Early House Music DJ's (An excerpt from "The Historical Seeds and Worldwide Dissemination of House Music")
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Early Pioneers in the Music
Many DJ’s were present at the beginning of it all and had a hand in raising the House music baby; however, there were only a handful of DJ’s who were pivotal in the initial launching and worldwide popularity of House music. Legendary DJ’s like Larry Levan, (Frankie Knuckles) and Tony Humphries wouldn’t have come to understand their own greatness if they hadn’t been intimately inspired by the uniquely artistic stylings and warm personality of famed DJ, David Mancuso. His DJing artistry, funky music and carefully-honed, family-like night club atmosphere laid the groundwork for the modern nightclub scene that nursed a new kind of human creature that craved a combination of funky music and a transcendent, spiritual dance floor experience.
Larry Levan—The Paradise Garage
To many young people in the club scene today, the name Larry Levan doesn’t ring any bells. But, what they don’t understand is that the hypnotically infectious beats and riffs they dance to were directly inspired, if not outright created by Levan’s musical mastery on the decks long before House music even got its name.
Larry Levan was born Lawrence Philpot on July 20, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York. He affectionately took his mother’s maiden name of Levan instead of keeping his father’s. This was also an indicator of the deep affection that he had for his mother because she was the first who inspired his love of soul music. Levan, in turn, inspired many DJ’s, including his childhood friend and fellow New York DJ, Frankie Knuckles, during his blazing, 10-year residence at the legendary (Paradise Garage) in lower Manhattan. But, before he rose to greatness, he sat at the feet of who he described as the best DJ’s he ever learned from. One of those DJ’s was David Mancuso. Mancuso’s “Loft” was a warm and non-judgmental alternative to the cold, homophobic and racist atmosphere of New York City in the 70’s towards Black and Hispanic gay men. It was the post-Stonewall era and nightclub venues were beginning to emerge within the city to engage gay men of color, exclusively. It was no surprise that Larry Levan, along with fellow club hopper, Frankie Knuckles ended up at The Loft. Like so many others, Levan was inspired by Mancuso’s musical wit. He already had some record-playing chops under his belt, as well, DJing for a time at the world-famous Continental Baths and The Gallery. From Mancuso, he learned how to manipulate the sound system and lighting for maximum output and effect. He learned how to match beats, along with other DJing techniques, to create a “total experience” for his patrons. Another young DJ mentor of his, Nikki Siano, also gave him musical manipulation pointers while he was employed at Siano’s club, The Gallery. In 1974, Levan landed a gig at The SoHo Place, and was its resident DJ until it closed. Later on, as a resident DJ at Paradise Garage, he would introduce into the underground music scene what his friend and fellow DJ, Francois Kevorkian, described as a “dub aesthetic.” This means he would take a musical cut and extend the danceable portions of it by introducing sounds created by drum machines and synthesizers. As a result, Levan would create whole new musical productions from live sets containing older music and music from newer artists. These cuts would be remixed with added dubs and sounds to prolong the set and turn it into a “Levan” original. Levan’s musical dexterity ushered in a post-disco sound that “presaged” the ascendance of “House” music. The atmosphere at the Garage was a reflection of Levan’s spirit and the love and care he took with every aspect of the dance floor to create the “ultimate spiritual dance experience.”
As a child, Levan excelled in math and physics so much that his teachers fancied him to become an “inventor.” Levan did go on to “invent” the concept of Black, spiritual underground disco or “garage-style” House music. Levan took the artistry he learned from his mentors to an even higher spiritual level. Michael Brody, the club’s owner, wanted “the Garage” to be a trendier, downtown version the dry, uptown Studio 54. However, after a poor opening night, many of the A-listers he invited never came back. As a result, Levan was able to fill the club with many of his own loyal followers—primarily followers of the music. When they emerged in the club on Saturday night, they didn’t come to be “showy,” they came for the music and the spiritual lift it provided them, along with the club’s atmosphere of “exclusivity and familiarity” toward gay men of color. Levan’s Saturday night venue was so hot and funky; straight men tried to act gay to get in just to hear and dance to the music and get lifted. Straight women (fag hags) tried to gain entry by becoming the guest of an invite. Levan’s Saturday night venue became known as “Saturday Mass.” Levan allowed his pioneering genius to further germinate into the dance culture by being the first DJ to create his own dance record label, Garage Records. The Peech Boys, the label’s major act, was co-founded by Levan.
The Garage closed in 1987 due to the illness and untimely death of its owner, Michael Brody, to (AIDS). During this period, many of Levan’s friends, as well as countless numbers of people in the gay community, fell victim to the early ravages of the virus. Devastated by the club’s closing and the loss of his job, Levan sank deeper into drug addiction. He continued to sparsely produce remixes during the late 80’s and early 90’s because he wasn’t spending much time in the studio, as earlier in his career. In early 1992, Larry Levan travelled to Japan with Kevorkian and did a gig that Kevorkian described as “nostalgic” and foretelling. Later on that year on November 8, 1992, Levan died from congenital heart failure as a result of a lifelong congenital heart condition made worse by illegal drug use. In 2000, Levan was posthumously inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame for his outstanding achievement as a DJ. For more information on Larry Levan and his discography, visit http://www.discogs.com/artist/3483-Larry-Levan.
(To read the complete story on the early history of House music, check out the link below.)
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The History of African-American Music in 10 Minutes
© 2014 Dana Ayres