There are not many DJs who can look back on such a long and successful career as the 54 year old New Yorker Danny Tenaglia. Towards the end of last year he confirmed his extraordinary status once again during a rare visit to Germany where he played at Berlin’s Panorama Bar and Berghain on the same weekend. His enduring popularity can certainly be attributed to his often several hours long sets which still are packed with the most relevant new records of the current day. After all these years, Tenaglia still has his eyes on the future instead of the past. For this interview, though, he made an exception and looks back to the beginnings of his career.
Apparently you got hooked on dance music at a very young age. What led you into it? Were you coming from a musical household, or did you learn by yourself, by listening to the radio for example?
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, we (mom, dad and four brothers) had always been around all kinds of music especially during big family gatherings, which were quite often. It was mostly my mom’s side as she was one of nine children. My dad only had one sister and his side was very reserved. All of my mom’s siblings were married and they all had children except for one aunt. This brought me 20 cousins, ten boys and ten girls, and when we all gathered together it was like an army! (laughs) We also had many second relatives and we were all born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is extremely popular these days since it is very close to Manhattan. Back then, Williamsburg was like a big version of Little Italy. When I visit Naples, Italy, it always reminds me so much of my childhood since Naples still looks exactly the same as it did 50 years ago. I can relate so well to the people there and on the island of Ischia as well.
I truly consider that this all started for me when I was only just a tiny fetus inside of what I call: “The Boom Womb Room!“ I guess I was always paying attention to beats, rhythms and melodies long before I knew what they even were. There was always music in my childhood. My mom’s younger sister Nancy was unable to have children of her own. However, she wound up becoming the most influential person in our entire family and had a wonderfully gifted voice. She always had music on. She bought records very often as there was coincidentally a record store right on our block. She even taught herself how to play piano and guitar by ear and this was initially how I learned to play as well.
Our family often had good reason to celebrate events like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, family picnics, local catholic church festivals from the schools we all attended. I grew up listening to a lot of typical music that elderly Italian people would listen and dance to. Besides the obvious traditional music for dancing like the Tarantellas and the big band Benny Goodman swing music, there was plenty of the 50’s Doo Wop music as that’s what was big for them during this era. So I had no choice but too hear it all. Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, The Beatles, Bossanovas and lots of soul music as well, Motown records particularly. Sometimes I think maybe my family were the ones to have invented karaoke? (laughs) There were many relatives who would love to take turns and sing their hearts out. And to end this deep question, it was most definitely my very dear aunt and godmother Nancy who taught me (and many of us) how to fully appreciate God’s gift of music, how to “feel it deep down in your soul“ and how by the changing of one simple chord that could be played with „great emotion“, it could bring upon unexplainable goose-bumps and quite often – even tears!
Were you aware that the music of those years was extraordinarily important, or was it just what was around then?
I definitely knew in my soul that it was meaningful. But I don’t think I realized how important it all was for me until I passed the age of ten and was realizing what type of music I was loving the most and only wanted to hear music I liked, as I was becoming sick and tired of the Frank Sinatra music and I was not a big fan of ballads and slow music until I eventually got heavily into soul music. I knew that I had possessed an incredibly deep passion for music since birth as relatives and friends would always make it obvious to my parents by saying things like: „One way or another this kid is going to be in the music business when he grows up“, because it basically was the only thing I displayed interest in. I had all kinds of little instruments and child record players, even reel to reel tape machines for kids. However, it did not truly hit me until I was about eleven or twelve when I was quickly finished with some music lessons because I was very young and did not like the discipline and how strict they were with me. They first took me for piano and then guitar lessons. I even attempted saxophone in seventh grade.
I had a great ear for music and which melodies worked together and which ones did not. Unfortunately, I did not posses „the gift“ of mastering an instrument, but I guess that ultimately it was a DJ mixer that became my main instrument of choice that I am stilling playing with today nearly 40 years later.
When you were still a kid, you got to know the prolific DJ Paul Casella, who played a part in turning you onto the profession. Can you tell how that shaped your decision to pursue a career in DJing?
Well, this is where I had then realized instantly at the mere age of twelve years old upon hearing an eight-track tape mixed continuously by Paul that I was somewhat mesmerized by because when I expected a song would end, then another would blend in. Sometimes harmonically on key and sometimes so perfectly that I kept asking my cousin who made this tape and how did he do this and how did he do that? Long story short, I called the telephone number on the 8-Track tape and Paul Casella happened to be nearby and came to our families grocery store and he brought us more 8-Track tapes. He wanted to meet me as he was amazed some little “little kid” was so impressed with him and the art of DJ-ing. I guess it was right around then in 1973 that I never showed much interest in anything else, including sports. I was not interested in any subjects in school, I was only interested in music, becoming a DJ, getting professional DJ equipment and getting gigs in big nightclubs and eventually this obviously led to my second career by nature which was producing music of my own, collecting synths, drum machines and various studio gear.
As you loved the music and heard about what was going down in the seminal clubs of that era, I guess you could not wait until you were old enough to go there yourself. Was it like you had imagined it to be? What kind of clubs could you already go to?
I was barely a teenager, so nightclubs were still a long way for me. But I can recall the anxiety and being extremely envious of my two older brothers, because they would go out often. But their interest was mainly to drink with their friends, meet girls and do what most guys from Brooklyn were doing in 1975. It wasn’t much different than what you can see in the movie Saturday Night Fever, including the fighting! However, when I was about 16 or 17 my older brothers would sometimes sneak me in to a few places which I will remember forever, and then they and other mature relatives and friends would basically chaperone me when I got my first job in a corner bar called The Miami Lounge in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was just a few blocks away from our house and the nights were starting at 9 pm, but my parents wanted me home by 1 am. The lounge is still there and it’s walking distance from the new and already famous club Output. The lounge looks exactly the same as it did in the 1970s but it’s now also a restaurant as well. I’m not sure of it’s current name, though.
You then had the privilege to witness some of the most celebrated clubs and DJs in New York like the Loft and the Paradise Garage and numerous others. Are the first impressions of those nights still vivid? Was it every bit as outstanding as it is described up to this day?
Yes, yes and yes! The Paradise Garage, The Loft, Inferno, Better Days, Starship Discovery 1, The Saint, Crisco Disco and many, many more that had come but now are sadly all gone! It’s a shame we don’t have much footage or even great photos of so many of these nostalgic parties and venues. There were so many options back then from all the way in Downtown Manhattan up to 57th Street and from East to West, seven nights a week. We had big venues, small venues, raw underground parties with no decor at all and obvious mega places like Studio 54 and Xenon. Then as the 80s came around we saw lots of changes with all kinds of theme parties at places like The Limelight, Area, Roxy and others.
As you were already determined to be a DJ yourself, what tricks of the trade did you learn at that time and maybe still use?
Well, it’s definitely a whole new ball game since way back in the early days I was playing and learning on turntables that weren’t even Technics. Playing with 45s and LP cuts that were mainly all live bands with extremely short intros and sloppy drummers. This in itself trained my ear to pay close attention to the beats and where to catch them in order to not train wreck. Precision, like professional dancing (which I was also into for a minute when I had lots of hair) was key and the most important thing to focus on as people will notice when you’re out of synch.
Luckily, disco soon came about with long extended remixes and many records post 1976 were being recorded to metronomes or click tracks and the drummers were all basically playing patterns based around a four on the floor kick drum, 1-2-3-4, and mixing started to become much easier. Yet it was still so much more complicated than it is today. Nowadays, beat mixing can be as easy as turning on your TV! But in order to keep your guests entertained you have to select the right shows and movies to play for them to keep them excited.
When you had the chance to go to clubs, however, the height of the disco boom was already over. Still, a lot of the major influences on club music were just developing then. Do you think it was musically more interesting after the hype was over? Did the music come back to basics? Was it more open to other or newer influences even?
I think it was evolving greatly. Many of the deep house tracks were getting raw with deep and dark chords, murky basslines and unlike disco, the fluffy elements that made disco sound so lush and elegant, for example the blend of the strings, pianos, brass and definitely the background vocals doing the “Oooohs” and the “Aaaaahs”. Another major factor was many songs would have bridges after the verses and then usually back to the chorus. One great example is Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You”. When he sings: “And when the groove is dead and gone, You know that love survives, So we can rock forever …” Songs that have these “bridges” today are usually corny and immediately sound like an old record. It’s just too “pretty” for underground house music to have too many changes.
In the 90s many tracks were becoming more steady with not too many elaborate chord changes. A-sides were starting to sound more like B-sides and dub versions and I ate it up like pasta! (laughs)
Naturally, there was still always the major artist and tons of dance remixes still getting major play, but I was never leaning towards that and between labels like Strictly, Nervous, Movin’, Tribal, Maxi, Murk and many more, the tracks were starting to become edgier and less fluffy.
A great example would be DJ Pierre consistently making big noise with his “Wild Pitch” trademark. Armand Van Helden gave us speed garage, The Basement Boys and Blaze were giving us a raw deepness even sometimes with a gospel feeling. Also have to thank Todd Terry for making drums louder and harder too. Naturally, techno was sneaking its way into the hearts and minds of many people (like me) that were hungry for change! Progressive became very big as did Trance and even though I had great respect for many of the artist, producers and DJs (many which I can say are friends and many I’ve had the honor to play with many times like Sasha, Digweed, Danny Howells and others) and I definitely learned things from them.
Progressive was like hearing disco in many ways, but the more mature and subtle records. Trance rarely got my attention. I considered it as “music that was designed mostly for festivals, very young people and massive mega clubs”. I may be 100 percent Italian, but my heart was first and foremost always into the deeper and soulful and percussive side of music.
My experience since the early 70’s has always proved that whatever was to come next was always going to be a form of music that was inspired by many of the great artists of the past. However, I could have never predicted the changes that were to come, and this is exactly what keeps me so motivated and continually inspired. There are so many creative artist today that it’s mind-boggling! Many that I meet might compliment me on being an inspiration on some songs I had produced or remixed mainly in the 90s and my attitude is very grateful, yet always adding that we never stop learning and how I am still learning from them now as well. This is the best part of being a DJ. There’s always great new music and people to meet. We all have that something special in common which is music – the only international language that’s understood by all!
You took up a residency in Miami and moved there in 1985. What made you leave New York back then? What made it the better option? What kind of scene did you find there?
In 1983 I was just 22 years old and even though I was a young DJ indeed, I was not lucky with getting any kind of work that would pay me. It was similar to today: You had to have a big name in order to get paid well and I was only some kid from Brooklyn playing at a Roller Disco. I didn’t have a great resumé in order to get me big gigs in the larger venues in Manhattan and I needed a job that could help me to afford my rent, electricity, telephone, food, clothes and naturally, enough money to feed my number one addiction with buying new records. When the Roller Disco closed in 1983 it was time for me to move on. During that time I was living with one older brother who was about to get married and my finances were struggling terribly, but then in late 1984 a dear friend, DJ Tommy Moore from New York, who sadly passed away 21 years ago in January of 1993, had moved to Miami to also change his life and got DJ gigs.
He became a resident at this gay and mixed venue called Cheers in South Miami. The club was fairly new and expanding itself by taking over the adjoining building next door and it would now be opening seven nights a week. Tommy said that he told his boss about me, explaining that he learned a lot from me at the roller disco and a few other venues I had played at in New York from 1982 to 1984 and they offered me to go there and give it a try. I said yes to the offer and I stayed there from 1985 to 1990. At first I worked three or four nights a week and then sometimes it could be seven nights a week at times if Tommy was out of town. I always loved what I was doing and was very grateful.
It was a Video Bar in the daytime and at nighttime the DJ would start at 10 pm. Cheers was the only nightclub that could stay open until 6 am, but all the others, and there was not many, all had to close at 3 am, so we also became the number one legal after hours – which worked out greatly for me and us.
At that time there was an important chronological step in the history books of dance music with the first house records from Chicago. How were those coming through in Miami?
Well, the timing was somewhat perfect. I was already super jacked up on the “NY Garage Music” as Larry Levan and The Garage had the most influence with the soulful side of things back then and it had already started to become “electronic” with most producers and artist switching from full on live bands to now heavily using drum machines. The Linn Drum and The Oberheims were big and famous, then the Roland series took over with the 909, 726 and 707 Latin Percussion. Chicago DJs were equally heavily inspired by most of the same music that was coming out.
I think this change really started to become extremely evident around 1981 to 1984. The NYC Peech Boys were a great example of many others, but to me it still was mainly in the late 70s when Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Yello pushed the boundaries from what we were all now being full of for many years with the rich and elegant sounds of the strings, brass and pianos that mainly helped and molded the Disco Sound to become so famous. But when these elements were removed from songs and tracks, as this also goes for the vocals as well, then techno and electronica was pretty much alive and here to stay and it was all blossoming and continuing to grow like a wild flower in my soul.
So when I moved to Miami in 1985, there I was a new DJ from new York that had a soulful musical history before disco and all through disco. Then there was my Paradise Garage phase from 1979 to 1985, my Club Saint phase for a short period and now Chicago was starting to consistently put out inspiring tracks that were raw and with lots of vocals, dubs, vocal samples looping and stuttering. It was crafty and fun and I had heavily embraced it all and then I brought it with me to Miami. Together it was all like a dance music minestrone soup (laughs), but I cannot say that at first I was easily accepted. However, once all of the major record labels started doing „House Remix Versions“ then this helped me to more comfortably weave from the commercial artist stuff like Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys, Rick Astley and Depeche Mode to many of the underground tracks like „Jack Your Body“, „Devotion“, „Work It To The Bone“, „Baby Wants To Ride“ and so many others on great labels like State Street, Trax, DJ International and others.
If that wasn’t enough, I was also being inspired by industrial music and would also play alternative stuff like Front 242, DAF, Nitzer Ebb. Anne Clarke, Wax Trax, 4AD, Belgium Tracks and before you know it „House Music“ became a household word. Then acid house and groups like 808 State, Orbital and Warp Records were now also in my minestrone soup bowl as well. I was basically filtering it all like a good mailman that would eliminate all of the unwanted advertisements and nonsense that would clutter the mailboxes.
I also think that what made me really stick out in Miami from other DJs is that most all of the local DJs were into Freestyle Music and it was extremely popular but not a sound that I liked so much. Also what was very big for the local DJs was many cheesy „Italo Disco“ songs. Keeping in mind that Cheers was mostly a gay club and the majority of the people always wanted to hear their favorite pop songs just like at most gay clubs globally with artist like Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Wham and so many others as MTV was now becoming extremely__influential on this generation and soon became massive. However, my attitude was that most people can hear these kinds of styles everywhere else they go and I refused to be a DJ puppet and do what almost all of the other DJs were doing, especially since I wasn’t a big fan of playing the obvious and popular songs. I had already done all of that and I had definitely paid my dues mostly playing crowd pleasing music during the entire disco era. So I would just do it „my way“ and I would very often play deep garage records like Gwen Guthrie, Colonel Abrams, Chaka Khan and even the anthem „Love Is The Message“ by MFSB and do it in a way that people would hopefully get it and realize how similar to “Vogue” the groove and melodies were and say: „Hey, is that where Madonna’s song ‘Vogue’ came from?“ I would say yes and then possibly show them where other hit records may have blatantly stole some ideas from. (laughs)
I’ve been joked at by friends calling me a „human dance music encyclopedia“ and that basically makes me further realize how much music means to me and how I know for sure that this is my God given purpose here on earth.
I guess that maybe one day I could get a part time job as some kind of History school teacher for DJs? That would be awesome and kind of a dream of mine. To someway or another always keep on sharing the gift of music and keeping dance music alive, well and vibrant!
In the 90s you moved back to New York club and played in clubs like Roxy and Twilo, amongst others. Did playing in those club influence the sound of the music and remixes you were making?
Not necessarily. With remixes, for the most part, I basically always tried to first approach it from a place of respect to the original. I would work very closely with two genius piano players who are still great friends. Peter Daou in New York and with Eddie Montilla in Miami, who would often fly to New York when I moved back to do some parts for me. These guys were my hands and I vibed greatly with them. I wasn’t shy and always extremely involved with each and every keyboard part, sing ideas to them in my raspy voice (LoL) mainly because I am somewhat of a frustrated piano player myself. I come up with many awesome hooks, bass lines and chords, but then with their mad skills, they would take it to the next level for me by transposing chords that I could not have imagined. I was like “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” or “No, no, no!” and we had so many great times – always lots of love and humor for one another.
They were both equally brilliant with solos as well. I can instantly tell when I hear a not so good keyboard player, especially when they try to do a deep solo. That’s the number one give-away to people with trained ears. Peter Daou would give me more of a jazz feeling with a Persian twist at times, and Eddie Montilla’s background is latino, so I was covered with them depending on the direction.
However, many of the songs I remixed were often very soulful and I would not play them very often because I did not want to hear many of the songs that I was so familiar with having lived with them in the studio for several weeks at times, and also because I was starting to seriously get into techno. Plus I really did not start getting proper attention in NY until I started working at Twilo in 1996. Most of my gigs between 1990 and 1996 were lots of travels to Italy, London, Tokyo, Greece, Canada and more.
The Winter Music Conference in Miami was major for my career though. When I would play at the WMC in March, this became my best gig of each year because there I could play it all and I was playing very long sets, sometimes on average 12 hours. Sometimes more, sometimes less, and it was during that period in Miami around 1994 that I coined my style “Hard & Soul”. I met so many wonderful DJs, producers and artist that I’ve admired so deeply and it was just the best place ever if you wanted to be in the business as well as learning from the best of the best in the industry.
Your debut album, which came out in 1995, was also called “Hard & Soul”. Is it true that your club hit from that album, “Bottom Heavy”, began life as a rejected remix for New Order?
Yes! This was a blessing in disguise! The song was called “World (The Price of Love)”. At first I did a safer version of the remix with a chord structure that would follow the pattern of the song with the verses and choruses. But at that time I was already being inspired by heavier and darker sounds and I pretty much always delivered a “dub version” as well, and this time I removed everything of theirs except the lead vocal and created a new track underneath it by myself. The people at the Warner Bros. dance department loved it as a dub, but then I was told that New Order didn’t like it. I asked for permission to remove their vocal and keep what I created and they said yes. I added a vocal sample from some movie: “Well you just look over your shoulder ’cause from now on I’m gonna be right behind you … behind you … behind you”. (laughs)
In 1998 you gave an interview for DJ Times, and as the interviewer asked the question “Will you always want to DJ?” Your answer was: “I’m 37 now and I don’t know what it’ll feel like if you ask this question when I’m 50”. So, how does it feel like?
It feels fabulous! I am extremely touched by it all and very grateful to God above. I was always a spiritual person, and having gone to a Christian School for my first 6 years was deeply inspiring as well, but as the years passed by and I had been given so many incredible opportunities that it actually made me even feel more spiritual, because I realized how fortunate I was. I had achieved so much since I first started back in the early 70s and I’ve now been to 37 countries with many, many returns. There is so much poverty, sadness, violence and suffering in this world and I am so blessed that my destiny was to be involved with music and making people dance, forget their troubles and be happy even if just for one night. This all far exceeded my wildest dreams when all I could imagine 35 years ago was simply crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan to get a residency in a big nightclub. That was all I could dream of and now I tell people, as a DJ, I’ve seen the mountain top and there is no higher I can go. All I want to do is just continue to do what I am doing and make enough money to keep my head above water. Being on top of your game is hard and challenging enough with thousands of DJs all within reach these days, but now the harder part is staying in the game and being relevant. My only hopes now for many years ahead as a DJ is not to fade out, but to burn out! (laughs)
Many thanks to Gideon Rathenow and Heiko Hoffmann and of course Danny Tenaglia for helping to make this interview happen.