The Legacy of Larry Levan with Justin Berkmann

Mike Warburton spoke to Ministry of Sound co-founder Justin Berkmann about the legacy of Larry Levan ahead of his birthday bash in London this weekend.

Jimmy Coultas

Last updated: 17th Jul 2015

Photo: Justin Berkmann

The clubbing scene we know and love today would have been very different had it not been for a select few clubs in the USA that rewrote the rule book on after hours partying. New York's Paradise Garage was one such club.

Inspired by David Mancuso's invite-only, alcohol free parties at The Loft, Paradise Garage focused its energies on the quality of its sound system, encouraging people to dance rather than interact, which at the time was pretty much unheard of. The club's notoriously brilliant post-disco and dance music policy was left in the hands of a select few DJs, most notably Larry Levan.

This weekend would have been Larry Levan's 61st birthday, and to celebrate Ministry of Sound will be hosting a Larry Levan Birthday Bash on the 19th, welcoming a host of the Garage's resident DJs to recreate the sights and sounds of one of the greatest clubs of all time.

Ahead of that, we caught up with Justin Berkmann, co-founder of Ministry of Sound and regular Garage attendee back in the day, who will also be one of the main DJs in action on the night.

We wanted to get his personal account of why, nearly 23 years after his death, Larry Levan continues to be such an inspirational character, how both Levan and Paradise Garage changed clubbing forever, and the health of today's scene (listen to the BBC's 'Piece of Paradise' documentary below). 

This weekend you’ll be playing at Larry Levan’s birthday bash at Ministry of Sound, just how important a figure was Larry Levan? To those who’ve recently got into clubbing and house music, can you fill them in on his legacy if you will?

Larry was the resident DJ and omnipotent Monarch of the Paradise Garage in New York. His DJ sets were epic journeys, with story lines that made you cry your eyes out and scream for joy. He had courage to play music and sounds no-one else had the balls to even attempt.

Yeah right, you’re thinking? Well try a 45 minute rain storm at the peak of the night. When the bassline came out of the storm clouds, we all lost it.

Each generation and industry has its seemingly divinely inspired geniuses. Galileo, Picasso, Gaudí, Jobs and I believe Levan is worthy to be added to that list. He invented nothing particularly, but his modus operandi influenced a generation of DJs.

Take Levan out of history and only the dog knows where we’d be now. He was a pioneer in production techniques, and his sound is still valid today. If you like big basslines, a pre-requisite today, he’s your new hero.

You were in New York at basically the birth of clubbing as we know it, can you talk us through how you were struck by visiting Paradise Garage? How did it compare to what was going on previously?

Birth of clubbing clearly wasn't a moment, it was an evolution involving many talented and quite bonkers people, I witnessed the end of that birthing period just as the mantle was being passed back across the Atlantic to Europe.

The Garage was one of a dozen incredibly important clubs of the era, like Warehouse in Chicago, Studio 54 in New York, The Haçienda in Manchester, but for me the Garage was the perfect club - crowd, music, design, sound, lights, message.

My experiences previous to mid eighties NYC were raves in North London’s warehouses, so I was already tuned into the London scene, but the Yanks had it to another level, up until ’88 when we took the torch over.

Photo: Paradise Garage

How much of an influence did it have on Ministry of Sound?

Call it around 80%. Sound excellence was the key. No alcohol and a late late licence were also key factors. The other 20% were Area (monthly set designs), Legends (VIP area) and Save the Robots (interior design ethic).

But it was always about the experience from the dancer out, what did the punter want and how could we keep him/her on the floor for more than three to four hours, in fact more like eight to ten hours.

The sound system and the acoustics were central, nice bouncy dance floor to avoid fatigue and implement bone induction, the different areas with different extremes of sensory inputs.

How do you think clubbing has evolved since those early days, and what are your feelings on how it has progressed?

We’ve definitely lost the way. We didn't look at our phone back then because they were safely left at home. Music and drugs are always interlinked. Today this industrial Ketamine abuse means DJs can virtually play the same record for six hours and no-one can tell.

The crowd all looking at the DJ like some musical rendition of the Nuremberg Rallies that has nothing to do with the groove. It’s all peaks and pauses, not much different to a football crowd. Sex and fun is what we need to keep in mind, not flashing LEDs and messiah fixated DJs.

What is your favourite memory of Larry Levan? Was there a moment you thought ‘wow, this guy is something else?'

The 'wow this guy' moment was on his dance floor at Garage. The way he texturised the sound by manipulating the frequencies, adding more energy and emotion and creating his own interpretation of the record. A Shakespearian actor with records.

You rejoined MoS in 2005, what have your roles consisted of since then, and how much of the Paradise Garage and Larry Levan’s legacy stays with you in your work? 

I rejoined MoS in 2005 for a three year odyssey to South East Asia to build clubs there. That ended with the financial crisis. I then left the business all together for a brief journey and got the other part of nightclubs - the alcohol industry.

I loved that for a bit but didn't sit comfortable basically selling something we had rejected back in 1991. And my love for music, the sound system and my old family pulled me back. I have now returned to MoS to my family roots. My ethos was forged in the Garage so their influence on me and my work is always present.

What has you most excited about dance music in 2015? Which current artists and DJs do you particularly rate (listen to Justin's MoS Anniversary mix above)?

The demise of the so-called deep house movement, which in my antiquated vocabulary had little to do with deep house.

Since then, all the other genres seem to be vying to take pole position but we are presented with a wide spectrum of really cool underground music and I hope we’re becoming less divided tribally. A convergence of the underground nation like back in the summers of love would be a nice period to live through again.

Apart from the many new bloods like Enzo Siragusa and the Fuse boys and girls, that are doing some very interesting work, its also great to see some of the veterans still turning it out, but my current favourites are still the likes of acid meisters Josh Wink and Abe Duque. Love a 303 b-line I do.

You can't beat them. What is the rest of your summer looking like? Any highlights we can look forward to from yourself?

Just coming back off of two amazing gigs in Montenegro and Singapore, back for a week to do Larry’s do, then Croatia and Mongolia. August two dates at MoS, and a very special return to Sardegna after last year’s gig in Cagliari.

Any last words? 

Larry’s wish and legacy was to pass onto the next generation the “knowledge of the elders”. Like Sun Tzu’s masterpiece, the Art of DJing doesn't really change, the tools do, the format, the content, but the actual Art has more or less stayed the same from it’s inception.

Larry wanted the young DJs to understand the sound system, the process of vinyl to speaker, without that there’s no real comprehension.

The Zen of DJing is the removal of self from the act, it’s the music that speaks, not the DJ, he or she just selects which parts of the great musical body humanity has created to share.

Sharing this knowledge isn't always embraced by everyone, some are more guarded and even jealous of “their” obtained knowledge, but that’s lead us to where we are today. Larry’s legacy was that, to pass on the Tao of Music.

Thank you very much Justin. Get your Larry Levan Birthday Bash tickets here.

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