song that the guys produced working on the dancefloor and five thousand people on the dancefloor putting their hands in the air.

After over 30 years of going to clubs does it still excite you when you go into clubs now?No, not as much as it did. It excites me more when it is one of my guys. When you go to clubs in Italy or Belgrade, especially the new areas where music is happening and the scene is happening, it’s thrilling when I watch it on Youtube and see Satoshi. That’s thrilling! I don’t have to walk into a club anymore!

How has the internet change things?
Oh it’s changed things for everybody. Sometimes you don’t even think before you send which could be a problem. You buy your music online, you watch a party online, you can do so many things online. It’s very gratifying, but it’s also very dangerous I think.

What do you think makes a good DJ?
Passion for what they do. I think anybody can put two records together. I can but I’m not good at it. But if you can make one long song out of a night, you’re the man. Or woman. That’s what my guys do, they make a journey, which a lot of DJs don’t…

Do you think that music matters as much to young people now?
No. Well, you know half and half because I have a nephew who’s 19 and whenever I go to his Myspace or website he’s always using quotes from songs and stuff so I can’t say that it doesn’t still matter. But when you get older you expect young people to feel the way you do and they have their own feelings.

Music is now everywhere, in shops and bars etc, and yet it has been diminished somehow.
Well, I think music itself has been diminished. When I hear progressive house, it just seems to be hundreds of bars of nothing. But you know kids really like it, so maybe they’re hearing something that I’m not.

Do you still feel comfortable going into clubs?
If it’s the right one yes. We were at Frankie’s birthday the other day and there were 16 year-olds and 60 year-olds and I wanted to dance. But then if it’s Pacha and there’s an 80-year-old guy with a 16-year-old model, no, I don’t wanna dance. I like having a dance in my own room when I’m getting ready. I’ve been listening to hip hop lately. I’m into the crunk music, is that what it’s called? The boys are hearing it, shaking their heads and walking away.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton