It was a brutally cold and rainy October afternoon as a group of party goers head up 16th Street in Manhattan bracing themselves against the cold. Their destination is a place called the Union Square Ballroom where New York’s longest running disco party is underway.
When they arrive they discover a miraculously transformed space with hundreds of multi-coloured balloons and a huge mirror ball. Psychedelic images dance across the walls. The atmosphere seems born from childhood fairy tales. The track, “House Party” envelopes the room from large Klipschorn speakers and if the party goers were to close their eyes, Fred Wesley and his band could be playing live. As the tempo builds, there is a chorus of whistles, hand clapping and shouts as the dancers work the floor, implementing spinning top turns, jazz flicks, and break dance moves.
David Mancuso who has been on a quest for a spiritual, unifying clubbing experience for over three decades now, is actively presiding over New York’s longest running disco party.
Mancuso was born in Utica, a small New York town in October of 1944. He spent his first four years in a Catholic orphanage. He credits his early inspiration for his legendary parties to Sister Alicia who would gather 20 or so children from the orphanage around a table in a room cheerfully decorated with balloons. In the centre of the table was a record player with a stack of vinyl. Many of the children were too young to speak but the music brought all of them together. When asked about his formative years Mancuso says, “Music gave me a lot of piece of mind since there was a lot in my environment that was not stable. Music is therapeutic,” he explains, “it raises your life energy. If your life energy is raised then music is healing.” The synthesis of music with spirituality would prevail throughout Mancuso’s life like a golden thread.
Mancuso and a friend took a trip to New York City during the Labor Day weekend of 1962. He was instantly attracted to the openness and diversity of the people so much so that he relocated there that same year. He stayed living with friends until he found menial work and could afford a place of his own. Later in 1965, Mancuso moved into a loft on Broadway. He describes the space as being approximately 25 feet by 100 feet with 14 foot ceilings. Mancuso adds that, “it was just an old factory converted partially for living, and I thought it was a good opportunity.” His attraction to the loft, he says “goes back to the orphanage…. Somehow or other I always identified with large spaces and old buildings.”
Shortly after his move to the former factory space, economics changed drastically for the young Mancuso and he decided to throw a Valentines Day bash to supplement his irregular income and help pay his rent. He called his first party, “Love Saves the Day.” and he ended up spinning records from midnight until six in the morning. The party was such a success that soon it became a weekly affair. Mancuso says that, “the idea of being a DJ never crossed my mind. I only did it because I was with my friends and we all liked the same music.” Soon the parties had an attendance of over 300 people and by 1971 the events were being referred to as “David’s Loft” or simply, “The Loft.”
One of Mancuso’s hobbies was playing with stereos and electronics which eventually gave birth to an obsession with high end audio. Two of his closest friends, Richard Long and Alex Rosner were revolutionary sound engineers. Together in 1971 they designed the incredibly crystal clear sounding Loft stereo systemwhich would become a blueprint for future dance clubs. David maintains that, “if the sound is clean, and you walk into a room blindfolded, you can’t tell how many speakers are in there, and where they are placed etc. etc.,” He adds, “all you know is that you’re enveloped in music. That to me, from my perspective on how music works, makes sense.”
Mancuso is open to all forms of music and dislikes categorizing it. He explains that the music he plays at The Loft is fundamentally dance music and includes everything from classical to jazz and “everything in between.” David Mancuso’s has a finely tuned and highly eclectic ear for a great song. For example, ‘Soul Makossa,’ the track that introduced the African musician Manu Dibango to an international audience owes its success almost entirely to Mancuso who stumbled upon the rare record while looking in a thrift store.
Mancuso always has a deep respect for the records he plays and this is reflected in his style of DJing. Unlike most club disc jockeys he refuses to manipulate records by mixing them. He believes in staying true to the artist’s original intentions and playing them the way they were meant to be heard. He smiles and adds, “If you’re at home listening to the records you love, you let them play out don’t you?” This is in alignment with his view that a DJ should be an egoless figure or as Mancuso prefers to call himself a “musical host.”
In 1999 Nuphonic Records released two separate compilations of classic tracks played at The Loft. The compilations sold extremely well and cemented Mancuso’s legendary status as a party engineer and DJ. Soon he was receiving invitations from Japan, the U.K., Italy and France to spread the vibes worldwide. He currently embarks on several tours a year and continues to host parties in New York. Mancuso says he will keep on doing Loft parties “to my last breath-if they let me do it.” However, he will only continue if the party “doesn’t revolve around one person,” he says, “once that starts to happen, forget about it.” When asked to describe the whole Loft experience Mancuso says, “it’s a vibe. You’re having a peace of mind or you’re not. Usually the more you shed your ego the more peace of mind you will have. The music, that’s what it allows us to be–free.”
Back at the Union Square Ballroom the new arrivals make their way through a welcoming crowd that consists of many nationalities and age groups. At the bar the Loft Staff is serving up Bud’s Bud on draft and homemade sangria. There is also a buffet of energy enhancing foods consisting off fresh fruit, cheese and crackers and a selection of vegetarian fare that have all been included in the entry fee of $25. When the sonic disco record “Can’t Live Without Your Love,” by Tamiko Jones ends, immediately the crowd shows their appreciation by clapping and whistling as the next record begins.
Many wise sages in the past have said that music has the power to bring out the best in us. David Mancuso puts it in his own words when he often declares that, “Music is Love.” ♦
Photograph: Benedict W., David Mancuso at The Light, 2008