A self-described “black New Yorker”, Mark Kamins shaped the sound of New York party culture during the late ’70s and the ’80s, holding down residencies held at Trax, Danceteria and the Tunnel as the city’s dance floors burned with incandescent energy. As a DJ he played across the sonic spectrum whenever he took to the decks and as a producer his lengthy discography includes David Byrne’s “Big Business,” Quando Quango’s “Love Tempo,” Marcel King’s “Reach for Love” and “Beastie Groove” by the Beastie Boys. It’s just a pity that soundbite history has left him characterised as a so-called new wave DJ who’s best known for being an ex-boyfriend of Madonna and the producer of her debut single.
I interviewed Mark via Skype twice in late 2008 while researching a book on New York party culture between 1980 and 1983. At the time I understood that Danceteria was a key party space of the period but knew little about Mark – beyond his new wave and Madonna notoriety. We hit it off easily, just as I’m sure Mark hit it off with everyone he met, such was his charm, warmth and energy. We covered territory that left me convinced of Mark’s central importance to the vibrant musical story of New York during the early 1980s. In early September 2012 I sent Mark a list of quotes I was going to use in the book so that he could check and approve them. Then, in February of last year, news broke that he died as a result of a heart condition aged 56.
Scores of us gathered online to mix sadness and shock with fond memories. I then searched for material on the post-1983 period of Mark’s life we never properly got to discuss, only to re-appreciate that remarkably little is out there, with this exchange one of the most solid. Wondering if anybody else had interviewed Mark in depth, I decided to publish our exchanges on the anniversary of his passing so that he could finally have his say. What follows is an edited version. A full transcript can be read at my website.
How did you get involved in party culture and DJing?
Well, I remember my first club. It was Le Jardin. I was also working in a record shop then, Record Connection, which was the first shop that sold European 45s to DJs. The 45s had an instrumental on the B Side. So the DJs would buy two 45s so they could do a mix from the instrumental to the vocal. That’s where I got familiar with the catalogues of music and producers and DJs. And working at the Record Connection I met all the DJs who worked in the gay clubs and the lesbian clubs, the black clubs. I saw what they bought and that led me to start DJing.
Were you going out dancing at the time?
Because I sold the records to the DJs I was always on the guest list and I was always in the booth. I was a really young kid, I was 15, 16, 17. Infinity with Jim Burgess, that was a great place, he really rocked. It wasn’t disco then. Saturday Night Fever hadn’t come out. It wasn’t defined. It was still underground and it was still gay.
I was still in high school then. I went to Elizabeth Irwin High School, which was a high school three blocks away from the shop. It was a very progressive, leftist, communist high school and we congregated in that record store. I also grew up with Bob Thiele Jr, whose father produced John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman for Impulse Records, so my world was very musical.
This woman with mad blonde hair walked in wearing a mink coat and bought something like 200 12-inch records.
When you say you grew up with Bob Thiele Jr., he went to school with you?
Yeah, we grew up together. His Dad brought us to the studio when Coltrane recorded My Favourite Things and then in my high school there were a lot of children of jazz musicians. I went to school with Denardo Coleman, the son of Ornette Coleman, and in my class was Amy Arbus, who was the daughter of the photographer Diane Arbus. It was a crazy school and we all kind of aggregated to the record shop. Then I went to college, and then after college I went to Greece and DJed for a year.
Can you tell me more about that?
I graduated college in ’77 and went to London to be a DJ. My girlfriend at the time worked in Virgin Records at Marble Arch, which was Richard Branson’s first shop. I was out of work so I’d just hang out at the shop every day and this woman with mad blonde hair walked in wearing a mink coat and bought something like 200 12-inch records. I went up to her and I said, “Why are you buying so many records?” And she said, “Oh, I have the best club in Athens, Greece.” I said, “Do you need a DJ?” And she goes, “Yes.” I said, “I’m a DJ from New York.” She goes, “OK, do you have a number I can call in New York?” I said yes and gave her my friend’s number. I got the job and four days later I was in Athens. I signed the contract for one year and I DJed every day for one year at this club called Anabella’s.
So the bit about being a DJ in New York, that was a bit of bravado, right?
Oh, that was bullshit, yeah. I just needed a reference. But I had DJed in college, playing Eddie Kendricks and all my R&B records, which were considered disco at the time. That was pre-’77. It was like house parties and stuff.
So how did things go in Greece?
The most important thing I learned was how to rotate the dance floor. In those days when I had a full dance floor the manager would say to me, “Mark, play a ballad.” So the people at the bar would go to the floor and the people on the floor would go to the bar. It was a business thing. I don’t play ballads today, but I can go from minimal house to kinda happy house and rotate the dance floor the same way. You know, getting into the ’80s, my numbers at the bar were higher than any other DJ and club owners noticed that, and that’s because I knew how to rotate the dance floor in a very subtle way. I wouldn’t play ballads but I would put on a salsa record, for example. I always kept the business of the club in the back of my head. I never wanted to be a diva DJ. I wanted to make money for my boss.
Did you come back from Greece because your contract ended?
Yeah, I came back from Greece and then I got a job at a rock club in New York called Trax, on 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue. The people at Studio 54 started coming to Trax; they were getting tired of 54. Mick Jagger and all the English rock stars started to come to Trax. Initially I got the job at Trax to do the lights – they gave me a job to do the spotlight – and I asked the owner, “Can I play music between the sets?” And he said, “Sure.” I would say that was my first DJ gig in New York. Trax, playing between the sets.
When was this?
I would say ‘77, ‘78. When did 54 close, ‘79?
It didn’t close completely but Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager [the original owners] went to jail for tax evasion at the beginning of 1980.
So we’re talking ‘79, which was the end of 54. That’s when the Mudd Club started and after that the first Danceteria.
He would play PiL and I would go into a James Brown record, and it would work.
The first Danceteria opened in May 1980.
There were three Danceterias. There was the first one at 37th Street and at that time there was Trax, where I played, and there was a punk club called Hurrah, where Sean Cassette played. He was from Leeds. Now Sean played at Hurrah, which was the first club of Arthur Weinstein and Jim Fouratt. Fouratt [then] hooked up with Rudolf Pieper, who had this concept to open this club, the first Danceteria, and they went around looking for DJs, and they picked Sean Cassette and they picked me. They actually took the both of us and put us in the booth at the first Danceteria at 37th Street.
How did that work out?
We were open from eight in the evening ‘til eight in the morning. What was incredible for me was Sean was the first DJ who played punk records – meaning Sex Pistols, Wire, records from Rough Trade, 4AD, Factory Records, all those wonderful records from England – in New York. What I played at Trax was more... I would play James Brown, I would play my disco-jazz records, I’d play my Boney M. So when they put me and Sean together at the first Danceteria it was magical in a way because he would play PiL and I would go into a James Brown record, and it would work. And that was the beginning of Liquid Liquid, 99 Records and Konk, so there was a really wonderful mix.
Can you dissect this moment a little bit?
It was like an anti-Studio 54, but it was also a circus as well. It was a circus without the rich, without the glamour, without the icing, you know? It was real.
So was there a bit of a backlash against Studio 54 and disco going on?
Well the distinction I want to make is at the first Danceteria people danced whereas at Studio 54 nobody danced. At Studio 54 the people on the dance floor were paid to dance. You have to understand this. Because Studio 54 was a show for your Calvin Kleins, your Bianca Jaggers, your Yves Saint Laurents. They would be there and they wanted to watch the show on the dance floor – the show on the dance floor where people were paid by Rubell and Schrager to dance. That was their trick. That’s what Studio 54 was about. People didn’t go to 54 to dance. People went to 54 to do their drugs, drink their champagne, and watch the dance floor and watch the lights and watch the walls move. Studio 54 was a theatre.
You know Studio 54 always looked full because they had drop walls. If there were ten people it looked full. When 100 people came in they opened the next wall. And there were nights that Steve wouldn’t let anybody in. There were nights where the DJ and the bartenders would be sleeping because Steve said, “Tonight we’re not gonna let anybody in,” to create this whole thing outside, with 2,000 people queuing. The madness of Studio 54 was all planned. Really, this was the truth. So everybody on the dance floor at 54 was paid – they were paid with drink tickets to dance all night – and the famous people came, they sat there and did their thing, and they got to watch a wonderful show. That’s what 54 was about. But Danceteria was about people dancing.
Tell me about the way that you were working with Sean Cassette. Was there one dance floor?
I think Danceteria was the first club that had three floors. Sean and I were in the basement, which was just black walls and a wonderful DJ booth, and it was just the both of us for twelve hours. We were both completely different musically. But together, with his two or three songs then my two, three songs, it just worked… I think that was kind of the birth of new wave. That was the same time as B-52’s from Georgia and the Jam from England. So he would play the Jam and I would play B-52’s, and it would work. Then I’d play Bohannon and he’d play his crazy reggae dub thing, his Jamaican-London dub style, and it just worked.
Did you stick to playing disco, soul and funk and did Sean stick with punk and dub reggae or did you end up finding common ground?
I would say that by the end of the year we kinda meshed – we found a happy medium. But music changed and the bands changed through that year, and the music came together. English bands got more funky and black bands got more punky. So it kinda meshed together for us as well.
Tell me a bit about the respective roles of Rudolf and Jim.
Well, Jim took care of the music, Rudolf took care of the image and they both picked the staff. At Danceteria I learned that a successful club has to have a perfect mix of staff, from DJs to bartenders to doormen to sweepers to toilet cleaners. Rudolf made all of us feel equally important. I’ve always felt that the doorman mixes the people, the bartender mixes the drinks and the DJ mixes the music, and the three mix the whole fucking cake. That’s what it’s really all about. I respect everybody. I respect the guy that fuckin’ cleans the toilets. He’s as important as me.
Rudolf was really great about picking staff. When we get into the second Danceteria, the opening night staff were the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Karen Finley, etc. The Beastie Boys were the cleaners, sweepers; they picked up the cigarette butts. Cheyne, the elevator operator, I made a record with her called “Call Me Mr. Telephone” that was a big hit. But that’s the second Danceteria.
Where did you DJ after the first Danceteria closed?
The Mudd Club, which was really the antithesis to Studio 54. The DJs at the Mudd Club – Dany Johnson and David Azarch – basically played Motown and rockabilly.
Keith Haring one night painted all over the booth, and Steve ripped the booth down. That booth would be worth fuckin’ five million dollars now.
I thought Mudd Club was much more of rock venue?
Yeah, it was the ultimate rock place, the antithesis of 54. As 54 went down, all of those people from 54 went to the Mudd Club before they came to Danceteria. Mudd Club was a very small club on White Street. It had a capacity of maybe 200. When Danceteria closed, Steve Mass hired me and Sean to play [there]. He opened up the second floor, the upstairs at Mudd Club, for me and Sean, and we kinda did our same thing. We had a few problems with Steve ‘cos he put us into a plexiglass booth – Keith Haring one night painted all over the booth, and Steve ripped the booth down because he thought it was graffiti. That booth would be worth fuckin’ five million dollars now. Jean-Michel Basquiat was also there, writing shit on the wall. Steve was not happy.
What did Keith do at second Danceteria?
Busboy, like the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, too. I think the magic of the second Danceteria was really the staff that Rudolf and Jim put together for opening. We had a good three year run with them, you know? And the second Danceteria: the first floor was live acts and the second floor was the dance floor. Having the first floor live gave them the opportunity to have all the new bands play. I mean, every ’80s band played their first gig on the first floor of the second Danceteria – Pylon, tons of bands. The first floor was live shows, the second floor was dance, the third floor was video, with Nam June Paik. I think the fourth floor was a restaurant.
What was it like at the second Danceteria?
They gave me the second floor. I played Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which was great because my DJ booth became my library. You know the word discotheque, in French, means record library. So that DJ booth for me became a library of maybe 2-3,000 records. It was really the last place that I had all my records in one DJ booth. You know, like Larry [Levan] had all his records in one booth, David [Mancuso] had his records in one booth, so did I. In those days, when DJs got hired in a club, they worked at that club every night, which was very important… I think that’s why people like David and Larry were great, and why I was great at Danceteria. It’s because we had our whole collection in the DJ booth. For a DJ, what more could you want?
What was it like DJing by yourself at Danceteria on 21st Street, without Sean?
I really felt I had a power and that’s when I started mixing and music started changing. It wasn’t about mixing punk and R&B anymore. Music had evolved at that point. All of a sudden I had a whole genre of music I could play, you know? I would throw in my James Brown records, my old English funk records, but there was a new music happening – “Illusion,” “Set It Off,” “Al Naafiysh,” which was the beginning of electro with Arthur Baker and “Planet Rock.” There was this new music happening but it was very dance-oriented. It wasn’t rock and it wasn’t disco. It was something new. So the music evolved, the music came together. There wasn’t this juxtaposition that there had been when I played with Sean.
Danceteria was one of those moments in history where everybody was at the same place at the right time.
Was there a different atmosphere at second Danceteria?
I would call Danceteria a nation. It was a new country, a new world, a special moment in time when everybody was musically feeding off each other. Afrika Bambaataa, who came from a very deep Bronx hip hop world, made “Planet Rock,” which worked in the rock ‘n’ roll world. Bands like Konk and Liquid Liquid, they were all at Danceteria. Everybody was there at the same time, feeding off each other.
If you look at musical history and you look at the Jazz Age, there were places where Coltrane would play with Charlie Parker and Miles. Fillmore East and Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s and Warhol’s Factory: You had these places where people fed off each other and went their own way and did their thing and spent the night together listening to their shit. Danceteria was one of those moments in history where everybody was at the same place at the right time and everybody just fed off each other.
All we had was the club. We lived from the club, we lived off the club. We could eat, we could drink, we could talk, we could party. That’s what we had. You put a match to gasoline and you create a fire. Nobody was a genius, nobody had a plan for success. It was just pure creative evolution. Madonna was a dancer and Sade made her US debut at the club, and 30 years later they are two of the greatest singers in the world and they are also completely different. Maybe Liquid Liquid heard a funky beat and that motivated them to throw it down, which became “White Lines.” Maybe the Konk guys heard something that inspired them, you know? It was just a melting pot, a Petri dish.
You’re characterised as a new wave DJ but you played “Go Bang.” The categories don’t work, do they?
I’m famous for the records I mixed, so they label me as a new wave DJ because of the records I had as a remixer and a producer. But as a DJ, I mean, Larry [Levan] would let me play at the Garage at the end of his sets every now and again and I would play the craziest shit I had from Manchester – Marcel King “Reach for Love.” I’d leave Danceteria and I’d go to the Garage and it’d be 12 noon and Larry would let me play for an hour. That’s been a personal problem: how people perceive me as a DJ, because I’m known for British new wave but at the end of the day I’m a black New Yorker who played what David, François and Larry played.
So everything went into the Danceteria mix?
I played everything: Jorge Ben, I’m famous for playing “Taj Mahal”; Barrabas, one of Mancuso’s big records, I played that. I played everything, man! Nobody could ever pin me to a certain sound. I never wanted to be trademarked. I was famous for playing everything and being spontaneous and I’m proud of that. I have a certain magic and technique where I can mix two different records and make them work together; that’s just something I can do. I can do that with an a cappella or a sound effect, which I learned from Larry. I can use my tricks to make two records work. Every trick I learned I learned from Larry Levan.
Every trick I learned I learned from Larry Levan.
Can you tell me more about your friendship with Larry?
I met Larry around 1981, right after I produced Madonna’s first record, “Everybody,” and I brought it to the Garage. Larry knew who I was and he immediately played the dub side. Frankie Crocker, who was the DJ from WBLS, heard the record and then played it on the radio. Frankie listened to Larry. Whatever Larry played, Frankie played it on the radio the next day, and WBLS was the hippest station. Then Larry came to Danceteria and heard me play for three to four hours and he started respecting me and he let me in the Garage DJ booth.
During that time I started playing in London a lot and I’d bring white labels back from London, so I brought him Junior’s “Mama Used to Say,” Central Line’s “Walking Into Sunshine” and Wham’s “Enjoy What You Do,” the first Wham record that François remixed. I would come right from the airport to the Garage, and Larry would throw these records right on and people would go crazy. Larry and I developed this kinship where he would trust me and I would trust him. To get into the Garage was hard, but if you were a member of Judy Weinstein’s For the Record [record pool] you got in. Getting into Larry’s booth was another trip, but when I walked in and I brought him the Junior, it opened the doors.
Then I got Larry into New Order and New Order’s first show was at the Garage, which I think is pretty monumental. Larry would hang out with me at Danceteria before he went to work because he started later; I started at 11:00 and he started at 6:00. I’d give him some records, he’d give me some records. We had our own little thing going on that nobody knew about.
So you learned tricks from Larry.
He was always spontaneous and never had a plan. He was a genius the way he would use sound effects, the way he’d mix a record, the way he’d tell the lighting man what to do, the way he’d have complete control over a situation, the way he’d take two five-minute records and play them for 30 minutes, the way he fucked with the EQ, the way he stopped the music, the way he made people scream. The most famous was Chaka Kahn “I’m Every Woman.” He’d play that, and you’re talking about taking people to heaven.
Listen, every DJ can have the same record, but it’s how you play the record that’s going to make you different. Everybody can play “I’m Every Woman,” but with two copies Larry could take it somewhere else. Larry would have his three turntables and he’d have his siren, which he hit by the foot, so not only was he using his two hands; he had his right foot hitting the siren. So he worked the record and he played it the way nobody would have ever heard it and nobody would ever hear it again.
Larry [Levan] had God driving him; Larry had God driving the bus.
Sometimes he was great, sometimes he was shit, but the greatest thing about the Garage was it was only open Fridays and Saturdays, and Larry would spend Monday to Thursday tweaking the sound system, just making it sound better and better and better. Larry and Richard [Long, the sound engineer] would spend four days making it sound better every week. Larry, in the beginning, only worked on Thorens turntables and they were belt drive. A belt drive is very hard; I just think Larry was magical and lucky. He put the needle on the record at the right time, because you can’t pitch up or slow down a Thorens. Larry had God driving him; Larry had God driving the bus.
Can we talk about your studio work? You mixed David Byrne’s “Big Business,” right? Was that your first mix?
I was the DJ for the Talking Heads. Chris and Tina lived in Long Island City in the same building as Don Cherry, and they would hang out at the Mudd Club and Danceteria. David Byrne asked me, “Have you ever done a remix before?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “OK, come to the studio.” I had some studio experience but I didn’t know what a remix was. I hadn’t done one of those. The one thing I remember from that session was when the guitar solo came on I pushed the fader really high. David said, “Do you want the guitar so loud?” And I said, “Yes.” The guitar solo was fucking great. That’s when I met the engineer Butch Jones, who became the engineer on my first Madonna record. That was at Blank Tapes Studios with Bob Blank.
Chris Blackwell didn’t like Madonna and he said, “I’m not gonna sign my A&R guy’s girlfriend.”
I was more friends with Chris and Tina personally. David was really the straight guy, Chris and Tina partied more. They liked to have parties at the loft where they lived and I would DJ at all their parties and I would also DJ before the Talking Heads shows. Chris and Tina were freaks. I remember when they did “Genius,” when they called out James Brown and Bohannon it was because in the midst of my DJing, I would put a James Brown record where his name was called out and there was also a Bohannon record where it started with his name being chanted, “Bohannon, Bohannon.” So I would just scratch in these names on top of whatever record I was playing and when Chris and Tina did “Genius of Love” they had the idea to do that in the studio with James Brown and Bohannon. That’s where they got the idea of mentioning those artists. It was just the way I mixed records.
Was Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” a big record for you?
Oh, yeah. I started working on a record with them. At that time I was doing A&R for Island Records.
How did that come about?
Chris Blackwell heard me DJing at Trax and asked me if I wanted to A&R. I didn’t know what A&R was but said yes. After I got the job I said, “Well what do I have to do?” Chris said, “I come to New York every two months for two weeks. I just want you to play me all the music you like.”
When did that start?
That started in ‘79. We did sign some great stuff. I signed the Waitresses, “I Know What Boys Like,” and I signed Was Not Was’ “Wheel Me Out.” Then I was involved with the signing of U2 because their first record came out on CBS Ireland – “I Will Follow.” I played that for Chris and he signed U2. That’s how I got François mixing a very early U2 record. Then I worked with Grace Jones, and Sly & Robbie. I worked for Chris for four years and then I played him Madonna. He didn’t like Madonna and he said, “I’m not gonna sign my A&R guy’s girlfriend.”
I also found “Pull Up to the Bumper” for Grace. That’s something I’m proud of. That was a B-Side of a Junior Tucker song. It was just a Sly & Robbie dub track that was hanging around. I gave it to Grace to write some lyrics on it, and she came up with “Pull Up to the Bumper.”
Did you get to hang out with Grace Jones?
I freaked out and I turned around and I looked at Grace, and Grace said to me, “Mark, use your mistakes.”
Oh sure, Grace would be in my booth. I have a great story about Grace. I don’t know what year this is, but I was DJing at Xenon, which became the new 54 when 54 closed. One night Grace Jones and Larry Levan were in my DJ booth. I was scared as shit, my hands were shaking, and I was playing an R&B record and it started to skip, but on the beat. I freaked out and I turned around and I looked at Grace, and Grace said to me, “Mark, use your mistakes.”
So I let the skip play and I took an a cappella and put it on top of the skip. All of a sudden it became a song. Then, with my third turntable, I started bringing in a kick drum, “boom, boom, boom.” I turned around to Grace and she looked at me again and gave me a kiss and said again, “Use your mistakes.” I’ll never forget that.
So you’re doing your Island stuff, you’re playing at Danceteria, you’ve done “Big Business,” you’re DJing at Chris and Tina’s parties in Long Island City and you’re also dating Madonna. Tell me about Madonna in the context of downtown New York. What happened? Did she approach you? Did you approach her?
She was one of my regulars on the dance floor but she had this spark, a certain energy, that transcended everybody else. We became good friends, we started going out and she brought me a demo of “Everybody” and I played it. The next day I played it for Chris, and Chris didn’t like it. Then I brought it to Seymour at Sire. This box set of Sire Records came out and in it Seymour writes, “I didn’t like Madonna but I believed in Mark Kamins and I gave Mark a deal.”
Was this a record that Madonna had given to you on cassette and that you played when you were DJing?
Yeah, yeah, I played the cassette and it worked. But you have to remember, at that time, there weren’t any female singers in the charts. It was just really the right moment, the right time, for an artist like Madonna.
So tell me about the recording of “Everybody.”
I think it was the first and last record she ever did with a live drummer. I recorded it old-school, with the drummer and a keyboard and guitar player all playing at the same time. Even 25 years later, people ask me, “How come the tempo changes in the middle of the song?” I go, “Well, because it’s a live drummer!” I think the guy who played keyboards, Fred Zarr, was great. He was the first guy to use the Oberheim OB-8, and we had a backwards snare, which in a way became the hook of the song. That was actually one of the first 12-inches where the B-side was a nine-minute dub mix.
What did you think of the record when you were done with it?
There were other female singers on the chart, but she was the first one that had the whole package. She had the look, the dance and the song. There was a reason why Warner Brothers didn’t put Madonna’s face on the cover. They didn’t want people to know if she was black or white. It was just a dance record.
They wanted the black crowd to buy it as well as the white crowd.
Sure, and then Frankie Crocker on BLS played it. BLS was the most important radio station in New York and Frankie Crocker wouldn’t play a record unless he heard Larry play it. Once you got on BLS you had a hit, you know?
There was a reason why Warner Brothers didn’t put Madonna’s face on the cover. They didn’t want people to know if she was black or white.
Did you and Madonna discuss getting the record played at the Garage?
At that time, if you wanted to have a hit record on WBLS, Larry had to play it. Then there was another radio station called KTU and to get on that station Jellybean had to play the record at the Funhouse. KTU catered to more of a Puerto Rican, Latin crowd while BLS played to more of a R&B black crowd. It was really two distinct genres of dance music at the time, KTU and BLS. When Madonna left me and started going out with Jellybean she did “Holiday” and moved into the KTU world.
What did Larry think of “Everybody”?
Oh, Larry loved it. He rocked it. I think that was the first record he ever played with a white girl singing.
Did he know Madonna was a white girl?
Sure, sure. I don’t think anybody would ever say Madonna sounds black.
But there was this idea of keeping her face off the cover so that people might not guess?
Maybe that was a target marketing division concept. She sounds white, but the track was black. It wasn’t a Prelude record like “Can You Handle It?” or “I Hear Music in the Streets.” “Everybody” was in that ball game but it wasn’t a Sharon Redd; it wasn’t Prelude.
Tell me about your involvement with Malcolm McLaren and Bow Wow Wow.
I knew Malcolm [because] I was gonna make a record with Vivienne Westwood at one point. I was working at Danceteria one night and Malcolm came up to me and said, “You’re fucking great, I want you to do the American mix of ‘I Want Candy.’” That became my thing, doing the American mixes of English hits, making them more palatable to American taste. I think “I Want Candy” was the first and then I did the second Bow Wow Wow single, “Baby, Oh No.” Madness “Our House” was my first number one record on the pop charts. Then I did the American mix of Kajagoogoo “Too Shy.”
On those mixes I would make the beat a little bit funkier and I would make the sound a little bit brighter for American radio. That became my thing for a long time. If there was a hit record in England, I was hired to do the American mix when it was released in the States. I would do these crazy dub mixes on those songs on the B-side. If you listen to Madness “Our House,” the dub side is brilliant and it ends with an a cappella. All of those a cappellas that I put on the B-side, they’ve been sampled a million times. I always ended my dubs with an a cappella. And I only did that because I wanted the DJ to have an easy way to mix out. I was doing the mix guy a favour.
I was the first guy to put a vocal in a sampler.
What about your mix of Marcel King’s “Reach for Love”? You mixed that for Factory, right?
I was the first guy to put a vocal in a sampler. The first sampler was called the AMS, it came out of England. The AMS, you could get the sample and it would have a half a second. Now the AMS was first used to put a snare drum sample… We would trigger the snare, record it, put it back in the sampler, and make the snare drum bigger and bigger and bigger. Jay Burnett, who was Arthur Baker’s engineer, was the first engineer to do that. He mixed all of Arthur’s stuff, “Planet Rock,” everything. He was the first to use a sampler and not use it as a sampler but instead to take a sound, sample it, EQ it, then sample it again, EQ it and reverb it, then sample it again, so the sound got bigger and bigger and bigger.
I was the first to say, “Wait a minute, why can’t we put a vocal in this sampler?” And I did that when I remixed “Reach for Love” on Factory. What I did, I put the word “reach” in the sampler and I said to Jay, “How are we going to trigger this?” Because before you would trigger it with a sound from a tape, you would trigger the sample with a drum sound. So Jay came up with this idea, we can trigger the sample with a microphone. So I stood there on the desk going “R-r-r-reach for love.” It was the first time a word was sampled and played live.
And how did the “Love Tempo” [Quando Quango] record come about?
After “Everybody” came out I went with Madonna on tour in the UK. I met Mike [Pickering, from Quando Quango] at the Haçienda and Mike asked me to mix “Love Tempo” with Butch Jones. I used the same engineer as I used on Madonna and Tony Wilson loved the mix. Then I met the whole Factory crew, the Section 25 people and I went on to produce the Quando Quango album Pigs and Battleships. In terms of my career “Love Tempo” was a big record. It really gave me a lot of credibility having a hit on Factory Records because Factory had this aura of being this incredible label. Then we went on to produce “Genius” by Quando Quango, which some people consider to be the first British house record.
Could you tell me about the time when you DJed at the Haçienda?
I played a couple of nights in the beginning.
I opened the door for every DJ to travel around the world, and in the beginning it didn’t work.
How did it go?
I don’t know. That was the first time in my career when I started DJing outside of New York and, you know, you learn by your mistakes. I think the mistake I made in those days was when I went to a new country I played music that I thought they would like; I didn’t play what they hired me for. I learned a big lesson: that if someone is hiring me to play somewhere else I take the same box of records that I have with me because that’s what they’re hiring me for.
In those days I was the first DJ to play in another country. I opened the door for every DJ to travel around the world, and in the beginning it didn’t work. I should have just taken the same box of records I was working with in New York and played them in Manchester or Rimini or Paris. Maybe I thought too much, “Well if I’m going to Paris, let me do this,” and that’s not what I was hired to do. I was hired to do the same thing I was doing the first time the guy who booked me heard me.
What was the energy like at the Haçienda when you were there?
The bands played on the same floor as the dance floor so you had live music, dance music, live music, dance music, whereas Danceteria was live downstairs and dance music upstairs, which I think might have been a fundamental difference. The DJ booth at the Haçienda was also really small. It was not a meeting point like the DJ booth at Danceteria, where my booth could hold 10 to 15 people. The DJ booth at the Haçienda could hold two people. It’s hard to compare the clubs. It’s like comparing two cultures, two countries.
How did you get involved with the Beastie Boys?
That’s when Rick Rubin lived in a dorm room in NYU. That was like four months after Madonna. “Everybody” was a hit so they obviously came to me and we made “Beastie Groove” at Unique Studios in New York. The engineer was Jay Burnett and the concept was that I would produce the A-side and then in the middle of the record Rick Rubin would walk into the studio and go, “Yo, this record sucks man!” If you listen to the record Rick Rubin says, “Turn on the boom box,” and I say, “I’m out of here you punky, punky idiots!” We changed the EQ on the drums and it became this huge, huge sound and that became the sound of Def Jam. We didn’t plan it, but it worked.
What did you do with the EQ?
If you listen to the record the EQ changes in the middle of the mix. I say, “I’m out of here you punky, punky idiots!” and all of a sudden these loud fuckin’ crazy drums.
Whose idea was that?
It just happened. It was really live. That story has never been told before.
Are you saying nobody had turned up the EQ on drums before?
During a mix? No, that was the first time. It was an idea. We tried and it and it just worked.
We changed the EQ on the drums, and that became the sound of Def Jam.
This was the first Beastie Boys rap record?
Yeah, it came after “Cookie Puss,” which was punk. The Beastie Boys and Def Jam were really born at Danceteria, because Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons and the band members were just there, hanging out. All of a sudden Def Jam was on the map. Def Jam became, you know, an icon. It became a brand, it became a sound.
Were the Beasties still working at Danceteria at this time?
Before this they were working at the club as busboys, toilet cleaners.
How soon after did they leave?
A couple of months. That record really blew up huge and they were really smart. I think they were the first to really embrace the concept of branding. Def Jam became a brand: Run-D.M.C., LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys. It was a real brand.
Were you still at Danceteria at this point?
Yeah, but then I started traveling a lot to Japan, to Italy. I was the first DJ in Russia when the Wall came down. All of our careers started taking off different ways.
How did things come to a close at Danceteria?
I went to open my own club, which was called the Harem, and I rented out a belly dance studio in Time Square at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. God, why did I leave? I just think I got fed up. Well, actually, I started getting a lot of work in the studio and I wanted to DJ something new. I started this club called the Harem where I had five Turkish musicians behind me who played live with instrumental house tracks that I would play. It was completely spontaneous. It was about me being more of an artist than a DJ. There was an English band came down – “pump up the volume, pump up the volume, dance” – remember those guys?
M/A/R/R/S, OK. They came one night with a white label. And I played the white label, and then I would play an Egyptian singer, a cappella on top of M/A/R/R/S. So they went back to London and remixed it with my Arabic a cappella. That’s when I made my record United House Nations, which was one of the first releases on Circa, where I took house beats and I sampled music from all over the world. So I took that hiatus, I would say, for one year and the Harem became the hippest club in New York. We shut it down after we did a party for New Order. We shut it down after one year, at the peak.
[After that was Palladium, which] was Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager after they got out of jail. They took over the old space that used to be the Academy of Music in New York. They had an amazing budget, it was meant to be the new Studio 54. Steve hired me and Jellybean to do the opening week and neither of us did the right thing.
He hired me to play what I played at Danceteria and what I played at Danceteria did not work in that room and I thought, “Hey, this is Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager so maybe I should play more like Danceteria, but I was wrong. It didn’t work and they let me go after opening night and they let Jellybean go after opening night and they asked Larry Levan to play at Palladium. Larry was so smart. He didn’t play what he played at the Garage. He played something new – “Sussudio," Phil Collins. And that became the theme song of Palladium.
How long did Larry last at Palladium?
He did one night a week for a year or whatever. But being a DJ and getting hired to open a new club... It’s hard for a DJ. When I have my room, my room is my room. Danceteria was my room, Funhouse was Jellybean’s room, the Garage was Larry’s room, but if you get picked up and put in a new environment, maybe your music’s not going to work and so, sure, you have to change with the times. It’s hard. It’s like an artist trying to make a new record after two years. I mean Madonna’s always done it because she’s always hired young producers; she always reinvents herself.
Tim Lawrence is the author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79, Hold On to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-92, and the forthcoming Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-83, due for publication in the spring of 2015. He is also the co-founder of Lucky Cloud Sound System. You can find him on the web at www.timlawrence.info. All text in this interview is © Tim Lawrence.