So much goes into making a club night special — everything has to be perfect: the venue, the sound, the crowd, the mood, the people and (most important) the DJ. Throughout the years, only a few clubs managed to attain legendary status for not only what went on inside but also their social and cultural effect. Perhaps the single most important U.S. club in the history of dance music — and certainly in New York City's history — is the famed Paradise Garage. This club provided more inspiration for clubbers and DJs and brought more people together from varying social and racial backgrounds than any place else. And if a DJ has the ability to carry on a club's legacy long after its doors shut, then DJ Larry Levan's name will live on for years to come.
Levan's story begins in New York City, where, as a teenager, he experienced the earliest incarnations of disco music at David Mancuso's famed Loft club. In 1973, DJ Nicky Siano hired Levan and his friend Frankie Knuckles (who, shortly thereafter, moved to Chicago and helped jump-start the house movement) to work at his new club, The Gallery. By the summer of that year, it became the hottest underground club in the city.
Between 1972 and 1975, Levan held regular DJ gigs at both Continental Baths and Soho Place before hooking up with club owner Michael Brody at his new venture, Reade Street. Inside the club infamous for copious amounts of sex and drugs, Levan began building a solid fan base with his mood-changing DJ sets. However, due to overcrowding and safety issues, Brody was forced to close the club after only a year in business. But before Reade Street closed, Levan agreed on a deal with Brody that would make him the resident DJ of Brody's next club: Paradise Garage.
When Paradise Garage (literally housed in an abandoned 20,000-square-foot garage) opened in February 1978, it was originally imagined by Brody as a much larger version of Mancuso's Loft and more of an ongoing party than just another club. Thanks to Levan's prophetic control of the crowd and a top-rated sound system (designed by Richard Long and Al Firestein), Paradise Garage was never just another club. Musically, Levan was way ahead of his time, presenting tunes like no other DJ ever had before. He fed off the crowd and broke up the evening into segments, offering different moods at different times. Although he was known for shrewdly mixing varying styles — including disco, R&B, Latin, punk and rock — it was his “garage” style that became a signature. Fusing disco with elements such as R&B, Levan took conventional sounds to new and exciting places. The current incarnation of the garage genre now exists as an homage to Levan and the sound that he helped to originate.
Before Levan took to the decks of the Garage, the New York clubbing circuit was predominately composed of low-income black, Latin and gay men. The clubs were largely segregated, as clubbers tended to only congregate with members of their own race and orientation.
Fortunately, the Paradise Garage offered something that no other club could: It was the first megaclub to embrace the spirit of the underground while also providing an environment with enough mass appeal to bring people of all lifestyles together. A membership policy also helped to create a closely knit, familial atmosphere and ensured that serious club lovers would always be in the house. Levan became synonymous with the Garage because he was the only resident in the club's 10-year history. Although the Paradise Garage party did finally end in 1987, Levan continued to make his mark in dance music, subsequently holding residencies in clubs such as Mars, The Choice and Sound Factory.
Not bound by the DJ booth, Levan also made a name for himself in the studio through remixes for New York labels SalSoul Records and West End Records, including Taana Gardner's “Heartbeat” and Loose Joints' “Is It All Over My Face?” In addition to producing classics such as Peech Boys' “Don't Make Me Wait,” Levan was also recruited by London superclub Ministry of Sound to help create a Paradise Garage vibe, one that most say will never be replicated.
Sadly, Levan passed away in 1992 — just three months after concluding a final club tour with DJ Francois Kevorkian. However, with his death, Levan's legend continues to grow. Levan had a profound influence on the way DJs are perceived: He created the idea that a DJ was the host of the evening. People trusted his taste in music and his ability to create moods to such a degree that they kept coming back. And Paradise Garage remains the model that club owners aim for. More than just another dance club, it was a cultural icon that, amid tough times in New York, brought people together, asking only that they be themselves. Together, they forever changed the concept of the DJ and how to party.