On November 14th, 2016, David Mancuso passed away at the age of 72. As the founder of The Loft, a party he organized in his own private New York City loft beginning in 1970, Mancuso was a true pioneer, a founding father of dance music both sonically and emotionally.
Mancuso had a titanic influence in shaping core values of dance music that are now taken for granted, everything from an emphasis on community and the breaking down of racial or economic barriers on the dancefloor to a hard-nosed drive for audio perfection, which included his unique insistence on playing every record through from start to finish, with no mixing.
He was considered an unparalleled storyteller, creating narratives through his selections that could bring party-goers to tears, and a persistent idealist in his pursuit of transcendent musical experiences. In celebration of Mancuso’s life and influence, we are reprinting the full text of an interview conducted in 1999 by Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster, previously published in The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries, in which Mancuso goes in-depth in discussion of his formative experiences, DJing philosophy and thoughts on his legacy.
Give me some biographical details.
Born October 20th, 1944. Utica, New York. I came to New York just as I was turning 18, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I had a very strange upbringing. My mother had some difficulties when I was born, so I was in an orphanage. Which I don’t like to talk about. A kid I used to play with – I didn’t remember him, but he remembered me – way down the line, 20 years down the line, he wanted to find the nun that changed his diapers. We were infants. There were 18 kids. That nun handled 18 of us.
What happened was it took him about five or six years to try to track me down. Eventually he found me. He went to New York for our first meeting. He had found the nun, Sister Alicia. And he brings these pictures that she had took of us since we were about four, five years old.
She would get this record changer and a stack of 45s on a great big radiogram and some juice from the refrigerator. There were these little tables where all the kids used to sit around. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen my invitations, but there’s all these kids sitting around the table. She would find any excuse to have a party. So I have a feeling that part of my influence, why it’s communal, why I do it the way I wanna do it: It has to do with back then.
What’s her name?
Sister Alicia… “I Wanna Thank You.”
Is she still alive?
Did she ever come to one of your parties?
No, she’s very old now, but I believe that she would enjoy it. I was 36 and she was 35 years older when I made contact with her. She’s a religious lady. What do I do? So I called her Christmas week. I said, “Sister Alicia.” She knew I was going to call, my friend had told her I would. “Do you remember me, Sister Alicia?” Then I heard her voice, and very softly she says, “I remember you like it was yesterday.”
When did you start throwing parties?
I started on a regular basis in 1970, on Valentine’s. But I was doing parties in ’68, ’67. I had found a loft in downtown New York. I’d lived there a few years and one day I decided to throw a couple of parties, and they turned out good.
Where did you get the soundsystem from?
I had it before. I was always into audio. I’d been building it up since I was a kid. Literally. I used to have those old radios that had a 12" woofer. Shortwave everything.
And when did you start amassing your record collection?
From when I was a teenager. From 14 years old, I was very fortunate enough to be around people who liked music and knew music and liked to party, so, at the age of 15 I was already living on my own. I had more freedom than most kids.
There wasn’t much difference between collecting unemployment and being a disc jockey.
What were you doing?
Shining shoes in Utica. Me and my best friend decided to go to New York City. We came on Labor Day weekend, September, I was here three days and I was awed by it. 31 days later, I was back. I met some people, so I could stay with them. And I did. I had $2.15 in my pocket. Got a job. And New York has been very good to me.
What did you do to make your way the first few years?
I did a lot of waiting. I worked in a publishing company. Then I worked in a health food store, then I became a personnel manager for a restaurant chain. That was my last nine-to-five. There wasn’t much difference between collecting unemployment and being a disc jockey. So that would be up until about 1967. I traveled a lot.
What was the inspiration for the first parties?
I used to love to go out dancing at parties. Also I went through the ’60s, with the whole psychedelic movement, the civil rights thing. As far as the music goes, I’m a very communal-minded person.
I had certain things I wanted to do to send a message, and it had more to do with social progress, because you had mixed economic groups. Now that I was very interested in. You had people from all sorts of different backgrounds, cultures, whatever. No matter how much money you had in your pocket or how much didn’t have in your pocket, when you paid that $3, paid that $5, to get in, you got the same as anybody else. Overall it was the break-even. I just wanted to break even.
What I used to do were these rent parties: 50¢. And, if you use that money to pay your rent in New York, it’s legal. So you could have a party in your apartment so long as you don’t break the law or anything. You can actually charge admission. I was in a commercial loft. There were sprinklers and everything. So I decided to do rent parties. I sent out 36 invitations. But it took about six months to get going.
How often were you doing them?
Every two weeks. It would start at midnight. And in those days the bars were only open till 3 AM and if anything was open after three, you could be pretty sure it was gambling, or liquor, and I wasn’t into any of that. I didn’t want to be into any of that. I wanted it to be private. And the loft was also were I slept; where I dreamt, everything. But after six months it started really taking off.
What was the composition of the people who were coming?
Everybody. Gay, straight, bi, black, Asian. There were a lot of different people and they were my friends. And I keep my friends; so they brought their friends. You would have really the whole spectrum, and there was never problems with fighting or anything.
What music were you playing?
In those days Motown, because Motown was the hottest label. And Stax, rhythm & blues. Hendrix, Stones, Doobie Brothers, it was a mix. We decorated it with balloons. Very simple. The vibes were good. The place was clean. And it doesn’t take much to make the place comfortable. After six months, it opened up every week. When you came in, everything was included in the contribution. It was an invitation. You were not a member. It was not a club. I didn’t want to be in that category. It meant different things to me. I wanted to keep it as close to a party as possible. It was like $2.50, and for that you’d get your coat checked, food and the music.
What drinks were there?
We used to squeeze fresh orange juice and organic nuts and raisins. We did it up. Everything was quality. Everyone used to come there: Patti LaBelle, Divine; all of them. As people; because everybody that came there was able to relax. And of course you would not get into this space unless you had an invitation.
Who named it The Loft?
The Loft is a given name. That was hippie-dippie stuff, like “What do you call this?” “Oh, call it whatever you want!” So it became a given name. It’s sacred to me. I’ve never used it for commercial purposes as far as promoting it. I remember the first time I got in the media. Little did I realize, I was on the front page of The New York Times.
When was that?
Around 1972 and a half, the first place opened up that was similar to what I was doing, and that was the Gallery – actually, Tenth Floor might have been a little bit before that.
You’re gearing up for your mix, and your intentions are good, but you end being judged by the mix rather than the record. And the record is more important than the mix!
The Gallery was Nicky Siano.
Nicky was coming into my place when he was 14 years old. He started going right back to the beginning. He opened his place up on Fridays. Then the Soho opened up, which was Richard Long. Then Reade Street opened. And that became the Garage. Then the Gallery moved. The Flamingo was right around the corner from me. But basically, my whole situation grew from very close friends of mine and stayed that way. So I wasn’t really bothered that those places opened. I was glad they were doing it.
Why were you glad?
Because there are eight million people here. A lot of people want to party. It’s a positive thing. And the more people partying the better it is. The more you can get through the week. There was enough people around. Why not? It was like the civil rights movement: the more people you had marching the better it was.
How did the music develop; where were you finding records?
Okay. I was in Broadway; left there in 1972 and went to Soho [99 Prince Street]. Soho, nothing was happening there at that time. I went from 500 square feet to 10,000 square feet. Two floors. I didn’t want to do it. At that time there were already a lot of places going on. The city was scrutinizing and seeing if we had exits and all that stuff. I always had exits, but at my first place I didn’t have what they call a Certificate of Occupancy. There was a lot of stuff in a music magazine, and so the city became a lot more aware of what was going on.
And you got to know some of the city’s leading DJs.
I went to Sanctuary. I liked Francis [Grasso]. Francis was good. Basically it started with Steve D’Acquisto. He worked at – I don’t know which came first out of Tambourine or Tamberlaine – but he worked at one. And I liked the way he was doing things. So I walked over to him and said, “You know, I really like the music. Look, I have this place, it’s downtown. It’s my place, it’s a private party. Do you wanna bring a friend?” And he did. That’s how I met Michael Cappello and Francis.
So you were going out to other clubs?
I was more into parties. I wasn’t too much into clubs. I didn’t even start drinking until I was 26. When I did go it would be purely for the music, not anything else. But mostly, I went to rent parties and house parties; that was my thing.
It was a time when DJs were becoming important.
When the disc jockey got two turntables and was in a club using recorded music, a new menu was started beause the dancer was part of the performance. You’d have your live musicians, where you’d have to go some place and listen to them play. Or your home, where you’d sit on your coach and listen to records. Well, the disc jockeys got in-between this and created something new... Where the dancer became part of the whole setting of the music being played. That was the difference. You’d have one foot on the dancefloor and one in the booth. But that was where the disc jockey was able to create this whole new format: between the performance and the listener.
Listen to classics played by David Mancuso in The Loft 100 playlist here.
Were you mixing records to achieve this?
It wasn’t mixing, this was before. I used to make tapes and I’d put a sound effect. When I threw a couple of parties, in ’67, ’68, I did a tape. I didn’t know about mixers then. I didn’t even know if they existed. And just as a record ended, I would put a sound effect right there. I’d take these from sound effects albums. So there was always a continuance.
Did you record these on reel-to-reel?
Yeah. I wanted the music to be continued, with no blank spots, but I also wanted to play the records as the musician intended. I got into mixing for a while and then I stopped, because the mixes were all about the musicians. You try to have a flow, but I really try not to disturb the recording – from the beginning to the end. I would go from one record to another, chopping them up, and then one day I just said to myself, “What am I doing? It’s like having a painting on the wall. I shouldn’t change the colors; I should leave as it was intended, let it stand on its own.”
You’re gearing up for your mix, and your intentions are good, but you end being judged by the mix rather than the record. And the record is more important than the mix! The mix is two or three seconds; and the musician makes the mix. Maybe that’s too philosophical. I thought we were getting further away from the message of the music. Personally, I keep coming back to, “Let the song play.” I don’t think that mixing is wrong. But once in a while let the song be its own self. Just like your own child that you raised, at some point, that child has to stand on its own.
You’re saying the DJ shouldn’t be an artist?
No, no, no. I’m not saying that! The disc jockey is an artist. He is shedding his ego. If he’s gaining an ego he’s not going to be an artist; and he’s not going to be there for music. He’s going to be gone. I believe there’s a third ear. And you look at the big picture. You’re painting something. I’m not saying the others are not valid, but this is what I found after many, many years.
What style of music were you playing after you stopped mixing?
Same thing, but I just stopped mixing. I played from the beginning to the end. With mixing it became like the audience were preferring this mix over that. But don’t worry about that. The music came before the word; music is a gift from the gods.
Without a mixer, the sound signal can be purer too.
Yes, for sonic purposes, too, because the less equipment you have down the line, the more open the sound is. So that was another consideration.
You took incredible efforts over your soundsystem.
About my 11th year. About 1979. That’s when I started getting into heavy equipment. I started getting $3,000 cartridges. I wanted it to be as pure as it can be. Music has a life energy.
Klipschorn [loudspeakers] were built by a man that simply followed fundamentals of physics. If you do that, you will come up with an amplifier that also follows the fundamentals of physics. Follow the Yellow Brick Road, so to speak. You put one watt in, you get one dB back. Once that fluctuates, the music is affected. So anything that I used was mathematically correct.
Take a turntable. A turntable is only a thing that turns around. Has nothing to do with the foundation. Has nothing to do with the arm. Commercial turntables come with all this stuff, but basically the foundation is one piece. Richard Long did the bass, the foundation of it. The bass develops a lot of energy. And if the slightest [bit] goes back in, the sound’s no longer clean. There will be a couple of percent, believe me. Once you hear it, you can’t go back.
How heavy is it?
It’s very heavy. [laughs] The point is that it’s also in the tonearm, it’s also in the cartridge. The cartridge is made in onyx; the case is in stone. Room acoustics is rule number one. Concert hall level is 80 dB. If you’re listening to more than 90 dB sound levels for than 45 minutes straight, you start to develop ear fatigue.
Once you hear the soundsystem that means you’re getting ear damage; ear fatigue. So you want music, not the system.
You started the first record pool, tell us about that.
When I was at Prince Street, while I was fixing it up, that was the birth of the first record pool. There were 26, 27 disc jockeys; we all knew each other. And we always connected about records, very natural. This is how we bonded. In those days it was very much like that: you shared.
The idea was to straighten out how DJs received records from the labels?
Right. There was a meeting once in Club Hollywood: the record companies and disc jockeys got together for the first time. It was a total disaster. And so I asked Steve D’Acquisto to make an announcement, ’cause I don’t like doing any of that stuff. I’m a background person; a behind-the-camera person. And Steve likes to talk, so... I was fixing up my place and I invited the disc jockeys back. I knew a lot of them. And at that meeting I proposed the pool.
Judy Weinstein helped run the pool. How did you meet her?
She worked for me. I met her through Vince Aletti. The Loft and the record pool were at the same place. Vince Aletti knew someone who needed some work.
How did you know Vince?
When we started the pool, we had these meetings. The record companies would come and some media people would come. I believe that’s how I met Vince. He would take a tiny record player and invite me around to his house to listen to records. He would listen to records on this and then write about them. The guy’s incredible.
So how did the pool work?
The disc jockeys would get the records and they’d fill out a feedback sheet; they would give the personal reaction and the floor reaction. And that information, based on the test pressings, would go back to the record company and they would adjust certain things or whatever. There was a lot of communication and organization and sanity regarding the whole scene.
And the record companies saw they could gain advantage from it as well?
Well, the accountants in the record companies, not the promoters. They had different days you could go get records. For record companies it came to the bottom line: it was cheaper to send the records to a central distributor, through the pool. So the music got out.
We didn’t get involved in the problems between individual disc jockeys or record companies. We did not distribute a record unless we could give it to everybody. We had up to 275 disc jockeys. I mean, there’s not as many clubs about today, but if you had even 50 clubs, the amount of people that would come dancing is the same as a small radio station. So records were starting to break before radio.
The companies liked it because they were getting feedback for it?
27 disc jockeys. We designed all that. We just wanted to collaborate. Little did we know we were working out a system between the record companies and the disc jockeys. That was the only pool for a long time. And it worked very well. But the accountants saw it being cheaper. A lot of record promoters thought that they would lose their jobs through this, because they thought they wouldn’t be needed any more. Not true.
When did you form the pool?
In 1974. We’d list ten records, not in any order, and we’d have a library section, so we’d list everything there. Another thing is, the condition that disc jockeys used to work in – I know some that got electrocuted. Someone else could come in and they’d lose their job, and this and that. That’s how, when we started the New York Record Pool, it helped change a lot of things.
So, informally, it was a bit like a union?
Yeah, a natural brothers and sisters union. Absolutely. Keep those politics, too.
How much did the DJs pay you?
It was non-profit.
Did the record companies try and pervert the system with hyping?
They really couldn’t. We needed each other’s cooperation, and we wanted to give it to them because we loved the music. Like Denise Chapman, she used to work with Salsoul, but she used to hang out. A lot of people hung out together. A lot of these people came to my place on Broadway, before they ever got into the business.
I suppose there were so many good records by the mid-’70s they were falling on your lap?
The music that came out when the record pool was in existence was the best. The music between ’75 and ’80. Most of the classics are right there. A slow week would be three to five good records. I mean, really good shit. Now, it’s difficult.
How did you find records like Barrabas?
Barrabas’ “Woman.” I brought that one in. I was in Amsterdam looking for some records. I found it. I’d never never heard it, I just liked the information that was on it. It looked interesting. I would buy records like that. I brought it back, checked it out and there were a couple of good things on it. So I called the record company. And they went by the box and it was $2.70 – postage, record, everything. So I ordered them, and I’d sell them to other disc jockeys.
Where else did you go looking for records?
London. I would go there for the vinyl. Better pressings. In 1972, I was in Chiswick. I knew this family, and I was very close to them. The mother had cancer and he took his whole family and I was invited over.
What was The Choice?
I took a sabbatical. What happened was, I got this building on 3rd Street between [Avenues] D & C in 1982. Yeah. That was when Alphabet City was the worst neighborhood in the entire United States. I knew some of the grandmothers. I shut down. It was so bad over there. Business was tough. I wanted to rent out The Loft. It was in the loft, but it was called Choice. So I just decided to take a break. It was very hard. People were dying, dropping like flies – a lot of friends. I decided to rent the place to someone I knew, and stay at my house up near Woodstock for about two years. 1980 was when I bought the building. ’84 was when I moved over there. ’88 was when I maybe rented it out. ’90 was when I went back.
When was it open?
From ’88 to ’90 I think. Almost two years.
You influenced so many people: DJs who became famous, people who started labels – they got their inspiration from the Loft.
There were two things. There were a lot of people I directly helped in finding locations or connecting them with things or whatever.
But a lot of people were also inspired to copy the idea of the Loft, its spirit, the way it operated. Who do you think took the idea and got it right; who are you the most proud of?
Nicky Siano was probably the closest. I won’t say I have objections, but there are things I wouldn’t have done that he’s done. But he was the closest. He didn’t sell membership cards. He was private. Basically, they had food...
The one thing the Loft did do was set a standard; getting your money’s worth. A decent sound system: I wanna hear the music. Once you hear the soundsystem that means you’re getting ear damage; ear fatigue. So you want music, not the system. Same with lighting. You don’t want fatigue. Anyway, Nicky was about the closest. But hey: do it anyway you wanna do. Some of them deviated much more. Others, like the Garage. Larry [Levan], I got him his first job.
Some parties are more intense than others, but I’ve always come away feeling better about the world, better about myself, better about people. I always felt something good from it.
And you fought hard to establish the legal right to throw your kind of parties. You were taken to court over it, weren’t you?
No, I took them. They closed me down once when I was on Broadway, because it was an unlicensed cabaret. The case was thrown out. When I went over to Prince Street, and I had two floors, more space, I didn’t want that to happen. This had to be established. So in 1974 I had the longest hearing in the history of consumer affairs. I was not a cabaret, because I did not sell food and drink directly or indirectly to the public. I wanted to establish that. The city was so upset. They were holding me up about paying rent. This established for all the places that had opened up as long as you were private. That was in 1974. Had to be the end of September.
I actually had a good track record with the police department and fire department. Never had a police problem. Never a fire or safety problem. The fireman and policemen would come to hang out. I thought that was great for everybody.
Which record have you most enjoyed playing there over the years?
“Starchild” by Level 41, “Love Is the Message” by MFSB, “Walking in Rhythm” by Blackbyrds, Ashford & Simpson “Stay Free,” “Roots”...
What do you think made these parties so special?
It was the times. And if drugs were being used by people, they were more on the recreational side. At first everybody was together. Then it became like the same with any business. They gotta start splitting up the nights between gay, black, white. Slowly, but surely...
When did that start to happen?
I don’t want to mention a place. I really don’t. Let’s say around ’79, ’80.
Isn’t that a natural process, that people would want to party with people similar to them?
Yeah, but why take a place that’s already open and people are together and start splitting it up?
So people implemented things like door policies?
The Garage did it. I respected Michael [Brody] and everything, but they started splitting things. When you filled out an application it was, “Are you straight or are you gay?” And that was the night you got a card for. If you can mix the economic groups of people together, then you have social progress.
How do you see the role of the DJ?
Maybe not by his choice, but the negative side, he could be like a short-order cook. But certainly as a humble person, who sheds their ego and respects music and is there to keep the flow going; to participate. It is a unique situation. It is a very humbling experience.
But it’s also a controlling experience?
What do you mean? Talk to me.
In terms of controlling the party.
This has been my experience. I’m sure you can relate to this. When the music’s starting to flow... I got into the sound being more open and that sonic trail, the artist, the nuances, everything. It’s very important. There’s a lot of music in those nuances.
I would take requests. And I play the requests in the order that they were given to me, because I wanted people to participate. Then what started to happen was someone would ask, “David, could you play?” And I just happened to have it in my hand. I’m ready to push the button. You get to a psychic level. You know what I mean. You can’t explain it. There’s a higher level; a higher power. Not preaching or anything, this is about music.
Is this about oneness on the dancefloor?
It can happen.
Any notable occasions you remember?
Yeah, many times, but I can’t say... sometimes it happens. Sometimes for minutes, sometimes for hours. You just feel good. You have your life energy raised. I can’t have mine raised unless yours is raised. And vice-versa. But each one of us has a role. It’s all about music.
What is the ideal relationship between you and the people on the dancefloor?
That we all play in the same band. All characters in the same play.
Can you say what was the best night?
Each party I have learned something one way or another, especially in the early ’70s. A lot of music was anti-war music, a lot of music had to do with the economic situation, it had a message about the people, or about romance. I can’t categorize individual parties and say one was better than the other. Some parties are more intense than others, but I’ve always come away feeling better about the world, better about myself, better about people. I always felt something good from it.
If you go to the hot springs, you’ll always come back feeling better. Maybe some days more than others, because maybe you didn’t need it as much, but it’s always cleansing.
This interview was conducted in August 1999 in New York. © DJhistory.com