This Old House

Dance Music's Heavy-Spirit Zone Survives at Shelter

"Ay, Papi!" shouts a tall, reedy Latina woman in cornrows and a black Adidas tracksuit, propping her elbows against the bar. It's near 6 a.m. at Shelter; this Saturday-night-into-Sunday-morning, like every week, the party will lure deep-house devotees to 20 West 39th Street. "Give me a water and don't give it to me on Puerto Rican time." She slams down a few bucks as her fistful of silver rings clangs on the countertop, twists open the bottle, and then turns to slip one arm around a small woman's waist. The raw, percussive intro to River Ocean and India's classic "Love and Happiness (Yemaya y Ochún)" unwinds through the sound system, which prompts the woman to scream, "Oh shit!" Suddenly she's smiling madly and jumping up and down with her hands flying in the air, yelling, "Yo, this song is off the hook!"

Several B-boys in sweatpants start break-dancing on a carpet as a whisper-thin man in a black boa twirls gracefully around them. Every seat and inch of floor space is filled with chatting, head-nodding loungers, all here in the bar area to take a breather from the oppressive, three-dimensional heat upstairs on the dancefloor. "Hey girl, are you comfortable enough over there?" says a man in a Keith Haring T-shirt to a girl who answers, "Yes, thanks." But he moves his jacket for her anyway. Over in the corner a 50-year-old woman named Byrd arranges free coffee and snacks on a fold-out table while a group of impatient dancers begin filling paper plates with chips and trail mix. Her sweatshirt reads "Shelter House Mother" in gold lamé (naturally), and she later tells me she's been on her feet dancing for the past 34 years.

This is not the chill-out room at a rave. There are no furiously grinding jaws and veins poking out of sleep-deprived skulls. Nor is this the coke-sniffing V.I.P. room at a bitchin' new club.

The Shelter dancefloor, where time travels in reverse.
photo: Cary Conover
The Shelter dancefloor, where time travels in reverse.

The Saturday-night dance party at Club Shelter is quite possibly the mecca of the deep-house scene, and this is where folks from around the world—the kind who dance all crazy, singing loudly with their hands in the air and their eyes closed tight—come to get down, plain and simple. Here you won't find walls of hapless white guys with arms folded, standing around waiting for dance music to happen. There's no trainspotting the DJ, no checking out his gear, because not only do the dancers at Shelter not give a rat's ass, they've got more important things to do.

Disco- and r&b-loving deep-house heads from cities far away have heard endless tales of its glory since this NYC party started 11 years ago. They know about DJ Timmy Regisford's infamous 12-hour sets, they know that he might play Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder in the morning—wait, they know that Stevie set foot in

Shelter one night!—that the real old school, survivors from the Paradise Garage and Zanzibar, show up sober late-morning, and that here, in the cold and lonely 39th Street dawn, people still know how to fucking dance their asses off.

They also know that it's become fashionable to hate on house—that dependable old nipple that finicky, disloyal dance-music people so greedily sucked on way before they decided that those lip-synching Smurfs in W.I.T. had skill.

It's no longer hip to sing and dance to songs about freedom, peace, kindness, love (all those layer-and-texture-adoring minimal techno people are probably rolling their eyes right about now), joy, pain, god, death, life, beauty, short dicks, and feeling higher. And some may smirk at gospel-born "diva house vocals"—but when did it become a crime to hear a strong woman sing?

House producer Kevin Hedge is a human drum machine: The New Jersey native—half of deep-house outfit Blaze and former co-owner, along with Timmy Regisford, of Club Shelter—punctuates each spoken phrase with an assertive clap at the beginning and end. He's got no love for $40,000-a-gig superstar DJs who've never heard of dance music's most influential historical figures. "I was talking to a progressive house DJ," he says, "Some world-renowned DJ who flies all around the world, and this guy didn't even know who Marshall Jefferson was [clap]! I was floored [clap]. Totally floored [clap]."

Hedge remembers the history of house. In fact, he and partner Josh Milan, who first broke out into the local house scene in 1986 with their Paradise Garage hit "Whatcha Gonna Do for Love," are living proof of it. But does anybody else remember house? That's what Blaze, who've put out some of the most respected dance albums ever made, want to know on "Do You Remember House?"—a fiery track on their latest jazz-fusion-and-r&b-heavy project, Spiritually Speaking. Hedge, in a cranky, sped-up voice, reminds the world that house music—the slinky, uplifting kind that mainstream audiences never tasted; the warm, home-cooked sort that dancefloor defectors have forgotten—isn't just the smooth-move crap that lazy, disco-rip-off producers loop together on laptops, nor is it the tinny, so-called "progressive" superclub soundtrack created by glow-stick millionaires like Paul Oakenfold and John Digweed, who are about as connected to the soul of dance-music culture as Spam is to pig.

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