The Birth of House Music in New York City

How Larry Levan, Boyd Jarvis and Tony Humphries helped kick off a dance music revolution

May 11, 2016

By 1983, New York’s musical landscape was changing. Disco, New York’s first great contribution to the evolution of dance music, had morphed into boogie, while new mutant genres – based around syncopated drum machine rhythms and the futuristic shimmer of bold synthesizer lines, rather than orchestral arrangements and re-purposed soul musicians – were beginning to make their mark.

At the fulcrum of New York’s rapidly changing dance scene stood the Paradise Garage and its beloved resident DJ, Larry Levan. He may not have been the city’s most technically gifted DJ, but he was certainly the most influential. Many copied his anything-goes approach to selecting records (a style itself inspired by David Mancuso at the Loft), while Levan’s remix and production work for the likes of the NYC Peech Boys, Gwen Guthrie, Imagination and David Joseph ushered in a new era of sparse, heavily electronic, dub-influenced records.

Out on the dancefloor, a group of self-proclaimed “club kids” were paying close attention. “One of the biggest teachers we had was Larry Levan,” says Kenny Carpenter, then a resident DJ at rival club Bonds and a regular at the Garage. “That’s really how many people learned to produce music, by listening to what Larry was doing, and how music sounded at those clubs – not just the Garage, but the Loft, too.”

We were just kids, with toys that we were playing with, and the record became big.

Boyd Jarvis

The weekly throng on the Garage dancefloor contained a group of friends who would go on to kick-start a new era of dance music in New York. There was fast-rising remixer, radio host and DJ Tony Humphries, his neighbor and fellow radio DJ Timmy Regisford, professional window dresser and synthesizer enthusiast Boyd Jarvis, editor-turned-producer Paul Simpson and drum machine obsessive Winston Jones. Throw in Kenny Carpenter and aspiring singer Anthony Malloy, and you had a group with the skills, enthusiasm, knowledge and contacts to change the musical agenda.

“Our ears were up like antennae all the time in clubs,” Malloy says. “Nothing would get past us.” Inspired by what they heard, this group went on to produce records that provided a blueprint for the style that would, with some alterations via Chicago, later become known as “house.”

“We all knew we were doing something different or new – a conspiracy of sorts,” Malloy laughs. “It felt like a movement, but a movement we were pulling the strings on.”

The Music Got Me

The record that spawned a musical revolution had its origins in Boyd Jarvis’s growing obsession with synthesizers, particularly his beloved Yamaha CS-15. “The synthesizer, for me, was an opportunity to get into the music business,” Jarvis says. “I read books about synthesis, and learned to make drum sounds using white noise, sub, click and so on. Through that I discovered how to make my own syn-drums, claps and kicks.”

His specialty, though, was coming up with killer synth basslines. It was a skill he developed by lugging his synthesizer down to clubs, and providing live overdubs for sets by Timmy Regisford and Kenny Carpenter.

“Boyd was never a featured artist or anything like that, but for those DJs he had a rapport with, he’d just plug in and get going,” Anthony Malloy says. “The breaks the DJs spun, or the instrumentals they dropped, left room for something else. Boyd would play these howling, bubbling basslines, and create this mixture that was tribal, space-like and urban at the same time. It was strange and very sensual for us out on the dancefloor.”

Jarvis quickly became a regular on Regisford’s radio show, and the two began to record home demos using one synthesizer, a reel-to-reel tape machine and a copy of an obscure, DJ-friendly drum record titled Mix Your Own Stars. “I would play over these breaks records, and that’s how our first demo, ‘One Love,’ got made,” Jarvis remembers. “I played the Peech Boys-style bassline over those drums. When we’d finished it, we took the reel down to Better Days and asked the DJ to play it. He put it on, and immediately everybody ran away from the bars and onto the dancefloor. We knew we were onto something then.”

While “One Love” would later get reproduced under the Circuit alias on the the 4th & Broadway label, the track that secured Jarvis and Regisford a record deal was a minimal, bass-driven instrumental groove originally called “The Stomp.” After picking up hype on the back of regular reel-to-reel plays, Prelude Records offered the young duo a chance to record it properly. Credited to Visual and featuring Anthony Malloy on backing vocals, the re-named “The Music Got Me” became a huge club hit.

Visual - The Music Got Me

“We had a vibe, and a ragtag, rough edge to what we did,” Jarvis says. “Our stuff wasn’t orthodox at all. We were just kids, with toys that we were playing with, and the record became big.”

Regisford recruited his neighbor and friend Tony Humphries to carry out the all-important mixes. “Trying to do digital mixes of it was hell, man,” Humphries laughs. “Boyd wanted the instrumental to be very similar to their original demo. We were in the studio for hours editing it, trying to recapture the feel of that version.”

While the A-side vocal version became a radio and club hit, it was the DJ-friendly instrumental dub that would become an inspiration for others in the friend group. With its restless rhythm, relentless synth bassline and cascading melody, it was a sign of what would follow, both in New York and elsewhere. In hindsight, it sounds like house music – albeit released two years before the first Chicago experiments reached record stores.

Music Is The Answer

As 1983 turned to 1984, the influence of “The Music Got Me” became more apparent. “After the first Visual record, Winston [Jones] came with ‘Music Is The Answer,’” Jarvis recalls. “We’d already recorded some demos with Colonel Abrams, and had secured a deal with 4th & Broadway. The same day we were meant to be in the studio re-recording ‘Release the Tension’ with Colonel, he reneged on the deal and ended up in some other studio with Winston.”

Colonel Abrams - Music Is The Answer

Perhaps it was fate. Colonel Abrams’ “Music Is the Answer” ran with the synth-heavy blueprint developed by Jarvis and Regisford. Like its predecessor, the A-side boasted a vocal version, with a killer instrumental dub on the flip complete with snippets of impassioned, ad-libbed vocals drenched in tape delay.

“Boyd and Timmy had this idea of using ad-libbed vocals like you’d hear on Teddy Pendergrass and Thelma Houston records,” Anthony Malloy says. “They used the freestyle parts that really take you home, and combined them with synth-bass grooves that would give the people energy and excitement.”

These ad-libbed vocals became something of a trademark of the emerging post-boogie, proto-house sound of New York. “They wanted that same feeling of being in church when an uptempo song is on,” Tony Humphries says. “They wanted more ad-libs, as those were always the bits in soul and disco records where the vocalist became more real. It was like listening to a minister in a gospel church.”

The influence of gospel on American dance music – particularly on the sounds coming from New York and New Jersey – would become more apparent in the years ahead. To begin with, though, those involved focused on perfecting the formula. While Jarvis and Regisford added more polish and melodic elements to their productions, Jones and regular production partner Paul Simpson went in the other direction.

“Winston was Mr. Simple,” Simpson says. “He didn’t want to get caught up in using loads of musicians. He paid more attention to how the drums sounded, and the simplicity of the production. When I veered towards over-production, Winston was the one that would tell me what to take out. He just kept saying ‘Back off.’”

It was becoming a DJ’s world, and there was a deliberate attempt to make the records DJ-friendly.

Boyd Jarvis

Throughout 1984 and ’85, Jones and Simpson delivered a string of records, credited to Subject, Kid People, Pushe and The Paul Simpson Connection, whose dubs were particularly spacious. These alternative mixes placed the emphasis on tough drum patterns, undulating basslines, hypnotic synth stabs and any freestyle vocal elements they’d managed to tease out of their featured vocalist.

“I remember when we made Serious Intention’s ‘You Don’t Know,’ and Paul and Winston asked me to do this additional vocal where I ‘brought it home,’” Anthony Malloy says. “I closed my eyes and got into it, doing these ad-libs for a couple of minutes. When I opened my eyes afterwards I’d moved halfway across the room through all my dancing and moaning. I was really worried about not singing directly into the mic, but Paul and Winston in the control room were rubbing their hands like greedy misers, ready to get into the mixdown.”

Upon its release in 1984, Serious Intention’s “You Don’t Know” had little impact. “Timmy Regisford told me the drums were too straight,” Paul Simpson says. “One of the guys at [New York record store] Vinylmania told me that I should give my one test pressing to Larry Levan because he’d be into it, but I wasn’t convinced.”

Serious Intention - You Don’t Know

After weeks of badgering, Simpson eventually agreed to part with the record. Three weeks later, the same Vinylmania staff member urged him to head down to the Garage to hear what Levan was doing with it.

“When Larry dropped the record, I was amazed,” Simpson says. “He was playing around with the intro, using the faders, and with the delays that he used on the club’s famous Richard Long-designed soundsystem. Every time there was a delay on the handclaps, the lights would change with it. You’d not only hear it, but also see it and feel it.”

You Don’t Know

Inspired by how Levan was using “You Don’t Know,” Simpson went back into the studio to cut the now-infamous Special Remix released on Easy Street in the spring of 1985. Just as “The Music Got Me” had proved revolutionary, so too did Simpson’s second take on “You Don’t Know.” Intoxicating, trance-like, and hugely influenced by the sparse-but-heavy aesthetics of dub reggae, it signaled the moment when New York’s post-disco sound began to morph into what would eventually be known as house.

Serious Intention - You Don’t Know (Special Remix)

Many involved believe that the stripped-back nature of that record, and others made and released in 1984 and ’85, was partly a product of their creators backgrounds and shared West Indian heritage. “The music of the Caribbean could be heard a lot when we were growing up,” Anthony Malloy says. “That, blended with the East Coast ear, is what framed the sound.”

Paul Simpson, whose productions were arguably the most dub-influenced of the group, spent the first ten years of his life in London, surrounded by relatives who ran reggae soundsystems. “My uncle would play a lot of the instrumental dub B-sides, and I got heavily into that stuff,” he says. “Before I got into soul, my whole collection was dub reggae 7-inch singles. When I came to make my own records much later, that influence definitely came out in the productions. I used to do many different mixes and ‘versions,’ too, which may also have been influenced by the dub reggae scene.”

Of course, the fact that their champion Larry Levan had similar heritage also played a part. “Larry was of Haitian descent, so everything was island-ish to him,” Tony Humphries says. “It was about the groove. His remixes and the way he played at the Garage always had that island groove and dub thing going on. It was his culture.”

While many of the producers involved actually wanted to make polished, radio-friendly productions, in marked contrast to the rough-edged records starting to emerge from Chicago, the demands of DJs and dancefloors ensured that minimalist instrumental mixes were still a must for any new release.

“The records that were hot always had a certain sparseness to them,” Boyd Jarvis says. “It was becoming a DJ’s world, and there was a deliberate attempt to make the records DJ-friendly. Having longer intros, extended breaks and so on gave the DJ more chance to experiment and build up the vibe.”

At the risk of being resented for this statement, you could feel the energy and groove from Chicago records, but they sounded a little unfinished.

Anthony Malloy

The fact that few of the producers and remixers involved were musically trained also played a part in the evolution of the sound. “People who had little musical experience all of a sudden decided that they wanted to produce their own music,” Kenny Carpenter says. “They had to play synthesizers, even if they had no musical background. That’s what made those records so sparse.”

“Paul, Timmy and Winston were not musicians,” Boyd Jarvis agrees. “I got categorized as a musician because I played the lines, but I did it by feel. Those guys were all great with drum machines, or arrangement. I don’t think there was always a deliberate attempt to make the records sound minimal. Maybe that was just all we had.”

The House That Frankie Built

Some artists from this period took time out of production and DJing as the ’80s progressed to deal with growing drug problems, but the majority went on to form the backbone of New York’s emerging house scene (or “garage” scene, as it was referred to in the U.K.).

While Chicago’s DJs and producers pioneered raw and wild forms of house music, those in New York and New Jersey continued to emphasize soul, and the high production values associated with the city’s dance music industry.

“I couldn’t imagine what was being made in Chicago in the early days being played in some discos and super-clubs in New York at that time,” Tony Humphries says. “That’s what made Frankie Knuckles the bridge. What he was doing had that raw Chicago edge, but the musical feel of New York. Because he’d lived in both places, and later on jetted between the two cities, he was hugely important.”

Some in New York had little love for the jackin’ sound of Chicago. “At the risk of being resented for this statement, you could feel the energy and groove from Chicago records, but they sounded a little unfinished,” Anthony Malloy says. “They sounded homemade, with too much hiss and less attention to the EQs.”

Even if those involved in New York’s proto-house revolution weren’t trained musicians, they could still call on the backing of record companies to pay for studio sessions, something often unavailable to the early Chicago pioneers. Even the most minimal New York and New Jersey records from the early to mid-’80s, such as the Jarvis and Regisford-produced “It’s The East Street Beat” by Chocolette, Circuit’s “Release The Tension” or Blaze’s “Yearnin” sounded relatively polished.

Circuit - Release The Tension

This smoothness would develop further towards the tail-end of the decade, as the New Jersey sound – a more soulful, gospel-influenced take on house music, famously championed by Tony Humphries at Zanzibar following the closure of the Paradise Garage – spread around the world.

Regardless of what happened in the region over the following decade, there’s no denying that the drum machine-driven sound developed by New York’s proto-house pioneers altered the course of American dance music forever.

“Boyd Jarvis invented house,” Paul Simpson claims. “Once his minimal-sounding records began to take off, DJs around the States started buying and playing them. Once they saw how stripped-back they were, they realized that they could make records, too. When Boyd was doing it, the sound didn’t have a name. By the time records were coming out of Chicago, it was called house.”

On a different note