Throughout the years, the clubbing industry has seen its share of superstar DJs. Some have become popular for playing the hottest trance tunes (Paul van Dyk, Tiësto), some have gained notoriety for defining a moment in time (Sasha & Digweed during Twilo's heyday) and still others have earned praise for embracing new technologies (Richie Hawtin, James Zabiela). Although clubbers often know exactly what they are going to get from said DJs, many are hungry for DJ sets full of surprise and personality. Fortunately for them, Danny Tenaglia is one DJ who has made a career out of being spontaneous and unclassifiable.
Tenaglia spent his youth collecting records and taking in DJ Larry Levan's sets at New York's Paradise Garage. Although Studio 54 was the place for the rich and famous, Paradise Garage came along and became the spot for everybody else — no matter if you were white, black, Hispanic or gay. The club wasn't just about music, but about creating a personal vibe from top to bottom, with Levan at the helm. Tenaglia would later apply his experiences at Paradise Garage to his own DJ career.
In 1985, Tenaglia left for Miami, where he honed his skills as a DJ. On his return to New York in 1990, he entered the production realm and quickly assembled an impressive collection of remixes, including Jamiroquai's “Emergency on Planet Earth”; Madonna's “Human Nature”; and his first true hit, The Daou's “Surrender Yourself.” Tenaglia's debut artist album, Hard & Soul (Tribal America), followed in 1995.
The period from 1996 to 2000 was a really great time for dance music. America fell in love with it and couldn't get enough of mix CDs and dance clubs — and Tenaglia had the pick of the litter when it came to New York City clubs. From 1996 to 1998, he held residencies at Roxy, Twilo and The Tunnel. Tenaglia used this influential perch to showcase both the hottest tunes from Europe and his newest productions and remixes. Although his profile was already huge as a DJ and a remixer, it wasn't until he released his second artist album, Tourism (Twisted America, 1998), that Tenaglia became regarded as dance music's hottest producer. The album's centerpiece was the massively influential “Elements.” At a time when uplifting and anthemic music was the preferred club soundtrack, “Elements” was dark, tribal and nasty.
In addition to his artist releases, in the '90s, Tenaglia was a mix-CD machine. He released numerous mix compilations, but none had the impact of his first for Global Underground, Global Underground 010: Athens (1999). With its high standards for quality music and packaging, the label was instrumental in launching the careers of DJs like Sasha, John Digweed, Steve Lawler and Sander Kleinenberg. Tenaglia's GU release not only comprised the best tracks that nobody else in the world was playing but also retained the energy of his live sets. Tenaglia's international profile soared with the release of this CD, and an ensuing tour of Europe brought him godlike status.
Tenaglia continued to gain praise for his productions and remixes (most notable, Green Velvet's “Flash” and the Grammy-nominated rework of Depeche Mode's “I Feel Loved”) and released several more mix compilations — including his Athens follow-up for GU, Global Underground 017: London (2000) — but his legacy belongs to the Be Yourself parties he threw at New York's Vinyl (later renamed Arc). Essentially, Arc was just a space for music. It wasn't at all glamorous and never featured overpriced cocktails or snooty people. In fact, the venue didn't even have a liquor license, instead offering Vitamin Water and fruit juices. Aside from a no-glow-sticks restriction, the club's only policy was that you bring yourself and be yourself. And Tenaglia — decked out in a baseball cap, a T-shirt and blue jeans — was the regular guy who tore it up every weekend.
Arc was about surprise. And in that small space, Tenaglia played anything from techno and house to pop and soul. He played what he wanted, when he wanted. This wasn't about ego, but rather offering the best and most eclectic DJ set possible in a friendly environment. Tenaglia was famous for getting on the mic and talking about the track or whatever else he thought was important at the time. Those personal touches united Tenaglia with his fans while also paying homage to the Paradise Garage. When Arc closed on April 24, 2004 (Tenaglia's last track was his mix of Kings of Tomorrow's “Finally”), nobody even gave a thought to moving the party anywhere else. Tenaglia was never interested in owning his own club, nor was any venue even close to embodying the Be Yourself vibe.
When summing up what makes Tenaglia so special, it's hard to come up with an appropriate answer. He certainly isn't the biggest name out there, and he doesn't have a defined sound. But certain intangibles make Tenaglia who he is: a DJ who gets respect from every other DJ and connects with a crowd like no other. He has the best records and the amazing ability to drop them at just the right time.