The History of New York Underground House
Music, art and spirituality formed that NY Sound, which expresses the diversity and complexity of the city’s population.
There has always been a typical NY Sound, even long before the term ‘House’ was cultivated. No matter if you look back at the ’60s or at today’s music-scene: The typical NY Sound has always captured the multiple energies of a city in which different communities came into contact with one another.
Rich music arrangements strongly influenced by Jazz, Soul, R&B, Latin, Gospel, Funk, Electro-Pop, New Wave, Punk and even Reggae contributed to the foundation for completely new music genres.¹ Simultaneously New York’s art-scene has always been strongly connected to its music-scene, enabled close interaction and even strengthened each other.
New York was the only place where I was going to find the intensity that I needed and wanted. I wanted intensity for my art and I wanted intensity for my life.²
— Keith Haring
The Beginning of a Transition
Serious roots of New York Underground House go back to the early ’70s at David Mancuso’s Loft parties: A pioneering template of social inclusion, diversity on the dancefloor, an innovative celebration of audio fidelity, an exploration of sounds.³
Mancuso played genre-expansive sets on his masterfully designed sound systems which remain the standard of DJs and club venues worldwide. His idea of a unique sound experience seemed to be an initial example for the subsequent establishment of New York Dance in the ’70s. The obsessive attitude to constantly improve the sound experience for his guests has become the root of New York Dance and modern dance in general.
The New York sound was smoother, you had the ability to listen to their soundsystem so loud without the eardrums feeling like its pushed in.⁴
- Nicky Siano
David Mancuso’s Loft parties strongly influenced the development of DJ-led dancing and New York City’s underground club culture. This kind of a communal music experience increased the capacity for people to interact and collaborate.⁵ An ecstatic atmosphere, further enhanced by the distribution of LSD, was created by the interaction between the DJ and the audience.⁶ It is important to know that before the Loft, most people went out dancing to a club with a band and live musicians.⁷
I had never heard that kind of soul music before, that deep underground psychedelic emotive soul⁸.
— Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy
Legendary DJ, producer and tastemaker Larry Levan, called the Loft his spiritual home⁹, where he took formative inspirations. Not surprisingly Larry adapted the principles of the Loft to a larger home: The Paradise Garage on King Street, New York City (1977–1987).
As arguably the most legendary nightclub of all, the Paradise Garage dominated the New York club-scene for a full decade. Even in the late ’70s when “Disco killed itself”¹⁰, caused by an inflation of bad music releases, it was Larry Levan who succesfully kept on feeding his ever hungry dancefloor.¹¹ He played all styles and tempo, showed a whole world of possibilities including echo tricks and equalizer gimnicks. The unique sound of the Garage didn’t even fit into the genre “Disco”.
We never called the music we played at the Garage “Disco”. It was R&B. Disco was a commercial sound. It was the music you heard on the white radio.¹²
— David DePino
The Fundamentally New Direction of Music in 1982
Beside the Paradise Garage additional important NY underground venues like Better Days, The Gallery or later Zanzibar and Soundfactory Bar, helped to manifest and popularize an idea of New York dance-culture which initiated at The Loft and found its peak at the Paradise Garage. In the year 1982 happened the convergence of the dance-scene in downtown. Dance music, voguing and gay culture were the forces which carried 1982 those combinations to a new level of intensity:¹³ Garage Music.
Garage music has close ties to disco/R&B, includes gospel-influenced piano riffs and female vocals. Although Garage music has been produced using the most up-to-date music technology, such as sampler, synthesizers or drum machines, they have not yet called it House music. In New York, House music evolved less radical than in Chicago:
New York didn’t truly develop a recognized House music scene of its own until 1988 with the success of Todd Terry.¹⁴
— Jesse Saunders
It may not have been the right time to radically change the complex musical arrangements, what the traditional New York sound was known for. Commands like “Jack your Body” didn’t fit into the feeling of grandeur and elegance.
From the early 80’s, New York developed a different style compared to Chicago House. At that time Garage music still dominated New York, but already began to evolve into House. It was a fluid transition, almost inconspicuous.
From 1983 new technical approaches towards music creation led to a sound that was deeper, rawer, and more designed to make people dance. For the first time ever, affordable synthesizers (e.g. Yamaha DX7, 1983), drum machines (e.g. AKAI MPC 60, 1988 or Roland TR series, ca 1983) and sampler (e.g. Ensoniq Mirage, 1984) enabled talented underground producers to create sophisticated recordings without the help of professional musicians or engineers. For example the Rhodes sound of the Yamaha DX7 was essential in the transition from R&B to Garage House.
Yamaha came out with something very close to the rhodes keyboard. Every musician from every genre wanted one.¹⁵
- Josh Milan
With the Yamaha DX-7, producers were able to include further natural instruments such as pianos, organs, flutes, vibes or horns. Instruments like these matched the diversity of the sound of New York. Before that time, suitable equipment was only affordable for professional studios. Thanks to full recall of sound settings, MIDI, weight and a low price, the DX-7 met the new way of producing music.
The earliest known New York House music productions, which let assume a new direction came from Boyd Jarvis¹⁶ and Blaze¹⁷ in the early-mid 80s. Subsequently a range of upcoming NY productions completed the creation of a new musical identity for the city which shaped New York House. While keeping true to its roots in R&B/Garage, NY House producers increased the use of drum machines, samplers and incorporated professional musicians.
The other thing in Newark
The “Jersey Sound” is a term more about the people and their culture, than about a specific sound. Although it is true that House music from New Jersey was more vocal and melody oriented, the more accurate distinction between the Jersey- and New York sound is the spirituality in which the musicians grew up. Many DJs/producers from New Jersey began their careers in church: E.g. Josh Milan began as an organ player. Adeva started her career as a singer in the church choir.
New York was more like, I can’t say a fashion show but they were more upscale than we were. It was like decadence, cash, sex, drugs. All we had [in Jersey] was hope, gospel and some kind of raw talent.¹⁸
— Kerri Chandler
Living in this environment, it is not surprising that Jersey musicians had a close relationship with R&B. With the passion and love for dance music, homegrown artists like Blaze, Crystal Waters, Shep Pettibone, Kerri Chandler, Kenny Bobien, Ce Ce Rogers, Burell Brothers, Romanthony, Michael Watford, Ace Mungin, Dj Basil and other Jersey acts, developed up-tempo R&B before it was later called Jersey House.
What the Paradise Garage was for New York, was the Club Zanzibar for Newark, New Jersey. An hour’s drive away from Brooklyn, the Zanz welcomed a predominately black and straight crowd celebrating alongside icons like Chaka Khan, Grace Jones and Lolleatta Halloway, who regularly were hanging out there.
With an avant-garde, experimental approach in the early 80s, Dj Tony Humphries became a key figure in the Jersey Sound. His pioneering mix show on KISS FM and his legendary residency at Zanzibar helped forging the Jersey Sound, a sometimes gritty, but always soulful style.
I figured out pretty quick just to play tracks that had more computer-driven drums, music with an open, dubby feel.¹⁹
— Tony Humphries
Further, Tony collaborated with one of the most influential record shop for Dance music in NY called Movin’ Records (Newark) to organize the event “Jersey Jams”, a showcase with local artists to support and release whose music. Tony’s local commitment helped to bring the Jersey Sound to a wider audience. Newark’s scene was proud about their own emerging style of House music.
A lot of times write ups and reporters would just say “New York” and New York would get all the hype, but we wasn’t from New York! So we [New Jersey] wanted to have our own identity.²⁰
— Ace Mungin
A time when Space Ibiza was in it’s glory years, and Bucketheads had just dropped their party anthem ‘The Bomb’. Strictly Rhythm were in their heyday with releases from the likes of Louie Vega, Erick Morillo and Kerri Chandler. New York House seemed to be a new essence for hitting the dance charts all around the globe. World famous musicians like Madonna, Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey cooperated with NY producers like Todd Terry, David Morales or Junior Vasquez, to make their songs compatible for the dancefloor. Some of their most well-known songs are actually based on the influence of New York House. This was the sound of the early/mid 90s, when everything was turning colorful for happy party people.
The success of New York DJs took them to Europe and the rest of the world. Especially in England, where a lot of noise was made with styles like Speed Garage or UK Garage. All with a strong influence by New York House²⁰. Even the US side was back influenced by the UK scene when Speed Garage elements found their way into NY productions.²¹
In the shine of success, everything from live artist turned to a producer/DJ based system. Due to the demand of major record labels and booking agencies, live musicians increasingly served the international business instead the local stage. That was handy for the clubs in NY, as a lot of upcoming DJs were cheaper and easy to set up, but on the long run New York’s House music scene was lacking personality on the stage.
There was no Ten City anymore. There was no Michael Watford anymore.²²
— Kerri Chandler
In the mid 90s, New York experienced a huge saturation of clubs, DJs and releases. Pushed by a mass demand of new popular music genres like Hip Hop, Grunge and Rave music, House music in New York began to change. No club belonged to a particular DJ anymore. Record labels released tons of CD compilations across every genre. The low production costs of the Compact Disc made it possible to spread music way more efficient than it was possible with vinyl. The inflation and immediate availability of any release resulted in an increasingly shorten satisfaction per release. The CD was the beginning of no limitation by digitization. Napster was just the tip of the iceberg.
Caused by the high frequency of new releases, the time for marketing and sales per release shortened. As a result, revenue per release has been increasingly declining due to shorter release intervals. To keep the level of income, labels and producers were forced to either keep a high amount of output or save production costs. In most cases NY producers choosed second. As a result, a large part of underground House music was produced without expensive live musicians. That hit New York’s House music in a central part of its identification.
The end of the 90s, and at the latest by the turn of the millennium, New York House marked a further turningpoint. With losing an organic feel in the music, driven by
- digital music production
- the mass market for cheap electronic musical instruments
- and the entry of many “bedroom” producers,
the sonic boundaries between NY House and new genres like Deep House, UK Garage, French House etc. blur. On the surface, many house tracks tended to sound similar in the new millennium. A new glorification of the good old days filled the discussions, but this distracted from the amazing branches that New York House had built. Below the surface music connoisseurs still find spritual, culturally rich and masterfully crafted House music with clear roots to the Sound of New York:
Vick Lavender Presents House Music For Soulful People Mix Tape
Vick Lavender presents house music for soulful people. Includes tracks from…Reel People, Louie Vega, Simon Grey, Vick…
Following on the footsteps of the early days of dance, Body & SOUL parties celebrate soulful grooves and artistic expression. Started as a sunday afternoon party in 1996, Body & SOUL soon became a hot spot for unique soulful House music in New York. Still today and even worldwide, Body & SOUL DJ legends Francois Kevorkian, Joaquin ‘Joe’ Claussell and Danny Krivit deliver the organic and spiritual feel of NY House music.
Similar to dancing: With an individual oriental touch, french dancer Sarah Bidaw continues to develop House Dance today. With a clear confession to the roots of dance in NY, she inspires a new generation of dance.
In fact, no categorization does justice to the richness of New York House, or Dance Music in general. It is an intellectual approach to understand an underground music movement, but the main part will remain untapped. Even giving “New York House” its name is just a retrospective approach of an intellectual classification. People back then just knew “Dance”.
Most DJs and producer even get along without any words. Who wants to understand them needs to go to the clubs. In the club these words are dumb and helpless.
1. Tony Humphries, Maestro, boilerroom.tv/recording/maestro at 57:35
2. Tim Lawrence, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980 — 1983, 2016, page 473
3. Jeff “Chairman” Mao, Nightclubbing: The Loft, daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2018/02/the-loft-nightclubbing
4. Red Bull Music Academy, Alex Rosner: Shaping the Sound of New York, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv8mju2-gHI at 01:30
5. Tim Lawrence, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980 — 1983, 2016, page 125
6. Tony Fletcher, All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927–77, 2009, page 289
7. Tommie Sunshine, David Mancuso Remembered: ‘There Would Be No Rave, No Festival, No EDM Without Him’, www.billboard.com/articles/news/dance/7581312/david-mancuso-tribute-tommie-sunshine
8. Jeff “Chairman” Mao, Nightclubbing: The Loft, daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2018/02/the-loft-nightclubbing
9. Bill Brewster, Last Night a Dj Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, 2014, page 296
10. Anthony Haden-Guest, The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, 2015
11. Bill Brewster, Last Night a Dj Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, 2014, page 301
12. Tim Lawrence, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980 — 1983, 2016, page 200
13. Tim Lawrence, Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980 — 1983, 2016, page 338
14. Saunders, Jesse. House Music: The Real Story. 2007. p. 118
15. Josh Milan. Personal note.
16. Boyd Jarvis — Stomp, 1982, https://www.discogs.com/Boyd-Jarvis-Stomp-EP/release/6819867
17. Blaze — If You Should Need A Friend (The Friendship Mix), 1987, https://www.discogs.com/Blaze-If-You-Should-Need-A-Friend/release/52760
18. Kerri Chandler, Attack Magazin, 2012, https://www.attackmagazine.com/features/interview/kerri-chandler/2/
19. Tony Humphries, Resident Advisor, Zanzibar, Kiss FM and the Jersey sound — Bruce Tantum spends time with the revered veteran DJ Tony Humphries. 2017, https://www.residentadvisor.net/features/3076
20. afterthegarage, Ace Mungin and the roots of house music in New Jersey: part 2, 2013, https://afterthegarage.com/2013/12/09/ace-mungin-and-the-roots-of-house-music-in-new-jersey-part-2/
21. 95 North Presents Laura Harris – Bring Back The Love (Spaced Out Dub), 1998, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvQeXTHMcUQ
22. Kerri Chandler, Kerri Chandler Lecture — Red Bull Music Academy, Seattle, 2005, 16:32, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Igx6IFXz0D4
Paradise Garage — International Fan Community
Paris is Burning — Ball Culture in New York (Film)
NYC House Scene Documentary from the 90’s
Tim Lawrence Articles on the NYC dance scene
afterthegarage — The Deep House sound of Post-Paradise Garage NYCMemories of the Paradise Garage
Toru S. Magic Cucumbers — NY-House mixes
This article was written during the development of the website www.new-york-underground-house-beats.com.