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Johnny Dynell on Madonna, Morales, Street Gangs and New York (interview)

Reported by JontySkrufff on August 7, 2010

“In the late seventies and early eighties the yuppies were total losers in New York club-land. By the nineties they had taken it over. I never saw that one coming. However, I think that they and Mayor Giuliani get way too much credit for New York's cultural downfall. I think that they are symptoms of the decline but not the cause of it.”

Starting his DJ career at New York’s seminal downtown underground haunt the Mudd Club in 1980, Johnny Dynell rapidly became one of the City’s busiest and most popular underground DJs, going on to hold residencies at nightlife institutions including Danceteria, Tunnel, Palladium and later Crobar (between 2003 and 2007). A leading light and key player in the post-punk early 80s club scene that helped spawn both hip hop and later house music, he hung out with both Madonna (when she was a Danceteria coat check girl) and later David Morales, when the future house God was a teenage gang-banger. 

Spending his entire adult life DJing, promoting and producing electronic music in New York, he’s perfectly placed to identify the forces that destroyed New York’s once fabled nightlife, singling out gentrification as one of the greatest single causes.

“New York just got too rich. Kids can't afford to come here anymore,” he points out. 

“The only people who can afford New York rents are lawyers and investment bankers. That's who lives in New York now. Today New York is seen as a great place to live and raise a family. That sort of says it all.”

Back in the early 80s, New York was seen as a great place for miscreants and misfits to mingle, party and pursue artistic alternative lifestyles, drawn by the city’s 24/7 notoriously decadent nightlife and lifestyle. With semi-derelict areas such as the East Side’s Alphabet City and Skid Row providing relatively cheap space for those willing to brave street gangs and assorted random crazies, anything was possible, and the City thrived as THE global heart of underground culture. 30 years on, the Bowery and Avenue D are uber-expensive banker infested quarters, though Johnny remains optimistic despite his assessment.

“As far as club life goes, New York is very sad now and is nothing compared to the scene in Europe, sure, but as a city she is still the queen,” he insists. “Her reign will come to an end someday for sure but there is still nothing like it. I never underestimate New York. She always rises from the ashes.”

And though he identifies gentrification as the single greatest destructive force against nightlife he’s far from forgiving towards Rudolph Giuliani based on his own experiences running legendary alternative club Jackie 60 (with his wife Chi Chi Valenti) throughout the 90s. ( )

“When we started Jackie in 1990 we developed a great relationship with our local police precinct,” he explains.

“They were affectionately called ‘Fort Bruce’ by the other precincts because they are located on Christopher Street in the gay West Village. Every day they saw it all.  We were always honest with them about what went on at Jackie. They knew exactly what we were all about. Jackie 60 was a wild place with crazy performance art but nobody got hurt and they knew that,” he points out.

Hosting performance art pieces such as naked girls wrestling in paddling pools filled with chocolate pudding (‘we explained that it was our annual Brown Party.  "Oh, like the White Party?" they laughed’) the club thrived until 1994 when Giuliani headed for mayoral victory. 

“One day our cops told us that if this Giuliani guy wins the election and becomes mayor everything will change. ‘He's a Nazi’, they warned us,” Johnny recalls.

“They suggested that we get our cabaret license before it's too late because this guy was going to come down hard on clubs. We did get our license and he did become mayor. He then created this special ‘Task Force’ to harass clubs. They would come in and give us tickets for things like hanging our liquor license on the wall with a screw instead of a nail. Things like that. When I would go to court the judge would just shake his head disgusted and throw it out saying ‘this guy (Giuliani) is insane’. 

“I know it sounds crazy but it was actually a very clever, devious plan of constant harassment. The message was clear. We are always watching and we will kill you the second you slip up. His term as Mayor was New York's darkest hour.”

As well as promoting and DJing, he also developed a prolific production career, cutting his teeth in the 80s with an instant future classic in the shape of his very first single Jam Hot. Co-produced with Kenton Nix and fellow Danceteria resident Mark Kamins (just after Kamins had produced then unknown starlet Madonna’s first single Everybody), the track was an instant New York club hit, striking a chord with its graffiti themes and proto-hip hop stance. 

Going on to work with legends including Arthur Baker, Malcolm McLaren and Larry Levan in the 80s he received a further boost to his profile in 1990 when Norman Cook sampled his voice for his Beats International breakthrough hit Dub Be Good To Me. Lifting Johnny’s strapline of ‘Tank, Fly Boss, Walk, Jam, Nitty Gritty / Talkin' 'bout the boys from the big bad city / this is Jam Hot", Cook scored a number one hit, though with little immediate return for Johnny. 

“I've made money from Jam Hot eventually sure, it's been in various movies and on compilations though what surprises people is that I didn't make any money from The Beats International song at all. There was some sort of lawsuit over it but it didn't involve me,” he says.

“When the song first came out Norman Cook called me and told me about it and wanted to give me some money but then people started suing and that was the end of it. But it had nothing to do with me. And I must say I like that Fatboy Slim,” he smiles.

20 years on, both his DJ career and the life of Jam Hot are thriving, with Jam Hot recently re-released with a flood of remixes by producers including old friends Peter Rauhofer and Mark Kamins. To his evident satisfaction, he admits.

“Jam Hot has always been a crazy ride. It's the most unlikely song. It's out of time and out of tune with out to lunch lyrics but it is still sampled and remixed to this day,” he chuckles.

“This past May it was re-released and remixed by a new generation of DJs including Tensnake, 40 Thieves, Ilija Rudman and Clouded Vision. The day after it was released I saw that it was number one on the JUNO sales chart. It stayed there for three weeks. Even today I see that it is still number 31 on the Beatport House chart. Arthur Baker and I were talking once about why certain songs click. We agreed that it has nothing to do with the singer staying in tune. I know that he was referring to me,” he laughs.

Jonty Skrufff: You started out DJing at the end of New York’s golden era of clubbing in the early 80s of seven nights a week clubbing and extreme excess, how did you manage to maintain your DJ career, without slipping into addiction/ chaos?

Johnny Dynell: “People are always telling me how strong I am for resisting booze and drugs, night after night and year after year but the truth is I never really liked them.  Of course I've dabbled and do enjoy my red wine but drugs were never really my thing. The truly strong people are the ones who resist something when it's a temptation for them. Those are the strong people. To say no to something that you don't want anyway is easy. Having said all that, I do believe that experimenting with drugs can be good for a young person's mental development. Especially mind altering drugs like pot, acid and ecstasy. They show you other dimensions and perspectives that stay with you your whole life. The trick is to know when to stop.”

Jonty Skrufff: The early 80s were also wild sexual times, just before AIDS really kicked in, what were some of the more extreme/ bizarre situations that stick out in your memory?

Johnny Dynell: “One time I was asked to DJ at a cocktail party for about 30 corporate CEOs and their wives in this fancy penthouse apartment. I think they wanted their dinner party to be a little bit naughty so they arranged for some go go dancers as well. The girl dancers were very pretty and dressed like Las Vegas showgirls but really very tame. The boys, on the other hand were totally hardcore. Someone had booked them through the Gaiety, a notorious Times Square gay burlesque house that was known for its raunchy sex shows. The girls were professional and no problem but when I went in to check on the boys I almost died. 

They were all standing around jerking off (wanking) to titty magazines getting their dicks hard for the ‘show’.  I quickly explained to them that there was no "show" and that it wasn't that type of party. They were fine with that and got into their G-rated silver gym shorts and all went downstairs. Well, all but one; "Ten Inch Tony". He was standing there with this enormous elephant trunk sticking straight up between his legs saying, "It won’t go down. I took too much Viagra. It won't go down".  

We tried running it under ice cold water but that seemed to make it worse. "That just turns me on", he told me. "OK" I said,  "Go in there and beat off (masturbate) and I'll come back for you".  About 30 minutes later I went back upstairs to check on Tony. "It won't go down" he said, "I came three times, it won't go down". Then I said, "Well the shorts are pretty tight. Just tuck it between your legs and hold it there". He did and I took him down to where the other dancers were. I hoped that he would just hide in the shadows or at least blend in with the other dancers but no, not "Ten Inch Tony". Being the show pony that he was, he jumped up on a box right in the middle of the room and with one pelvic thrust unleashed the raging one-eyed monster from its spandex prison. 

Gasp! A gasp heard around the world! The ladies, mostly in their 60s and 70s and dressed in evening gowns, jumped back in horror. The tuxedoed husbands quickly got in between their wives and Tony trying desperately to shield them from the monster cock. The horrified host pulled him off the box and screamed to me, "GET HIM OUT OF HERE. NOW!" The party was over.  I'm sure on the way back to Connecticut the husbands had a hard time explaining to their curious wives that, "No, that is definitely NOT a normal sized penis and no, I did NOT get his number". 

Jonty Skrufff ( ): You were mates with legendary New York DJ Mark Kamins back in the day; how about Madonna then: did your paths cross much? How conscious were you of her potential?

Johnny Dynell: “I remember being on a roof with her one night talking about the future. She told me about her plans for world domination (she was working at Danceteria in the coat check at the time). Interestingly she said music was just a stepping-stone for her to get into movies. That is how she thought she would become rich and famous. She said that she wanted to be Jessica Lange. Musically she saw herself more as Tina Marie (this was 1983). In Jam Hot I do this ‘everybody get up!’ line. It was a sort of an inside joke. A nod to Tina Marie's "Square Biz".  Years later I was in a supermarket and saw Madonna on the cover of LIFE magazine. That was the moment that it hit me that she had really done it. That girl who wrote ‘dance and sing, get up and do your thing’ was the biggest star in the world. Go figure.”

Jonty Skrufff ( ): What impact did AIDS have on destroying that Danceteria/ Area/ Palladium 24/7 nightlife scene: how easy was it to continue clubbing with so many people dying on the scene?

Johnny Dynell: “Kids today have no idea what it was like back then. To lose so many people. If you ran into a friend after not seeing that person for a couple of weeks you would both breathe a sigh of relief to see that you were both still alive. There was this constant darkness (especially in clubs) that is thankfully a lot brighter today.

AIDS robbed the world of at least two or three generations of creative people. It took the best. When I look at the music that I get sent every day now I am astounded by the lack of creativity. Almost every song is either a remix or a remake of another song. To just blatantly steal parts from other records is considered song-writing. This is the least creative generation that I have ever seen and I can't help thinking that losing so many real artists to AIDS is one of the reasons. Don't get me wrong though, I play these remakes and remixes and outrageous thefts. They still work on the dance floor because they are good songs. They were good songs the first time around. I would just like to hear more original stuff. When I think back on what people like Richard Long and DJs like Larry Levan and all the other early pioneering DJs did, what musicians like Giorgio Moroder or Sylvester did I'm always amazed at how much they created. Not what they stole or reinterpreted but what they created.”

Jonty Skrufff ( ): You created and ran your New York club Jackie 60 with your wife Chi Ci Valenti for the whole of the 90s: what made you pursue that project instead of becoming a globetrotting DJ?

Johnny Dynell: “I just couldn't do both and had to choose. It was as simple as that. In the late 80s I was DJing at the Tunnel on Friday and Saturday nights in the main room. David Morales was at the Red Zone, Junior Vasquez was down the block at Sound Factory. DJs like Eric Morillo, Victor Calderone, Roger Sanchez, Peter Rauhofer and Louie Vega were all starting to play the big rooms and starting to make it big in Europe. It was the birth of the Big Room DJs. I guess that I was sort of on that path as well but in 1990 we opened Jackie 60 and travelling back and forth to Europe was killing me. I pretty much put my DJ career on hold while we did Jackie 60 for ten years. Of course Jackie has gone down in herstory as one of New York's legendary clubs and I have no regrets but it was a tough decision. When Crobar opened in 2003 I got back into DJing. Now I'm playing again as much as I ever did but I'm enjoying it a lot more this time around.”

Jonty Skrufff ( ): David Morales was in gangs as a teen and even got shot when he was 16; did you ever have any run-ins with thugs or crazies in New York?

Johnny Dynell: “Yeah, David had a pretty wild childhood. He used to throw these crazy block parties that were really off the hook scary. He hung out with some wild characters but the truth is they were- and are, really good people. They’re very loyal friends that were his first fans. I have a similar situation with a Latin gang from Coney Island. They started coming to hear me play in the eighties and they still come today. I love these guys, they would do anything for me. Many of them have died or are in jail but they have hearts of gold. Nobody can party like this crew.”

Jonty Skrufff ( ): Plans for the future?

Johnny Dynell: “I read this article recently that said older people are happier than younger people. I think this is true. I'm pretty much doing the same things that I did 25 years ago, DJing, remixing making crazy records (well crazy digital downloads) but it's different now. When you are young you get caught up in stupid shit. Now I don't worry about being the next Afrojack. I just have fun with it all and go wherever it takes me. There is a scene in the movie "Paris Is Burning" where Dorian Corey is putting on her make-up and talking about life and success. ‘If you shoot an arrow in the air, and it goes real high . .  .’  she pause as she puts on an eyelash, ‘hooray for you’. That scene changed everything for me. It's really so simple, just enjoy the ride and if you make it big . . . hooray for you.” 

Jonty Skrufff ( )