Johnny ‘D’ DeMairo started DJing at the tender age of 12 and today owns the largest collection of dance music acetates and test pressings in the world. His personal library, spanning over 80,000 cuts of wax, informed his vision to set up Henry Street Records in 1993, a label that quickly attained legendary status in house music circles, boasting underground and crossover smashes such as ‘The Funk Phenomena’ by Armand Van Helden and ‘The Bomb’ by The Bucketheads.
BBE Music, the consistently brilliant UK label, is synonymous with quality releases: their disco projects have together sold over 300,000 thousand CDs worldwide. ‘Disco Jamms’, the first of two collaborative concepts with Johnny D, is out now, and Ben Arnold offers this fascinating introduction:
“The mark of a great DJ is one who knows that hip-hop came from disco. That is the truth of the matter…”
Johnny ‘D’ DeMairo has always been about disco. It was something that underpinned his seminal house label Henry Street Music, the imprint he set up with Tommy Musto in 1993. It was a place where the particles of classic disco and the four-to-the-floor throb of house music were smashed together to create something new, something that would extend the life of these underground anthems and introduce them to a new audience. Armand Van Helden, Kenny Dope, Lil’ Louie Vega, Terry Hunter, DJ Sneak, Todd Terry, DJ Duke; they all turned it out for Henry Street, and tracks like Dope’s ‘The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)’ and Van Helden’s ‘The Funk Phenomena’ made it a pivotal part of house music history.
But the story starts much earlier than that in Brooklyn, New York, in the 80s. Born into a blue-collar Italian-American household, it would have been virtually impossible for DeMairo to avoid the streetlife happening outside his front door. Block parties, rollerskating, graffiti, disco, boogie, electro, freestyle and hip-hop were consuming kids from all backgrounds, of all colours.
At 12, he started to learn how to DJ using ‘the absolute worst turntables ever made’ – a pair of Lafayette T-2000s bought him by his father. The next year he got his first pair of Technics 1200 MK IIs, some of the first to arrive in New York. In 1981, he started playing neighbourhood and high school parties, before graduating to the block parties taking place in the recreation grounds and on the stoops of the now-gentrified Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights. He quickly impressed the older DJs and armed with a stack of records on classic labels like Prelude and West End, he’d throw them together with Italo (or ‘guido’) disco tracks and Led Zeppelin.
His age didn’t appear to be a barrier to New York’s vibrant club culture. At 14, and in possession of a fake ID, he would make his way uptown to 254 West 54th Street in Manhattan, the location of the legendary Studio 54. Every Saturday night, he would be educated by its then-resident Leroy Washington, A DJ who’d moved to New York from Detroit in the 70s. Washington also owned the Lovelite club, where a young DJ called David Morales was resident, and Hi-Tech, a record store on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. DeMairo cites Washington as ‘one of the most underrated DJs in history’.
“He was fucking phenomenal,” he says. “He was on Thorens TD 125 MK II turntables which were, in my opinion, total garbage. He’d be doing things that didn’t even make any sense. Never heard him off beat. You’d hear Madonna, Michael Jackson, Captain Rapp, Haircut 100, Billy Ocean, Van Halen, Brainstorm. Other big name DJs couldn’t hang with Leroy. Technically, they weren’t even in the same ballpark.”
Aged 15, DeMairo met local Brooklyn DJ Danny Cole, and though older than him, he found a kindred spirit. Cole was DJing every Friday and Saturday at the Plaza Suite, a mob-owned nightclub in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where there would be weekly live sets from people like Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne and Jimmy Castor. He invited the young DeMairo to join him. “We’d kill that club on a weekly basis,” says DeMairo.
Working in the various businesses owned by his extended family, he would make a wage during the day and then play the parties at night and on the weekend, while the mixtapes he distributed were slowly taking on a life of their own. Until any real money from DJing started coming in, he’d have to hide the growing mass of records he’d bought from his parents. “My father thought I was blowing all my money on vinyl. Which I was. Now 80,000 records later, I can remember where almost every record came from,” he says.
Meanwhile, his musical education continued in the ether. “Radio was incredible in New York,” he says. “There was Disco 92, WBLS with Frankie Crocker and 98.7 Kiss. I was just constantly trying to piece things together.” The legendary Shep Pettibone became a star on 98.7 Kiss, and along with Leroy Washington remains DeMairo’s idol both as a DJ and a producer. “I couldn’t believe he was white!” he says. “Without a doubt, he was the number one inspiration for me. What he was doing with edits 30 years ago people can’t do now with Pro Tools or a multi-track or anything. He was so innovative. Everything he touched, even a record I hated, if he did it, I loved it.”
DeMairo is always quick to pay tribute to those who have shaped his love of music. DJs like Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera, also known as the Latin Rascals, who were exponents of the New York freestyle sound. The Dynamic Duo too, made up of his Henry Street co-hort Tommy Musto and the late Tommy Sozzi. “When I get in my mode of making mix tapes, Shep, Latin Rascals and the Dynamic Duo are there in some way. I’m like a walking medley. Every time I hear one track, I hear five records on top of it, with edits all around.”
Making contacts among the DJ-only record pools, and then meeting the likes of Louie Vega, Todd Terry and Kenny Dope on the club circuit, DeMairo joined a promotion company called the Street Information Network, soon using it to create networks of his own; CJ Mackintosh in London, Terry Hunter in Chicago, 95 North in Washington, and, of course, all those New York connections. When it came time to launch his own label, the fledgling Henry Street (named after a cross street in his Brooklyn neighbourhood), he could call on the most smouldering of talents in house music to make it great. But that is another story…
This selection is about the tracks that would inform Henry Street, the tracks found deep within the complex strings of its DNA, the tracks championed by Pettibone on Kiss or by Washington at the Studio, or those dredged from crates across the city. Half-heard anthems from Italy tracked down through forensic research in the record shops of the five boroughs, rare dub versions of classics that you won’t be finding on eBay anytime soon. This is real disco.
“These are the secret weapon tracks, but more personal to me and people from my world. I’m pulling records from different places. This is how I play records. It’s not fake. I have never been a ‘set DJ’ and always played just about every genre of music, from the fastest uptempo disco anthem, to the most ghetto rap jam to Zeppelin. Music is music. A good DJ can play it all. A great DJ can play it all technically correct!”
Back at the tail end of the last millennium, BBE released a comprehensive over view of house music in the latter stages of the 20th century. ‘Henry Street Music: The Story So Far – 1993 To 1999’ was a slice of superior contemporary club classics featuring all of the key players, architects and music makers of the day. Todd Terry, Armand Van Helden, Kenny Dope, DJ Sneak, 95 North, Robbie Rivera, Davidson Ospina, Ralphi Rosario, Mike Delgado, King Britt, and a handful of others under various alter egos and nom de plumes. It was a given that they were all great records, what was all the more impressive was that they all originated from the same recording home, Henry Street Music.
This week, BBE have released an essential new new compilation that continues this enthralling documentation – Henry Street Grooves: Classic Deep, Funky & Jazzy House From New York City.
Taking its name from the street that intersected President & Hicks in DeMairo’s Brooklyn neighbourhood, Henry Street Music debuted in the spring of 1994 with ‘Whew’ by Kenny Dope Presents The Bucketheads. DeMairo explains: “Kenny who is, and was one of my closest friends at the time, agreed to give me my first record to help launch the label and put it on the map. In essence it made us an immediate player.”
It worked. By release number four, ‘The Bomb! (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)’ also by the Bucketheads, the label had become an international player with a single built around one of the longest introductions since ‘Relight Light My Fire’, and elements from Chicago’s ‘Street Player’. “My love and knowledge for disco made me look for that sound from producers,” recounts DeMairo. “I was fortunate to get some really good music that I’m proud of and still love day. Even though a lot of people buying and listening to this compilation are going to be very familiar with nearly all the artists, and many of the releases we put out on the label, I think most of these tracks are going to be very new to people who will be hearing these for the first time.”
Being the kindhearted folks that they are, our friends from BBE are offering CD prizes of both compilations to three lucky readers! To enter, email the answer to the following question to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday 2nd April 2012. Winners will be notified shortly after the closing date.
What track did Kenny Dope sample for his classic smash, ‘The Bomb (These Sounds Fall Into My Mind)’?
As soon as you’ve sent your answer, turn up the volume on this exclusive mix by Johnny D that accompanies the project: