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20 years deep...

Henry Street and the birth of disco house, Pt 1

2016 Jan 19     
2 Bit Thugs

With a limited-editon 7-inch box set of Henry Street classics about to drop, we talk to label boss Johnny DeMairo and examine the NYC label's pivotal role in the birth of disco house

It was only supposed to be a baseball game. But the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers would be all but forgotten - and the game abandoned - as events on 12 July, 1979 took an unexpected and altogether darker turn.

Loudmouthed DJ Steve Dahl been stoking the frustrations of a largely white, rock-loving audience on his 97.9 WLUP-FM radio show for months. Two years earlier, the underground dance music sound of disco - previously beloved by a largely black and Latino audience - had gone overground, thanks in part to Saturday Night Fever. Radio stations once known for concentrating on rock had begun to play disco and to some intolerent listeners, this "negro music” with its "faggot dance moves" was taking over.

There was undeniably a homophobic, racist element to the crowd of 50,000 who packed Comiskey Park stadium in Chicago that night. That these unwanted sounds had dared to reach beyond specialist clubs was too much for some, and rage gripped sections of the audience, spilling out onto the field during the mid-session stunt when Dahl was scheduled to blow up thousands of disco records. As ruined vinyl rained down, angry young men raced across the scorched earth like much more primitive humans attending a sacrifice.

It's fair to say many long-time disco devotees were also not entirely thrilled when, at the end of the 1970s, white pop artists began jumping on the disco bandwagon. So it perhaps came as a relief to some when newer sounds began to displace disco at the top of the charts as the 1980s dawned. But disco would not die. It would simply move out of the limelight, back into the clubs where black, Latino and gay dancers could express their love of the music freely. And perhaps ironically, it would be thanks to Chicago, the city where disco had received such a public show of hate, that disco would continue to be heard for decades to come.

"My older sister would come home with these 10-, 15-minute disco records by Alec Costandinos or Cerrone, so she was my first influence," recalls Henry Street Records founder Johnny DeMairo, a Brooklyn-born child of the 1960s. "Then she introduced me to the Philly stuff which was also on the radio. New York radio was really important – you had Disco 92, you had Frankie Crocker on WBLS, so I was being exposed to all this uptempo disco. When 1980 came in, it turned into black R&B with Prelude, things like Unlimited Touch, then it got into a more electro kind of thing with Shannon, Zena's On The Upside, and then records on Sam, Emergency, which were the beginnings of house. But Prelude were always my favourite."

"They were so varied," he continues, full of enthusiasm for Prelude, the label run by Marvin Schlachter which regularly featured remixes by Francois Kevorkian. "They started off with big room gay stuff like Musique, Martin Circus and Constellation Orchestra. Then there was stuff like Frances Joli, which was just a monster pop record. Then into 1980/81 you had these downtempo or midtempo records like Gayle Adams. I have great memories of DJing back then because of records like that."


Inspired by his love of disco, DeMairo began DJing in the early 1980s, becoming a regular at the Vinyl Mania record store and other Village spots. He was just one of many whose love of the music led him to DJing, but DeMairo would become obsessed with the whole culture surrounding this music and, having learned to mix on primitive turntables, he developed a keen interest in the role of remixers. 

"To this day, I'd say John Luongo was probably the most important remixer of all time," says DeMairo. "He was the real deal. Not to take anything away from Francois at Prelude, but Marvin Schlachter would sign these amazing records and Francois was just there. If I put you in a studio with great songs like Gayle Adams and D Train, you couldn't fuck them up! He was re-editing these great productions, but John Luongo would do something like take a Jacksons record and add a siren to it, or take You Stepped Into My Life by Melba Moore and turn it into that monster 12". He doesn't get much light, you know?" 

Having honed his skills as a DJ, DeMairo became involved in club promotion at the start of the 1990s, a time when house ruled the clubs but hip-hop ruled the radio. "I started working at Street Information Network in 1992. My closest friends were Kenny Dope and Louie Vega and I enjoyed their sound; David Morales, too. But I was promoting the larger rooms: Jonathan Peters, Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia. Those weren't necessarily the clubs I wanted to go to, but that was the sound back then. 

"I was also very good friends with Funkmaster Flex, and I attributed a lot of my success to that fact I was open to those different kinds of music - black underground house, white gay house and hip-hop. Those sounds were hitting all over the country, so I had a nice balance. Every phone call I picked up would be from a different world, it'd be Ralphie Rosario in Chicago, or Latin hip-hop guys in San Francisco. But promotion is the most thankless task in the world: if you do it right, someone from the top comes and takes the credit, but if nothing happens it's all your fault."

Though he disliked certain aspects of the job, his time in club promotion gave DeMairo a useful education and a list of contacts that would serve him well when it came to his next two roles: running his own underground house label Henry Street Records, while also doing A&R for the dance music department of Atlantic Records.

In his day job at Atlantic, Johnny DeMairo was responsible for promoting Todd Terry's remix of Everything But The Girl's Missing, and would also instigate Armand Van Helden's biggest hit when he teamed the remixer up with Tori Amos. At this major label, his responsibilities were to get hit records. With Henry Street, DeMairo had different ambitions. Using his inspiration and contacts from clubland, DeMairo simply wanted to issue quality underground club music, music that would pay tribute to his beloved disco. Indeed, many records on Henry Street would reference disco classics directly, via the use of sampling. 

Though he wasn't looking for hits at Henry Street, fate had different ideas and the label became one of the most important in the emergence of disco house, a direct descendant of the music that had inspired DeMairo. It was via the sampling, replaying or restyling of disco in the house format that disco would continue to thrive in nightclubs and even come back to haunt the top of the charts.


Although the origins of the term are sometimes disputed, house music is widely regarded as being named after Chicago club The Warehouse, which launched in 1977. Its resident DJ Frankie Knuckles offered a bold playlist that included the popular disco of the era, as well as less well-known European electronic music, to an audience of largely gay, and largely black or Latino, men.

Knuckles' successor at the venue was Ron Hardy, who became known for utilising his own reel-to-reel edits of tracks to thrill dancers. Both DJs also had radio shows, and among their audiences were some aspiring producers who - armed with drum machines, synthesizers and primitive samplers - started making tracks that emulated the styles these DJs were playing. These tracks would be regarded as the first house music productions, and the nascent sound would forever be associated with Chicago, although similar musical blends were also heard in the clubs of Detroit and New York.

"I think what many people overlook is that there was a parallel thing happening," says Chez Damier, a DJ from Chicago who would later - alongside Ron Trent, also from Chicago – run Prescription and Balance, two of the great deep house labels. But in 1987, Damier was situated in Detroit where for a short time he ran the pivotal Music Institute. 

"We were all doing something at the same time," he claims. "We were all being influenced by each other, whether we knew it or not. It was a drum machine that changed the game, the 808 or 909. The Italians were using drum machines, in Jersey they were using drum machines, but it wasn't until Chicago got hold of that 909 that they decided this would be house. But, if you ask me, there would be no house without the Italian electronic sound or that Jersey sound, because alongside disco that's what was influencing us."

"You can't say it comes from this place or that place," Damier continues. "It was happening simultaneously. It all came from the same foundations, the underground black and gay clubs that not everyone could get into, but everybody wanted to get into because the DJs were playing this amazing music."

In 1986, New York multi-instrumentalist Vaughan Mason, who had a disco hit with Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll in 1979, put together a new crew and released Jack The Groove as Raze. It was essentially a remake of Cymande's Bra, a funk cut that was popular at some of the more adventurous disco clubs such as The Loft. Mason and co had replayed the track's bassline using a synthesizer and made new percussion via a drum machine. It was very much in the style of Chicago house.

Regardless of where the term or the music came from, it wasn't long before house started to be heard in European clubs. In the UK, it was embraced by clubbers to such an extent that it went to the top of the charts: Jack The Groove hit the UK Top 20, and in the same month Jack Your Body by Chicago's Steve 'Silk' Hurley, went to No 1. His offering was similarly disco-derived, its bassline a replayed version of First Choice's Let No Man Put Asunder. In other words, some of the very earliest house records were disco house.

It wasn't long before UK producers started to emulate the sound. M/A/R/R/S's Pump Up The Volume and S Express's Theme From S Express were two of the first, the latter built around a sample of Rose Royce's Is It Love You're After. Both records went to No 1 in the UK pop charts.

As the 80s turned into the 90s, the capacity of the samplers available to bedroom producers increased dramatically. Disco house wouldn't now be limited to replayed elements or tracks built around short samples: complete sections of disco records could be lifted wholesale from vinyl and with an added drum machine, a disco house track could be made without the need for synthesizers or any musicianship at all. DJs who had disco collections could now use their records, along with the new sampler technology, to sometimes fantastic effect, everywhere from Italy to Detroit and New York.

Considering the link between disco and house, and the many figures who bridged the two, it's easy to view the two styles as a continuation of the same genre. House was not so much "disco's revenge", as DJ Frankie Knuckles once called it, but something more akin to The Holy Trinity, being disco's offspring and living spirit at the same time. The lineage was undeniable when examining disco house's three main strands: replayed versions of disco tracks, house cuts built around sizeable disco samples, and original house songs made in the disco style, such as tracks with live disco basslines produced in the 1990s by Blaze and Masters At Work.

It became a natural progression for DJs to enter the studio and produce a cut-n-paste disco track, using a sampler and drum machine. For many, such debut excursions would be a precursor to more complex, more musical efforts, as can be seen by comparing the Groove Committee track above - a cut-n-paste number by New York DJ Victor Simonelli that was released in 1992, and built around Sun Palace's Rude Movements - with the one below, also by Simonelli, which was issued just a year later and is a remake of Inner Life's Moment Of My Life.


By the early 1990s, a second wave of Chicago house producers began to emerge, and it was their work to which the term 'disco house' would first be applied. Names such as Cajmere, Glenn Underground, Boo Williams, Derrick Carter, Gemini, Paul Johnson, DJ Sneak, Johnny Fiasco and Gene Farris would start to appear on new Chicago labels, first Clubhouse and then on Cajual, and later on Large, Guidance and non-Chicago labels like Canada's 83 West and the UK's Peacefrog.

Although not all of their work was disco house, much of it could be described as such. Some of it was comparable to what had gone before, but one of these artists' key innovations was the way they filtered their disco samples. Some people refer to the later French disco house as 'filter disco' or 'filter house', but it was these Chicago artists that first popularised this psychedelic effect. Trippy, tracky and drawn-out, it was directly inspired by the unique style of the city's DJs, and as such was undeniably a Chicago sound, but it was soon taken up by producers globally.

"I loved a lot of those Chicago records, especially Cajual," says Johnny DeMairo. "I still have them all. But I've always been obsesed with things being correct, tight, on-bar,and a lot of the stuff that came out of Chicago sounded kinda messy. They didn't always have 8- or 16-bar intros, it was like you had to do a little more work. I was always concerned with the DJ. I never wanted to turn a DJ off my records, as I'd been turned off by some records in the late 70s. I would never play a lot of Tom Moulton records, for instance, because they didn't have intros. The Trammps' The Night The Lights Went Out is a good example. Later, Ashley Beedle flipped that as Black Science Orchestra and everyone was talking about Larry Levan, so everyone became a fan of that record. But I never really liked it. And I was in New York at the time of that blackout!" 

"But going back to Chicago, the drums were often mixed differently to how we did things, the mastering was different, even sometimes the quality of the pressings. All that played a part. There were certain records out of Chicago that were always done right though, like Ralphie Rosario's or Steve 'Silk' Hurley's."

"Chicago had a history, going back to Trax, where the drums were sloppier, and many of the pressings were just disgusting, because the vinyl had been recycled. Our mastering at Henry Street was the best, our pressings too. A lot of the Chicago disco house records were a little bit busy and I think if you don't have it sonically right, you're making it harder for the DJ. Of course, if the groove's there, you're going to play it, and I did. But I would have to do a lot of adjustments with the levels and the mix when I wanted to play some of that Chicago stuff. So, yeah, their records were different... but so were their DJs."


"When I first went to Chicago in the early 90s, I couldn't believe the talent," continues DeMairo. "Terry Hunter, Bad Boy Bill, Julian Perez, Ralphie Rosario, Tim Schommer… these are guys who know bars, they know phrasing, they always mix in key, they can slam records in and out or go for the long mix. Then you've got people like Derrick Carter and Sneak who are rarely playing just one record, they're constantly riding the mix. New York DJs were just not in that league. In Chicago there was this girl DJ called Psychobitch who wore a miner's hat - she was incredible, the amount of energy coming off her was amazing. And you never used to hear a mix that was out with any of them, not one beat, and there were so many of them that were that good."

DeMairo started Henry Street Records in 1993 and kicked off with an impressive name. Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez, one-half of Masters At Work, was a good friend of DeMairo's. This debut, Whew/Trybal Ridums (HS-162), was issued under the new pseudonym The Bucketheads and was followed by releases from other friends, such as Tommy Musto (who co-ran Henry Street) and Armand Van Helden. These early releases were in the cut-n-paste disco style, produced using just a sampler and drum machine. Only Anthony Mannino's Syncopation added original music, his excellent EP offering two great disco house cuts built around MFSB and Earth, Wind and Fire samples.

De Mairo was satisfied with the initial output and its reception. This side project, a continuation of the disco he loved, was exactly what he had envisaged, and exactly what he had fought for when negotiating his contract with Atlantic Records, who weren't used to employees running their own labels on the side. But with the release of HS-166, things were about to explode.

"Kenny, Tommy and myself were in the car," begins DeMairo. "Tommy was dropping us off in Brooklyn. I played a cassette of an upcoming release I was excited about, and Kenny had this look on his face... I think he was kinda bothered that I was sweating another record! So he went home and made The Bomb! that night. He came to pick me up the next day, we got in the car and he just put the tape on. Didn't make eye contact with me, just kept looking straight ahead. So, I'm listening to this thing, I don't know what's going on. He didn't tell me this was his next Bucketheads single, nothing. When you hear that record for the first time, that five-minute intro feels like forever... then it drops, and woah! After 15 minutes it fades out and he calmly says, 'So what do you think?'. And I'm like, 'That shit's crazy!'."

Using just a sampler and a drum machine, Kenny Dope had turned in something unique. He'd taken an epic nine-minute disco record, Street Player, by the brass-augmented rock band Chicago and completely reconstructed it. The mid-section was sampled for a near five-minute intro in which Gonzalez proved himself one of the best drum programmers around, building the tension gloriously before releasing it with the introduction of the main riff and vocal.

"At first, I thought it was gonna take a DJ with balls to play it, and thank goodness the DJs were there," says DeMairo. "But even though it was kinda crazy, who does drums better than Kenny? Just with the drums, as a bonus beat thing, it was really tight, and then the drop was just mesmerising. I never imagined it was gonna become as big as it did, though - I thought it would do as well as a Kenny record does, y'know? They'd had Deep Inside on Strictly, the mixes for Saint Etienne and a bunch of other successful stuff. I thought it would do at least as well as those records." 

But The Bomb! was destined for much bigger things than to be just a club banger. It would become a Top 20 pop hit all over Europe and Australia, go Top 5 in the UK, France, Belgium and Sweden, and hit No 1 on the US dance charts.

"I was at Atlantic at the time and Positiva licensed the record," says DeMairo. "It was good in a way that they were pushing me, but one thing I hated about the UK scene was the demand for remixes. We'd have a great record and the UK would be like, 'We love it, but we need mixes'. I told them they couldn't touch the record, it's Kenny, it ain't gonna happen. Kenny's like a brother to me and, especially back then, he wasn't the kind of guy that was open to 'Hey, let's do 75 remixes, then we'll do a video that you will fucking hate, then do interviews with a bunch of people. He wasn't that guy. So it was like moving a mountain every time I had to do anything." 

"So the first thing Positiva said was they needed an edit for the B-side. I was like, just put the fucking thing out as is! But they knew I was tight with Armand, so they asked if I could get him to do the edit. He didn't do a lot of favours but we were close, so I asked him to just bring this thing down to eight minutes - and that's literally all he did, and took Postiva's money. It was retarded, but all they wanted was Armand's name on it. If it was a Quincy Jones record, they probably would've wanted a Henry Mancini version. They were never satisfied."

"Then there was the video, which Kenny despised. Getting approval for that was like pulling teeth: I didn't want Kenny to think it was a sell-out but there's a give and take when you're signed to the likes of Positiva/EMI. That wasn't the end of the drama, either. Chicago (the band) were really fucked up to me. Instead of looking at it like, here's some guy from Brooklyn who took a non-hit of ours and now we're gonna make money from it forever, they were like, 'Fuck you, pay me'. There's not enough money in the world to go through the drama that was involved with that. I had a similar situation with The Funk Phenomena, where you're losing half a million dollars because people aren't on the same page." 

"Here's how it worked. I'm Johnny D from Henry Street and I might sell 500 copies of a record. Here's Puff Daddy who's gonna sell five million copies of a Biggie album, and we both want to clear, say, I'm Coming Out by Diana Ross. We go to the publishing and they're gonna hit us for this much money, Motown are gonna hit us for this much money. They don't give a fuck if it's Puffy or Johnny D. They make it impossible to clear, so you have to do it the ghetto way: you put the record out, and if it blows up, they come after you."

"Anyway, the record was growing, and Louie Vega called me from Italy and said 'This record is really big here, but nobody can get copies'. As a label you pay upfront for pressings, but the distributor's got 90 days to pay you, and a lot of the time they just give you returns back. So if you don't have money to press, a hit can put you out of business. Our distributor was cautious: if they had orders for 300 records, they'd want 300 pressed, but every indicator was that we should be pressing that record like crazy. Once it hit the UK and Positiva got a hold of it, they really went after clearing the sample. But by then the record had climbed to No 4 in the pop charts, which makes the negotiations tough. I paid Chicago Records a small fortune."


The Bomb! was reissued by Henry Street several times and was by far the label's biggest selling single. But it wasn't long before labels were again on the phone trying to license Henry Street product. The label's seventh release was by Marc Kinchen's brother Scott. On the B-side of his Scotti Deep EP was the tracky club cut Brooklyn Beats. It transcended any one particular style of house and indicated to DJs that Henry Street was not going to be a one-trick pony.

Over the first half of their vinyl catalogue they would employ a variety of styles, from DJs from across the United States and further afield. Though he'd made his name on Chicago labels, Puerto Rican DJ Sneak made the transition to New York, releasing on both Strictly Rhythm and twice on Henry Street. New York deep house duo Mateo & Matos delivered two EPs before the label's halfway mark, with other notable contributions coming from Chicago's Terry Hunter and Paul Simpson who, like DeMairo, had been around since disco.

There were also DeMairo's own releases, with partner Nicky P Palermo, as JohNick. Already running Henry Street and working a full-time job at Atlantic, it's perhaps a little surprising that he had the energy to go in the studio at all, let alone contribute to a musical project as consistently on-point as JohNick. Their releases included tracks that are still much loved by deep house aficionados, including Good Time, Play The World, The Captain and JohNick Theme.

Like Brooklyn Beats, the next big track from Henry Street was a long way from disco house. Tronco Traxx's Walk 4 Me was an unashamedly gay house track, a pounding, in-your-face tribal houser. Although it didn't fit neatly alongside the rest of Henry Street's catalogue, DeMairo signed it simply because he liked it. His time doing promo in big, white gay clubs had served him well, as the track was embraced by that scene, where DJs like Victor Calderone, Junior Vasquez and Danny Tenaglia took it up. 

Though different sides of the club world now paid attention every time Henry Street delivered a new release, its sound was not travelling much outside of that world and its specialist radio shows. All the same, Johnny DeMairo was satisfied: he'd only ever wanted to run Henry Street as an underground dance label, and Henry Street's early hit The Bomb! had come as a surprise. But another lay just around the corner.

Armand Van Helden's father was in the US Air Force, and the family moved around so much it's hard to say exactly where he's from. But his efforts as a music producer, starting in the early 1990s, were definitely associated with New York, initially via Nervous Records. He scored his first big club hit with Witch Doktor in 1994, was a regular fixture on Strictly Rhythm and had quite a few international remixes to his name. He'd already dropped one EP on Henry Street, but the follow-up, Old School Junkies 2, was about to set Van Helden and DeMairo on a journey that would see both achieve considerable chart success (albeit on Atlantic, not Henry Street).

"There's one person responsible for blowing up that record, and that's Pete Tong," says Van Helden of HS-185. "There were three tracks on the EP and here in New York there was more focus on the gay house track Work Me. It was Pete Tong who really championed Funk Phenomena. He started rinsing it on his radio show and he pretty much convinced everyone else. At Strictly Rhythm they just thought it was weird: it had funk drums, not house drums, and at that time there weren't a lot of records that did that. That record only really worked in certain territories. It wasn't played at all here in New York: nobody got it. It was huge in the UK, Germany, Miami and Texas, but not New York."

With its non-house drums and clever use of Method Man & Redman and Cooly's Hot Box samples, The Funk Phenomena was a breath of fresh air in clubland, and the catalyst in allowing Van Helden to produce records with a fresh sense of adventure. Though it didn't hit the charts quite as hard as The Bomb! had, it did chart across Europe and got considerable radio play there, as well as in certain parts of the US.

"Producers, including myself, can get into a style funk, where you don't change because people like what you do," says Van Helden. "I think Funk Phenomena really taught me that I didn't have to follow that big room New York sound, like I'd done with Witch Doktor, in order to reach people. My next big record, not long after, was the Tori Amos remix."

Words: Marc Rowlands

Coming soon in Part 2: the full story of THAT Tori Amos remix and more. In the meantime, enjoy this exclusive mix of Henry St classics put together exclusively for iDJ by Moodyzwen

20 Years Of Henry Street Music: The Definitive 7" Collection Pt 1 is out on BBE on 29 January





Tags: Henry Street Records, New York, Chicago, New Jersey, Louie Vega, Kenny 'Dope' Gonzalez, Armand Van Helden, Cajual, Glenn Underground, Ralphi Rosario, Larry Levan, The Warehouse, Paradise Garage, The Loft, David Morales, Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia, Boo Williams, DJ Sneak, Terry Hunter, Mateo & Matos, Paul Simpson, Paul Johnson, Johnny Fiasco, Gene Farris, Cajmere, Victor Simonelli, Cerrone, Martin Circus, Melba Moore, Visual, Cymande, Raze, Groove Committtee, NY's Finest, Syncopation, Johnick, Tronco Tra