The experience of a great DJ set is often influenced, for better or worse, by a subtle yet impactful communication between the person controlling the music, and the person controlling the lights, responding to both each other and the room in kind. Few people understand this interaction as well as Ariel Figueroa, one of New York’s storied lighting engineers, who has been enhancing nights out at some of the city’s most renowned underground clubs for the better part of four decades.
Figueroa was an avid music fan whose entry into the world of club lighting came via Kenny Carpenter, the lighting technician-turned-DJ who he saw working the boards at Inferno, a predominantly Puerto Rican club on 19th Street in New York City. Following chance encounters with David DePino and Larry Levan at the club Tracks, a downtown hotbed of vogue culture, and an opportunity to do lights for Levan, Figueroa rapidly became the go-to guy for the city’s DJ royalty and their palaces. In his storied career since, he has worked stints at Sound Factory and Sound Factory Bar in the ’90s alongside the likes of Junior Vasquez, Louie Vega and Frankie Knuckles; Vinyl with Danny Tenaglia, Shelter and Body & Soul; and modern, now-defunct spaces like Cielo and Output.
In this edited and condensed excerpt from Figueroa’s appearance on Red Bull Radio’s Peak Time with Vivian Host, the New York native discussed his entrance into the world of club lights, do’s and don’ts learned from years of experience, and more about lighting’s oft-overlooked contributions to a quality club night and DJ set.
What was going on in Inferno, your first club? Who was playing? And did you immediately notice the power of lighting?
Rene Hewitt was the DJ. Kenny Carpenter was the lighting guy, and he was going with the music. They had videos on the wall, lights that would come down to floor and spin. And he just had good timing. That’s what really attracted me to lighting.
Talk to me a little bit about some of the lighting set-ups and systems in clubs in the late ’70s and the ’80s.
Well, they had analog boards. A lot of switches. Submasters. It was nothing like what they have now. It was just easy, on and off. But they knew what they were doing. It all depends on what companies were making what boards, because everything was new at that time.
Everything was more... Everything is LED now. So it’s cold. The lighting they used to use before was warmer. A lot of PAR cans. You would use gels – yellow, red, green – to do the colors. It was more hands-on. You had to really work a lighting system. Every button, everything had to be by you. Nowadays, you program stuff. It’s a little different. Moving heads, they didn’t have that before. The lights were just still. But they did a show.
There’s a legendary story about how Larry Levan would often get on a ladder in the middle of a party because the disco ball would get fogged. And then he’d insist that he had to clean it, so the whole party would stop while he fixed that thing. I imagine it’s kind of the same for the lighting people: You have to physically move every light you want.
Yes. I mean, I would have done that before we open doors, but yeah. You want everything to be perfect.
When I was going to the Inferno, watching Kenny Carpenter and the timing that he was doing with the music inspired me. And I always had that in my mind. Then I was looking for work, and I decided to call this club called Tracks, where I used to go to. I asked them if they were looking for a lighting person. And they said, "Yeah." And I went. The guy had me waiting outside for about an hour, never came out. Because he wasn’t there, he was running late. So they came out and they told me, "Can you make another appointment?”
So I went again, he had me waiting another hour. I was ready to go home, and the guy came out and we had an interview. And out of 20 people, I got the job. And I had no knowledge about lighting. I lied. I told him that I did lights before, and I didn’t, to be honest with you, and I got the job. I’m good with my hands, so doing cables and stuff like that, I could do all that. That saved me.
How long was it from being an assistant at Tracks to when you actually got to be the main lighting person at a club?
There was a guy named Joey Ratner. Watching Kenny Carpenter with the timing, and then watching Joey Ratner at Tracks. I kind of started putting stuff together in my head. And one day he decided to leave the club and they put me on. I just started trying to do lights. Then Larry Levan had a Sunday party there, and one day he came in and started playing. Doors were open, there was nobody in the club. Something just got into me. I got into the booth and I just started doing lights to the music. I saw this vision and I just started doing it, and that’s it. I started doing lights. David DePino was my first DJ that I worked with, though.
Would these DJs that you were working with ask you for specific things, or speak to you in the course of the DJ set and say, "Hey, I’m going to drop this. Can you do this?"
I know the music, so I pretty much know what to do. Sometimes, depending if the record came out and you don’t know it, yeah, they would tell you. But I know the music, so you don’t have to talk to me, unless you drop it with the bass and stuff like that.
I’m curious to talk to you about Sound Factory. What was Sound Factory like and what did it represent back in that time of New York?
I started working there in ’91 with Junior Vasquez. Sound Factory held 2,000 people. Beautiful place. Nice soundsystem. Lighting was pen spots and PAR cans and stuff like that. But it was an experience there. And the music was phenomenal.
This club was synonymous with a certain New York City house sound, a harder house sound that was very different, to me, than what you would have been hearing Larry or David play back in the era. Did that change what you did with the lighting?
Yeah. You’re always changing, depending on the DJ. The music was definitely different. Junior played very well. He was king at that time.
It was a beautiful place to work. David Cole [of Clivillés and Cole] walked in one time with a reel-to-reel. He just came from the studio with “A Deeper Love,” and he played that for the first time. 2,000 people listening to that track for the first time.
Most of us don’t know really anything about club lighting. It’s still one of the more mysterious aspects of being in a club. What can you tell me about the basic techniques, or what not to do?
I would say, when the blackout comes in is when the record drops. You should do that: Make it dark. And then people start cheering and screaming or whatever. Some people, they don’t do that, so the record drops and the lights keep going on. Timing is everything in lighting. You’ve got to have rhythm. And timing.
What was the lighting rig like at the Sound Factory? Was this still analog, or was this already getting into some digital stuff?
Pen spots, PAR cans, mirror ball, strobe lights, and that was it. And you had different boards. It’s not like now – you have one board for everything. It was still analog. I guess they were creating stuff, but it wasn’t out there yet. Maybe it was a little expensive.
What are your most memorable moments from being there?
I was there for three years. I would say working with Junior was definitely an experience. And also, Frankie Knuckles was there. That was epic.
Junior, he got down. He did his thing. But one thing about Frankie: Frankie will play smooth at the beginning, and he will peak and then come down again towards the end, and then let you go home like that. To me, it was like being in a bus with him and he’s driving up the mountain, all the way to the top. Then he just brings you down, brings you down, and then just drops you home. That’s the best way I can describe that.
Working with Frankie was definitely an experience. I also got to work with him at Sound Factory Bar. He got me the job there.
Do you have any memories of Frankie that you would like to share?
Yeah. Sounds of Blackness: When he played that track [“The Pressure”] for the first time. That was at Sound Factory, I would say ’93, ’92. And he played it for the first time.
Also, the time that he was leaving Sound Factory to go to Sound Factory Bar… There were rumors that he was going to leave. We were having a great time there on Saturdays. And he just turned off the soundsystem and made the announcement that the rumors were true and he was leaving. And people were crying. I’ll never forget that. That was sad. But we went to another club after that, so another beginning.
It’s very intense working in nightlife, because it’s not supposed to last forever. It’s these really intense experiences, then you go on to something else.
It’s a family. You work in these places for so many years. And you see these same people once a week. Then, all of a sudden…
I don’t like change. But it is what it is. It happened at Sound Factory, Sound Factory Bar. Vinyl was sad, too. Cielo, 15 years working there, it was sad. I shed a tear when I heard doors were closing. But that’s part of the business. What are you going to do?
Apart from Sound Factory and Vinyl, what have been some of your favorite places to work?
Tracks was my first club. I had a good experience there. Good parties. Of course, Sound Factory, Sound Factory Bar with Frankie. Louie Vega, Lord G, David DePino, Danny Krivit. Then from there I went to Vinyl: Danny Tenaglia, Timmy Regisford, Body & Soul Sunday. Club Deep, that was a pretty good club. Centrofly, that was another good club, too. Cielo. Output.
I’d seen you doing the lights at Output (RIP). But so many kinds of DJs played there. It’s a little bit different than what you’re talking about with these other venues, where it was predominately the same style of music. Something like Output, one night it’s more dubstep-oriented, then it’s hard techno – it’s something different every night. You’re coming in and you don’t really even know what they’re about to start playing, right?
Yeah. What I do is, I just let go. And if I don’t know the music, I just catch it. I always catch it. I just let go. I don’t think about it. I just feel. When you’re working with DJs you have to connect. Because they could play techno and as long as the energy is there and he’s getting down, I just connect with him. And I just do what I got to do. To me, it’s easy. I mean, I’ve been doing it for so many years, it was second nature.
At the beginning of the night, I keep it dark. So people walk in and they pick their little corners and hide. A lot of people, a lot of lighting guys, I notice they make it bright. That’s not cool. You want to come in, get your little drink and find a spot and dance. And then, once people start coming in, then you start building everything. Of course, I’m waiting for the DJ to also build up too.
Are there particular colors for different parts of the night, or are there favorite colors of yours?
Yes. If there’s a record that involves love – let’s just say, for example, “Relight My Fire” – red. You have to feel it. It could be blue. It could be magenta with green. I could just do whatever I feel. Whatever comes to my mind. Whatever I’m feeling with the music, that’s how I do it. It’s all about feeling and timing.