Tales Of Paradise: Jellybean Benitez Talks
At the end of November, Ministry of Sound are running a fundraiser for HIV charities by recreating the Paradise Garage in London. With Larry Levan now long departed to the cosmic discothèque at the end of time, it’s fallen to some of his contemporaries to play the deep, hedonistic disco that made the Garage so iconic. Original residents Jellybean Benitez, David Depino, Joey Llanos, Victor Rosado are coming along to bring back the magic – all of whom are legends in their own right. We jumped at the chance to speak to Jellybean, a producer and DJ who’s worked with everyone from Madonna to Whitney Houston, and who made his name playing the Funhouse, Studio 54, and the Garage itself. We spoke in slightly sombre circumstances- David Mancuso died the day before our call, so naturally, Benitez found himself sharing some memories of his time as a regular at the Loft…
What was your first clubbing experience?
Wow, I don’t even know. Mostly I went to parties in my neighbourhood. I remember being about 15 or 16, and my first club was a place called The 310 in the Bronx. That was my first disco club. Then when I ventured into Manhattan, I found myself in the Loft and Beat Street. Beat Street was the venue and gallery where Larry Levan played prior to the Paradise Garage. The Gallery with Nicky Siano, The Loft with David Mancuso who unfortunately just passed away…
I mean they weren’t clubs that were glitzy at all. They weren’t designed in that way, I mean the Loft was David’s room. Beat Street was, like, a hole in the wall. The Gallery was just a loft where people congregated with great sound, great music, very mixed between straight and gay, black, white, Asian, young and old. There were no boundaries in that sense and it was all this new experience. It was all new. Y’know, I’d never seen anything like this before. It seemed completely cool and amazing, but I wasn’t experiencing it from a view that ‘this is going to be history’.
You were just living it on a day to day basis-
Yeah, there was a guy playing records, I’d never seen that before, and there were lights flashing and people dancing totally lost in the music. There was food..
I’ve never thought about the food before, what would people eat?
Whatever they served; fresh fruit and nuts, The Loft had more elaborate offering which was lasagne – it was whatever they prepared, it was all included in your price of admission. For me it was like, ‘oh all clubs are like this’
Were you aware of there being a mainstream that this was very different to?
Yes, definitely. This is all pre-Travolta. There was a more ‘straight’ world that got into disco but that came much later. I’m talking about 1974-75.
Was there a track that really inspired you to start producing yourself?
Well producing came later I think. The songs that were being played then, you only heard them in these underground clubs, but the thing was you could go over and ask. Being a music lover and a record collector but not a DJ – at the time I was just a dancer – David would let you walk into the DJ booth and the records were there, you didn’t even need to ask. Out of courtesy I guess you would ask, but he wasn’t like ‘what are you doing looking through my records?’ You’d ask ‘what is that song you’re playing’ and he’d just give you the album cover to look at. When I first went there, there were regulars, people who knew the music. I didn’t know the songs, some of them I’d heard but none of it was on the radio, but the audience knew the songs. David, he didn’t mix songs together. They faded out and you clapped and the next song came on. Even though he had two turntables he wasn’t segueing as such.
Did you encounter many people mixing at the time?
There were, but it wasn’t mixing in the same way – it was starting then. DJs were learning the art of seguing from one song to another, from beat to beat, but there was no pitch control on the turntables to do that. So they had all these really creative ways of slowing down the tempo of a song to mix it into another one. For the most part they had little Dixie cups, you know what a Dixie cup is? Like a paper coffee cup. They’d cut them down to about half an inch high, put a hole in it, put it on the spindle of the turntable, and then they would have an array of different things, like a button, a safety pin, a clip, a little rock, and they would put it in there and slow the tempo down. There were no monitors…
So working out how to get something to the right tempo would be like, ‘I think two stones and a paper clip will get it in sync’?
Yeah (laughs), but that’s what they did! You have to remember this is all with live drums, so the tempos shift – it’s not like records made now with drum machines, the tempo might shift every four bars. So they’d have to figure out what the tempo was with a metronome. It just seemed normal…
And whilst you’re better known as a producer, you were DJing as well-
I started as a DJ, playing at clubs in the Bronx, then I played at New York New York, Studio 54 and the Funhouse, which was probably where I was most known for. And it was through that experience that I convinced myself that somehow I could make better records than the ones being played.
How did you fund getting yourself started?
I just saved money from odd jobs, borrowed my sisters turntable. It wasn’t til I realised that I needed to have a job that I realised that this would be the best choice for me. It didn’t seem like I was working, it just seemed like a natural progression. DJ culture now has it so that there are 12 year old kids saying, ‘I want to be a DJ when I grow up’. When I told people I wanted to be a DJ they’d look at me like, ‘what, on the radio, talking? Telling the news and introducing a song?’ And I’d be like, ‘no, I don’t talk’, they’d say ‘What? What are you talking about?’ It was a new artform.
Did you have any musical background to fall back on when you did start producing?
I didn’t have any musical training what so ever. All I knew was what made people dance and what made people stop dancing.
How would you turn that into a song?
I had to hire an engineer, I’d hire musicians and I became really good at humming. I don’t know! I was experimenting, let’s try this, let’s try that, no not like that, more like this. I mean, even when I started making records I didn’t know the term “record producer”, I was just like, I’m gonna make a song and play it at my club. I became really good at humming! I was communicating and trying to explain what it was I wanted to make.
So your tunes would start in your head as a melody?
I heard the songs in my head finished. In my head they were done. I heard the bassline, the drum beat, the guitar part, the percussion and I would either tap it out or hum it out, and the musicians would look at me like ‘ohhh, OK, that makes sense’, and they would play it, and I’d be more like, ‘no it’s more like this’ and tap it out again, and they’d finally get it. It came from a purely experimental thing. I guess at some point, because I was working with musicians and they knew music theory, they were able to make it correct. Some of my ideas they’d say ‘err that’s not in the right key’, so I’d say ‘make it in the right key and let me hear what it sounds like’. So eventually I started picking up the jargon and having better understanding. But in the beginning it was all instinct.
Which of your tracks came closest to the sound in your head?
Well, that’s how I made Holiday by Madonna. That whole arrangement and everything was in my head. I didn’t plan it. I was just doing it…
Wow, OK. So let’s talk about this Paradise Garage re-enactment, what are you going to play?
I’m going to play records that Larry played at the Garage during the ten years he played there. It’s going to be hard to fit everything that I want to play in a 3 hour set, but I do believe it’ll have the integrity of what Larry played there. It’s interesting because for me I don’t have one single memory, it’s all one thing; I went there hundreds of times, I’d just go dance, listen to music, hang with Larry in the booth, hear new records, see my friends. I’d go sometimes at 5 in the morning, 8 in the morning, 11 in the morning, sometimes I went Friday, sometimes Saturday, sometimes Friday and Saturday. It was just what we did….
‘A Night In Paradise’ takes place at Ministry of Sound on Sunday 27th November . More details and tickets over here