In discussion with Johnny Dynell on “Jam Hot” by Johnny Dynell and New York 88 (1983).
In 1980 you started your DJing career in New York’s seminal Mudd Club and then you played every club important to the downtown scene in the following years. Is “Jam Hot” the sum of what you experienced as a DJ?
The opposite, actually – “Jam Hot” was very near the BEGINNING of my DJ career.
Would you say that some clubs you played at were more relevant for the sound of “Jam Hot” than others?
Danceteria is where “Jam Hot” was born and I DJed there but it was really all the discos and latin clubs like La Escuelita and G.G. Barnum’s that inspired me. In fact, on the back cover of “Jam Hot” is a picture of my beautiful wife Chi Chi sitting in the famous swing at G.G. Barnum’s.
As the scene of those years is well known for abandoning any established rules for the DJ, what music did you actually play?
I know it sounds strange now but I’ve always had a Disco slant to my DJing. I say strange because clubs like The Mudd Club were coming out of Punk Rock and Disco was not thought of as cool in that world. That was when people were burning Disco records. In fact, I had a bottle thrown at me for playing Michael Jackson with the added, “Enough with the nigger music!” It’s hard to imagine now but even MTV was strictly rock back then and would not play black artists like Michael Jackson. I think that he may have actually been the first.
You were a key figure in New York’s clubland. How did you manage to break into that? Did you develop a style of your own and went on from there?
I never really thought about or wanted to be a DJ. I was in Art School and wanted to be an artist. When The Mudd Club was forming I somehow got the job as one of the DJs but it could have just as easily been busboy, bartender or bouncer, well maybe not bouncer but bathroom attendant. It was that random. I didn’t know anything about mixing, I just crashed the records together. It was just a way to pay the rent. I think that I was probably a fun DJ though because I played fun songs but that was about it. After a while however, I learned to mix and then I guess I sort of became a real DJ. In 1983 Mark Kamins got me into the famous “For The Record” DJ Pool and then it all became VERY real.
For those who are not that familiar with the New York club scene of that era, how would you describe a typical night out then? What were the characteristics in terms of DJ sets, locations and crowd?
In my bio it says, “When Nina Hagen sang “AM/PM, Pyramid, Roxy, Mudd Club, Danceteria” in her 1983 classic “New York New York” she could have been describing Johnny’s work week, as he played at them all. ” I thought that was a funny line but it’s totally true – that was my work week!
As I said before, even though I was playing in a lot of the newly emerging New Wave clubs, I was playing mostly Disco music. By the early eighties though the Disco/New Wave lines were blurring. Mark Kamins, the main DJ at Danceteria, was making a name for himself as a New Wave DJ and producer but his roots were in Disco and he flawlessly mixed the two genres. I think that he almost single-handedly changed that scene. His second floor was packed every Saturday night with uptown kids and downtown kids grooving together to a whole new soundtrack. DJs like Jellybean Benitez at The Fun House and others picked up on it as well.
Arthur Baker, John Robie and Tommy Silverman would bring us records like “Planet “Rock” and “Hip Hop Be Bop” to play and suddenly the black vs. white, rock vs. disco thing was irrelevant. English groups like New Order were there too and it is not a coincidence that their songs suddenly had a Disco beat. I remember one jaw grinding morning one of them saying to me sarcastically, “Maybe Mr. Dynell will play our records now”. I did and still do.
Judging from the sheer amount of venues you played, can you even pick favourites?
I’d have to say The Mudd Club. That was a special moment in New York history. Everything that had been bubbling under in the Downtown Manhattan underground art scene for decades finally crystalized there. It was a scene that changed everything. All modern clubs owe something to the Mudd Club. Danceteria and AREA were definitely favourites as well but Jackie 60 was where it all came together artistically for me personally.
What would you say was the main impact the downtown scene had on worldwide musical developments? Did it first offer an alternative to the descending classic disco scene, and then it became something of its own?
New York has always moved to a very soulful beat. The sound of underground New York, even at the height of Punk Rock was Disco. After a night at CBGB’s or Max’s you would see Blondie or The Ramones at some after hours disco and it was totally natural. New York DJs (as opposed to most American DJs) always had this funky edge. Punk came back to New York (where it was originally born) as New Wave, and the New York DJs started mixing it with the new electronic rhythm machine Disco. The lines between Disco and New Wave were so blurred now that they needed a new name. “Dance Music” was coined. It’s not very clever but it worked.
As House music emerged in its various forms New York led the way in dance music. I remember playing in Paris and Italy in the late 80s and thinking how bad the DJs were. Being a DJ from New York meant that you were King. Little did I know that in a few years the French, Italian and European DJs in general would totally take over. In my opinion they took what we started and just did it better. At this point almost everything I play is mixed by a European DJ. I wouldn’t say that New York is totally dead now but she sure has seen some better days!
Were you actually rejecting the traditions of disco, or did you consider what you were doing as some sort of continuation?
Well, I’m not a good one to ask that question. I loved Disco and thought that that was what I was doing. It was only when I read reviews that said that I was doing something new that I started to see that.
Did you take clues from famous classic disco DJs or did you decide to follow your own path?
I tried my hardest to imitate my Disco DJ idols but whatever I did whether it was song writing, or DJing it always came out quirky and weird.
Which other DJs did you like and respect?
The first DJs that I ever heard were Danny Krivit at One’s, David Mancuso at The Loft and Larry Levan at The Paradise Garage. They will always be special for me but I have a tremendous respect for that whole generation of DJs. Frankie Knuckles, Bruce Forest, Tony Humphries, Nicky Siano to name just a few. They were pioneers. Especially the gay DJs. It was a very exciting time in clubs and these guys were inventing it as they went along. Back then records were recorded and mixed by record producers, NOT DJs. Larry Levan was the first DJ to make an extended 12 inch dance mix. It seems obvious now that a DJ knows what works on a dance floor but at the time it was revolutionary. That opened the floodgates and today DJs are almost expected to do remixes. These pioneers not only transformed night clubs but the whole music industry.
For me, “Jam Hot” is a perfect combination of early 80’s disco and the emerging hip hop scene. Was this intended? Did you want to take up what was evolving there and cross it with other influences you had?
The whole song really started with that Clave beat. That’s the root of Latin music. The horns and percussion were my version of a Latin conjunto. The crazy quirky keyboard line (that used to drive people crazy) was my attempt at a Montuno. Montunos are those repetitive piano lines in Latin music that just roll over and over. I was also very influenced by Gospel music. “Jam Hot” was an urban gospel chant. I just wanted that to go over and over and over as well. Unfortunately people didn’t see it my way and got bored after a few minutes so it got cut to two 16 bar choruses. I would have had the girls chanting endlessly for like twenty minutes. It’s a good thing I wasn’t producing it. You have to understand, when K.C. & The Sunshine Band sang “That’s The Way, Uh Huh, Uh Huh, I like it, Uh Huh, Uh Huh” over and over and over I thought I had gone to heaven. I know it sounds sad but that song changed my life. That song and poppers.
How did the track actually came into being? What is the history behind “Jam Hot”? Did you want to actively pursue a career as recording artist and “Jam Hot” was how you defined yourself?
I came to New York to go to art school. We were not very careerist in those days, we lived in a creative whirl. If the chance to do a record came up, you did it, but never really thought there might be a career in it.
Your collaborators were very prolific. Mark Kamins was a DJ too and already a busy producer, and Kenton Nix was responsible for producing some seminal disco classics, particularly for West End Records. Were they friends you thought were perfect for what you had in mind?
I don’t think Mark and Kenton knew each other before working with me. They were both very hot at the time but in different worlds. Kenton had hits like “Heartbeat” and “Funky Sensation”, Mark had Madonna and other big New Wave records under his belt. It was a perfect marriage.
What was their contribution to “Jam Hot”?
Kenny Nix brought the funk, Mark brought the New Wave edge. It was an interesting collaboration. A good example of this yin/yang was that crazy keyboard line. I originally played it on this little toy Casio keyboard. Kenny heard it as more of a Disco line and Robert Aaron was going to play it on a jazzy Fender Rhodes piano. I was horrified. Mark stepped in and convinced Kenny to let me play it on the toy Casio, he knew that that was the crazy hook. Of course I’m not a keyboard player and I messed it all up so Robert ended up playing it after all but on the Casio. That’s what it was like, a lot of give and take. No big egos.
What about your rap on “Jam Hot”? You told me that the term “Jam Hot” even made it to the Urban Dictionary. How and why did you come up with these lyrics?
When I wrote, “Tank, Fly Boss, Walk, Jam, Nitty Gritty/ I’m talkin’ ’bout the boys from the big bad city.” I just wrote about what I was seeing. Tank, Fly Boss, Walk, Jam and Nitty Gritty were all Graffiti kids. They were the boys from the big bad city. ”Lover”, “Boogie”, “Sugar Punk” etc., all the characters in that song are real people.
Norman Cook covered the line “tank fly boss walk jam nitty gritty you’re listening to the boy from the big bad city, this is Jam Hot, this is Jam Hot” for “Dub Be Good To Me” by Beats International, and apparently there are many remixes, and lots of other artists borrowing from the track. Isn’t it ultimately rewarding to be responsible for a track that became a classic?
It really is. I’m still shocked. The artist in me loves the way people reinterpret and reuse something that I did in their own works. Of course the businessman in me (which is sadly almost nonexistent) wishes that I got paid something for it. People think that I got paid for the Beats International song but I didn’t. There was some kind of lawsuit over it but it didn’t involve me. I’m sure a bunch of lawyers somewhere made money somehow, but I never got paid a cent.
I remember Norman Cook called me and told me that he used my lyrics in a song. I just said, “Wow, great”. He laughed and said, “No, it’s going to be a big record. I want to give you some money”. I said, “Cool. How about a hundred bucks”? He was silent. Then I asked, “Oh, is that too much? How about fifty bucks”? I think he was stunned at my stupidity and said something like, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it” but then somebody started suing somebody and that was the end of it for me. If I had taken the fifty bucks I would have come out ahead. Maybe I am a good businessman after all.
There is a version of “Jam Hot” out now by an Australian group called Koolism. It’s so funky and hooky I can’t stop dancing to it. I saw it on Youtube and left a comment about how great I thought it was and I think they got a little nervous when they saw my name. They thought I might sue them or something. I just told them that I loved the way they used my song to create a whole new song.
Working with Malcolm McClaren taught me a lot about “stealing”. Malcolm was a true artist. The world was material for him to use in his art. He wasn’t “stealing” out of laziness or lack of imagination, he used things as found objects to create something new whether it was music, fashion or whatever he was into at he time.
One of my all time favourite works of art is Marcel Duchamp’s 1919 piece called “L.H.O.O.Q.”. He took a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa and drew a moustache on her. He called it a “readymade”. The title, “L.H.O.O.Q.”, when pronounced in French reads as “Elle a chaud au cul” which means “She has a hot ass”. It’s so simple and so brilliant on so many levels.
Was there any indication at the time “Jam Hot” was produced that it would remain relevant for so long?
No, it was a strange record that had a crazy life. It was this weird song that first took off in the downtown clubs (not surprisingly) but because of the sort of cross pollination that was happening in New York at the time jumped the turnstyle and made it up to The Bronx to become a hit with the (mostly Latin) B-Boys and eventually urban radio. You never know why something clicks with people. It has been sampled so many times now I can’t even count.
Going back to Kenton Nix, his productions for Taana Gardner were anthems at the Paradise Garage. The Garage was not necessarily associated with the downtown NYC scene, but its DJ Larry Levan was also known for being adventurous and interested in many different sounds. Did he take up on “Jam Hot”?
The Garage may not have started out as part of the New York Downtown art scene but it sure ended up being that. I think that had a lot to do with Larry being such a creative person. As far as him playing “Jam Hot”, I know that he did but I never heard it there. Although I did perform it there a couple times so I guess that counts.
Did “Jam Hot” become a signature tune for New York’s club music of these days anyway?
I think it did for a minute because it was a real crossover record. It was one of the few records that was cool to play at a downtown art gallery as well as say The Fun House. You would hear it blasting from boom boxes and taxi cabs. My favourite moment though was watching the peepshow girls at Show World in Times Square dancing to it. I was living.
Levan remixed your single “Rhythm Of Love” from 1986. How did that come about?
There used to be three evil sisters that ruled over The Paradise Garage. They were all named “Judy”, Judy Russell, Judy Cacase and the fiercest Judy of them all… I still tremble just saying her name, Judy Weinstein. These three Judys cast a magic spell over Larry and made him remix my record.
A few years later you embraced house, recording “Love Find A Way”, again featuring collaborators that were about to become very important for New York’s club music history, like David Morales, Victor Simonelli and Eric Kupper. Was this the sound you were playing and listening to then?
“Love Find A Way” was recorded at Arthur Baker’s Shakedown Studio and like any great scene a lot of the cast and crew on that record were a part of the “Shakedown Sound”. David Morales is like my cousin. We’ve known each other forever. He came aboard to give me a helping hand (which I really needed). What he and Eric and Victor did was incredible. I still remember the lunches that Victor’s grandmother used to pack for him. I also remember the amazing fried chicken that Jocelyn Brown used to cook for us. I guess most of all I remember food.
You opened the legendary club “Jackie 60″ in 1990, together with your wife Chi Chi Valenti. Could you tell me about its role in New York’s clubland during the time? Was it something you felt was still missing? How was the New York scene in those days? Was it as important as the times you started out?
Chi Chi and I met at The Mudd Club and she has pretty much stood along side me at every club along the way. Jackie 60 was the culmination of our nightlife experience up until then. For us it was just a natural link in the chain of nightclubs that we grew up in. It wasn’t until we announced that we were closing Jackie that we saw that she was the last of the great 20th century clubs. The amount of press that the closing got was staggering. It was truly the end of an era in New York and the world saw it. On the last afternoon of Jackie 60 I was alone in the club cleaning up, getting ready for the big night when the door bell rang. It was Steve Maas, the legendary owner and crazy mastermind of The Mudd Club. I hadn’t seen or heard from him in years. He had never been to the club and wanted to see it for himself before it was gone. I gave him a tour and saw that he liked it. That meant a lot to me. I’ve never heard from him again. Just like a wedding or a natural disaster Jackie brought together crazy different groups of people from our lives. There were artists, fashion icons, supermodels, voguers, legendary hookers, dominatrixes, film makers, all people who had become friends over the years. Everyone wanted to help out and be a part of our experiment. Debbie Harry would jump over the bar to help serve drinks if it got crazy and DJ friends like David Morales, Danny Tenaglia, Frankie Knuckles, Louie Vega were always there to help spin. It was a special place where India could spontaneously grab a microphone and sing “Love Hangover” or Marianne Faithful could read poetry or Mikhail Baryshnikov could dance in drag. Sadly there is nothing like it today. Not in New York anyway.
Now the legacy of the music produced and played at the time you entered the game is very dominant in club music again, and new remixes for “Jam Hot” are causing a stir. It almost seems as if sounds you were pursuing years ago in different contexts are coming together. Are you satisfied with how “Jam Hot” was updated?
I love what this Nu Generation have done with it. Tensnake, 40 Thieves, Ilija Rudman, Clouded Vision all did a great job. It’s funny to me that these guys almost fetish what we did in the 80s but then I guess we were the same way about say, James Brown.
What do you think of the resurgence of these sounds? Was it only a matter of time to reappear, or did it actually never go away?
Everything goes around in cycles. I guess it’s time to rediscover the late 70s and early 80s. I see now that I was very lucky to have experienced the last days of Disco. I used to practically live at Blank Tapes where a lot of the great Salsoul and other classic Disco records were made. I watched Larry Levan mix some of his classic records. I learned more from people like Arthur Baker than I will ever let on.
A few weeks ago Layne Fox from 40 Thieves sent me something that they were working on. It was great. I told him that it reminded me of this band from Brooklyn back in the day called Skyy. I told him that they recorded at Blank Tapes and had this song called “Call Me” thinking that he wouldn’t know who I was talking about. Of course he knew who Skyy was. It was like asking Lady Gaga if she knew who Madonna was (sorry for that analogy Layne). I never think that someone now knows about things back then. They do.
How do you place yourself in this process? Will you actively take part on how this all will develop further, both as a DJ and producer?
I love watching the world change and hope that I can always change with it.