The first of David Mancuso’s Loft parties was Valentine’s Day 1970. His homemade invitations read “Love Saves the Day,” which was both a manifesto and a hint that LSD might be involved. Mancuso was more than a bit of a hippie, and about to become a disco originator. Like a lot of folks at the time, he believed in changing the world through love. Unlike most, he actually did it.
Guru of the club underground. Gay hippie love messiah. Godfather of the record pool. To his disciples, who include much of New York’s first generation of post-Stonewall party people, David Mancuso was all of these things and more. To millions of others — like-minded children and children’s children around the globe — he was the founding father of nightlife in its most familial form.
Mancuso courted none of this. He didn’t even like being called a DJ. He considered himself music’s mere tool; a messenger, a “musical host.” It’s a cliché to speak of the dead’s humility, but this guy was so self-effacing he was practically invisible, even behind his turntables.
That’s exactly how he wanted it. Mancuso, who died at age 72 of unknown causes on November 14 at his Manhattan home, believed in the collective, in fostering communities. His parties — held in his apartment, not a nightclub — were a place to create the supportive family his childhood failed to provide.
“They were like your favorite birthday party,” says early Loft regular Vince Aletti, one of the first music journalists to write about disco. “It was not like going to a club. It was like going to somebody’s house and hanging out with your friends among all these balloons. It was a very relaxed atmosphere that had nothing to do with commercial club life, which only came later anyway.”
“You had to climb all these stairs and then you’d get a tab of acid, or a whistle at the door,” recalls Judy Weinstein, another regular who would serve as the Loft manager in the mid-Seventies. “David played on what looked like a loft bed, and on the other side of the booth there was salad and fruit and the punchbowl, which was spiked with acid. You’d dance and be amazed at the sound coming from these Klipschorn speakers that faced the wall, not the dancefloor, which was small, and stay there as long as you could. Then on the way home the next day, you’d pick up the records you’d just heard.”
Mancuso was born on October 20, 1944. He spent the first five years of his life at a Utica, New York, children’s home. At five he returned to his mother, but, a perpetual runaway, he was sent to reform school at fourteen. By sixteen, he’d dropped out and a dishwashing job enabled him to relocate to Manhattan. When he landed his Noho loft at 647 Broadway in the mid-Sixties, the rent was $175.
But even pre-gentrification hippies had to cover their expenses, so Mancuso started throwing rent parties. These grew out of acid-dropping experiments with friends, and he made tapes of music to accompany the trips, playing them on the Klipschorns, purchased secondhand from Richard Long, a fellow audio enthusiast who’d later design many of New York’s mightiest and clearest sound systems. When his guests started dancing, he remade his apartment into a dancefloor.
As he told Tim Lawrence in the clubland history Love Saves the Day, Mancuso “went on a monk trip” in 1969 in search of his true self. Out went the drugs and his precious stereo; in came shoplifting, day-long clothes-free meditation, and, ultimately, mental instability. A stint at Bellevue’s psych ward snapped him to his senses: He bought back his equipment, then dedicated himself to throwing bigger and better parties that briefly became public when he partnered with Long and Max’s Kansas City DJ Claude Purvis. Those two wanted to sell alcohol, a crime without a license, so he went solo for his invite-only 1970 Valentine’s Day party.
Now playing the records, he finally felt a psychic connection with his revelers. “Om is the source of all sound,” he explained to Lawrence. “It’s a Buddhist chant where voices gel together and vibrate — and I felt we had returned h-om-e.”
Having spent his earliest years in an orphanage, Mancuso considered home paramount — in fact, the Loft parties were modeled in part after celebrations thrown by one of the nuns at the orphanage, Sister Alicia, who brought cheer to her charges via music.
Before the Loft, there were discothèques, where music usually came secondary to status. After the Loft, there were discos, and these were initially for blacks, gays, Latinos, bohemians, and other outsiders for the primary purpose of experiencing music so powerful and liberating that these disenfranchised could taste freedoms denied them most anywhere else.
It was in the post-Stonewall Manhattan air. At the same time that Mancuso’s Loft began, a newly opened West 43rd Street club aptly named Sanctuary accommodated a burgeoning gay scene fed up with the police raids on their dives. Sanctuary’s DJ Francis Grasso was among the first to beatmatch, synchronizing records into continuous, endless sets of music, a technique that spread from club to club like a new language.
Meanwhile, Mancuso discovered his own. “I spent a lot of time in the country, listening to birds, lying next to a spring and listening to water go across the rocks,” he told Aletti in a June 16, 1975, Village Voice profile. “And suddenly one day, I realized: What perfect music. Like with the sunrise and sunset, how things would build up into midday. There were times when it would be intense and times when it would be very soft and at sunset, it would get quiet and then the crickets would come in. I took this sense of rhythm, this sense of feeling…I just applied it through these artificial means, which were amplifiers and records.”
Mancuso wasn’t the only DJ at disco’s dawn to do this: The bucolic setting of Fire Island inspired a similar nature-driven arc that built multiple peaks and then downshifted into prettier r&b that became known as morning music. That bell curve defined the steady energy flow at white gay clubs like the Tenth Floor, Flamingo, and ultimately the Saint, where DJs avoided interrupting their patrons’ carefully calibrated highs.
Smooth spinning like that wasn’t Mancuso’s way. He didn’t beatmatch. Instead, he presented each record from the first note to the last, because he believed in preserving the integrity of what the musicians had created. Cutting something short, even a suite of fifteen minutes or more, was a violation. He wanted purity. When he realized that his mixer, which he’d helped design, slightly colored the sound, he got rid of that, too, and simply flipped an amp switch between turntables.
Free from the restrictions that came with beatmatching, Mancuso could and would play anything — world music, jazz, rock, soul, funk, Latin, reggae, soundtracks, classical, electronic music, and even more left-field selections, like Yma Sumac’s vintage exotica or the Beatles’ musique concrète collage “Revolution 9” — from midnight until dawn and sometimes noon.
Mancuso ran the Loft to spread joy, not turn a profit. Club investors put restrictions on their DJs to ensure their cash cow wouldn’t be pushed into a demographically undesirable pasture. Without them, he was free to play whatever he wanted. “He found a way to connect these different genres, and saw that they could speak to one another,” Aletti says. In doing so, he fostered an environment in which dissimilar elements of his crowd could do the same. That was the whole point.
Dance music scholars try to pinpoint the first disco record, and they often point to Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa,” a 1972 Afrobeat cut Mancuso discovered on the B side of a rare imported single in a West Indian shop in Brooklyn. It stretched saxophone across a James Brown groove that was both laid-back and expansively insistent. Mancuso’s crowd went wild for it; DJs scrambled to snap it up. One was WBLS’s Frankie Crocker; the demand he and the club jocks created was so fierce that at least 23 acts covered the track; nine versions charted simultaneously. Dibango’s original, which Atlantic Records licensed, reached the pop Top 40 in 1973, and its impact lingered: In 1982 Michael Jackson quoted the “Makossa” chant (“mama-koo mama-sa maku ma-ku-sa”) at the peak of Thriller‘s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something.” In 2007 Rihanna did the same on “Don’t Stop the Music.”
Yet there were so many other Loft classics that shaped disco’s course — Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” MFSB’s “Love Is the Message,” the Main Ingredient’s “Happiness Is Just Around the Bend” — that to single any one out is not just simplification, but also distortion. It’s more accurate to say that the sum of what Mancuso played, all those styles and moods, begat disco.
And disco only represented an element of Mancuso’s repertoire. People danced to records at the Loft that were in no conventional sense club cuts, because he created the proper context: His crowd — perhaps the most sexually, racially, and economically integrated congregation in clubland — was as diverse as his music. The Loft drew early followers like Larry Levan — who would echo Mancuso’s eclecticism as DJ at Paradise Garage (and was rumored to have been Mancuso’s lover) — and house music pioneer Frankie Knuckles. Other Loft luminaries and future stars included Keith Haring, Madonna, David Morales, and David Byrne.
Neighborhood complaints and the collapse of a nearby hotel drove Mancuso out of his original space. The Loft relocated to Soho at 99 Prince Street in 1975 — after a lengthy trial in which Mancuso proved himself legally entitled to throw parties at which neither liquor nor food was sold (he never distributed the former, and always gave the latter away). That ruling secured the subsequent after-hours clubs that fostered the city’s most transgressive dance culture. The Anvil, Crisco Disco, AM/PM, Save the Robots, and Sound Factory wouldn’t have existed without it.
At Prince Street, Mancuso, Aletti, and DJ Steve D’Acquisto launched the New York Record Pool, the first of its kind. It allowed DJs to bypass labels and stores. The newly invented twelve-inch single caught fire through the pool, which quickly became the spot for Manhattan’s top jocks to congregate. During the day, Mancuso played the latest jams straight out of the box; if he liked a record, word would spread, even before it received its maiden Loft airing.
“I used to hang around outside, hoping I could get one of his cards with the Little Rascals on them, ’cause that’s how you got in,” remembers Tony Smith, who DJ’d at the Barefoot Boy and later Xenon and the Fun House. “In fact, I met one of my first lovers in front of 99 Prince Street. When I got in the pool, all of my idols — David Rodriguez, Richie Kaczor, Michael Cappello, Paul Casella — they were in there, and now I could talk to them. And if you were a pool member, you could go to the Loft parties. We had the same card. I felt I’d made it.” When the pool dissolved after a few years, Weinstein created her own, For the Record, and other disciples did the same.
But as Soho became fashionable, the sale of the building at 99 Prince forced Mancuso to move to East 3rd Street between B and C — long before the neighborhood was safe. Mancuso set up a shuttle from the subway but still lost over half his audience. Other relocations shrank it further until 2001, when began Mancuso hosting semi-regular parties at the Ukrainian National Home on Second Avenue. There, his gatherings rebounded, even without an actual loft. Lawrence and Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy — a Mancuso protégée who collaborated on two now-collectible David Mancuso Presents the Loft compilations — helped create London’s Lucky Cloud Loft Party, which David hosted until he retired a few years ago. Those events and others like them have continued both locally and abroad.
“He opened up my heart,” says former Loft lighting man and caterer Victor Rosado, who’ll be paying tribute to his mentor at London’s Ministry of Sound on November 27 with fellow DJs Joey Llanos, David DePino, and Jellybean Benitez, who were also David’s students. “He allowed us to absorb things he did.”