Sound Of Thunder #067 – Tony Humphries Special
It is not an exaggeration to say that Tony Humphries is my favourite DJ of all-time. I have heard many great DJs play, pretty much everyone regarded as ‘legendary’ who is still alive and lots that are no longer with us, via recordings of their sets. None have had the impact that Humphries has had on me.
Back at the start of the 1990s, American DJs visiting London was almost unheard of. Frankie Knuckles had his 6 month residency at Delirium at the end of the ‘80s, and on the strength of his reputation in New York, Tony Humphries made a number of trips across the pond to guest at the Danny and Jenny Ramplings’ seminal Shoom parties and Norman Jay’s High Hope.
Fast forward to the summer of 1991 and the Ramplings, who now had another seminal mid-week party, Pure Sexy, decided to bring Humphries back to London. But they didn’t try to squeeze him into the home of Pure Sexy, 200 capacity Milk Bar, instead they decided to throw a warehouse style party, entitled ‘Voluptuous’, in a film studio in Stonebridge Park. This might not seem overly radical to the hardened East London warehouse scene clubbers of today, but back then we were used to getting the night bus back from Soho after a night out and I didn’t even know where Stonebridge Park was. More importantly though, many of the people going had never heard Tony play and had gleaned whatever information they knew about him from word of mouth, friends living stateside, or the odd magazine article here and there. This was a time long before the internet and even longer before Soundcloud, Youtube, Discogs, Facebook and all the other online resources that we now take for granted, which allow one to build a decent level of knowledge about pretty much any successful DJ, that has ever lived, from any part of the world.
With all that in mind, we headed off one June Saturday night, into the wilds of North West London, to seek an audience with this exotic musical beast from fair flung New Jersey.
We crammed into a white washed studio on a deserted industrial estate, with what seemed like half of London club land. There can’t have been anything else of note going on in London that night, because I’m pretty sure every DJ and promoter in the city was there – like Harvey when he did his ‘return to London’ Oval Space party, but with more pony tails.
Tony didn’t disappoint, delivering a master class in both mixing and programming, demonstrating a level of sophistication we simply weren’t used to in London. He did things like working two copies of Inner City ‘Hallelujah’ and again with the brilliant but infamously short Masters At Work mixes of Chris Cuevas ‘Hip Hop’. There was key mixing too and it wasn’t just all garage and US house, he wove in records like Cola Boy ‘7 Ways To Love’ and DJ Professor and Francesco Zappala 'We Gotta Do It', alongside proper jazz house like Ace Of Clubs, early Wild Pitch, and London rave classic, Expansion ‘Move Your Body’.
It was a set that lived long in the memory and despite the party being a little flat, possibly because it was full of DJs and promoters who aren’t renowned for actually dancing, it felt like it changed a lot of people’s perception about what DJing could and should be like. This was a months before Ministry of Sound opened for the first time and for many, brought up on a diet of pirate radio and rave DJ with sound system or soul boy roots, this was the first time we had heard any sort of American DJ play. That New York lineage, slicker, more creative, steeped in the history of disco and house, it was almost like hearing a DJ from another world.
Fortunately, for those of you that didn’t make the trek round the North Circular in the back of a mark 2 Escort van that summer’s evening, a couple of years ago a recording of the night surfaced on soundcloud, so you can all have a listen now.
Since then I have learnt a lot about Humphries. Installed as resident at Zanzibar, New Jersey’s answer to the Paradise Garage, in the early 1980s, he made the club synonymous with himself and his DJing, despite previous resident including Hippie Torales, Larry Patterson, Tee Scott and François Kervorkian. It was a club unlike its counterparts over the Hudson River, it lacked the art scene hipsters, the uptown fashion kids, the pop stars, and the models that rubbed shoulders with the kids from the projects in the melting pot of Manhattan. It was more raw, more black, more working class, and more rough. In fact, Newark was damn right scary at time, which given 1980s New York was a city on the brink, on the verge of bankruptcy, large swathes of which lay derelict, with block sized shanty towns, rampant gun crime, and barely functioning system of law and order, that really is saying something.
The club itself was situated in the ballroom of the Lincoln Motel, a local landmark as traffic entered New Jersey via the Lincoln Tunnel, but it was also a welfare hostel for the overflowing homeless of New York. Apparently earning the owner $1,000 per person a month from Mayor Ed Koch’s administration, it was a far cry from the high hopes of the opening night of the hotel just a few years previously, which was celebrated with a party that featured real lions and tigers in cages in the club, numerous celebrities dancing to a live performance from Kool and Gang, and Hippie Torales dropping a test-pressing of ‘Rappers Delight’ for the first time in New York area.
The motel became such a hotbed for crime, that the building’s floor plan graced the wall of the local public defender’s office to assist lawyers juggling cases. There are numerous stories of how unsafe the area was, but none is quite as harrowing as the one told by Kerri Chandler, whose girlfriend was attacked, raped, and murdered after leaving the club, her mutilated body hidden in bushes behind the venue. When the motel was finally demolished in 2007, seven years after closing its doors, the New York Times described it as “an establishment best known as a hot-sheet motel, an incubator for prodigious amounts of crime”, and a “blemished, rat-infested drug-haven eyesore.” Suffice to say this wasn’t Studio 54 or The Saint, and when I finally visited New York in 1992 I was flatly told not to go, it wasn’t for me, the area was too dangerous, and this by people that took me for walk through the shanty town land of Alphabet City.
The club was, however, was an oasis for many, somewhere working people came together to dance and forget about their worries, the grind of everyday life and the struggle to eke out an existence – a formula that has form the basis for some of the greatest nightclubs and dance scenes in history. Humphries thrived in this environment, drawing on the church going background prevalent amongst of much of the black working class Newark clientele, to forge his own sound, more vocal based and gospel influenced that of New York proper, the sound that became known as ‘garage’ in the UK – Jersey Sound.
Technically, he was hugely talented, regularly working double copies of records, as he did at that Rampling party, teasing and manipulating the crowd with the Richard Long and Associates sound system, which matched anything in Manhattan. Another Humphries trademark was the ‘track sandwich’, where he would drop something darker and more instrumental, but sandwich it between two more crowd friendly vocal tracks, so as not to lose the floor.
Jon Marsh, the man behind British rave-pop crossover act, The Beloved, experienced both when he visited the club, “We began to get some coverage in States, championed by the wonderful Bill Coleman who was dance editor at Billboard Magazine. Our first trip over was late summer ‘89 to play at a 'Billboard Dance Party', we got on famously with all and became good mates with Bill. I probably bugged him to take me to all the places I'd heard of, and some I hadn't. Save The Robots and some other after-hours joints, all brilliant and all different. Next trip he promised Zanzibar as it wasn't exactly local to Manhattan and he didn't drive, so he hired a car with driver, and off we went.
It seemed like at least an hour journey through semi-industrial areas, nobody on the streets, definitely very cold winter, and pretty bleak. Then in some nondescript suburb we pulled up in a car park by a small Mall, like a UK shopping precinct. Nobody there either. My heart sank a bit. We went into part of the building, up some stairs, and suddenly, noise and light. The club was just the second or third floor of a functional building. Visually unprepossessing, fitted seating, lots of mirrors, and a dancefloor like a semi-circle around a curved wall through which, below were just the shops or whatever.
But the crowd! Really mixed, fashion irrelevant, virtually all black or Hispanic, but all fantastic dancers, on this bumping, upbeat, joyful vibe – responding vocally, physically, happily to every new direction with each record. Like the whole place was properly syncopated to the beat, and that organ-driven Jersey sound. When the DJ took it somewhere dark, or tracky it was only for one or two records, fully intense, but then back to the soulful groove, like he was giving the room a nudge somewhere else to respond to rather than leave the floor because they didn't like the switch in direction. Very deliberate, effortlessly cool, and of course that was Tony.
Bill introduced me but I just wanted to dance, not hang out. A couple of tracks later he played 'Sun Rising' and the response from the crowd was fucking amazing. Obviously, hearing it every week, shouting at certain points, and singing along – better than me! I know the track inside out but then it went really weird, arrangement thrown out of cue, bits repeating, folk really shouting at this. Then I realised he's working two, possibly there copies simultaneously as one was a bar behind and the other jumped back to the bass intro. It absolutely blew my mind. Incredible moment.”
Central to the creation of this distinct New Jersey scene was the support Humphries gave to local artists. Many of these, artists such as Kerri Chandler, Blaze, 95 North, Ceybil Jefferies and even hip house star, KYZE, went onto receive major label recognition and deals. Humphries told ID Magazine in 1992, “We’re here to take care of the UK and the independent companies ‘cos the majors can really take care of making a record a hit themselves – we’re worried about the small guy, the really obscure or local records that won’t get any or regular radio. Somebody can give us a tape that was recorded two days ago and it’s on. Definitely.”
It was not just Humphries role as a club DJ that made in so influential, what really set him apart from other club DJs was his weekly ‘Mastermix Dance Party’ radio show on New York’s Kiss FM radio station, which extended the reach of his to Manhattan and beyond, sound-tracked the city’s Saturday night. He got his break in radio following a chance meeting New York dance music legend, Shep Pettibone, at the offices of Prelude Records. Tony handed Pettibone a tape and which secured him a slot on Kiss, the two presenting a showcase ‘best of the year’ show at the end of 1980, that still stands up alongside the best disco mixes you will ever hear.
Tony went onto establish himself on the station, cementing his reputation as tastemaker and breaker of new music. This also lies at the heart of his mystique and is probably the reason he is regarded in the terms that he is amongst so many DJs, because these radio shows, weekly mixes, seeped out of New York on cassette tapes and really gave us an insight into this wonderful world on the other side of the Atlantic.
In 1991, not long after the Voluptuous party in Stonebridge Park, one of my best friends and driver of the Escort van that night, moved to New York. Of course I was sad to lose a friend and dance partner, but it did have its upsides, such as holidays to New York, shopping in New York, clubbing in New York – and mix tapes from New York.
One of those mix tapes was of Tony’s show, broadcast one cold Saturday night in January in 1991, and it was a recording that made an indelible mark on my musical psyche. I’m not quite sure why, because it wasn’t one of those carefully planned set-piece, like those that are packaged and sold, it was simply a recording of a regular Saturday night show. Humphries was doing these shows every week, with new records, with tapes, so they must have been off the cuff. Some of the mixing would suggest that is right, it’s not always in key, sometimes there was vocal overlap, and some mixes felt a little forced, but, and this is a big ‘but’, he makes it work, and there is that unquantifiable element that makes some that makes some sets special, a kind of musical magic.
The mix kicks off with the sublime Mr Fingers ‘Closer’, before wheeling through a few English tracks including the Joey Negro mix of Brand New Heavies ‘Dream Come True’ and Slam ‘Eterna’, then it just builds and builds and by the time he’s working two copies of Adeva’s ‘Independent Woman’ mixed up with Musto and Bones, he’s in full flow. The best is yet to come though, when he mixes Gypseymen ‘Hear The Music’ and C-Bounce (aka Candy Flip) ‘Keep The Faith’. The mix is not perfect, but it’s intuitive, working both records in and out, you think it’s over and then it’s back, and it pretty much sums up that Humphries x-factor. There is something about his style which injects pure energy into the music. It is organic, instinctive, raw, and a million miles from the dull, clinical precision and sterility of modern digital DJing.
I don’t think any other mix I have ever heard has had such an effect on me. I was young when I first heard it and used to English DJs, the Balearic network, and Italian screamers, but it’s stayed with me. I played this tape to death over the years. Walking to work with my Walkman, after clubs, in the car, on cassette, on Minidisc and eventually on my iPod. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is between this and the multitude of other mixes I’ve listened to in my life, but there is a difference. I liked the mix so much I set up a soundcloud account for it a few years ago, shared it about and then forgot it. It’s had almost 16,000 plays since then, there are Discogs forum threads about the tracklist, and people have described it as the best Humphries mix they’ve ever heard. So maybe it wasn’t just me, maybe there really is magic on that tape?
Love of Humphries’ shows more generally, certainly wasn’t something is unique to me. Gerd Janson has spoken of his love for the shows and told Ransom Note back in 2013, “I also have a bit of an almost unhealthy obsession with old Tony Humphries radio tapes although he is one of the few dance music architect's that I have never seen in the flesh.” I assume he has now, as there is a Tony Humphries related compilation planned for release on Gerd’s Running Back label, and if not, he will this weekend, as both he and Humphries are on the same bill at Panorama Bar.
Then there was Danny Ramplings’ Love Groove Dance Party on Radio 1 and Mark Seven’s Parkway Mastermix series, both of which are nod respectfully towards Humphries’ Mastermix Dance Party shows.
In addition to being a seminal New York DJ, Tony was also a hugely influential producer too, but one that shied away from the limelight, and despite having produced and remixed many hundreds of records, he has never released a record as an artist himself. Back in 1992 he said, “To me it’s more gratifying to know that you’ve made that person into a star. I don’t mind being the man behind the scenes. I’d rather be a good curtain man than the man on stage. Quincy Jones is my idol. He’s untouchable. The quiet guy behind the scenes. Behind Michael Jackson the artist.”
Many of those records he shaped from behind the scenes are truly brilliant too. Here are a few personal favourites.
Indeep – Last Night a DJ Saved Life (Vocal Mix) Sound of New York, 1981
With Humphries on the mix, this is one of the biggest records of era, moving the dancefloors of mega disco in New York and mobile discos in Hertfordshire with equal ease. Stone cold classic.
Kinky Foxx – So Different (Vocal and Instrumental Mixes) – Sound of New York, 1983
On the same label as Indeep, probably the only other really good record Sound of New York put out, and a very collectable one to boot, Humphries mixed this too.
Visual – Music’s Got Me (Vocal and Instrumental Mixes) – Prelude, 1983
When Boyd Jarvis and Timmy Regisford teamed up to release this proto-house classic, who did they rope in to provide the remix? You got it, Humphries. This was one of the biggest records of 1983 and still sounds good today, in fact, Ransom Note Records have just released Boyd’s version with some fresh remixes, and it’s in the shops now!
Mtumbe – Juicy Fruit (Fruity Instrumental Mix) – Epic, 1983
Sampled by everyone from Notorious B.I.G. to Stetassonic to R.Kelly, but a huge tune in its own right, Tony's (not really an) instrumental version turned it into a club monster.
Cultural Vibe – Ma Foom Bey (Love Chant Version) – Easy Street, 1986
Frankie Knuckles, Jamie Principle Jesse Saunders, Vince Lawrence were making something called House Music in Chicago at this time but back in Newark, Tony Humphries was doing something very similar. House not house, ground breaking and absolutely seminal New York club music. He also mixed ‘Mind Games’ and ‘Power’ by this act too, both of which are worth checking out.
The Beloved – Sun Rising (Zanzibar Has Risen Mix) – Atlantic, 1990
The original was one of biggest records of the London orbital rave scene in 1989, a staple of pirate radio stations like Centreforce and Sunrise, it’s debatable whether this needed a remix really. Indeed, the UK pressing of this version, due to be released at the same time as the act’s album, was pulled prior to release despite the commercial copies having been pressed up. With the benefit of hindsight, it is a lovely remix, sympathetic to the original but taking it down a slightly different path, more dreamy, more blissed out. Good name for an album, that…
Living Colour – Elvis Is Dead (Elvis In The House Mix and Zans Is Dead Mixes) – Epic, 1990
Who remembers New York pop rock band, Living Colour then? Thought not. Humphries remixing this lot felt pretty incongruous but that’s the sort of thing he did so well. I first heard this in a party thrown by my mate’s older brother and his friends in the basement of Greek restaurant on Green Lanes. Full of Ibiza workers back for the winter, all long curly hair, chucking money about and swigging bottles champagne (wonder what sort of work they were doing in Ibiza?), it was great fun. Anyway, the dub is really good too, but it’s not on the main the release though, so you’ll have to figure out where to find that yourselves!
Urban Soul – Alright (Zanzibar Mix) – Polar, 1991
This original version record was big in the UK and then when it was remixed into a piano scream up by Sasha, it was absolutely massive. Who did the best mix though? Yep, Tony. Despite this, when it was licensed to Cooltempo it didn’t make it onto the main release, sneaking out quietly and pretty much unnoticed on a remix 12” at a later date.
The Sugarcubes – Leash Called Love (12” Mix) – One Little Indian, 1991
Bjork versus Jersey Sound, shouldn’t really work but it does, in a gorgeously skippy way. The remix is erroneously credited to Todd Terry on the sleeve so had a sticker added to correct this. It’s definitely Tony though and although not released until 1992, it was available on promo in 1991 with his equally good remix of the band’s song ‘Hit’. Worth searching out.
Desiya – Comin’ Strong (Spagatini Mix) – Blackmarket, 1991
Pretty much the epitome of a Tony Humphries house track, great vocal, and a mix that just moves you. Worked to death on that mix tape that changed my life too, so I love this record in a special way.
Cover Girls – Wishing On a Star (Magic Sessions Dub 1) – Epic, 1992
Imagine you’re a record company executive for moment. A record company executive in New York, during the golden period of New York house music in the early 1990s. You’ve already got Todd Terry, ‘Lil’ Louie Vega, and Kenny ‘Dope’ Gonzalez in to remix your RnB pop act and someone says, “I know, let’s get Tony Humphries along to remix one of the many versions we’ve already commissioned from teh other three.” You would probably laugh them out of the building, right? Cut out the middle man and just shovel a few thousand dollars straight down the loo. Well, someone did say something like that and someone listened too. Good job really, because the end result was this epic almost 10 minute slice of New York house perfection.
Deacon Blue – Will We Be Lovers (Spag Tek Mix and Sally’s Dub) – Columbia, 1992
Tony loved a pop remix and this is probably his best. In fact, it’s probably in my top 3 favourite Humphries’ remixes ever. It’s not skippy US garage, it’s late night, heads down music, with the almost mournful looping vocal refrains and pianos sucking you in. It’s amazing. Big with Bristol and New York legend Milo/DJ Nature too.
Hardrive – Just Believe (Tony Humphries and Lil Louie Vega Extended Mix) – Strictly Rhythm, 1991
This is a good one to finish on. Another collaboration with Louie Vega, pressed on clear vinyl, there isn’t much more to say about this other than it’s probably the best record Strictly ever put out. Just think about that for a moment…
You can catch me, Tony Humphries and Sadar Bahar playing at XOYO this Saturday, when Thunder takes over Room 2 for the night. Thunder’s own art department, Will Webster will be joining me for a 5 hour set. Tickets will be available on the door. Full details HERE.