“If disco – and the music which came after – has an angel, it is the raggedy figure of David Mancuso,” they write. “If it has a birthplace, it is his club, the Loft.”
It is beautifully put, and, after news of his death at 72 broke on Monday, there were plenty of DJs, producers and artists saying much the same thing. But there’s always the chance that Mancuso himself would have argued with that interpretation of his legacy. For one thing, it describes the Loft as a club, something he would never have done. It may have been a pivotal, definitive venue of the disco era and beyond, but he was always at pains to point out that it was an invitation-only party, held in his home – and not run for profit. For another, you get the feeling he might have thought agreeing with it was egotistical, contrary to his keenly honed ideology, in which the dancefloor was a kind of egalitarian utopia, devoid of celebrities or leaders. Certainly, he had no time for the idea of the DJ as a superstar. “A party is made of many components: the group, the music,” he said in 2003. “It doesn’t revolve around one person. Once that starts to happen, forget about it.”
But then Mancuso was always the most complex and anomalous of dance music’s early-70s pioneers. He defined the latter-day notion of a DJ not as someone who played records, but as someone who could manipulate music to create an atmosphere and tell a story; to – in that oft-abused cliche – take the crowd on a journey.
A host of revered DJs would happily admit to effectively being his proteges, shaped by the emotional experience of hearing him play at the Loft: Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries, Francois Kervorkian, David Morales. But Mancuso remained, somehow, apart from the world he’d helped create. He could mix records, and did for a time, but came to believe that doing so compromised their purity. Instead, he would play tracks from beginning to end, leaving a gap between them: his friend and collaborator Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy recalled that the Loft eventually had no headphones or DJ mixer, which Mancuso felt affected the sound quality. The atmosphere of the Loft inspired umpteen legendary clubs, including the Paradise Garage and the Warehouse, but the man behind it professed not to care much for nightclubs: “I don’t like to go in situations that are overcrowded; where you can’t dance or where the sound system is so overpowering that your ears are ringing or where beer costs $7 a bottle – this is what I am rebelling against.”
In fact, Mancuso always seemed rather more a product of the summer of love and hippiedom than the burgeoning club culture of post-Stonewall New York. Before the Loft, he was a regular at psychedelic venues the Electric Circus and Fillmore East, and a friend and disciple of Timothy Leary, who had begun experimenting with LSD when it was still legal.
He had a tendency to talk about music in mystical terms, telling journalist Vince Aletti that his DJing was inspired by “listening to birds, lying next to a spring and listening to water go across the rocks … there were times when it would be intense, and times when it would be very soft”.
It wasn’t just the acid-fuelled mind-expansion that made him talk like that. You didn’t have to dig too deep into his past to realise why Mancuso might have believed music to have magical powers. He was brought up in an orphanage in Utica, a city in New York state that later earned the grimly dramatic soubriquet “the city that God forgot”. His happiest memories of his childhood there revolved around a nun called Sister Alicia, who, he remembered, “would find any excuse to have a party”, filling a room with balloons, handing out juice and putting out a record player and a stack of records for the children to dance to.
He left the orphanage at 15, reunited with his mother and got a job shining shoes, before moving to New York City and working as everything from an interior decorator to an antiques dealer. But something of the orphanage hung over the invitation-only parties he began throwing in 1970 as a way of paying for the loft space he lived in (illegally) at 647 Broadway. He filled the room with balloons and squeezed orange juice for his guests. Tellingly, the invites were decorated with images of the stars of Our Gang, a series of comedy shorts about poor neighbourhood children running wild that broke new ground in US cinema by treating black and white characters as equals.
The crowd Mancuso’s parties drew were pansexual and racially mixed – about 60% black and 70% gay, according to one estimate – a gathering of “the disaffected and disenfranchised”, as Brewster and Broughton put it. It cost $2.50 to get in. “I wanted a situation where there are no economic barriers, meaning somebody who didn’t eat that day or only has a few dollars in his pocket can eat like a king … drinks are included, you see your friends,” he later said. “There’s no difference if you have a lot of money, or a little.”
People were drawn to the the Loft (as the various homes Mancuso threw his parties in over the years came to be collectively known) by the incredible sound system – which was built to his own exacting specifications – and the music, which was always much more eclectic than the disco tag suggests. Mancuso saw himself as a kind of curator – he loved black music, had a particular penchant for Latin rhythms and African-influenced tracks. But his tastes ran from jazz to rock, and the fabled list of 100 Loft Classics that Mancuso and Murphy compiled contains not just the expected disco and soul anthems, but records by Ian Dury, Demis Roussos and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. He was a curator blessed with golden ears, big on finding the one great track by an otherwise obscure or uninspiring artist and turning it into a dancefloor hit – hence Roussos, or indeed The Mexican, discovered by Mancuso before it became an anthem on the nascent hip-hop scene, a solitary funky moment on an album by a prog-rock band from Hatfield called Babe Ruth.
Mancuso could, by all accounts, get people to dance to the most unlikely music by intuitively knowing exactly the right moment to play it: he had an innate understanding of how to string records together in order to generate, and then change, a mood. Eventually, his influence became such that he could turn a record into a hit across America, as happened with Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango. It started life as the B-side of an obscure French single celebrating Cameroon’s success in the 1972 African Cup of Nations. Mancuso found a copy in a West Indian store in Brooklyn, it became a hit at the Loft, then across New York, then the US: so many covers proliferated that at one point, nine different versions of the track were on the Billboard chart at once. Eventually, its central chant was repurposed by Michael Jackson on Wanna Be Startin’ Something.
The Loft long outlived the disco boom, but its fortunes faded in the late 80s: Mancuso moved to the crime-ridden Alphabet City, which put all but the most hardened dancers off. Then, having lost a lot of money in bad business deals, he found it increasingly hard to discover affordable spaces to live in downtown Manhattan.
He was forced to go on tour, much against his will. But, if nothing else, his global DJing stints must have brought home to him very forcefully how far the legend of the Loft had spread. At one London date to launch the 2001 compilation David Mancuso Presents the Loft, the crowd was so overawed to be in his presence, they applauded at the end of each record.
“The Loft is a feeling,” he once said. It was another of his mystical pronouncements, but one that anyone who’s ever experienced that incredible, sometimes life-changing, sense of transcendence that the right music at the right moment with the right people on a dancefloor can bring will understand.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010