Stonewall, Gay Liberation and the Rise of the DJ/Producer

This is an article I wrote for the DJLAB (Costa Rica) Blog.  For the Spanish version on the DJLAB blog, click here

This month, June 28, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the events at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that launched a movement that would change the world.  Today, when dance clubs exist throughout the planet and the DJ/Producer has become perhaps the most important figure in the pop scene, it’s hard to imagine that both of these came about because of the struggle of LGBT people to be free to openly embrace their identity and music played a major role in this fight.  To celebrate five decades since the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement, here’s the story of how it directly led the first discos, the rise of DJ culture and the first DJ/producers such as Larry Levan, whose most famous tracks are still dance floor classics.

Stonewall, June 28, 1969:

On June 28, 1969 a social revolution began in NYC’s Greenwich Village neighborhood that would profoundly affect the city’s cultural life, among other things.  The Village in the late 60’s was a hotbed of the social and political movements that had emerged over the past decade – African-American civil rights, the counter-culture and the anti-Vietnam movement.  It was also the heart of New York’s gay and lesbian community.

In 1969, New York had strict laws prohibiting homosexuality in public and private businesses and the New York Police Department used undercover cops to entrap gay men in bars, parks, restrooms etc.  The few gay bars in the city were owned by the Mafia who were able to pay off the police – and who made money by blackmailing wealthy patrons who didn’t want to be publicly outed.

On that fateful night in June, the NYPD decided to raid the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned gay club on Christopher St in the West Village.  Except this time as they arrested the patrons of the bar and brought them out, a crowd gathered outside the bar.  When the police began to violently abuse some of those arrested, the crowd rioted and for several days afterwards violent confrontations took place between crowds of gay, lesbian, bisexuals and trans people and the police.

The Stonewall Riots sparked the birth of the gay liberation movement in the United States and within six months, two gay activist organizations and three newspapers were formed to promote gay rights in NYC.  The first gay pride marches were held a year later on June 28, 1970 to commemorate the anniversary of the riots.

The Loft – The World’s First Club:

One of the first demands of New York’s gay community after Stonewall was to establish spaces where they could celebrate and be free from the oppression of the NYPD and the Mafia owners of gay bars.  In 1970, David Mancuso then a hippie audiophile obsessed with high-end sound systems who who loved playing records for his friends began throwing regular private parties at his huge loft at 647 Broadway, right north of NYC’s Houston St.  The parties were by invitation only and mainly catered to a gay crowd and there at the Loft, they could dance together without fear of police harassment. In his loft, Mancuso built one of the best soundsystems in the world and he DJ’d the parties, playing everything from jazz to rock to classical, and built an integrated light show as well.

Many of the DJs who would go on to create house and modern dance music – Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles,  Francois K, Nicky Siano and David Morales hung out at the Loft regularly and in 1975, David Mancuso set up the first DJ pool in the world to get promos from producers and record companies to the DJs that hung out with him.

David Mancuso essentially created the modern disco – the high-end sound system, the DJ playing for the dancers and the light show were all taken by NYC club owners after 1977 to clubs like Studio 54.  And with the creation of club culture came DJ culture and producers who made music specifically to be played at these venues.

Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage:

Larry Levan was born in Brooklyn in 1954 and grew up in Flatbush.  As a kid he grew up on the blues, jazz and gospel that his mother loved, but as a gay teenager, he was mercilessly bullied and left Brooklyn to become a fashion designer.  He had a brief affair with David Mancuso and at the Loft, and there he became obsessed with the idea of making music that “would never stop”

In 1977, Michael Brody, a young gay man who had also spent time at The Loft, built a club that he hoped would compete with Studio 54 in NYC’s downtown.  He gave Larry Levan a residency there, but instead of attracting the mainly white celebrities who flocked uptown to Studio 54, it attracted a mix of African-Americans, Latinos, punks and gays.  And in the end this underground scene which was kept invite only, would have an even deeper impact on dance music than Studio 54.

For ten years until 1987, Larry Levan was the resident DJ and became known for his epic control of the dance floor.  His sets became so well known that he would be approached by record companies to help them break their records and performers like Madonna (who filmed her first video there), Duran Duran, Whitney Houston and New Order made appearances at the Paradise Garage.

As a master DJ, Levan began producing tracks that would work for his dance floor and was one of the first great remixers as well as the creator of some classic disco/house jams. Previously, DJs had only played produced records and producers had worked in studios, but Levan realized that a DJ had an intuitive sense of what a dancefloor required and how to keep dancers moving.  He produced remixes of hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” which he designed to work for the crowd at the Paradise Garage and wrote songs for his group the New York Citi Peech Boys that were designed with the heavy beat and bass that would punch through his custom designed “Levan Horn” bass speakers. In fact, “Garage House” was his creation and would be the main influence for “Chicago House” which followed it.  DJ Frankie Knuckles, who would become the Godfather of Chicago House, grew up with Levan in New York and worked with him at the Paradise Garage before moving to Chicago in the late 1970’s.

The Paradise Garage closed in 1987 amidst the AIDS epidemic that decimated NYC’s gay population, amongst them Michael Brody, the owner.  Larry Levan died in 1992 at the tragically young age of 38.

To commemorate 50 years since the events at Stonewall and their contributions to electronic dance music, club and DJ culture, here are ten essential Larry Levan tracks and Paradise Garage classics.  You can also check out the Spotify Playlist here.   Enjoy!

1. Inner Life Featuring Jocelyn Brown: ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ 2

2. The Peech Boys ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ 

3.Lace – Can’t Play Around

4. Man Friday: ‘Love Honey, Love Heartache’

5. Gwen Guthrie: ‘Seventh Heaven (Larry Levan Remix)

6. Trussel – Love Injection

7. Change – Paradise

8. Instant Funk – I Got My Mind Made Up (Larry Levan Mix)

9. Phyllis Hyman – You Know How To Love Me

  1. Tanya Gardner – Work That Body