New York City – Junior Vasquez is not a DJ. True, he mixes records together, produces music, and throws parties for a living. But what he is – in his own mind, to the “tribe” that follows him, and to those who once did – is far too complicated, too grand to be summed up in a mere two letters. And what he does is incomparable to what anyone going by that title today is doing, or arguably could.
Since the late ’80s, the Lancaster, Pa., native (aka Donald Mattern, age 53-57, depending on which bio you believe) has produced or remixed over 500 tracks, released 13 mixed compilations (including the most recent, Earth Music 2), and lorded over every major club in New York, with an iron will and a customized booth. But that is just the beginning of the story.
He’s also sparred publicly with Madonna, appeared shirtless on MTV, and dramatically spurned the world’s most beloved DJ. And wielding a mystique that can only be likened to that of cult leaders and dead Warhol icons, he’s made disciples out of the most unlikely subjects. On his dancefloor, college years have been squandered, careers have been abruptly switched, and cross-country moves have been made. He’s prompted marriages, divorces, sexuality switches, and addictions of all sorts. He’s made DJs out of stockbrokers, club kids out of bookstore clerks, and lifetime house fiends out of Van Halen fans.
Some might say that this messiah-like lure is manufactured – Vasquez does not hesitate to loudly declare his influence. He refers to the fans as “his tribe,” posits that he should probably be awarded a lifetime Grammy, and is dubbed “a cultural phenomenon” in his latest press release. The light doesn’t go on in his private, multimillion-dollar booth at Exit, the Manhattan home of his current weekly Earth, until as late as 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, devastating the Mondays of all who come out to hear him. Earth-goers pay a $30 entry fee every weekend – it can go as high as $100 for special events. And Vasquez enjoys watching the throng scramble: “His loyal disciples…happily pay cover charges, forsake sleep and risk having gruesome bags beneath their eyes in order to hear him spin,” proclaims the same release. “He isn’t part of the scene, he is the scene.”
Any thinking person automatically resists such histrionics, and I did. I had the chance to interview Vasquez in November 2000, while his Twilo residency was still teeming and the related compilation was set for release on Virgin. But I passed it off to another writer, not wanting to even stick a toe into what seemed to me to be a hostile, complicated world driven primarily by one man’s ego.
But living in New York City and loving its dance scene, it was only a matter of time before I got the call. So at 10 a.m. on the Monday of Gay Pride 2001, a few months after Twilo closed, leaving Vasquez temporarily without a residency, I pulled on my sneakers and hailed a cab to The Roxy. I swallowed my pride through the extensive, humiliating door search, bit my lip as I handed over the $70 cover, and waded into the hottest, sweatiest, most uncomfortable room I had ever been in. You could call it sensory overload – the music, the people, the vast, pulsing venue – whatever, but I’d been officially baptized. I didn’t know what to fully make of it, but for some reason I wanted to venture back into Junior’s realm.
A few months later, I did. This is what happened.
“I want him to be my evil Obi Wan,” sighs my companion, her eyes wide, as we both lean over the railing at Exit, peering into the elevated DJ booth flown over the club’s massive open atrium. It’s April 2002, in New York, eight months into the life of Vasquez’s new party, Earth, and he’s pissed. Revelers in the lounge above the booth have allowed some liquid – champagne or water or something else – to drip its way down the monitor cables, right onto the speakers and his Pioneer CDJ-1000 player. He has stopped the music, flicked on the house lights, and refused to continue until a new unit is brought to him. It’s about 3 a.m., far too early for Junior’s real crowd to arrive (he would eventually give up on the “early crowd” altogether and move up his start time considerably), and the children on the dancefloor are huddling together, looking up at the booth in fear and confusion. Who is this angry man anyway, some of them might wonder, and why, oh why, has he turned the lights on?
But we, and the handful of Junior-ites around us, are intrigued. It’s a delightful performance, a slice of pure diva in an increasingly dull, straight, too-serious scene. “I have to give them something, keep things interesting,” he confesses a short time later, his eyes gleaming. “I should have played ‘Storm In My Soul’ when I went back on.” Before his tribe arrives (and only after onsite sound techs Sam Yee and Shawn Brophy had produced another CDJ-1000, seemingly out of thin air), Vasquez makes the non-believers pay the best way he can: He plays song-of-the moment “Rapture” – backwards – and barely stays in the booth otherwise. He just pops in, grabs a sleeve scrawled with the words “FILLER TECH-HOUSE” in black permanent marker, mixes it in, and ducks out again.
Junior Vasquez is a small man who can’t really keep still. He’s a nail-biter, a hat-adjuster, a leg-bouncer. He signals that the interview is over by standing up and pacing. But one thing he does hold unwaveringly is eye contact – when you’re across from him, he simply will not allow you to look away. And you don’t really want to.
My first formal encounter with Vasquez came the week after what he jokingly refers to as “the flood,” at the Manhattan headquarters of his record label, Junior Vasquez Music. He’d already been told that I had been to Earth off-assignment, by my own free will – but did he know that I had spent my New Year’s Day in his court, defiling my underground house music history by dancing to “The Boy Is Mine” remixes and applauding happily when he dropped mind-***** nuggets like the radio version of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”?
I ask the standard DJ Times gear questions, which entirely bore him [see sidebar]. I ask what tools he uses in the studio, and he claims ignorance (“I know they’re PC-based.”). I ask about the production process (“Part thievery, part creation.”), the choice of Exit as Earth’s venue (“Nowhere else is big enough.”), and what makes his style of DJing different (“I don’t know.”). But it’s when I bring up New York, and how Earth fits into his party pantheon – his beginnings at Bassline and Sound Factory, Arena at Palladium, and Juniorverse at Twilo – that he shows interest.
Me: Is New York a satellite totally apart from the rest of the dance music world?
Me: It is the only place you’re interested in?
Me: Will you ever play outside of it?
Junior: I will, but I hate traveling anywhere to play. That’s a given fact. I have to prove too much when I’m elsewhere.
Me: So you don’t take the party with you?
Junior: My vibe doesn’t travel.
Me: And that makes the weekly all the more important.
Junior: Of course.
Me: So what is Earth then?
Junior: Earth is literally a return to the earth. That’s why we named it that. The stuff I was playing at Twilo was soaring and big and progressive; flying up in the air, all over the place. Now, if it’s over 16 tracks, I’m not interested. I just got tired of all of that excess. And I knew the sound system at Exit couldn’t handle what I was playing at Twilo. If the music was going to make any kind of sonic impact, it had to be simpler. It’s kind of coming back to the Sound Factory sound – basic parts and a vocal.
Me: So you knew even when you first saw the space what the concept for the party would be?
Junior: Yes. Always.
More than any other DJ,
Vasquez is defined by his
weekly party and home club. It started at Sound Factory, where DJs from Angel Moraes to David Waxman were enthusiastic regulars, and Vasquez was a bright-eyed, baseball-capped, hungry new artist, fresh off the glory of Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, playing and creating the most New York of dance music. It was here where he debuted his arsenal of production tools – resonant, tight drums; clipped-up vocal samples used like percussion in the mix; highs that punctuate phrases as well as create them. Sound Factory was house music with a hip-hop soul, the very beginning of the tribal sound, and a soulful vocal haven all in one. Vasquez originals like “X” and “Get Your Hands Off My Man” showcased not only the party’s boldness and *****y spirit, but his singular, barebones style, not to mention his favorite samples of other artists’ work that would reappear again and again in his own productions, straight through the present day.
Sound Factory’s classic status was sealed even before it ended. Tracks like Moraes’ “Welcome To The Factory” and East Village Loft Society’s “The Manhattan Anthem” paid tribute. MTV even filmed inside the venue, interviewing a particularly amused Vasquez for a post-Madonna feature about the origins of “Vogue.” But, of course, by then, as Junior obliquely informed the interviewer, vogueing was tired, and runway was in. (It would take RuPaul a few more years to destroy that gay underground tradition.) The club closed in 1995, for the usual reasons that clubs do.
After a brief stint at Tunnel, Vasquez’s next big party was as high-concept as they come. Arena was billed as “The Gay Man’s Pleasuredome,” but that tagline just made the flyers a bit harder for the straight suburban kids to hide. For one wild year, the party drew a crowd of over 5,000 attendees every week, from muscle queens to fag hags to B&T partiers to music industry types. It was what movies still depict as big-room clubbing – a massive, pitch-black space, dotted with glowsticks and populated by equal parts “normal” people and circus freaks. Palladium was its home, a retired theater with high ceilings, grand staircases, and ornate detailing. And musically the party was just as big: Vocals swooped, pre-trance synths swelled, and Vasquez laid the groundwork for another genre – the big build-up, bigger breakdown hard house that would soon be defined by Razor & Guido, and adopted by mainstream dance radio. Vasquez would feature the duo’s pummeling tracks, along with the similarly aggressive work of other fledgling New York producers, at Juniorverse, the Twilo residency he accepted after the sale of Palladium to New York University in 1997. (The building was destroyed and rebuilt as a dormitory, also named Palladium.)
But it was somewhere on the road from Factory to Arena that Vasquez got his mystical rep; in between the old club’s black walls and Palladium’s tiara-wearing drag performers that he became more shaman than DJ. Maybe it was because of his booth style: Vasquez didn’t just fearfully mix records, praying for a smooth overlay like so many modern jocks – he worked them, slammed into them, and manipulated them with abandon. The vocal from one track would magically appear over the beats of another, while delays looped and punched-in samples stuttered in the background. Sometimes, he’d opt to shut the music off entirely for minutes at a time; or play a track to its break and then mix back into its intro, without letting it drop. And his floor wasn’t only a place for dance music – he closed Arena’s last night with Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People.” Vasquez’s clubs were, according to one Sound Factory patron, “stuck between good and evil. Sometimes you just wanted to sing and celebrate life and other times [they] could scare the shit out of you.” It was that element – that unpredictable, borderline sinister flair – that turned him from DJ into pied piper for a generation of New York clubbers.
“Nothing’s fierce anymore,” Junior sniffs, trying to stay still long enough for the DJ Times photographer to snap a shot. “Everyone’s trying to be Madonna, and they’re just not.”
We’re in the famed DJ booth at Exit on a Thursday afternoon, trying to pick a non-cheesy way to shoot Junior behind the decks. But the conversation has moved from other New York DJs to the club’s terrible sightlines to “American Idol.” He’s no fan of Tamyra, the feisty, yet pure contestant who at that time was favored to win – “We don’t need another Beyoncé.” And he’s trying to track down some of the other finalists who had already been booted, thinking their voices could serve a dance track or two.
We go from site to site within the empty, echo-y club, and Junior looks around as if he’s never been there before. “Do you ever go to the upstairs lounge while you’re here?” he asks, wrinkling his nose. “Is the sound really bad under the overhang? Do the security guards really look over the bathroom stalls?”
A house music fan listening to Vasquez’s music is like a stoner listening to Pink Floyd – it’s alternately complicated and simple, accessible and obscure. But you can always tell it’s Junior, usually from the very first kick drum. And he has a way of treating a vocal – stretching it, cutting it up, working it back into a different arrangement, giving it a new feeling, or better communicating its intended one – that is entirely distinct. Even in his most simple work, the Vasquez flourish is there.
His repertoire is full of homeruns, most so tailored to his own purposes that other DJs couldn’t get away with playing them. Last year’s “House Music” with Sabrina Johnston, for instance, is glorious enough to be a classic, but its breaks and embellishments are so very Junior that another jock would be a fool to drop it. His remixes can be faithful – his take on Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before” imbues the already defiant song with even more bravura – or downright deconstructionist, mutating the tone and feel of the originals. Donna Summer’s “Melody of Love” went from a lovely disco-pop ditty into an uplifting, choral paean to the glory of music. And For Real’s “Like I Do” started as a slow, sad confession of unrequited love, and became a joyful, wise-to-it kiss-off. Even Vasquez’s original works – two gospel-based tracks with the Mitchell Sisters in particular, “Reap” and “Trouble Don’t Last Always” – are so smart, so aware of their influences and distinctively modern at the same time, that it almost seems a shame that they’re trapped in the underground.
In recent years he’s taken to remixing almost everything that he likes, although he maintains that it’s not a blanket policy.
Me: I don’t think you settle on the work of others that comfortably.
Junior: If it’s good I do. But what I don’t like is when people in the business hide who actually did something, ’cause they don’t think I’ll play it if I knew. If something’s good I’ll play it. I don’t care who it is. There might be a little bit of politics involved. But if something’s goddamn crappy I won’t play it. Name anybody – if the record’s good I’ll play it. But if the record stinks, it stinks.
Me: Not even politically, though, I think you kind of feel the need to do it yourself.
Junior: I do.
Junior: Ego. I just have to tailor it to me.
Me: You make it fit.
Me: What about all these new versions of old songs? Kristine W’s “Some Lovin’,” Mike Rizzo’s “That Look,” Dee Roberts’ “Weep”…
Junior: Maybe they’re OK. I think it bothers me a little because I was around to experience the first time. Sometimes it makes me think that people are just doing it to get one over. But maybe they’re necessary. The fact that they don’t come to me first for some of them, like “Some Lovin'” kind of irritates me. So I had to do a mix especially for myself, ’cause I have to show them who’s boss of that stuff in the first place. For certain people to redo [House of Fire’s] “Show Me,” which was a big Sound Factory record…I don’t even think Peter Rauhofer was around then, if I can recall. Maybe he snuck in a few times.
Of course there is a Junior
Vasquez mix of Suzanne
Palmer’s new version of “Show Me,” a clanging, carnival-esque piece that Earth-goers adore. He’s also remixed Lamya, Superchumbo, and even Five For Fighting’s radio hit “Superman” into specialized Earth anthems. Most of them are featured on the Earth Music compilations…but always timed out properly, and with appropriate additions.
“The only reason I would want to do compilations to begin with is to have stuff on them that other DJs want and don’t have,” he says matter-of-factly. “So right now, off Earth Music 2, they’re all gonna probably be playing ‘I’ve Got Something’ [a punchy bit of house that memorably samples First Choice], but by having [Royal House’s] ‘Can You Party?’ sampled over it…” He trails off and grins.
“We almost took that out, because it goes on every single stupid album,” he admits. (Vasquez frequently gets ribbed for dropping the Todd Terry-produced track during his every set.) “But you know the way I look at it, I own that song. I’ll put it on every compilation until the day I die. Somewhere, somehow I’ll work it in.”
It’s mid-fall when I last sit with Junior, the Wednesday after a large Halloween-themed party at Earth that included performances from Kristine W, Lamya, and Cyndi Lauper. Junior wasn’t enthused about the outcome.
Me: What went wrong?
Junior: Well, turntable one didn’t work, so I had to keep going to turntable two and three all night, which only gives me more power to say, “I’m a professional.”
Me: What else?
Junior: There were a lot of shows. One show would have been enough. This weekend was kind of…I don’t know what the real problem was.
Me: There were a lot of external stimuli.
Junior: Yeah, there was a lot going on and it was hard to focus.
Me: What’s a good night for you?
Junior: It could be where I just kind of …when I get the songs to actually go in the right spot in the night, or in the right timing. The problem with this past weekend was that they weren’t. I couldn’t get out of one groove to get to the love songs. I was trying. Every time I tried there’d be a show. Then I couldn’t wait for the show to end so I could get to Deborah Cox [his mix of “Mr. Lonely” is Earth’s biggest anthem]; I just never came around to it. I was just searching and searching for certain records. The weekend before Halloween was great; I just made it my own party. I think it just takes being…maybe not caring so much, just playing the records.
Since our last interview, Junior Vasquez Music has relocated – it’s now
behind a boiler room in a basement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. You’d
never know it from inside, though – the office is white and clean, with track lighting, fresh flowers, and burning candles. With a wooded outdoor space attached, and the residential area’s blanket of quiet, it feels almost like a retreat.
Earth is over a year old now, still holding its own respectably, but not reaching the heights of Arena or Twilo. “Sometimes I just think that Earth isn’t evolving; it’s not creating itself,” he sighs. “It could be me, ’cause I’m just tired of doing spaces, or it might be legendary once it closes like Palladium. Same with Twilo. How many people are going ‘Oh, Twilo,’ now?”
But his frustration is palpable – it borders on despair. And he can’t even relate it to just the club. It’s larger than that.
Me: There are a lot of people whose lives you’ve totally changed. That’s not even sappy, because I know a whole bunch of them.
Junior: All kinds of ways, too. I’ve made so many of them drug addicts. I’ve made so many of them straight to gay, and back again. Trisexual…
Me: When you assess that, how does that make you feel?
Junior: Well, I could say it makes me feel great, but the whole thing’s such a process. It takes a whole lot more than just me. The sad part to that is that I’ll never know what that’s like. I don’t know what it’s like to experience Junior Vasquez. I know what it’s like to experience Larry Levan; that was it. The end of that was it. I couldn’t tell you anything else. That kind of love, that kind of awe, going home and being sick at how great I felt, that I had found God or something. So I know how that must feel to certain people, but I don’t know what that feels like when it’s coming from me. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when it’s the same 25 crazies jumping around waiting for me to keep playing, I think to myself, “I’m so tuckered out,” and they all look like crazies, but they’re the nucleus of what makes it all kinda work. They’re diehard fans. If I kept playing they’d be there ’til next Saturday.
Me: Are you over it?
Junior: No, but I’m at the part of this cycle where I think that something really drastic has to change. For me. Everything’s run so well, but something major has to happen, I think.
Me: What kind of thing?
Junior: I don’t know. Something has to die, because I’m getting extremely bored. And I scream and holler at him [gestures to his manager Jerome Farley] almost every Saturday night. So there’s something missing or wrong, and I don’t think it’s that place [Exit], because I can sit here now and say, “You know what? I’m really friggin’ lucky.” I’m glad that I have a place to go. Then I go there, and I hear something about a problem with the list, something stupid. But that happens a lot less now. The club is kind of running itself; it is what it is. I mean, it’s too late in the game for me to make my own club. But find me something that runs any better. It just is what it is.
Me: You could make a change.
Junior: I’m always looking if something comes down the highway. Something smaller. Membership. Opens at 3 a.m. Something like Bassline [his first party]; something very very personal. I wouldn’t want it Exit-big. It should hold a thousand people packed – sweat-packed. Ultimately, that would be the change. I don’t stop enough lately to kind of appreciate the gift that I have, because I get a little burned out on it, and I don’t know what it’s gonna take for me to get over it. I get thrilled about it and I get burned out about it. I don’t know what I would take. I don’t know.
Me: Any ideas?
Junior: I think I know a big part of what the problem is; I’ve kind of figured it out. That I know what everybody else needs, and I can take care of everybody else, I can take care of everyone at the club, I can take care of [Exit owner] David Marvisi, I can take care of everybody on the dancefloor. But what Junior needs, I don’t think I know how to do that. And that’s what creates the problem. So when Sunday rolls around, and they’re off and running, the thing I want to do is go home. I don’t know what to do for myself to make me feel what the other people feel, and that’s where I think the problem lies. All in all though, I think this is what I’m meant to do.
It’s odd for me to think that the Jun
ior Vasquez who so captured my
imagination over the past year was not half of what he once was; just as brilliant, but with decidedly less will. The man who seemed the gleeful ringmaster was tiring of his circus.
But what I had so come to enjoy wasn’t the spectacle of Earth or the drama inherent to its little community, or even Vasquez’s theatrics, which went from threatening to appealing very quickly. All those things were lively and satisfying. But what really won me over was his music, from the gritty Tribal days straight through to the indulgent faux-grandeur of “Mr. Lonely.” It was the way he played that music, with ownership, fearlessness, and real fire. And it was his willingness – perhaps his need – to be larger than life, to inject blatant ego into a scene that constantly rejects it outwardly, but harbors it secretly. Thank God there’s only one of him. But could there ever be another?