Tim Lawrence interview with Mark Kamins


The interview was conducted via Skype on 30 October 2008 and 3 November 2008, with Tim Lawrence speaking from London and Mark Kamins from Mexico, where he had taken up a teaching position. An edited version of this interview has been published by Red Bull Music Academy.


Tim Lawrence: How did you get involved in party culture and DJing?

Mark Kamins: Well, I remember my first club. It was Le Jardin. That was the first place I went to.

TL: You’re kidding me. When did you go there?

I think that must have been ‘72.

It opened in June 1973.

I was also working in a record shop then, Record Connection, which was the first shop that sold European 45s to DJs. The 45s had an instrumental on the B Side. So the DJs would buy two 45s so they could do a mix from the instrumental to the vocal. And we were the first record shop for DJs in New York. It was called Record Connection on Washington Square.

I thought Downstairs Records was the first.

You mean the one in the subway station?

Yes. Nicky DeKrechweo was it? 

Yes, Nicky and Lisa—Lisa Cooper. They were great. 

I had no idea you went back so far.

Yes sure, you had to go back that far. I wouldn’t have been where I was in the eighties if I hadn’t started in the seventies, you know? You don’t come out of nowhere. You don’t magically appear. You have to have that history. Whether I was a DJ or not, I still had that history, and I worked at Record Connection for five years. That’s where I got familiar with the catalogues of music and producers and DJs. And working at the Record Connection I met all the gay DJs who worked in the gay clubs and the lesbian clubs, the black clubs. I saw what they bought and that led me to start DJing. 

Were you going out dancing at the time?

Because I sold the records to the DJs I was always on the guest list and I was always in the booth. I was a really young kid, I was 15, 16, 17. Infinity with Jim Burgess, that was a great place, he really rocked. It wasn’t disco then. Saturday Night Fever hadn’t come out. It wasn’t defined. It was still underground and it was still gay. It hadn’t gone pop yet.

So were you were telling me about the record shop

I was still in high school then. Obviously we kept the shop open ‘til midnight because DJs would run in before work to buy 45s from Europe. And that was the same time that the first 12”s came out. Was the first 12” on Salsoul?

The first commercial 12” was on Salsoul—”Ten Percent” by Double Exposure. So how did you get this job in the shop?

I went to high school at Elizabeth Urwin high school, which was a high school three blocks away from the shop. It was a very progressive, leftist, communist high school and we congregated in that record store. I also grew up with Bob Thiele Jr, whose father produced John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman for Impulse Records, so my world was very musical and I was always drawn to the record shop. 

When you say you grew up with Bob Thiele Jr., he went to school with you?

Yeah, we were five years old, we grew up together. His Dad brought us to the studio when Coltrane recorded My Favourite Things and then in my high school there were a lot of children of jazz musicians. I went to school with Denardo Coleman, the son of Ornette Coleman, and in my class was Amy Arbus, who was the daughter of the photographer Dianne Arbus. It was a crazy school and we all kind of aggregated to the record shop. Those were the days of vinyl and going through the racks. We were all into jazz music and if you want to talk about the history of disco, disco came from the jazz guys getting a little bit funky and a little bit on the beat. Jazz records started going towards more four-four, which was the disco beat, and then all these European imports that I dealt with came in, like the Boney M stuff and Barrabas. They kind of mixed together.

Where were you living?

I was born in Manhattan, 49th Street and 1st Avenue, and I grew up in the middle of all the night clubs from the fifties, like the El Morocco, the Blue Angel, Gatsby’s. I was just a little kid. I’d come home and see all these people in front of these night clubs. Growing up in midtown Manhattan planted the seeds of my nightlife career.

That must have been quite a place to grow up.

To see the hat check girls wearing fishnet stockings.

I want to ask you more about this friendship with the son of Bob Thiele because that led to your first record deal, right?

Bobby and I grew up together from five years old. Then I went to college and then after college I went to Greece and DJed for a year. That was my DJ gig. 

Can you tell me more about that?

I graduated college in ‘77.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Ithaca College. I studied cinema studies for four years. I watched movies every day for four years. Then I graduated college and went to London to be a DJ. 

You went to London to be a DJ?

I went to London and my girlfriend at the time worked in Virgin Records at Marble Arch, which was Richard Branson’s first shop. I was out of work so I’d just hang out at the shop every day and this woman with mad blonde hair walked in wearing a mink coat and bought something like 200 12” records. I went up to her and I said, “Why are you buying so many records?” And she said, “Oh, I have the best club in Athens, Greece.” I said, “Do you need a DJ?” And she goes, “Yes.” I said, “I’m a DJ from New York.” She goes, “OK, do you have a number I can call in New York?” I said yes and gave her my friend’s number. I got the job and four days later I was in Athens. I signed the contract for one year and I DJed every day for one year at this club called Anabella’s.

So the bit about being a DJ in New York, that was a bit of bravado, right?

Oh, that was bullshit, yeah. I just needed a reference. But I had DJed in college, playing Eddie Kendricks and all my R&B records, which were considered disco at the time. That was pre-’77. It was like house parties and stuff.

So how did things go in Greece?

The most important thing I learned was how to rotate the dance floor. In those days you could play a ballad and when I had a full dance floor the manager would say to me, “Mark, play a ballad.” So the people at the bar would go to the floor and the people on the floor would go to the bar. It was a business thing and I learned how to rotate the dance floor, musically, which is something I still do today. I don’t play ballads today, but I can go from minimal house to kinda happy house and rotate the dance floor the same way. You know, getting into the eighties, my numbers at the bar were higher than any other DJ and club owners noticed that, and that’s because I knew how to rotate the dance floor in a very subtle way. I wouldn’t play ballads but I would put on a salsa record, for example. I always kept the business of the club in the back of my head. I never wanted to be a diva DJ. I wanted to make money for my boss and I always did that. And I learned how to do that originally in Greece.

So let me just get few dates straight here. If you went to Greece in 1977 when did you go to college?


So you continued at the record store while you were at college?

Sure, sure. I worked at the record store from ‘72 through ‘77. 

How did you manage that?

I worked vacations, weekends. My love was the record store because when you worked at the record store you got promos. I started building my record collection. I ended up with a record collection of 40,000 records. 

Did you come back from Greece because your contract ended?

Yeah, I came back from Greece and then I got a job at a rock club in New York called Trax, on 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue. 

Mark Kamins DJing pre-Danceteria. (At Danceteria he was asked to shave off his moustache.)

Mark Kamins DJing pre-Danceteria. (At Danceteria he was asked to shave off his moustache.)

So this was 1978?

Yeah. The people at Studio 54 [the midtown discotheque that opened in the spring of 1977] started coming to Trax; they were getting tired of 54. Mick Jagger and all the English rock stars started to come to Trax. Initially I got the job at Trax to do the lights—they gave me a job to do the spotlight—and I asked the owner, “Can I play music between the sets?” And he said, “Sure.”

So it was a live venue?

It was a showcase club. Cyndi Lauper with her first band Blue Angel played there. There were a lot of jam sessions at the end of the night from Jagger, Tim Curry. Trax was the juxtaposition of Studio 54. I would say that was my first DJ gig in New York was Trax, playing between the sets. Then they essentially billed me as DJ.

When was this?

I would say ‘77, ‘78. When did 54 close, ‘79? 

It didn’t close completely but Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager [the original owners] went to jail for tax evasion at the beginning of 1980. 

So we’re talking ‘79, which was the end of 54. That’s when the Mudd Club started and after that the first Danceteria.

The first Danceteria opened in May 1980.

There were three Danceterias. There was the first one at 37th Street and at that time there was Trax, where I played, and there was a punk club called Hurrah, where Sean Cassette played. He was from Leeds. His real name is Sean Cavell. Now Sean played at Hurrah, which was the first club of Arthur Weinstein and Jim Fouratt. So Fouratt hooked up with Rudolf, who had opened a club called Pravda for one night; then the police closed them down. Then they had this concept to open this club, the first Danceteria, on 37th Street, and they went around looking for DJs, and they picked Sean Cassette and they picked me. They actually took the both of us and put us in the booth at the first Danceteria at 37th Street.

How did that work out?

We were open from eight in the evening ‘til eight in the morning. What was incredible for me was Sean was the first DJ who played punk records—meaning Sex Pistols, Wire, records from Rough Trade, 4AD, all those wonderful Factory Records, all those wonderful records from England—in New York. What I payed at Trax was more... I would play James Brown, I would play my disco-jazz records, I’d play my Boney M. So when they put me and Sean together at the first Danceteria it was magical in a way because, you know, he would play PiL and I would go into a James Brown record, and it would work. And that was the beginning of Liquid Liquid, 99 Records and Konk, so there was a really wonderful mix.

What year are we in here?

I think we’re in ‘79, ‘80? 

I have a newspaper cutting for this. The first one opened in May 1980. Does that make sense?

Probably, probably. 

I guess it makes sense because this is just a few months after the Rubell and Schrager are forced to leave Studio 54.

OK, then that’s when Danceteria became the hippest club in New York, and that was myself and Sean Cassette. I could play Donna Summer and Sean could play the Sex Pistols. It was all crazy. The book was open musically. 

How did it come to be open? What happened? Were you responding to the death throes of disco? 

No, no. It was the right time at the right moment. There was a time in Max’s Kansas City with Blondie and those bands; there was a time in CBGB’s with Talking Heads and Patti Smith. And that first Danceteria was also just a moment when there was a spark of something new, you know? It was just the moment.

Can you dissect this moment a little bit? 

Well that year, we did a Rolling Stones party, we did... It was like an anti-Studio 54, but it was also a circus as well. It was a circus without the rich, without the glamour, without the icing, you know? It was real.

So was there a bit of a backlash against Studio 54 and disco going on?

Well the distinction I want to make is at the first Danceteria people danced whereas at Studio 54 nobody danced. At Studio 54 the people on the dance floor were paid to dance. You have to understand this. Because Studio 54 was a show for your Calvin Kleins, your Bianca Jaggers, your Yves Saint Laurents. They would be there and they wanted to watch the show on the dance floor—the show on the dance floor where people were paid by Rubell and Schrager to dance. That was their trick. That’s what Studio 54 was about. People didn’t go to 54 to dance. People went to 54 to do their drugs, drink their champagne, and watch the dance floor and watch the lights and watch the walls move. Studio 54 was a theatre. 

You know Studio 54 always looked full because they had drop walls. If there were ten people it looked full because the first wall was there. When 100 people came in they opened the next wall, so the club always looked full. And there were nights that Steve wouldn’t let anybody in. There were nights where the DJ and the bartenders would be sleeping because Steve said, “Tonight we’re not gonna let anybody in”, to create this whole thing outside, with 2,000 people queueing. The madness of Studio 54 was all planned. Really, this was the truth. So everybody on the dance floor at 54 was paid—they were paid with drink tickets to dance all night—and the famous people came, they sat there and did their thing, and they got to watch a wonderful show. That’s what 54 was about. But Danceteria was about people dancing.

Tell me about the way that you were working with Sean Cassette. Was there one dance floor?

We were in the basement. I think Danceteria was the first club that had three floors. Sean and I were in the basement, which was just black walls and a wonderful DJ booth, and it was just the both of us for twelve hours. He had his 2000 records and I had my 2000 records, and it was just really a magical mix, because we were both completely different musically. But together, with his two or three songs then my two, three songs, it just worked. I remember bands like Spandau Ballet came and heard him playing a Rough Trade record and me going into a Bohannon record, and they would hear that they would work together, you know? And I think that was kind of the birth of new wave. That was the same time as B52’s from Georgia and the Jam from England. So he would play the Jam and I would play B52’s, and it would work. Then I’d play my Bohannon and he’d play his crazy reggae dub thing, his Jamaican-London dub style, and it just worked. It was just a magical mix. In fact the Sex Pistols were over by then, because PiL was the first punk band that kinda had a disco beat. Metal Box was a very important record for me, at the time. I think the song was called “Death Disco”. That was a very important record. It was a disco record but it was also a proper punk record. Probably for me that was one of the most ground-breaking moments—the moment when punk became four-four on the beat.

On the bass beat?

Yeah, the kick drum. Boom, boom, boom, boom. 

Was this almost a move against disco having become too seamless, or the fact that the record companies had started churning out not such great music?

We knew disco was dying, was becoming very commercial. Everybody started making disco records, from Sesame Street disco etc., you know, it was crazy. But I just think people are always searching for something new. I want to look at the positive side of it, not the negative side of it. Music is tribal, music is primitive and times change, politics change. There was Margaret Thatcher in England and that created a whole movement. UB40 sang about being on the dole. But I think every country’s different.

Danceteria flyer for opening night. Courtesy of Rudolf Piper.

Danceteria flyer for opening night. Courtesy of Rudolf Piper.

It sounds as though you and Sean probably shouldn’t have liked each other’s music but found to your surprise that you did? 

Well Jim Fouratt and Rudolf put the two of us into a blender and I guess we were lucky because we DJed together for twelve hours a night, so that gave us some kind of space. It’s not like we had to play from 12:00 ‘til 4:00. We knew we played from 8:00 to 8:00, which gave us a certain kind of freedom and also time. We could play ska, we played a lot of 2 Tone stuff like the Specials. And the whole reggae thing, the whole Island Records thing, was also happening at the time, so we had a lot of stuff to work with. Also Rough Trade. In those days labels really had a very special identity—labels like Rough Trade, 4AD, 2 Tone, Island—which was wonderful. So there were a lot of different mini-little genres to play with that worked in our world, which was cool.

What was the dynamic on the dance floor? If you were dancing at the Paradise Garage or the Loft, you would be on the floor for four hours at a time, maybe longer, with Larry Levan and David Mancuso developing a this story that weaves together grooves and messages. But the Sex Pistols don’t work like that.

We were doing something completely different. What you’re talking about was happening, but that was not our world, What you’re talking about was a very black and very gay whereas Danceteria was very hetero and very international. I would say the Loft and all those places drew an older, more sophisticated crowd. That first Danceteria was kids, you know? It was a new generation—16, 17, 18, 19. It was the kids that listened to rock and roll. It was completely different. We weren’t competing. You talk about the Loft and all of those places; those places were very underground, they were not commercial. We talk about them now like they’re shrines but in reality they were very localised, very underground clubs. I mean, I respect David, I respect the Loft, but please, please don’t put that place on a pedestal, like it was a shrine. It wasn’t, it was just a fuckin’ loft space where 300 people would dance. That’s the reality. Now we look back 30 years later and, OK, David was great, the place was special. I mean, respect, respect, respect. But it was a tiny little place for 300 people. Don’t make it sound like a Picasso painting because it wasn’t. It was a loft, at the end of the day. And I give a lot of respect to David, the Infinity, Galaxy and Crisco Disco and all of these places. But at the end of the day they were just your fuckin’ local pub man, at least for the people who went there. You guys, you writers, you all look back at these places like they changed music and they’re godly, they’re heavenly but the reality is they were just a local for a certain kind of people.

Well they’re not alone. I mean a certain mystique surrounds the Loft and surrounds the Garage and surrounds the Gallery. But I think it also surrounds Danceteria and Studio 54 and a whole bunch of places. These are the places that get to be talked about again and again.

OK, let me tell you something. I was very good friends with Miles Davis and everybody thinks Miles Davis is a fuckin’ genius. Miles would play three notes and people would think he was a genius. Miles didn’t give a fuck; he just wanted to make his money and go home. People think Jackson Pollock is a genius. This guy was drunk throwing paint on the floor. Now I respect these people. What they did, we look back, and if you wanna call it genius, call it genius. I got no problem with that. But we create this mystique and we create this genius of all these great artists. But in reality they’re just regular people that did what they did, you know? And they had their magical moments. 

I’m trying to work out if you’re responding to something you’ve read or something I’ve said. 

I don’t know what you said. What did you say?

My first book, Love Saves the Day, tracked the influence of the Loft and the rise of downtown DJing and the downtown party scene. Before I interviewed David [Mancuso] in 1997 he’d only given two interviews, one in 1975 to Vince Aletti and another brief one that he did with Steven Harvey in 1983 [Correction 3.3.2014: Richard Nixon conducted a short interview with Mancuso for Paper Magazine in 1992 or 1993]. When I first met David few people outside of a relatively insular New York circle had heard of him. I’d certainly only heard his name mentioned in passing and many, including the likes of Danny Krivit, hadn’t really clocked the extent of his influence. But what I found as I started to dig around is that all of these parties—the Tenth Floor, the Gallery, SoHo Place, Reade Street, 12 West, Flamingo, the Paradise Garage and even the Warehouse in Chicago—grew out of the Loft, often directly, sometimes indirectly, and taken together they had this formative impact on New York dance culture. Then there were all of these DJs who I interviewed soon after I first spoke with David, beginning with Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries and David Morales. At the time I was still planning to write a book about the rise of house and rave, beginning in the mid-1980s, but I asked each one of them more or less in passing if they knew about David and the Loft, and they all replied that the Loft had had this transformative influence on their musical development and perspective on what a party could be. Then it turned out that Nicky Siano, Larry Levan and François Kevorkian had been hugely influenced by David, plus David was also this key figure behind the formation of the first record pool, which became this collective movement for DJs. Then there were all these added layers: David’s innovation in sound, his role in creating the first record pool, his radical countercultural politics, his structuring of the music at his parties in line with the three bardos of an acid trip. So the point of the book was to uncover this hidden history of downtown partying and DJing and to track its influence on what ended up becoming a national dance movement, albeit one that lost sight of some of the goals of its pioneers. But having said all of this I agree with you because although David became this quite mystical figure he was also dead set against the mystification of the DJ and didn’t even refer to himself as a DJ. This was part of his counter-cultural, anti-ego politics. He saw himself in the simple terms that you describe; he was simply putting on a house party with friend and took on the task of putting on some records because he had a good idea of what his friends liked to dance to. He’s stuck to this very simple vision for close to 40 years now. Then again, if you look at those values and the way they went on to influence a generation of dancers and DJs, then the Loft was more than a regular place, even if the people who went there didn’t think they were shaping history.

Enough of that. Let’s talk more about Danceteria, because I only touched on the rock discotheques in Love Saves the Day and they become this hugely important influence, dare I say it, during the early 1980s, which is the period I’m covering in the new book. Thinking about Danceteria and the Loft-Garage together a bit more, was there a difference between working in a public place like Danceteria and a private place like the Loft or the Garage? Did the crowds form in different ways?

I would call the dancers who went to the Loft and the Garage a tribe while Danceteria was probably the first place where all people mixed. It was gay, straight, black, white, latin, rock and rollers, disco, hip hop. It was the first mix of everybody. It was the first cosmopolitan party where everybody came together; rich, poor, black, white, gay, straight. I think the common bond was people wanted to hear new music and they would scream when we went from Joy Division into Bohannon. To go from Joy Division into Bohannon kind of defined the whole thing. Danceteria I think was the first club that really mixed all genres of people and all genres of music, and that was the magic. Then we became the hippest club in New York. We did the Rolling Stones party and, you know, it kind of became Studio 54, with a thousand people outside and Rudolf and Jim Fouratt picking people.

Mark Kamins at Danceteria. Courtesy of Emily Armstrong

Mark Kamins at Danceteria. Courtesy of Emily Armstrong

That’s funny you should say that about the crowds because in a way the Loft was also this party where everyone came together, in part because of David’s countercultural philosophy, in part because crowds hadn’t had time to become segmented in the very early 1970s. So The same was also true of the Sanctuary. Both parties attracted a significant number of gay dancers because these were the first parties to welcome them and they were places where this new gay crowd felt safe; but ultimately they welcomed everyone. But back to the question of the dance dynamic. What was the rhythm of the floor? Would people stay for hours or was it moving like your old bar in Greece, where you would move people around every half-an-hour as you worked the bar. Did people dance with more energy when you played Bohannon than they would with Joy Division, because those records work differently, right?

Oh boy, here we go. OK, every record had a rhythm, right? To me and to Sean, every record had a feel, every record had a heart. We didn’t mix beats; we mixed hearts. We didn’t mix beats; we mixed vibes. So we could change the tempo but the vibethe heartwould stay the same. The people that liked punk got into Bohannon and the people that were into my underground black music got into English punk and new wave because the vibe was the same, the feeling was the same. 

Did you stick to playing disco, soul and funk and did Sean stick with punk and dub-reggae or did you end up finding common ground?

I would say that by the end of the year we kinda meshed—we found a happy medium. But music changed and the bands changed through that year, and the music came together. English bands got more funky and black bands got more punky. So it kinda meshed together for us as well.

You said that you were in the basement. What was going on on the other floors?

Well there was the first floor, which I guess was just a bar, and then the second floor was probably the first club to ever have an experimental video lounge. 

Was there a DJ there?

There was a video DJ, yeah. I think his name was Nam June Paik. He started there.

Nam June Paik the famous video artist.

Yeah, one of the first. He really did his thing on the third floor of the second Danceteria.

So the dancing was in the basement.

The dancing was in the basement. And, you know, if you want to get into fashion, at that time kids would start dressing up—like the ska kids would wear the pork pie hats—so fashion was changing. This was the era of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. So we could talk about music but there were a lot of different lines. You have the fashion line going on, the music line, the art line, the live band thing going. A lot of things were moving at the same time.

This is what made the early 1980s such an exciting period, right?

Right, because I mean 54 there was fashion, but if you want to go back to the Loft and the Gallery, I don’t think there was anything fashion; there was no fashion thing going on there to speak of. But at the Danceteria we started getting a whole fashion thing, you know? 

So Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren were regulars at Danceteria? 

I mean, they were there. What Vivienne did with the whole punk style, you know. Fashion was a part of Danceteria, a very specific part of Danceteria. I remember, Jim and Rudolf said nobody with facial hair would be allowed in. (Now I’m talking to you with a little beard.) There were no moustaches or beards at Danceteria because obviously beards and moustaches kind of defined disco, no?

That was actually a policy?

Yeah, yeah, it was a door policy, definitely.

Was it about targeting gay men or a specific type of gay man?

OK, now you’re getting into a crazy question. I don’t know. I don’t think it was about specifically targeting gay men. I think it was... I don’t know. 

I can ask Jim [Fouratt]. 

It’s a wonderful question but when I said no moustaches I don’t want that to be an anti-gay statement. They just said no facial hair. That was our door rule. 

One of the things you were saying about Danceteria was that there was this mix so there were gay guys?

Everybody. Sure.

Well Jim Fouratt’s very openly and politically gay, right?

Yeah and he was the proponent of no facial hair. So. I mean facial hair was a big thing at Danceteria then. I don’t know, I can’t tell you why. Actually I had a moustache and he told me to take off my moustache if I wanted a job. I don’t know, Tim, I don’t know. That’s your job to figure that out.

So as you were looking out at the dance floor, did you have a sense that you had the whole of New York in front of you, or at least everyone who didn’t have facial hair?

Yeah and I also knew that it was the hardest club to get into. It was the first time I had a feeling that along with Sean I had a power, you know? We had a power to break records. We had a power to play a record for the first time and make it a hit. Radio station people would come down and if we played a record it’d be on the radio the next day. We really had a power. That was the first time I had, you know, ten promo guys from record companies hanging around the booth, bringing me records every night. I’ve always been and I always will be a spontaneous DJ, and if a promo guy gives me a record, I’ll listen to it. If I like it I’ll play it immediately and that’s magic. I think the greatest thing for a DJ is to be spontaneous. I never know what I’m gonna play. I’ll get the first record out and then it goes from there. 

Jim Fouratt, New York Magazine, 1981. Courtesy of Jim Fouratt.

Jim Fouratt, New York Magazine, 1981. Courtesy of Jim Fouratt.

So you wouldn’t prepare?

I never prepared and still don’t today. I’m nervous when I play my first record and then I take it from there. It’s never changed. 

Was that in the air at the time of Danceteria on 37th Street? Was there this idea the spontaneity, invention and daring should define the space?

Well, OK, but that’s because there was me and Sean. I think that was the first and only time when two DJs played together for twelve hours. Now DJs get booked and they play their two, three-hour set and that’s it.

But are you saying that you emboldened each other? Did you support each other in your risk-taking?

Yes but it also created a magic because he never knew what I would play and I never knew what he would play. He would come to work with new records and I would come to work with new records, and that was the magic. There was never a plan because we had completely two different musical styles. It was magic. It was like putting together two different spices and getting a new dish.

What were the big records for you at the time? 

Like I said, PiL, 2 Tone, ESG, Konk. Danceteria then became a club house for all the artists in New York. It became like Andy Warhol’s Factory, where everybody would be hanging out. They would get ideas and then do their thing and bring us cassettes and tapes. It was a petri dish, like Andy Warhol’s Factory. Things were growing; the fungus was growing and everything was mixing up. It was interesting. It was just a magical moment in time.

Tell me a bit about the respective roles of Rudolf [Piper] and Jim [Fouratt]. 

Well Jim took care of the music, Rudolf took care of the image and they both picked the staff. At Danceteria I learned that a successful club has to have a perfect mix of staff, from DJs to bartenders to doormen to sweepers to toilet cleaners. Rudolf made all of us feel equally important. I’ve always felt that the doorman mixes the people, the bartender mixes the drinks and the DJ mixes the music, and the three mix the whole fucking cake. That’s what it’s really all about and I respect everybody. I respect the guy that fuckin’ cleans the toilets. He’s as important as me. And Rudolf was really great about picking staff. When we get into the second Danceteria, the opening night staff were the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Sade was the bartender [Correction 3.3.2014: Sade performed at Danceteria as a breakthrough artist but didn't work at the venue], Karen Finley, etc. The Beastie Boys were the cleaners, sweepers; they picked up the cigarette butts; Cheyne, the elevator operator, I made a record with her called “Call Me Mr. Telephone” that was a big hit. But that’s the second Danceteria.

Rudolf Piper at the Underground, May 1981. Photography by and courtesy of Rhonda Paster.

Rudolf Piper at the Underground, May 1981. Photography by and courtesy of Rhonda Paster.

So how did Danceteria on 37th Street come to an end?

After one year we were shut down because Jim and Rudolf didn’t have a liquour license. We did the drink ticket thing. You had to buy a drink ticket, then you went to the bar to get a drink with the ticket, so legally you could get a drink without an exchange of cash, which at that time was legal. But because Danceteria got famous the police shut it down; because of the press and the success of Danceteria, the city shut us down. At the end of the day we were selling alcohol even though the club didn’t have a liquour license.

Where did you DJ after Danceteria closed?

When the first Danceteria was shut down by the police there was a club at the same time as the Danceteria called the Mudd Club, which was really the antithesis to Studio 54. The DJs at the Mudd Club—Dany Johnson and David Azarch—basically played Motown and Rockabilly.

I thought Mudd Club was much more of rock venue?

Yeah, it was the ultimate rock place, the antithesis of 54. As 54 went down, all of those people from 54 went to the Mudd Club before they came to Danceteria. Mudd Club was a very small club on White Street. It had a capacity of maybe 200. Then, when Danceteria closed, Steve Mass hired me and Sean to play. He opened up the second floor, the upstairs at Mudd Club, for me and Sean, and we kinda did our same thing. I think we did that for about eight months [Note: It appears to have been shorter]. We had a few problems with Steve ‘cos he put us into a plexiglass booth—Keith Haring one night painted all over the booth, and Steve ripped the booth down because he thought it was graffiti. That booth would be worth fuckin’ five million dollars now. Jean-Michel Basquiat was also there, writing shit on the wall. Steve was not happy. 

I knew Keith helped decorate Danceteria on 37th Street. So he was at Danceteria on 21st Street as well?

Keith Haring was one of the busboys. He was homeless. He would work at Danceteria until eight in the morning and then ride the subways all day and then come back to work at six o clock. He’d live on the subways and paint his little figures on the walls and stuff. And Jean-Michel was SAMO and he would be on the trains putting his logo all over. That was the beginning of tagging, the beginning of graffiti. 

What did Keith do at second Danceteria?

Busboy, like the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, too. Sade was the bartender. Karen Finley—she’s still a wonderful performance artist, book writer—she was a bartender. Haoui Montag was the doorman. Rudolf and Jim really put an incredible staff together at second Danceteria. I think the magic of the second Danceteria was really the staff that Rudolf and Jim put together for opening. We had a good three year run with them, you know? And the second Danceteria: the first floor was live acts and the second floor was the dance floor. Having the first floor live gave them the opportunity to have all the new bands play. I mean, every eighties band played their first gig on the first floor of the second Danceteria—Pylon, tons of bands. The first floor was live shows, the second floor was dance, the third floor was video, with Nam June Paik again, but one year later, so technology-wise he had better video equipment and more screens; he could really be a true video artist. I think the fourth floor was a restaurant.

Tell me a bit more about your time at the Mudd Club before we move on. How did it contrast to Danceteria?

I would say Mudd Club was more exclusive, more elite, a lot smaller. It really only held 300 people while we could fit 1000, 1200 in the first Danceteria. The Mudd Club was small; the Mudd Club was the hardest club to get into in the world. If you got into the Mudd Club you were something.  Sean and I were upstairs so we kind of kept the same Danceteria vibe. 

How did the Mudd Club come to an end for you? Were just invited to go to the second Danceteria?

I don’t remember. I think before Danceteria there was something in the middle, but I don’t know. 

So was it you and Sean again at second Danceteria? 

No, no. Sean dropped out. He became a carpenter.

How come?

You’ll have to talk to him about that. That’s a good question. 

What was it like at Danceteria on 21st Street?

They gave me the second floor. I played Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which was great because my DJ booth became my library. You know the word discotheque, in French, means record library. So that DJ booth for me became a library of maybe 2-3,000 records. ITt was really the last place that I had all my records in one DJ booth. You know, like Larry [Levan] had all his records in one booth,  David [Mancuso] had his records in one both, so did I. We didn’t have to carry records around, gig to gig, you know? In those days, when DJs got hired in a club, they worked at that club every night, which was very important. Now you’re lucky to get two hours in one place and you’re walking around with your fucking bag of records, breaking your back putting them in the back of cabs. But those were the last days when, if you had a gig, that DJ booth was yours and those were your records in the booth. It was great to have your records in that booth—your record library. When I look back at those days, god it was wonderful to have my whole record collection where I worked. Now I have my whole record collection in my computer, with Serato, but I can’t look at them, you know. I have 12,000 songs on my computer but I can’t look at a rack and see my records. I don’t know what the fuck I have on my computer, you know, it’s crazy. So Danceteria that was the last time that I had my collection with me. I think that’s why people like David and Larry were great, and why I was great at Danceteria. It’s because we had our whole collection in the DJ booth. We had our record library. For a DJ, what more could you want?

Tell me more about how things developed at second Danceteria.

The second Danceteria. OK, then we’re gonna get into Madonna-land. How much do you want to talk about Madonna?

I’m not sure.

You know I produced her first record?

Of course. 

I produced the first Beastie Boys record, I produced the first Karen Finley record and that all came from being a DJ at Danceteria. 

I don’t know much about Karen Finley.

Karen Finley was one of the greatest performance artists ever. I did a record with her called “Tales of Taboo”, which is probably the most sampled record in the history of music because I was the first producer to put an a capella on the B-side. I did that so DJs could play my a capella over other records. Every DJ, we all had the same records in the disco days, but the difference was, how you gonna play that record uniquely? That came with having two or three copies so you could start with an instrumental, to go into the vocals, to go back to the breakdown, to go back into the bridge. That’s how the DJs became creative with a seven-inch record—to make a six or eight minute mix that nobody had heard before. That was the beginning of DJing where we took a three minute song, the A-side with the vocals, the B-side an instrumental, and using two copies said, “Let’s make these people go crazy!” Then I took it further with 12”s when I put an a capella on the B-side, which allowed a DJ to play the a capella over the breakdown and really create something new. And if you listen to my mixes, if you listen to Madness “Our House”, I ended that song with an a capella. I mixed Kajagoogoo "Too Shy” and I ended it with an a capella. I was really the first [after Larry Levan’s co-production of the Peech Boys “Don’t Make Me Wait”] to make a capellas a tool for DJs.

What was it like DJing by yourself at Danceteria on 21st Street, without Sean?

I really felt I had a power and that’s when I started mixing and music started changing. Major record companies started getting into the rock club business. That’s when Arthur Baker came out with “Planet Rock”, bands from England started breaking through like Imagination, Spandau Ballet, Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow, all of this new wave thing started happening. That was kind of the beginning of the new romantics. For me new wave was British.

But what about all the bands that broke through at CBGB? Talking Heads, Blondie, Television.

Talking Heads was a very New York thing. Blondie, Television; that was a very New York thing. We always had that. New wave for me was the next wave of British music coming into the American charts. It was a British wave.

Was it exotic?

Not really because all of those bands came from hearing Sean and me playing at first Danceteria. I remember Spandau Ballet listening to me and Sean, going home and making a record. Martin Fry from ABC did the same and Mike Pickering, who was in Quando Quango, which I produced—actually Mike Pickering had me mix “Love Tempo”—that was after I produced the first Madonna record. Mike and Tony Wilson called me to mix Quando Quango and that was the beginning of my career with Factory Records.

So you were saying that you didn’t feel lost without Sean.

The music changed. It wasn’t about mixing punk and R&B anymore. Music had evolved at that point. All of a sudden I had a whole genre of music I could play, you know? I would throw in my James Brown records, my old English funk records, but there was a new music happening— “Illusion”, “Set it Off” Strafe, Hashim “Al Naafiysh”, which was the beginning of electro with Arthur Baker and “Planet Rock”. There was this new music happening but it was very dance-oriented. It wasn’t rock and it wasn’t disco. It was something new. So the music evolved, the music came together. There wasn’t this juxtaposition that there had been when I played with Sean.

What was the role of technology in all of this?

Tech-wise things were changing. It was the time of the first drum machine, it was the time of MIDI, it was the time of the sampler, the AMS, of synthesisers like the Fairlight and the Oberheim, so I guess producers had more control over music starting in ‘82, ‘83. Technology was changing the sound and the direction of music—that was the most important thing—and because the technology changed it kind of homogenised the music a little bit because it gave all the producers the same drum sound. I think that’s when Trevor Horn made his first record, “Video Killed the Radio Star” and went on to become one of the greatest producers in music. It’s when the SSL [Sold State Logic] board came out. I would say that second Danceteria had a lot to do musically with technology. Eighty-two was a big year for music tech-wise. All these things came through—the DX7 and the Roland 808, and MIDI, which meant you could connect five keyboards to each other, and the first sampler, the AMS, from England. Technology became really significant; it was very important to the evolution of music at that time—more than the bands. At the same time bands became pretty boys and fashion became more important, so I would say as the music got more glossy and controlled the fashion and the look became more controlled. That’s new wave.

Did you welcome this?

Oh yeah, yeah, it was new! My whole life has been about playing new music and it still is today. But at that time music changed from bands into a producers’ realm, and it was during ’82 and ’83 that producers took control and had the power. Producers like Trevor Horn and Martin Rushent, who produced Flock of Seagulls, the guy from Tears for Fears, they had a sound and they got hired to produce every band. It was interesting. The producers became the artist. I didn’t give a fuck about bands any more; I looked for the producer’s name because that became more important. And it stayed like that for a long time. We all made a lot of money. I became the guy who remixed English hits for the American ear, so I mixed Madness “Our House” and it became a number one pop record. I mixed Kajagoogoo and Kim Wilde, so for me it was good. All of a sudden the sound was controlled by the remixer and the producer. That’s been the case until the last couple of years. Now people want to hear live bands.

Was there a different atmosphere at second Danceteria?

I would call Danceteria a nation. It was a new country, a new world, a special moment in time when everybody was musically feeding off each other. Afrika Bambaataa, who came from a very deep Bronx hip hop world, made “Planet Rock”,  which worked in the rock and roll world. A lot of all the highways were coming together. and everybody was feeding off each other. Bands like Konk and Liquid Liquid, they were all at danceteria. Everybody was there at the same time, feeding off each other. If you look at musical history and you look at the Jazz Age, there were places where Coltrane would play with Charlie Parker and Miles and they would all feed off each other. Fillmore East and Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s and Warhol’s Factory, you had these places where people fed off each other and went their own way and did their thing and spent the night together listening to their shit, like the writers who went to Paris—Satre and all those guys who would smoke cigarettes and get drunk and write. Danceteria was one of those moments in history where everybody was at the same place at the right time and everybody just fed off each other. All we had was the club. We lived from the club, we lived off the club. We could eat, we could drink, we could talk, we could party. That’s what we had. You put a match to gasoline and you create a fire. Nobody was a genius, nobody had a plan for success. It was just pure creative evolution. Madonna was a dancer and Sade was a bar tender and 30 years later they are two of the greatest singers in the world and they are also completely different. Maybe Liquid Liquid heard a funky beat and that motivated them to throw it down, which became “White Lines”. Maybe the Konk guys heard something that inspired them, you know? It was just a melting pot, a Petri dish. It was just one of those magical moments in time. There’s no science to it.

Wouldn’t you say that this was something that permeated not just Danceteria but pretty much the whole of downtown, spreading to other parts of the city? Danceteria was this key spot but the thing that’s remarkable about this period is just how much was going on.

It just evolved, it just happened. Don’t put a mystique on it. Don’t think we’re all geniuses. Nothing was premeditated. I don’t know what you want to call it. I think if you look at the history of art and music from Mozart to Beethoven, they were piano players trying to make a living and when they went home they wrote these pieces that we listen to 250 years later. We’re all just a bunch of knuckle-heads. We’re just doing what we love.

I agree with your anti-genius argument and that was a key element of this biography I wrote about Arthur Russell. I subtitled it not “Arthur Russell” but “Arthur Russell and the Downtown Scene” because he embedded himself in collaboration and the exploration of scenes. People like to individualise creativity and to assume it comes from some exceptional talent that we can at best hope to learn from, but Arthur moved from Iowa to San Francisco to New York because it was in New York that he could hang out with the highest concentration of musicians and artists in the city, in part because it was the cultural capital of the country, in part because it was such a cheap place to live. All of the scenes that emerged had these notable figures but the most striking thing is how they were rooted in the city, rooted in the collectivity of the scenes themselves. So the added ingredient that’s crucial is that the city was an inexpensive place to live in, right?

Yes you’re right, you’re correct, and as studios got more expensive bands couldn’t record any more. Arthur Russell made his records for no money and his stuff was 8 track or 16 track. Studio time was cheap in those days.

Did you play “Go Bang”?


Was it a big record for you?

Yeah. and “Is It All Over My Face”. They had a certain sound, those two records. They were very special. “Love Dancing” [“Is It All Over My Face”], Larry used to rock that tune.

What about a record like the François mix of D Train’s “Keep On”?

Oh yeah, I loved Prelude.

So you’re characterised as a new wave DJ but you played “Go Bang”. The categories don’t work, do they?

I’m famous for the records I mixed so they label me as a new wave DJ because of the records I had as a remixer and a producer. But as a DJ, I mean, Larry would let me play at the garage at the end of his sets every now and again and I would play the craziest shit I had from Manchester—Marcel King “Reach for Love” . I’d leave Danceteria and I’d go to the Garage and it’d be 12 noon and Larry would let me play for an hour. That’s been a personal problem: how people perceive me as a DJ, because I’m know for British new wave but at the end of the day I’m a black New Yorker who played what David, François and Larry played.

So everything went into the Danceteria mix?

I played everything: Jorge Ben, I’m famous for playing “Taj Mahal”; Barrabas, one of Mancuso’s big records, I played that. I played everything, man! Nobody could ever pin me to a certain sound. I never wanted to be trademarked. I was famous for playing everything and being spontaneous and I’m proud of that. I have a certain magic and technique where I can mix two different records and make them work together; that’s just something I can do. I can do that with an a capella or a sound effect between them, which I learned from Larry. I can use my tricks to make two records work. Every trick I learned I learned from Larry Levan.

Can you tell me more about your friendship with Larry?

I met Larry around 1981, right after I produced Madonna’s first record, “Everybody”, and I brought it to the Garage. Larry knew who I was and he immediately played the dub side. Frankie Crocker, who was the DJ from WBLS, he heard the record and then played it on the radio. Frankie listened to Larry. Whatever Larry played, Frankie played it on the radio the next day, and WBLS was the hippest station. Then Larry came to Danceteria and heard me play for three to four hours and he started respecting me and he let me be in the Garage DJ booth. During that time I started playing in London a lot and I’d bring white labels back from London, so I brought him the Junior “Mama Used to Say” and Central Line “Walking Into Sunshine” and Wham “Enjoy What You Do”, the first Wham record that François remixed. So Larry started respecting me coming right from the airport to the Garage and Larry would throw these records right on and people would go crazy. Larry and I developed this kinship where he would trust me and I would trust him. To get into the Garage was hard but if you were a member of Judy Weinstein’s For the Record you got in. Getting into Larry’s booth was another trip, but when I walked in and I brought him the Junior it opened the doors. I’ll never forgot Larry putting on “Mama Used to Say”, which became a huge hit at the Garage. Then I got Larry into New Order and New Order’s first show was at the Garage, which I think is pretty monumental. Larry would hang out with me at Danceteria before he went to work because he started later; I started at 11:00 and he started at 6:00. I’d give him some records, he’d give me some records. We had our own little thing going on that nobody knew about. But I was the first DJ to start playing in London, the first New York guy to play in London.

Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage with David Mancuso (centre) and Herbie Hancock (right). Courtesy of Gail Bruesewitz.

Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage with David Mancuso (centre) and Herbie Hancock (right). Courtesy of Gail Bruesewitz.

So you learned tricks from Larry.

He was always spontaneous and never had a plan. He was a genius the way he would use sound effects, the way he’d mix a record the way he’d tell the lighting man what to do, the way he’d have complete control over a situation, the way he’d take two five-minute records and play them for 30 minutes, the way he fucked with the EQ, the way he stopped the music, the way he made people scream. The most famous was Chaka Kahn “I’m Everybody”. He’d play that and you’re talking about taking people to heaven. It was just magical the way he worked a record and that’s just having two copies of it and, you know, a capellas and getting mixes from the producer. Listen, every DJ can have the same record but it’s how you play he record that’s going to make you different. Everybody can play “I’m Every Woman”, but with two copies Larry could take it somewhere else. He could do a mix that he was only going to do one time, because you can’t do that shit twice. It’s  spontaneous, it’s live. Larry would have his three turntables and he’d have his siren, which he hit by the foot, so not only was he using his two hands; he had his right foot hitting the siren. So he worked the record and he played it the way nobody would have ever heard it and nobody would ever hear it again. Sometimes he was great, sometimes he was shit, but the greatest thing about the Garage was it was only open Fridays and Saturdays, and Larry would spend Monday to Thursday tweaking the sound system, just making it sound better and better and better. Larry and Richard [Long, the sound engineer] would spend four days making it sound better every week. Larry in the beginning only worked on Thorens turntables and they were belt drive, and when you mix with belt drive it’s not like with Technics direct drive. Belt drive is very hard and I just think Larry was magical and lucky. He just put the needle on the record at the right time, because you can’t pitch up or slow down a Thorens. Larry had god driving him; Larry had god driving the bus.

What did Larry think of Danceteria?

He loved it, obviously to hear crazy music he never heard and to see crazy people he never saw, because ultimately the garage was black and gay. To come to Danceteria and to see this crazy mix of people and people wearing crazy clothes, for him it was a circus while the Garage was the Garage. The garage was a fucking tribe. It was a big difference.

Did he pick up tracks from listening to you?

Danceteria was a hub for new music. My whole thing was about playing new music all night. I would spend a fortune to play new music every night. That was what Danceteria was about. It was about playing something nobody had ever heard before, whereas Larry would take an old record and play it in a way that nobody had ever heard before. Then, as time evolved, Larry would start playing new music and then doing his thing and taking an ESG record and play it for half-an-hour.

Did you play “Don’t Make Me Wait”?

Yeah. The last record Larry mixed was “Sun Shower” [by Nami Shimada]. I sent Larry to Japan the first time. I was the first American DJ to play in Japan in ‘85 and I got hired to bring other DJs to Japan. I left Danceteria two in 1985, I think, and then we opened the first Tunnel and then Mars in ‘88.

So going returning to this earlier question, can you say a bit more about how the Danceteria nation changed between the first and second venues?

The first Danceteria was more like a commune—there was really no plan or control—while the second Danceteria was more controlled, more planned, more branded with the logo. The first one we defined the brand, we defined what Danceteria was about, so the second time it opened it became more not more corporate but more organised.

Was second Danceteria bigger?

It was twice as big. It had four floors.

Was there more money around?

I don’t remember the drink prices. OK, the big difference was the first Danceteria was illegal and the second one was legit, so being legit meant you paid taxes, you had an accountant, you counted how many people were at the door. It was a little more controlled.

Were you paid differently?

Oh yeah, I got paid a lot more money at second Danceteria. I think I was making $300/night. That was like crazy money in those days. Larry made $2,000 a night—he made the most money of any of us—but he was a partner. I don’t know what he spent it on.

How many nights did you work a week?

Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Larry did Friday and Saturday, which for him was like 72 hours straight because he played until noon whereas I’d play until 7:00 in the morning. But it was great. We were the last of the DJs that could play 10 hours straight. Now you get two hours and there are four DJs a night in every club. Larry would play two hours before they opened the doors so that by the time they opened up he was going, which was kind of cool. Now they put me on stage at 2:00 a.m. and I’ve got to be on without even warming up. It’s kind of hard. I used to come to work two hours early just to play records for the staff. I always played for the staff, Larry played for the staff and François did as well because they were the ones who heard us every night. We played for the bus boys and the bartenders because they were with us from the beginning to the end and when the bar tender tells you you had a great night that’s the biggest compliment for a DJ. When the bus boy gives you a compliment or gives you a hug and says you played good, that’s great.

So returning to this question of the comparison between first and second Danceteria, how did the two dance floors contrast?

Danceteria one, the dance floor was in the basement. When a dance floor is in the basement, it puts everything in an underground kind of vibe. The second Danceteria, the first floor was live music and the dance floor was the second floor. But that also made it different in a crazy sort of way because most club dance floors are downstairs. I’ve never even thought about that concept, about the importance of the floor the dance floor is on—we can write a book about that! It’s interesting. The first Danceteria was in the basement, the second one was on the second floor, and the Garage was on the second floor, and Studio 54 was the main floor, but I would say Mudd Club was street level. Jeez, now I’m thinking of clubs and I’m thinking of what floor they were on.

So was the dance floor atmosphere more intense at first or second Danceteria? The energy of a venue can change as a result of all sorts of factors, can’t it?

Second Danceteria was already more of a brand. We already had the first year at the first location, where it was really underground. It was illegal. It was really, you know, something new. The second Danceteria had the brand and had the name, and what they did was they kept the edge. They also commercialised it, extending it to four floors, so they extended the brand but they did it in a way that so they still had respect and credibility. 

What was the relationship between the live floor and the dance floor. If there was a big band playing would the dance floor empty for that period? 

I don’t think we had really big bands. I think the bands that Jim Fouratt booked on the first floor, usually they were playing their first shows. Like bands from England such as the Smiths—whomever played at Danceteria, that was their first show, so it wasn’t like the bands had a big following. The local New York bands like Konk or Liquid Liquid or ESG, OK, they had a following, but it wasn’t a massive following. And remember we’re not talking about a big place here. Maybe the live floor only held 150, 200 people. My second floor, the dance floor, held maybe maximum 300. So we’re not talking about crazy big stables.

I’m always intrigued about the energy of the dance floor in each specific venue—this relationship that develops between the DJ and the crowd as well as between dancers, who get lost in this rhythmic conversation. I’m interested if it happens and how it happens, and if certain things disrupt it. Sometimes people wanting to go to a bar can disrupt it, for example. Maybe if there’s a band playing on another floor, that can disrupt it. How did that work at Danceteria on 21st Street?

I think people went to Danceteria because it was their home. It really became a home away from home. It was really a tribal thing. It was like a Woodstock kind of thing. It’s where everybody came to meet. It didn’t matter who was there. People didn’t necessarily care which band was playing, but they’d know that whoever Jim Fouratt booked that night was gonna be a hit band. They knew it was going to be home. You know, people used to live there. Like I told you, Keith Haring, he lived there. Then, when we closed at six in the morning, he would ride the subways, paint his little drawings and then come back to work in the afternoon. There was a recession in the early eighties so Danceteria was just where we ate, where we drank, where we felt like we were a part of a community. It’s a stupid analogy but it was our Woodstock. 

Danceteria publicity. Courtesy of John Argento.

Danceteria publicity. Courtesy of John Argento.

So how did the dancing compare the dancing at the Paradise Garage? You played more new wave and hip hop than Larry, so how did that change things? The Garage and the Loft were notorious for having people dance for hours on end—get lost in this mesmeric rhythm. There was more of a solid groove and if the music moved around it didn’t move around at quite the same pace as it did at Danceteria. It’s easy for me to identify how the music was different, but what I don’t really know is if dancers behaved differently. Did the Danceteria crowd get lost on the dance floor and stay there for hours on end just like they did at the Garage?

OK, Larry would take people on a journey, in kind of like the same groove while Danceteria was about... When I would do the mix, I would make them scream, I would take them another step up the stairs. I was taking people up the stairs and Larry was taking people on an escalator. I was making a step and he was like slow-groove.

And how did that affect how dancers moved their bodies?

Now we’re going to get into the length of songs. Larry would play the same song for eight to twelve minutes sometimes, doing his whole mix, while I was dealing with seven-inches that were three minutes long, or a twelve-inch that was six minutes long. OK, some records I would work and play the instrumental, play the vocal; some records I would make long. But Larry would play six songs in one hour and I would play twelve songs in one hour. And, you know, obviously Larry would be more instrumental and I would be more vocal-oriented because I’m playing seven-inch singles. It was more work but it was also—boom!—you’re really shocking people. Larry would go into a breakdown, where he’d take the vocals out and go instrumental. For me, I would go from an instrumental to a vocal. So it was really the same thing, but we were just doing it a different way. I hope you’re keeping all of this for my book, right? 

Of course! I want to ask you a bit more about hip hop, electro and rap. The easy thing for me to say is, it was all a mix at Danceteria, but I want to be a bit more analytical, a bit more precise. I haven’t got much of a feel yet for how much hip hop or rap or electro was part of what you did. 

OK, Tim, I need to talk about technology first. Hip hop and electro were born when this new technology of music came through in the early eighties. It was technology that really was the first spark that gave people the opportunity to be creative with machines and not with your best friend the drummer. For me that’s the most important thing. If you want to talk about hip hop and electro, they wouldn’t have existed without technology. But in the early eighties, with those first drum machines, they fundamentally changed the direction of music. Now we can talk about Kraftwerk, which was electronic music before machines—before commercially available machines—and obviously Kraftwerk was Bambaataa’s a good friend. I talk to Bam and he’s always telling me that his biggest influence is Kraftwerk. And, you know, early Eurodisco, like early Giorgio, the French group, Magique, Jean Michel Jarre maybe.

These were an influence on Bambaataa, you’re saying?

For Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc and Flash, for them the first tool was the mixer, which allowed them to take two beats from one record and then switch to another record. So the main technology for them was the mixer. But then Bam then hooked up with Arthur Baker and Robie, and then that led to “Planet Rock” and Rockers Revenge, and which led to—jeez—to everything. 

What hip hop were you playing at Danceteria? What was working for you? And what did it mean for you culturally? Did it feel like you were playing Bronx music or were you playing something that was part of the New York mix?

I played everything, OK? I didn’t play a lot of hip hop but there were hip-hop records that were big hits for me.

Such as what?

Bambaataa’s first records, before “Planet Rock”. Some of the stuff on Sugar Hill. Jazzy Jeff. As a DJ I would play in three-song sets, so the night kind of moved. So hip hop for me was three songs and at that time the Beastie Boys were a punk band—before they did their first record. Then Russell Simmons started Def Jam. My Beastie Boys record with Rick Rubin was the first and the second release was LL Cool J, but Danceteria was really all about playing everything. For me it was almost like a plane trip. I’d come in from Belgium, play a little hip hop, then I’d go to London, then I’d go to Italian disco. For me I was kind of moving around the world, musically, at that time. I thought about it a lot a few days after we spoke the first time and now I look back I think I kind of moved around the world musically. But every record had this common theme, this common vibe, this common heart that enabled me to go from an Italian record to an English record to a German record into a reggae record into hip-hop. Although I can’t define it, it existed and it worked.

So did rap sound new? Did it sound gimmicky? Did you think “Yeah, this is gonna work on the dance floor?”

I was really into Jamaican music growing up and I knew about MCs. Those guys were to me the original rappers and if you really want to think about it, Cab Calloway was a rapper. For me the significance of hip hop was that you didn’t have to be a musician any more to make money, you didn’t even have to know how to sing to make money. So for all of these kids, uptown and downtown, it was a matter of ‘Let’s do it’.

So it was just another music coming in that you wanted to play?

No, I knew it was something important, revolutionary, but I was dealing with a lot of other genres at the time. As things evolved in the club business things got more specific. Like one club would just be hip-hop, one club would be reggae, one club would be Madchester. Things started to define themselves. But Danceteria was really the club that planted the seeds of everything.

When did things start to define themselves do you think?

I think around ‘82, ‘83, ‘84. ‘85. The first house records started coming out  in ‘85, ‘86. The Summer of Love was a monumental time for dance music. Around ‘86, ‘87 I started really getting into Italian music, like “Right On Time”, for example. 

The first house tracks comes out in 1984 and 1985. Then Marshall Jefferson released the “House Music Anthem” in 1986 and that’s when house started to really take off, right?

OK, but I was still considered a rock and roll DJ at that time.

At what time?

Eight-five, ‘86. That’s why I’m not in Bill Brewster’s book; I’m considered a rock and roll DJ. Meanwhile I played, you know, black and house music and hip-hop, always. I was playing Black Ivory. I was blacker than any black DJ in New York, you know what I mean? But that’s my own little thing I deal with when I talk to you guys. I will fight this to the day I die. I’m white and I’m straight, and there’s this concept that any great DJ has to be black or Latin and gay, you know? It’s crazy.

Jim Fouratt also objects to the rock discotheque term and the way this didn’t capture the range of music that could be heard at spots like Hurrah, Danceteria and the Mudd Club. I agree it’s not very satisfactory to have you described as a rock DJ. I can only repeat, what interests me in the 1980-83 period in New York is the way everything mixed together, and that was happening as much at Danceteria as anywhere. So Danceteria was never just rock. It was more a result of what happened when rock intertwined with all these other sounds and that’s why it was so important. Tell me a bit about François [Kevorkian] and your friendship with François.

François was DJing in a club called New York, New York the same time I was DJing at Trax. I just went in and introduced myself to him. That was right after I’d worked in Greece for a year as a DJ. So we just hit it off as friends. That was before he started working for Prelude and before I had a club of my own. 

Was it an important friendship?

Well, we were great friends and, again, the wonderful thing at that time was every DJ had a completely different repertoire of music. You look at today, everybody’s got the same records now, you know? But in those days every DJ really had their unique two or three crates of records, and that was the magic. At that time I was working at the record shop, selling my European imports, and François came from France and had his European sensibility. Francois was great. What I learned from François was how to mix two records. François was a great mixer.

In those days I wasn’t a great mixer but I had an unbelievable choice of records. Whereas a lot of DJs would go for the perfect mix, giving up playing the best record because another one was easier to blend, I always went for the best record, for the best song, for the scream. I went for the scream. I never went for the perfect mix. One of the first things I learned was, five seconds after a mix there’s not one person in the club that can tell you what the record was before. That’s true; they have no idea. So for me it really wasn’t about the technical mix, it was about the song, you know? 

When did you stop DJing at Danceteria?

I think I left in ‘85. 

So you stayed long after Jim Fouratt moved on?

I left with Rudolf. What was Rudolf’s club after that? I think we opened the Tunnel after that. I was always Rudolf’s DJ. In ‘86 I did the Palladium opening with Jellybean. That was a disaster for me. Then Larry Levan came into the Palladium and started playing Peter Gabriel Su-su-studio. But we’re jumping up to Palladium. Where did I go after Danceteria? Oh, I opened a club called the Harem. 

So you were at Danceteria until ‘85?

I was there from the beginning until ‘85. 

So what were the politics of Danceteria between then? Because at some point Jim had a disagreement with Rudolf and John Argento, who had taken on a managerial role.

Jim was a control freak and at the end of the day Jim really had no respect for DJs. He had no respect for a heterosexual DJ like myself. Jim booked the best bands, which I give him so much respect for. But what DJ wants to be told what to play from the boss? And that’s what he was saying at some points. Play this, play that.

When did he start to do that?

He always did that from the beginning. But I think if you have a full dance floor with people screaming it’s really hard for the guy to tell you what to play. Jim was a very sober person. He didn’t like to see staff drinking, e didn’t like to see people partying. Rudolf was the opposite.  Rudolf had a different girl every night. Jim was gay and politically gay; this was the beginning of AIDS. Obviously he was anti-drugs as well.

Why obviously?

Jim knew what he was doing musically and he wanted everybody to be on his page, but we couldn’t all be on his page, we had to do the same thing on different pages. But I mean, the bands Jim booked, they were unbelievable. There was Haoui Montaug as well. Haoui’s cabaret was very important. He gave Madonna her first show at Danceteria on the roof. Haoui Montaug was the doorman and he started doing this cabaret where he booked really underground performance artists in New York. 

No Entiendes card. Courtesy of John Argento.

No Entiendes card. Courtesy of John Argento.

And Madonna went on the roof?

Yeah, her first gig was at Haoui’s cabaret. While Jim Fouratt would book bands, Haoui would book more performance art, which was happening in downtown Manhattan at the time. Karen Finley, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s band [Gray], the Lounge Lizards...

Would you play Lounge Lizards?

No, that wasn’t a dance floor thing. That was really more upstairs. They were all heroin junkies so they played for people who were in a sedentary mood. 

So how did things come to a close at Danceteria? 

I’m trying to think why I left Danceteria. I went to open my own club, which was called the Harem, and I rented out a belly dance studio in Time Square at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue. God, why did I leave? I just think I got fed up. Well, actually, I started getting a lot of work in the studio and I wanted to DJ something new. I started this club called the Harem where I had five Turkish musicians behind me who played live with instrumental house tracks that I would play. It was completely spontaneous. It was about me being more of an artist than a DJ. There was an English band came down—”pump up the volume, pump up the volume, dance”—remember those guys?


M/A/R/R/S, OK. They came one night with a white label. And I played the white label, and then I would play an Egyptian singer, a capella on top of M/A/R/R/S. So they went back to London and remixed it with my Arabic a capella. That’s when I made my record United House Nations, which was one of the first releases on Circa, where I took house beats and I sampled music from all over the world. So I took that hiatus, I would say, for one year and the Harem became the hippest club in New York. We shut it down after we did a party for New Order. We shut it down after one year, at the peak. And then I went to open Mars the club. 

Before we talk about the second half of the 1980s, which also falls outside the scope of what I’m researching right now, can we talk about your studio work, beginning with your first production. That was Dolores Hall, right? 

This was with Robert Thiele. I grew up with Bobby, we were five years old, we went to school together. His father was the producer of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I said, “Bobby, let’s make a record!” We got some cash and Bobby and I wrote a studio song called “Snapshot”, which was the last song of the disco era. That was my first record.

Where did you get the money to make the record?

I borrowed it from my dad and in those days all of the studio musicians knew Bobby’s father so when we called all those guys to come and make the record they came to the session. Luther Vandross did background vocals, Anthony Jackson was on bass, Charles Collins, a Philly International musician, played drums. So here we were, these two young kids making a record, and they showed up for the session. In those days it cost a lot of money to make a records—$5,000 with studio time and union rates and all of that stuff. Today it costs nothing to make a record. You had to get an engineer, you had to buy tape, you had to make charts.

How did the record turn out?

The record came out great. I think it was a little too fast for the time—you have to be a fortune teller to see which way tempos will go—but the album was a minor success. There was one track off the album that [the dance music critic] Brian Chin thinks is one of the greatest disco records ever made, “Born to Be Free”. We did “Snapshot” as a demo and got a deal with Capitol Records. I think I got $150,000 advance and we spent it making the album, which for me was like going to college. We hired the best musicians in the world, the best background singers, Gwen Guthrie, Luther Vandross.  But those studio guys were making three records a day in those times. They were pumping out 20 records a week. That’s how I learned my craft. I don’t say “producing”. I like to say the word “craft”. Making a record is a craft, it’s not an art. I felt like a bricklayer. You want to be an artist? OK, you can make a record nobody will listen to, but I don’t want to be Jackson Pollock. Making a record is like being an expert in a craft. It’s how to mic a drum kit, how to EQ a track, how to use your compressors, your reverb, your delay. That’s what a craftsman does. After Dolores I wanted to be an artist and I produced Elliott Sharp, this avant-garde jazz musician, and then after Elliot Madonna came into my life.

You mixed David Byrne’s “Big Business” before that, right? Was that your first mix?

OK, I was the DJ for the Talking Heads. Chris and Tina lived in Long Island City in the same building as Don Cherry, and they would hang out at the Mudd Club and Danceteria. David Byrne asked me, “Have you ever done a remix before?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “OK, come to the studio.” Now this is after Dolores Hall, so I had some studio experience but I didn’t know what a remix was. I hadn’t done one of those. The one thing I remember from that session was when the guitar solo came on I pushed the fader really high and the guitar solo was really loud. David said, “Do you want the guitar so loud?” And I said, “Yes.” The guitar solo was fucking great. That’s when I met the engineer Butch Jones, who became the engineer on my first Madonna record. That was at Blank Tapes Studios with Bob Blank.

I was more friends with Chris and Tina personally. David was really the straight guy, Chris and Tina partied more. They liked to have parties at the loft where they lived and I would DJ at all their parties and I would also DJ before the Talking Heads shows. Chris and Tina were freaks . I remember when they did “Genius”, when they called out James Brown and Bohannon it was because in the midst of my DJing, I would put a James Brown record where his name was called out and there was also a Bohannon record where it started with his name being chanted, “Bohannon, Bohannon”. So I would just scratch in these names on top of whatever record I was playing and when Chris and Tina did “Genius of Love” they had the idea to do that in the studio with James Brown and Bohannon. That’s where they got the idea of mentioning those artists. It was just the way I mixed records.

Where did that “James Brown” call-out come from?

One of his records. On his live albums there’d always be the MC going, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Jaaaames Brown.” There was always the MC. 

Was Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” a big record for you?

Oh, yeah. I started working on a record with them. At that time I was doing A&R for Island Records.

How did that come about?

Chris Blackwell heard me DJing at Trax and asked me if I wanted to A&R. I didn’t know what A&R was but said yes. After I got the job I said, “Well what do I have to do?” Chris said, “I come to New York every two months for two weeks. I just want you to play me all the music you like.” And I did. 

When did that start? 

That started in ‘79. We did sign some great stuff. I signed the Waitresses, “I Know What Boys Like”, and I signed Was Not Was “Wheel Me Out”, and Don Was became one of the biggest record producers in the world. Then I was involved with the signing of U2 because their first record came out on CBS Ireland—“I Will Follow”. I played that for Chris and he signed U2. That’s how I got François mixing a very early U2 record. Then I worked with Grace Jone, and Sly & Robbie. I worked for Chris for four years and then I played him Madonna. He didn’t like Madonna and he said, “I’m not gonna sign my A&R guy’s girlfriend.” But I had done “Big Business” so I knew

Seymour Stein at Sire and I played Madonna for Seymour. Seymour gave me a single deal for that. I also found “Pull Up to the Bumper” for Grace. That’s something, I’m proud of that. That was a B-Side of a Junior Tucker song. It was just a Sly & Robbie dub track that was hanging around. I gave it to Grace to write some lyrics on it, and she came up with “Pull Up to the Bumper”.

What was going on with Grace Jones at this point?

Chris came to town every two months and was like, “OK, whaddya got, play me the shit”, and I’d play him cassettes or I’d play him whatever, and he’d say, “I like this, I don’t like that”. I would get everything from London and if there was something that would work in the States then Island would give it an American release. There was just this one B-Side on a Junior Tucker record that was the instrumental for “Pull Up to the Bumper”. I mean, working for Island Records at that time was just amazing. It was Branson with Virgin, Chris with Island, the beginning of Rough Trade, the beginning of 4AD, Beggar’s Banquet. I’m kinda in the middle of it because I’m the DJ, you know? I had everything in my hands.

Did you get to hang out with Grace Jones?

Oh sure, Grace would be in my booth. I have a great story about Grace. I don’t know what year this is, but I was DJing at Xenon, which became the new 54 when 54 closed. One night Grace Jones, Grace and Larry Levan were in my DJ booth. I was scared as shit, my hands were shaking, and I was playing an R&B record and it started to skip, but on the beat. I freaked out and I turned around and I looked at Grace, and Grace said to me, “Mark, use your mistakes.” So I let the skip play and I took an a capella and put it on top of the skip. All of a sudden it became a song. Then, with my third turnable, I started bringing in a kick drum, “boom, boom, boom”. I turned around to Grace and she looked at me again and gave me a kiss and said again, “Use your mistakes”. I’ll never forget that.

Mark Kamins and Butch Jones in studio. Courtesy of Butch Jones.

Mark Kamins and Butch Jones in studio. Courtesy of Butch Jones.

What did Larry say?

Oh, Larry was in awe of Grace. Larry could be a baby sometimes and Grace was such a dominant woman. With Grace, Larry was always a baby. But my relationship with Grace was, you know, I worked for Chris, so I’m the record company dude. I think that might have been the same time as Marianne Faithful; we did Broken English. That might have been the same time. It was a cool time. Island was really hip then.

So your work with Island involved you meeting up with Chris when he came over every two months and said, “What have you got for me?”

Right. Chris never went to the office. Island Records had an amazing office in Madison Avenue and 49th Street on the 44th floor but Chris was very anti-corporate. He would always stay in his apartment at the Essex House and I would have to go to his apartment/hotel suite. We’d just sit down in the bedroom with a cassette machine, and he’d just say, “Whaddya got?” I remember playing him Was Not Was and the Waitresses. And at some point we put out a record called No New York, which Chris made another label, a sub-label called Antilles, where he would put out stuff that he didn’t think was correct for Island. Like he put out a record called Tibetan Bells that sold 50,000 records a year for some reason and stuff from New Orleans—you know, all of Chris’s crazy shit. But we did do an album called No New York, which is a pretty important record.

I thought Eno did that. [Googles.] Yes, it was Antilles, 1978, produced by Brian Eno. So what was your involvement in that? 

Well I started at Island in ‘78. That was just the stuff I gave Chris. Chris probably gave it to Brian.

So you gave that to Chris?

I gave him cassettes of a lot of the stuff that ended up on No New York. I played him all the crazy downtown shit that I had. I don’t remember the exact tracks, but yeah. I mean, come on, it was my first job. I really didn’t know the business then, so Chris has me giving him crazy cassettes. Chris would take all these cassettes and give them to Brian. You make sense out of it.

Did you register the record when it came out, because it became the founding statement of the no wave scene?

When it came out, sure. I was proud, I was happy. I wasn’t looking for a paycheck. Hey, cool. 

It was your job, I guess.

Well, I still didn’t know what my job was at that time! Here’s some guy giving me money to just play him what I liked, you know? I never knew that was a job.

So what proportion of your life were you devoting to Island Records at this point? 

Chris respected me to come to work at 3:00, 4:00 in the afternoon, which I thought was really cool. He knew I worked at night and so it wasn’t about punching the clock at 9:00 in the morning. He loved coming to New York and having his A&R guy being the hippest DJ and having me taking him to other clubs; you know, being on the guest list everywhere. I love the guy, he’s amazing. 

Were you crossing paths with Sly & Robbie? Were you playing their records?

We’re talking right after Bob Marley, obviously. If you want to get into the history of reggae music that’s something different. But after Marley, Sly & Robbie really, their sound, the way they played, became the basis of reggae for a number of years. The most important are Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs and Grace Jones. Sly & Robbie really became the foundation and the sound of reggae for a number of years. It wasn’t a reggae record if it wasn’t Sly & Robbie.

Were Sly & Robbie coming to Danceteria? Were there interactions? Were you playing their records or were they too downbeat?

No, I always did a reggae set. I always did a Black Uhuru set. Black Uhuru was really important and I’m sure if you talk to Francois he’ll tell you how much he loved Black Uhuru. There was an engineer called Paul “Groucho” Smith who was very important in developing the concept of the dub mix, the second generation dub. There was the first generation of dub with King Tubby, Lee Perry and the Mad Professor. The second generation of dub was Steven Stanley and Paul “Groucho” Smith. Those two guys took dub to the next level with new technology. While the old guys played with tape, Groucho and Steve Stanley would use more hardware, more outboard gear. I worked with Steven Stanley. I did a record by the Earons called “Land of Hunger”, which I’m sure David Mancuso still plays. 

So you’re doing your Island stuff, you’re playing at Danceteria, you’ve done “Big Business”, you’re DJing at Chris and Tina’s parties in Long Island City and you’re also dating Madonna.

Yes, yes. You can read Andrew Morton’s book, OK? Then we can chop a few years.

Is his account a good account? I’m interested in the music as well as the relationship gossip.

I respect Andrew and we really had a great time talking, like you and me. But if you want to get into Madonna let’s go. 

I remember seeing her on The Tube in, it must have been 1982, maybe 1983. The Tube was this programme in the UK and she performed what must have been her first single on stage at the Haçienda. This was before her first album came out and quite a bit before she became famous with her second album, and I remember liking her and then that first album as well. 

But they threw bottles at her in the Haçienda.

I thought she was good. I was 15 at the time.

The first show in London was at the Wag and I think Boy George was playing the piano upstairs. There were ten people watching her. And the second show was at the Hacienda, where they threw bottles at her. Mike didn’t tell you that?

I interviewed Mike for some liner notes I wrote for a Haçienda release. Mike couldn’t remember a lot—or maybe just didn’t really want to speak. So tell me about Madonna in the context of downtown New York. What happened? Did she approach you? Did you approach her?

She was one of my regulars on the dance floor but she had this spark, a certain energy, that transcended everybody else. We became good friends, we started going out and she brought me a demo of “Everybody” and I played it. The next day I played it for Chris and Chris didn’t like it. Then I brought it to Seymour at Sire. This box set of Sire Records came out and in it Seymour writes, “I didn’t like Madonna but I believed in Mark Kamins and I gave Mark a deal.” 

Was this a record that Madonna had given to you on cassette and that you played when you were DJing?

Yeah, yeah, I played the cassette and it worked. But you have to remember, at that time, there weren’t any female singers in the charts. It was just really the right moment, the right time, for an artist like Madonna.

So tell me about the recording of “Everybody”.

I think it was the first and last record she ever did with a live drummer. I recorded that record old-school, with the drummer and a keyboard and guitar player all playing at the same time, like a real session. Even 25 years later, people ask me, “How come the tempo changes in the middle of the song?” I go, “Well, because it’s a live drummer!” Actually “Everybody” was the B-side. “Ain’t No Big Deal” was supposed to be... Anyway, the B-side became the hit and the original A-side was released a year later on some EP. “Everybody” came out better. I think the guy who played keyboards, Fred Zarr, was great. He was the first guy to use the Oberheim OB-8, and we had a backwards snare, which in a way became the hook of the song. That was actually one of the first 12-inches where the B-side was a nine-minute dub mix. After that I started making my B-sides crazy dub versions and I was the first DJ to end my dubs with a capellas. 

Dub and bass really explodes in 1982. That’s the year when Peech Boys release “Don’t Make Me Wait” and Bambaataa comes out with “Planet Rock”. 

That dub mix was really just using delays and reverb, and playing with edits, and... tricks. 

This was your first production after Dolores Hall and your jazz record?

Yeah, this was the first time I was hired to produce a record.

Did you know what you were doing or were you heavily reliant on the engineer?

I knew what I was doing business-wise. I knew I had a budget, I knew who to hire. The magic of a producer is to know who to hire, meaning I hired the best engineer, I got the best musicians, I just put it all together. Half of the job of a producer is being a babysitter, the other half is being a psychiatrist. Whatever’s left is just having good people around you to take care of business. 

Fred Zarr, was he involved in this?

Fred Zarr played keyboard on “Everybody”. He doesn’t like to talk about that any more. 

So he wasn’t involved in the production side of things?

I didn’t tell Fred what to play. He came up with all that stuff. It became a hit because of what he played. I can’t take credit for what Fred played. I don’t get a piece of the publishing, Fred doesn’t have a piece of publishing, but that record is Fred. The little melody is Fred; it’s his record. I gotta give him all the respect in the world, that’s his record. What did he get? He got paid to do the session and that’s it. And that’s why he doesn’t do any interviews.

What did you think of the record when you were done with it?

There were other female singers on the chart but she was the first one that had the whole package. She had the look, the dance and the song. There was a reason why Warner Brothers didn’t put Madonna’s face on the cover. They didn’t want people to know if she was black or white. It was just a dance record. 

They wanted the black crowd to buy it as well as the white crowd.

Sure, and then Frankie Crocker on BLS played it. BLS was the most important radio station in New York and Frankie Crocker wouldn’t play a record unless he heard Larry play it. Once you got on BLS you had a hit, you know? 

So did you and Larry try to get Frankie Crocker to play “Everybody”? Was that an objective?

I brought the record to Larry, sure. I brought him the dub version first. If you listen to the B-side of the 12”, her vocals were just one word on delay, “Everybody-body-body-body”. It was a dub version. I knew how to play Larry, in a way. I knew what to give him, what he would like. You had to set him up for the vocal so I gave him the dub first. You’ve got to remember, in those days there must have been five, six record company promotion guys in his booth, begging him to play a record, but he respected me because I was a DJ. He respected me because I’d come back from London with white labels like “Mama Used to Say”, Junior, or Central Line “Walking Into Sunshine, so Larry had a respect for me and could trust me. If I said, “Larry, listen to this”, he trusted me. Not that he’d play it but he’d trust me enough to listen to it. 

Did you and Madonna discuss getting the record played at the Garage? 

At that time, if you wanted to have a hit record on WBLS, Larry had to play it. Then there was another radio station called KTU and to get on that station Jellybean had to play the record at the Funhouse. KTU catered to more of a Puerto Rican, Latin crowd while BLS played to more of a R&B black crowd. It was really two distinct genres of dance music at the time, KTU and BLS. When Madonna left me and started going out with Jellybean she did “Holiday” and moved into the KTU world. 

What did Larry think of “Everybody”?

Oh, Larry loved it. He rocked it. I think that was the first record he ever played with a white girl singing. 

Did he know Madonna was a white girl?

Sure, sure. I don’t think anybody would ever say Madonna sounds black. 

But there was this idea of keeping her face off the cover so that people might not guess?

Maybe that was a target marketing division concept. She sounds white but the track was black. It wasn’t a Prelude record like “Can You Handle It?” or “I Hear Music In The Streets”. “Everybody” was in that ball game but it wasn’t a Sharon Redd; it wasn’t Prelude. 

Was Madonna going to the Garage with you? Did Madonna hang out with Larry? Did she flirt with him? 

Larry wasn’t gonna get flirted with by any white girl. But Madonna, she worked. She went to every club every night. She really had a mission.

At this point was she really a dance artist or was she always aiming for pop stardom and used dance as a means to get there. I mean, she was on the dance floor at Danceteria and she was recording credible dance music.

Andrew Morton does a blog. He just put on his blog some early tapes of Madonna when she was doing punk music and then she went to dance with Patrick Hernandez in Europe. Then she came back to New York with the Gilroy brothers and whatever. Then she hooked up with Steven Bray to do the original demos of “Ain’t No Big Deal” and “Everybody”, which became this kind of dancey pop, or white R*B dance-pop, if you want to give it a name. We got lucky. Seymour believed in me. He didn’t believe in Madonna. He believed in me. 

How come he believed in you? You’d done just one record with him at this point.

Yeah, but I was the number one DJ in New York, you know? I mean I could break a record in those days. I had the same power that Larry had. Larry had power on black radio, I had power on your rock stations. Those days I was still playing the Cure, I was still playing the Smiths.

I think this was a bit before the Smiths.

I was still playing the beginning of new wave. There was a lot of things happening. And after Madonna I remember producing a great record on Sire by a band called Girls Can’t Help It. The song was called “Baby Doll”. Fuckin’ great track. English band. And that’s when the first Wham record came out. I produced Animal Nightlife “Love Is Just the Great Pretender” and I hooked up François with Wham. François did the first remix for Wham. 

Which one? Not “Wake Me Up”?

The one before that. 

So what happened next with Madonna?

We had a little problem because she didn’t think that I had enough input in producing her vocal. I’m a DJ, so I was more involved with the music and was wet behind my ears when it came to producing vocals. So after that record Madonna wanted to work with Reggie Lucas. Reggie Lucas had just produced this Stephanie Mills so he was a good vocal producer. He wasn’t a good club producer, but he was a great pop and vocal producer, so she went to work with Reggie. I was smart enough to sign her to my production company, so when she wanted to work with somebody else, I said, “OK, just give me one part”, and everybody was cool with that. That one part turned out to be pretty good.

Was she still hanging out at Danceteria at this point? 

I think there was like six months, seven months between “Everybody” and then “Holiday”, which was the big song that Jellybean produced. It was “Holiday” that really put her on the map. I think the next single after “Everybody” was “Lucky Star”, which she wrote about me. I’m the lucky star. She wrote that after we got the deal.

So she did, dare I say it, love you?

I don’t think she could love anybody, not even Guy Ritchie. As I told Andrew [Motion], Madonna was a vegetarian in those days and now she’s shooting birds in fucking England, so that ought to tell you something.

To what extent was Madonna a product of Danceteria? How much of the early Madonna came out of the Danceteria aesthetic?

Getting back to what I said before, there were a lot of artists at Danceteria. Sade was the bartender, the Beastie Boys were there, LL Cool J was there. Keith Haring was there. Jean-Michel Basquiat. It was like Andy Warhol’s factory. It was just one of those moments in time, just a celestial creative moment when everybody was there. 

So to what extent was Madonna a product of that scene?

She had a look, she had a dance, she was a personality, she made a record. A lot of people made records then, you know? That was the same time as Konk, ESG and Liquid Liquid, so it wasn’t only her. There was Lydia Lunch before that. It was just a magical moment, where there was a lot of creative juices running around. Cyndi Lauper was there. Cyndi Lauper was in a band called the Blue Angels before she went solo. Cyndi did a rock thing. But looking back, Tim, those were the times of vinyl. This was before internet, before downloading. This was the time when you’d come from the studio, you’d make a dubplate and bring it to DJs. You could really break a record. You really had the power to do something with it. Somebody could come up to the DJ booth with a dubplate or a test pressing. Today you get 20 people bringing you CDs. It’s like, “OK, I’ll listen to it tomorrow”. If someone came to you with a white label, a test pressing, hey, you’re gonna listen to it and maybe you’ll play it. DJs like myself and François, Larry, we would get a white label, we’d listen to it and it would only take us ten seconds to know if we liked it or not. If we did we would play it and that’s what made us happy—playing a record for the first time. People like Larry, François, myself, Jellybean, we also knew how to set up a record and that was the magic. Bobby Shaw, who did promotion for Warner Brothers, you trusted him, you’d listen to a record if he brought it to you, and then you’d say, “Bobby, give me 15 minutes.” You’d play two records before his record and then you’d put his record on and they’d scream. You just can’t drop a new record; you’ve got to set it up. Some DJs set up records lyrically—they’re all about love—or some set it up musically. We all have different ways of setting it.

Was Bobby Shaw a key figure in the whole Madonna thing?

Bobby Shaw was very important. He was the promotion guy. Very important. I mean all those promotion guys, like Ray Caviano, Bobby Shaw, David Steel. 

When I wrote Love Saves the Day I interviewed the promotion guys—Bobby Shaw and others.

I think those guys are really important in the whole scheme of things.

So Bobby was hitting you with records all the time?

Bobby was the first club promoter of Madonna. Bobby Shaw is really important in her history. And for a lot of records after “Everybody”— “Call Me Mr. Telephone” by Cheyne was one—a lot of records Bobby was there for me, you know? Those guys really played an unsung role.

Tell me about your involvement with Malcolm McLaren and Bow Wow Wow. 

I knew Malcolm when I was gonna make a record with Vivienne Westwood at one point. I was working at Danceteria one night and Malcolm came up to me and said, “You’re fucking great, I want you to do the American mix of ‘I Want Candy’.” That  became my thing, doing the American mixes of English hits, making them more palatable to the American taste. I think “I Want Candy” was the first and then I did the second Bow Wow Wow single, “Baby, Oh No”. Madness “Our House” was my first number one record on the pop charts. Then I did the American mix of Kajagoogoo “Too Shy”. On those mixes I would make the beat a little bit funkier and I would make the sound a little bit brighter for American radio. That became my thing for a long time. If there was a hit record in England, I was hired to do the American mix when it was released in the States. I would do these crazy dub mixes on those songs on the B-side. If you listen to Madness “Our House”, the dub side is brilliant and it ends a capella. All of those a capellas that I put on the B-side, they’ve been sampled a million times. I always ended my dubs with an a capella. And I only did that because I wanted the DJ to have an easy way to mix out. I was doing the mix guy a favour.

Would you play these records?

Sure,  I’d come from the studio and play that shit immediately, yeah. At that same time I had bought a lathe from Sunshine Sound, which was where all of the older guys would do their mixes and make dubplates. I had a studio with Prime Cuts so we bought a lathe. I would go from the studio, make a dubplate and play it. I still have a lot of dubplates.

So these records—the Madness and Bow Wow Wow—these were records that were working at Danceteria? The English, poppier records were working?

Oh sure, they were my big hits. But that was the same time we had like Spandau Ballet, ABC, Simple Minds, Flock of Seagulls, Trevor Horn’s shit. There was the cool stuff, there was the commercial stuff. Then again, you have to remember this was the same time when MTV started. I didn’t want to play records that MTV played so I would still try to play stuff before it became video-friendly, before it was on MTV.


Because my whole concept is to play new music, although not as an educator. I don’t want to be an educator. I just want to play something new. Even if it’s not new, I’ll play it in a different way, so I’ll play a dub version or something. OK, maybe Madness “Our House” is on MTV, but I’ll play my dub version with two copies. But MTV changed what I played. Before MTV what I played was the shit and then MTV started playing what I was playing so I had to go somewhere else. I had to go deeper as a DJ. What I played became commercial so I had to search for something new. It was kind of crazy but those were times when Arthur Baker and John Robie or Jellybean or Larry or François, we’d always have these white labels that we’d exchange that wouldn’t go to MTV, that wouldn’t go to radio. We had our own thing going on that was special. 

Can I ask you more about your mixes. What about Affinity “Don’t Go Away”, a 1983 release? That was big at the Garage, right?

I mixed that. That was on my record company called Pow Wow. That became a Garage classic and it was also big in Jersey with Tony Humphries and Tee Scott. I love that record, I play that record, but I don’t know why those guys went crazy over it. That’s when Chris gave me my own label, 4th & Broadway. Chris put “Don’t Go Away” out on Mango, which was an Island subsidiary, and it becamse such a club hit Chris gave me a label called 4th & Broadway with Ahsley Newton in London. Ashley is now president of RCA in America; he had Circa Records after Island. I did “Love Ride” by Vicky Love, which was a huge hit. Chris gave me a label to put out all the stuff that I was doing at the time. I loved Chris Blackwell. I got hired as an AR guy, a bartender, but as my career evolved he kept me on board as AR or producer or whatever context I wanted to do.

What about your mix of Marcel King’s “Reach for Love”? You mixed that for Factory, right?

I was the first guy to put a vocal in a sampler. The first sampler was called the AMS, it came out of England. AMS went on to invent the SSL board. The AMS, you could get the sample and it would have a half a second. If you wanted one second or two seconds you’d have to pay more. Now the AMS was first used to put a snare drum sample and we would trigger the snare, record it, put it back in the sampler, and make the snare drum bigger and bigger and bigger. Jay Burnett, who was Arthur Baker’s engineer, was the first engineer to do that. He lives in London. He mixed all of Arthur’s stuff, “Planet Rock”, everything. He was the first to use a sampler and not use it as a sampler but instead to take a sound, sample it, EQ it, then sample it again, EQ it and reverb it, then sample it again, so the sound got bigger and bigger and bigger. I was the first to say, “Wait a minute, why can’t we put a vocal in this sampler?” And I did that when I remixed Marcel King “Reach for Love” on Factory records. What I did, I put the word “reach” in the sampler and I said to Jay, “How are we going to trigger this?” Because before you would trigger it with a sound from a tape you would trigger the sample with a drum sound. So Jay came up with this idea, we can trigger the sample with a microphone. So I stood there on the desk going “R-r-r-reach for love”. It was the first time a word was sampled and played live.

I’m going to have to get a video of you doing this because there’s no way I can describe it with words.

And I’ll tell you, my hands were bleeding after that mix but we figured out how to trigger a sample with a microphone. Then after that, OK, everybody did it. “R-r-r-reach for love”. But then again, that goes back to just us fucking around with technology, you know? 

What about your mix of Urban Blight “A Nite Out” on Sleeping Bag? Did you know Arthur Russell, who co-founded the record, or had ?

It was a real New York City kind of ska band that Will [Socolov] liked and Will thought I could do a production with them. I didn’t know Arthur. I turned Will onto Mantronix. Mantronix was the biggest hit he ever had but he was another Danceteria regular; I mean, one of the guys hanging out every night.

And how did the “Love Tempo” [Quando Quango] record come about? You mentioned Mike Pickering asked you to mix that record but we didn’t get into how you knew Mike.

After “Everybody” came out I went with Madonna on tour in the UK. I met Mike at the Haçienda and Mike asked me to mix “Love Tempo” with Butch Jones. I used the same engineer as I used on Madonna and Tony Wilson loved the mix. “Love Tempo” became a huge record in Mexico before anywhere else. Then I met the whole Factory crew, the Section 25 people and I went on to produce the Quando Quango album Pigs and Battleships. In terms of my career “Love Tempo” was a big record. It really gave me a lot of credibility having a hit on Factory Records because Factory had this aura of being this incredible label. Then I started working for Les Disques du Crépuscule in Belgium. Belgium was really important at that time—a lot of great music came out of Belgium—and at same time and “Love Tempo” got me a lot of credibility as a producer. That’s how I went on to mix Marcel King on Factory, Tuxedomoon on Cramboy, Isabelle Antena on Les Disques du Crépuscule. “Love Tempo” was just re-released this year on Disco not Disco. But “Love Tempo” for me in terms of my career was a big record and one of the records that I’m most proud of. Larry loved that record. Then we went on to produce “Genius” by Quando Quango, which some people consider to be the first British house record.

Mark Kamins mix of Quando Quango "Love Tempo. 

Mark Kamins mix of Quando Quango "Love Tempo. 

Could you tell me about the time when you DJed at the Haçienda? 

I played a couple of nights in the beginning.

How did it go?

I don’t know. That was the first time in my career when I started DJing outside of New York and, you know, you learn by your mistakes. I think the mistake I made in those days was when I went to a new country I played music that I thought they would like; I didn’t play what they hired me for. I learned a big lesson: that if someone is hiring me to play somewhere else I take the same box of records that I have with me because that’s what they’re hiring me for. In those days I was the first DJ to play in another country. I opened the door for every DJ to travel around the world, and in the beginning it didn’t work. I should have just taken the same box of records I was working with in New York and played them in Manchester or Rimini or Paris. Maybe I thought too much, “Well if I’m going to Paris, let me do this”, and that’s not what I was hired to do. I was hired to do the same thing I was doing the first time the guy who booked me heard me.

So what did you play at the Haçienda?

I probably played more Mancunian music than I played in New York, so that was probably the fatal mistake.

Did you ever hope to stay on in Manchester for a longer stint?

No, it was the beginning of guest DJs. At that time when you got a gig you were the DJ every night. It hadn’t evolved into two hours in one place every night.

What did you think of the Haçienda? It was partly modeled on Danceteria, the Loft and the Garage, wasn’t it?

It might have been influenced by New York but it was still a Mancunian club and they still played British music you know.

How did the atmosphere compare with New York?

The Haçienda was all about ecstasy. Ecstasy wasn’t that big in New York. I’m a bit confused about the Haçienda, to be honest with you. You’re in fucking England man, people are drinking more than they drink in New York. They were two different clubs. The only vibe that was going back and forth was the music, with me mixing “Love Tempo” or someone from the Haçienda mixing a New York record. That’s where the translation was. The vinyl was speaking for the clubs. But there wasn’t that much of an exchange of DJs. We talked about it but I don’t think it happened too much.  I remember the staff at the Haçienda: the manager, Paul, the security guy—they were great people—and obviously Tony Wilson.

What was the energy like at the Haçienda when you were there?

The bands played on the same floor as the dance floor so you had live music, dance music, live music, dance music, whereas Danceteria was live downstairs and dance music upstairs, which I think might have been a fundamental difference. The DJ both at the Haçienda was also really small. It was not a meeting point like the DJ booth at danceteria, where my booth could hold 10 to 15 people. The DJ booth at the Haçienda could hold two people. It’s hard to compare the clubs. It’s like comparing two cultures, two countries.

How did you get involved with the Beastie Boys? 

The first record on Def Jam was “Beastie Groove”—Def Jam 001. I did that with Rick Rubin and it was his first record. That’s when Rick Rubin lived in a dorm room in NYU. That was like four months after Madonna. “Everybody” was a hit so they obviously came to me and we made the record at Unique Studios in New York. The engineer was Jay Burnett and the concept was that I would produce the A-side and then in the middle of the record Rick Rubin would walk into the studio and go, “Yo,this record sucks man!” If you listen to the record Rick Rubin says, “Turn on the boom box” and I say “I’m out of here you punky, punky idiots!” We changed the EQ on the drums and it became this huge, huge sound and that became the sound of Def Jam. We didn’t plan it but it worked.

What did you do with the EQ?

If you listen to the record the EQ changes in the middle of the mix. I say, “I’m out of here you punky, punky idiots!” and all of a sudden these loud fuckin’ crazy drums.

Whose idea was that?

It just happened. It was really live. That story has never been told before.

Are you saying nobody had turned up the EQ on drums before?

During a mix? No, that was the first time. It was an idea. We tried and it and it just worked.

This was the first Beastie Boys rap record?

Yeah, it came after “Cookie Puss”, which was punk. The Beastie Boys and Def Jam were really born at Danceteria because Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons and the band members were just there, hanging out. All of a sudden Def Jam was on the map. Def Jam became, you know, an icon. It became a brand, it became a sound.

What did you think of the harder strand of rap that the Beasties championed? Did you play it? 

Oh yeah, I mean they were Danceteria people and they were the first white rappers, and Johnny Dynell, I produced “Jam Hot”, which was Johnny rapping. He was one of the first white guys to rap. I mean hip hop was a very Brooklyn-Bronx underground thing but white people got into hip hop and took it mainstream, into the rock world. Everything starting meshing.

Were the Beasties were still working at Danceteria at this time?

Before this they were working at the club as busyboys, toilet cleaners.

How soon after did they leave?

A couple of months. That record really blew up huge and they were really smart. I think they were the first to really embrace branding and the concept of branding. Defjam became a brand Run-D.M.C., LL Kool, the Beastie Boys. It was a real brand.

Were you still at Danceteria at this point? 

Yeah, but then I started traveling a lot to Japan, to Italy. I was the first DJ in Russia when the Wall came down. All of our careers started taking off different ways. 

When did you go to Japan?

I think ’87 or maybe ‘86. I opened Turia. In the 1970s there were Regine-style clubs with tables around the dance floors. This was a club without tables.

Mark Kamins in Japan. Courtesy of Tomohisa DrTommy Kawano.

Mark Kamins in Japan. Courtesy of Tomohisa DrTommy Kawano.

Was Japan the first place you travelled after Manchester?

I went to Italy and France—Le Bardouche and Le Palais in Paris in 1985, ‘86, ‘87. Italy was Riccione and Rimini because I was the first guy to play Italian records in New York so the Italians loved me.  

Did you play house music when it first started feeding into New York during 1985?

Sure all those records on Trax.

What did you make of house?

I liked the structure of it, I liked the breaks, the breakdowns. I liked the talking, because they weren’t really songs, they were like speeches. It was something different. It wasn’t a song anymore, it was a painting, it was a statement, and the piano chord became very important as a lead instrument.

Were you still playing little sets at this point?

Hip hop and house really went their own way and I really couldn’t mix the two. At that point I had to keep the train going in terms of the beat, and at that time I think Rudolf said let’s open up another room at hip hop for the club, so you would hear it in another room and I still continued to do my dance music thing downstairs. This was ’88. But there was a point where Rudolf started putting two or three DJs in different rooms. Eighty-eight I was at Mars, which was the best club I ever DJed in. Eighty-seven could have been Tunnel. Palladium was ’86.

So what happened at Palladium?

That was Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager after they got out of jail. They took over the old space that used to be the Academy of Music in New York. Before the Fillmore East the Academy of Music was where all the rock bands played. They had an amazing budget, it was meant to be the new Studio 54, and it was, and Steve hired me and Jellybean to do the opening week and neither of us did the right thing.

How come?

He hired me to play what I played at Danceteria and what I played at Dancteria did not work in that room and I thought, “Hey, this is Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager so maybe I should play more like Dancateria, but I was wrong. It didn’t work and they let me go after opening night and they let Jellybean go after opening night and they asked Larry Levan to play at Palladium. Larry was so smart. He didn’t play what he played at the Garage. He played something new—”Su su su studio” Peter Gabriel and that became the theme song of Palladlium.

How long did Larry last at Palladium?

He did one night a week for a year or whatever. But being a DJ and getting hired to open a new club; do you want them to play what you played at your old club, do you want them to do something new—you know you have to be clever. It’s hard for a DJ. When I have my room my room is my room. Danceteria was my room, Funhouse was Jellybean’s room, the Garage was Larry’s room, but if you get picked up and put in a new environment maybe your music’s not going to work and so, sure, you have to change with the times. It’s hard. It’s like an artist trying to make a new record after two years. Do I do what I did or do I do something new? It’s hard. I mean Madonna’s always done it because she’s always hired young producers; she always reinvents herself. It’s hard for a DJ to reinvent him or herself because you get known for a certain style.

So you went from Palladium to Mars

I did opening at Palladium and then they let me go and then we opened up Mars, which became probably the best club of my life. That was in 1988. That was the first club in the Meat Packing District. That was really cool. Mars was great.