The party space, with its huge mirror ball and DNA strands of multicolored balloons, combines Alice in Wonderland with astrophysics. “City, Country, City” percolates through five stacks of Klipschorn speakers and sounds so live that, if you close your eyes, War could be playing in the same room. As the percussive tempo builds, dancers regress, screaming and whooping as they execute spinning-top turns and syncopated jazz flicks. It could be 1974, but it’s 2004. After an agonizing hiatus, the Loft is back. And party host David Mancuso is refusing to change with the times.
The Loft began life in 1970 as an unnamed, one-off rent party when Mancuso, an antiques dealer, decided to put on a Valentine’s Day bash in his ex-industrial home to supplement his irregular income. In a reference to universal love and psychedelic enlightenment, the party invites were inscribed with the words “Love Saves the Day,” and Mancuso ended up spinning records from midnight until six in the morning. “The idea of being a DJ never crossed my mind,” he says. “I only did it because I was with my friends and we were all into the same music.”
At the end of that first night, Mancuso’s guests—a definitive cross-section of New York’s displaced citizens—made it clear that they wanted more of the same, and within a couple of months the host had succumbed to the inevitability of a weekly party. By the middle of 1971, the events were being referred to as the Loft. “I wasn’t looking for a name,” says Mancuso. “But people started to refer to my space as David’s Loft. It was a given name and I accepted it.”
Mancuso’s subsequent influence on the dance underground is hard to overestimate. The Tenth Floor, the Gallery, 12 West, Reade Street, the Warehouse, and the Paradise Garage were modeled on his private-party template. Club kids such as Nicky Siano, Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, Tony Humphries, and David Morales fell under his aural spell before they proceeded to embark on their own turntablist adventures. Even fellow DJs treated Mancuso’s venue like a place of worship.
Mancuso broke unconventional records like “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” and “Soul Makossa,” yet he was always more of a party engineer than a DJ. He put together the best sound system in New York, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on audiophile technology. He treated his dancers to a sumptuous buffet of energy-enhancing food and fruit punch. He decorated his post-industrial living spaces in the style of a make-believe children’s party. And he defended his house party setup as if his life depended on it, defeating the Department of Consumer Affairs in a precedent-setting battle over his right to party without a cabaret license.
The party host also demonstrated a sixth sense for pioneering new neighborhoods in which to throw a party. Noho had yet to receive its designation when Mancuso moved into 647 Broadway in the mid ’60s, and when the collapse of a neighboring hotel forced him to look for a new space in the summer of 1974, he moved to 99 Prince Street, overcoming the vociferous objections of once bohemian locals en route. “Soho vs. Disco” is how Vince Aletti, writing in the Voice, framed the clash. Disco won.
Mancuso’s next move was calamitous. As his 10-year lease on Prince Street drew to a close, he decided to swap the cobbled climes of Soho for the virtual war zone of Alphabet City, hopeful that outright ownership of his new building on 3rd Street between avenues B and C would help him “leave the landlords behind” and ensure the future of his beloved party. Die-hard devotees—especially Loft women—balked at the area’s notoriously heavy drug traffic and endemic crime, however, and even Mancuso became edgy when federal and city plans to rejuvenate the area evaporated. “I lost 65 percent of my attendance overnight,” he remembers.
Mancuso struggled in his 3rd Street venue until he was forced to close in 1994. The itinerant host then tried his luck on Avenue A, followed by Avenue B, where a shimmering 28th-anniversary celebration contained the promise of rebirth until a fractious landlord forced him into yet another move—this time into rented accommodations that were too tiny to hold a house party.
The onset of AIDS, the inexorable rise of the drum machine, and the hostile tenure of Mayor Giuliani contributed to the impression that Mancuso had fallen out of sync with history. But then David Hill, co-owner of London-based Nuphonic Records, offered to release a compilation of Loft classics, and Mancuso, who needed the money and was impressed by Hill’s perfectionist drive, agreed. The album, David Mancuso Presents the Loft, became Nuphonic’s bestseller and triggered a wave of publicity for the club.
As Mancuso’s legendary status came into focus, invitations to play in Japan, the U.K., Italy, and France poured in. On each trip, the roving “musical host” (Mancuso’s preferred description) broke with conventional DJ’ing practice by agreeing to work with just one promoter and play just one party per city. “Most DJs walk into a gig and do a one- to three-hour slot, and that is it,” he says. “To me that is a fart in a windstorm. I like to help build a party from scratch and create a musical direction.”
Mancuso recently started to put on parties in what has oddly—given its history as the international capital of disco—become the toughest terrain of all: New York. Hiring out a hall near St. Marks Place, he has been attracting the young (mainly Japanese kids) as well as the old (veterans of the Broadway Loft). His 34th-anniversary party in February was a sellout, and last weekend’s Memorial Day party was equally successful.
Loft babies believe that Mancuso is once again putting on the best party in the city. “The best dancing experiences I have ever had have been at the Loft,” says DJ-producer Nicky Siano, who, having drifted away from the New York dance scene in the early 1980s, has made a fairly astonishing comeback himself. “The atmosphere at David’s parties is second to none.”
For some, the Loft has begun to show its age. “I admire David’s active avoidance of the spotlight, and his parties still have an underground feel because of that,” says a comparatively young DJ. “But the majority of the crowd is the same as it was 20 years ago, and they want to hear the old favorites.” Others wonder if Mancuso’s refusal to use a mixer is anachronistic—and if it would be possible for him to pump the sound system just a little bit harder.
But if so many new records don’t measure up to the old, if mixing technology encourages spinners to focus on the micro-detail of how two records blend together rather than the broader canvas of the dancefloor journey, and if clubbers are suffering from unprecedented levels of tinnitus as a result of repeated ear beatings from second-rate sound systems, what is Mancuso to do?
The Loft host’s obsessive pursuit of the perfect party has emerged as a precious antidote to the increasingly stagnant status quo. “The Loft is unique and irresistible,” says veteran DJ-dancer Danny Krivit, whose 718 Sessions are one of the hottest parties in the city at the moment. “It’s about good friends meeting in a homey setting and listening to excellent music on a great sound system. The Loft is timeless.” Mancuso has become not so much an idiosyncratic dinosaur as a prophet from the past who is pointing to a new-old future. Just by standing still.
Tim Lawrence is the author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-79 (Duke).