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Death of the Sound Factory (1995)




It's nine in the morning, sometime in 1991, and Junior's been pumping the dancefloor since midnight. Dark bodies are dripping in the shadows; the people on the floor are moving with the steady power of a single-muscled machine. Everyone is loose with movement and focused on a single moment of existence; ready to continue this physical communion as long as the bass groove keeps on shaking their bodies. Suddenly the half-light becomes darkness, the huge mirror ball is black, the Goddess of Light has plunged us into mystery. And the music stops. Dead.

There is silence. Total respect. Awe. Something amazing is about to happen. Bodies twitch in anticipation. No-one is a spectator. Everyone is listening. Slowly a feedback growl grows in the centre of the room. It's so distorted it hurts your ears. As it gets ever louder, it moves around, whipping from speaker to speaker in some incredible phasing effect. Above the thunder comes another noise: a rough ridge of saxophone throttling overhead. It's a tiny chunk of Ultra Nate's 'Rejoicing'.

The sample flits around, licking at our faces. Random flashes of white light pick out corners of the huge bare room, and everyone is desperate for a beat, for melody; straining for a release from this screaming tension. Slowly a giant bearded Hell's Angel strides across the dancefloor, pushing people out of his way with bear-like arms and a big stick. The sax throttle is even louder now. It's being stretched out, overlayed, repeated and repeated; and it's been joined by another sound: an identical growling monster noise that doesn't come from the speakers. The giant's pathway fills with smoke, anticipation is reaching the level of pain, and suddenly - with its engine roar bursting the heads of a thousand dancers - out of the crowd screams a Harley Davidson.

This was what the Sound Factory was like.

By now, the place has been written into legend. UK clubland adopted New York house and garage as a central inspiration, and this grand and remarkable club took on the status of myth, and joined the ranks of dance music's most important places. Producers made records specifically for the Factory's dancefloor; records were broken here that would later (much later) become worldwide hits; people travelled to New York just to spend a Saturday night/Sunday morning here; and its one DJ - Junior Vasquez - became a household name despite the fact that he refused to play anywhere outside his beloved club.

The Factory closed its doors on January 12th 1995, the result it seems of a behind-the-scenes hostile takeover of the building's lease. The world-beating sound system was put in storage; Junior declared that he would never play anywhere unless it bore the name 'Sound Factory'; and the club's management announced within days that they already had a new venue waiting to bear the prestigious name once again.

By now you know that none of this happened. The Factory's system still sits in a warehouse in New Jersey; Junior has signed a contract with New York's most successful and commercial clubs organisation to play at the Tunnel (ironically only a block away from the original Factory); the Factory space is to reopen as 'Twilo' under new management; and Richard Grant, Sound Factory's owner/manager, has little more than the name itself with which to rebuild the legend.

And with the death of its most astounding club, New York sits waiting.

In truth, the Sound Factory died long before it closed its doors. It was undoubtedly the victim of its own success, and as it grew older (it opened in March 1989), the family of dancers who arrived each week with the regularity of worship, saw their hallowed ground trespassed upon by outsiders who had no understanding of what had happened there. Voyeurs, spectators, tourists swelled the crowd to uncomfortable levels. There was no room on the dancefloor, no respect for people's space. The Leigh Bowery-esque 'look-at-me' freaks from clubs like Limelight invaded, further destroying the simple focus of music and dance. By 1994 it had even ceased to be a gay club. The boys still held the majority in numbers, but not by much, and the atmosphere of unspoken complicity that gay clubs engender had been completely shattered.

The energy of the place had died too. In its heyday there would be a mere handful of people away from the dancefloor, while the rest writhed and jumped till cramps and exhaustion set in. The $18 entrance fee (later $20)was for a seven or eight hour workout, not a casual chat and a smoke along the sidelines. You only left the floor to visit the juice bar, the drinking fountain or the toilets.

You would see incredible things there. Professional dancers would arrive from performing somewhere, and proceed to tear up a zone of the dancefloor. The voguing houses would be off in a corner, perfecting their millimetre-precise movements, throwing the most exquisite shade, and making runways and catwalks along the side of the stage. Junior would grab a flashlight and pick out the more fabulous dancers, throwing down some bitch house track to exaggerate the competition.

Sound Factory was on a dirty warehouse street patrolled by hookers and lowlife. You would file in around 4 or 5am, after a night's sleep, just as dawn was breaking; leaving the reality of New York's scuzzy concrete, to become enveloped in this bass cocoon completely removed from the rest of the world. It was a huge simple space made small and intimate by the power of the music it contained. You were treated like an honoured guest: fruit, cookies, cold water and coffee were yours for free, there were hundreds of dollars worth of flowers gracing the entrance, and fresh decorations every week. One week they dropped dollar bills from the ceiling. At the exit there was always a huge bowl of condoms, and a pile of pencils and notepads to exchange phone numbers.

And there was the music. Nowhere in the Factory could you not hear the dancefloor. And nothing can explain what Junior used to be able to do. He could keep a driving relentless groove going for hours, while changing rhythms, tempos, styles: playing around but never once losing your mesmerised attention. He could work a record for astonishing periods: first teasing you with the tiniest hint deep underneath everything else, and going back to it again and again, exaggerating every great moment of a song until you'd swear he had three copies of it playing at once. He would loop a section up on a sampler so that even the most intense, double-tracked crescendo could be sent crashing even higher and higher.

New records would leave everyone in a frenzy of enquiry: What was that amazing song that he'd just worked for the last forty minutes? Did anyone from the labels recognize it? What studio project had he been working on that might have sounded like that? I broke up with someone I truly loved to the sounds of his DAT mix of Billy Ray Martin's 'Your Loving Arms', only to have to endure a month-long wait before anyone could tell me what it was, and a six-month wait before anyone except Junior had a copy.

But this isn't just about the death of a much-loved club. The changes in the dying days of Sound Factory illustrate a massive upheaval in the culture of New York nightlife in general. In recent years the city's dance scene has undergone a revolution. A series of closures of places both underground (Shelter) and blatantly commercial (USA) has left the city with less dancefloor space since anyone can remember. And at the same time there has emerged a new generation of clubbers: young ravey suburbanites who grew up on techno and breakbeat (in raves and in clubs like Limelight and NASA) rather than sharing the rock background of their older brothers and sisters. These kids are the first American generation to be raised on the dancefloor instead of at the concert arena. And increasingly they want to dance to the house and garage that the city's most famous DJs are known for. In the last two years, with more clubbers and less clubs, New York has seen its dancefloors grow miserably overcrowded and confused.

What people in Europe rarely understand is that the American dance music they love is far from successful in its own country. US house in its many forms is still decisively underground here. There are no chart hits, no household name groups, and when they play their home city, even the most famous New York DJs earn as little as $500 a night. Things are changing - people in the dance industry here feel things are balanced ready for take-off - and as the scene develops, the growing pains are very visible.

The most painful of these has been this invasion endured by the established dancefloor 'tribes or 'families' as the curious young newcomers began to explore the more underground of New York's clubs. This is an inevitable result of dance music's increasing popularity, but it spells the end for a continuity of experience that began in the mists of disco, travelled through clubs like Paradise Garage, the Saint, Better Days, the Choice, Red Zone and Bassline right through to Shelter and Sound Factory.

What makes this transitional period doubly difficult for older clubbers is the fact that these youngsters party in a much different way. There is little of the feeling of intense active communion in their gatherings; instead you often feel like you are at a social occasion which happens to have loud dance music in the background. Hanging out is the thing, far more than going for an extended dance session. They move with strange hippie stepping motions like half-interested breakdancers: there is none of the sexual pumping and jacking that the older gay New York dancefloors moved with. And to cap it all, their drugs of choice are introverted downers like ketamine and even heroin, and their resulting lifeless behaviour is disturbing to a crowd used to energetic displays of musical togetherness.

One person who has suffered from these drastic changes in nightlife demographics is Junior Vasquez himself. In its final year, Sound Factory - 'The House That Junior Built' - was filled, not with people who loved him for his music, but with people who worshipped him as the world's most celebrated DJ. He told me that the main reason he refused to come to Europe was because people would just stare at him in awe rather than share in the dance. However, this is exactly what happened in the Sound Factory. It became cool to be there. People came down because they thought they might see Madonna. In all respects, the dancefloor stopped moving.

Junior's music was always intimately bound into the time and space of the Factory - rarely has a DJ had such a personal identification with a single club - and he agrees that after its closure it will be difficult for him to find somewhere that feels like home. "That's a big part of my nightmare now: I created that club, and in essence and by rights, I should have retired. I should have probably not played ever again. I made my mark." With the Factory's passing, and with his stubborn insistence to keep himself isolated from the industry and from other DJs, he seems trapped. And as his crowd evolves further from the serious dancers of his genuinely underground days, it is having severely detrimental effects on his music. He admits that as a DJ he depends heavily on feedback from his audience, and goes on to say that he hasn't felt it in a long time.

His new residency at the Tunnel, one of New York's largest clubs, has been well-documented by the UK dance press. In order to attract the homeless Vasquez, a vast amount of money was spent improving the sound (by New York's high standards it's now merely satisfactory) and building him a palatial DJ booth. Other DJs play the Tunnel from a small box at the end of the bar, Junior plays from a soundproofed glass room the size of most New Yorker's apartments.

It is great to have him once more playing a weekly twelve-hour set, and it is far too early to envisage how his nights at the Tunnel will develop, but what is certain is that after a promising opening night crowd, full of re-united old-time Factory faces, successive weeks have seen fewer of the family and more of the Tunnel's regular motley crew: a heavily suburban crowd looking for a New York thrill. And with fewer and fewer of the old school dancers on his floor, Junior seems a little unsure of where to take things. Without the responsive and musically knowledgable dancefloor he's always had to build from, his music has been worryingly directionless and disappointing.

And on November 2nd the Sound Factory will re-open without him. Or at least the venue will. Phil Smith, once a part owner of the original Sound Factory - who had left years previously to create another club, the Sound Factory Bar - will now run the legendary space. It has been refurbished with a new digital sound system , it enjoys a Frankie Knuckles/David Morales residency, and it has been renamed 'Twilo'.

Despite its absurd name, Twilo may well be an incredible club. It may well attract the scores of world-class DJs who have long dreamed of playing this mythic room; it might become a place to go for the hundreds of people who have been spending their Saturday nights on the sofa. But it will be strange to walk through those doors again, because what it certainly won't be is the intimate communal experience of a single club built round a single DJ, open on a single night every week. Those days are gone.

"It's simply no longer economically viable to run a big club on a one-night-a-week basis" stresses Peter Gatien, a man whose cool head and ruthless reputation make him the most powerful figure in New York nightlife. He owns three of New York's biggest clubs: Limelight, Palladium and Tunnel, and also created the short-lived USA. Gatien believes that a large but underground club like Sound Factory, is undoubtedly a thing of the past.

Gatien himself plans to add to the current shake-up. He aims to open two new large-scale clubs in the coming months: one in the Times Square tourist district, and one downtown (widely believed to be a site directly opposite Twilo/Sound Factory). While these will by definition be run on hard commercial lines, and while his near-monopoly is far from healthy, they are still reason for celebration. With a greater number of active dancefloors, the city's clubbing population will finally be able to reorganise itself into diverse groups of like-minded dancers; the groups which historically have made New York clubs so special.

Other developments are occurring as a result of changing tastes. The young promoters who previously dealt only in the hard techno and breakbeat of the rave scene here, look like making their mark in the house clubs. "As far as the new generation, I think they're the ones to save dance music in the years to come," insists Danny Tenaglia. "They're booking DJs like myself and Louie Vega and incorporating us in with the harder DJs, exposing us to their crowd. For me, they're the people who are keeping dance music fresh."

And as such promoters educate their crowds into the wonders of classic New York dance music, some truly fabulous moments have occurred. There was the night that the awesome Tenaglia finally played to a capacity gay crowd at the evergreen Saturday night at Roxy (he now plays there monthly). And, again in the Roxy, there was a night of true historical importance as Louie Vega took a Friday full of straight teenage ravers, and turned them out with his signature blend of hard Latin house, climaxing with the O'Jay's Paradise Garage classic 'I Love Music', educating these baggy pups with their glowsticks and piercings in the beauty of vocal New York house, and further detaching them from their harsh techno origins.

It's easy to be nostalgic and mourn the approaching death of New York's old-style underground scene, but it's important not to live in the past. Clubs die so that new ones can be born - each amazing in a new way. Don't be envious when someone starts eulogising the Paradise Garage, or Shelter, or the Sound Factory. The new generation are busy building memories that will compete in every way: taking their first real ecstasy as Danny Tenaglia throws it down at the Roxy; hearing Frankie Knuckles play the first night at Twilo; making their first faltering trip to hear Louie Vega at Sound Factory Bar, or hearing the reborn Junior Vasquez tear it up at Tunnel.

For me it was being in love with the fierce English girl in the neon pink bikini, pounding the Factory floor amid a sea of our friends, as Junior mixed 'Acid Crash' with some Wildpitch workout for what seemed like forever, then took us down into an intense mind-fuck of cathedral organs, taking off again with an acapella of the screaming diva of the hour. I doubt life will be like that again.

Thank you.



© 1995 Frank Broughton (djhistory.com)