August 2012 marks one year since the notorious Studio 54 re-opened its doors, this time as 24/7 Disco station on Sirius-XM satellite radio. To mark the occasion, we spoke with Studio 54 Executive Producer and dance music legend John “Jellybean” Benitez about why the forward-looking producer and DJ took on the task of bringing Disco back to the masses and the continued relevance of Disco in the world
The Studio 54 station on Sirius has been going on for about a year now. Are you happy with how it’s gone?
Yeah, we’ve been making small tweaks along the way and I think we’re getting closer. We started in August of 2011, and there’s been a learning curve on my part with the programming and how it’s different from when I worked in radio before. You have to remember that this is a 24/7 station. Sirius has 21 million subscribers and 40 million listeners and people listen in their car on the way to work, then at work, then on their mobile, then back in their car on the way home and listen again when they get there. Drive time is 4 to 7 in the afternoon and 5 to 9am in the morning, right? But when it’s 9 o’clock here in New York and people are already at work, someone out on the West Coast is barely up.
That sounds like a nightmare for someone with a background as a DJ and trying to read the room. How have you dealt with that?
I program with the idea in mind that someone is always just walking in. Don’t slow down.
You’re the Executive Producer of the entire station and in charge of all the programming, right?
Yes. Let me tell you how it works. We have 3 DJs – Tony Smith, Robbie Leslie and myself – doing weekly classic mix shows. Tony is on Thursday, Robbie on Friday and I’m on Saturday. And then we have Mix Play Mondays with three one hour sets from each of us. We play everything from the years 1972 to 1987, all with the original 12″ mixes. If a song is 8 or 9 or 10 minutes, we play all of it – no radio edits.
We also have the Marc & Myra Show, which has an interview format. Mark was the doorman at Studio 54 and Myra was the “Keeper of the List”, which means she was in charge of contacting celebrities and the media and letting them know what was happening. And they interview people who were involved with Studio 54. We’ll also be interviewing producers and artists starting in the Fall. At the end of June, we’re starting Top Ten Tuesdays, a countdown playing the top ten songs of a certain time – like the top ten songs of April 1976 – and I’ll be hosting that.
In our format, we play everything from the deep and obscure to what I call “K-Tel Disco” – the hits that everyone knows. And we play the whole thing in long form. No commercials. We get emails all the time from people saying they can’t believe it – they’ve never known the name of a certain song they haven’t heard in 20 years. And then we start getting emails requesting it.
This isn’t meant to be an adversarial question, but you’ve always been known as someone that hasn’t rested on your laurels – you’re releasing new music constantly. Did you have any apprehension about doing a show that might be based upon nostalgia?
You know, that’s an interesting story. I sat down to talk with Scott Greenstein [president and chief content offer of Sirius XM Radio]. Sirius has 140 channels, with everything from R&B to music of the ’70s and music of the ’80s. It’s this big corporate organization. I mean, I go back to WKTU, playing live at the club and broadcasting it on the air and doing a weekly show. I was the highest rated DJ in New York, which is the #1 market.
So I was thinking, if they’re going to want to hear nothing but “Ring My Bell” and “I Will Survive”, then I’m not the person to be talking to. But after talking to Scott, his knowledge of music just blew my mind. He’s a serious music fan. He knew songs that you wouldn’t believe he knew. He’s asking me if I know a certain song – and “No, not the radio edit, the 12” version”… and I’m like yeah, of course…
From that conversation, Scott really allowed me to dig deep. And you don’t have to worry about advertisers – just keeping the listeners and the dancers happy, which is the same as being a DJ. It’s almost like being the music supervisor for a film. You can take the listener with you on a journey through the history of Disco.
So yeah, I was apprehensive at first but not after talking to Scott. He’s a guy that you would think used to be a DJ himself based on his knowledge.
You mentioned film scoring a minute ago – that’s a part of your career that not a lot of people know about. How many films have you been music supervisor for or scored?
Oh God, 40 to 60? I lost track. I actually lost track of everything after awhile. There’s no complete list of songs I’ve worked on, either. I’ll be listening to Sirius’ R&B channel or their Deep R&B channel, just turning the dial and I’ll think, “This song sounds really familiar… Oh wait, I mixed this record.” Just recently, DJ Spinna called me while he was in Japan and told me he was in a record store and there was a record with my name on it. I had no idea which one it was, so he took a picture of it and sent it to me. I was like, “Yup, I guess I did do that one.” I’m constantly being reminded of songs I worked on that I have no memory of.
Disco went from being underground, to huge, to mocked, and now it’s come back around again. What do you think is so vital about the music that keeps attracting new people to it? And what was it that attracted you?
Well, I grew up in the South Bronx. I’m not sure what the Chicago equivalent of that would be but this was the ghetto and most of the older kids wanted to be either bouncers or drug dealers or pimps. There was this guy named Vinny that hired all the bouncers at the clubs in Manhattan, and some of the older brothers of my friends got gigs that way. Meanwhile, I’m over playing my 45s in the corner. They tell me, “You know, in the clubs we work at, the DJs have two turntables and the music never stops.” That blew my mind. “You mean that when one song plays, another is playing too? That sounds like a horrible idea!” But when I saw it for myself, I was totally amazed. I was never going to be big enough to be a bouncer but I could be a DJ…
It comes from having my own collection of 45s and then hearing some guy on the radio, playing records. Some I had and many I didn’t have and liked. And I just absorbed it all like a sponge. It started out being the kind of thing you never heard on the radio and then there it was.
Sometimes I think back about that era and living in New York in the mid-’70s and all the big DJs were here, playing at the residencies that everyone now knows them for – David Mancuso at the Loft, Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, Walter Gibbons at Galaxy 21, Tee Scott at Better Days… At one point there were probably more clubs than DJs, with new ones opening up all the time. I remember calling in sick so the club would hire Francois Kevorkian…
Wait, you put Francois K on? I don’t know this story.
Well, he tells the story much funnier than I can. But yeah, I worked out a scheme where I would leave my records at the club and then call in sick so they would hire him.
What were your first memories of hearing Disco itself?
I would go to clubs and heard these songs that you never heard anywhere, then you heard them on the radio, and then they started playing album tracks. They were so obscure and even the people who were making them really didn’t know what they were doing. I listen to R&B now and it reminds me a bit of Disco in the beginning. You had The Spinners, The Ojays, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and it was really just uptempo R&B. Today with Ne-Yo, Maxwell, Jill Scott – I hear a lot of the early days of Disco in there. Just make it 4/4 and add a high hat and it’s a Disco record.
I’ve noticed that you’ve really been choosy with the major label remixes lately. Do you do those at all these days?
I’ve really slowed that down. It’s different now from the time when there were just a handful of guys doing it. There weren’t drum machines, for instance – I would have a live percussionist come in. I was working with the original multitracks and breaking them down. I got to work on so many incredible records, from Maurice White to Quincy Jones to Nile Rogers – so many great producers. And I was just a sponge, absorbing everything about how they made their tracks. When it came time to produce on my own for the first time (my first record with an unknown singer named Madonna), I had all of that training. I’d never produced but I’d remixed, and I knew how it should sound when it’s done from remixing all of these award winning artists and producers.
As for my own style, I play soulful, deep, global soul and a bit on the Afro side, and that’s not really mainstream. But I still get offers about every other week. Nothing’s really caught me, though. I’m looking at an offer right now – I’ve been getting several offers from the UK lately – but I haven’t made up my mind on it.
You apparently have a record collection that’s quite legendary, even among other record collectors. For someone who is just starting out, what advice would you give them for building their own collection?
I do. I’m still a huge music fan. I buy music every day. But it would depend on the audience you’re going to play for. DJs have to pick music that they feel can move a crowd. Most DJs play such short sets now that their collection would be different than mine. I was playing 10 to 5, 10 to 6 for six nights every week. I used to play at the Funhouse every Saturday for a 14 hour set, and on Fridays I’d play an 11 hour set. So I’ll always play records longer than many DJs today. I play an 8 hour set at our Ain’t Nothin But a House Party shows here in New York and in Miami. But most people today, you look at the parties and they’re given one or two hour sets. It’s something I can do but not something I like doing. I like doing three or four hours and I can take people on a journey.
So is Studio 54 Radio your main project right now?
No, I still play 100 to 110 dates a year globally. I’ll be DJing for the Olympics, and we’re actually planning now a 16 city tour in the Fall with a lot of Disco acts. I’m also working on a series of Disco compilation albums that you should be hearing more about in a little bit.
You can reach Jellybean Benitez via jellybeanbenitez.com, via facebook and on twitter. If you would like to check out Studio 54 Radio for free on Sirius-XM Channel 15, here’s a link to listen for free for 30 days.