An Interview With David Mancuso
In an era when the mix reigns supreme, 98% of dancefloor fare rolls on computer clock-like in the unswerving neighborhood of 122 bpm, and producers create their records with obvious mixpoints for the overzealous jack to bail out and into the next record, a lot of pitch-shifting, quick-mixing wall-of-unchanging-sound deejays are long over due for some pointers from a man who’s been spinning since most of us were in our nappies. We caught up with David Mancuso, legendary thrower of the world’s longest running rent party, on one of his six days off from the turntables, for a refreshing blast of dedication to musical perfection and egoless commitment to providing the best possible reproduction of every single record’s every single moment. Now 49 years old, Mancuso threw away his mixer in the early 80s. His crowd didn’t abandon him and he happily plays any record, whatever the tempo, so long as it works his dedicated crew of invitees. Far from boring, the silence that falls over the room between records can often become a moment verging on religious exstacy as his home and dance space fills with applause, cheers, foot-stomping, or the united cries for a carefully thought-out request.
RN: WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF THE LOFT ?
DM : I was at Broadway and Bleeker and I started giving rent parties which basically it’s still down to the same thing, to manage and afford a life-style, that’s basically the goal, to have a good time. From 70-74. Then the building got involved with a dispute between the landlord and the tenants, I got caught in the middle and even though I’ve always been a safety nut with two means of egress and so forth I didn’t have a C of O for what I was doing, I don’t know if there was a definition of what I was doing anyway, but rent parties were legal. But I was living in a building that was lofts that you weren’t really supposed to be living in anyway, you picked up the beds, hid the refrigerator, you know, that kind of thing, but anyway, I had to leave there. Well I didn’t have to leave there, I had to stop what I was doing, and I moved to Prince street, 99 Prince Street, or else I’d still be there, I’m sure I’d still be there. It’s interesting, it was a much smaller place, more intimate, when I moved to Prince street it was like a gymnasium. I moved to 99 Prince street, I was there for eleven years, and then I moved to [X]st, got the building in 82, and in ’84 I moved over. It was rough, I lost a lot of business, because in those days people didn’t go past 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue. So that’s it, 1 2 3.
RN: WHAT WAS UNDERGROUND MUSIC LIKE IN 1970 ?
DM : Basically R and B, what they called R and B. Anything that was danceable, it’s hard to categorize individually. The crossover music was there. Also there was the influence of stuff like the Stones, Zeppelin, Brian Auger, groups like that, there was a good amount of crossover music, it certainly wasn’t looked at as disco. [Then] disco happened. I think part of what happened was the twelve inch came in. Deejays would take a record like Scorpio which has a nice little drum thing in the middle, and take two forty fives and they would keep going back and forth and they would expand the time on the thing. And that became the twelve inch.
RN: THE WAY YOU PLAY NOW YOU COULD ALMOST PLAY WITH ONE TURNTABLE, HAS THAT ALWAYS BEEN THE WAY YOU PLAYED ?
DM : No, I went through the whole thing, with mixers, not to pat myself on the back, but I was experimenting, I did not know what I was doing, but tweeter and bass reinforcement was all originated from Broadway, it was developed there. No, the commitment is there because I’m not a musician, I don’t play any instruments, but I have the utmost respect for the musician and for what his intention is. On the playback side, which is where I am, it must come through unobtrusively, without any effect on the original intention of that recording. In the beginning I used to mix and the one mixer that I had designed became the format of many mixers for years to come and things like that, bla bla bla, but that’s not how I planned it, things just grew. But I outgrew that, because the last thing in the world I would want to be is a disk jockey. All I am is a player in this whole thing. It really doesn’t matter. I see myself as an equal with everything, it’s like we all play in the same band, it’s musicianship, whether it’s somebody cooking in the kitchen, somebody dancing, doing this, doing that, hanging up a coat, it’s all part of the events that’s happening. My responsibility is to make sure that at least on the technical side that the record goes on and that it goes as smoothly as possible. And it was tough, because I used to be very busy, with this, throw sonud effects in, this that bla bla bla. To go down to one knob, actually two knobs, Phono 1 and Phono 2. Come to think of it, before there were mixers that was how we used to do it, go from phono one to phono two. So I ended up going all the way back to that, because it’s the cleanest way I can do it.
RN: WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO GO BACK TO BASICS ?
DM : When I started hearing the differences, first of all in the quality. When I really started to shed my ego in what I was doing. I don’t interfere with what’s happening. It was at Prince St., and it was about the time I started to advance to class A equipment, and I would say I was into my ninth or tenth year. You had to maintain a certain reputation, you had to stay, you had to be a little too competitive with other people, these were my friends. I finally took the mixer completely out in 1984, 1985. But once you start eliminating all these things out of the path in the playback, the more transparent the sound becomes. So for me to hear all these nuances in the recordings – I know other people do too. I was amazed. I can’t get in the way of what the artist intended, I can’t. I’m not happy. Not to say that if you’re a disk jockey that’s what you do.
RN: BUT ISN’T A LOT OF HOUSE MUSIC DESIGNED TO BE MIXED
DM : So the mix is now more important that the record. The sensationalism and the excitement of the recording should be left to the artist, the artist is the mix, and I felt I was getting in the way, it was really my ego. Sure it helps some records, some records you can take parts of, but it has been recorded and you’re mixing and you ignore that note, that’s not right. And music is a very precious thing.
RN: WHEN YOU FIRST STOPPED MIXING, WHAT WAS THE REACTION IN THE CROWD ?
DM :They freaked. I did it gradually, I tried to wean them, like I was weaning myself. Don’t forget, we and some other deejays took them down this road, we in a way caused all this to happen, so we got into it, now we had to get out of it. But when you really go into it and you start to hear things on a record, you know this record really well, and you start to hear [new] things, eventually it starts to make sense. Still people say I should go back to [mixing], but I won’t. [Let’s say] you as an artist have made a recording, I now have this recording in my hands. There’s a lot of things I could do or not do. But being true to myself, I know what your intention was, it was to be heard. How can I, with all respect to the spirit of music, to your art, to what you’re doing, how can I? I can’t and I won’t. And even to that point that if that was the end of it I had to stick to what I believed.
RN: DO YOU EVER HEAR A RECORD AND THINK YOU’D LIKE TO PLAY ONLY A PART OF IT, BUT YOU CAN’T BECAUSE THE WHOLE RECORD WON’T GO OVER ?
DM : Sure, it’s like a dessert, you want to go for the whipped cream and the strawberries and not eat the crust or whatever. Sure.
RN: SO WHAT DO YOU DO, DO YOU NOT PLAY THE RECORD OR DO YOU IGNORE THE FACT ?
DM : I try not get attracted or repulsed by it. I try to stay neutral, and regardless of what I do understand or don’t understand it may not make sense to me but it might make sense to somebody else. There might be a record I don’t particularly wish to play or it doesn’t hit me or this or that. But another thing I started getting into a few years back was taking requests, at the beginning I would never take a request – ego in play. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, you’re trying to do what you think is correct, and at the time it worked, it got things going. But I started taking requests, I wanted to be a better person, and show my respect for music. That was probably as hard for me as it was for them to understand that the mix was not going to happen. I’ll tell you something, sometimes I mean I’ve had nights when six, or seven records out of ten have been requests, and I’ve played them in the order that they asked for them. Again, it seems like we’re all playing in the same band. Sure at first you may not get it, or somebody may not understand at first, I knew it would take a while for people to realize that, when they made the request it should be done in a thought out way. And it doesn’t matter – it’s not a question of who is the deejay or who is playing the records, we’re all doing it. At times it would freak me out, I would say hole ****, this is really perfect, and I would then grow a little bit and I would get to understand. So it’s a very mutual thing, it’s a crossroads. It’s very psychic sometimes. Somebody will ask for a record and I’ll say ‘it’s right in my hand,’ or it’s the next one coming up, or I just did a switch and they’ll say the record and it’s starting. I think some of these things are allowed to happen, it would get that way, it would get to a point where it’s very spiritual, very psychic. And when you start realizing that’s happening then you’re on for the ride. Now you know this is a party and we’re all having a good time, cause we’re all doing it. I’m not necessarily talking about telephone psychic connection on TV [laughter].
RN: DO YOU FEEL THAT EVER HURTS THE FLOW OF THE EVENING? DOES THE EVENING HAVE A BEGINNING A MIDDLE AND AN END ?
DM : I see that like Tibetan bardeaus, I learned that in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I don’t know if you are familiar with that book, but they’re called bardeaus, the last one being re-entry. The first one going in, the second being like this circus, and then the last bardeau being re-enter, and I do see it that way, three stages, re-entry being the most important. Run that back to me again.
RN: A LOT OF PEOPLE, FOR INSTANCE DAVID MORALES WHO TOLD ME HE DISCOVERED UNDERGROUND MUSIC AT THE LOFT. I DON’T THINK HE TAKES REQUESTS BECAUSE HE HAS A PROGRAM IN TERMS OF THE RECORDS HE’S GOING TO PLAY IN ORDER TO MANIPULATE THE CROWD RAISE THEM UP BRING THEM DOWN. IF YOU STOP THAT PROCESS TO PLAY SOMETHING SOMEBODY ASKS FOR THEN MAYBE THAT PROCESS GOES OFF TRACK. IN TERMS OF THE SHAPE OF THE EVENING
DM : I’m in a unique situation where it’s where I live, I don’t work for anybody – I work for the people who come there, but I have a lot more freedom. I don’t have anybody programming me, telling me what to play. Sometimes I won’t put a record on because I know it’s too far from left field, but it will haunt me, I won’t forget, I’ll sometimes say two weeks later to that person I still haven’t forgotten. I remember. A lot of times I won’t forget because it bothers me. Why? Because I know that it could’ve worked. Maybe not in that spot…it’s freedom, it’s a form of freedom that I never thought I’d be experiencing. All I know is that when it’s on, it’s on, and it’s everybody, it’s not the deejay, it’s not the person with the food, it’s everybody and it’s everything and they know it.
RN: SO WHEN IT’S WORKING THE REQUEST IS GOING TO BE PERFECT ANYWAY ?
DM : And if it isn’t, so what? ‘Cause it ain’t nothing but a party. So what, big deal. Sometimes you mess up, technically, for some reason I’ll put the wrong side of the record on, people will let you know, hey it’s no problem, don’t worry about it. I put one record on and it was scratched, something had happened to the record. Then a couple weeks later somebody says, for example, I wanna hear James Brown, and I don’t care if it’s scratched. And that is unique.
RN: DO YOU GO OUT AND KEEP UP WITH WHAT’S GOING ON ?
DM : No, I don’t go anywhere. I just don’t. I don’t go anymore. I probably should go out once in a while.
RN: SO HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT IS A WORTHY RECORD TO PLAY, AS FAR AS NEW RECORDS ?
DM : I try not to. If someone brings in a record, I’ll see what happens. I’m talking about someone, from a record company or whatever, who’s been coming to the party, maybe I’ve known them for ten years. There’s a reason why they brought the record. Sometimes if I know the person well – Kenny Carpenter walked in one night, so to break down this whole thing of what you have to go through… So he came in with a record and I said okay, put it on. So he came in with a record, hoping that it will be played at the Loft, and here is walking in with the record, and next thing you know he’s putting the record on himself, I like that. It’s giving him full opportunity, and again it’s a form of musicianship, if you don’t let the egos get in the way.
RN: BUT THERE’S SO MUCH STUFF THAT COMES OUT IN SO MANY DIFFERENT GENRES AND I JUST WONDERED WHAT YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS IS IN TERMS OF CHOOSING RECORDS OUT OF THAT ?
DM : A lot of times it will come this way. There will be a record that’s sitting there and I haven’t listened to it yet and I happen to know that title is there and someone will ask me if I have it. So I’ll play it. And that’s how I get introduced to the record.
RN: DO YOU SHOPPING A LOT ?
DM : Hhmm, rarely. If I can call first and they’ve got the record and I can just go get it and leave. I’m not a shopper. If I have to buy pants I have to just run in and run out.
RN: DO YOU THINK THAT ALMOST ANYTHING THAT, SAY, THE CREATORS OF THAT RECORD THINK IT’S APPROPRIATE FOR THE LOFT, THEY’RE GOING TO BRING IT TO YOU ?
DM : Yeah, I think so. I’ve known people who have actually done studio work that when they did it they did it to the sound system, because it’s ste up for true stereo. Not false stereo. There’s a lot of contriving they do. They’ll actually do it ’cause it’s set up for true stereo. When you walk in and there’s music being reproduced, I mean vinyl, recording was supposed to, I mean the group can’t go and perform at your house, so when you walk in and you hear music being reproduced, recorded material being reproduced, you should hear the music, not the sound system, it should be that transparent. You should hear the music, not the speaker. I would go into places and not only get eye fatigue from the lights, but ear fatigue from the music. I wanted my senses raised, and when I walk out of someplace my ears are ringing. That’s getting me away from the music, because my hearing’s going down. My hearing is defending itself, protecting itself, getting numb, whatever, how am I going to experience the recording. And to go through ten or twelve hours and not to develop ear fatigue is very important. I’ve had disk jockey’s come down and after and hour or two say wow, now I can hear again. They work in very rough conditions, everything from getting electrocuted to their hearing’s damaged, and there’s no protection against it. There’s nothing out there. There’s no insurance for disk jockeys, which is something that I was going to try and put together at one time. Plus the conditions, it’s almost inhuman, and the competitiveness of the industry and the politics and the ********. I give them a lot of credit. And how they think.
LET’S TALK ABOUT YOUR SYSTEM A LITTLE BIT. YOU HAVE TURNTABLES I’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE . . .
DM : It’s a totally modular system, some things need to be updated at this point…but when it’s behaving itself… Everything follows basic fundamentals of physics, there are no shortcuts. The turntables are just a mirror reflection of a cutting board. The turntable is intended to play a sixteen inch disk, the grooves are in the middle so there’s no pull in between, everything is neutral, bla bla bla. These turntables are designed to play vinyl the way it was meant to be played. The turntables are made by one person, the base by somebody else, and the arm by somebody else, and the cartridge is made by somebody else. That was another thing, when I got into moving coil cartridges, not that I ever did any of this, but you can’t go back and forth with them, you can’t do that with a moving coil. If you take care of them they will last you a long time, but there’s certain things you can’t do. They’re as close as you can be to technically correct and musical, the system has to be technically correct and at the same time musical. It can’t be too technical, otherwise it gets too rigid. The speakers are the most efficient there are. You put in one watt, you get back one db, what you put in is what you get. They’re made by Paul Klipsch in Hope, Arkansas. And he again followed fundamentals of physics. The amplifiers are matched, they’re Levinson, all my electronics are matched. If you take a recorded tape out of a studio – One time Columbia did a thing for Pink Floyd, the album with the hatchet in the back, and they did a thing at Prince Street. So I was able to borrow a Studer Tape deck with Levinson electronics which matched my electronics. The kind recording studios use with the wide tape like this [two inch tape]. And they brought down the second generation off of the master. Phenomenal, now you challenge the system. It’s like the basketball dream team, you never get to see them in action because there’s nobody to challenge them. But given something like the 1812 Overture with the real cannons, given something like that, then you really get to see what… But a lot of vinyl that’s out is not that great. Some things are done that are good. Francois [Kevorkian] did a lot of good things. He set up a lot of stuff in the studio, he would come down with a test pressing and listen to it and go back to the studio and tweak this and that. A recording studio… I mean it’s amazing any music can come out of one, once you walk through that door you’re ****ed, ’cause they have to add this, that, bla bla bla. There’s a man who has two microphones, two tape decks, and he’ll ask what kind of sound you want and he’ll find the room for that sound, whether it’s a gymnasium or an auditorium or whatever, but once you try and do what he’s doing with machinery it’s like going back… I don’t care how clear the glass is, it’s slowly but surely going to affect what goes. The thing I most resent is people saying, ‘but they won’t hear the difference.’ I don’t believe that, I just don’t believe that, I can’t accept that. There is a third ear.
RN: LET’S TALK ABOUT WHO CAN GO TO THE LOFT… IT’S A MEMBERSHIP CLUB
DM : No, it’s not a club, and it’s not by membership. That’s . . .
RN: SO EXPLAIN THOSE MISCONCEPTIONS OF MINE
DM : On your card it says ‘your invitation.’ A membership club, the way I always understood it is a place you join, you pay dues, whatever, it also puts you in a different category with the law, okay. I try to keep it… (lights cigarette) It’s funny we both have the same lighter,… its very good, very good, that’s what I’m talking about (laughter). No, it says your invitation on it, and as much as if I had the money what I would do with my place is make it more domesticated. It’s gotten better, but if you didn’t see certain things you might not know someone lives there. It looks like a club. But if you walk in there during the week you know someone lives there. You’ll know. But it’s an invitation, it says, your invitation on it, I don’t charge for it. The same procedure I used from the beginning is what I still use today, it’s become a tradition, and I won’t **** with it. It’s kept me going 24 years, I don’t need much, I just need a little place to have my parties and a little place in the mountains, that’s enough for me. I’m not looking at any franchise thing or any of that stuff. That’s not the way it was planned, that’s not the way it happened. Even the name the Loft, I didn’t name it, I just told people: ‘call it whatever you want to call it.’ I lived in a loft building so people eventually called it the Loft. So it’s a given name. I don’t advertise it, I don’t publicise it, I keep it private, and it’s a party. That’s the whole thing. I’m not offended by the word club, but it makes it feel a little less like home. When you come in there on a Saturday it’s your house too. I’m only a caretaker in a sense, like people say we belong to the land. That place is there not just because of me, because I could never afford…it’s there because of everybody else. It’s also a community center, I do community work, but that’s something else.
RN: YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT THAT A BIT ?
DM : Yeah, I’m chairman of the board of adopt a building, for two years. What we do is basically we get building from the city and we fix up the building – affordable housing, and eventually the tenants buy the apartments. So it goes from an abandoned building to where the tenants own their own apartments. Sometimes its a very long complicated process, because the buildings when we get them are not in good condition and have a lot of problems. It takes time and patience and its rewarding and that’s what I do. I feel you have to give back to the community, you have to. Here, this is a neighborhood, and I know everybody, and everybody knows me and I get along with everybody… I didn’t think I would adjust, not that it was new yo me.
RN: WHERE ARE YOU FROM ANYWAY ?
DM : Utica, Utica, New York.
RN: WHEN WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU EVER DEEJAYED? DO YOU REMEMBER ?
DM : Yeah, when I put on a record in my house, “Jezebel it Was You.” It wasn’t Frankie Lymon, but it was somebody like that. We used to have little parties when my mother would go to the hockey games. My friends would come over, ’cause we had a pretty good little stereo, it was Hi-Fi back then, but it had two speakers, one where the turntable was and an extension speaker, so it was not bad. When they would leave we would put on records and we would dance, so it started a long time ago.
Underground News – issue #19