“I had the feeling that if I could take a groove that is 20 years old and if I could flip it, I could get another 20 years out of it. It’s that simple.”
Hard as it is to believe, iconic New York City House Music label Henry Street Music turns 20 years old this year.
Henry Street, as founder Johnny D says, “took the Disco thing to another level.” For many that began with the cut up and fragmented Disco grooves of The Bucketheads’ “The Bomb” – a track so ubiquitous, its lifespan couldn’t just be measured in how long DJs played it (and that was long enough), but for the many years following that dancefloors were dominated by soundalikes and clones.
For others it’s Todd Terry and Marshall Jefferson’s “Party People,” or the tracks by Robbie Rivera, 95 North, Josh Wink, Ashley Beedle, The Pound Boys, Paul Simpson or DJ Sneak. Henry Street is one of the few labels in the world for which selecting their “Top 50 tracks” is a chore – there are really so many great releases and cult tracks, it’s difficult to make the cut.
“I’ve always said that the label is fat-free,” Johnny says. “I could listen to 95% of the label today and feel they haven’t lost any of their magic. I can’t say that about most other labels from the same era.”
There have been a number of Henry Street compilations, best-ofs and greatest hits records released in the past, but none as comprehensive as the 5x CD package which Johnny D has created for the 20th anniversary. Having been allowed a sneak preview, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised how the majority of the catalog as represented in this 60 track collection have stood the test of time. This is surely a testament to the fierce A&R vision of Johnny and his team.
I had a chance to speak with Johnny ahead of the release about Henry Street’s history and what’s being called The Definitive Collection, available for pre-order on iTunes now.
So let’s start from the beginning- how did you get your start in the music business?
I have been collecting records since I was able to walk and started DJing at the age of 12. In 1992, I got my first job in the music business working for S.I.N. (Street Information Network) which was a promotion company based in New York. I worked everything from rap, to house, to Disco remixes, to alternative and made many contacts while there. At that time I was very close with many big name DJs and producers from all around the world. I put together Funkmaster Flex’s first mix CD while there as well as U2’s “Lemon” on yellow 10″ vinyl and much, much more.
What motivated you to start your own label?
In 1993, I was looking at what was being done by the indie labels and I felt like they were hitting a wall. I felt that the classics were not being made any more. It was a very generic time and a lot of disposable records were being pressed. As a major collector, I began being very selective about what records I would bring home (space is always the issue when you have as many as I do).
Seeing this, I wanted to bring something fresh to the industry. I have always been a Disco head and had the feeling that if I would take a groove that is 20 years old and I could flip it, I could get another 20 years out of it. It’s that simple. Henry Street Music basically took the Disco thing to another level.
I had strong relationships with just about anyone who was anyone, so even if they were doing any other kind of sound, for me they would go to the Disco vault which would benefit both as it would show the producer’s other side, build my catalog and basically start a movement.
You’re a Brooklyn boy, born and bred, and clearly proud of your neighborhood (after all, you named your label after it). How did the environment shape your musical tastes, and ultimately the sound of your label?
Yes, I’m still in Brooklyn, the greatest place on earth. I can honestly say that living in New York, specifically, Brooklyn, has shaped me as a person and more than that, shaped my musical tastes and knowledge. As an infant, music has always moved me. I didn’t grow up in a house where my parents were playing music all day (as I read in the biographies of a lot of others), but my sister was six years older than me so she was hip to what was going on, so she was the one to start me off buying records and turning me on to stuff.
Later on, I began writing graffiti and back in the ’70s in NY graffiti and DJing went hand in hand. Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, graffiti would bring me to black and Puerto Rican areas where I would make many friends and get turned on to another culture which was very easy for me to get into. I would go to Red Hook (which was a rough place) and be at a party in a park where a DJ would set up and plug into a light post and start playing Disco and breaks and things I didn’t know.
Brooklyn is and was a very important part of my story. Also remember that New York radio in the ’70s and ’80s had Disco 92, Kiss FM, and WBLS with Frankie Crocker. It was time that will never be repeated and was a constant education for a music lover.
Would you say Brooklyn is as important to House Music as the Bronx is to Hip Hop?
Absolutely. Brooklyn was so colourful at that time. People from all walks of life. If you went to an Italian area or a black area or a Latino area, music was the thing that kept it all cool and was the common place that we could all get the street education that you can not learn in school. The streets of Brooklyn, especially at that time, were like college is for most people. There was so much culture and art going on and the city had so much character.
How have you seen the neighborhood change over the years? Is Henry Street’s sound still relevant to the Brooklyn of today?
Henry Street now is full of yuppie hipsters (or as my aunt calls them, “yupsters”). The vibe is gone and its sad. Very few of the original Italians left, as they all sold out and moved. The average brownstone in my neighborhood is currently selling for over 3 million dollars. Totally different vibe. I look back to the past and miss what once was.
Your love of Disco is well known. Would you say you (and Henry Street) were instrumental in keeping that Disco vibe as the music transitioned into House, which ultimately defined the New York sound?
I would like to think that the label has held the torch for the true Disco heads. Other labels were doing it here and there but I really based the label around it. I also eat, sleep and breath it so I do believe it translates. I’ve been a Disco head since Day One.
As for the New York House sound, I do believe that Henry Street Music is an important part of the history although, I feel it rarely gets proper light. A few months ago a UK post was going around online with the top five New York House labels and Henry Street was mentioned. I was happy and shocked at the same time, as usually we are not on the list. That is a little ironic, because in my opinion, not as a label owner, but as a music lover, I’d say Henry Street has the best percentage of hit to miss ratio of any of the other indies.
I always said that the label is fat-free. I could listen to 95% of the label today and feel they haven’t lost any of their magic. I can’t say that about most other labels from the same era.
Obviously there were other labels around at the time doing a similar thing, but Henry Street seems special because so many great artists gave their best work to you. Any idea how that happened? What did you do differently? Was it down to your relationships with the artists, or something else?
I did and do have great relationships with many of the main people in the field. Kenny Dope was like my brother when we began hangin’ in 1990 where I met him through Todd Terry, who I knew since 1987. Todd is the guy who introduces everyone. If he ran for office, he’d get in.
Anyway, Kenny and I were tight and I told him I had the idea, so he blessed me with the first release. I knew that if I started a label it would be hard to be recognized so having Kenny kick off the label gave it instant credibility and I owe him for that forever as he helped make my dream a reality.
As for music that was released, my A&R has always been strict. If I don’t feel it, it doesn’t come out. Same when I was at Atlantic. I wasn’t just putting records out to reach a quota or see “what sticks”. If I love a record and it sells 500 copies, I still love it. Sales were never important to me. It was about building a catalog I could look back on in 20 years and still be happy… Here we are!
How much influence did you take from Chicago in those early days? Was there ever a sense of competition between the two cities?
I love Chicago. It’s one of my favorite places. I was the one who brought Louie (Vega) there for his first time to play. I go very deep there and quite honestly, I always felt as a DJ culture, Chicago had much more talent than NY. From Ralphi Rosario, to Steve Silk Hurley, to Terry Hunter, Julian Perez, Bad Boy Bill, etc. So much talent. Then you had Cajmere and Sneak. Wow. I always felt Chicago was making Chicago records and we were making NY records. Never felt competition. I’m a fan of music so I was playing so much Chicago music then and now, I’m a fan. Chicago also had a vibe that I loved.
Apart having the genius idea of putting Todd Terry together with Everything But The Girl, a little birdy tells us you had a hand in Armand Van Helden’s smash hit remix of Tori Amos’s ‘Professional Widow’. Please tell us more…
I have so many stories and hope to have my book done soon. I’ve been working on ideas and things for a long time. My stories are cool because I am a producer, and DJ, and label owner and in my day job, working with EBTG, Tori Amos, Bette Midler, etc. I was looking and living the music business from ten different sets of eyes. Too many stories for me to go thru but Tori Amos almost didn’t happen and the true story goes this way:
I went to dinner with Tori and her road manager at the time (now her manager) and Vicky Germaise (head of marketing at Atlantic and one of my favourite people on earth).
Vicky calls me and tells me we are having dinner.
I go, completely unaware of Tori and her fame.
I do remember I was starving and when we go to the restaurant, I was asking her to pass everything. We hit it off and I basically gave her the plan that I’d get a bunch of her records remixed and – worst case scenario – 3000 DJs who didn’t know her, would now know her… Best case scenario, we’d have a hit. So I sent out promo cassettes of her Boys For Pele LP to about 15 guys.
I have always been a tremendous fan of MK (Marc Kinchen) and while at S.I.N., would promote him all day (even though I wasn’t being paid to), so in my head I figured he would definitely be the person to do the first remix. I also wanted to use Armand (Van Helden) as he was doing a lot for me and he and I also had a very close relationship.
So MK comes back with “Professional Widow” and that becomes my focus. I go to Armand and ask him and he said “I’ll kill whatever you give me” so he also did a mix of “Widow”. The rest is history. Armand’s mix became the first Speed Garage song and basically started the “drop out” or “breakdown” in a mix which is still being done today. It was actually my idea, because while he was working on the remix, he told me he wasn’t going to be able to put in the vocals because of timing, so I told him to do a drop out, put as many vocals in as possible, then bring drums back. I also told him to do a dub with no drop, so DJs who had no balls could play it (By the way, that is what an A&R guy is supposed to do, however I rarely run across any who even think like this.) I sent a cassette with a bunch of mixes to Tori and months go by with no word.
I suddenly get a call from her saying her bus broke down in Germany, she had the cassette in her bag so she put in the player and she and the band loved it. That was our green light. Armand’s mix went to #1 on the UK pop charts making her an international star (and it’s still the biggest record of her career).
Tell us a little about the Henry Street 20 compilation. How did it come about? Did you compile the tracks and select the running order personally?
Yes, I wanted to do this for a few years. Peter from BBE is like my brother and the only person I trust with my stuff. He and I have worked together many times in the past 20 years. I put together the tracklist which was hard because in one sense I don’t want to repeat the same old stuff, but in the other sense, I have to look out for the new kids who don’t know me or the label. So for the “heads” they can say they have a lot of it, but it’s all re-mastered and a lot has never been available physically.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] “If you go to Traxsource and listen to the top 100, you will hear bad new versions of stuff my labels did correctly years before. History is repeating itself musically with Disco House (just not as good), so the project stays relevant.” [/quote]
Listening to the album now, how do you feel?
Very happy and proud; even happier that my vision for getting 20 more years out of songs that were already 20 years old has worked. If you go to Traxsource and listen to the top 100, you will hear bad new versions of stuff my labels did correctly years before. History is repeating itself musically with Disco House (just not as good), so the project stays relevant. I always joke that this new crop of DJ/producers, who in my opinion are horrible, will keep me and my label relevant forever!
Judging by your answer to the last question, I can guess your answer to this, but I have to ask… What are your thoughts on today’s scene?
I’m fortunate to say I was in it for the end of the glory years. Right now music is in such a bad place. Look at the Pharrell/Marvin Gaye thing. What a joke. I’ve known Pharrell for a long time and it’s amazing that a court system would do what they are doing to him. I cant imagine what the reason would be when you think about the thousands of pop records that have been robbed by others. Sickens me.
I think the reason we will not see a real hit come from the House scene anymore is simple… Years ago, DJs were hungry. Everyone had different set-ups and gear. Everyone was experimenting. Kenny and Armand are two of the best engineers in the game and most don’t know it. Every DJ at that time was using different stuff so the sounds and approach was pure. Today, for $500, everyone buys same computer, same program, same drum kit, the creativity is gone and everything sounds the same. There are also way too many DJs in the game.
As for the DJ life, the worst thing that could have ever happened was the promoters going to clubs and booking 20 guys a night. I’ve been a DJ since 1980 and was blessed to be working in clubs since 1982. Back then if you had to go to the bathroom, you put on a long record and ran to and from. We played from 10 to 4 alone.
Today these guys play for an hour. So in an hour, what are you gonna do? You are gonna play bombs so you can booked again. So fewer records are broken, or even played. As a DJ and a fan, I want one DJ to take me on a journey from beginning to end. It’s not about peaking for 6 hours.
So which, if any, current artists do you like?
I can honestly say that most music today is horrible in my opinion but I am beginning to be a huge country music fan. When you watch the country music award shows, you see real pure talent. They all can sing. It’s hard for me to speak of dance/house artists as there have been many over the years and some not around anymore. I will say this, as a House music fan, I still look forward to releases by Dave Lee (Joey Negro), DJ Spen, DJ Spinna, Stonebridge and Todd Terry. I also find that I play just about anything that Frankie Feliciano touches.
What’s next for you and Henry Street?
I have a lot of new music coming from Henry Street producers as well as new material from myself and partner Nicky P (Johnick). I’m always looking for new music and really want to get some proper DJ gigs where people want to hear jamms. I’m not looking for 4000 gig venues. I want the intimate spots where people are open (hint hint Chicago promoters…)
Twenty Years of Henry Street Music: The Definitive Collection will drop this month on BBE – you can pre-order from iTunes here