(Photo by: Gary James)
Recently I had the honor to sit down with the legendary Danny Tenaglia. He had just finished playing at the infamous (((Stereo))) in Montreal and gave me a call via Skype to talk about a few odds and ends of his life as a life changer.
Danny Tenaglia is what I refer to as a DJ’s DJ. He has humble beginnings in New York City and has been mixing tracks together since my parents were running around in diapers (I’m 25). He is one of the most highly respected and regarded DJs in the world of house music. He has traveled the globe and every venue on the planet is happy to open their doors to this wise and charismatic gentlemen.
Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, ironically currently becoming the second coming of a genre of music that Danny Tenaglia rode a wave of in the 90’s. He was born to an Italian family who had hopes and dreams of him becoming a doctor or lawyer, but Danny Tenaglia being the man he is set his sites on something else and with much certainty achieved his goals.
I decided to open our conversation up by asking a Danny a little bit about living in Brooklyn, and if it had any influence on his music. I wanted to know if that salsa sound that is so ever prevalent in his music was a result of the large African American and Latino culture that made Brooklyn the vibrant and beautiful place it is.
“I’m one of the originals from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I was born in 61’ and the first 25 years of my life I lived right there in the heart of it all. My dad was born right there 85 years ago along with my mom.”
“My mom has six brothers and sisters, so tons of aunts, uncles, cousins who actually now have moved out to long island, but I still do have two brothers that live there, so our history is still there. “
“But every time I go back, everybody is talking about the clubs, Verboten, Output in Williamsburg it just amazes me, I could’ve never imagined as a child that it would have grown into something that feels like the lower east side of manhattan.”
“Without a doubt I appreciate that you bring this up to me [the influence of the neighborhood in music] it plays such an important role in my musical upbringing. I remember like it was yesterday, I probably could’ve been like 10 years old and I remember opening up my window onto Metropolitan Avenue and looking across the street there was one of those large buildings which was all latinos mostly puerto rican, and I’ll never forget that on the weekend they used to put the juke box outside of the social cubs underneath the buildings, and I would be just by the windows watching, like amazed, like the TV, free entertainment. So I was picking up on the salsa at about that age.”
Danny Tenaglia was deeply imbedded into a very musical and beautiful culture, it is easy to see how that latino feel oozes out of his music.
I wanted to talk more about the trigger into DJing, so I decided to ask Danny where did it all begin, the music that is.
“I was like a magnet, I was always drawn to instruments. I was always impressing people on what I could do by ear. I was 10 or 11 years old and my parents were bringing me to piano lessons and I hated the discipline. I wanted to come home from school and play like any other kids but I had to sit next to this teacher all day. All the time I heard “oh your posture, left hand right hand” everything was like a science, I hated it.”
“In my many sessions with musicians I can for certain say that I have an ear for music, I may not know how to explain it but I can tell you if a bass is sharp or flat, or if a symbol is fighting with a synth. I would argue with the guys in the studio and say “it’s messed up it’s messed up, print it out, look at it” and they would print out the recording and they would look at me and say “you mother fuc*er, how did you know? It sounded fine to me”. I called them out on it, I know I have a creative ear.“
His music lessons short lived, Danny soon got his hands on his first ever mix tape, and he knew that was what he wanted to do. It wasn’t long before he began collecting equipment and learning how to mix himself.
“I told my parents I wanted to work in the night clubs and play this disco music, they were like NO WAY you have to go to college. But I did anyway. I would say a good 5 to 10 years I disappointed them and ended up dropping out of high school, but when I dropped out I had already been working as a DJ at the Miami Lounge (A dance club / pool hall near Danny’s hometown), they saw that I was a good kid, not getting into fights, not getting arrested for hanging out with the wrong people, they saw with me it was music music music music, but I was 18 and wanted to drop out, what could they do anyway? “
“In the late 80’s they saw that I had never bothered them for money and I had just kept doing better and better and better. Then the remixes started, then the albums and magazine covers and a little award here and there, they saw it was becoming promising for me.”
“I think ultimately I was glad my mom was alive back then to see it, to see me nominated for a grammy in 2002, I think that was when it really hit home for them, saying “maybe they get it now” ‘cause if I tell ‘em “ma, ma, dad, i’m remixing a song for Madonna” they think i’m meeting her or working with her, they didn’t understand the difference between producing with the artist and remixing it. So they were proud when they got to see what I was actually doing, and how respectable my craft had become.”
“I think their memory of me starting out as a DJ was me collecting records in milk crates and looking at me going “what are you doing with these I have no room up here! These things are disgusting they are collecting dust I want them out of here!” that was what I was dealing with in the late 70’s and early 80s.”
Danny’s beginnings were most likely similar to any DJs beginning, especially back in those days when the word DJ carried a different meaning, being a DJ then usually meant you wanted to sit in a radio station and play the top records. But he hung in there and pursued his dream, so much so that he had been nominated for an Emmy! But it wasn’t all a downhill joy ride. Danny spent time in and out of many clubs, DJing late nights for almost no pay but there were some people in his life that touched him, motivated him, brought him to greatness and one of those people is the late Larray Levan.
(Photo by: Gary James)
I decided to talk to Danny about the legendary Paradise Garage and the man the myth the legend Larry Levan.
“Well ya, know there was a lot I got from the Garage. At that time I had visited other clubs before, and having been barely a teenager, just approaching 19 I felt like I already was a DJ, maybe not a professional manhattan DJ, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. I had already visited all the big clubs like Studio 54 and all the mega-clubs in NYC and my friends kept telling me “you gotta go to the garage, once you go you will be hooked” and sure enough, as soon as I did I was. The sound the aura, the mentality, no liquor it was just amazing. the history with Larry is more about the mystique. I didn’t what he was doing because it was so different’ from what we do now which watching the DJ facing the DJ, he was on the next level and you could look up and see him but you know he wasn’t always visible. So it was more about what you were hearing coming out of the speaker, like you were waiting and waiting and often pleasantly surprised. I feel I learned how to entertain people from Larry, how to make them feel what was coming out of the speaker as opposed to what they saw. I didn’t learn too much technically from him, back then it was a different ballgame. He was working with very complicated turntables that had this “wheel” for pitch control and he wouldn’t spin the record back because the needle would jump, so it was all about luck, ya know? He was using a “Thorens” turntable, so it was all this mystical stuff but when he had it right, he had it right. And then there were many times where Larry wouldn’t even mix, he would let the song end and start the next one. Maybe it was just impossible at the time given the tech they had, I guess there was also the party phase he went through ha-ha. But that was my school, the school of schools. I had learned a lot but the Garage is where I got my Masters degree.”
Danny soon made a big move down South to the city of Miami. This is a place where Danny built himself even stronger and was finally recognized. I’ll let him tell the rest.
“We stopped at seven in Miami (the club was called Cheers), we were the only club that could stay open that late, all the other clubs could stay open until three. So that gave us the advantage of us becoming the hippest mixed club in town. So we had the gay crowd, gothic clubbers, straight clubbers, and you know if someone winds up at the after hours party, you have them in the palm of your hands. But it took a few years to get the respect and appreciation from them, otherwise I would of gotten fired. We were living in the era of the MTV Video Pools, they used to play videos all day, even while the DJs were playing in the other rooms, they were looping the videos even with no audio. But some of those songs were making their way to the dance floor. Remixes were working their ways onto the dance floor, New Order, The Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, so on and so on, Whitney Houston. So many of these records were coming out remixed, and they had dub versions too, I was introducing it in a different way and made it work.”
“I have to tell you that out of all the clubs that was the one that put me on the map, mainly because of the Winter Music Conference. That started in 1985 and I moved to florida in 1985 and I only missed the first one. But after that our club Cheers became a club of showcases where they would have artists, sometimes freestyle ones like Company B, TKA, Joy Sims those freestyle type artists expose, and once that was over I would go back on. I was the resident DJ, the only DJ but those shows brought over industry people, and journalist people because of the showcases, and the artists and the management so it was a lot of people, and the people from New York had known about me prior to me moving to Florida.”
“Soon I became a Billboard charting DJ and they would call me weekly, for my chart and had this great reputation from Cheers, but nothing like what was to come in the future like Twilo, Tunnel, Vinyl all my travels around the world.”
“Cheers was my stepping stone, but compared to the others it was a corny video bar with a dance floor. But when the WMC would come It was a whole differnt ball game. But I did work there four nights a week for almost 5 years, it helped me with skills and consistency.”
Danny went through a few phases of development. Grinding in New York in the earlier years blessed him with the skills to land something decent in Miami. But it truly was WMC that put his name in the mouths of the industry. Danny’s popularity was accelerating, everyone wanted him behind the decks at their club, and Miami just didn’t have what he wanted. So like a boomerang Danny packed his bags and caught a plane to the capital of the world NYC.
“I moved back to NYC in 1990 because the remix career was going to take off. I wasn’t having much luck in Miami with finding people to work with in the studios, everybody I would talk to in NY wanted me to come back, all the engineers and guys to learn from are there. Cheers was not changing to a different format, so it was time. It wasn’t until 1996 six years later that I got a break DJing in New York at the Roxy.”
Danny’s break at the Roxy set off a tidal wave of gigs in NYC’s biggest mega-clubs which were huge in the 90s. Places like Twilo, the Tunnel, Vinyl had been home to some of the biggest names in house music of all time, Danny fit right in. Clubs of this magnitude attracted people of all walks of life, and Danny was there to play conductor from evening to afternoon.
During this time diva’s ruled the world, Danny’s remixes were of anthems of the era and only gave him more velocity. He even began producing his own music. “Elements” was a huge hit in the late 90’s, an amazing house track that features Danny’s own vocals carries the listener through the components of a dance track. Elements hit #1 on the Billboard Dance Charts and pretty every track off his full length LP called Tourism resonated through sound cabinets all around the world. He truly was on top of the world.
It’s easy to say Danny is a good judge of character and I’m using character in the context of music. I wanted to know what Danny thought of the house revival in his hometown of New York and especially the up and coming Williamsburg with clubs like Output, Sankeys, Verboten and even Space NYC, did he shun the patrons for liking the music for the wrong reason, or was it a welcomed revival of something almost long dead.
“I am very supportive, I think that people are hungry for something else besides EDM. I think EDM has its pros and cons, obviously there are questions whether it is cheesy or childish, but I think it is introducing that element of dance and techno in some form to kids that are eventually going to move away from it, mature, and start to realize there is something else out there.”
“We had hit a bad phase in NY for a while there, with all the main mega-clubs closing, the only one that remained was Pacha, which used to be called The Sound Factory (jonathan peters) But everything else had closed. I think that when I closed Vinyl in 2004, we had lost anything remotely close to that since 10 years ago, because we were the last club to have late night parties without liquor. Vinyl was a no liquor club and I would play midnight to noon every friday for five years. But as Twilo, Tunnel, Exit, Arena all these clubs closed, Crowbar, Spirit, eventually we knew we were going to be next because we started to get a bunch of the meatheads that didn’t respect the party coming. So we made the decision, lets close now. And once that happened people started saying “what’s happening to NYC?” but it looks like things are looking up, Brooklyn is helping alot, there are even more clubs coming on the horizon, they are not going to be MEGA. Space is going to be big, but I mean Crowbar used to hold 4,000 people on any given night! I don’t think Space will come close to that. What i’m trying to say is that MEGA-club scene is long gone, now we live in a post-rave mentality where they bring in the rave festival atmosphere, where we have many many DJs, and I think we are not going to see too much of that in the future, it is just too costly, but it is bringing the underground back. “
“Also them bringing the warehouse parties back, black market and others, so I know that if you look at all the DJs being embraced from oversees, Hot Since ‘82 for example, just look at Output’s roster, a lot of DJs not from the US, you have people flocking for Adam Beyer, Nicole Moudaber, people flock for these people, they pack their house, I don’t’ think that would’ve happened five to 10 years ago, they were getting small type gigs, you have to give them that kind of respect. “
Having heard what Danny said, it is apparent he is an avid supporter of watching his scene, which was almost driven to extinction, rise again. It is up to us to keep things alive by respecting the party, and being there for the music.
I had a few more questions for Danny, the rest were generated by friends of mine who were eager to learn more about this house legend. First off a friend of mine wanted to know if Danny ever mixed on his own for fun, if he got together with friends at the loft and mixed for the fun of it, or was that something that at this point in his life became strictly business.
For those who don’t know Danny owns a 6500 sq. ft loft in NYC complete with a custom analog sound system, a machine that will actually print vinyl records, and a replica sign of the Paradise Garage, to me it sounds like a place where you truly can find house heaven.
“That was the dream when I got my loft 11 years ago, it was a reflection of Vinyl, I had even bought the sound system from Vinyl and put it in the loft. So I have this 6500 sq. ft loft and the problem is I have this huge loft, but I have to keep hitting the road in order to pay that rent.”
“But the concept of playing music with friends became very rare because of many things, one being schedules. Everyone has jobs and I’m off traveling, and then when I am back in NY when I have a weekend off its not necessarily what I want to do, throw a party. The reason why I didn’t have parties when I had the opportunity to do so was because I am responsible. It has become my home, my studio, it’s in my name, I keep it immaculate and a couple times I did do parties, there were always a handful that disrespected my house. I had to worry about what they had done behind closed doors, what they had put in their mouth or up their nose if they fall down the stairs or OD, I’m responsible and it kind of scared me.”
“So I made the decision to make sure that my loft never became a place like that, but I do have these hopes, visions and dreams of it being an educational facility, or my own version of Boiler Room. I want to host DJs and interview them and just have fun, I don’t want it to be about money, but having someone come in and help me pay the rent would be good too. I really hope it can work out with the loft, I have my house down in Miami too that I have to pay for so eventually something will have to give. The sound system there is just incredible, I wanted to have it so people could come over and enjoy music on that. It is about as close as NYC will get to Stereo*, everyone there wants the Funktion-one or Dynacord sound system, My sound system is a baby version of the one at Stereo. There is nothing that can really top that analog sound. The way they design the Funktion-one is they have the subs on the floor so that you can see and cater to the DJ, that isn’t the optimal place for sound.** Clubs nowadays, they focus on floor space and bottle service.”
*Stereo is a famous after hours club in Montreal, CA. It is known for its policy of not serving liquor, having some of the most prestigious talent to entertain, and being open from dusk till dusk. Oh and it boasts the best sound system I have ever had the pleasure to aurally gestate. There is really nothing like it this side of the hemisphere.
**Danny goes into a very in depth detail on the dynamics of the sound system. For anyone that would like his input you can contact me at Storm@mmibty.com and I would be happy to share it with you, but for the sake of time I will be leaving it out. You can also take an in depth tour of Danny’s lost by visiting. http://thump.vice.com/words/danny-tenaglias-loft-is-as-awesome-as-you-wanted-it-to-be.
One of the most frequently asked question (to me) to give to Danny was a pretty simple one. People wanted to know how long this DJ marathoner had gone. Danny is known to go toe to toe with Kronos by keeping the dance floor filled with music for well over 15 hours. So how long was Danny’s longest set?
“The longest set was the closing of vinyl in 2004, we advertised it as it would be the “closing forever” party and after that the, doors would be locked for good. We said it would be a 24 hour marathon sunday 6pm Sunday to monday 6pm, and after 24 hours everyone said their goodbyes and all the customers left. We ended up staying 3 hours longer with just the staff. it got emotional, I was playing music not really DJing, but just playing songs and going out there and dancing and hugging and I wound up being in that room a little over 30 hours with set up and everything.“
“One time I played at Stereo that was just underneath 20 hours, it was a regular gig that just turned out to be an insane marathon. I did 15 hours the other night, I could of kept going but at 7pm, I looked at how many people in front of me and it was just a novelty at that point.”
I couldn’t believe it, 30+ hours at the venue? That is god-tier DJing, I can’t imagine even listening to my own music for 10 hours let alone 30.
With such long gigs, comes great responsibility, and yes the need to go tinkle, so I had to ask. Danny, is location to the bathroom an integral part of choosing to do a marathon set?
“I can’t begin to tell you how much it helps, because certain venues are harder than others but when you have that [bathroom] it makes a difference. You know we are living in the age of superstar DJs, and you have that fans of the DJ mentality, so if you have a long walk to the bathroom you will most likely get followed and they will say “Hey Danny! can we get a photo?” and thats usually mostly what they want right off the bat, is a photo*** and you know I don’t mind, but it is a distraction, I want to be right there, I feel like i’m driving an 18 wheeler and I shouldn’t be leaving that steering wheel. Output put a bathroom in now, Stereo has the one upstairs, you know, so there aren’t any distractions. And when there isn’t a bathroom, often times I swear to God I have to pee so bad but I’ll hold it, I’ll just hold it, but I pretty much get rid of all my other business before I get there.”
***Danny isn’t particularly fond of photos at the club, he spoke about how he enjoys Output and Stereo because they do not allow cameras in and it brings a level of maturity to the venue. There are stories of him getting very upset at patrons when they are taking flash photography with their phones at the club.
Myself and colleagues are full with questions about the marathon DJ life, so I added one more in for good measure. I wanted to know what Danny ate or drank before/during his long gigs.
“If I know i’m going to do a long set like six, eight, 10 hours I will eat a hearty meal before, a nice roasted chicken dinner with vegetables and bread, or steak, I don’t eat much beef but I like a nice steak before a long set. And then what I will have with me at the club, like a mentioned like a granola bar, bananas, fruit, but at Stereo they will bring me Tim Hortons coffee, coffee is something, then they will usually ask me if I want something else and they will get me something real simple like a turkey and cheese on whole wheat, nothing too filling just to put something inside of me. But I’m not looking to make a spaghetti in the club, I don’t want to stand there eating, I just want to get it over with and get back to playing.”
My final question to Mr. Tenaglia was about his music, specifically the promotions that he must get. I imagine it to be something like the scene in Harry Potter when the mail floods in from everywhere, even the chimney.
“It is hard, and it’s harder on me because I have a passion for more than just one genre of house. Like me shopping at a record store back in the day I would go to dance tracks for deep house, I would go to Deccadance for the more progressive stuff and all the other abstract stores for more unique stuff. So when I get home I will put notes on them with stickers, tempo, vocal things like that. Now after the post promotion, when I used to get TONS of records in the mail that stopped, now it is all online digital promos. So I would say my number way of receiving material is through a close friend network. I do have tons of promos that come to me and I have two friends that work with me and listen to all that stuff and filter for me. They know what I don’t like, I still have to listen to alot of shit myself but they can pretty much know if there is no way I’d like it or if it’s going to be cheesy or whatever, so I have to let them do that ground work for me. But there also is that dropbox, and there are a handful of DJs that I love and respect that will trade some music with, but the homework is listening to it, and listening to it again, loading it into Traktor, getting familiar with it, getting familiar with the breaks, and I think I am working harder than ever because of this new technology like Traktor, and doing my best to incorporate my best, with the new music and the old music so I have to take the older stuff, put it through an Ableton session first so that I can beatgrid it to todays easily mappible techno.“
“I mean you can buy something today on Beatport and you can pretty much be sure it’s going to lock. You take an old school, Jersey house, New York, Chicago record or whatever more than likely it’s going to drift out of sync, so you have to map it first then import it. So that is where a lot of MY WORK comes in, and makes me sound unique. I can make really old school records work with todays modern records, mash them together, hold them on with two loops. I wouldn’t of been able to do this without modern technology, they just wouldn’t lock, so now when i’m DJing it’s as if i’m bringing a perspective of that live producer in me, inside the studio, I have track one, track two, track three, track four and track four is a remix deck in Traktor with four more racks, so I’m often beefing up a lot of my tracks with a heavy kick drum, I have an assortment of kicks, claps, hi hats, clap loops and just something that can take a track and make it hit harder.”
“If you listen to my CD Balance, if you listen to the song “Dirtro Li” I am putting a swing loop underneath it to make it sound more like a Marco Carola like sound, he gets really into a funky swing thing now but the original was just straight up bang bang bang, so I put this groove on it via Traktor, its actually a couple, and that’s how I work on projects now by thinking how can I optimize this and make it noticeable. It’s nice when you are familiar with the song, and then all of a sudden boom a kick drum comes in and you think that I might be mixing in another track but it’s actually me just adding in another drum that is looping, and it gives you that elevation, and I can see it exciting the dance floor and as a remixer/producer that excites me “like wow i’m doing this live”, and its not a struggle ‘cause I did my homework. I am modernizing as I’m going and a lot of that is felt on the new CD, and the only way people would know is to hear the originals. If you look at the Bassment Jaxx track on there , listen to the original and listen to mine I added a whole Todd Terry kind of New York funk to it. Just about every song has it’s own little addition to it that gave it my own type of techno to it, putting that salsa in it but not making it the cha-cha.”
“When I am making a compilation I am really thinking more about people like yourself and DJs that are going to listen with a 3rd ear and say “oh wow he put that Delight sample in”and it sounds great” I’m adding so many of these things but the average person might just think that it is in the record they, won’t know that I did that. I feel like I’m making compilations for my peers and my mentors and colleagues.”
Unfortunately that was all that we had time for, going well over our 20 minute limit Danny and myself had much to talk about. I cannot express to you enough how charming and charismatic Danny Tenaglia is, he is truly a humble and professional man that down to his very soul bleeds music and the power that it has over people and community.
I would like to summate this interview with an answer to the title of the article. I saw Danny Tenaglia play at (((Stereo))) a little under two years ago. At the time I hadn’t really viewed house/dance/techno as something to get very excited over, I was drawn to the flashy energy of EDM and all the showmanship that came with it. House music was something old people listened to, I compared EDM to house like one would compare Slayer to Tony Bennett. But with some very strong urging from a few loyal friends, I found myself checking into Stereo at 4:30am on a Sunday morning. I can imagine the experience much like Danny’s of walking into Paradise Garage for the first time. My expectations were shattered and I was in love, in love with the community, the sound, the aural journey that Danny was able to take me. We danced all morning into the afternoon side by side, not shoving, no lasers or fog cannon, you wouldn’t even know there was a DJ booth because well it just wasn’t lit up like as if it was important, just well manicured music and people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientation as one single unified dance community. And that is who Danny Tenaglia is, and what he can do to people. Give him a shot, he just might change you too.