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The Zanzibar: the “Jersey Sound”?

November 9, 2013

“The Jersey Sound”

This term has confused me for a while.

I grew up in a small town north of Liverpool called Southport – it always confused me a bit too.  Southport exists mainly for golf and old people, but for those that know it was also the home for many years of the best soulful house music event in the UK – the Southport Weekender.  That rubbed off on us younguns I reckon; even on those (like me) who never got to set foot on the sacred Pontin’s concrete til after they’d flown the nest.  While I was still there doing A-levels in the mid 90s, it seemed like everyone was a DJ and everyone was playing deep, soulful US House and Garage.

I eventually came to understand that what I had always known as Garage was actually called the “Jersey Sound” in the US.  Apparently it was us Brits that had got NYC’s Garage sound mixed up with Jersey’s more vocal, soulful thing, but when I started looking into early New York house music a year ago, I started to question the truth of this.  Lots of the New York, Brooklyn and Jersey guys seemed to be popping up on the same records.  Their styles, at least in the early days, seemed to me to be fairly interchangeable.  For every soulful, vocal house track from New York’s Louie Vega there was a dirty, underground track from 2 Men From Jersey or even the Burrell Brothers (yep, Jersey). Quark records – Gospel House Central – turned out to be from New York (courtesy of Curtis Urbina from the Bronx). Undoubtedly, some of the most talented musicians in NY/NJ house were from New Jersey and the Gospel influence is clear in their music, but were they really distinct “sounds” (like, say, Acid House, Deep House and Hip House in Chicago)?

What I know New Jersey definitely did have throughout the 80s was Abigail Adam’s hugely influential record shop Movin’ records (Kevin Hedge volunteered there before starting Blaze with Josh Milan and Chris Herbert*) and on the second floor of the infamous Lincoln motel, the Zanzibar nightclub.  I started thinking: if its not about the records, maybe its the clubs and DJs that defined the “New Jersey sound”?

Up until about a week ago, I knew a grand total of three things about the Zanzibar:

  1. It was somewhere in New Jersey.
  2. Tony Humphries played there.
  3. It was about the only club in the mid to late 80s considered to be as influential as the Paradise Garage

In fact, I thought I knew a bit more than that, but I’m almost too embarrassed to admit it… I was pretty sure that it was some fabulous open air super-club, hidden away on an affluent Jersey shoreline – somewhere like Leonard DiCaprio’s gaff in The Great Gatsby.  A little bit of reading has put paid to that notion – in fact some of the interviews have left me a bit traumatised (like this one with Kerri Chandler – not for the faint hearted). Turns out New Jersey isn’t quite the Hamptons after all…

The proverb goes “smooth seas do not make skilful sailors” and there were few more skilful DJs than those at the Zanzibar, from original resident Hippie Torrales, to 80s heavyweights Larry Patterson and Tee Scott right through to Tony Humphries.  Again though, having listened to lots of great mixes by these guys, there’s still nothing I’ve heard that would suggest a “Jersey sound” that was distinctive from the sound of the New York clubs like the Paradise Garage, The Choice and Wild Pitch.  This one by Tony Humphries live from the Zanzibar in 1988 is a particular favourite – Chicago acid into disco into vocal NY/NJ house – my kind of party!

So the question still remains, New York vs New Jersey House – what’s the difference?  Interestingly, in Tony’s biography on Resident Advisor it says this:

By the mid to late 80’s, Tony became the sole helmsman weaving the tunes three nights a week, thus making dance music superstars out of local talent embedded in the heartland of Newark and her surrounding areas. Summoned across the Atlantic by the British in 1987. The “Jersey Sound” was coined by their press.

Outside of a few lads in the Mixmag office looking for titles for their next article, did anyone at the end of the 80s consider New York and New Jersey to have distinctive sounds?  Let me know!!

*update: bit of a fact check cock up – I previously wrote that Boyd Jarvis had volunteered at Movin records, I meant to say Kevin Hedge! Oops… It’s fixed with a link now anyway

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  1. Kai Fikentscher permalink

    In chapter VI of my book “‘You Better Work’ Underground Dance Music in New York City” (Wesleyan University Press, 2000), under the heading “The House-Gospel Connection” I discuss – albeit briefly – the “Jersey Sound.” It did exist, before Tony Humphries went to London, before the Burrell twins signed with Virgin UK, before Blaze teamed up with Mel Cheren’s Westend Record in New York. The current state of affairs of the “Jersey Sound” is another issue.

    • Hi Kai – thanks for getting in touch! I have your book, in fact I first suggested to a friend of mine I might start writing a blog after he spotted I was reading it early this summer. I go back to it regularly, but will have another look at chapter 4 when I get home from work!

    • Ralph McNeal permalink

      Where can I get a copy of your book stateside??

    • Christopher Flowers permalink

      Kai…I have that book in my bag right now. I’ve been re-reading for years. One of the more “truthful” books about the culture, I’ve read so far. It pays homage to the people from whence it came.

  2. Ralph McNeal permalink

    The book titled “Blue” by Gary Jardim paints the whole picture about the sound coming from Jersey during the early to late 70s….

    • Hi Ralph – yes, it turns out that it’s actually volume 2 of Gary’s book that focused more on the late 80s and early 90s. It’s a great book!

  3. Christopter permalink

    To understand the Jersey Sound is to understand the people & the culture from which it sprang. Newark, New Jersey has a long musical history going back to the Jazz Age of the 1920’s & 1930’s. It was known as “little Harlem” and there was scores of nightclubs and dance halls where the top Jazz artists of the day stopped and performed before hitting Harlem nightstops. There has always been a strong Black population in Newark, especially in the 1950’s and 1960’s (the last of the Great Migration from the South). The “white flight” after the 1967 riots seem to solidify Newark’s reputation as being a predominant black city (which is really not the case).

    When Disco suddenly became “the” music to dance to (but you have to remember, music and social dancing for Black folks is like the very air we breathe…we were always dancing and making music) young Newark & Essex County Black teenagers and young adults developed an uncanny affinity for it unlike Black teens in NYC (from what I’ve experienced as a Black teen in the mid to late 1970s) or anywhere in the country for that matter because the residue of Disco still resounds in Newark’s Black community. There were many clubs and mobile DJ events that predated Club Zanzibar (was actually Abe’s Disco), New Experience which became Club Sensations, Shaniques, Paradisco, El Castille, Sultan 2001, Doops and the underground Le Jock where Larry Patterson was its resident and future Club Zanzibar Creative Directors/Managers Al Murphy and Shelton Hayes ran. Mark IV Disco & G.O.L.D. Productions, two of most popular mobile DJ outfits that all the young Black teens and young adults supported. They actually groomed us for what was to become Club Zanzibar and New Experience and of course, Docks.

    Newark, in the late 70’s was DISCO CRAZY and it has not stopped since. There is NO other predominately Black city in America where you can hear uptempo 4/4 R&B dance music on the streets, booming out of cars and local bars. TEven the hardcore thugs know the music because they grew up on it, “Club Music” is what we called it and by some who haven’t gone out since the late 70’s and early 80’s. But, It was more of the R&B flavored Disco records, uptempo R&B LP cuts, some Eurodisco but not all of it…mostly the ones that has some funk and soul elements. Also, a very very very important influence of the future Jersey Sound producers/artists was the church. There are churches everywhere in Newark. Once I counted at least 15 churches within a four block radius. So,the Black kids respected the art of singing, especially gospel singing. Vocals was ALWAYS important at the clubs/parties in Newark. Club Zanzibar was just like the Apollo in Harlem, if you didn’t sang, you got booed off the stage! They showed no mercy! Of course, we got into the instrumentals, “Lust” – Rinder & Lewis, “Cocomotion” – El Coco (a big tune in the Black club scene in Newark (across the board), “Disco Circus” – Martin Circus, “Bra” – Cymande, and of course, MFSB’s “Love Is The Message” to name a few. However, it was the songs that made the difference. This is around 1976 up to 1982. Let’s not get into the New Wave & Punk period that the Black kids were into that was played at both Zanzibar and the Garage. (Zanzibar really went nuts over New Wave/DOR).

    With the Paradise Garage being in New York City, it was a more mixture of people, Black, Latino, some Whites. NYC is the the big melting pot, you’re going to have more diversity, but being a NJ Black teenager of the post Civil Rights era, the club scene that me and my friends attended in Newark was predominately Black and straight, but they were wide open to the music. So, the music of Zanzibar, New Experience/Club Sensations etc. was a little more grittier and funkier than the Paradise Garage. Don’t get me wrong, Larry Levan was funky, no doubt about it! But to satisfy the music tastes of those Black kids in Newark, it was a little more lowdown. Even though you heard the top hits in the Garage and Zanz, Newark had a just different kind of funk & soul and it manifested itself in the Jersey Sound of the mid 80’s. As an example, those “demo” Colonel Abrams songs like “Running”, “Release The Tension” and “Celebrate” I didn’t hear them at the Paradise Garage…straight Zanzibar. Also, “Stand On The Word” by the Celestial Choir was NOT a Garage Classic! Larry Patterson used to drop that tune on us, early in the morning in late 1983. I remember he was a guest DJ at the Garage and we left Zanzibar to hear him play and when he dropped “Stand On The Word” it was kinda new to those Garage heads, of course they didn’t react the way we reacted to it because Patterson was banging in at Zanzibar. In the same token, “Life Is Something Special” – NYC Peech Boys wasn’t a big record at Zanzibar, and that was funky as hell, but a different kind of funk for Newark. Garage had their records and Zanz had theirs and they both shared records in common. To me, the Paradise Garage sound was the Peech Boys, Manfriday, Black Mamba etc.. Because Larry Levan played all kinds of music, so did Larry Patterson, so did Hippie Torrales, so did Tee Scott, and so did Tony Humphries.

    • Wow – thanks for the info Christopher, some more digging to be done here!

      • Christopher Flowers permalink

        No problem. The accurate story of Jersey’s contribution to Dance Music Culture has yet to be told. It is shrouded in mystery, poor memories, inaccuracies, people trying to write themselves in the “professional” history with no proof or documentation. It’s a big mess. Not to mention, the egos, vainglory, pride, envy, jealousy, phew! But, at the end of the day, some great songs that went around the world come out of Jersey!

      • Ralph permalink

        The book “Blue” by Gary Jardine do you have?

    • Ralph permalink

      Finally another witness!! A witness who experienced the movement! Many have forgotten Newark and her contributions to the club scene… Way to cover the movement… But don’t forget about Zigs…

    • Chris is very authentic and accurate in his account of the Jersey Sound. No more digging to be done as there is no clearer picture to be painted.

    • greg permalink

      go to youtube and pull up twin sound records jersey city dj`s with sounds from days gone by

    • Omar B Moore (Former, permalink

      Chris you nailed it! You told the real story about House Heads from Jersey
      . Im very Impressed!

  4. Ralph permalink

    Many also forget that it was Al Murphy who had Larry Levan play at Zans on Weds during the summer of ’79.. I remember working for the Summer Youth Program and all of us getting “geeked” up because we all knew that Larry was going to spin that Wednesday.. Great times….

  5. I was knee deep in the house music culture in the mid 80s and of course never heard the retrospective terms used to describe it now, “Jersey Sound”, etc.. Given that, there were distinctions in the type of clubs that existed in both NY/NJ. Zanz was in Jersey, but had more of a Garage feel and sound to it. While the Garage crowd went to Zanz on Wednesday night, the hardcore would have considered other popular Jersey spots like Club 88 or The Cheetah Club a bit too “pop house”. Same records, but Jersey djs allowed for more vocals and attempted to satisfy the crowds need to hear the popular club cuts of the day intermixed with some classic disco. These were clubs for the crowds, where you knew what you’d hear week to week. The Garage and Zanz were clubs for the djs and had a more Avant garde, experimental approach. Jersey house was R&B on steroids. Soulful, vocal with that heavy baseline. When you did hear a top 40 cut at Zanz/garage it was barely​ recognizable as it was breifly mixed into the trance like sound that was a staple at those two clubs.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Abigail Adams and Movin’ records – The Jersey Sound | afterthegarage
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