His name is David Mancuso. He has had a profound influence on DJs such as Tony Humphries, François Kevorkian, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, David Morales, Larry Patterson, Nicky Siano and Danny Tenaglia. His Loft formula, which dates back to 1970, has inspired the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, the Soho, Reade Street, the Paradise Garage and the Warehouse. Yet for all of the countless column inches dedicated to the history of the American DJ, Mancuso’s legacy remains unwritten. Welcome to the myopic world of dance music, where ‘now’ and ‘next’ rule supreme and the ‘past’ rarely gets beyond tabloid mythology.
Mancuso experimented with several party formats before he conjured up the format that came to be known as the Loft. The breakthrough arrived on Valentine’s Day 1970, when the irrepressible socialite staged a “Love Saves the Day” party in his Soho loft apartment. The event was a hit and quickly became a weekly affair, with the anti-establishment hippie determined to avoid nightworld’s commercial trappings. “I didn’t want to become a club or an after-hours spot,” he says. “I didn’t want to be categorised. I just wanted to have a house party.”
In order to consolidate the homey feel of his events, Mancuso introduced an elaborate invitation system in which cards were issued by mail four times a year on the equinoxes and the solstices. “The Loft was the first party where you had to know somebody to get in,” recalls David Depino, who went on to become an alternate DJ at the Paradise Garage. “You couldn’t find out about it by asking around because nobody knew. There was no public advertisement. It was very underground.”
The set-up was an out-and-out success: gatekeepers Steve Abramowitz and Maria Garbin gave unfamiliar visitors a serious grilling, people got to know each other and the parties settled into a social groove. Before long two hundred people were cramming into the events, making the Loft—as it was dubbed by Mancuso’s guests—one of the hippest spots in New York. “By the end of 1970 you couldn’t squeeze anyone else in, and it stayed like that for four-and-a-half years, regardless,” he says. “I remember when we had the first blizzard and people walked from over the Brooklyn bridge. They actually found a way to come.”
The crowd at the Broadway Loft -- which included the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Larry Patterson and Nicky Siano -- was mixed. Racially, Mancuso’s guests were United Nations leaning towards black and Latino. Sexually, they were as wide as the ocean (although fish that swam in the same direction were in the majority). Economically they spanned the classes, with the poverty-stricken encouraged to write an IOU. And while men dominated the dance floor, women were always central to the set-up. “I just knew different people,” says Mancuso. “It wasn’t a black party or a gay party. There’d be a mixture of people. Divine used to go. Now how do you categorise her?”
As the owner of the Loft, Mancuso was free to play whatever he wanted, and this autonomy enabled him to develop an alternative aesthetic that revolved around heavily-percussive tracks like Olatunji’s ‘Drums of Passion’ as well as ethereal jazz- and soul-influenced cuts such as ‘City, Country, City’ by WAR. If any single record encapsulated this extraordinary range then it was “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango (Atlantic, 1973), an African-jazz sensation that combined a driving beat with echoey vocals alongside Dibango’s frenzied soprano sax. “It was exciting,” remembers Vince Aletti, who went on to become the most influential dance music commentator of the seventies. “David introduced me to a whole new group of records.” Steve D’Acquisto, an early New York DJ and Loft devotee, agrees. “The Loft is the mother ship,” he says. “It’s where we learned about the power of music.”
If the alien strains of contemporary dance music resonated more powerfully at the Loft than at other clubs then this was partly because of Mancuso’s extraordinary audio system, which was built around a McIntosh amplifier, several Klipschorn speakers and two AR turntables, as well as a cluster of innovative tweeter arrays and bass reinforcements (later dubbed ‘subwoofers’ or ‘basshorns’). “David was able to play songs that were inherently underground and bring them to your attention right away,” explains Danny Krivit, an early regular who now DJs at Body & Soul. “If you play the same obscure songs on a crummy system you’re bored in two minutes. But at the Loft you’d really get lost in it. Nobody could touch David’s sound for the longest time.”
Mancuso wanted his audio system to sound as real or as live as possible, and perceptions of nature underpinned his musical method. “I spent a lot of time in the country, listening to birds, lying next to a spring and listening to water go across the rocks,” he told Aletti in 1975. “And suddenly one day, I realised: what perfect music. Like with the sunrise and sunset, how things would build up into midday. There were times when it would be intense and times it would be very soft and at sunset, it would get quiet and then the crickets would come out.”
In an attempt to nurture the energy of his guests, Mancuso programmed his music around this “natural rhythm”. Early selections would include ethereal records like ‘Land of Make Believe... A Chuck Mangione Concert with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’, a twelve-minute jazz-inflected epic that conjured up an excursion into the unknown. The music would stay esoteric until about twelve-thirty or one, after which more or less anything could happen. Mancuso’s hallmark brand of African and Latin rhythms always played a prominent role, but he was never shy to slow down the tempo, with Nina Simone a perennial favourite. The Loft guru would also play rock, a genre that was held in disdain by much of his crowd, and it -- Chicago, the Doobie Brothers, Traffic -- would be danceable. Then, when the evening drew to a close at six-a.m., he would dig out his copy of ‘It’s Time To Go Now’ by Gladys Knight and the Pips, or ‘Here Comes The Sun’ by the Beatles.
The celebratory atmosphere at the Loft received its first major jolt in 1972 when the NYPD raided Mancuso’s home. The operation was fronted by a plain-clothed police officer who tried to reconnoitre the party but failed to get in at the first time of asking. “We asked to see his invite,” says Mancuso. “He didn’t have one, so he had to go away. However, he was a good-looking guy and he persuaded someone to take him in as a guest.” The cop did what he had to do, left the party and minutes later returned with reinforcements. Mancuso and Abramowitz were arrested and charged with running an unlicensed cabaret.
“They thought we were a fly-by-night after-hours joint who wouldn’t fight the case,” says Mancuso, “but they were wrong.” The host’s position was surprisingly strong: his events weren’t open to the public -- the officer had initially been turned away -- and there was no alcohol for sale. Ingeniously, Mancuso decided to apply for a cabaret licence that he desperately didn’t want. “I had the longest hearing in the history of Consumer Affairs to determine whether or not I was running a cabaret,” he recalls. “I drove them crazy. They eventually turned me down because I wasn’t open to the public.”
The rejection was a double victory for Mancuso, who had not only won his case but had simultaneously established a legal precedent that would underpin New York’s nightlife for years to come: run a invite-only party, don’t sell alcohol, and you’re beyond state interference. “The ruling benefited everybody because Consumer Affairs was a terrible department to deal with,” he says. “They wanted to see your finances for the last five years, who you were married to, who your relatives were. They looked up your arse.”
Mancuso was eventually forced to close in 1974 when the collapse of a neighbouring hotel resulted in a series of controversial inspections by the Building Department. A year-and-a-half later the Loft reopened in a huge venue on Soho’s Prince Street, which went on to become a second home for the likes of David Morales and Tony Humphries. The parties were so successful that Mancuso started to keep the doors open until midday, enabling the likes of Larry Levan to show up once the Garage had closed for the night.
Just when it seemed like the Prince Street parties were destined to last forever, the building was put up for sale and in 1984 Mancuso relocated to the East Village, a drug-ridden neighbourhood that had been lined up as a regeneration zone but somehow managed to miss out. Yet while Mancuso lost a significant number of his dancers, many of whom were afraid to venture into the area, he never lost his desire to throw a house party. Avenue A ensued, followed briefly by Avenue B, and finally Avenue C, where Mancuso currently lives but which is too small for his occasional gatherings.
The Loft’s gradual decline has been permeated by betrayals, bad business decisions and a rejection of technology that -- as rigid drum machines and frigid DJ pyrotechnics become increasing dull -- is beginning to look like a refreshingly radical strategy. Mancuso refuses to mix, insists upon the need for original musicianship, bemoans the cult of the sample/remix and plays his music at a relatively low volume, all of which puts him at loggerheads with the dance music Zeitgeist. Yet in becoming postmodernity’s antagonist, Mancuso has also mapped out a manifesto that is slowly beginning to take root in the most knowing quarters of London, New York and Tokyo.
“The Loft is a feeling,” says Mancuso, and hopefully Nuphonic’s compilation will begin to convey what the feeling is all about. If you can find a club that will play some of this wonderful music, check it out. There aren’t many of them on the circuit, but it’ll be worth it if you get lucky. Otherwise, why not send out a handful of invites, turn down the lights and experience some Loft classics in the perfect environment? Go on. Do what David Mancuso has always done. Throw a house party.