“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 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.
Although Hedge and Milan insist that they aren’t pissed off by the frustrating state of the boogie nation, Hedge’s lyrics lay out the drama better than any tired old club troll, uptight deep-house geek, or embittered journalist could ever hope to do:
I remember House when House was more than just a name to package this sound, this groove, this emotion. . . . I remember House when House had artists, songwriters, and personalities. . . . I remember House before MPC 60’s. . . . I remember House when House was about love . . .
Got that? Hedge, who recently became president of West End Records, an august and respected dance label, lists off the ire behind the song: “The conversation with that DJ who didn’t know who Marshall Jefferson was; looking at the covers of DJ magazine, Mixer magazine, Muzik magazine, and never seeing anyone on the cover representing the deep house scene; never, never seeing anyone that looks like me.”
But let’s face it: It’s a shitty time to put out a dance record, period, and if “Do You Remember House?” points to a breakdown in dance-music culture, then so does the October 5 Billboard cover story, “No Party for Dance Retailers,” which reveals that SoundScan dance sales have fallen a devastating 61 percent since last year. Dance-music stores across the country are shuttering, and labels complain that sales are dramatically slowing. Rob Wunderman of New York City’s deep house label King Street Sounds reports that sales dropped about 25 to 40 percent since last year. And Strictly Rhythm, one of the oldest and most widely recognized American dance-music labels, closed its doors in early October. Of course, CD burning and free downloads are largely to blame for this sudden decline, but these technological culprits have affected the music industry across the board.
Some blame poor sales on the increased police and government crackdown on nightclubs and raves. “You’re dealing with a social structure that bubbles out of a club scene,” says Errol Kolosine, general manager at Astralwerks, the New York-based label that releases the industry’s most mainstream electronic acts. “And when you take away that experience in the club scene, you take away the ability to sell records.”
Hedge, though, credits part of the fall to the DJs themselves, who as often as not provide dancers with nothing more than a beat that’s absolutely perfect for nodding off. No wonder no one dances anymore. “I don’t think it’s hard to find musical innovators,” he says. “Look at new producers like Solu Music, Glenn Underground, Pépé Braddock. What we need are DJs as educators. We need DJs to be broad-based in their music, to realize that all of the music doesn’t have to have standard beats and tempos. You can have slower tempos and still have crowds move.” Still, DJs complain about a lack of interesting new vinyl, and critics who once lived for dance now die for rock.
But if dance music is no longer chic, you’d never know it at 10:30 a.m. on the Shelter dancefloor, where time travels in reverse. Regisford is now shifting into older tunes, and the Stevie Wonder prophecy is about to be fulfilled as he coolly eyes the dancers, many of whom appear to be re-enacting scenes from All That Jazz—an intimidating prospect for those with limited rump-bumping repertoires. No longer mixing records, Regisford plays the endlessly romantic “Castles in the Sand,” and a sad-eyed, fortysomething woman in a long red skirt dances in slow circles around her man, her gaze fixed on his, her arms building soft shapes above her head. A tiny dancer in a strapless black bikini top and sweat-soaked jeans begins silently weeping next to a speaker. And the tall guy who’s plunked himself smack dab in the middle of the floor—the same dude who hasn’t moved an inch since 7 a.m.—closes his eyes even tighter, raises his palms up toward the ceiling.
Most of the younger dancers have long gone home, but the dedicated ones rest quietly on the wooden pallets, observing with tired eyes the elders on the floor, who are causing a startling scene. They are lost in that full-body, heavy-spirit zone. The mushy stuff isn’t about how people relate to one another; it’s how they leave each other alone. No one’s laughing at the weeping lady; no one freaks out when a man named Anthony begins pounding the floor with his hands. Imperfect bodies not fully clothed float about unjudged, and if all this amounts to peace and love, I’ll buy it.
“You have to come and live it,” Byrd says a few songs later. “No matter how much I describe it, it’s still not enough for you to feel it. Sometimes the music hits you so fiercely—I’ve been up there when I’ve actually cried. And I’ll say to myself, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ But tears will just pour out of my eyes. Because the feeling, the vibe, is not just from the music. It’s the way people react to it. Chaka is playing right now, but if Timmy breaks the music, you’ll hear people singing the lyrics and I’ll be like, yeah, sing, children, sing! It’s a vibe.”