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Nicky Siano Talks 'Lifeless' Modern Dance Music and the Return of Libby at MOMA PS1
When it comes to dance music, Nicky Siano has seen it all.
As a DJ, he was an integral part of New York's '70s club scene -- he "played every Saturday night from 1971 to 1981" and plenty of non-Saturdays as well -- helping to pioneer the beat-matching technique that became an essential component of DJing. After taking a break from music in the '80s to "help his fellow man with AIDS and clear up some f---ed up karma from the '70s," he got back into the business of making people dance in 1996.
Tomorrow, July 4, he's helping celebrate the country's birth with a DJ set at MOMA PS1. Billboard caught up with the legendary DJ and producer to get his perspective on shifts in dance music over time and what to expect this weekend. Read excerpts from the conversation below and check out Siano's podcast.
Billboard: What ways do you feel like the dance music scene has changed since you started?
Nicky Siano: From 1970, when I first started going out, until 1976, when the club was open in its second location already -- the gallery, that is -- that was my favorite time. After '76, when Studio 54 opened, I just thought this is going in the wrong f---ing direction. All glitzy, glamor-y, "Oh we'll let you in but not you" -- it got to the point where it wasn't exclusive, it was tacky.
As 1 of the 1st producers 2 use a drum machine on a record, I have earned my right to say I AM SICK OF DRUM MACHINES, they sound DEAD.-- Nicky Siano (@NickySiano) June 25, 2015
I went on a rant on Twitter last week and I have to say that mechanical drums are killing our industry. Music is a living, breathing thing. You can't have mechanical drums and then have one person in the studio at a time to do a little part, or a DJ pushing buttons on a machine using -- not even basslines, most of the basslines are noises now. They're not even instruments. This music to me sounds dead. It's not something I want to listen to over and over. In 40 years, the music that came out from 2000 to 2015 will be the least remembered music ever. The dance music just doesn't hit me anymore. It's completely formulized excitement. The people on the dance floor know it. "They know exactly what to do to a record they (haven't) f---ing ever heard." It's tacky, it really is.
One of the things that really blew my head is in '96, I started playing music again. I mixed a record by Taana Gardner called "I'm Comin'." The record was really well received, but this was the feedback from DJs, people who were supposed to play music for a living: "I can't mix into it 'cause it's live drums and they slightly go off the beat." Well you don't know how to do your job! You've got to be able to ride a mix. That was a sad thing. Kids want to lock it in and just go and grab a cigarette. That's not how I play records.
The DJs objecting to the Taana Gardner record, were they not using vinyl?
When that came out, it was all mostly CDs. The high end on CDs sounds better. But what I realized is the low end is what makes the record funky. It's what makes the record happen. In dance music, the low end suffers greatly from vinyl to CD.
Has your approach to DJing shifted over time?
I was very into mixing in the '70s. I started beat matching. There were two people in New York City -- Richie Kazar and myself -- who started the whole beat matching thing. Everyone else was just putting down the needle and timing it. We started holding the mats and holding it on the beat and changing the beat a little bit. Richie and I thought pretty much every beat had to match. Now I think you can just play one record and the next record and nothing has to match as long as the records are fantastic. I don't do that usually, because a lot of people are not ready for it. The thing that has changed for me mostly is that sound has gotten really bad. That's why I'm giving this party New Year's Eve at the Eldorado on Coney Island, because it has a Richard Long sound system. Long is the guy who built the sound system at the Garage and at Studio 54. I never thought I'd live in a world where sound systems just got a whole bunch worse.
If you had to pick one, what would be your favorite moment of DJing be?
It has to be the night Loleatta Holloway came to the Gallery and she had not yet performed her club records at a club. The first album was out -- with "Hit And Run," "Dreamin,'" "We're Getting Stronger" -- and she got up to the mic, and I'm across the room from her. "Love In C Minor" by Cerrone was on and I see her mouth moving. So I turn up the mic, and she starts scatting into "Love In C Minor." I had the tape deck on, so I played that for years. That moment for me was magic on a stick. Mondo-beyond-o.
What can people expect at PS1 this weekend?
The return of Libby!
Tell me a little bit about Libby.
I'll tell you the story. 1976, the Bicentennial. It was a big f---ing deal. So for the 4th of July at the Gallery, we decided we were going to rewrite the Constitution according to allowing people to dance and party and do a few drugs. Then they brought me out dressed as the Statue of Liberty, turned out the lights, and I was hooked up to a dimmer, and slowly but surely the lights on the crown and the arm-piece and the torch started coming up and began to glow. And then my friend Monica who was on acid started screaming, "they're electrocuting him! Oh my god!" And then that became a yearly thing (see photo above). The next year we got a better crown; we got a better outfit. This Saturday: the return of Libby in full regalia. And you have to see this lighting crown, this is an LED lighting crown!!
If you had to give advice to an aspiring DJ, what would you tell them?
Don't just rely on playing records. Go to school and learn about music. 'Cause if you've ever a producer, I don't want to hear you putting a track in one key and the vocal in another key like all these other f---ing producer DJs. 'Cause I'll come there and I'll smack you.