Interview: Victor Simonelli

From the DJ History archives: The prolific New York producer talks at length about his apprenticeship under Arthur Baker and celebrated early ’90s house hits

At the turn of the 1990s, there were few more successful New York house producers than Victor Simonelli. Under a dizzying array of aliases – Solution, NY’s Finest, Groove Committee, Critical Rhythm and Cloud 9 being amongst the better-known – the Brooklyn-born DJ/producer delivered a string of underground club hits during the city’s early ’90s house boom.

Simonelli fell in love with music at an early age thanks to his record-collecting father. During his teenage years he became obsessed with the “mastermix”-style dance music shows he heard on local radio stations. That led to him studying audio engineering at college, and a keen interest in editing dance music.

DJ History

His big break came when he secured a position at Arthur Baker’s Shakedown Sound Studios, first as an intern and later as an in-house editor. That in turn led to regular remix work and collaborations with friend Lenny Dee, as Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and by 1988 he was making records of his own, first for Vendetta Records and later Nu Groove, E-Legal, Sub-Urban, Emotive Records, Vibe and West Side Records.

In September 2009, Bill Brewster sat down with Simonelli to talk in detail about his early years, his apprenticeship under Arthur Baker and how he made some of the most celebrated New York house records of all time.

Danjelita Angelita

To begin with, could you tell me about your family background?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in Brooklyn. I was born in a house full of records. My father was and is a big record collector; he still has his record collection. My earliest memories are sifting through these big boxes of records and just pulling out what I would find. And asking him about it, and he would play it for me. He’d ask me what I thought about it. And this is going back three or four years old. He had a wide variety of material. He still does. Blues to rock, jazz, gospel, disco, experimental.

Was he just a collector or was he involved in the music industry?

He was never involved in the record industry, he just loved music, though he did get into doing parties for a hobby. When I was about nine or ten years old he started doing parties. He’d rent a dance hall, I don’t know if you have these over here in the UK, but Elks Lodge kinda places. Like a church dancehall.

He’d get a hold of the hall and do some inviting and get locals and kids to come down and I’d watch him play. And it really impacted on me. But this is later. We’d do so much listening at home through my childhood and he’d really make it a point to focus on elements in the records and asking me what in particular I liked about the record, what I thought of it, what it made me feel. He really got into detail about the questions he asked me about music.

I guess that must have made you think much more deeply about music much earlier than most kids?

Most definitely. He had a room strictly for music, so we’d go in, shut the door and listen to music. And it did. It really made me. It became something intimate for me, so I’d start sleeping with my radio and recording all night. I’d hear the record button pop off, so I’d wake up and flip the cassette over. That’s when I got into radio.

That’s stepping forward a little bit. After I started watching him doing his parties I started getting more interested in club music. I started tuning into radio, New York radio. So this would be about ’79 and ’80 when I started recording off New York radio. I was born in the late ’60s so that was my first radio, a box, at nine years old. Within minutes I was tuning down the dial searching for stuff, and all my friends in the neighbourhood were the same, too. “Did you hear that track last night?”

What were the stations you were tuning into and DJs who impressed you?

The stations were WBLS 107.5, there was a station 99X WXLO that later turned into 98.7 KISS in the ’80s, and of course there was 92 KTU. They all had mix shows. On WBLS John Morales was on there, on KTU I remember Jellybean [Benitez] being on there. On 99X, which later became KISS, there was Shep Pettibone, and Tony Humphries came later as well.

There were some lesser-known DJs, too. Aldo Marin, he was on KTU, the Latin Rascals... This is getting to the ’80s now. Mark Shashone. I have the only recording of Hippie Torrales on air when he was playing at Doc’s. It was Doc’s Roller Disco in Jersey, and there was a battle of the DJs. There was a guy named Preston Powell – this is all early ’80s. I still have my cassettes, so I’ll make a copy and you can hear them for yourself!

When did you start collecting?

It goes back to my dad again. He took me down to J&R’s and they had a disco room. I remember it vividly. The walls were filled with 12"s: Prelude, Salsoul, TK Disco. It was beautiful. They had a disco ball and lights in the room. Oh, we’d spend hours in there. The first records were Fantasy’s “You’re Too Late,” or [Unlimited Touch] “I Hear Music In The Street,” or “All My Love” by LAX. Prelude was awesome. I loved that label – it was the right sound for me.

Fantasy – You’re Too Late

I have a diary that my mother kept for me from when I was about seven or eight and she wrote in there that I’d told her very clearly that I wanted to make music and go into music production, so from an early age I knew what I wanted to do. I found school really boring, but my mom said, “You gotta get the diploma to go to the next step to get what you want to do. Then you can go into the music school, but without the diploma you won’t get anything.” Those were her words to me. I finished high school.

I have to get back to something else that reinforced my love for music. When I started junior high school we started to move around the country. My dad was working for the government. I had the rest of my family and I’d be back on holidays, but from 11 or 12 until about 16-17 I was moving around a lot. The places I went were not like New York and they were not into music like New York was.

I really made so much of the time I had to go back to New York in those years, so I would start recording from the time I was landing in the plane. I have those cassettes, too! That was when you could turn the radio on the plane. That was a factor in the reinforcement in my love for music. There were times during that period where I really couldn’t put on the radio and hear what I wanted to hear. After graduation I went to school called the Center for the Media Arts, which was on 26th Street in New York.

What did you study?

Audio engineering, but they taught all types of stuff – anything to do with a studio they taught you there. So I remember learning how to edit there, with tape, on a Tascam two-track. This is cutting tape, of course. I’d always wondered how it was done and in the ’80s, the whole mastermix thing was the thing, and also medleys. I think John Morales invented those Dedley Medleys. You’d hear so many songs in five minutes: the Big Apple Mixes, the Hollywood Mixes. So I was into that whole concept, so once I did my first edit that was it for me. I was editing like a mad man.

John Morales – Dedley Medley (1980)

Do you remember any of the early things you did?

I just took my favourite tunes of the time and put them together. I can do much better now! It is what it is. All the time I was going through school, I knew exactly where I wanted to be after I finished school, and that was Arthur Baker’s studio, Shakedown. That was really the hotspot in New York. The club was the Paradise Garage, but the studio was Shakedown. Speak to anybody from the ’80s about studios and they’d tell you that was the spot.

Did you know about places like the Garage? Were you going out to them?

There were many clubs in New York then, yeah. The Fun House, the Roxy. I’d just started going out then – I was 16 or 17. There was a place in Union Square called Underground, there was the Zanzibar in Newark and the Loft parties were still going on.

The two favourites were definitely the Zanzibar and the Loft. I’d take disco naps, get up at three or four in the morning and go down to Newark. From Brooklyn that’s a bit of a trek, but I’d do it. To go to Zanzibar, there was just nothing like it for me. There was an energy there that was like no other club I knew. And the Loft was really… It was almost like being in a dream on the dancefloor. You’d really get lost in the music, almost going into another dimension, because you were surrounded by people who were there totally for the appreciation of music. There were moments when it felt like you were flying away on that dancefloor. And I still love it. Unfortunately, Zanzibar is not around any more.

Do you remember any of the tunes that got played?

Oh yeah. Take the Loft: “Got To Have Loving” [by Don Ray], Lonnie Liston Smith “Expansions” and [Powerline] “Double Journey,” those are definitely Loft tunes. And hearing those on that dancefloor in that atmosphere is not like any other feeling I’ve had. It’s really like going to another place.

As for Zanzibar, I remember hearing [Sun Palace] “Rude Movements” there. That was a really popular record. Northend, the Tee Scott mixes [of “Happy Days”]. Some Jimmy Ross, “First True Love Affair.” Hippie [Torrales] was playing there for a while but I never got to hear him play there. In the late ’80s, Tony [Humphries] was playing Kyze “Stomp (Move Jump Jack Your Body,” a lot of Todd Terry, and he was doing the Magic Sessions [stuff], like Desiya “Comin’ On Strong.” Zanzibar almost reached a peak at that point. I remember going down there one night at four in the morning and walking down the street and there were loads of Japanese tourists, in the middle of the night, just to go to Zanzibar.

Kyze – Stomp (Move Jump Jack Your Body) (Zanzibar Mix)

When you left you said your only ambition was to work in Shakedown. I know you achieved that, so how did it happen?

It wasn’t easy. I finished school and I started doing some work in a studio in New Jersey. I made the call to Shakedown and when I first called, Tony Moran, one of the Latin Rascals, answered the phone. I told him I loved their stuff and I’d love to come and intern there. I was really starry-eyed about it. He was really kind. He said I could come and check out the studio, but I never followed up the invite because I knew to get a job there I’d need find the manager’s name, which I did do – it was Tim Scott.

I went down for the interview in February 1987. Tim wasn’t interested. He said, “We don’t have space now.” And remember this was an interview for an internship, which in brackets means working for free! So he said, “Keep my name and number and you can call me sometime.” You know what? I called every single month for the next months and finally in December of 1987 I got hired. He said, “I think we’ve got an opening,” so I went down and he said, “Yeah, you can start tonight.” The first session was sitting with Junior Vasquez, who was mixing Rodney Franklin. I think the title was “Bustin’ Out,” but I could be wrong. It was on Criminal.

It was a dream come true to get the job. Basically, I just moved in. I wanted to make it clear to them that I was available for what they wanted me to do 24/7 and I never left. Basically, I started with aligning machines, cleaning the studios, picking up tapes from their storage, making runs for clients. That’s how it started. First day on the job, actually, before having a session, I had to help Arthur move, in fact!

I made it known that I edited and I was really interested in editing some of the product they had. Eventually, after several months, Arthur called in and said, “Listen, Gail Scott-King can’t come in tonight, I can’t get any other editors, would you be interested in giving it a shot?” It was a Will Downing song, “Sending Out An S.O.S,” that he had remixed. It was on Island.

Larry Levan is the one who broke “I Want You To Know.” I have a recording of his last tour in Japan and he’s rocking two copies of it.

Editing back then worked like this: He’d have several versions on tape. He’d have an instrumental, he’d have a club mix, he’d have just drums, a pass with vocal bass and drums, and a pass with chords and vocals. So he gave me a stack of about ten tapes to listen to. And remember, before I did this I’d been watching Tim, Gail, Junior, Juan Cato and the Rascals doin’ it. He asked me to come up with a 12" club mix.

First thing I did was listen through all the tapes, making notes as I was listening. At 20 seconds there’s kick, snare and hi-hat; at 30 seconds there’s kick, snare, hi-hat and bass and so on. So it would take you a good few hours to go through all of the passes. Then I’d sit and think how I’d like to make my intro. Let’s start with kick and hi-hat, look for which mix has just kick and hi-hat, and I’d copy it from one half-inch machine to another. This was when tape was half-inch 30 IPS [inches per second]. I loved those machines.

Will Downing – Sending Out An S.O.S (B-Boy Remix)

So Arthur came in the next day and he heard what I had come up with. He gave me a few tips, said, “Change this, change that.” So I made the changes and he was satisfied. I put some tricks in there, like the stutters, but he was satisfied. From that point on, I was in there, man. So every edit he needed done I was there. That was followed by Quincy Jones, Debbie Harry, Talking Heads. He just kept bringing them in one after the other.

Plus there were all of his projects, like Brooklyn Funk Essentials, which he gave us the name after he’d done “We Gotta Come Together.” Then he said, “You and Lenny [Dee] are now the Brooklyn Funk Essentials.” I never left the studio. He never asked me if I was tired and I thank him for that, because there’s no better schooling than that. To be honest, there were times when I was dead tired and I’d be working in a room that closet-sized, but there was no place I would rather have been.

The Brooklyn Funk Essentials – We Gotta Come Together (Wham Bam Dub)

You told me once that he was proper slave-driver. Is that true?

I don’t think he would have thought of it like that, because he had such a love for music that he went with the flow. We’d work Christmas, we’d work Easter. Holidays didn’t exist. Years after doing that now, I understand it. I’d do it exactly the same now. Even now, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than the studio.

You were relatively late starting to DJ, weren’t you?

I love the studio so much. Did the DJing come after production? Not exactly. I was doing mobile parties before getting into production. That involved lugging equipment in the car to do block parties. It just seemed limited to me, though. It wasn’t as satisfying as production and mixing and writing, it just was exactly what I wanted to do. Spinning is nice. In some ways, with the new gear, it’s now quite similar.

So how did you make the leap from intern to employee at Shakedown?

Intern to employee happened at the time of the first edit. It was never something stated, but the facts made the point. He got me cards made up: “House Editor.” Arthur would invite me to sit in with his sessions and basically it’s a natural progression from editor to remixer. If you’re editing the tune the producer’s gonna ask you to come into his studio and ask you for some input. Maybe like, “What kind of pass would you like?”

Seeing a dancefloor is such a big part of production. You see what moves people and you see what doesn’t move people.

Editor and producer worked hand in hand then. So he’d start asking me what kind of intro I would like, or what kind of breakdown I wanted. So I was getting hands-on experience of how he was mixing down, and also other clients would see me there when they came in, because I was there 24/7. I was always available and availability is so much. So they started inviting me into their sessions.

Editing really taught me arrangement, the arrangements of songs. Get a pad and paper out and write down the arrangement. How many bars is the intro, the break, the verse, the chorus? All of these things are steps that allow you to become more and more involved in the creation of music as a whole.

Denise Lopez – Too Much Too Late (Essential Funk Remix by the Brooklyn Funk Essentials)

Larry Yasgar had a label called Vendetta and he had an employee from my neighbourhood called Anthony. And Anthony was coming up to the studio with Clivillés and Cole and he asked me if I’d be interested in remixing something for them. That led to me branching out and getting a manager. It was a John Morales production for Vendetta that was my first remix.

Were your first releases on Nu Groove?

No. My first production was made in 1988 and came out in ’89. It was called “Move To The Beat” and was credited to Interaction. At the time Larry [Yasgar] was into the Ten City sound, Movin’ Records sound and he said, “This is the kind of vibe I wanna go for.” I never produced a record before, so I gave it the best shot I could.

Interaction – Move To The Beat (Brooklyn Funk Essentials Remix)

At the time I was also working on another project for Tia Monae, which was a stage name – she was really Sabrina Johnston. But that never worked out using her vocal, so that became “Oh, How I Love You,” for Sybil on Next Plateau. I was doing remixes for Arthur, like New Order, several records on Criminal, like a Brooklyn Funk Essentials tune called “Change The Track.” There’s a dub on that where we took the groove from that Virgo bootleg where David Cole is playing live over it. That bootleg was all over New York, just David Morales and David Cole playing live at the club, so we did a production based on that. I still play that dub.

How did the Nu Groove material start happening?

Nu Groove was right around the block. Nu Groove and Fourth Floor shared an office. Lenny Dee, who was also from Brooklyn, worked at Nile Rodgers’ studio, Skyline, which was down the street from Shakedown. When he left Skyline he got an internship at Shakedown.

Lenny was already working on productions for Fourth Floor and Nu Groove. And Arthur appointed us the Brooklyn Funk Essentials and said, “You work under that name.” The first remix we did for Arthur was Al Jarreau, but I don’t think it ever came out. Lenny said, “I’m working with this label ’round the block, do you wanna come with me?” So went to see Fourth Floor. He included me in what he was doing there.

Critical Rhythm – It Could Not Happen (Essential Trance Hall Mix)

First production there was Critical Rhythm. Peter Daou was the keyboard player and Vanessa was the vocalist. At the same time we did a Subliminal Aurra [record for Fourth Floor]. Because they shared an office, Judy and Frank at Nu Groove saw me doing shit for Fourth Floor and they figured, “Let’s ask him to do something for us.” Lenny had already done Looney Tunes for them.

I think the first production I did for them was “I Want You To Know” by Groove Committee, and that particular record was where I started to see a response from many people. Before that, what I was doing, it wasn’t getting much attention. I was definitely in a core learning stage, but with “I Want You To Know,” I remember hearing it on DJ Disciple’s show and on WBLS constantly. This what when my stuff started to get New York airplay.

Groove Committee – I Want You To Know (Vocal)

From there it was domino effect. I remember Todd Terry getting in touch. He was involved in a label called E-Legal and we got together at his place and he explained something to me. He said, “Listen Vic, you got something going now, you keep on going with that vibe. Keep making records just like this.” He really put me in the right direction.

Every time I went back into the studio from that point on I was just making Groove Committee records in my head. Next things I made were “Dirty Games” [by Groove Committee II] and [Solution] “Feels So Right.” I took “Feels So Right” to Nu Groove for the follow up to “I Want You To Know.” But they turned it down in favour of “Dirty Games.”

After Nu Groove turned down “Feels So Right,” I didn’t have a label for it and Todd gave me some advice. It was put out on vinyl without any agreement signed. That vinyl got in the hands of everyone in New York. Tony Humphries is the one that really broke that record in New York – Larry [Levan] is the one who broke “I Want You To Know.” I have a recording of Larry’s last tour in Japan and he’s rocking two copies of it.

Solution – Feels So Right

What I really noticed going through your back catalogue in one go is just how much it’s all influenced by New York classics. Loads of little licks I didn’t realise at the time are inspired by disco. “Do You Feel Me,” the piano is Inner Life, for instance. Tell me about it.

It’s all played. I was working in a studio called Fibre and Mac Quayle was one of the owners. Mac and I knew each other from Shakedown. You jumped ahead a bit, but in that gap, Fourth Floor and Nu Groove… Nu Groove shut down and Fourth Floor went into an office in Lexington and he was sharing with his mother’s travel agents. This was before they started rolling in Staten Island.

Silvio Tancredi and Tommy Musto came to me in 1992. We were at a party in Long Island and Silvio was saying Fourth Floor wasn’t doing as well it could be and they needed some refreshing. They needed to come up with a new label and that’s how Sub-Urban was born. Get a bit of a “now” sound going and it would put them back on track.

I just started going out to Staten Island and started creating the first ten releases on Sub-Urban, give or take one or two releases, Tommy and I. After Sub-Urban started putting out these records, we started making waves, so Nervous started calling, then Maxi and Eightball and Strictly Rhythm, which was then brand new. I did one record for them.

N.Y’s Finest – Do You Feel Me (Club Mix)

Before I got the job at Shakedown I used to work at gym in Brooklyn with a guy named Vincent. In 1993, he got back in touch with me and he had heard that I was doing music and putting out a lot of productions. He asked me if I’d be interested in starting a label and I said yes. That’s how Bassline started.

I wasn’t very clued up about it. I didn’t know what having a label, meant to be honest. But it sounded good [laughs]. I got a feeling from some of these labels about royalties and how they never showed up. He financed the studio time, at Mac’s studio in Brooklyn, and I had the idea for “Do You Feel Me” in my head before I got there.

That vocalist was a friend of Dennis Pino. Dennis owned a record store not far from where I lived in Brooklyn with a studio in the back. In regards to [Inner Life’s] “Moment Of My Life,” it’s just such a tune. When doing it, obviously that’s a huge inspiration. It’s all replayed – we just based the vibe on that. I remember sitting in the backroom after we’d got all the levels right and it just sounded really right.

How did “It’s So Good” by Creative Force come about?

The idea for this came about mixing and vibing late night, and I was mixing up Loni Clark’s “Rushing” with some records. And on [Peech Boys] “Don’t Make Me Wait,” there’s an ad-lib, “It’s so good, it’s so good.” I worked that with the piano of Rushing and the vocal of Bernard and putting those together there was hook there, so I started writing around that hook.

I remember meeting Brian Chin and he said, “Once you have a hook it’s plan sailing from there, because you have a focal point.” I can have a hook and leave it for years and then come back to it and write the lyric quite quickly. I booked the studio and called my friend George. I was working with Tafuri at the time; I did “Was That All It Was” with her. She had a friend whose cousin is George and he’s the vocalist. Tafuri also goes back to Shakedown. She was in a group and her boyfriend was Gordon, they were in a group called Vertical Hold, whose lead singer was Angie B, who later became Angie Stone. By this time Northcott had their own studio in Manhattan. I think it was Matthias that engineered it.

Once you started getting recognition you began DJing all over the world. Did that experience change how you approached making records?

Seeing a dancefloor is such a big part of production. You see what moves people and you see what doesn’t move people. When I started producing it was to satisfy DJs that I was listening to, like Tony Humphries. When I went into the studio I wanted to make something that Tony was gonna like. DJing around added to my approach, [especially] when I saw how dancefloors worked outside of New York. I began to see things that didn’t happen there. It didn’t change my taste but it did broaden it.

What productions are you most proud of?

To be honest, there are moments in different productions that are favourite moments rather than favourite tunes. Sometimes there are elements that came together where I couldn’t even have imagined doing it that well in my dreams. It was just a magical moment created in that particular time. If I could be captured in a moment and be heard, it’s those types of moments that are me. So it’s like capturing my emotions. So if I was no longer here you could hear me at that moment. I strive to do that in every production, but there are only moments I ever capture that. But it touches me when I achieve it because it’s like listening to myself. It’s deep.

Are there still productions that you pull out and play now?

I played “Feels So Right,” the gig before “Do You Feel Me,” I Know A Place” and “Dirty Games.” I like to play ’em. I don’t think that just because music is a certain age it should not be played anymore. If there’s a good tune from ’74, ’85 or ’95 I’ll play it.

Victor SImonelli presents Sound of One – I Know A Place (Original Vocal Mix)

You mentioned “I Know A Place,” which obviously became a hit for Ricky Morrison when he took the idea and re-did several years later [as “Salsoul Nugget” by M&S].

It was [Double Exposure’s] “Everyman.” Danny Krivit did an edit of “Everyman,” late ’80s I think. And the intro uses that same groove. The vocal is Mavis Staples’s “I’ll Take You There. You mentioned how Ricky did his thing with it too on “Salsoul Nugget.” Again, I was just vibing as a DJ and the concept came out. That was one session. That and “Do You Want Me Baby” were done in the same day.

This interview took place on September 28th, 2009. (C) DJ History

By Bill Brewster on February 20, 2018

On a different note