New York discotheque the Paradise Garage ran for a decade between 1978 and 1987 and is arguably the most iconic of all clubs for dance music aficionados – a perfect, unrepeatable combination of space, time, sound and audience. Victor Rosado has now become synonymous with the Paradise Garage and his relationship with the late Larry Levan. One of the residents of the Garage, Victor embodies the ideas of some of the first pioneers of the art of DJing; he was schooled by the originators of the craft who believed that you could tell a story with music. He comes from a generation who played long sets through the night and beyond sunrise – a far cry from today’s 90 minute club shows. Victor was able to experience the genesis of modern club culture as it happened, in the most musically rich period of New York’s history; where downtown nightlife – a heady mix of hippies, musicians, hookers, gays, drag queens, drug dealers and outsiders – set the template for modern club culture.
I was lucky enough to talk with Victor in the midst of his current European tour which serves as a tribute to his friend and mentor Larry Levan and also coincides with an inspiring series of programmes on 6music. Be quick!
Did you grow up in a musical household?
There was always music at home – Latin jazz, Boogaloo, Spanish do wop; in my house I can remember Santana, Sammy Davis Junior, Dan Martin. My sisters and brothers were always into music – they knew what was out there and were always buying 45’s. One of the earliest records I remember being played at my house was ‘Jungle Fever’ by Chakachas who were a Latin band based in France.
I remember Barrabas – ‘Woman’
and ‘Wild Safari’
Lonnie Listen Smith – ‘Expansions’
I remember my sister playing Eddie Palmieri - ‘The African Twist’
When did you first start going to clubs?
I went to house parties first because I lived in the projects in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Every weekend there were multiple parties in the neighbourhood (in the mid ‘70s) . We would travel from party to party. I was allowed to go for an hour or two – my mom would say be home by 11… but the parties started at 10! I figured if I was late I was already going to get punished so I might as well just stay later. I wanted to be part of that. I was always drawn to music. I wanted to be part of something. I wasn’t old enough to go to clubs – I would take the break wherever I could. One week I might be able to sneak out and go to the Starship on Times Square, which was a bad area at the time – there was nothing but pimps and prostitutes and junkies. Since I was tall they would let me in. I met one of my oldest friends Kenny Carpenter [another legendary NY DJ and resident at Studio 54 in later years] when I was thirteen – he worked the lights at a club called the inferno. One of the first clubs I went to when I graduated from junior high school was the Spotlight in the Bronx; I used to convince my mother that was easier to come home when it was daylight and less dangerous than coming home when it was dark – and she went for that as long as I was going out with people she knew. I started to frequent downtown gay clubs. They wouldn’t turn you away if you were a young man because they wanted young good looking men! I would go to a place called the Grapevine on 48th street – it was very hip.
And when did you graduate from frequenting clubs to wanting to DJ?
I wanted to emulate what I was hearing in clubs. I kept collecting music – I always spent my allowance on 45’s. As a kid I used to go to the neighbourhood swimming pool in central park with a portable record player and play music while everyone was swimming. My friends started letting me play at parties before people arrived – little by little I developed my confidence.
I became a dancer before I became a DJ. As a dancer you know what you want to hear – what moves you, what moves the people on the floor. I use that when I play; timing is very important and dancing is all about timing so that made playing records a little easier using the timing and the element of surprise to flip something in before they know it and make people move.
How did you meet Larry Levan?
I played records at the Loft for a while. I was introduced to David [Mancuso - owner and DJ at the loft] by Kenny Carpenter. The Loft moved from Prince Street to 3rd Street on the Lower East Side. David had begun to depend on me to cover for him when he wasn’t there. It was an opportunity for me to listen to the music I had on that system. It was always a treat but I would break my back carrying 6 crates of records – maybe three or four hundred – just so that I would have enough of a selection. I would play all night – starting at 11 just playing stuff for me to warm up get into the groove and play sometimes till 12 noon the next day.
At the Loft I played early one Saturday night – I didn’t know that Larry had arrived. I’d been going to the (Paradise) Garage for a couple of years and met Larry but he was very stand-offish – he didn’t really want anybody to get too close. This was the early 80s. That night he came to the loft he said “hey what’s up, why don’t you come to the Garage next weekend and bring some records – come hang out.” I took the opportunity. I told David that I wouldn’t be available that night.
I thought: “OK I can go and hang out with him in the booth while he’s playing – I don’t have to stare from the dancefloor any more.”
We went to the booth – we hung out and talked, he ended up playing quite a few of my records. He played ‘Rotation’ by Herb Alpert that night
‘Love To Love You Baby’ - he hadn’t played these records for years.
He played ‘Happy Song’ by Rare Earth,
he played ‘Come On and Do It’ by Poussez. We proceeded to hang out from then on. Time went on, we’d go to eat, talk and at some point his birthday was coming up which was a big thing at the Garage. He asked me “what is one of your fondest wishes?”
I said, “I’ve always dreamed of playing here. I’ve seen what you do to people and how they react. I’d love to be able to do that.” he laughed.
His birthday was July 20th, mine happens to be 23rd. so we were gearing up for the party. I come down to the Garage, we had dinner in the dressing room. Grace Jones was there , Dolph Lundgren was there, Jeffrey Osbourne was there, Mick Jagger , all these people turned up for his birthday and they were in the booth. At about 2.30 in the morning when the night was just getting going he told me “I’ve got to go to the office to do something.”
I said, “you can’t leave – your record’s ending. Larry you need to change the record.”
He said, “No. Play. Happy Birthday” I played for hours. He came back to the booth and fell asleep
What did Larry teach you about DJing?
It wasn’t just a about playing records with Larry; it was a way to move people, to gives them direction be it the message or the mood. You can move people with sound, hints and hidden messages. He believed in this. He came from a long line of DJs. Not only him, but David Mancuso, Francis Grasso [legendary Sanctuary spinner – often considered the first modern DJ], Nicky Siano [of the gallery], all those early guys.
Larry taught me about setting up a set, knowing what you want to say and the vehicle to get there; your journey. Knowing how to set something up to say something. Each record is a letter in that sentence, so you have to spell it out. You keep building until the message is clear. He taught me how to set up a journey. How to pace myself, how to ride the journey – how to keep them at bay until I was ready to let them know what I wanted to say. He knew how to set up atmosphere, how to set up the scene for what he wanted to say. How to be theatrical and dramatic and he knew music really, really well. He played records in key.
I think that people that just beat-match aren’t DJs. If something’s meant to go together it’s meant to go together – it doesn’t really matter about tempo. It’s meant to go together because it means something, something much deeper. Once you have the most important thing figured out everything else just falls to the wayside. It’s like karma. Everything works out. You have to be organised in your thoughts, keep your thoughts pure of heart. Where are you going with this? Why are you feeling this? Once you find that out: you know where you’re going. You don’t get on any damn bus. You have to have an idea of where you want to go first and then you get on the bus.
Are you happy to represent the Paradise Garage? To a lot of people you are the closest thing to Larry and the Garage
I’m happy to represent the ideal that music can be so much more than a vehicle to do drugs. Music should be something to enjoy; an extra. That little gold star on the blackboard, just one of the really great things in life that help you through the day or night or makes you happy, makes you smile. Music is there for you to express yourself or listen to somebody else express yourself. It makes you think, “hey, I feel the same way.”
What are your memories of the first house records appearing?
House music was really a lot of fun at first because it was raw ideas coming to fruition; a lot of really interesting ideas and it got back to basics. People were at home making these tracks – there was a lot of great ideas and experimentation. Kids with an idea were able to find a friend with a drum machine and just kick ideas out and press it. The records were poorly pressed sometimes but at least they got their dream out there. Everybody was doing their own thing; “look this is what I gotta say.” That was the great thing about house music. In New York you had to give them their old – give them what they knew. Then you got to slip them a new one; that way you wouldn’t lose them.
Do you miss the New York of the ‘70s and ‘80s?
Old New York was a little shady. I miss the diversity – culturally it was rich. There was a lot happening in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The nightlife was incredible. You could go to 15 different clubs in one night and not see the same people twice, you would never hear the music that was on the radio in clubs. I can’t even describe it; you have to have lived it.
What are your favourite clubs to play?
I always loved Yellow (now Eleven) in Tokyo but it’s not so much about The Club, it depends on the party. I love what the club becomes during a party. A club is just a space, it’s about what you do within that space, what you bring and what you project, what you create. It’s a cohesive thing – everybody does their part and it becomes something special. Do I dance when I play? Yeah! If there’s enough room.
You can catch Victor Rosado & Lenny Fontana, DJ Alex (Voices) & Johnny Hiller (Lasermagnetic) on the ‘A TRIBUTE TO LARRY LEVAN’ European Tour 2011 which calls in at fabric this Saturday in Room 3:
30th July in London@ Fabric
4th Aug in Berlin@ Cookies
6th Aug in Manchester@ Soup Kitchen
+ further EU/Japan dates tba
Five from Victor’s box…
Sylvester – I Need Someone To Love Tonight
Donny Hathaway – Love, Love Love
CJ & Co – We Got Our Own Thing
Tamiko Jones – Can’t Live Without Your Love
Herbie Hancock – Stars In Your Eyes
Fleetwood Mac – Dreams
Words by Dan Beaumont