François Kevorkian’s is a truly New York story. Moving to the city from France in 1975, with a plan to become a great jazz drummer, he accidentally hustled his way into a gig playing live drums alongside one of the city’s greatest ever DJs – and from there, there was no looking back.
Spending his free time buying records, shopping mixtapes to club owners and constructing Scotch-taped re-edits of the era’s hottest tunes on a reel-to-reel recorder, he quickly established himself as a talent behind both the turntables and the mixing desk.
This led to a meeting at Prelude Records that would prove pivotal for the emerging disco scene, kickstarting a production career that began with remixing Musique’s smash hit “In The Bush” and has included everyone from Arthur Russell to Mick Jagger.
In this interview with Bill Brewster, which includes material from interviews conducted in late 1998 and early 1999, he talks about creating a sound, his personal philosophy of music, running his own record label and establishing one of New York’s most renowned dance parties.
Can I take some biographical details, where you were born, dates?
I was born in 1954 in Rodez, in the south of France, and I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. Instead of becoming a good college student, I decided to do music and join bands. I became frustrated with the scene in France, and in 1975 I decided to quit, and came to New York.
Did you have a purpose in mind when you came here?
Yeah, to play music.
What sort of bands were you into at that stage?
Jazz-funk. I was into Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, all the electric period of jazz. [That music was] all being made here, so I thought, “Why wait for the records to come to me?” I listened to Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Santana, Jeff Beck, those kind of things. There’s not a chance in hell that if you stay in France you’re gonna get something like that going on, so I came here.
I decided that I wanted to play in bands here and to get more instruction [and experience]. I became a student of Tony Williams. He was Miles Davis’s drummer, but at the time he had his own thing, the Tony Williams Lifetime. I started playing with whatever little band I could get a gig with. It was really, really rough.
In the process of doing that, I came across this club… I was looking for an apartment to share and I figured that everyone was looking for the cheapest ones, so I called the most expensive one. I thought that if they could afford the rent, then maybe they could afford to employ somebody as a helper or something. The guy was not really interested in that, but he asked me what I was doing, and [it turned out that he owned a club, so] he said “Well, I could probably use a drummer.”
He asked me to come and play at his club. The DJ there was Walter Gibbons. I didn’t know at the time, but it was a big club – Galaxy 21 – and my job was to sit on a little dancefloor with my drums, playing along with the music the whole night. There was a lot of learning to do. There were a lot of songs I knew, but a lot I didn’t. Through that, I became involved in the whole early disco scene, which was very underground at the time – very downtown, very black, very Latino and quite a bit gay, too.
Those worlds weren’t ones I was very familiar with, but it was a very friendly and very sweet scene overall. I got to meet a lot of people, to go to clubs and parties, and it seemed pretty obvious to me that, compared to all the hours I had to practice to be a drummer, the DJ’s job was very basic, simple and straightforward.
As I liked the music they were playing in those clubs, I figured, “Well, instead of struggling so hard to be a drummer, why don’t I do what these guys do and get some DJ gigs?” So, I just listened to the radio nonstop, 24 hours a day until I knew every possible song on WBLS, or whoever was playing at the time. I was also going to other clubs and checking out what people were playing. By that time, Galaxy 21 had closed and I was working as busboy at another club and making audition tapes to give to club managers.
So, you started buying the records by then, too?
Yeah, I only had 30 or 40, but I had enough to make a really good tape. I didn’t have access to a mixer or anything, but I could make tapes on a reel-to-reel tape machine.
Eventually, the main DJ that was playing where I was working – [the place was] Experiment Four and his name was Jellybean – called in sick one day… I was the only person they knew who could possibly do the music. So, of course I did, and everybody was happy. From then on, I got more gigs at that club, as well as trying to audition at other clubs.
There was this place on 45th Street, it was called the JJ Knickerbocker, a drag-queen place, where they had DJ battles or contests the first Thursday of every month. You’d play for an hour, then they’d judge who was the best DJ. A lot of people would go there. I won a few times and one time there were these promoters from the downtown scene who saw me there, and they had me play for them.
Walter Gibbons was so fierce, nobody even understood how fierce he was.
How were you doing this, exactly?
I would come to the audition for the DJ contest, and I would put them on. It was a shot of adrenaline. When these guys – who were from Chase Gallery – saw this, they were like, “Oh, we have to have this guy.” Nobody had these dubplates; they were mine. Later on, the guy that was making them ended up wanting to let other DJs have them, because he could see they were a really hot item. So, anyway, I got a job at Chase Gallery.
Where was that situated?
It was on 26th Street and 7th Avenue, but I never played there. They had a couple of parties at Buttermilk Bottom, which were very successful. Eventually, in the summer of 1977, which was the year we had the big blackout, they rented out the Flamingo. Obviously, when Fire Island starts on Memorial Day, the whole white gay population migrates, so the Flamingo closes for the summer, so these guys rented it, and we had this incredible club – along with 12 West [which was a largely black crowd], it was the premier gay club in the city, and I was the DJ there. Downstairs from us was Nicky Siano’s Gallery.
In the same building?
Almost. Around the corner; 20 feet away. I think you could actually hear the bass from our party in the Gallery. Nicky would sometimes get upset because we were getting big crowds. That was my introduction into that scene. I had never been to the Loft… and when I started playing there I was immediately propelled into this whole thing. At the end of the summer, when the people came back, the party had become quite something and they had big crowds, so they tried to move to a ballroom in Midtown Manhattan on West 43rd Street, and they got involved with some shady types, because they needed a lot money to make this huge ballroom into a club. I played three parties there, and it just didn’t happen… forget it.
I returned the favor to Jellybean and got him a job, because he wanted to play a Saturday gig, and I didn’t want to play there any more… I decided to audition for a big disco just opening called New York, New York, and I got the job doing the main Saturday night party.
Was that one of the Studio 54 rivals?
Well, yeah. It was made by the same people that did Le Jardin, John Addison. It was not really a rival when they built it, but it became so because they were obviously vying for the same crowd. You cannot say anything but that Studio had the biggest venue, the best lights, the best sound. It was quite superior in some respects to New York, New York, just because it was so vast and so spectacular and theatrical.
Then, from Saturday nights, I sometimes ended up doing five or six nights a week. It was just a way to make money. I was happy just being able to play records and make money at it, rather than a straight job… While all this was happening, we all discovered the [Paradise] Garage. In 1977, they had the construction parties.
This was before they’d opened it properly.
Yeah. That was in the back, in the coat check. They had set up the soundsystem, they were still building the dancefloor. The guy that hired me at New York, New York was called Joseph Bonfiglio, he’s really a very important figure in that whole Francis Grasso early movement. He was the DJ who quit one night at the Continental Baths in the middle of the night and the light man got to play records. The light man was Larry Levan.
Joseph became technical director at New, York New York – he was really working for John Addison since Le Jardin. He was very up on the whole scene, and he was very good friends with Larry and introduced me to him.
I started going out there quite a lot – that’s also, I think 1978, when the record pool was started. When you were a member of For The Record, you were automatically given free admission to the Garage. There were all these other little clubs that were going down. There was a whole scene that was buzzing like mad. In the meantime, Walter Gibbons had moved to Seattle, to do a club called Sanctuary by the same owners as Galaxy 21.
Anyway, Walter returned a year later and had converted to Christianity. How it happened, I don’t know, but Walter was just playing little parties… There were 20 people coming, and it was really sad. From the Walter Gibbons I had known, who was the most flamboyant DJ I had ever seen… Walter was so fierce, nobody even understood how fierce he was. Nobody saw what he was physically doing with records. He was just outrageous.
What set him apart?
He had an amazing instinct for drum breaks, creating drama with little bits of records, just like a hip-hop DJ, but he was incredibly fast at cutting up records. So smooth and seamless that you couldn’t even tell that he was mixing records. You thought the version he played was actually on the record, but he was mixing little 10-second pieces on the vinyl, with two turntables.
You know, it was just the whole thing… his selection, his mixing technique, his pace, his sense of drama, his sense of excitement. And he was featuring all these big drum breaks that nobody else was really using. He was really into drums. By the time Walter had turned to that whole religion thing, he had stopped playing a whole section of music and only concentrated on songs with a message. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it really limited the audience that would listen to his music.
He was really into this whole clean lifestyle thing. Unfortunately, it mainly fell on deaf ears. In fact, it didn’t fall on very many ears at all, because there weren’t many people going to his parties. At the same time, there’s nothing you could say about Walter that was bad, because he followed his vision. It’s just his vision was more difficult. He was living exactly what his vision was. He wasn’t just preaching, he was actually doing what he was talking about. A lot of people didn’t have the interest to understand what it was that Walter had. At the same time the Garage started to become an incredible force. Studio 54 was nice, but it was really for the uptown, glitzy crowd.
When was the first time you were at the Loft?
Either late ’77 or early ’78. The first time I ever went to the Loft was when it was on Prince Street. I never went to the Broadway one. I didn’t know any of the crowd that hung there, like Steve D’Acquisto, Michael Cappello, those people. I had never met Nicky – I never went to Gallery, because when the Gallery was open I was playing upstairs… I really don’t consider myself one of those early guys in that sense. I really started going to clubs in February ’76. I had seen a couple of DJs beat-mixing in ’75. In that sense, I came after the big bang had already occurred in New York. But there were not many people who were into it – there were only 200 or 300 people who were seriously into being DJs. There were not many stores – there was just Downstairs Records.
What about Colony?
Ronald Coles was working at Colony. He had been a promotions man for Atlantic before. There was a vast selection of 45s, and you could find a lot of catalog stuff, but it was not a very good store – except at the back, when Ronald was working. It didn’t have the atmosphere of Downstairs, where you’d walk in and there would be all the imports, everything laid out, then in the back you’d have [thousands of] 45s to choose from. Downstairs was really the best. Walter had a job at Downstairs, Yvonne Turner, David Rodriguez [worked there]. That’s how I met David. I got to meet David Rodriguez after he was a DJ, I never really saw him play, though we became quite good friends.
The Loft was something more deep and spiritual, touching you in other ways – not just through the body, but the mind, too.
What was your impression of the Loft the first time you went?
It was so magical, so incredible. However much the Garage was impressive, because of its size and the system and because Larry was so fierce, the Loft had a more delicate quality about it. If you went to the Loft, I think you felt, “I'd better not bother this person because he’s having a good time or he’s busy dancing.” The Loft was not the kind of place where you’d go to find a date or something. You’d just be there to feel part of the group, to be there with people. Everybody was so into the music, and they’d be calling the names of the records, screaming. At the Garage you felt that the soundsystem was so powerful that it smothered people. At the Loft, you could hear people’s voices at any time, because the music was much lower, and there was more of an interaction between the people and the music. It was not at the level where it was a tidal wave just sweeping the dancefloor. It was something more deep and spiritual, touching you in other ways – not just through the body, but the mind, too. [David] was playing stuff that nobody else played.
Well, David always had records that he was the only one playing. David was playing Eddy Grant for years before other people caught on to him, including Larry. “Living On The Frontline,” “Walking On Sunshine,” “Nobody’s Got Time,” those were David records that you only heard at the Loft, until a year or two later, when we were like, “This stuff is incredible.” Although “Nobody’s Got Time” and “Time Warp” became huge Garage records, I don’t think “Living In The Frontline” ever was.
“Macho City” [by the Steve Miller Band], you had to hear at the Loft to understand… There was a real evolution to the way David played. In the earlier part, I remember David playing things that were a lot more mainstream, or experimental, or rock. In the later part, I think he defined the style as being the more spacey, trippy, movie kind of records. I remember hearing the Bee Gees’ “More Than A Woman,” where, I think, it had a special meaning. It was not the same record that was being played on dancefloors uptown. If you played “More Than A Woman” at the Loft, it was being played along with Barrabas’s “Woman.” All these things at the time were more about songs having a message – the lyrics speaking to the audience, establishing a storyline with the songs or the titles. When I first went to the Loft, I remember hearing songs that were fairly current and well-known, like the Bee Gees, for example, as well as things that were entirely his own. [For example], Boris Midney would give him tapes before anyone else.
He’s the guy who did the spacey-type records.
Russian guy… He did the USA-European Connection project.
That’s the one, yeah.
So, David had these things very early on, and he would play all the big records, whether it was “Love Is The Message,” but he played them in his own way, which was from beginning to end, not mixed.
The Loft was a place unto itself. You really had the sense immediately that this was a place that was so special. There was like a living room, you had furniture there, people all over the place just being real mellow and relaxed. In some ways the Garage was more of a gay club. They had these policies about Friday membership and Saturday membership. It was a big operation. At the Loft, you never knew who was going to be at the door, who was the cashier. In that sense, it did encourage a different interaction between people. People used the backroom, sort of David’s office… DJs would hang out while he was playing. We’d just be sprawling out, 11 in the morning, playing crazy song after crazy song. The Loft had this scene that was real peaceful, real beautiful. The Garage was more heavy duty.
No, just more… When Larry was playing a record you just had to pay attention, because it was just so strong. It was intense. You’d just be hypnotized by that dancefloor, the way it was moving. At the Loft, we were more mellow, really digging into a trippy vibe.
What were your impressions of the Garage, and when was the first time you saw Larry Levan play?
In the back room, at the construction parties.
But you knew about him already?
No. I was so new to all of this. I was literally propelled into the scene overnight. When you did get to see Larry, especially in the early days, the music was so intense. He obviously studied David and Nicky, so he had his pile of Nicky records; he had his pile of David records. He really took all these good ideas from them, and I think really the Garage was just an oversized version of the Loft. He basically copied the Loft’s soundsystem and made it much bigger, much more powerful.
I think what Larry did was nothing short of astounding. You could claim that Walter was just as outstanding a talent as Larry was, but at the end of the day, if somebody has an audience of thousands and thousands, and somebody has an audience of 20, there’s a difference. You start to influence people. The Garage became so strong that it became a focal point, and everything started revolving around it. It created gravity; became a planet and it had other planets gravitating around. There’s nothing else that will remotely compare to what the Garage was. Being that it was a downtown, black and Latino gay club, a lot of people never even knew it existed. The [wider] culture, especially in the late ‘70s, was not really admitting that such things existed. After Saturday Night Fever and the disco backlash… “Well, let’s forget about disco, now it’s punk; let’s go to our little nyahh nyahh nyahh guitars and suburban white dreams…” The Garage was forging ahead with a cultural evolution that was so ahead of its time that those people didn’t get it. Most people that went there sort of got it, but I remember some people hating the Garage and thinking it was really a bad club.
Why do you think they thought that?
Because it was too much. It was an assault on their senses. It was a kind of tribalistic ritual that I don’t think they could relate to…
Do you think it might be to do with a club like that expecting people to invest their intellect in it?
No, I think that it’s more that, for you to enjoy these clubs, you have to let yourself go to a basic level, where you can just be free and not cling to preconceived notions – you just have to accept it and see how beautiful the dance is. A lot of people are not ready to do that. They go to a club to be seen, show off their clothes, find a date, get drunk, unlike at the Loft. First of all someone like that wouldn’t even be let in there. If you weren’t a friend of somebody, there was no way they were going to let you in at the Loft. I can remember some people saying that they thought the Garage really sucked. I think there was a very famous review in New York magazine that said how bad that club was… Michael Gomes showed me it. Do you know Michael Gomes?
I do indeed.
He is a very close and dear friend. He just wrote the liner notes to the Body & Soul compilation. Michael is quite a consummate observer/critic of the scene. He’s one that can really give you a point of perspective that you might need… And Bob Casey?
Don’t know him.
You need to know about Casey. He was an older guy who had a magazine called Melting Pot, which was an early DJ magazine… He had a company that did soundsystem installations, like Alex Rosner… He’s kind of retired from the whole scene. He knew Francis [Grasso] and all those people.
Anyway, these parties defined, pretty much, a whole sound. I’m not saying they were the only parties. Better Days, in my opinion, was also quite important. Better Days was six days a week, and Tee Scott would be playing. The crowd there was incredibly intense. It was very black, very gay. Sometimes I think Better Days was almost better than the Garage, because it was closer and smaller and more intimate, but the energy level when people were dancing was just so amazing.
A lot of the Better Days people would go to the Garage, of course. I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest DJ at the Garage, the Loft and Better Days, if not regularly, at least quite often. Tee Scott would be in the studio a lot and would call me at the last minute. Sometimes I’d be playing at Better Days once or twice a week, because Tee couldn’t do it. I didn’t play at the Garage all that many times – maybe ten – and the Loft about the same. To me it was really incredible, because there were not that many people that did that, ever. I think at the Loft you had Freddie Taylor and Steve D’Acquisto once in a while, that’s it. At the Garage, Larry Patterson played a couple of times, Tee Scott played a couple of times. I’m talking early days… ’81, ’82. After that, I quit DJing, so I was not so interested.
What was Tee Scott’s style? From what I’ve read he was an excellent mixer.
Yeah, overall he picked really good songs. I think perhaps he was less experimental than Larry was, because Larry would have that David thing where he would try things that were awkward, spacey or out there. Tee was more focused on real soulful grooves that would work the dancefloor to an absolute frenzy. I remember one day, I think I was playing at Better Days and Tee Scott and Larry Patterson came, and at the end of the party – it always ended at three o’clock on the dot – I was playing Olatunji “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion),” and I went directly into “Numbers” after that. I think to them, that was unheard of. They had never seen that juxtaposition.
Tee was not into those experimental downtown things as much as Larry or David. I was more a product of that. Tee was more into playing a very solid, steady, no-nonsense [set], and very beautiful. Larry would always try and play all these European records. God knows where they came from… Tee was a little more conservative, but he was more into squeezing the last drop out of a record and making it into a hit, whereas other people might have thought it was just an ordinary record. He could really work a record into becoming a hit, just because he made it so. It might not be a very strong record to begin with, but just the way he would work it, cut it and make his crowd like it...
We all shared the common baggage at the time, but there were very specific nuances that everyone had. Like when Tee Scott played at the Garage, everyone would get their fill of that powerful Tee Scott groove. When Larry Patterson was playing, he tended more towards gospel with an eclectic selection – a very message-oriented set.
Larry was hanging a lot with Tee Scott. You have to remember that a lot of these people that were with the DJs were picking the records. No offence to David, but there were a whole crew of people like Steve D’Acquisto and others, who were really record pickers for David. I’m not privy to how that would happen, but I could see when I went to the Loft that they were showing him, you know, “Play this. Here’s a new record. This is good.”
In all fairness, I have to say David DePino or Judy Weinstein [often] told Larry what to play, because they were probably sometimes more up on records than he was. Certainly, Judy Weinstein, having the pool, was uniquely placed to get access to music before anybody else got it, including Larry. She would hear about things before they were even made.
Tell me how you got into production.
I didn’t have access to two turntables and a mixer. I had access to one turntable and a tape machine. Because of my musical background, I was always into experimenting, doing a lot of my drum recording with microphones, tapes delays and special effects, flanging, phasers, etc...
And this is at home?
Yeah, using people’s gear when I could. Then I started doing those edits… I would take my crazy Scotch-taped edits reel to this place called Sunshine Sound… Sunshine Sound was a place where all the DJs would go to get their acetates cut. [You’d] bring a tape in mono, and get Frank Tremarco, the owner, to make an acetate for $10. This was in 1976.
And were these acetates of people’s own edits?
Sometimes, yeah. But then what he would also do, he would sell the best ones. Like, there was a medley called “Hollywood” that was very famous at the time. It was like a cut-up of that year’s greatest hits, like “Stars On 45”… So he would have those, for example, or he’d have some edits that DJs had done – they’d give them to him and he would sell them to other DJs. But the point is DJs wanted them. Sometimes he would have things under the table, maybe unreleased versions, but I was never privy to that. I became involved in that world very early on, when I would bring in my edits, and for whatever reason he caught on to me. From the first time I brought in “Happy Song,” he was like, “Wow! This is cool.”
I started doing more of my little edits, and he approached me and asked me whether we could make a deal. “I want to have your stuff. I want to make it available to other DJs, but I’ll pay you every time I sell an acetate.” Of course, this was not very legal, but it was on such small scale, it was more to disseminate and propagate the music. So, there were certain things I did that became very popular.
“Happy Song.” I also did some of “What You Wanna Do” by T Connection, I did some of “Erucu,” which is an early Walter Gibbons track, an instrumental. It was on the Mahogany soundtrack, but there’s this longer version on an album of Motown instrumentals. It’s credited to Jermaine Jackson. It’s a really incredible track.
After that, Frank started getting more friendly and he asked me, “You know, there’s this record that’s really good that a lot of DJs are asking me about. Why don’t you take the record and make an edit of it.” That was [Cymande’s] “Bra.” So I did a very early edit of “Bra,” which was very basic. I repeated the break three times. That was it. I did an edit of “Magic Bird Of Fire.” All these little things were helping me to get into the component parts of the music. I started doing quite elaborate medleys, where I would overlay things on top of each other. Almost like pre-sampling.
I was working at New York, New York nonstop at that stage, and [I met] these people from Prelude… I was with this guy Rene Hewitt, and Prelude had just moved into this office, and they wanted to play us a couple of tapes. They played us a couple of songs and asked Rene for his comments, then they asked me for my comments… “Thank you very much. OK, Rene, you can leave, but could you stay?” On the spot, they offered me a position doing A&R. Not even knowing what A&R was, I thought perhaps I should tell them that I’d think about it.
Who were the people you met?
Marv Schlachter and Stan Hoffman. I started the following week, and they put me in the studio to do this record they needed remixing. It was busting out in the New York marketplace – “In The Bush.” It was my first experience in a proper recording studio, so I would go in the studio, do a listening session and take a tape home of the individual tracks that were on the multi-track. There, I’d listen to each individual track and make a song map, so by the time I came back to the studio I would know exactly what was on each track. By that time, I’d made a note of which vocal parts were really good, which drum breaks I could use, guitar parts and so on. When I went back in the studio I was with this engineer, Bob Blank, who was quite a talent.
Didn’t he work with Arthur Russell?
Yeah, but that was on the side. Bob Blank is the guy who probably did half of the Salsoul records made in New York. I mean, many of them were made in Philadelphia, but he was involved in many of the New York ones. He worked on the Patrick Adams records – he was a major, major engineer. So, he would get all the sounds, then I would tell him what I wanted. Immediately, I was into editing. So, we did a whole pass with different sections and cut it together to make it work. It was really my first experience in a studio, and the record just blew out. I mean, it exploded. Anywhere you would go in the summer of ’78, they were playing that fucking record.
So, my first record became a huge hit… They put me in the studio night and day. It wouldn’t end.
I brought it to the Garage and Larry loved it. He wouldn’t stop playing it. It went gold. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and still sells today. Not necessarily because of me – the original version was out and people liked it, but the remix was so DJ-friendly… a cute break, and all these other parts. So, my first record becomes a huge hit. They put me in the studio night and day. It wouldn’t end. I got to pick whatever I wanted. I ended up doing a lot of records for Prelude – two or three records a week on average… It became like an assembly line.
Then we’d meet the producers sometimes, and I would have to start [working] with them, whether it was Moses Dillard or Jesse Boyce, or Rodney Brown and Willie Lester, his partner in Mainline Productions. I got to meet all these different people. I worked in all these different studios. I went to France and started signing records of my own. Things I have to take credit for would be like “Disco Circus” by Martin Circus – it was only a license [from Vogue in France], but for some reason people seem to remember it on Prelude – and I signed this other thing that Tee Scott and Larry used to play forever, called “Body Music” by the Strikers, [of which there were originally] only 100 copies made.
What label was it on?
Cesaree Records, up in Harlem somewhere. You could not get a copy of it, so for six months that record was getting played at Better Days and the Garage and nobody knew anything about it. I finally made a connection with the people that had the record. So I brought it to Marvin and said, “You’ve got to sign this.” By that time, I was really close to Larry, so I asked him to come in the studio with me, and we did the mix together. Also, I had found this other import out of Downstairs on Elite Records, “Double Journey” by Powerline, so I told Marvin that it was an excellent record and we should sign it. It actually didn’t do too well, only sold about 5,000-10,000 copies. It was a record that a lot of people at the Garage or the Loft would play consistently. Powerline would not be a Better Days record. It’s too jazzy, or too moody, too trippy.
I found this other record that Larry was playing on a 45 that was on this French label called “Shake It Up (Do The Boogaloo)” by Rod. It was a nice, earthy, African-pop-French thing. I subsequently remixed it and went to France to do a whole album with them. Mostly, when it came to those big artists, like Sharon Redd and D Train, [the label] found them. Sharon, I had nothing to do with. France Joli was packaged in Canada by Tony Green. I did a couple of the mixes later down the line. Not only did I work at Blank Tapes, but I also worked at Sigma a lot – Sigma New York and sometimes Sigma Philly… A couple of years down the line, Bob Blank would set me up in the studio with the tapes, so he could go get some rest on the couch. He would leave me on my own to do the mix, which I hated. I ended up engineering entire records by myself. Like in ERAS, Boris Midney’s studio, I did a lot of work… I remixed Gayle Adams’s “Your Love Is A Lifesaver” there, that Rod record, some Theo Vaness tracks… A lot of times [the engineers] didn’t understand what I was trying to do. They didn’t get it.
How did you come to do things like Sharon Redd’s “Can You Handle It?” – that was pretty different for the time?
We had the original version and just played around... I liked the track a lot, and we went back in and recorded some extra vocals. Then I wanted to double the guitar solo, the George Benson thing. Then she did all this talking and extra ad-libs. I felt it was appropriate to do a remix like that, since the vocal version was great as it was. There was no point in redoing the original, I wanted to go somewhere else. It was a beautiful, moody song with these strings that were fabulous. But, honestly, it wasn’t like there was much thought put into it. It was never like, “Well, here I am standing at the crossroads of history...” No… just go in the studio and do it.
You said in an interview once that Funk Masters’ “Love Money” was a very influential record for you.
The remix. The Champagne Records gold cover remix… I hadn’t been exposed to King Tubby’s early stuff at the time. But when I heard a dance music thing with all those big reverbs, those stops, those crazy effects where a piano comes in, cuts off and decays. To me, that was a revelation. “Oh, you can do that?” I immediately I started searching out those sounds. I started searching out records that had that in it. Then I started going in the studio and playing with tape delays and all kinds of crazy regeneration effects.
You can hear the result of that – and some heavy-duty editing – with D Train “You’re The One For Me (Reprise)” – the short one that was only on the album. It was an instrumental with dubbed-out vocals. To me, that version was the real shit. Because people already knew the original version, when I played that, it was like, insane. People would go mad at the energy of it.
I was creating something that was about breaking up the dancefloor and making it go wild.
To me, energy-wise, it was creating something on the dancefloor that you couldn’t just create with a beautiful Quincy Jones-style straight production. It was about breaking it up and making it go wild. There was that element of wildness that I think I really think I picked up from Larry. Cautiously, I wanted to put that into the records. I think I was the first person to play Funk Masters at the Garage. When the remix came out, after we’d been playing the original for a while, to me, it was really was mind-blowing. It opened me up to this whole reggae, dub thing.
At that time, I also got to play in this club AMPM, which was a very, very crappy, dirty after-hours club which went from three in the morning until 11 AM. It was all illegal. John Belushi would be there all the time. Billy Idol would be lying on the floor half-drunk. You had all this crowd, all these superstars, or wannabe superstars who were not superstars at the time. Billy Idol was just a barfly. He had “Dancing With Myself” out, but it was not a big, big hit, it was only an underground hit.
At AMPM I played ska, punk, reggae, disco, electro, whatever. I had to play everything. They wanted to hear the Go-Gos mixed with Bob Marley and James Brown. They didn’t want to hear a lot of anything. I was not too much into the punk, but I had to play it. It also opened me up to a whole bunch of other records that had a real different attitude... Who was that band that did “Turn To Red”? There were certain dubs that started coming out in the early ’80s, British, rocky kind of bands. Not quite like Siouxsie and the Banshees, but sort of still with that punk spirit. Who was it that did a remake of “Shack Up”?
A Certain Ratio.
Well, those were the bands that I’m talking about. British bands that had a certain punky sound, but were really just recycled disco. The British were obviously much more aware of that dub reggae thing, because there were all these reggae engineers working there, so sometimes some of them would do a B-side version that would have the heavy effects. Then I became aware of Jah Wobble, Public Image…
Suddenly, I had all these points of reference that gave me ideas to go into the studio and do things that were a lot more experimental. A lot of the mixes were just regarded as being disco mixes, like, you know, say Tee Scott was doing his; or Larry was doing his; or Jim Burgess was doing his. I started going outside of the mainstream – it gave me very rich subject matter to draw from. Of course, there’s a matter of conscious choice that I’d rather work on an Arthur Russell track than some commercial thing. By that time – ’82 – I’d started taking a lot of freelance things, although sometimes I couldn’t get credit for it, because Prelude were starting to get increasingly unhappy with the fact that I was doing these records. I did Yazoo’s “Situation,” which was a mega-hit here. It went gold. I did “Go Bang,” which became a sort of Loft anthem for that year. It got to the point where it was like, “Look François, it’s okay, but it’s cutting into the things we’re asking you to do.” So, some of them I had to do anonymously. I helped Larry do the edit on “Is It All Over My Face?” but I never got the credit for it.
Were there any on which you did the mix and still get a credit?
Well, I forget if I got credit on “Play At Your Own Risk” on Tommy Boy, but I was part of that. There’s a couple more but I don’t think any of them were substantial hits. There’s a couple I did for PolyGram. By that time I think I’d become a consummate remixer, where I could actually go in the studio and do things by myself.
Did the outside remixes come as a result of your name credits on Prelude releases?
You’ve gotta understand that that year when I did Yazoo and “Go Bang,” I had the most number ones on the dance chart. Between D Train, Dinosaur L, the Strikers, Sharon Redd, Yazoo, whatever it was. I had so many more number ones than anyone else on the Billboard Dance Chart. Everybody in the world was trying to get me. I would suddenly start getting calls from London. Prelude got kind of pissed off when one day CBS, our UK licensee, came up with an album of François K’s best mixes.
Do you not think that that was fairly significant, though – the fact that the label had noticed that it was your mixes that were the attractive element on many of those records?
Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve made any difference to how big a hit D Train would’ve had. Maybe I helped some. Maybe in the clubs, some of the versions I did, like that special dub I did of “Keep On” – that was very much a defining thing, where a lot of people copied that stripped-down style. But overall, I would like to feel that I’m not so much a part of it.
Obviously, I was instrumental in defining – or clarifying – a lot of things… However much Gilles Peterson is into the original Dinosaur L album today, I think that album’s a fucking mess. No offence to Arthur, but Arthur’s music is this rich, luxurious, unbelievably complex and ever-evolving and changing mess… My view of what I had to do with those tapes was organize it and focus it… give the music an appeal where people would listen to it and get into the incredible things he had in there, because he really did have some amazing things. I just don’t think he knew how to present it. People can call him a visionary all they want, and I will not deny that Arthur was an absolute visionary, but I don’t think he really knew how to sort out what he had created. It was too much.
Certainly, as a mixer, I feel that when I did “Go Bang,” I really focused that record. I stripped it down. I spent hours and hours going over each track until I found the elements that were really strong, and the fewer things that were around them, the better they sounded. When you hear those album versions, it’s like being in swamp you can’t get out of – at least to me… Anyway, the point is that I’m not really sure how much I can say was my creation and how much I was just lucky to be there. Maybe if I wasn’t there, somebody else would have done it.
The dub influence had an obvious impact on you. Wasn’t it the same with Larry?
Not really. I mean, some, but I don’t think he was listening to all that much.
What about the Sly & Robbie stuff?
That was later. We're still talking about ’82, ’83, those early days. Once Larry got to do all these records for Chris Blackwell at Island, of course he was into it. At the time, though, I think Larry was not. He was more into heavy beats. He was into creating his own sound, which was quite chunky. Larry didn’t do so much effects – he was more into the hard rhythm tracks that were so powerful they would overwhelm you. Hearing “I Got My Mind Made Up” – it was like getting hit by a tornado. There’s just no other way to describe it.
In those early days, it was a bit different, but when Larry became involved with those Compass Point people and working with Steven Stanley, who became his favorite engineer, of course he picked up on it. No question. That dub phase really started happening when he worked on the Peech Boys. Everyone’s evolution is different. I don’t ever remember Larry playing heavy dub tracks in those early days. He would play The Delfonics, he would play Isaac Hayes – downtempo, moody, really experimental R&B ballads, psychedelic records, but I don’t remember Larry getting so heavy into dub. When I was playing at the Garage, I would bring heavy Jamaican records, experimental reggae things. We all shared. It permeated. We started mixing tastes. He was into that powerful thing; I was into the dub thing.
Do you think Boris Midney’s productions had an effect, because they were really dubby?
Yeah, they did, but it was more about arrangement and sonic precision. His studio was like having a giant headphone on top of your head. You felt that you were right in the middle of the bass drum. His music was kind of like that. He had these beautiful classic arrangements, but very trippy melodies.
How do you think house changed things?
Machines. That was the end of live playing. The most significant thing to me about house, you didn’t have live musicians any more. You had people programming boxes, so it had a sound of its own. When it came out it was so special – so raw, primitive, yet very compelling. It was the start of that refining process where, instead of music having all these flourishes, you just had raw, to-the-bone, simplistic, dancefloor-only music.
The people that made house music weren’t interested in anything other than having the maximum amount of impact on the dancefloor, so when those first tracks came out there was an enormous explosion. But retrospectively, no matter how much of it has aged very gracefully – Mr. Fingers, Jungle Wonz, Virgo – some other things sound disgracefully bad. They were just a product of their time. They were utilizing – and over-utilizing – those gated reverb snare drums and those mechanical kicks, without really having any inspiration to it, just as gimmicks.
Of course, there are a number of tracks that do stand out today as being exceptional music. I think it also marked the dusk of those legendary studio musicians, like MFSB in Philadelphia, who were really playing day in, day out in the studio and over the years of playing together had refined their groove to the point where they became absolutely incredible.
I don’t think you have that any more. I don’t think you have those teams of musicians that are used to playing together on sessions for months and months, and then eventually produce masterpieces that will far outlast [most electronic music]. Some mechanical things are good, there’s no question in my mind, and the positive thing about house was that you could make music on a budget. It enabled a lot of people who were not fortunate enough to have access to a studio to make music. Retrospectively, I think the more significant thing than house was Detroit.
What was really interesting about Detroit was that they really vibed on all these Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, early electronic records, and they made it into a sound that was more abstract. Maybe I shouldn’t say it’s more important. Historically, you might say it has more far-reaching implications.
Was that because they were isolated and less driven by the dancefloor?
Yeah, it’s possible. I play fewer Detroit records than I play early house. There are always a couple of old house records in my crates. I don’t have that many Detroit records. But I think that it perhaps had a more profound influence on some European things. I’m not sure. Commercially, it might be that house is much more successful, because it’s spawned all these genres. Also, in Europe, it’s done incredibly well on a pop level. Let me rephrase that – I think they were equally significant.
How did that alter your approach to studio work?
It didn’t really. I quit DJing in 1983. I was producing rock bands like Midnight Oil or working with Mick Jagger, doing things that had a lot more to do with pop and R&B than to do with hardcore dance music. What did I do that year – 1986, 1987? I mixed “Solid,” which was Ashford & Simpson’s biggest hit ever. I was working on Kraftwerk’s album [Electric Café]. I didn’t have a lot of connections with that stuff. I was more into making music. I had sort of graduated from being a dance remixer to being an at-large kind of guy. I was very aware of “Jack Your Body” and “House Music Anthem.” I was still going out a lot. I went skating every week in Central Park, where they had the soundsystems. I was going to the Garage still. As far as being in the studio, I can’t say that I really wanted to copy Chicago house. I was excited to work on a Mick Jagger record, because Herbie Hancock and Jeff Beck and Sly & Robbie were playing on it. That, to me, was a lot more meaningful.
Working with Kraftwerk was something that was very satisfying, too. All in all, it took a year. That’s where my head was at. Quite honestly, as much as I thought “Mystery Of Love” was like a real mind-blowing thing when I first heard it, it didn’t have an immediate impact on what my productions were like.
When you eventually started doing house, it was still different, but very you.
What happened was I started DJing again in early 1990. I decided become a DJ again, so I would call people and say, “Hey, can I come and DJ at your party?” I started trying to get DJ gigs, because I just missed it so much. From there, it became a lot more apparent that, because I was spending so much time in the clubs, it was changing what sound I had when I was in the studio working on records.
Quite honestly, though, in the early ’90s I didn’t get much work at all, mixing or anything at all. I was working with Loleatta Holloway a lot, trying to get an album’s worth of material. We had a studio, and I was investing a fair amount of my time doing music. I was not very successful in placing many of my songs with people…
What I was really into in the early ’90s was the more experimental end of things: Deee-Lite, LFO, A Guy Called Gerald. The truth is most of what I was into and doing was not getting signed. After I left Prelude, a lot of people were always telling me, “Oh, why don’t you do your own label?” But I had the studio, which at its peak was a major facility with 20 employees, and having an operation like that just doesn’t take care of itself. Once it became apparent that having a studio was not my end goal, I was refocusing into the DJ thing again, and going back into that underground vibe. So, I started making music that fitted more in that groove.
That music would not sell, or get interest from anybody… So, since nobody wanted to release what I liked, I figured I might as well just put it out myself. Also, not only my own things – I was out there listening to things that were really good and not getting signed, so I thought it was the right time to start a label. We really haven’t had a lot of releases, but we seem to have had a good reaction so far. Now I think [Wave Music] has blossomed into a full-blown label, and it’s my primary commitment.
With the fragmentation of dance music in the ’90s, where do you think that has left DJing as an art form? Is it too easy now?
Well, it’s a different vibe. There’s an analogy that I don’t mind using because it’s very accurate. It used to be that we had landscapes, with little hills and gentle valleys, and they’ve just taken a bulldozer and made everything flat. Perhaps for the short run, that even, flat landscape suits certain people, because nobody’s inspiring them to have that rich textural contrast [in the music they listen to]. But that’s not for me to judge. I tend to feel that what has happened, we’ve concentrated and made an elixir out of what used to be dance music that was more [subtle and diverse].
What’s happened to A&R people these days is that they will listen to the first 20 seconds of a record; if it doesn’t hit them by then, bang…
I pride myself on being the only person that has worked with most of the major electronic music figures, whether you’re talking about Depeche Mode, Erasure, Kraftwerk, Eurythmics, Jean-Michel Jarre… I feel that now most people have completely misunderstood and are taking the easy path to making records. They are never really trying to get in touch with the magical aspect of making music. I don’t want to take anything away from people that are building hypnotic tracks that are based on repetition, but I think most times, people who are doing house music today, do music that is giving dance music a bad name.
So, Body & Soul? Explain the genesis.
We started the party in July of 1996. This Englishman John Davis, who was doing a couple of Sunday afternoon parties in London, came over to the States and wanted to do the same there. He went to a club called Vinyl, and they steered him towards using me as the main DJ. I told him that if we were going to be doing something, then basically I had to be musical director. If it wasn’t going to be like that, then I really wasn’t interested, because I had been kicking around the idea of doing a Sunday party myself, although not an afternoon one – more of an evening thing.
For quite a number of years, I was trying to get Shelter to give me a Sunday night spot. It never materialized. I was going to do something together with Larry Levan. We were playing together in Japan, and when we came back he died, so that kind of took the wind out of me for a few years… [Then] John came on the scene. He [agreed to what I was asking] and hired me. Then his funding fell apart in the next week, just as we were starting the party, so, he asked me if I wanted to be his partner. I thought that was a reasonable thing to do.
I had a very specific way I wanted to organize the music side of the party… My idea was that I really didn’t want to be just playing by myself. I wanted more of a team effort, where you could be drawing on the talents of various people to present an afternoon’s worth of music that was really special and different – more like a family vibe. I decided to call the two most talented people I could think of [Joe Claussell and Danny Krivit]… We haven’t really changed much since we started. It’s a party were most everybody is welcome. Over the time that the party has existed I think it’s started to form its own little culture and now we’re providing the soundtrack for a scene that has evolved on its own. Danny, Joe and myself are providing a backdrop for the people who come every week to really express themselves.
Body & Soul is among the very few parties I go to where the crowd goes nuts…They’re screaming and hollering, singing and stomping.
From my own experience, these parties we’re having right now are among the very few I go to where the crowd goes nuts… They’re screaming and hollering, singing and stomping, they don’t want to leave the club. Every week now, it’s become this habit, where we put the lights on and everybody keeps dancing. We turn the music off and they sing, so we have to put more music on. The crowd is very knowledgeable. It’s not that they have a degree in musicology, it’s just that they listen to music a lot.
Where does it sit in the New York club tradition?
The Garage was a copy of the Loft, but much more amplified. Larry decided to take the concept of the Loft and blow it up many times – the size of the room, the size of the soundsystem. There was a little bit of the Gallery and a little bit of the Loft in the Garage. The same thing for us – there’s still a little bit of the Loft in there certainly, because there are phases to the party where it’s very moody and spaced out for a number of hours. It doesn’t get frantic until much later on. I think that aspect of it, I have to really give direct credit to David. Everyone was so fascinated with what happened at the Loft. When we get to the bit in Body & Soul that is more intense, you can’t really think that there isn’t some link to the Garage, but I don’t think it’s something we’ve done voluntarily.
You look at Joe Claussell, Danny Krivit and me, those are the kind of musical backgrounds we have… We are striving for a true diversity of people from all walks of life, from any ethnic background or nationality or sexual preference. The dancefloor has a way of bringing people together and uniting them rather than just polarizing them. I’ve seen people come with their kids and I’ve seen people of 65 come and dance.
It’s interesting that, some of these places like the Loft and the Garage, or some of the people like David Mancuso and Walter Gibbons, have become icons now, and that people who never even knew them or saw them are suddenly admiring them. Obviously, there is a significance to all this. It’s taken a very long time for some of this to surface, but you can see how strong, dense and rich the culture was, because it’s finally being understood.
This is an edited version of two interviews conducted in October 1998 and January 1999. © DJhistory.com.