Tommy Musto on ’80s and ’90s New York Dance Music

A rare interview with one of the most prolific NYC artists throughout the early house, techno and rave era

A bona-fide studio and label workhorse, Tommy Musto wore many hats during the ’80s and ’90s. In just a ten-year timeframe, Musto served as one of the legendary mastermix DJs on WKTU; co-founded and A&R’d the influential house imprints Fourth Floor and Sub-Urban; became one of the first American DJs to achieve international acclaim; and, most notably, produced, mixed, programmed and engineered countless underground house classics.

As the head of production and A&R for Northcott Productions, Musto elevated a modest dance label enterprise and studio into a formidable incubator for rising talent and label entrepreneurs, including Victor Simonelli, Johnny “D” De Mairo (Henry Street Music), Frankie Bones, Peter Daou and many others. Under Musto’s guidance, Northcott became an indispensable outlet for NYC garage.

But as house styles further diversified and became increasingly segregated – and the physical record business slowed down due to the rise of downloading – Musto found it difficult to sustain Northcott’s operations and soon decided to shut its doors and leave dance music altogether. Attempting to trace the steps of Musto’s wildly productive career, Matthew Freundlich sat down with him to hear about 20 jam-packed years devoted to club music.

Tell me a little about where you were born and grew up. In Brooklyn, I assume?

Yes, Gravesend, Brooklyn. I guess how I got into music was… my father was a television repair guy and, by the time I was ten years old, he had bought me a good stereo, headphones and a reel-to-reel. Musically, I was more influenced by my older brothers, who, like most of our peers, were heavily into rock at the time. Then in the ‘70s, my oldest brother and the older guys in our neighborhood all started listening to disco, R&B, James Brown, The Trammps – soul music – and gradually I got the bug for that stuff. I started associating with a guy named Donald DiFranco, who used to work with my father and coincidentally happened to be cousins with Double D. Donald was a DJ – at home, not in a club or anything – and brought me to his house and showed me his 1100s and mixer. I was always buying 45s as a kid, and after Donald started showing me stuff, I started accumulating 12”s. That was probably around ‘76, ‘77.

Also, at that time, I started listening to WBLS and was using my reel-to-reel to record Ted Currier’s mix shows. Ted was a very talented guy. His transitions were long and blends were nice and I said, “Wow, this is really cool. It’s an art!” Prior to that, I had wanted to play guitar, and my parents bought me a pretty shitty one, but it was just too complicated. Being a DJ seemed like a good association with music and it was easier to conquer.

At that point, I wound up buying a mixer and started DJing, first with my friend Robert “Snake” Imbasciani, then with Tommy Sozzi, doing mobile parties and Sweet 16s. Once I began my partnership with Tommy Sozzi, that was when the mission became my life’s path, and his too at the time. We started going to clubs to hear other DJs, like Ralphie Dee at 2001 Odyssey. I remember us writing his mixes down to try them at home. We eventually got a few club gigs – one at a place called Disco 64 and another at Rainbow Teen Disco, both in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Neither place lasted very long. But we started getting a reputation in the area and, sometime in high school, we wound up getting into Intermetro Record Pool.

Intermetro was on Spring and Lafayette in Manhattan and had quite a few influential people as members. I think Shep Pettibone might’ve been in that pool, Junior Vasquez and a bunch of other people. The pool’s director, Dewane Dixon, introduced Tommy and me to Carlos de Jesus, who was the program director at KTU. We met Carlos, gave him one of our tapes, he liked it and enjoyed us as people: the two characters from Brooklyn. [laughs] He named us The Dynamic Duo and gave us a slot as one of the remix teams on KTU. Others were Jose “Animal” Diaz, Aldo Marin, Jellybean, Jim “Chopper” Cone – there were several of them. But God bless him, Carlos – he really put us on, there’s no question.

The Dynamic Duo - 92 KTU Lunch Break Mix

How would you record the mixes?

Well, essentially, we’d do the initial mix with records and then overdub on top of it with a four-track and two reel-to-reels. I was influenced by Shep Pettibone at the time, and he had already been doing that. And of course, The Latin Rascals really specialized in that part of it. They basically destroyed everybody. [laughs] They put in a lot of time and effort.

Were you aspiring to be in the studio at that time?

Yeah, the technical aspect of making those mixes and going beyond traditional mixing was something that I really aspired to do. I knew I had the knowledge or ability to do other stuff.

Is that how you started doing remixes?

Because of our mix show, all these labels were calling me, saying, “Play my record.” And I would leverage that to “You know, I can do an edit of this” or “I’d like to do a mix of this.” And that’s how it started happening. I think it was Dewane who introduced me to Heidi Spiegel, the promotion person for Vanguard. She got Tommy and me our first mix: Junior Byron’s cover of “Woman” by Barrabas. We mixed that record at the Vanguard studio on 23rd St, which is where I met Mark Berry, who was my engineer and also a very influential producer of his time. From the Vanguard job, Tommy and I wound up doing a mix of “Doctor’s Orders” for Heidi Spiegel’s friend Eddie O’Laughlin at Next Plateau, which Mark also engineered.

When you mixed those tracks, were you working closely with the producers? Or would they just hand you the tapes and let you do your thing?

In the beginning, the producer was very involved, because at the time, remixers weren’t really looked at in a way that they could be trusted with somebody’s creation. But later it became, “Get the producer out of here. Let us do what needs to be done.”

And what year was this?

Early to mid-’80s.

Tommy Musto (Dynamic Duo), Ralphie Dee, Monica Lynch (Tommy Boy Records) and Tommy Sozzi (Dynamic Duo), NYC 1985 Courtesy of Tommy Musto

It was around this time that you started working at Northcott Productions. How did that come about?

After Intermetro closed, Tommy and I wound up going to S.U.R.E. [Spinners Unlimited Record Enterprises] Record Pool in The Bronx. Aldo Marin was in that pool. Tony Humphries... It was run by Bobby Davis, who was a blessing to Tommy and me. He did everything he could to educate us and help us along.

Bobby had done a mix of “For the Same Man” by the B Beat Girls on 25 West, and from that became friends with Silvio Tancredi, who ran 25 West and its parent company Northcott Productions. Northcott ran a few dance labels and also handled their own publishing, manufacturing and distribution.

Dynamix - I Just Wanna Dance (Club Mix)

I started hanging out with Silvio a little bit and he saw me to be useful, I guess. [sarcastically] I started working with him and doing stuff with Tommy for 25 West. This was when I started learning the studio. Matt Noble and Kevin Calhoun, who were running Silvio’s studio, helped Tommy and I make our first productions: “Knights of the Turntables,” “I Just Wanna Dance” and “Tonight I’ll Make You Mine.” Matt was a programmer and keyboard player, and he was the one who initially taught me programming and engineering. Kevin was one of the funniest people I knew and has since passed away.

As I got more involved, Silvio asked me to be his partner and we started Fourth Floor.

Silvio Tancredi Courtesy of Tommy Musto

Northcott already had a few labels at that point. Why start another?

It had to be segregated, because, in the underground, you would taint yourself by trying to do different genres on the same label. So Midnight Sun was for our New York, Florida freestyle thing and Fourth Floor was for our tracky, Chicago house, European kinda thing. I also wanted to have a clean slate for my productions, collaborations and things I was A&Ring. The first record on Fourth Floor was Bam Boo, which was myself and Lenny Dee. Tommy and I were attending Kingsbury Community College at the time and we had a show on the radio station there.

So you were attending community college, working full-time for Silvio, making mixes for KTU and hosting a radio show at the college?

Yeah, except our KTU show had ended by that point, since the station became K-Rock in ’85. Lenny called into our show at Kingsbury, we invited him up to the studio, and that’s how we got involved with him. He and I did “Bam Boo,” which was a joke about smoking pot. Sampling was in its infancy at that point; it was literally just ripping off sections, no creativity of trying to flip the sample to make it sound like something different. That was pretty prevalent during that time.

Fallout - The Morning After (Sunrise mix)

That same year, 1987, you produced two seminal deep house records for Fourth Floor, starting with “The Morning After,” which you made with Lenny.

Right. Well, no offense to Lenny, but he really wasn’t technically inclined like I was. I was using him for influence. I played all the keyboards, did all the programming, but that extra influence came from him.

And after “The Morning After,” you wrote and produced Arnold Jarvis’s “Take Some Time Out” with Yvonne Turner. How did you transition from making freestyle and electro records to deep house?

Arnold Jarvis - Take Some Time Out (Original Club Mix)

At that time, freestyle was very predominant in New York. It had been one facet of what I was doing, but I was more into soulful stuff and R&B. I saw in Yvonne the things that I was attracted to, and it was completely different from where I was at that point. I started doing stuff with her and was really into it, and then she took me to the Garage – I think it was ’86 – and I was like “Oh my god, I fucking love this.” And I’ll never forget, it was Thanksgiving night, and I was blown away. It influenced a lot of people and it definitely had an influence on me. “Take Some Time Out” obviously helped put me in a whole other space, which was very important, no question. And I definitely have Yvonne to thank for that. I wouldn’t have done it on my own. It wouldn’t have happened.

The following year, 1988, you started working with Nu Groove, beginning with their first record. How did that come about?

Silvio was best friends with Frank Mendez, who wanted to start Nu Groove and had helped Silvio through his early years. They started renting office space from us and our studio. So I was ready to shoot myself, because here I am engineering and programming my own stuff, engineering and programming for Midnight Sun, for whoever else is doing a record for Fourth Floor, Nu Groove artists… I wanted to kill myself.

You must’ve been working –

Insane hours. The producers on Fourth Floor wanted to branch out and Nu Groove was another outlet, so Silvio and I wound up giving all of our connections to Frank Mendez. Then, they started getting a name and gradually other people like the Burrell brothers came along. I was at all of the Burrells’ Nu Groove sessions. I mixed the records with Ronald, but he and Rheji were really the lead producers and I didn’t have as much influence as I would’ve liked to have had.

If you listen to “My Love Is Magic” and you listen to the other things I was making at the time, it’s clear that the influence is towards the Burrells. But my things were construction, the sound of things and the way the mix was laid out, and we of course had, not arguments, but differences with that, because I hear them now and say, “We could’ve done this much better.” When you’re a DJ, you’re very cognizant of bar count, but when you’re not, it’s often, “I’m the producer and I feel this section should end in six bars.” But those guys were definitely talented, not to mention great people and fun to be around. I still speak to them to this day.

Tommy Musto at Northcott Productions, NYC 1995 Courtesy of Tommy Musto

Meanwhile, you were also doing Musto & Bones. Where does that fit in?

Lenny introduced me to Frankie [Bones]. He was a rebel, a young kid on a mission and I liked that about him. And we started doing productions together. In retrospect, “Take Some Time Out” was the beginning of me and Frankie separating, even before we made it big. He was into more of the “I wanna take this sample and that sample” and they were blatant samples of other songs. I didn’t wanna be known for that, because at the time I saw that as not too creative, taking somebody else’s music.

What really sent things in another direction was, in ’89, he and I started going to Europe with my fiance at the time. We couldn’t even comprehend what we were about to get ourselves into. We went over to England, because Tim Taylor, the person who was handling our music over there from a licensing standpoint, booked up this whole tour. We got all these dates at Energy raves. You know, to drive at four o’clock in the morning into a field and you see lights and we’re like, “Where the fuck are we going?” It was the first time I was ever out of the United States. We get there and we’re like, “This is absolutely insane!” The number of people and the stature they gave the DJ…. The stage was like for the fucking Rolling Stones!

Frankie was always a DJ and, at that time, I had started to get away from DJing a little bit to really concentrate on studio stuff. My apprehensiveness came from the fact that I didn’t know a lot of the records that were new at the moment. Of course, I heard them as a producer being involved in the scene, but Frankie really took the lead when he came to the DJ stuff, even though I was there and I played half the time.

But my ex-wife went berserk – “I don’t want you going to Europe!” – ‘cause she saw all these girls climbing on the stage, trying to get our autograph. She was like, “You’re not going. You’re not going.” I said, “Are you nuts? I’ve been waiting for this my whole life!” So that was really the catalyst for me to say “I’m not gonna follow that road. I’m gonna follow the more production road.” That was the turning point, probably ’90.

If you listen to those early major label remixes that I did, I was trying to mold together my rave/techno thing to the soulful house thing, which I should have never done.

That’s when you started doing remixes for major label artists. How did those come about?

At that time, what wound up happening was, I started making inroads with a lot of the gay contingent and befriending a lot of those people like Larry Flick and Frank Serallo, who was heading Epic Records – he got me Gloria Estefan and Michael Jackson. My manager was Duffy Macri, who also managed Shep, Justin Strauss, Daniel Abraham. From that, I started doing all these major label remixes. And that was really the complete separation between me and Frankie.

If you listen to all those early major label remixes that I did, for the most part, I was trying to mold together my rave/techno thing to the soulful house thing, which I should have never done. I’ll give you an example: Thelma Houston “Throw You Down.” I did a complete techno mix on one side – or, at the time, what we thought was techno – and a more house or R&B mix on the other side. And I think that hurt me a little bit because I was trying to be all things to all people. I think that’s really an important part of why I maybe didn’t get other mixes that I think I should have gotten.

A lot of the success of major label remixers like Kenny and Louie and David Morales – they might be mad at me for saying this – comes from the fact that the records they were doing were already great vocals before they even touched them. I was getting a lot of – God forgive me and these artists who might read this – B-artists, and I would take the mix because I wanted to grow and, of course, the money was very good. But I think a lot of those ended up hurting me a little bit, because the records never happened.

Yes, but some of those remixes, like your dub of Olivia Newton-John, are great tracks, even if they’re not as well-known as something by Masters at Work or Morales.

Olivia - I Need Love (A Deep Need For Love Mix)

Believe me, I’m proud of those records and I would never take them back. But I feel that I was never given the chance to really bloom in that area, because I was never given the artists that were hits. I listen to a lot of those remixes and they’re just “eh.” They’re okay, they weren’t life-changing. But they were there and I was contracted the time to do them. And quite frankly, there were a lot of people in front of me that had much more tenure and much more of a name, so I had to be the underling, so to speak. And that really comes down to connections and management. Those other guys got tracks that lent themselves to dance music in their original creation. That was tough for me and I was really bitter about it, not to the point where I would’ve said anything, but I’m telling you now.

And at the same time, when I was doing those mixes, I wanted to do something to embellish my song house thing, and that’s when Sub-Urban started.

How did you meet Victor Simonelli?

I met Victor through Lenny. They lived a couple blocks away from me, but we didn’t know each other. Victor from Lake Street... We started working together – myself, him, Lenny and Frankie – and doing things on Fourth Floor. Victor and I had ties to the more black, soulful thing and we didn’t want to put out vocal records on Fourth Floor, so I decided to start a label that’d be underground house but more vocal-oriented. It was a natural progression.

Victor was involved in a lot of the early Sub-Urban records. He did the first productions with me, but he didn’t start the label. He makes all these claims on the internet about that stuff, but they’re not true. I’m friends with him, I’ve never tried to rebuke that, but the end result is the end result. And then he wound up moving to Europe. It wasn’t his label, so he went his own way.

Colourblind - Nothing Better (TMVS Club) 1993

Talk about making “Nothing Better.”

That was an extension of my relationship to ORE, which was associated with Beggar’s Banquet, [who released the Musto & Bones album in the UK]. Beggar’s Banquet wanted to do another record, and I wasn’t really involved with Frankie at that point, so I came up with the concept of Colourblind. I co-wrote “Nothing Better” with Mike Rogers, who engineered a lot of freestyle records I produced, as well as the first Deee-Lite album and a bunch of other large records. We did a whole bunch of demos together to try to shop songs. We were trying to get stuff together for a concept album.

Did you and Victor each have set roles when you produced together?

In all instances with Victor, I did all the keyboards and programmed all the drums with him standing over my shoulder, screaming. And that was the case with Frankie, that was the case with Lenny, that was the case with everyone. Victor would use me even if the record wasn’t coming out on Sub-Urban; he’d buy studio time and pay me for my time. He was a very passionate, very talented guy and he certainly had the ideas – I could never take that away from him. But he needed an outlet for them and I happened to be in that space at the time.

Johnny Corporate - Sunday Shoutin' (Original Mix)

What made you decide to resurrect Fourth Floor and start releasing records like “Sunday Shoutin’,” which were completely different from the earlier Fourth Floor records?

Because the whole sample thing was very predominant and the minimalistic tracks really weren’t of any importance at that time. I guess it was because of that boom that we tried to reinvent the label, so to speak. And at that time, we also started distributing other labels. Henry Street was first, and then there was Soulfuric, Basement Boys, Yoruba – there were so many of them. We were manufacturing and distributing quite a few labels.

With labels like Fourth Floor, what would you consider a successful record sales-wise?

The typical average record – a record that people liked but wasn’t a big deal – was 3,000 - 5,000. A medium size record: 10,000. A great record: 20, 30, 40, 50... And then at that point, you have interest where you have to license it out. That’s really what happens with a small label.

I missed the music and I was bitter that I had to leave music.

When did things start to head south?

I guess 2000 was when lots of things started to change. The scene got so splintered that your genre couldn’t sell enough records to make it worth doing. This club only played “that,” like, if you went to Sound Factory, Junior only played his sound. At that point, I was very bitter about the industry as a whole. I gave my whole life to it and there I was saying, “Do I really want to keep doing this? Nobody appreciates it, sales are down, the records that are happening aren’t records that I would’ve signed or even like in the first place.” Downloading became very predominant. I was finding out that DJs were already playing out tracks that people were giving me as demos. If a producer is passing their track around, what the fuck is the point of putting it out?

If I had been doing it on a smaller scale, I would’ve kept doing it, but when you have an office and studio in Soho, seven employees and a $60,000 bill per month and sales are going down and you owe money and it’s a fucking nightmare, it’s very disheartening. “Why am I doing this? Why am I putting my balls on the line and it’s not bearing fruit?” You know, for years this was going on. I wasn’t getting the gratification out of doing it anymore, things in the business started to get progressively worse, September 11th happened and I said, “That’s it, I’m done.” I sold all of our equipment and catalogs, aside from a couple of things, just to make ourselves even. And that was the end of it.

I felt like my integrity of music and all that was in the shitter and I said, “If I can’t do what I love, I’m gonna go into finance and get as close to the money as I can. I’m gonna be a greedy money prick!” Which I never could be anyway. [laughs] That didn’t work out either. I went to work at Morgan Stanley. I went from smoking joints in front of a console all day and drinking and staying up all night to sitting in a cubicle, taking my securities tests, cold calling. It was hell. And in 2002, we had a recession, so I went from the frying pan into the fire. It was a disaster.

But finance is such a different world. How did you make that transition?

I was always good with numbers. And what it comes down to is building the rapport with somebody fast and also having the talent and wherewithal to do the finance stuff. But really, it’s about you trusting in me right away and making that happen, and that was the saving grace for me. Just like, if I would meet a producer who didn’t know me from Adam, I would have to convince him to come on board. That aspect of it was the same.

But it was a very, very tough transition. I missed the music and I was bitter that I had to leave music. For years, I wanted nothing to do with it. I had a hard time listening to music, because everything would remind me of what I had and what I did. And then slowly but surely, I started to get softer about it and started collecting digital music again and being exposed to all my friends and hearing other people and seeing what they were doing. And then I finally got the bug again and bought a controller and, you know, I’ve collected a ton of digital music now.

And now I say I’m more actively interested in DJing again. That stuff you never lose; I can close my eyes and do it, it’s not an issue. But that’s kinda where I’m at now. I kinda feel like now is a good time because everybody’s kinda on the same playing field and nobody’s that important anymore. [laughs] Except Louie Vega!

By Matthew Freundlich on November 7, 2016

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