Manu Dibango, "Soul Makossa"
I wish that I was sharing this music for happy reasons, but as many of you probably know, David Mancuso passed away last week at the age of 72. It is a tragic loss, another black mark on a year filled with them, as Mancuso and The Loft, his legendary 4+ decade old party, stand as embodiments of everything that stands against the revanchist, neoliberal world of today: love, connection, generosity and community. It was a bright light in dark times, one that we need now more than ever.
For those that don't know, Mancuso was a NYC DJ and central figure in the birth of modern dance music culture. Beginning in the mid-1960s, he began spinning records for friends at his loft to pay the rent, a long radical tradition in NYC. On Valentine's Day 1970, he would throw a Love Saves The Day party, which was invitation-only at his loft on 647 Broadway. The popularity of this initial bash prompted Mancuso to begin throwing a regular party at his place, providing the inspiration for future spaces like Paradise Garage, The Gallery, 12 West, The Flamingo and later The Saint, as well as future dance legends like Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries, David Morales and many more. It was BYO, allowing Mancuso to work around NYC's stifling cabaret laws. For those looking to learn more about the man and his enormous influence, I highly recommend reading Tim Lawrence's Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, in which Mancuso plays the central role.
I can't think of a better follow-up to our look at For Those Who Have (And For Those Who Have Not) than a look at the first volume of The Loft, a compilation devoted to exploring the sound of the seminal NYC party that launched disco. What is the connection between Huerco S. and David Mancuso, ambient and techno? I would argue that both have advanced the idea of utopia in dance music culture. While Leeds' is a sonic manifestation, Mancuso, in many ways, was able to build a microutopia in the city (NYC, London, Tokyo) itself, a party that was so much more than just the place that birthed dance music. I think of it as a utopia because it simultaneously began with a critique and then created a space that prefigured the alternative.
The critique comes through crystal clear in the few interviews that Mancuso gave over the years. As he told Red Bull Music Academy this year about the origins of his party, ""I was very frustrated. A lot of times I wouldn’t enjoy things about going to certain places, from the soundsystem to the door policy. I was able to prevent that, and by having a certain way of doing things, we promoted social progress." In a conversation with Tim Lawrence in 2007, he explicitly places The Loft as a response to "economic violence":
Having to pay five dollars for water, never mind ten dollars for a drink, can be very unaffordable. When you weigh what you can get for a contribution to come to a Loft party, it's good value. There's food, you can bring your own alcohol, and you don't have to pay to check in your coat. It's all-inclusive. You could easily have spent one hundred and fifty dollars if you went out some- where else. It's a community support kind of thing. But once you get a liquor license there are so many regulations and your overheads get raised so high all sorts of costs follow. Not having a liquor license allows me to keep costs at a minimum and make the parties affordable for every- one, and that's very important to me.
In contrast, The Loft built another world, a space of inclusion, community, equality and diversity. The events were free, the parties were open to any one, regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality and class. A non-hierarchical ethics ran through everything, from the record pool Mancuso set up as a communal DJ library to the placement of the DJ booth and speakers in order to draw attention away from the DJ and towards the dance floor. As he told RBMA this year, "To this day, there’s no dress code. There’s no age control. You don’t have a liquor license. Once you have the different economical groups mixed together, the social progress starts to kick in. You have people from all walks of life coming together." Oh and before you write this off as another instance of me pushing utopia onto everything, August Brown had the exact same idea; check out his tribute to Mancuso in the LA Times entitled "David Mancuso's Loft was a dance music utopia. We should all learn from it now."
The music above comes from the wonderful and incredibly rare 1999 2CD/4LP compilation from NuPhonic. Compiled by Mancuso and his friend/collaborator Colleen Murphy, the record is intended to give listeners a sense of the soundtrack to a night at The Loft. This means hearing the amazingly eclectic selections that refused to be restricted by genre, covering everything from disco to house to dub to funk to downtempo to New Wave to rock.
The discs are divided into Early and Late. The liner notes reveal the wonderful and surprising inspiration for this structure of time at The Loft: "Mancuso wanted his audio system to sound as real or as live as possible, and perceptions of nature underpinned his musical method. "I spent a lot of time in the country, listening to birds, lying next to a spring and listening to water go across the rocks," he told Aletti in 1975. "And suddenly one day I realised: what perfect music. Like with the sunrise and sunset, how things would build up into midday. There were times when it would be intense and times it would be very soft and at sunset, it would get quiet and then the crickets would come out." It was this "natural rhythm" that would guide the music at The Loft (and on this compilation), as the early section would be more cosmic and chill, while the intensity and rhythms gradually picked up with the late set.
Since Mancuso did not believe in mixing, you get the thrill of hearing these songs in their full, extended glory. It's hard to choose favorites with 18 possibilities, but I hope that these four tracks give you a sense of the range, beauty and excitement that is on display. This post is already crazy long, so I will just quickly say that the songs capture some of the aspects of The Loft that make it musically special to this day: an openness to new sounds, an extended sense of time and a belief in the uplighting power of music. The first two showcase the range of disco itself, from the classic, strings sound of Crown Heights Affairs to the mutant electronic sound of Arthur Russell's Loose Joints. For me, the closing track, Brian Briggs' "Aeo," is a highlight, a reminder of why parties and DJs are so special. It was a song I never heard before, but from the first notes it felt like I had been waiting my whole life to hear it. Over an insistent, writhing beat, synths, bass, ethereal vocals and a beautiful whistling solo emerge to create 6 minutes of pure bliss. Highly recommended.
It's up to us to keep the flame going now, so please listen to this music, read about Mancuso and The Loft, share the music and the story. Get inspired my friends. Let's start The Loft again in every city and spread the message that love still saves the day. RIP David, you will be missed.