The life and death of the Sound Factory

It’s nine in the morning, sometime in 1991, and Junior’s been pumping the dancefloor since midnight. Glistening bodies are moving in shadow, a sea of dancers working with the steady power of a machine. Everyone is loose with angles and movement and focused on this single never-ending moment. The groove is repetitive, relentless. Time is suspended, hanging by a silver string. Everyone’s locked into the music: stepping, dancing, ready to keep this precious thing going as long as the bass keeps rolling. Then with a flash the half-light becomes darkness, the huge mirror ball drops its needles and goes black. The Goddess of Light has plunged the club into mystery. And the music stops. Dead.

Brought to this sudden stop, everyone is rapt, if a little fazed, looking up, desperate for what comes next. It’s silent. Reverential. Something amazing’s about to happen. Slowly a feedback growl emerges in the dark centre. It’s so distorted it hurts. As it gets louder, it moves around, whipping from speaker to speaker in some wild phasing effect. Above the thunder comes another noise: a rough ridge of saxophone throttling overhead. It’s a tiny chunk of Ultra Naté’s ‘Rejoicing’. The looped sample flits around for a lifetime, licking our faces for a minute or longer. Random flashes of white light pick out corners of the huge bare room, making everyone desperate for a beat, straining for the release.

When it can’t last any longer a Hell’s Angel strides across the dancefloor with a stick, edging people out of his way. The sax throttle is even louder now, and it’s joined by another sound: an identical monster noise that doesn’t come from the speakers. Suddenly – with its engine growl bursting the heads of a thousand dancers – out of the crowd and up onto the stage roars a Harley Davidson carrying a dance gang of go-go boys.

This kind of theatre was rare, but the moment was pure Sound Factory. A devoted crowd in the hands of a single DJ, focused with absolute pin-drop dedication on the music and the experience.

The other unforgettable moment was the night Larry Levan died. Deep into morning Junior played an age of silence, followed by church organs. The lights became stained glass turning to white crystal, and people cried. Before their cheeks were dry, he flew into the most uplifting set you could imagine, a Sunday noontime release of life-affirming disco. We celebrated, we danced, we worshipped, we became family. Every week a thousand people absolutely together.

In the ’90s the place was written into legend. UK clubland adopted New York house and garage as its central inspiration, and this grand club took on the status of myth, joining the ranks of dance music’s most important places. Producers made records specifically for the Factory, records were broken there that would later (much later) become worldwide hits; people travelled to New York just to spend a Saturday night and Sunday morning there; and its DJ Junior Vasquez became a household name despite the fact that he refused to play anywhere outside his beloved club. In a Mixmag feature listing 100 things to do in your clubbing life, at number one the pinnacle was ‘Dance at the Sound Factory, New York.’

These were the glory years for New York house music, and this was the most magnificent place to hear it. Nowhere in the Factory could you not hear the dancefloor. Junior would keep a driving relentless bass groove going for hours, while changing rhythms, tempos, styles: playing around but never once losing your mesmerised attention. He could work a record for astonishing periods: teasing you with the tiniest sample deep underneath everything else, hinting at it until you’re desperate to hear the body of the track, then once he’d brought it in, working beats and dubs and vocals until he’d rinsed out every great moment of a song. He would loop sections up on a sampler to do this, child’s play now but a radical thing back then, first to keep you in suspense, then to turn a climax into the most intense, double-tracked crescendo.

This was the time of tribal house, of DJ Pierre’s hypnotic Wild Pitch style, of Murk, of Strictly Rhythm, Tribal, Maxi, Nervous, King Street, Eightball, as well as UK and European imports that fitted the bill, like Junior Boys Own and Guerrilla. Many of the monster global tracks of the time had been made to measure for the Sound Factory. Danny Tenaglia, Armand van Helden, Cajmere, Marc Kinchen, Masters At Work, Peter Rauhoffer, Farley and Heller, Mood II Swing, all made records with its power in mind. A track like ‘Plastic Dreams’ had the perfect otherworldly dislocation; those clanging notes would drop from its ceiling and devastate the place. X-Press 2’s ‘London Xpress’, with its frantic typewriter climax, would have the room in tatters. Later in the morning there were spacey US garage dubs leading into a sprinkling of ‘classics’ – soulful house and disco vocals. New records would leave everyone in a frenzy of enquiry: What was that amazing track he’d just worked for the last forty minutes? The label folk gathered under the booth to do their spotting. As the city’s crowned king, Junior had tracks months, sometime years, before they were released.

Some of his power came because he was an industry focal point, very much like his hero, Larry Levan. And the Factory was a conscious copy of the Garage. ‘I idolised Larry,’ Vasquez admitted. ‘I still do to this day, he was the greatest. And I do live a bit in the past when it comes to that, and I keep striving, wanting to create that feeling that lounge, that booth.’ In this way, Sound Factory represented the latest chapter in the family tree that had branched unbroken since disco, travelled through clubs like Paradise Garage, the Saint, Red Zone, Better Days, and Vasquez’s own Bassline, right through to Shelter and Sound Factory. There was a sharp divide between the Shelter, which was more churchy, less druggy, more organic and melodic in its tastes, and the Factory: more hypnotic, more tribal and unreal.

Sound Factory was created by Vasquez and Christine Visca, who had opened Bassline together in 1988, together with Phil Smith, one of the co-owners of the Garage, and Richard Grant. It closed its doors on January 12th 1995, the result of behind-the-scenes shenanigans over the club’s future. The world-beating sound system was put in storage, Junior declared that he would never play anywhere unless it bore the name ‘Sound Factory’; and Grant announced within days that he already had a new venue waiting to bear the prestigious name once again.

After a few months hiatus, Junior resurfaced at a series of one-off nights at the massive Roseland Ballroom, and then signed a deal with Peter Gatien, eye-patched owner of Limelight, Palladium and Club USA, to play at the revamped Tunnel, a club in an underground railway siding that was famous as a yuppie playground through the opulent ’80s but had been closed for years. Richard Grant opened his new place on 46th Street using the Sound Factory name, with Jonathan Peters in the booth and a much straighter crowd on the floor. Phil Smith, who had already created a smaller spin-off, Sound Factory Bar on 21st St, which Louie Vega and Frankie Knuckles made home, revamped the original Factory building and re-opened it with a Phazon sound system as Twilo. Danny Tenaglia was its original star, enjoying a belated residency in his home town, and from 1997 Twilo was home to Sasha and Digweed, marking the point at which a more European sensibility, the progressive house and trance roots of what would become EDM, staked its claim on the future.

In truth, the Sound Factory died long before it closed its doors. The victim of its own success, as it grew older it witnessed dramatic changes in New York’s nightlife demographics. The mid-’90s were the years when house and techno broke into younger, whiter bodies, and the family of dancers who’d arrived each week for worship since 1989 saw their hallowed ground fill with spectators and tourists, not to mention younger clubbers with huge trousers and downbeat drug tastes. By the end the gayness, the blackness, the slinkiness was gone. The edges were choked with Israeli smokers and tentative rave kids visiting a famous club. Ketamine took control of the whiter, gym-queen quarter of the floor, and Junior’s music lost much of its bounce as he aimed harder and harder beats at this swaying mass of hugging Chelsea Boys. The Club Kids increasingly changed the vibe too, bringing their gender-fuck freak power to a place that had previously had a purer focus on music and dancing. Much of its original black and Latin constituency had left, and by 1994 it had largely ceased to be a gay club. The boys still held the majority, but not by much, and the atmosphere of unspoken complicity was long gone.

The person who suffered most from these changes was Junior Vasquez himself. In its final year, Sound Factory – ‘The House That Junior Built’ – was filled, not with dancers who loved his music, but with people who worshipped him as the world’s most celebrated DJ. He said the main reason he refused to come to Europe was because people would just stare at him in awe rather than share in the dance. However, this is exactly what happened in the Sound Factory itself. It became cool to be there. People came down because they thought they might see Madonna.

His music was always intimately bound into the time and space of the Factory – few DJs have had such a personal identification with a single club – and after its closure it was difficult for him to find somewhere that felt like home. ‘That’s a big part of my nightmare now: I created that club, and in essence and by rights, I should have retired. I should have probably not played ever again. I made my mark.’ After the Factory’s passing, he admitted that as a DJ he depends heavily on feedback from his audience, and went on to say he hadn’t felt it in a long time.

In its heyday there would be a mere handful of people away from the dancefloor, while the rest writhed and jumped till cramps and exhaustion set in. The $18 entrance fee (later $20) was for a seven or eight hour workout. You only left the floor to visit the juice bar, the drinking fountain or the toilets. After it became Twilo it started serving alcohol, they had to install twice as many urinals, and the floor became sticky with drinks to the point it was hard to dance.

The other big change was the arrival of Giuliani, who became mayor in 1994. There had been a strange night or two in Factory’s final weeks when the place was raided by the fire department – no doubt at Giuliani’s behest. This was the start of him making his presence felt in clubland with his ‘Quality of Life’ campaign, by enforcing cabaret licenses and forcing smaller venues to put up ‘no dancing’ signs; by investigating the drug trade in the city’s larger venues, and by harassing clubs like Sound Factory with impromptu ‘inspections’.

They called Sound Factory the last big secret. As club-lord Peter Gatien explained after its closure, the economics of a one-night-a-week club with no alcohol just didn’t stack up any more. Twilo went on to be an incredible and important club, not least for Sasha and Digweed’s long residency, but it was a new thing: a stop on the international club circuit, rather than a genuinely underground venue, and never recaptured the atmosphere of that mythic room: the intimate communal experience of a single club built round a single DJ and a devoted, unchanging crowd, open on a single night each week. Those days were gone.

Sound Factory’s other resident, for six months or more in 1990/91 was Frankie Knuckles. I narrowly missed his time there and by all accounts it was a highlight of his career. Through my Factory years, he was ruling the Roxy, a former roller rink, where his melodies and symphonies ignited an incredible crowd, feathers and sequins to the fore. But by chance, Frankie was at the Factory for what would be its final night. ‘It’s really amazing because I hardly ever go to the Sound Factory unless it’s Junior’s birthday or something,’ he told me. ‘But the night that they closed, I was there. That was the last great room: there’s not going to be anywhere like that again, a room that size and a sound system that enormous.’

Sound Factory was at 530 West 27th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, a dirty warehouse block patrolled by hookers and lowlife. You would file in around 4 or 5am just as dawn was breaking, perhaps after a night’s sleep, or maybe after a long distracted trek up from hearing Frankie at the Roxy, and you’d leave the reality of New York’s cold concrete to be enveloped in its bass cocoon, completely removed from the rest of the world. It was a huge simple space made small and intimate by the power of the music it contained. You were treated like an honoured guest: fruit, cookies, cold water and coffee were yours for free, there were hundreds of dollars worth of flowers gracing the entrance, and fresh decorations every week. At the exit there was always a huge bowl of condoms, and a pile of pencils and notepads to exchange phone numbers.

A dark bare room, a huge single mirror ball, four giant speaker stacks. No booze, no bystanders, not much chat, not much cruise. Just the music. Sweaty black bodies, shorts, towels, eyes and smiles. Wild Pitch epics climbed and built for hours, hypnotised dancers followed the music every step. You would see incredible things there. Professional dancers would arrive from performing somewhere, and proceed to tear up a chunk of the dancefloor. Dealers served in Spike Lee caps – the X for ecstasy – as Banji boys ran around like street urchins. Junior had always encouraged the ballroom families and The House of Xtravaganza would make a runway in the corner, perfecting their millimetre-precise voguing along the side of the stage. Junior would grab a flashlight and pick out the more fabulous dancers, throwing down some bitch house track to exaggerate the competition.

The first time I went was after a swirly night at the Roxy. We walked the nine blocks north, past morning garbage trucks, and stepped off the planet. Forget the wonderful camp of the Roxy, here was intensity, devotion, a womb. As we made it a weekly devotion, the club’s family adopted us, two English journalists scraping a living. I was pulled into endless nights of tribal stomping; my girlfriend June gave them a swish and vogued convincingly off the bat, declaring herself ‘Queen of the House of Nubia’ and battling all comers with a pout and a smirk. I’d get butterflies lining up against that wall, feeling the heartbeat of that monster system. I can remember the rough warehouse bricks against my back, the take-off zone.

It was my clubbing beginning. I’d missed the raves, skipped out from London as hip hop and rare groove were still ruling my soundtrack, without really getting my feet properly wet with house. So for me the Sound Factory was clubbing year zero. Being in love with the fierce English girl in the neon pink bikini, pounding the Factory floor amid a sea of our friends, as Junior mixed ‘Acid Crash’ with some Wild Pitch workout for what seemed like forever, then took us down into an intense mind-fuck of jazzy organ, taking off again with an acapella of the screaming diva of the hour.

I’ve never been anywhere else where the dancing was so important. Not flashy, just really elegant and really physical. It was all about putting your body into this big powerful machine – about moving gracefully, creating the rhythm, generating energy. You danced your heart out to become part of something secret and sexy and alive. Definitely the closest I’ll get to church. After the Sound Factory, even the most amazing night is a little more clumsy, a little less devoted, a little more ordinary.

Frank Broughton

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in i-D.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton