David Mancuso Remembered: 'There Would Be No Rave, No Festival, No EDM Without Him'
Tommie Sunshine pays tribute to the late Loft founder with an emotional essay and exclusive statements from Derrick Carter, Arthur Baker, Irvine Welsh and more.
Before going dancing cost hundreds of dollars, it was a ceremony, a mass of sorts, where people of color and the LGBTQ community gathered to release themselves from the memories and pain of their lives. Those on the fringes (black, latin, transgender and beyond) could congregate and dance together in a safe space, which had been previously illegal in pre-Stonewall era NYC.
While walking down 2nd Avenue in the fall of 1966, David Mancuso happened upon the Fillmore East (the same building that would later become legendary nightclub The Saint) where Dr. Timothy Leary was giving one of his “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” speeches. He met Leary that night and the rest was history. After dropping LSD in that environment, he knew he wanted to turn people on and blow people’s minds. He initiated experiments with friends where he would gather people together to drop acid. Over time he added music and lights to those adventures. In underground circles, David’s counterculture importance couldn’t possibly be understated. Many credit him with being the first to put LSD on blotter paper.
David Mancuso was raised in a Children's Home in Utica overseen by an incredibly loving and dedicated nun named Sister Alicia. She would throw birthday parties for all of the children at the home, with balloons, cake and the latest tunes from the local record shop. This was the template that David followed when he began hosting parties in his Soho loft in the late 1960s. His first official private, member-only party was Valentine's Day 1970, and informed by that fateful night with Leary, he was inspired to offer guests an opportunity to experience a unique artistic experience with lights, an ephemeral soundscape, psychedelic accouterments, and a cadre of outsiders who were each a creative force in and of themselves. They joined in a collective experience that offered everyone the revelation and salvation that they were not welcome (based on their outsider status) to receive from their local houses of worship, but which was every bit as soul-fulfilling and spiritual as any church experience could be. That night the dance floor was officially born and the music he cherished and shared became the soundtrack of nightlife. His genre-expansive sets and masterfully designed sound systems remain the gold-standard of DJs and club venues worldwide.
Having always felt like an outsider himself, David built a safe haven for those disenfranchised by the prejudices and bigotry of their time; a place where one could be themselves without fear of retribution. For the gay and queer culture, for people of color and for the working class, David's parties -- which became known as "The Loft" or "David's Loft" -- were a sanctuary for those who sought salvation and validation through a shared psycho-acoustic experience.
Many renowned artists were part of the core of David's guest list, from John Lennon and Yoko Ono to Grace Jones and Madonna, yet it was understood that there was no celebrity at The Loft, and that you were welcome if you were invited or came as a guest of an invitee as long as you brought positive energy and were open to whatever experiences the night might bring. It is said that legendary DJs Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, both still in high school at the time, ran into their juvenile parole officer Robert Williams at The Loft. Williams would later go on to create both The Warehouse and the Music Box in Chicago. As resident of The Warehouse, Knuckles honed his DJ skills to become legendary as the Godfather of House Music, while Levan went on to become the most legendary DJ of the 20th century.
For Mancuso, this was a journey of self-discovery as well. Having been deeply affected by his experiences with Sister Alicia at the Children's Home growing up, he offered his guests an opportunity to let go of their egos and embrace a larger, collective consciousness that valued the life energy in the music and the shared musical experience above all. Before The Loft, most people went out dancing to a club with a band and live musicians. David respected the value of genuine musical talent to such a degree that he obsessed about ways to recreate live performance's sonic and spiritual experience and sought out the highest possible fidelity in sound reproduction. Along the way, he helped to create the "art of the DJ" by introducing the first DJ mixer, which he developed with his friend Alex Rosner, and by experimenting with sonic technology in order to fine-tune the aural experience of his guests.
David spent more than 40 years of his life carrying the message and energy of The Loft forward from Soho to the East Village, with thousands of dedicated revelers, many of whom have gone on to illustrious careers in the music industry, being inspired by his selfless approach to spreading "the medicine in the music."
His parties were responsible for the introduction and development of musical styles that reign pop circles today - house, afro-carribean, jazz, soul, techno and gospel music all have serious roots at The Loft. Were it not for his daring approach to presenting music as medicine for so many of us that were seeking healing, our culture would not have dance clubs nor DJs in today's context at all.
I went to my first party at The Loft in 2009. A friend of mine named Jon Groce brought me and without him I would be telling a much different story. There was one moment frozen in my memory of David playing Eddie Grant’s ‘Living On The Frontline’ which is no easy track to dance to. The floor cleared and I looked to my wife to make sure she wouldn’t leave the dance floor. We both went into a trance dancing to that track around a spacious dance floor (which almost never happened while the party was in full force) and towards the end I made eye contact with David, who was smiling ear to ear and gave me a nod of approval for staying the course while so many others fell off.
The best part of those seven years was having the opportunity to share a dance floor with people in their seventies alongside children; all of whom were dancing and sharing joy. I’ve been on many dance floors, but none as diverse and emotionally charged as David’s. I count myself a very lucky man to have witnessed such beauty in motion.
David was a man who nurtured virtually every person he encountered in his lifetime. One who always chose integrity over potential profit, who refused to commercialize his venture beyond a point at which the integrity of the party would be sacrificed to the money Gods. On one of his many acid trips, David realized that this entire journey was bigger than him, and he encouraged everyone he met to sacrifice their ego for the greater good -- what we all experienced on the dance floor of The Loft.
What made it that much more attainable for all of us, the outsiders who found our home on his dance floor, was that he refused to ever let it be about him. It is now our responsibility to carry his legacy forward. Those of us who were lucky enough to know David understand that all he wanted in his life was for the party to go on.
Just think about it, dance music DJs, underground club culture and the LGBTQ community worldwide owe an eternal debt to his important contributions. Not only was he one of the key progenitors of what would become the art of DJing and DJ culture, but he provided the blueprint for dance clubs as we know it. There would be no rave, no festival, no EDM without David Mancuso.
In this life, I’ve always recognized and accepted that we will bury everyone that we love until they bury us. It’s a sad and sobering reality we all must face. When I heard the news that David Mancuso had died, I was heartbroken but not sad or surprised. For those of us that who were lucky to know him, it was always understood that this day could and would come at any moment. He wasn’t the healthiest and had many demons and struggles. However, he was content and uncompromising. He lived his life fully and on his own terms. He packed more in his 72 years than most all people, and he experienced and accomplished far more than he ever imagined or intended. Those close to him note he'd learned all he needed to learn and had taught all he needed to teach. It was time for David to share his teachings with another realm now.
It's always difficult to say goodbye to someone you love - someone that touched your heart and influenced your life immeasurably. However, we can continue to celebrate David's rich life and lasting legacy through his first love -- the music -- and at the house that he built -- The Loft, which continues to this day. See you in paradise, my friend. Be sure to save a space for me on the dance floor right next to Bowie, Prince, Romanthony, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Ron Hardy, Loleatta Holloway and Sylvester.
Love Saves the Day <3
I reached out to many people I felt were important for their own unique reasons to say a few words about David. What I received back was extraordinary and I deemed it best left uncut for all to read. Enjoy.
Listen to Tommie Sunshine's "This Is: David Mancuso" Spotify playlist:
Nicky Siano (owner/resident of The Gallery, Studio 54 resident):
“David influenced me more then any other music maker. He didn't play records, he created atmosphere. It was on his dance floor in 1970, when I was 15, that I decided I had to be a DJ. I learned so much from him over our 47-year friendship, his ideas regarding sound and giving a party steered the business at its inception, and they still rule my concepts. I've always considered myself the Mother of dance music, David was the father.”
Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting):
“Many dance artists are described as the 'godfather' of disco or dance or even acid house. David Mancuso was the godfather of rave. His parties, under the Loft umbrella in New York City, were instrumental in establishing the DIY ethos that pervaded the very best of every subsequent dance music genre. They instilled the idea that the dance party, at its highest expression, was, in an increasingly monolithic commercial world, an essentially political act and its pleasures were best enjoyed illicitly and underground. Mancuso understood that great music both needed -and deserved- a great scene. He was a cultural giant and we owe him loads.”
Arthur Baker (producer for New Order & Afrika Bambaataa):
"This AM waking up to the news of maestro David Mancuso’s passing at around 5 am immediately threw me right back to another early morning, this one navigating the streets of NYC, following Judy Weinstein and Bobby Shaw (I think) from the Paradise Garage to our final destination; The Loft. I remember entering and being directed through cascading balloons straight to the DJ area. Wasn't really a booth, more like a captains quarters on a handmade sail boat, and David was that captain, a calm before the storm. We exchanged first greetings and I think he was playing “Rock Creek Park” maybe-sounding like it never had before. I hadn't brought any music to give him as most of my tracks of the time were too aggressive for The Loft, which was fine for me, I went there to get away from it all. David will be greatly missed as will the times, the civility and the music he represented.”
Dimitri from Paris (Grammy nominated DJ/producer):
“What really strikes me in David Mancuso's life's work is that he was more of a philosopher than a DJ. One that was using records, music, rather than words to get his vision through.
There was always a sense of purpose to what he was doing. He dedicated his life to making the concept of The Loft, a place where people of various life paths, could safely get together, congregating around the music he would orchestrate. It was not solely about entertaining people and sending them home happy. It was also about changing the way they'd feel about themselves, and those around them. It was about, sending love, healing through music. The highest sound fidelity he was striving for was providing a warm cocoon for his people.
The pause he would leave between each piece of music, would leave time for people to reflect, on themselves, on the others around them. I believe he succeeded in his mission. People can let their guard down with music, whereas they'll more likely stay impervious to words. We have a lot to learn from this. He used to say, and think, that “Love Saves The Day”, I think this motto is more than ever relevant, in the rougher everyday, times we're going through.”
Frankie Bones (Storm Rave founder, creator of PLUR):
“Mancuso's approach of invite only and members only to The Loft was pretty much instrumental, like the music itself, when I first threw raves in New York City. 'Hey, invite all your friends over and listen to loud weird music all night long.' David was the master of doing just that.”
Bill Brewster (djhistory.com, co-author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life):
“David Mancuso was the first. Without his input into how a sound system should work or exquisite taste in dance music that influenced a whole generation of New Yorkers, disco and therefore dance music would not sound the same as it does today. Without him, there would have been dance music, but it would have undoubtedly sounded less rich and more impoverished than it does today.”
Danny Rampling (DJ/producer, Shoom founder)
“David Mancuso a perfectionist of sound and great taste in music. Grateful to have danced to David in London at the Loft parties on a couple of occasions. No mixing -- just an individual approach playing records from start to finish with outstanding flow. A risk taker and a hero to so many DJs. The original New York loft party pioneer who has given the world and nightlife so much through his creative vision and passion for the party. A master of the DJ craft. Thank you for the music. RIP”
Greg Wilson (music journalist, Haçienda resident)
“Not a DJ, but the musical host -- an enigmatic selector of esoteric grooves, who, via his Leary connections, links psychedelia and disco. You can't overemphasize his legacy -- he was there at the dawn of club culture as we've come to know it. The fact that the great and the good of New York's DJ community of the 70s and 80s cite The Loft as a crucial influence says it all -- he sent out the ripples that would later become waves. I wrote a piece about The Loft and highlighted those connections between psychedelia and disco. I spoke to David to check out some facts, and it meant a great deal to me for the piece to receive his personal endorsement when it was published on The Loft's website. This connection provided a missing link between two countercultural areas previously regarded by many as polar opposites. Through David's legacy, people learnt, and are still learning, that there was a lot more to disco than had previously met the eye.”
Derrick Carter (DJ/producer, Classic Recordings owner):
“I only met him twice. Once Wade Hampton was part of a party being thrown at his space and we went in and had a very good time. I think I played for a little while and was really careful about the sound system. He was super courteous and even sat and spoke with me for a while. The second time he was sitting out on the sidewalk somewhere and he remembered me and we chatted for half-an-hour about life and dreams.”
Oscar G (DJ/producer, Murk founder):
“A pioneer in so many ways. I was lucky to hear him play Funky Green Dogs "Reach For Me" at an incarnation of The Loft. One of the most memorable nights of my life.”
Wade Randolph Hampton (Hardkiss Music):
“To be quite honest, I damn near had PTSD from working on California parties during New Music Seminar at the Limelight in the years before I met Dave Mancuso. Walking into The Loft in 1993 to throw our first party there was like going to group therapy for all that chaotic time spent working in a bad Batman movie. Dave allowed us to do what we do without the inherent pitfalls of the big megaclub system. It was the caliber of authentic impresario education that I’d always expected to get from New York City. And so, Dave Mancuso will remain the architect and the rest of us will always just be the students. And I’m eternally grateful for this arrangement.
The Loft is the genesis of Rabbit in the Moon and Hardkiss Music. We all met that day and danced at The Loft until sunrise. David Christophere and Steve McClure brought hand stamped test pressings of the original Out of Body Experience EP to my party and our lives pretty much changed forever. I did five nights straight that year and got to know Mancuso well enough to he likely would always shoot me straight. So when he told me it was a great year, but nothing in this room has ever sounded like that Hardkiss night. Well, I can’t even imagine how that made me feel about the record we were about to sign to our label. Everything was certainly in it’s right place, for sure.
Keoki and I going to The Loft after Robots was always the best. There were times when Dave and Scott Hardkiss reminded me a lot of each other. Right down to the way they loved to play records long as fuck; the beginning, middle and end better be good because I’m playing the whole damn thing. Do you know how few DJs can get away with that? Both of them had this incredible way of layering in the drama. Leveling, over and over. Creating false ceilings so you thought you were there, but then there was really more room somewhere else in those stunningly simply cabinets. For a room that simple to be able to present records with that kind of drama and impact... without all the pomp and circumstance. Now you’re boiling this down to the root elements. Yes, his sound being a huge part of that but nobody could top the authenticity of his crowd. Nobody. And that was a palpable reverence for what he had already accomplished long before most of us kids arrived. It verified that everything I had learned at the Starck Club and actually came from a very real school of thought about how to throw a real party. Dave’s mantra stitched neatly into Starck’s DNA, in part from our own Texan Mancuso type -- Mr. Kerry Jaggers, who was working in New York in the late 70s and early 80s before returning as the first DJ at Starck. Still reeling from those early years myself and trying to make sense of how Dallas came to be, this was a really cool epiphany to see how much of it actually was Mr. Mancuso’s vision. And for once, this was not about Studio 54.”
Nita Aviance (The Carry Nation):
“Experiencing the Loft in the early stages of my life as a DJ, when I was really learning what the craft was all about, is something I will cherish forever. Love and respect for the music and each other is the ultimate message you walk away with, and David made a place for everyone on that dance floor no matter what age, race, gender or sexual orientation; we were all one under the disco ball. The catharsis of the dance was so powerful and satisfying that upon leaving I often wondered if I ever needed to dance again... knowing full well I could never ever stop. He will be truly missed.”
Cosmo Baker (DJ/activist):
“The thing about David is that I knew him before I knew him, all through the records that he championed. So many songs that I love and that are engrained as the soundtrack to my life, he was responsible in bringing them to light for me. And as a DJ, I've always tried to honor his philosophy in letting the strength and purity of the music be what I lead with. I'll miss you David. I hope they're playing War's "City Country City" on the most amazing sound system for you when you get there.”
Craig Roseberry (artist manager, KID Recordings):
“To me, David was more than just a seminal, influential and elusive figure in the development of DJing and underground club culture, he was family - a true friend and mentor. I’m incredibly fortunate to have known and spent real time with him. He was a real character, to say the least. He was difficult, stubborn, uncompromising, extremely private and somewhat fragile. He had an unbelievably fascinating, yet difficult, life but remained humble. He could be incredibly warm, especially if you connected with him. He shared so many wonderful stories with me about NYC, the gay underground scene, as well as, the beat movement. He was right at the epicenter of so many revolutionary movements that emerged throughout the late 50’s and 80s, it’s astonishing. He was truly one of the last of a dying breed – an old New York revolutionary and outsider who would become one of the founding fathers of a movement that continues to reverberate, expand and reinvent itself today.”
Jon Martin (member of The Loft family):
“Rest In Power my brother, mentor and friend. You left an indelible mark and made the world a better place, with kindness and humility the likes of which most of us can only aspire to.
To all my Loft brothers and sisters, know that I am here to help however I can. I love you all and you're each in our prayers as we process this incredible loss. Thank you David Mancuso.”
“I met him in Brooklyn in a discotheque where they didn't want to let me in because I was too young. It was in the mid-70s, maybe ’73, and I looked like a little kid. I had no ID so a big to-do erupted and this guy Dave (Mancuso) came out and talked to the guys at the door to let me in. He was very kind and was interested in my Italian roots and we danced and I got very drunk. Probably the one of three times I can remember where I got wacky wacky drunk... then he invited me to a party on Broadway.”
Vito Fun (DJ/producer):
“Although I was too young to ever go the The Loft, I spent many hours in my friend's apartment with two of The Loft's remaining speakers and vinyl. On Friday nights, Loft veterans would gather, smoke weed and take turns flipping records on the platter. Our friend Alex Funk hand-built a tube amp to power the speakers and the fidelity was unreal. You could hear every non-quantized drum and every rough vocal with a clarity that is scarce to find in the best modern day sound systems and focus-group dance hits. The Loft was truly shaping the blueprint for modern dance music. The face of angst has always been punk rock, but for me it has always been house music. House music is how people dealt with their stress, they took their problems to the dance floor. Listening to the music of The Loft was a glimpse into problems only my parents understood from a city I've lived in my whole life. Loft people were always happy when I was there, a sponge soaking up their dance floor history as they tried to describe the euphoria they got from a handful of quaaludes.”