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by Kerri Mason

August 29, 2012

An NYC Clubber's Diary: Revisiting the 21st Century's Hottest Dance Floors

by Kerri Mason  |  August 29, 2012

Today's guest essay for Rhapsody's 2012 Dance-Music Spectacular comes from Billboard writer Kerri Mason, who holds forth on both the journalism and marketing sides of the music biz at hotwaterinc.tumblr.com. Enjoy.

We started going to nightclubs as under-21 New York University students. It was 1998, a post-grunge era: I was listening to a lot of Ani DiFranco, which was kind of expected for a freshman women's studies major (perhaps it still is). But that evergreen soundtrack was also indicative of the in-between times. I remember albums from Lauryn Hill and Roni Size blowing our minds, and Radiohead starting their climb toward legendary status. But after the full-on distorted-guitar slackerdom of the decade before, there was no reigning popular sound at the dawn of the 21st century.

The next decade of my life would indeed take on a particular beat, though, when our cross-town N.Y.C. nightclub wanderings -- from the cavernous Tunnel to the still-creepy Limelight to International Fridays at Twilo (still the best-sounding club of all time) -- finally led us to Vinyl's unassuming side-street door. You can read all about it in my blog post here, but Vinyl and its DJ, Danny Tenaglia, welcomed me into a world of New York house music and a subcultural heritage that started before my birth.

The focus of Vinyl -- and all the music-first clubs of that time -- was the dancefloor, an almost sacred space upon which cell phones, cameras and even passive standing were not allowed. But a lot of my music education happened off that floor, on the back-room benches, in next-day phone chats, through unlabeled CD-R exchanges, or while flipping through record-store bins. A lot of what I learned was passed down from my fellow dancers.

New York's rich dance history happened in chunks -- short stretches of time, or geographical pockets, sometimes defined by a nightclub's four walls -- and Vinyl was packed with people who had been converted within different ones. The beauty of Tenaglia was that he played music from nearly all of them, plus the dark, percussive and progressive sounds of the day, in one time-traveling blend. That made for one hell of a live-action education.

Tenaglia and many of his contemporaries came of age to Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage (1977-'87), considered the first "modern dance club" because of Levan's open music policy, propensity for long sets and the community that developed within the club. House music was still new and more closely tied to disco and R&B at that time, but Levan experimented with everything from Tom Tom Club to Kraftwerk to ESG (heroes to indie-dance scenesters, including the DFA crew). So a lot of the music from this period has a certain quirk and groove.

I remember the first time I listened to disco queen Loleatta Holloway's "Love Sensation," one of the most sampled records (or at least vocal lines) of all time. Out jumped Black Box, Marky Mark, Samantha Fox ... all the radio baiters who had used Holloway's God-sized voice to do what they could not: Did you mean that this music had been there all along, and I had only been hearing disembodied and commoditized snippets of it?

Junior Vasquez's time at Sound Factory (1989-'95) introduced hip-hop to the mix. The tracks that were his signatures, like Fast Eddie's "Let's Go," bore the breakbeats and choppy samples of the new musical form, reinterpreted for an underground club crowd. Factory heads were on Tenaglia's floor, and sometimes, around 4 a.m., he'd play Wild Pitch sets just for them: tracks from Chicago-born DJ Pierre's many aliases, all using the slow-building, syncopated, bang-swoosh style. See "Master Blaster," "Generate Power" and "Atom Bomb."

At the end of the '90s, house music started to sound ... well, epic. European trance and techno were filtering into everything from diva house (Kristine W.'s "Feel What You Want," produced by Dido's bro Rollo) to funky slow rollers (Katcha's "Touched by God), setting the stage for the Dutch onslaught that would conquer the mainstream a decade later. Tenaglia and Vasquez swapped residencies at big-room clubs with giant sound systems: They both played Tunnel and Twilo at one time or another, and Vasquez spent a year (1996-'97) at The Palladium, a stunning venue that once made the cover of Architectural Digest. It was torn down and made into an N.Y.U. dorm with the same name; my first off-campus apartment faced the construction site.

The irony of that was not lost on me, or the other newbies at Vinyl. Between the mythology of The Garage and all the other clubs of that era and before (Funhouse, The Loft, Better Days ... so many), the just-missed big-room fantasy of Palladium, the city's shutdown of Twilo in May 2001, and then, September 11, 2001, we often felt that we had missed New York nightlife at its most vibrant and urgent. Many would say we did.

Ours was a transitional period, and modern house's last private moments with its DJ heroes and original acolytes; the last time everyone participating knew the whole story. The music that originated during that time, that Tenaglia premiered at Vinyl (setting off our fanatical hunt for a vinyl copy, or at least a burn), sits in an in-between place in dance history, too. His remixes of Sapphirecut's "Free Your Mind" or Blondie's "Nothing But the Girl" (that's a bootleg, but worth finding) sound like straight-up trance; Superchumbo's "Revolution" and remix of Missy Elliott were bitchy, tribal upshots of the Sound Factory era. Kings of Tomorrow's heart-rending "Finally" (which marked 9/11 at many memorial events and fundraisers) and Corrina Joseph's joyful "Live Your Life With Me" unapologetically took us back to the disco era; Robbie Rivera's "Feel This" celebrated European minimalism with a New York attitude.

Meanwhile, Portugal's DJ Vibe seemed to combine it all: His "I'll Take You" was a Vinyl bomb, with chug, groove and adrenaline; the still-haunting "The Lights" (credited to Underground Sound of Lisbon, or DJ Vibe and Rui Da Silva) straddled the lines between progressive, tribal, trance and minimal. DJ Rolando's "Jaguar" is similarly multiracial: Everyone from deep house to trance to techno DJs played this classic, at every possible speed.

Mine is just one experience in a very rich community, and the tracks mentioned and playlists included here are far from comprehensive. But they're a sampling -- a taste -- of house's last, unwitting years in relative obscurity. The bridge between then and now is obvious, if you listen.

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