I’ve never seen an interview with Timmy Regisford before. I don’t know if he seldom does them. I know he doesn’t enjoy them, not that he’s anything but the perfect gentleman when he speaks to me on the phone from the offices of Club Shelter, but I get the impression that there are things he’d much rather be doing than answering my questions. This is understandable when you consider two things.
Firstly Timmy Regisford has a pretty serious day job. For the best part of fifteen years Timmy has been an A + R man for major record labels like Atlantic, MCA, Motown and Dreamworks, where he currently resides. Artists that he has personally signed have gone on to garner millions of sales worldwide (e.g. Eric B and Rakim’s debut LP 1.8 million, Guy’s first two LP’s 4.5 million). He has also been an instrumental influence in the careers of artists like Ten City, Soul II Soul, Jonny Gill and Blaze.
Secondly Timmy Regisford has no need to get his message across to the world using the medium of an interview. He bears his soul each and every Saturday night to those he really wants to talk to and the hundreds that regularly attend Shelter love to listen attentively. Timmy’s residency at Club Shelter is over a decade old, his dedication to the club and his audience have meant that guest DJ spots here in Europe are a rarity indeed.
His sets there last anything from 12 to 15 hours. And while Timmy Regisford does play dance music, more importantly he plays songs. His awe inspiring sets reflect not only the mood of the crowd, but also his own. When he speaks to me on the phone he is quiet and fairly reserved. Over the Phazon soundsystem at Club Shelter, the emotion with which he speaks is deafening.
You play sets at Club Shelter every Saturday that last for as long as fifteen hours. Why do you play for such a long time?
I always have, ever since Shelter started 11 years ago. For a couple of years we had to share venue so I had to cut the hours down, but now we’re back in our new venue, just like when we started.
Why did you move the club?
When we were downtown, there were 3 different parties going on in that venue. At Shelter it’s really important for us to create an atmosphere and with three major parties, Danny Tenaglia on Fridays, myself on Saturdays and Body and Soul on Sunday, we couldn’t really find our true identity there. Every time we decorated the club for the party, we’d have to take it down straight away in time for Body and Soul, stuff like that wasn’t creating a good enough atmosphere for Shelter.
What are the advantages of the venue that you’ve moved to?
For the first time in 11 years, I have a venue that serves alcohol. It’s multi leveled, we’d always been on one level, this has four floors including a roof top. We could do two or three different events inside of the club, it’s a lot more versatile. At first I was worried that people wouldn’t like traveling to mid-town, where the new venue is, but ever since we’ve been here, it’s been very successful.
You weren’t scared of loosing some of your regulars?
No because the loyal Shelter family will always be there, as long as we’re giving them what they came for. If anything, the alcohol license has brought some people, those who want a drink when they go out, back to the club. I used to know people who wouldn’t come down because they couldn’t get a drink at Shelter.
Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to play every week in front of such a devoted audience?
It’s much more difficult, because if you don’t challenge them, they won’t challenge you. If you give them the same thing, they’ll tell you “You’re getting rusty” but I’ve been able to sustain it for 11 years and that’s because we continue to challenge each other. I have at least 700 people who come down most weeks, it’s like a family at Shelter, but one that needs maintaining. That’s why I prefer to play for 15 hours, In fifteen hours I can play jazz, Latin, African, I can go through so many different phases of music.
Do you always get a positive reaction to introducing new types of music to the crowd?
Yeah, I think with my own personal ear for music, I always go for songs first and so those are the ones I introduce to the crowd first. You may find a good instrumental to play, but the club is essentially based on soulful music, I couldn’t play more than 3 or 4 instrumentals in a row because it’s boring. That makes it all the more difficult choosing the music, because there just aren’t that many good vocals out there. The crowd aren’t kids, they’re adults, they want to feel the music.
Fifteen hours is a long time by anybody’s standards, how do you go about programming a set that’s going to last that long?
To answer that honestly, it’s all based on the crowd. You feed off them, the crowd will tell you where they want to go. You can test them and challenge them with different directions, I could play a techno record like “Knights Of the Jaguar” which was massive at the club, but it’s still soulful. I’ve never programmed my music any other way than from how I feel and how the crowd feels. If you don’t connect with the crowd as a DJ, that doesn’t work, they can’t tell you how they feel.
Can you tell me a bit about the atmosphere at Club Shelter. What’s it like to be there?
It’s all about music and dancing. It’s not about coming out looking good, trying to pick up somebody, it’s just about the music. The people who come here, come with a bag, they change their clothes maybe three or four times in a night because they’ve been sweating so much. We have some of the best dancers I’ve ever seen anywhere here, we get a lot of professional dancers down, they pick up moves from other kids that come down. Really, it’s all about the music and the dancing.
How important is it to you to play music to an audience with a certain amount of musical knowledge?
I always have. That’s why I’ve never been around the world to spin, like a lot of other DJs. I could’ve done that, but I decided to stay true to what I believe and I think that if you travel a lot, you can lose sense of where you are, your foundations and if you lose your home base, you’re gonna have problems.
So why have you decided to come and play for us at Southport Weekender?
Louie’s a good friend of mine and he told me that Southport is a very soulful event, this is something you need to come and check out, so I said OK. From my understanding of what Ollie (Masters At Work management) does as a promoter, he knows this business very well and I respect that. The Soul Heaven parties that he runs have a very mature crowd who aren’t into hearing any hard music like most of Europe is.
How much does the age of a crowd affect the dancefloor?
Age makes a difference to the knowledge you have about music. The older crowd know how the songs are structured and react when a certain drum pattern comes in, then the keyboards, then the bass, they’ve grown up listening to songs. You can see the reaction on the floor if you play something by Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Trammps, Stevie Wonder, it’s the music that these people have grown up with, real songs.
Are you playing to your 100% ideal crowd at Shelter?
Definitely. They’re a very dedicated group of people. We have everything from 20 year old kids to 50 year olds, they’re black, white, brown, gay, straight, bi sexual, whatever, but they all come because they love the music. We have some people who come down and don’t stay too long, they say “it’s too hot in here, I can’t take it” and so they leave, but all those who stay are staying because of the music.
Is Club Shelter your only residency?
Yeah, although I do play at Marcus Wyatt’s Deep night out in L.A. That’s a very soulful house party that happens on a Sunday. For my understanding of L.A. he has such a soulful crowd out there, I’ve never seen anything else like that out there. It’s very underground, it’s like a Shelter in California, I have a lot of respect for that party.
Do you have a lot of respect for any other parties, particularly any in your home town New York?
What clubs have you taken your inspiration from?
I grew up in the Garage. I was there every weekend and I mean EVERY weekend.
As a dancer or did you work there?
I was a dancer first, I started working there later on, but basically I was a dancer.
How much of an influence has Larry Levan had on you as a DJ?
Huge, a huge influence.
What was it that made what he did so special?
The soundsystem that he had and the music that he played on it. He wasn’t the greatest mixer, but when you heard that soundsystem and what it could do to a crowd, it was just something else, it was on another level, the control he had. I was 14 years old the first time I walked in there and I’d never experienced anything like it in my life.
It didn’t bother you at 14 to be walking into an adult, gay venue?
I didn’t care, I was scared as hell, but I didn’t care.
Did you ever play there?
Do you wish you had?
No because I wasn’t ready. I mean, I had dreams about it, but I had to wait until it was my time. It’s still to me the greatest club I’ve ever set foot in. The greatest atmosphere, the greatest soundsystem, I learned so much from The Garage, stuff I’ve tried to bring with me to my club. To me, Shelter is what The Garage would be like if it were still open now.
Do you ever play tracks that take you back to your times at The Garage?
Lots of them. Some of the new Blaze tracks, stuff off the new “Spiritually Speaking” album that’s pure Garage music. DJ Spinna, lots of his tracks.
How about tracks from that era?
Donna Summer “I Feel Love”, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, Sylvester “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real” all of those kinds of classics.
Paradise Garage was famed for many things, not least the meticulously maintained soundsystem, which it’s said Larry Levan would test for hours every night before they opened. Do you think clubs nowadays have lost that dedication to good soundsystems?
Of course, I don’t even think most club owners care about the soundsystems. I think they care about the bar, the takings, how the place looks… I don’t care about how the place looks. I’d rather have a great soundsystem and a tacky looking place so long as when people could come down and feel the music, everything else is secondary to that.
How’s the Phazon soundsystem at Shelter?
It’s a great system. I EQ it and do a lot of work on it every single week.
What other equipment do you rely on for your weekly sets?
I use a Pioneer EFX 500, 2 Pioneer CDj 1000 cd players and a Lexicon Jam Man regularly, but every week I try out different effects and, often, different equipment. When you play for 15 hours, you need toys.
You cover a lot of different styles of music at Shelter including a fair amount of older records. Do you ever find it difficult mixing older records with contemporary ones that have been made with the advantages of modern sound recording equipment?
No because I understand that music, I started off playing those records. One thing I know how to do is mix, so I know how to mix an old record into a new one. I think a lot of DJs today just hear that boom, boom, boom, boom and so they don’t know how to mix in a record which has live drums on it, they have a problem with it. Jamiroquai’s latest album uses a lot of live drums on it, his music is good and I play it, but it’s difficult for some other people to mix so they have to play the dance mixes.
You mentioned that Larry Levan wasn’t the greatest mixer and yet you site him as your greatest influence as a DJ. How important do you think mixing records is, compared to the importance of what records you actually play and where you place them?
To me it’s very important knowing how to go from one record into the next, that shows your creativity, your control. It shows how you could make your own record out of somebody else’s work, you can tell a story with your music by the way you mix your records. You can send people on an adventure like that. Overlaying a vocal on an instrumental track, to me that’s the creative part of being a DJ.
A lot of great DJs here in the UK get very little press as the music media tend only to write about a DJ if they’re also a producer. It almost seems as if the journalists are so lazy that they couldn’t find anything interesting to write about DJs unless they can mention their forthcoming releases. What’s your opinion on the media’s fixation with producer/DJs?
I’m on both sides of the fence. I’m in the record business, I A + R for a major record label so my job is to go out and find talent. That’s my job. My hobby is still records, but as a DJ. I am a DJ and I don’t want to be hired as a DJ because I mixed a certain record, I want to be hired as a DJ because you think I’m going to do a great job on your dancefloor and I’m going to make your crowd have a great time. For me, I think the marketplace has come to a point now where people think that if you can mix a track in the studio, that means you can mix records in a club and that’s simply not true. If you’re a DJ and you’re a good DJ if you’ve not made a record, you should be given the same opportunity to work the dancefloors as much as some of these guys that get booked because they’re producers. I’m not going to mention any names, but there are DJs out there who are doing gigs for a lot of money, but they can’t hold a crowd down for two hours and yet there are DJs that can play for 4, 5, 6 hours out there who don’t get the gigs because they don’t produce dance records. That, to me, is a very false situation in the marketplace and it should change.
Who do you currently A + R for?
Right now I’m with Dreamworks where I signed Dave Hollister, but I’m about to leave to go and work with Universal. They’re starting up a label called Dance Soul Classics where we’ll sign up Anita Baker, Earth, Wind and Fire, Barry White, Patti Labelle and Frankie Beverly and Maze.
Their back catalogues or for new productions?
For new productions? What happens at record companies is they’re always looking at the younger audience, yet in America there are over 87 million people over the age of 35 that the record companies forgot about. These artists, every time they have a show, they sell out.
How are you looking forward to going back to work with Patti Labelle?
She is the easiest major artist I have ever had to have a conversation with. She never gives a gripe, goes in, does her work, she’s so easy, just a great human being.
Out of all the artists that you’ve signed, who are you most proud of your work with?
Jonny Gill, Guy, I’ve worked a lot with Boyz II Men, Levert.
You signed Eric B and Rakim. What was it about that duo that made you think they were something special?
It was Rakim, his lyrics. He was and still is one of the best rappers I’ve ever heard, he really knows how to flow on a record.
Were you surprised when they ended up being as huge as they got?
Not really because if you know how to spot talent, you could see that here was a guy who was going to creep through the cracks. I knew that here was a guy who had something really special. You know, you could go and find a great singer in any church or on any street corner, but you will not find a great songwriter. It’s so much more about what you say than how you say it.
How did your hook up with Loose Ends come about?
I used to travel a lot to London and the guy who produced Loose Ends was Nick Martinelli who was from back here, in Philadelphia and he told me about this great group he was working with.
How about the Soul II Soul thing?
The guy who was doing A + R at Ten Records, I think his name was Mick Clarke, came to New York and he brought Jazzie B to my house just at the time he was about to start work on his album. Right from then we just connected and I still say now that he is one of my best friends, every time I’m in London, that’s where I am, I stay at his house. When I heard “Back To Life” I was in London and I told him “This is going to work in the States”. I knew it was gonna hit big.
You’re credited with breaking “Back To Life” in the U.S. How did that happen?
I was the first one to get it played because back then I was working at a radio station and I gave it to them and they broke it. They were the very first people to play it over here.
Do you still play Soul II Soul records at the club? Which are your favourite tracks?
Do I still play Soul II Soul records? Big time I do. “Jazzie’s Groove” and “Get A Life” are my favourites.
Do you play a lot of R n’ B at the club?
Yeah, really at the end point in the morning about 11 or 12 o’clock noon I play Maxwell, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle.
You often have live performances at Shelter. Out of all the acts and artists that have appeared there, who do you think were the best?
Femi Kuti. He had an eighteen piece live band and he did two hours of pure Afrobeat, it was like a high.
Two hours? I heard his dad’s sets at The Shrine were a little longer, nearer to the length of one of your sets in fact?
Yeah, I went to one of the sessions at The Shrine about two years before he (Fela Kuti) passed away. I went to buy his catalogue so I had to go over there to meet him. I went to The Shrine and I heard him play from 2 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock in the morning non-stop. Six hours on stage, he totally blew my mind and it was all songs that I’ve never heard before because once he’d recorded a song, he’d never perform it. He called it ‘dead matter’, never played it again. I went to his house, sat down and talked to him about his catalogue, I offered him two million dollars for his catalogue and he looked up to the sky and told me “The gods are telling me not to do the deal right now, come back and see me in a year”.
You signed Ten City. How important do you think they were for dance music at that time?
For dance music, Ten City were probably the new voice of Sylvester. Byron Stingly’s voice filled that void left by Sylvester, I still think he sounds like him. Ten City were perhaps more soulful than Sylvester, he was definitely disco era. If you look at dance music in the States, there’s one new act that would break through every 3 or 4 years into the mainstream. C + C Music Factory, Ce Ce Penniston, The Weather Girls, Robin S and it’s important. I think nowadays, people don’t produce records with songs, they’re more concerned with the instrumental music. Independents don’t develop acts, they just put out records, that’s why there’s always been independents and majors. Until that changes, the majors won’t take independents seriously.
Do you not think that it’s because the independents don’t have the money it takes to develop acts?
They have the money to put out 10 or 12 records a year, they have the money to put out 3 or 4 singles from an act and then get an album together, they’re just too busy with other concerns to develop acts. You don’t make a business unless you have something to sell and it’s not a record, you have to sell an act. We sell acts, you can’t make a living from selling singles.
At the time that people like Marshall Jefferson and Ten City and Lil Louis were producing albums, these acts would create albums that had more in common with traditional soul albums in that they had a beginning, a middle and an end. Most of today’s dance music albums just sound like a collection of 12″ singles, do you think dance producers have lost the art of making great albums?
If you take house acts today, listen to the difference between someone like Kerri Chandler and Blaze. Blaze are more experienced, they know how to write songs, they’re self contained, they write lyrics, they sing and they produce their own stuff. In the record industry we say it’s the difference between gifted and talented. Whitney Houston is gifted with her voice, every time she goes in the studio whether it be Babyface or Timbaland or R Kelly, she needs those guys to write and produce her songs. Jonny Gill is gifted with his vocals, a person like Prince however is completely talented. He doesn’t need anybody to go in to the studio to write, produce or sing for him. Stevie Wonder is someone who is completely talented. In A + R I have to look for people who are talented, more often someone comes along who is gifted and that makes it harder because you then have to go out and find the song that will fit their voice, find the producer that they’re going to gel with and it’s all part of the creative process, but it’s the difference between talented and gifted.
New York’s Ibadan label have over the past few years reissued a huge amount of Ten City’s back catalogue with most having been remixed, do you know how that came about?
Jerome Sydenham from Ibadan used to work at Atlantic where Ten City were signed and you know, I don’t think there is a single major record company that takes dance music seriously, so I guess they gave him the catalogue and he put out the remixes.
What did you think of the remixes?
I didn’t like them. I didn’t like them at all. They didn’t sound soulful enough, it was almost as if they were trying to make them sound too African or something. It didn’t sound warm, it took away a lot of the soulfulness.
Have you ever had the opportunity to sign someone, not done and then really regretted it?
I could tell you one. Tone Loc played his “Funky Cold Medina” record to me and I looked at him and said “Man, that’ll never be a hit”. He went on to sell six million albums. That was one I definitely regret not signing.
How did your relationship with Blaze come about?
Our relationship goes back 15 years to when I was working for Motown and MCA. They came in and played me their music and I gave them an opportunity to record an album for Motown. I told them I wanted them to be producers and songwriters, don’t just be artists, you need to stay as songwriters, singers and producers, that’s how you’re going to separate yourself and stand out from the crowd. Back then, people weren’t writing songs, they were just putting out dance tracks. When you find a team that works together like that, it’s only a matter of time. I think they now have over 200 titles in their publishing catalogue, now they know exactly what they’re doing.
What’s your favourite work that they’ve done?
Recently I really loved what Kevin did to that Mondo Grosso record. I think he really took his talents to another level there, it must have been such a challenge, considering that record was just a poem.
What sort of an involvement do you have with Shelter Records?
I haven’t ever really been involved in Shelter Records, that’s always been Freddie Shannon. I think next year I will be approving all the releases, so i expect it to take on a whole new sound from the beginning of next year.
Aside from being the resident DJ, what other involvement do you have with Club Shelter?
I own it.
So you own Club Shelter, yet you’ve never had any involvement with the record label that’s named after it?
Well, I have a piece of Shelter Records but I’m not in control of it and I’ve never been involved in it’s releases because I work for a major record company.
Ah, I see! Do you have any forthcoming guests appearing at Shelter that you’re particularly excited about?
At Thanksgiving we’re having Candi Staton and I think she’ll be doing all her old stuff, so that should be really special.
This interview was conducted by Marc Rowlands in 2002