Judy Weinstein’s story reads like a rich, clubland version of LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.” Like those of the song’s narrator, Weinstein’s stories are full of hallowed halls, essential moments and famous names. She was there: shaping the scene in the early days of David Mancuso’s Loft and Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage; working with Mancuso in the original record pool, and later organizing her own, even more influential pool; befriending and mentoring Levan and Frankie Knuckles before they entered the pantheon of DJ gods. She was there, running one of the original DJ management groups, Def Mix, which helped the careers of Knuckles, David Morales, Satoshi Tomiie and Hector Romero. But unlike the fabulist of “Losing My Edge,” Weinstein’s tales are bona fide truth – and she hasn’t lost her edge at all.
Sitting at Def Mix’s long-time headquarters in Manhattan’s Garment District, Weinstein is serene in person, but you get the sense that even she’s surprised by her life’s arc; laughing easily at her own recollections, as if in disbelief. “I can remember hanging out in Central Park at the fountain in the ’60s when I was a kid, and [the influential WBLS R&B and disco DJ] Frankie Crocker would always be hanging out, wearing chaps like a cowboy. He was an egomaniac, but he was also gorgeous. I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna know him someday.’ And I did.” From anyone else, that might sound like bragging. From Weinstein, it comes off as matter-of-fact.
Weinstein grew up in Marine Park, a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood that was “mostly white, Italian, German, Irish and a sprinkling of Jews – my family.” As a ’60s kid, she was listening to stops on the AM dial like WWRL (where a young Crocker had a show), WLIB and WMCA: stations where soul music was getting some airplay amid the pop and rock hits of the day. “When I was six or seven years old, I watched James Brown on The Ed Sullivan Show,” she recalls. “Of course, my parents would change the channel, because they didn’t get it at all. But I remember staring at the TV and thinking, ‘This is what I want. I want this to be my world.’”
By the late ’60s, Weinstein was working her “last real job” in the payroll department of the Consolidated Cigar Corporation in Midtown’s Gulf & Western Building, and hitting clubs where the focus was on being seen rather than dancing. An introduction to one spot in particular, though, changed her life. “I had a group of friends, four or five gay men, and they were Loft members,” she says. “They took me there as a guest, and I was intoxicated by what I saw. I had been going to VIP kind of clubs, but it was the first time I’d been somewhere that was purely meant for the underground – that was only about dancing. You got a little gift as you walked in the door – sometimes there might be a tab of acid in there. Growing up in Brooklyn, suddenly I ended up in this place, and it was magical.”
I didn’t go out and solicit for them – they just knew that I would get the best records in New York.
Captivated, she became a regular – and by 1975, not long after the Loft relocated from its original Broadway location to its second home on Soho’s Prince Street, she began helping out at the club. “David had a person who worked as a sort of secretary,” she says. “When that person left, he was looking for a replacement. [Music journalist] Vince Aletti told me that David was looking for a new assistant, and I forget if I called David or just showed up, but I got the job. I was a Loft member, but David didn’t really know who I was; I think I was just the first person who said they would do it.” Fully embedded at the Loft, it became her home away from home for several years.
Earlier in ’75, Mancuso had helped to create the original record pool, succinctly dubbed the New York Record Pool. A new concept at the time, the pool was essentially a conduit, getting new and often-unreleased music from the labels directly into the hands of the members. It worked both ways: the DJs would get the new records and the labels would get their tracks played at clubs, with the hope that radio play and sales would follow. But Mancuso envisioned it as something more – something, well, loftier. As Tim Lawrence puts it in his clubland history Love Saves the Day, the pool was as much a utopian collective as it was a method for distributing vinyl, “formed to generate equality in the music industry by channeling money from the owners (the record companies) to the non-owners (the DJs).” For Mancuso, it was an ideal, not just a tool to make life easier for spinners hungry for the next hot record.
Weinstein was helping to manage the pool, but as can happen with collectives, the pool began to splinter. There was reportedly tension between Mancuso’s egalitarian vision for the project and the practical-minded Weinstein’s more down-to-earth approach, but as Weinstein tells it, the end was more prosaic. “I had gone to Mexico with my boyfriend,” she says, “and before I left, I took $100 out of the petty cash fund to buy piñatas for the club. I came back and presented the piñatas to David, but he accused me of stealing the money. I was so offended that I just left the piñatas and walked out the door, saying ‘I’m leaving!’ David locked himself in and wouldn’t let anyone in; there were piles of records growing outside of his door.”
The hot-blooded Mancuso was not the kind to let perceived slights fade away. He tried to relieve her of her duties, but was overruled by the collective. Weinstein resigned nonetheless. “Then, a couple of weeks later,” she recalls, “I was sitting in my place with Larry and a couple of other DJs, and they were saying. ‘Look – David’s pool seems to be closed. Why don’t you open your own?’ I hadn’t thought about doing anything like that, but I decided to give it a try. I went around to the record companies to see if they would service us, and around to the DJs to see if they would join, and they both said that they would. That’s how For The Record began, in ’78.”
The new pool felt like a step into the unknown for Weinstein – “I think I had $25 in the bank at that point” – but in reality, and considering the DJs who had signed up, it wasn’t much of a long shot. “There was Larry, of course, and Tee Scott and Larry Patterson, and there were the white gay contingent, people like Roy Thode, Richie Rivera and Howard Merritt. They were all the Billboard reporters, playing at places like Flamingo and 12 West. They all signed on early on, and we grew really quickly. Within six months, we went from 25 members to almost 100.”
In the pool’s early days, the main competition came from the International Disco Record Center (IDRC), organized by a former member of the New York Record Pool, Eddie Rivera. “Eddie hated me!’ Weinstein claims. It wasn’t because she was a woman in what was then almost entirely a man’s world – “That was never an issue for me,” she says. “But I can kind of understand why Eddie felt that way. He had been there at the creation of the New York Record Pool, along with David, Vince Aletti and the others. He was angry because I had most of the Billboard DJs, but he shouldn’t have blamed me for that. I didn’t go out and solicit for them – they just knew that I would get the best records in New York.”
Weinstein has almost maternal memories of For The Record. “The record pool was in one room, split by half a wall,” she remembers. “We had a DJ console in my part of the room, where everyone would show up, start playing records and annoy me while I was trying to do bookkeeping. One of the greatest joys of my career was to listen to them exchange information about what they’re playing, what they’re using, what kind of needle they liked.” Remarkably, the pool lasted 30 years, servicing DJs until February 2008.
She’s a mom to us, and we are her children. We even send her flowers on Mother’s Day.
By the time For The Record came into being, the Paradise Garage had opened and Weinstein was a de facto booker for the club’s live acts. “What the pool afforded me wasn’t an income – it was connections,” she says. “I was close with radio people like Frankie Crocker and [Kiss-FM’s] Barry Mayo, so the record people would try to bribe me with fur coats in order to get access to them. I never accepted anything, because I learned from David [Mancuso] to be morally responsible. These guys would be looking for promotional dates in New York. I had Jellybean [Benitez] at the Fun House, Tony Humphries at Zanzibar and Larry at the Garage. Whenever an act would show up, we would take them around to all those places to do their thing. I think it was the record pool’s one-and-a-half-year anniversary party, for example, we had Chaka Khan, Gloria Gaynor and Billy Ocean.”
By the mid-’80s, David Morales, then a relatively unknown DJ and For The Record member, was serving as the pool’s manager. “He was one of the best pool directors I ever had, but he was spending a lot of time learning his skills,” Weinstein says. “He would be splicing tape in the office, and finally I had to tell him, ‘Look, this is what you really should be doing for a living. I’ll find another pool director.’ Right after I fired him, I immediately became his manager.” In the DJ realm, artist management was a new concept, but Weinstein had a head start: “In a way, I had been managing all the DJs in the pool,” she says. She’d offered guidance to her record-spinning pals before – now, it was official. But they needed a name for the new venture. Morales, something of a b-boy, was into graffiti – and “he would sign ‘def’ to a lot of things. Finally, we were just like, ‘Okay, let’s call it Def Mix!’”
Knuckles, who had recently moved back to New York from Chicago, soon signed on; Tomiie followed after the success of his 1989 collaboration with Knuckles, the sublime “Tears”; Romero, who doubled as Def Mix’s A&R guy and Weinstein’s right-hand man, followed. Other notables, including Bobby D’Ambrosia, Lord G and E-Smoove, cycled in and out of Def Mix over the years. From the beginning, Weinstein’s main role was as friend and aid to her charges. “I was very friendly with Jeffrey Osborne and people from A&M Records, and Gerald Busby from MCA was one of my mentors. They would hire me to put together parties or to take their artists around for them, like Stephanie Mills. I took her around the clubs – her and her thirty pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage! Through people like them, I got to spend a lot of time in the studio and introduce David and Frankie to engineers at places like [high-end studios] Quad Recording and Unique Records. That was their school.”
Students like Knuckles and Morales occasionally made use of her role as musical guidance counselor, too. “They would always play me what they were working on to get my opinion. I was the vocal person – I would say, ‘The vocals are too low,’ or ‘The vocals are too wet.’ That’s really what I did – set the guys up with the right people, be their ear – and pay the bills, of course.” In the early days, there was plenty of cash floating around to pay those bills, too. “For a good long while, we were paid very well for the remixes,” Weinstein admits. “David once got $75,000 to do a remix, but you have to understand that he would use two-thirds of it or more on making the record,” she says, alluding to the fact that those high-end studios don’t come cheap.
Boys, even well-paid boys, will be boys, and Weinstein was the crew’s den mother. “The one thing that always infuriated me was if I would call the studio, and they’d be napping on the couch or at the movie theater while we’re paying for the studio. I’d go berserk, but we were making the kind of music that we ourselves liked – and they were successes.” That’s putting it mildly. Morales was working his magic for Madonna, Mariah Carey and both Michael and Janet Jackson. Knuckles also worked with the Jacksons, along with Whitney Houston, Pet Shop Boys and Chaka Khan; both took home Grammys for their efforts.
But the post-internet record business isn’t what it used to be. Netting $75,000 for a remix now seems like a distant dream. “Forget it – it’s over!” Weinstein laughs. “It’s more like $750 nowadays.” And by modern dance music standards, the pay for the crew’s DJ gigs was never exactly stratospheric. “It really depends who you were,” Weinstein explains. “Frankie would get top dollar, which at that point was probably $10-15,000. With David, they didn’t really even know he was a DJ because of all the hype about his productions. They thought he was a producer first. The first time he went over to London he played for Pete Tong, and after an hour they said, ‘Thank you’ and handed him $500.”
Regardless of the financial aspect, the music coming out of Def Mix camp were the defining sounds of clubland, and remained so through the late ’90s. Tracks like Knuckles’ “The Whistle Song” and Tomiie’s “And I Loved You” remain the ne plus ultra of richly emotive house. “I’m really proud of those songs,” Weinstein says. “We still get lots of fan mail about music from that era. And here’s why: It’s the melodies, and it’s the words.” She’s less fond of much of contemporary dance music. “I think a lot of music has changed because of drugs,” she posits. “At the Loft in the ’70s and in the early days of the Garage, it was all Philadelphia International and love songs – and acid. Then coke showed up, and whatever else. And those changes are reflected in the new kinds of vibes and new kinds of music. When ketamine showed up, everybody was falling through holes.” But Weinstein and Def Mix have not only persevered through such changes – they’re still going strong, as Hector Romero explains.
“The thing about Judy is she never married and never had children,” he says. “Not because she planned it that way, but because her career kept flourishing. I think that we kind of are her family. She’s dedicated her life to David, Frankie, Satoshi, myself and the other guys. She’s a mom to us, and we are her children. We even send her flowers on Mother’s Day.” As to how Def Mix has navigated the massive changes within the industry over the years, Romero cites three of Weinstein’s essential traits. “First, she’s just real straightforward. ‘Firm but fair’ has always been her thing – you take care of your end, and everything is good. At the same time, she’s just knows how to go with the flow. Despite everything, she doesn’t take it all too seriously. She tries to enjoy the ride. But probably most important is that she loves the music.”
His last point is key. Def Mix’s success comes down to Weinstein’s desire to spread the gospel of meaningful and powerful sounds. “With Frankie, it was easy,” she says. “He stayed true to his sound, and he got away with it because he was Frankie.” But she’s fully aware that change is inevitable. “David has had to adapt a bit,” she admits, “but he’s done it well. For the past couple of years, everyone was telling him, ‘Make a Red Zone record!’” – referring to the series of throbbing remixes named for Morales’s residency at Manhattan’s Red Zone club in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “He resisted, though, because those records were from another place and time. But he’s been incorporating some of that sound lately – and now, maybe because of that, he’s going to be playing in Berlin’s Panorama Bar.”
And Weinstein still does get excited – in her matter-of-fact, outer-boroughs-tough sort of way. She misses Knuckles dearly but soldiers on – even though by this stage of her career, the dance-music lifer is finding herself accepting accolades as often as she is scheduling club dates. “I went to the International Music Summit in Ibiza last year,” she says, “and they gave me a Pioneer Award. I got a plaque handed to me from Idris Elba, which was nice, but trust me – he was more important than the plaque,” she laughs. “People were coming up to me and telling me what an honor it was to meet me – that I’m their hero – and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I just get up in the morning and do whatever it is I need do, but what keeps me going is that I still love music,” she finishes, echoing Romero’s observation. “I love it now more than ever.”