Saturday Mass: an interview series that tips its hat to Larry Levan and explores the art of the resident with some of the best in the business. For more in the series, browse through the archive.
Tony Humphries‘ influence in shaping the art of DJing and building the soul and gospel infused Jersey Sound gives him status that only leviathans of dance music such as Larry Levan or François K could surpass. He was resident at the now iconic club Zanzibar, a club that, in its day, saw some of the most influential DJs of the time pass through its doors. It may not have had the same limelight as New York’s Paradise Garage, but its place in shaping the musical culture of the US is no less important and, at its heart was resident Tony Humphries. We explored the art of his craft, discussing the club’s social role, the character of its soundsystem, a teary first set as resident and what he learned from Larry Levan and Tee Scott
First a few icebreakers. What are some of the qualities you think makes a good residency?
Consistency in your programming.
As an extension, what do you think makes a good resident DJ?
Establishing a core group of patrons that share the underground feeling with newcomers, that you’ll play until the last person on the dance floor is satisfied.
Who have been some of your favourite resident DJs over the years?
Too many to mention. Hats off to any resident whose duration of their sets extend beyond an hour or two.
How do you think the role and importance of the resident has changed since you first started?
Abused for the most part. Abused by all those involved in supporting the change of the original job description of being a resident.
Before becoming resident at Zanzibar, did you hold any other residencies?
I had a couple of residencies before Zanzibar; A place called AZZ (515 Waverly St) in Brooklyn, with my college buddies King Street Records artist LY (Lionel Rosemond), his brother Mario Rosemond and Jerrold Gordon. Also a French restaurant in NYC called The El Morocco known as the Zebra Club.
Did the experience teach you any dos and don’ts that you took with you to Zanzibar?
I learned how to entice people who just had a great meal to start dancing. Learned how to transition a crowd from dinner music to slow bpm tunes to get them up and dancing.
How did you become resident at Zanzibar?
Basically, I made myself available to the residents there for about 6 months, filling in at various parts of every night, sometimes closing the night, and packing their records away safely. At some point the manager thought I was being abused by them, so I gave them an ultimatum of not returning if I wasn’t granted 1 of the 3 nights they were opened. That’s how I got the Wednesday night residency.
Can you remember what you first set was like there?
Horrible! I was used to Technics turntables – Models 1500 then 1100As, the direct drive series – so I was used to doing smooth mixes with funk records like the Hatnauts – ‘Help is on the Way’ and Fat Larry’s Band – ‘Act Like You Ynow.’ I tried that mix using their Thorens TD125 MK2’s, which were belt driven turntables, and the result was disastrous. It was so bad, I went to the employee bathroom and cried. A few minutes after, my friend Larry Patterson who invited me to check the club, came in. I apologized to him and begged for another opportunity, the Friday night coming up. I kept pleading to him, kept saying that I wasn’t that bad. Luckily he let me get on for a minute, on that Friday, and then left me playing for a few hours, then took over.
Were you nervous?
Not really on the second time. Just overwhelmed that I was playing on a sound system so identical to the Paradise Garage.
Space is all-important for a good party. What makes Zanzibar so special as a space and how does this have an impact on the way you play, compared to parties elsewhere?
Simply wood floors and a low ceiling.
The context behind Zanzibar and Paradise Garage is a huge part of what makes them so important in dance music. Do you feel clubs in 2016 are still free-spirited spaces for minorities and the LGBT community to express themselves as they did in clubs like The Paradise Garage and Zanzibar?
Yes, yes, and yes! Fortunately I’ve been employed by underground clubs that have that mixture. But the commercial clubs seem to be more one dimensional.
The soundsystem plays a large part in the legacy of pivotal clubs. Did the character of the soundsystem affect the tracks you selected?
Absolutely. With that sound system, it had mid-bass cabinets and EQd to hit you in your chest. The subs gave it a certain bounce that made you want to dance or get off the dancefloor. It brought out soul in soulful records and made all other genres sound funky and soulful. Even rock records felt soulful. So that affect made me more anxious to play anything on it to experience how’d it come out on the dancefloor. Exciting times.
Do you think this character of the soundsystem contributed to the development of the ‘Jersey sound’ that was born inside those walls?
Of Course. If the system is so bass heavy, powerful and strong, it makes soulful records feel like you’re at a live concert of that particular act being played. You also feel like you’re in church. The “Jersey Sound” was just a European marketing for profit tool, to group all the hot artists, producers, and labels being rotated at that time. I’d guess a good 20-25 acts including the production camps and labels, that were supported through Zanzibar and KISS FM radio, 52 weeks a year for at least 10 years got mad attention. In addition, retail stores like Abigail Adams’ Movin Records,’ decided to showcase the hometown talent at Zanzibar, with events like the ‘Jersey Jams’ during the week of the New Music Seminar in NY. Many record deals were done on that night and thereafter.
Contemporaries like Larry Levan and Tee Scott had a mixing style which was more about selection than beat-matching. Did you take heed from this style?
Absolutely. Being an every weekend patron at the Garage, I was mesmerized by the ability and stamina Larry had to play with at that length of time every night. That talent was THE driving force behind my desire to be a resident at Zanzibar. I wanted to test my mental stamina of performing the length of three or more regular nightclub sets in a night. Could I do it without repeating any records that night. The mental challenge is what I wanted, not the money or the spotlight. Was there a method, a science to it? Well, I learned what I could, and that’s why people always comment that the longer I play, the better I sound. I haven’t been able to reverse that style since then. I just never got used to playing for an hour like many festivals prefer. I’ve been trained to do three sets and have practiced and executed them for over 10 years. That’s the New York City resident superclub style. Pick any iconic DJ from NY and they all can do it. Competition to get that superclub residency in a city of 9 million people, plus the other 4 surrounding boroughs, was fierce back then. You had to be diverse, versatile and knowledgeable of all types of music happening in the city, and yet be distinguishable from everyone else.
What did you learn from them and channel into your own residency?
I incorporated partial elements of both of their styles into my own. I believe it made my show have more finesse, and a bit more polish in the overall presentation.
Three things I learned from Tee Scott was;
1) Shed the attitude DJs and others had about playing commercial soulful tunes during your set. It’s only five minutes of music that someone in your audience especially on a Saturday night would appreciate immensely.
2) Audiences love to support that vocal song slowly coming in while another song is ending, if it’s in the right measure musically. Even if it’s not perfectly in sync beat wise, the idea and anticipation gets their attention, and is a fun engaging ride while they’re dancing until the blend is completed.
3) I learned how to use a delay effect with vocal tunes to alter or enhance songs in musical measure. It feels as if you were producing the acapella vocal parts from scratch in the recording studio. He used a small Pioneer reel-to-reel tape player to create a “Slap” effect at a slow recording speed. He was the best at it.
In other interviews, you talk of how you tried to give Zanzibar it’s own musical identity with a ‘spiritual take’ on disco and dance music. Are there certain records that are inextricably linked to your residency at Zanzibar, that fall within this remit?
Tony sent us over a load of songs which we’ve compiled into a playlist.
Plus Funky-Town – ‘You Got To Believe’ (which wasn’t on Youtube)
Are there any enduring moments (musical or non-musical) that will stick with you for years to come from Zanzibar?
Zanzibar gave back to the community by having annual events for teens, and also events for kids and their families on Sundays. They provided free food and music for four to five hours. The startling revelation of dance music requested by these kids, influenced by their families was very very unique. They would bang on the DJ booth door and ask me when was I going to play The Trammps – ‘The Night The Lights Went Out’ song about the blackout in NYC in 1977, or The First Choice’s ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’. I’d be playing LL Cool J, Run DMC stuff, then they wanted club music, too. Amazing.
You played at Zanzibar for some years, so there must be some nights where you feel like you knew nearly everyone in there. Does playing in a room with people who are essentially your friends affect the way you perform?
Yes, because they’re very familiar with your range of music diversity, they become the safe group to rely on while inviting the newbies to get involved. That’s your core group. They become the visual energetic force to control a room. Especially when you play obscure underground tracks. They are your vibe stablers.
Are there any clubs that you have been to in 2016 that conjure up the spirit of Zanzibar, or is that feeling going to be impossible to re-create?
I can honestly say a good 80% of them have that spirit. Either because I’m booked at special events or established clubs with that mixture. Open mindedness is present in the majority of them. From Brooklyn, Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Montreal, Tokyo, Italy, London and on and on, have got underground diverse clubs. Also doing the Kings Of House NYC events worldwide with Little Louie Vega and David Morales has brought diverse crowds out to all our events.
When you’re on tour, who have been some of your favourite residents who have warmed up for you?
Would be cool to name drop a few, but the residents have been giving me their slots or the whole night, since they know I’m used to doing long sets. Unfortunately I don’t get to hear them open or close.
Finally, what’s coming up on the horizon for you in 2016 that we should keep an eye out for?
I have a mix CD coming out on Running Back from their catalogue – that should be out in a couple of months. I am doing a few more Kings Of House dates this year, including 51st State. As far as my own dates, there appears to be a renewed awareness of Zanzibar. I have had an upturn in requests for Tributes to Zanzibar, which I will be doing at NEUHM at the end of the month, Dekmantel on August 7th—and another on December 17 in London (XOYO). That same weekend I will be doing my first date at Panorama Bar in Berlin. I have a mini Asian tour coming up in September, but I will continue to focus as much as possible on doing nights in New York. I am doing the big holiday weekend (Labor Day at the Output Rooftop) – should be fun. The quarterly dates at Cielo and Le Bain have been good and it gives me the freedom to play extended sets that I don’t get to do when I travel all around the world.