Love Injection: NYC Nightlife’s Time Capsule
How Paul Raffaele & Barbie Bertisch’s B&W zine became the unofficial chronicle of the modern NYC dance music scene.
Fate strikes when it will, so it’s only with hindsight that we can see the moment when happenstance sets and hardens into destiny; when accident becomes purpose. In 2014, Paul Raffaele was at an in-between place: he was still struggling with the dissolution of his regular, roving party, the Dog & Pony Show, and was only beginning to find his footing at Vice, where he’d recently been hired as an art director. Raffaele had spent years in commercial after-hours mega clubs, cutting his teeth as an in-house graphic designer and, as he puts it, the “respectful opener” DJ at Pacha, from 2007 to 2014. He found that too much of his identity was tied up in the fickle and pandering world of these clubs, something he came to see as holding him back.
It was the seeds of this frustration that beget the Dog & Pony Show, which he started, in 2010, with his best friend since childhood, Dave Kers. Raffaele aimed to satisfy his growing interest in classic dance culture by breaking out of the uptown nightlife circuit and producing parties in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Personal disputes eventually got in the way, though, and, in 2013, he and Kers parted. What had started as an earnest effort to bring a little underground soul into his EDM-hued reality (the first party was with Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin of Mister Saturday Night, and Neil Aline of Le Bain, Respect Is Burning, and Chez Music), Dog & Pony had lost its way, and rather than push it forward solo, Raffaele decided to start anew.
The first project he began as a free man was Most Excellent Unlimited, a vinyl record label with a fixation on shepherding old New York sounds and attitudes into the present day. MXU became home to countless Danny Krivit edits, for example, as well as a series of “breaks, beats, and loops” by NYC stalwarts such as Bruce Forest, Justin Van Der Volgen, Phil Moffa, Justin Strauss, Alex from Tokyo, Jacques Renault, and others. As he was getting the imprint off the ground, he remembers reading the Daily Note, Red Bull Music Academy’s newsprint publication, which functioned as a companion to the month-long series of courses, lectures, and events the multinational hosted in NYC. The Daily Note became a digital-only operation when the RBMA NYC term concluded, at the end of May 2013, and, as a result, Paul found himself staring at a void. “It was insane to me,” he reminisces. “I saw it at the Bedford L stop. Larry Levan was on the cover with Grace Jones. They celebrated heritage dance music, but then you opened it up and it was, like, the top five New York resident DJs, and it was people I knew. I was like, Wow, this is really cool, how this content is sitting next to these really fresh things and these really old things.”
And that’s when fate showed its hand. If the Daily Note had to go, something also had to fill the vacuum it left, and Paul was the unassumingly perfect person for the job. A guy who had always seen himself as a party promoter and music producer suddenly found that he could pivot his current occupations and passions into publishing. Love Injection was born.
Paul led off the first issue, which came out as a run of three hundred in early 2015, with a photo essay by Aline and an interview with Bunker-affiliate and much-loved New York DJ Mike Servito. The decision to run full transcripts of interviews arose out of pragmatism more than anything: “I’m not a writer,” Paul says, “and I didn’t have any money to pay writers, so I thought to do transcripts.” Once he realized transcribing, too, was time-consuming — it could easily take him ten hours to transcribe and tune up a one-hour interview — he knew he had to get more hands on deck, and that’s when he reached out to yours truly, Nik Mercer, for some advice and input. (Some context: I worked, from 2006 to 2013, as an editor and contributor at the now-defunct Anthem magazine, a fact of which Raffaele was aware.) A chat over coffee led to an arrangement: Mercer would transcribe and edit, Raffaele would bring in interviews.
Fate stepped in again at this time — January 4, 2015, to be precise — when Raffaele met Barbie Bertisch, with whom he now lives and runs Love Injection, at Academy Records, in Greenpoint. Looking for an excuse to ask her out, he proposed she “participate in the launch party.” Barbie, who’s from Argentina, spent most of her teenage years in Miami, where her family moved in the early aughts. While there, she began exploring her musical curiosities by attending parties like Poplife and Revolver, and attaching herself to the social groups they embodied. Eventually, she continued her northern migration, finding herself in New York, looking to parlay her love for publishing (she’d managed a “Hypebeast-type blog in ’07, ’08”) and fashion (her major at the Art Institute of Miami) into a full-time gig, which she landed after navigating her way through a maze of internships. In the midst of all this, she made two key discoveries: Tim Lawrence’s definitive New York City dance music scene history Love Saves the Day, and the Joy and Loft parties. These accelerated a shift in her life from a tangential relation with music to full immersion in the sound scene. It became her mission to start DJing, to start connecting with the faces and names behind New York’s club landscape. Her bumping into Paul couldn’t have been more serendipitous.
It turned out that Paul and Barbie’s musical trajectories would complement one another’s perfectly: they each brought different aspects of the music world into the mix. But you couldn’t have predicted that from their starting points. For one, Paul spent his early years not exactly swimming in the world of music. He was a Staten Island kid raised by strict parents with a total lack of interest in music other than the Top 40 and mainstream. “There was no music in my house. My family didn’t turn me on to anything. It was just pop music, and they didn’t have a point of view on what’s good and what’s not. I found all that on my own.” For quite a while, the finding was passive; whatever his friends were into was what he was into. At some point in his early teens, though, one of his aunts inadvertently introduced him to a series of bootleg mixtapes, each themed around a different superstar DJ or commercial nightclub, that was being hawked in the city. Paul was hooked at once: he was intoxicated by the tribal, trance, big-room house that was packed onto the discs. Soon, like so many before him, he began sneaking off into Manhattan, forty-five minutes away by car, for forays to Exit (now Terminal 5), Avalon (formerly Limelight), Spirit (formerly Twilo), and Pacha. While he doesn’t feel much nostalgia for the music he was consuming and the bridge-and-tunnel culture in which he was participating, he appreciates the period as being his “first nighttime experience”; Paul had never been to a club, let alone a concert, before he came in contact with the West Twenties, a hotbed of clubs. And if it were not for these journeys out of Staten, he would’ve never met Rob Fernandez, a prominent promoter and NYC nightlife architect, who had been active from the early 80s on. (Rob tragically, suddenly passed away in 2015.) Rob, then at Pacha, helped Paul land his first job at the venue, which, while often unglamorous and trying (“the hours I kept were insane”), satisfied his needs at the time and set him on the path he wanted to pursue of blending his after-dark interests with his day job ambitions. After several years of commuting to Manhattan from Staten for work, Paul finally moved to Hell’s Kitchen, in 2012, thanks to friend and mentor, Phil Moffa. Prior to that, Paul had gone to New York Institute of Technology, “a shit design school — a shit school,” for his bachelor of fine arts, that he embraced purely because it allowed him to stay in the city as he was falling into the dance music scene. A job that required he apply the degree was a godsend.
But, really, it wasn’t until Paul and Barbie met that the previous decade-plus of his life began to harmonize and congeal — and that hers became more fulfilling, rewarding, livable. “It makes for a really nice balance in our lives now because I teach her about the legacy of New York dance music and she teaches me about rock,” Paul says. “I knew almost nothing about rock and roll.” “And I knew nothing about big-room dance music,” Barbie, who was cut from post-punk, electroclash, and indie stock, concedes. It’s clear that, while Love Injection started before they found one another, it likely wouldn’t have lasted two years, let alone one, had they not. The foundational characteristics — the coverage of hyperlocal stories, the black-and-white design motif, the uncut Q&As — were all worthy of further exploration, but Paul needed a partner with whom to realize and distill them. Without a guiding ethos and mission statement, Love Injection could’ve well folded up as quickly as it began. Now, with about three dozen monthly issues in the can, Paul and Barbie are finally beginning to feel comfortable and easy about the whole process, from beginning to end, and appreciative of the respect and acclaim they’ve garnered during its lifetime. It makes sense: they have around two hundred subscribers, a handful of committed local, domestic, and international advertisers, and a dedicated network of brick-and-mortar shops around the globe pushing the zine. But with success comes scale, and scale demands money. Now, the dilemma is how to increase the print run, thereby widening the distribution net, without compromising quality or increasing costs so much so that they find themselves in the red, even after factoring in the modest amount they capture from ads and occasional sponsorship deals with brands like Perrier and Boiler Room.
“The reason people like us is because we’ve figured out how to cut through the digital noise, and that’s by ignoring digital” — Paul Raffaele
Because ad dollars are not unlikely to increase but circulation is, Paul and Barbie are left in the tricky position of feeling the need to charge for Love Injection. Even with the collection of totes and T-shirts they’re now selling, it’s “financially very hard,” Barbie says, and, Paul clarifies, “impossible to scale” with the model as is. Also, they’re concerned “free” implies “valueless,” something tough not to observe when even the most enthusiastic of supporters, like Chelsea’s enduring art bookstore, Printed Matter, relegate the rag to the heap of flyers for gallery openings and pamphlets for painting workshops, largely because, without a price tag, it doesn’t have an apparent shelf space in the store proper. “The only regret I have is not starting this in retail mode,” Paul confesses. “Trying to get some money for it and then figuring out a way to reverse-engineer it so it could go free eventually [would’ve been easier than] starting free. There’s no way to do that quickly.” But they’re committed to working out a solution: “We played the long game and did it for three years for free, and we still want it to be free for New York City. This whole thing is a time capsule for New York, and that’s how we still see it, and we’re going to continue pushing content out that relates to that. It will still be free here; I want it to be special for New York.”
As the couple grapples with this dilemma, they take pride and solace in knowing they’re the most together and buttoned up they’ve ever been. “This is the first time we’ve been ahead,” says Barbie, referring to their editorial calendar. Instead of any given month’s issue coming out during week four, they’re guaranteeing they’ll land in mailboxes and boutiques much closer to the first. And content is no longer a struggle to find, though drawing a line between any subject and Love Injection’s home of New York can be a challenge. Still, they’re in a good position and brimming with excitement for what 2018 holds. “We’re trying to get it together because I’d love for it to be the thing I work on all the time,” Paul proclaims.
“We’re part of a community ultimately… we’ve dedicated our lives to this.” — Barbie Bertisch
To get there, however, they’re going to have to better consolidate all their creative efforts under one umbrella. In addition to the zine, Paul and Barbie continue to DJ and host a weekly internet radio show at the Lot, in Williamsburg, and coordinate the New York chapter of Classic Album Sundays, an audiophile-geared series of events that each revolve around the celebration of one seminal long-player. (The CAS opportunity incidentally came about through Love Injection; its founder, Loft alum Colleen “DJ Cosmo” Murphy, took a liking to the pair after she was featured in the mag and invited them to participate in orchestrating the NYC offshoot of her lauded London gathering.) Thus far, though, they’ve done everything organically and humbly: there’s a Love Injection website, but it isn’t home to any articles; there’re social media accounts, but they’re spartan and dry. “Digital content is just not at all a priority because there’s just too much,” Paul asserts. “The reason people like us is because we’ve figured out how to cut through the digital noise, and that’s by ignoring digital.” In the end, the question isn’t if Paul and Barbie will achieve their dreams, but when. “We’re part of a community ultimately,” Barbie asserts. “We’ve dedicated our lives to this.” If history has taught us anything, it’s that love will indeed save the day.
Words: Nik Mercer // Photos: Chris Mayes-Wright