The Zanzibar: the “Jersey Sound”?
“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:
- It was somewhere in New Jersey.
- Tony Humphries played there.
- 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