The Aztec Lounge, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, was a punk and goth club in the mid-’80s – not the first place you’d look for the future of dance music. So imagine Bruce Tantum’s surprise when he found it there. Tantum, now clubs editor for Time Out New York, was at the Aztec when the DJ dropped a strange, arresting 12-inch from Chicago which was obviously created on cheap electronic equipment by amateurs. “It was weird shit – real primitive, raw stuff,” says Tantum, who asked the DJ, “What is this disco-from-outer-space shit?”
This was house music and though it didn’t sound like anything else, it was also not entirely unfamiliar. “A lot of their grooves [came] from the old disco records,” says ‘Little’ Louie Vega, then a freestyle producer who played records in the Bronx at a club called the Devil’s Nest. “‘Jack Your Body’ by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley – that bassline is by First Choice [from ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’]. But they would play them over again. What Chicago did was to begin with drum machines and synthesizers.”
Vega was playing first-generation Chicago house artists Virgo, Mr. Fingers and Marshall Jefferson alongside Latin freestyle, hip hop and rock; so did Bruce Forest, who played four nights a week at Better Days on West 49th Street in Manhattan. In 1985, Forest gave David Morales, who handled Thursday nights, his extra 12-inches by Chicagoans J.M. Silk and Chip E. and Morales began playing house, too. Vega joined on the island in 1986 when he landed at Heartthrob on West 26th Street – formerly the FunHouse, the mid-’80s home of John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez, the New York DJ best known for producing Madonna’s “Holiday.”
“Between ’85 and ’87, if you didn’t have no Trax records, you weren’t the man,” said house producer Benji Candlario in 1995. Candlario had spun hip hop in the pre-“Rapper’s Delight” Bronx and in 1986 he teamed up with electro producer Aldo Marin as Nitro Deluxe for the aptly titled “Let’s Get Brutal” on Marin’s label Cutting.
But New York didn’t fully occupy house music until Todd Terry. Born and raised in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, Terry was equally inspired by Larry Levan’s DJ tapes from the Paradise Garage and the hip hop of the era. He began making beats for his friends to rhyme over, but couldn’t find a label that was interested. Then he decided to fool around with the house music sound that had been sneaking into the clubs: “It had a more traveling type of deepness to it. It had the 909 [drum machine], so that gave it a stride – a lot of riffing over deep basslines.” Terry decided to stitch some current, popular house records together for a laugh: “I was doing it just to show my friends, ‘I can do this shit. What’s the big deal? The rap stuff is a lot harder to do than this.’”
House music wasn’t just easier to make, it was easier to sell. Terry shopped the demo, titled “Party People” and credited to Royal House, to the small Brooklyn label Idlers. “I got a deal for that the next day,” he says. Terry responded in kind, turning out tracks in a hurry – he even named his Black Riot single from 1988 “A Day in the Life” because that’s how long it took to make. “I woke up in the morning, made the beat, did the music and I was finished later that night.” (In 1992, he made an entire album – The Todd Terry Project on Champion – in a single day.) Terry’s biggest pop hit, the 1995 remix of Everything But the Girl’s “Missing,” was done in a day and a half. “It was a pretty easy record to do because the song was there,” he says. “Go in there, do it, felt good about it, handed it in.”
Between ’85 and ’87, if you didn’t have no Trax records, you weren’t the man.
Unlike the Chicago producers, who were using samplers mostly to stutter their own voices, Terry layered and reconfigured his samples like a hip hop producer. (Vega, who was transitioning out of freestyle, mixed many of Terry’s tracks.) The link wasn’t lost on his fellow New Yorkers. “Only Todd’s stuff was really making the kids go manic,” says Larry Tee, a resident DJ at The Tunnel, who said of his playlist circa 1989, “If it sounded like Todd Terry, we played it.”
Rap fans initially resisted house music. When Frank Owen, an English music writer who’d moved to New York the day the stock market crashed in October 1987, began throwing parties that mixed acid house in with hip hop at the multistoried Alphabet City spot The World, he had to do a quick rethink. “Some homeboy stuck a gun in the DJ’s face and told him if he played that crap again he’d shoot him,” Owen recalls.
The World kept aggressively pushing rap and house as kin to its crowd, a mix of artists, b-boys and fashionistas. “It was like Obi-Wan Kenobi: ‘You will like hip hop... You will like house music,’” World cofounder Steve Lewis wrote in 2010. Terry helped seal the gap. When “Can You Party” started hitting in hip hop clubs as well as house ones, Terry put Idlers-signed rappers The Jungle Brothers on top of it; their version was called “I’ll House You” (1988), which, inevitably, helped sire hip-house as a genre. But Terry was also audible in subsequent producers’ work whose dance tracks appealed to the hip hop crowd, such as Soho’s “Hot Music” (1990), produced by Joseph Longo, AKA Pal Joey. “That was a time when hip hoppers didn’t want to dance,” says Longo. “That song made you dance or fight – it was one or the other.”
The World further proved its commitment to house music by going to the source. Frankie Knuckles was the South Bronx native who’d left New York in 1977 to man the decks at Chicago’s Warehouse – the place that inspired the term “house music.” After leaving his second Chicago club, The Power Plant, Knuckles began producing more. But he was getting restless – Chicago could only get you so far if you wanted to keep growing. A decade after leaving New York, Knuckles came back home as The World’s new resident.
Joining him was David Morales. Born and raised in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Morales had been a resident DJ at the Ozone Layer in Brooklyn when he began to fill in for Larry Levan at the legendary Paradise Garage. Morales then went to Zanzibar, an equally revered club in Newark, New Jersey, to play alongside Tony Humphries, who had a Saturday night mix show on KISS-FM, at the time one of New York’s premier hip hop stations. Morales’ manager, Judy Weinstein, took on Knuckles as well, the three of them incorporating as Def Mix Productions (named for Morales’ mix of the 1987 song “Do It Properly,” which was credited to “2 Puerto Ricans, a Blackman and a Dominican” – in billed order, Morales, Robert Clivillés, David Cole and Chep Nuñez).
Def Mix Productions changed the face of remixing. “Before us, when you did a remix, you worked with what was available to you,” Knuckles said at his 2011 Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Madrid. “By the time we got started, we were bringing in musicians and completely overdubbing everyone’s songs, reworking the music and the tracks, everything.” Eventually, the artists themselves got in on the act, as when Mariah Carey re-recorded her vocals from 1993’s “Dreamlover” for Morales’ remix.
By 1995, Morales was netting $80,000 to rework tracks like Michael Jackson’s “Scream.”
Eric Kupper, a keyboardist and programmer who has worked extensively with the Def Mix crew – he also produced the first RuPaul album in 1993 – remembers the “Dreamlover” remix. “The arrangement was done all on the desk using an automated console. ‘Dreamlover’ was nothing but two to four bars with keyboards and we just opened up this and that,” Kupper says. “That’s how you worked in those days. There would be a lot of things that repeated a lot and we would play the desk.” By 1995, Morales was netting $80,000 to rework tracks like Michael Jackson’s “Scream.”
Morales’ early collaborators Clivillés and Cole opted to make their own hits as C+C Music Factory, tapping steely voiced studio engineer Freedom Williams to bust basic rhymes over their crisp hooks. Their 1990 debut, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” sold five million copies, with the title track going to number one on the pop chart. It launched them as producers for established acts – they made Carey’s “Make It Happen” and Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman,” among others – before Cole’s death from spinal meningitis in 1995 at age 32.
Clivillés and Cole weren’t the only New York house act making pop hits in 1990. In the early ’80s, Dmitry Brill, a Ukrainian émigré working as a maître d’ at a Caribbean restaurant and DJing at night, met the brassy, new agey Kierin Kirby in Washington Square Park. Eventually known as Supa DJ Dmitri and Lady Miss Kier, the two began to hang out at Area (where Kirby briefly worked) and the Pyramid, where drag stars like Hapi Phace and Lady Bunny held court. In 1986, they formed Deee-Lite, soon adding Towa Tei, a Japanese DJ who had befriended the couple; one of their early gigs was at Wigstock, Lady Bunny’s drag and arts festival.
“They were the ones that gave people hope that they could make a lot of money doing dance music,” Tantum says. “Deee-Lite went from nothing to ‘Groove Is in the Heart.’ Nobody knew about them until then. The interesting thing is, a lot of people didn’t like ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ because they thought it was a poppy, watered-down version of house music, but everybody liked Deee-Lite because they were part of the scene and they were all funny people.”
No one had anything bad to say about the B-side, though. “‘What Is Love?’ was much more accepted among hardcore clubbers,” said Tantum. “Everybody has heard ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ so many billions of times that no one wants to hear it anymore. [But] there are still songs coming out with the vocals from ‘What Is Love?’” It never became a hit like “Groove Is in the Heart,” but one of the early-’90s New York house records Tony Humphries championed on the radio was Photon, Inc. featuring Paula Brion’s “Generate Power” (1991) – the first track by Nathaniel Pierre Jones for a recent startup label called Strictly Rhythm.
Jones was better known as DJ Pierre – and even better known as part of Phuture, whose “Acid Tracks” (1986) had set off a tidal wave of acid records that tweaked the bass-synth lines of a Roland TB-303 till they zapped like the RKO antenna. Pierre was a Chicago native who, like many others, had grown weary of the bad deals the Windy City’s labels were handing out. “I’d seen that the scene [in Chicago] was folding,” he says. Pierre trekked east in 1990. “I was visiting New York and I realized that this is the place to be – the scene is new here, the labels are fresh. I was getting, in a funny way, in [on] the ground floor of the New York scene.”
True “wild pitch” sounds the best when you are mixing it in slowly, over 32 or 64 bars. You don’t just come in at 16 bars – you ride that bad boy.
On “Generate Power,” Pierre switched out the 303 squeal for an unhinged-sounding but thoroughly controlled mélange of samples – curling sax here, Rhodes strings there, Brion’s shouts of “Power! Power!” riding it like a bronco. The standout on the 12-inch was Pierre’s own “Wild Pitch Mix” of the track – named for a party founded by Bobby Konders and David Camacho, at which Pierre began playing regularly after relocating to NYC.
“In essence, that’s a New York sound,” says Pierre. “It’s not like acid – it has no connection to Chicago. [What] makes something ‘wild pitch’ is the way it’s layered and built. I start from building the foundation – the drums, the beat – and have stuff coming in slowly but surely and have it building up, like euphoria, where it releases a big sound until you get hooked in. It just builds and builds and then I strip it back down. True ‘wild pitch’ sounds the best when you are mixing it in slowly, over 32 or 64 bars. You don’t just come in at 16 bars – you ride that bad boy.”
“Generate Power” was as important for who released it as for what it sounded like. Though plenty of New York indie labels issued house records, Strictly Rhythm almost immediately became identifiable as a house label, a distinction it wore proudly, issuing a passel of classics: Aly-Us’s “Follow Me” (1992), a house record that found favor with hip hop DJs such as Red Alert and Funkmaster Flex; CLS’ “Can You Feel It (In House Dub)” (1991), one of Todd Terry’s peak moments; and the return of Phuture on “Rise From Your Grave” (1992).
Founded by Gladys Pizarro and Mark Finkelstein in 1989, Strictly quickly became top dog in a crowded pack that soon included Nervous and Nu Groove. According to DJ Pierre, Strictly’s bigger producers were warned not to work with Nervous. “[Strictly] felt like they were the big fish. If they wanted to say not to work with the smaller fish, they felt like they had a right to say that.” Nervous founder Michael Weiss says that the labels were “competitive and very friendly” – not to mention they were part of a tight circle. “Gladys Pizarro actually worked very briefly at Nervous for a couple months,” Weiss says.
During her brief stint at Nervous, Pizarro introduced Weiss to Vega and his new producing partner, Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez. Gonzalez, like Terry, was a hip hop producer who’d found quicker acceptance doing sample-based club tracks. One of them, 2 Dope’s “A Touch of Salsa” (1990) – which sampled both salsa queen Celia Cruz and disco giant Sylvester – caught Vega’s ear. Vega asked Terry, “Who is this guy? I want to meet him, maybe do a remix of him.”
In 1990, Vega had gotten an album deal with Warner Bros. He invited Gonzalez to “come lay down some beats,” and the two began working together in earnest – first on the debut album by Marc Anthony, a family friend of Vega’s who wrote songs for freestyle acts and coached their vocalists, then on their own. They asked for and got Terry’s permission to use one of his discarded aliases, Masters At Work.
“We complemented one another so well,” says Vega. “I would play keyboards, he would make the beat; or I would come up with a groove first and he would make a beat to that groove. It was like clockwork. I was still getting a lot of remix requests from Atlantic and Warner Bros. We said, ‘Let’s use the remixes as an outlet. We’ll get ourselves out to people through the remixes.’”
Rather than fashioning something sumptuous around an extant song à la Def Mix, a Masters At Work dub would strip it back, often leaving only ghost traces of the vocals. “We’ll do something with your original song, but we’d take your vocals, do something hooky, put that hook on the B-side, but the music wouldn’t necessarily be yours,” says Vega. “We’d still have a bit of the artist in there, but create a brand new hook.” Soon New York’s top club DJs were buying Debbie Gibson 12-inches for the B-side MAW dubs. “Even Madonna wanted one,” he says. “Everybody wanted one.”
It set the table perfectly. Cutting Records issued Masters At Work’s key early 12-inch: on the A-side was “Blood Vibes,” a head-turning dancehall reggae/hip hop mesh. For the B, Gonzalez brought in a sample he’d taken from the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places. “Bippity-bippity-bippity-HA!” it went. “The Ha Dance” became a foundational track for the voguing scene in New York. “I didn’t realize how big it was until some of our friends [told] me,” said Vega. One was Willi Ninja, the godfather of voguing, who died in 2006 of AIDS-related illness. “He was like, ‘That is our anthem. We use it all the time to battle.’ A couple years ago I YouTubed a lot of voguing battles, ’cause I wanted to see them. I didn’t realize that, even now, that record is used so much. Like breakdancers had ‘Apache,’ the voguers had ‘The Ha Dance.’”
Ninja was the doorman during Vega’s mid-’90s stint at The Sound Factory Bar, working at an industry showcase night called the Underground Network. “That was my favorite party ever, probably,” says Kupper. “It was a very mixed crowd: straight, gay, black, white, male, female. Just everybody.” Tantum adds, “It was a great crowd, great energy. It was a packed room. Everybody was dancing. Even people seated around the edges were dancing.”
Initially known as Private Eyes, the Sound Factory Bar became the new home of Frankie Knuckles, who’d played the actual Sound Factory after Junior Vasquez, the tempestuous regular there, walked out one night. “When you have a room that size and you have a sound system that enormous and that pristine, my first thought was, going in to play on the first night, ‘You’re only gonna get one chance to do this right,’” Knuckles has said; he wound up staying six months. After Vasquez returned, the club’s management presented Knuckles with a smaller room better calibrated to his slower tempos.
“It started off like a dress-down party, a casual party,” says Barbara Tucker, the Underground Network’s cofounder (with DJ Don Welch) and host. “The first year, we alternated DJs – every week, someone different.” With Vega in place, the night exploded. A peak moment came on March 9, 1994, at a birthday party for vocalist (and Vega’s then-wife) India, when salsa legend Tito Puente stopped by to jam after a Blue Note gig. “They went mad,” Vega said in 1995. “I’ve never seen... I mean... the hairs stood. If you would have seen the reaction of that audience, the way they screamed – you had to be there, it was a once-in-alifetime thing.”
“You could go into Vinyl Mania on a Friday afternoon, look around and see five different people you could make tracks with,” says Michael Weiss. “Wednesday night at Sound Factory Bar, Louie Vega would play all the independent labels’ records and they would blow up if they were any good. And they would all blow up.”
By the mid-’90s, New York house wasn’t merely established – it was establishment. It’s the difference between no longer having to explain oneself and beginning to take things for granted. And that was the case not just in New York, but the world. “You could go to Rome. You could go to Amsterdam. New York controlled every market,” says Michael Weiss. “You could go to Tokyo and see stores with huge Nervous posters when you walked in. We were all thriving and we all had the major labels calling us all the time to pick up our releases. It was a very lucrative time.”
Miami was the place outside of town where it all converged. Held in late March of every year since the mid-’80s, the Winter Music Conference (WMC) was an annual confab for dance professionals that took place – entirely, at first – around the Fontainebleau Hotel pool. Initially, says Weiss, “It very much was a major label thing. Back then, all the major labels had dance divisions and they were very actively promoting the DJs. Then, in the early ’90s, once the New York labels got hot, we really took it over because we had all the big records: Masters At Work, Todd Terry, Frankie Knuckles and David Morales were all affiliated with the indies. [From] ’92 to ’95 [WMC] was like spring break for the New York dance labels.”
[From] ’92 to ’95 [WMC] was like spring break for the New York dance labels.
But the dance world was hardly a unified front. A handful of techno DJs visited WMC for the first time in 1993: Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva of Windsor/Detroit’s Plus 8 Records, Daniel Bell, Philadelphia’s Nigel Richards and future electroclash and EDM star Tommie Sunshine. Joining them was Tampa zine editor and future Astralwerks A&R man Peter Wohelski. “Everyone is hanging out, passing out records and then this rave thing starts to pop up,” says Wohelski. “They don’t want to hear about that at all. I don’t think I’d realized it was that different. You’d get people who would wander in [to techno showcases] going, ‘Why are they playing so hard?’”
The principal New York producers of the decade, Masters At Work, could traverse both sides: Louie Vega might drop Plastikman’s Detroit anthem “Spastik” (as might Junior Vasquez) and plenty of MAW-affiliated tracks banged in warehouses filled with glow-sticky teenagers as well as in the city’s superclubs like Twilo and Tunnel. Among MAW’s crossover hits were Hardrive’s spare, spooky diva dub “Deep Inside” (1993) and the Bucketheads’ disco-powered “The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind),” a record you could not get away from in 1994. Vega guesses this might be because “a lot of those keyboards on those records were more minimal – it was a more naïve sound.”
Masters At Work eventually pursued a classicist direction as Nuyorican Soul, whose 1997 album featured guest appearances from salsa giant Tito Puente, Salsoul vibes player Vince Montana and jazz guitarist George Benson. And for many others, house music’s (not to mention techno’s) increasingly abstract, increasingly instrumental direction was beginning to chafe. “Everywhere I go, all I hear is house music,” Timmy Regisford, founder and resident of the club Shelter, complained in 1995. “I don’t hear no lyrics or songs and it’s the same everywhere that I go – I may hear two songs in an hour and a half, but that’s not satisfactory.” The same year, disco-era DJ vets François Kevorkian and Danny Krivit joined with the younger but equally classic-minded Joe Claussell to start Body & Soul at Tribeca’s Vinyl (formerly Area), where soulful vocals were the order of the day.
Techno snuck in here and there – usually played way more slowly than usual. That’s how Danny Krivit played the Aztec Mystic’s “Jaguar,” an Underground Resistance track from 1999. Krivit told the Village Voice that he’d play it “pitched down as far as the turntable goes. I remember going to play it and the DJ put it back all the way – ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘That’s how I play this record.’ ‘Really? Oh, you’re losing all the energy.’ ‘No, you’re gonna lose all the soul.’” At WMC ’93, Wohelski and his crew caught Tony Humphries at Miami’s Warsaw, where he wowed them by pitching Jaydee’s huge rave hit “Plastic Dreams” (1992) to -6. “We all were like, ‘Holy shit! This is crazy,’” he says, given that most rave DJs were bumping “Plastic Dreams” up to +2.
Eventually, techno kids became house heads and the same demographic shift that existed between house (older, prominently African-American and Latino) and techno (younger, whiter) would show up in the New York house scene. Larry Tee finished an eclectic three-year residency at The Roxy in 1994; the club then switched, he says, to “a tribal, instrumental vibe. It went distinctly muscle-man.” Author Frank Owen adds, “House music lost its black audience and gained a big white audience [when] it became instrumental. Vocal house was very much in tune with that tradition of R&B, of the church. That was all jettisoned.”
The DJ who signaled the change most clearly in New York was Junior Vasquez. Born Donald Mattern in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Vasquez had been a Paradise Garage head whose audience shifted from Garage habitués to Chelsea boys, with ravers eventually getting on board. Vasquez was famed for his residency at The Sound Factory from 1989 to 1995. His sound, says Time Out’s Bruce Tantum, “was more jacking – not Chicago jacking, but the New York style, more bottom-heavy. The sounds are a bit more rounded. [It was] Latin, but subdued Latin, very minimalist in a way, [but a] big sound, with throbbing, drum-heavy, deep male vocals saying stupid things. It was gay, but not exclusively gay.”
Vasquez was also cultivating a mystique, locked away inside a DJ booth clubgoers could hardly see into. “It made him more godlike – [a] word-being-handed-down-from-up-high sort of deal,” says Tantum. Vasquez was also notoriously snappish, an attitude that carried over to his music, most famously on 1996’s “If Madonna Calls” – its one-line lyrical hook goes, “If Madonna calls, I’m not heah.” It’s as purely New York a record as anything by The Ramones.
Twilo introduced the concept of worshipping DJs from Europe much more than DJs from the US.
“Junior was a magician during his period at Palladium,” says Tee of the 14th Street palace where Vasquez played from September 1996 to September 1997. “He would do some things that were absolutely astounding. It was a little after, when they brought him back to Twilo, that it turned awful. After crystal meth hit the clubs, [Vasquez’s] sound totally didn’t change. It just became nonstop, one sound.”
Junior’s return to Twilo in 1997 was a homecoming: it was in the same space as The Sound Factory. Junior took Saturday nights. The other nights’ lineups filled up – often with overseas guests. “That was the first big club to do that on a regular basis in New York,” says Tantum. “Twilo introduced the concept of worshipping DJs from Europe much more than DJs from the US. The New York DJs were no longer getting these high-paying gigs – they were going to Europe to get paid a lot of money. On the plus side, it brought a lot of fresh blood into the clubbing scene.”
The big names were the British progressive-house tag-team DJ duo Sasha and John Digweed, whom Twilo hired in 1996 to commandeer the last Friday of every month. “New York was always a hard place to get your foot in the door,” says Digweed. “Then Sasha and I did a mini-tour of the States in 1996. New York was one of the dates, at Twilo. The night went incredibly well and the owners came to us both with the idea of playing each month. That night went on to last five years.”
“Not only did that put them on the map, it put Twilo on the international clubbing map,” says Tantum. “It was, rather unfortunately, the first place that I saw people just standing and facing the DJ booth – maybe moving around a little bit, but not dancing with each other, certainly. They were just looking at the guy playing the records.”
The best tribal is either [Danny Tenaglia], or sounds like it could be him.... I’m not sure what the trick was, but he knew the trick.
Sasha and Digweed played marathon sets, splitting the work – but Vasquez and his main rival, Danny Tenaglia, were prone to playing up to 18 hours a shot, all by themselves. Like Vasquez, Tenaglia was a Garage regular and Larry Levan acolyte. “People feel the need to compare us, like Coke to Pepsi,” Tenaglia told DJ Times in 1998 about Vasquez. “I feel there’s nothing to compare. What we do is 90 percent different from each other.”
As Vasquez’s style grew more brittle, Tenaglia went deeper – without necessarily retreating into deep house. His style was dubbed “tribal.” “It all coalesced for Danny at the tail end of The Sound Factory, when Danny was playing there in ’93,” says Tantum. “Danny really found his sound around ’94 and ’95. The best tribal is either his, or sounds like it could be him: a bassline, a big thick kick drum, a few funny sound effects going on here and there and that would be it. It would fill the room. It was a big production. I’m not sure what the trick was, but he knew the trick.”
As the ’90s progressed, Tenaglia began drawing from techno as well – the dubbier side of acts such as Germany’s Maurizio, stuff that was “house” without concerning itself too much with diva (or, in Larry Tee’s derisive term, “church lady”) vocals. “The minimal stuff, the Maurizio stuff he was influenced by – there was a lot of darkness to it, a sexy darkness,” says Kerri Mason, a journalist who in the early 2000s cashiered Tenaglia’s nights at the Tribeca juice-bar Vinyl.
“There was an old guard – the keepers of the flame of house music,” says Mason. “But they were in short supply in the beginning, because they resented [Tenaglia]. He had the Paradise Garage pedigree, but he was almost disavowing it. He was playing trance, techno – all this weird music that they had no cultural connection to.” Still, Tenaglia’s young, white audience wasn’t particularly ravey. “It wasn’t a super-ecstasy kind of crowd,” says Mason. “There were no glow sticks. That was seriously frowned upon.”
There were other ways to frown. Around 1997, when Vasquez moved from The Tunnel to Twilo and Tenaglia took over at The Tunnel, the two conducted a public feud. Word got around that Junior, spotting Danny from the DJ booth, had him physically removed by security. Actually, Tenaglia told DJ Times, he was approached by a security staffer who apologetically asked him to go, which he did – then he decided to take it public: “Even before it happened to me I was looking at how wrong it was. You don’t treat people like that.”
Six months before the Limelight shut down, I was... with Gatien saying, “This cannot go on. The police are going to crack down on you.”
Rough treatment in clubs would become the norm in the late ’90s, though. The city was remaking itself from the bottom up. Gone were the days when, as Owen recalls, you could tip your cabbie in cocaine and police were almost nonexistent on the street. Times Square was doing major business with the Walt Disney Company, the closest that place had been to anything resembling Mickey Mouse since the opening of animator Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated Fritz the Cat in 1972. The seedier aspects of nightlife in New York, long able to run free, were undergoing a crackdown.
It began with Peter Gatien’s spots: Club U.S.A., Limelight, the Tunnel and Palladium. All four rooms were enormous – Club U.S.A., the smallest, held 2,500; the Tunnel, a city-block long, held 5,000. Though everyone who worked for him averred that Gatien’s hands were uninvolved in any dealing going on in his clubs, drugs were so prevalent at Limelight that the venue’s most visible promoter, Michael Alig, would joke about it – loudly.
“Six months before the Limelight shut down, I was on a balcony with Gatien saying, ‘This cannot go on. The police are going to crack down on you,’” says Owen. “It was not something that came out of the blue. It was entirely predictable. You certainly don’t fill a club with 3,000 people, many of them underage and so fucked up on drugs that they’re collapsed on the floor and then go to the press, like Michael Alig did and start boasting about celebrity drug dealers. It was inevitable that was going to happen.”
On September 30, 1995, 50 NYPD officers raided Limelight, making only three arrests, including a busboy who sold weed on the side. A cop with ties to the club had tipped them off. “They told all the ecstasy dealers. Nobody was there that night,” says Owen. The Office of Special Narcotics, intending to nab ten times as many people as it did, was livid. The Limelight reopened a week after the bust, but by then it had lost its luster. “It was really dead by that time,” says Tee, “because everybody knew the drugs weren’t going to be there. If there were no drugs, the crowd wasn’t going to be there.”
After Limelight was shuttered in 1997 – following Alig’s 1996 murder of Angel Melendez, a fellow Club Kid – many figured the cops would leave nightclubbers alone again. But things ramped up. “You would endure a search that would be extreme even in a prison environment,” says former New York magazine reporter Ethan Brown. “I actually work in prisons now; I know what a prison search is like. Your shoes had to be removed. They would actually put their hands in your underwear. They would sometimes open your mouth. It was just crazy and humiliating. If someone might be suspected of putting ecstasy in [his or her] mouth, that person would then be grabbed by the shoulders and picked up and literally, physically thrown out of the club.”
After 9/11, it became survival of the fittest.
It wasn’t the Gestapo – nor, as Owen points out, was it anything compared to the treatment gays endured in the days before Stonewall. But it was unsettling and not the only evidence nightlife was shrinking in Manhattan. The early ’90s vogue for sit-down lounges, such as Spy, had introduced a queasy new concept into nightlife: bottle service. “They were small places, initially,” says Owen. Club owners started doing the math. “You’re not going to make a fortune if you have 100, 200 people in there,” Owen continues. “Promoters said, ‘Why don’t we do this in a bigger club and we’ll make a fucking killing here? We can sell a $30 bottle of vodka for $500. Why pay Michael Alig and the Club Kids to come, all the problems they bring, all the drugs?’ It was a no-brainer from a business point of view.”
The last real superclub that remained in New York was Twilo, which went away permanently on May 24, 2001, after the state voted to allow the City of New York to not renew the venue’s cabaret license. Authorities had discovered the club was sending overdosers to the hospital in its own specially hired paramedics service – so as not to alert the police – after first attempting to revive them with ice water in a private back room. The day the club shut down, fans conducted a vigil. “Flowers and candles littered the sidewalk, handwritten screeds and love letters for the lost friend covered the door,” wrote Tricia Romano in the Village Voice. “People gathered around and took photos, hugging each other and bidding farewell. A few cried and some danced to the music booming from a silver car parked at the curb.”
The action was moving fast to Brooklyn – particularly Williamsburg – and the sound moved away from tribal and progressive-house bloat to electro, mashups and a surge of minimal techno from Germany – a change exacerbated by September 11. “You couldn’t have a Vinyl now, with the rents the way they are in New York – no liquor, a $10 cover, open three nights a week. It would never work,” says Mason. “There was such an automatic and complete decrease in attendance across the board that you had to start thinking in terms of efficiency, which clubs never did. After 9/11, it became survival of the fittest.”
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy. Header image: Kevin Cummins/Getty Images.