Larry Levan existed in the interstitial time between disco and the house music movement. His influence on the latter is often talked about, but what's usually overlooked is that - true to the scene's form - he was derided and seen as old fashioned by newer DJs. One of the main reasons for their disdain was his reluctance to beatmatch tracks in his DJ set, an anathema concept to those DJs who wanted the rhythm to run and run and run. Levan himself was probably unaware of what his critics thought, given that he was usually surrounded by a coterie of drag queens and drug dealers, the latter supporting his addiction to heroin.
Still, his sets at the Paradise Garage club in what used to be New York's Printing District in the mid-‘80s were the stuff of legend. One of the reasons his eclectic sets were so celebrated was because he augmented the tracks he was playing with keyboards and drum machines - something that the likes of Richie Hawtin would do many years later - to almost remix, remodel and extend tracks live. In the studio, Levan was inspired by Walter Gibbons, whose work remixing disco tracks in the ‘70s and early ‘80s was a direct influence on later house mixes; for a decent chunk of the 1980s it was Levan who owned the art of the underground club remix, as evidenced by the 22 mixes, edits and extended cuts compiled here.
To listen to these tracks is to be transported back 30 years to an anything-goes New York club scene before the relentless high speed 4/4 thud of house, to a time when soulful vocals and funk grooves were the order of the day. Here we can hear the first flushes of jazzy piano that would become the mainstay of house, the gospel tones that would dominate the first flushes of garage house, but here they're mixed with scratchy guitar licks and crisp, slow-motion rhythms. Levan was drawn to the intricacies of rhythm and soulfulness, just as Gibbons had been, and it makes for a rich collection of R&B-influenced cuts that still carry the whiff of the disco era. These are feel-good, good-time tracks for the knowing Paradise Garage party crowd.
The tracks included here have an inevitable period charm, and are clearly locked into the time they were created, but as a survey of what dance music was like before it had sped up and got itself tangled up in formulaic beats, this is pretty important. Extended mixes from the time had a tendency to break down the track into its components and slowly build them back up again; little of that happens here, as stripping it right back would have defeated Levan's objective of keeping the groove at the forefront.
There are some absolute gems of mixes here of cuts by the likes of Gwen Guthrie, Bert Reid and Grace Jones. Compared with contemporaries like DJ / producer François Kevorkian or a studio guru like Shep Pettibone, on mixes of tracks like Man Friday's ‘Groove’ or David Joseph’s ‘You Can't Hide Your Love’, electronics are held firmly in check, becoming part of the track rather than the whole emphasis; it gives these songs a loose, natural, organic warmth and more enduring euphoria, without the alien sparseness of period electronic 12" mixes.
A 'Genius Of Time' Levan may have been, but he couldn't hold back time itself. The Paradise Garage is now a Verizon building, dance music itself has displayed so much mutability that it's unrecognisable from what Levan brought to the DJ booth, while Levan himself passed away in 1992, right on the cusp of a comeback. For anyone wishing to understand the long shadow cast by Levan over dance music, this is nigh on essential.
Words: Mat Smith (@mjasmith)
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