Ruth Slinger’s documentary on the early 90s NYC rave scene
Hey – anyone still out there?! Hope you enjoyed the Christmas and New Year break as much as I did. I’ve been very lazily getting back into the swing of things over the past week or so. I’m still wrapping up some bits for my interview with Abigail Adams – I thought that would be my first post for 2014, but then this tweet from Fact magazine showed while I was having my lunch last Friday afternoon. I wasn’t sure if it would be of personal interest at first – the first few scenes suggested this might document an aspect of the 90s New York music/club scene that doesn’t do a great deal for me. Something really drew me in from the start of the film though – maybe it’s the syrupy Brazilian accents (can’t get enough of them!), or perhaps because it’s such a loving portrait of Ruth’s brother (DJ Soul Slinger) and the scene he helped created. Whatever it was, I’m very glad I watched it – it covers a key aspect of New York that has many links to the house music that really does do it for me personally. Here’s the video if you’ve not come across it anyway, see for yourself!
As I’ve said before, 1992 has become a bit of a watershed for my own love affair with the bulk of New York’s dance music. Initially that was just because I was intrigued by the title of the Bobby Konders compilation cd (the lost era 1987-1992), but over time I’ve found it does correlate with a drop in amount of New York records I really enjoy being produced. There are notable exceptions of course – I’ve always loved Louie Vega and Kenny Dope, Kerri Chandler, Todd Edwards, Blaze and plenty of one-off tracks too – but in the main, I’ve found that there’s very little fun to be had trawling through stacks of dull mid nineties NY house.
Ruth’s film really highlights something about the way a lot of us who grew up in the 90s viewed the world. The Cold War was already ancient history, everything seemed possible – the 80s dreams that we might “live as one family in sweet harmony” somehow seemed to have become reality. We got to go to Pleasure Island for the best part of a decade and, whether or not it was all an illusion, there was a lot of fun to be had! The UK had its super clubs like Cream and Gatecrasher (rave culture here was in free fall by 92), Berlin had the Love Parade and New York wanted in on the action too. By the time I was old enough to actually get into UK nightclubs I could barely contain my excitement, but I soon found that I had to look hard to find places that played music I really liked – turns out it wasn’t always top of everyone’s list of priorities…
Anyway, back to the film – the first bit that piqued my musical interest is DJ DB’s recollection of coming over from the UK to DJ in New York about 10 minutes in. I knew that Frankie Bones had been the first DJ to really bring the UK rave culture back to New York with his Storm raves in Brooklyn in 1992, but I hadn’t realised that DJ DB’s N.A.S.A. parties had started in Manhattan the same year. I did a bit more digging and found the website of DJ Scotto, one of the guys that had started the N.A.S.A. raves with DJ DB and the filmmaker’s brother, Soul Slinger. It has this to say about his earliest parties:
In May 92, Scotto produced Manhattan’s first Rave, at the famous Studio 54 space (called the Ritz then), featuring the first USA appearance of ROZALLA, plus Dj Frankie Bones, a founding father of the USA techno scene and Storm Raves, plus Dj Danny Tenaglia and MOBY live
There’s Danny Tenaglia again! What’s interesting to me (having heard in Danny’s RBMA interview that he was more famous as a DJ in the UK than his native New York at that time) is finding that he’d be playing at a British-style rave rather than a New York clubnight. The music I knew him for in the mid-nineties was a kind of crossover between New York house and more European rave/trance sounds, so it makes sense that he was part of this scene. I wonder what kind of records he would have been playing? It was the same year as he did Code 718 – Equinox, so who knows:
The other bits that are of interest musically came out of the clips of interviews with Moby from 1995, although not for reasons I think he would have intended…
Moby: There’s no need to make 1 type of music any more – where before you had a country and western band or a folk band, now you can do anything and that’s what I wanna do – to be as open as possible and incorporate elements , you know – have punk rock elements and disco elements and folk elements and classical elements and throw it all together and see what happens. I think that’s what’s exciting about culture – when you have all these elements being combined in new ways. You know, that’s where rock and roll came from – it was combining black afro=american spiritual music with country and western and rhythm and blues and suddenly you had rock and roll. These elements that had never been in contact before now connecting – that’s what it’s like being alive at the end of the century, everything is post-modern and everything is post-structural. It’s like, the structural motifs don’t exist any more and you can do anything. You can borrow from a million different cultures and from a million different ways of life and sort of pick and choose. I think that’s pretty fascinating.
I’ll nail my colours to the mast – after the Mobility EP (which I love) and the Go remix, I’ve not heard anything by Moby that I’d choose to listen to again. I do wonder how much of his success was to do with releasing a hit record like Go at exactly the time when the major record labels were looking for its first “EDM” superstars. Whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to me like he ever managed to hit those heights again.
When he talks about everything being “post-modern” and “post-structural” in the film, I can’t help but feel it highlights something that New York lost in the 90s – some of its own individual identity. Maybe the whole western world did. We wanted to think we were all now part of this one global community, but the truth is that the world is too huge to really comprehend for any of us. Moby talks about being able to “borrow from a million different cultures and a million different ways of life and just pick and choose”, but how could he do anything other than scratch the surface of those ways of life? How could he create anything of substance from fleeting glimpses of unique cultures that have developed organically over centuries?
It also took me back to the RBMA interview with DJ Sprinkles when he talked about the divergence of house and techno in New York at the time:
DJ Sprinkles: For me, this is the first edition of the Go EP by Moby, the pinnacle of New York deep house at the time, and also this really interesting moment where right after that, you had this series of remix EPs. One was like this Twin Peaks sound remix thing and other ones were more techno and stuff. Those remixes I really had zero interest in, but this first EP, I guess this is about ‘92, that was when from this EP to the remixes the moment where house and techno became consolidated as genres in New York. So he moved to the techno side or the marketing was as such. To me, in New York it was also the way that techno functioned and house functioned, they had very different dynamics around sexuality and race and these sorts of things. Techno was basically like the heterosexual white boy club thing and house was more the Puerto Rican, African-American scene stuff. Within the drag community as well, transgender communities, you also had the club very divided between which girls would be at which clubs and what music was being played and stuff like that.
I can’t help but think this was the end of an era – not just of the 5 years or so I’ve been writing about, but of the decades that New York had been considered centre of the clubbing universe. I’m sure plenty of the people in the Ruth Slinger film would argue that NY Techno/Rave wasn’t purely a “heterosexual white boy club thing”, but it was certainly looking to Europe for inspiration in a way Europe had always previously looked to New York.
The dynamic had changed for NY/NJ producers too – where a record’s success had previously been measured by the reaction it got from the crowd at the New York clubs, now it was measured by the number of kids that bought your single in British towns like Doncaster and Clapton. The amount of crap that was getting released was incredible. It seems to me that in the early days, house music was being made by people in New York, for people in New York. That’s what the UK fell in love with and that’s what this blog is all about. More coming soon!