The legendary Tony Humphries spoke to Marko Kutlesa about the importance of tempo, changes to the dancefloor, pivotal records and much more.
Last updated: 15th Sep 2017. Originally published: 5th Sep 2017
Brooklyn born Tony Humphries is doubtless one of the most pivotal American DJs still playing. He started his career in the early 80s and made a name for himself due to his long running, weekly, prime time radio slots which ran on WRKS 98.7 Kiss-FM and Hot 97. There he would employ not just mixing techniques and a world renowned selector's ears but also edits and exclusive mixes that set apart his often soul based playlists.
He name became the stuff of legend in New York and in nearby new Jersey when he scored at residency in the latter's Zanzibar club. His long sets, covering soul, disco and early house music would help to propagate the latter, recently arrived genre, although prior even to its arrival Humphries was considered to be a close peer and contemporary of Larry Levan who played at the Paradise Garage.
Though named after Levan's residency, the specific term 'garage', when used to detail a soul based dance music style, actually belongs to Humphriies and his Zanzibar residency, which directly inspired the visiting writer who coined the term.
Humphries went on to further support a New Jersey garage sound through promotion of local musicians, the founding of several record labels (including Yellorange, Tony Records and TR Records) and in his own production career which includes the often miss-accredited mix of gospel dancefloor classic Joubert Singers 'Stand On The Word' plus remixes of Indeep 'Last Night A DJ Saved My Life', Cultural Vibe 'Ma Foom Bey', Chaka Khan 'I Know You I Live You', Lil' Louis 'Nyce And Slo' and for Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson and many more.
He established a residency at the UK's Ministry Of Sound in the early 90s which helped raise his popularity in the UK. Since then he has remained a popular, cult DJ figure in the country, known for his long sets, his radio and club mixtapes collected feverishly by legions of followers and fellow DJs. He returns to the UK on 16th September to play alongside Roger Sanchez at the 20 anniversary of Yorkshire clubbing institution Hard Times in Leeds. Prior to that, Marko Kutlesa sat down with the legend to ask him about then and now.
These days, do you ever feel like you're left with less room to manoeuvre around music because the sets you play will usually have been preceded by a DJ who's already brought things up to house tempo?
Well, that's something that I try to feel out. If the person who's on before me is at a peak vibe, then I usually take it from there and then try and take it back down so I can do my normal routine. Basically, the longer sets that I have, the easier it is to get back to the control I like.
Some of my favourite mixes of yours that I've heard are from the 80s and are the ones where you play mid tempo or go from that speed into something a little faster. In situations like we've just discussed, is it still possible for you to drop down to that kind of pace so you can play like that?
Well, this is the thing. I was always trained to do three sets, so the longer time I get, the better. When I get booked we always try and request three or four hours so I can do that. It's just part of a normal set for me, to go up and down in the bpms. I could be abrupt and just start from a slower bpm, but I usually do that the second time around, after I've already played for a good couple of hours.
On the 80s mixes I mentioned, you were one of the first DJs to introduce me to tunes like 'Just Us' by Two Tons Of Fun and 'It's Hard Sometimes' by Frankie Knuckles. Great records.
A lot of dance music that's made now doesn't seem to stretch down to that almost R&B disco tempo. If you do get opportunity these days to play at that speed, are there contemporary records you can find to play?
Yeah, there are. I usually mix them up, classics and newer things. It's part of my DNA, I just have to get down there for at least 15 or 20 minutes. And that's when I feel the most comfortable. If I only get a short set, then that is usually what I'd play for my closings. Those are the types of tunes I would be playing. But, again, the longer the set, the greater variety you're going to get, in terms of tempo, in terms of everything.
Who makes tunes at that tempo that I can play today? That's a good question. There are a lot of them actually, but you've kind of caught me off guard by asking! Ha! Besides the classics, I know that Joey Negro has some, the Murk boys have some stuff like that. There's downtempo stuff out there that I do play, I just don't have it in front of me.
In record shops, for more than a decade now, you can walk in and see lots of re-edits of older records. These edits are nothing new. These kinds of records began to be produced in the disco era and you yourself employed such techniques in your radio mixes. But what is new is that they now seem to be a tool to propel a DJ career, rather than a tool to manipulate dancers and dancefloors. How do you feel about that?
Well, my opinion about that is the more the merrier. Whichever way you can grab onto the soulfulness of our predecessors, the better it is. Whether they do it from sampling or from edits, from whatever, as long as they're exposing this sort of vibe, then I have no problem with it. The more the merrier, that's really how I look at it, on a positive vibe.
For many younger people today there's an accepted starting point and place of house music and that is regarded as being Chicago in the mid 1980s. But you already had your Zanzibar residency before then, in New Jersey, so maybe you have a different perspective? At the time that these records started to arrive from Chicago, to you, how much did it feel like something new and how much did it just feel like a continuation of something that was already happening?
Well, I think it's more simultaneous than that. I used to use the Chicago records basically as bridge records. The tracks coming out of Chicago made it a lot easier to do blends with R&B records, so I was glad when they started coming and when they continued to come. When you have to play for six, seven, eight hours, they were a gift, the best thing in the world. On the radio also. Instrumental tracks could be boring on the radio so they offered a great bridge situation. Thank God for them.
For me, a lot of those tracks sounded like a simulation. I'm a big Earl Young fan. No-one can really copy his style with a drum machine, but they try to get close. Any track records that had that sort of feel to them, I was glad to get. I would then use them to bring in an original. So, for instance, I would play Virgo, which was an early Chicago record that had the kind of steady beat that Earl would do on Philly or Salsoul. From there it would be easy for me to drop into 'Love Is The Message' or anything that he'd played on. Those records in general made life a lot easier.
And when those records began to move away from a more organic Early Young type rhythm into something different, with the introduction of the Roland TB-303 acid sound, was that something you were also able to embrace?
I did, because it was a way to break up the music. For all the love songs and message songs that I was playing back then, there was also a place for fun songs, songs that would just let people enjoy themselves. A little repetition, a little recess before you get back to the serious subjects in another ten or fifteen minutes. I had no problem with that at all.
The better ones, to me, were actually the ones that started to incorporate more of a live music feel, live musicians and live elements. There's a place for everything as far as I'm concerned. We could go back to Herbie Hancock and his synthesizer sounds and, to me, some of that sounded similar, aside from the kick drum.. But there's a way to do that, there's a flow. I've always believed that.
Right now seems to be a good time for dance music from the perspective of someone over here in Europe.
You have quite a lot of DJs playing a broad range of music from soul to disco to more soulful and melodic tracks in general...
Thank God! Ha!
But this feels something like a comeback. Because for a while a lot of the European scene was obsessed with minimal, instrumental music that was kinda cold. How does music going through a period like that affect someone like yourself who is known for playing soul, vocals and lots of melody?
Well, I had to adapt. That's what professionals do, I guess. I had to adapt. It wasn't really that hard, if you're coming from playing Chicago tracks. I didn't have a problem with it, I think it's kinda fun. It was maybe a little difficult. But now, with technology, I think there's nowhere else to go but go live or go back. I think it's been bubbling for a while and it's just going to get better. The quality will get better and better.
Every generation want to claim their own period, so you have to wait for them to find themselves and then, after four or five years, they start adding live elements or meaningful melodies or voices. It's a matter of patience. Like being a parent. You just wait it out and then usually it comes up to the same quality after a while. 11.27
I've seen you before at Southport Weekender and their events and that audience who have a long held appreciation of soulful music always love you. But I also saw you at Love International festival in Croatia this year and the response you got from a much younger audience was incredible. To be honest, it kinda surprised me. In general, how do you think young audiences accept your music?
Well, if you play sounds that are familiar to them in this period, things like techy sounds, and just make them feel comfortable, then I just think you make them open to what else is coming. It's just always been my thing to try and make people feel comfortable with what's going on, then drop into my thing, maybe play a few classics and I'm really happy about it. So many kids like the classics, it's just some of them have never heard them yet. Someone's got to introduce them to it and I'm happy to take a responsibility to do that.
Do you tailor your sets differently when approaching two very different audiences like that?
Yes, I do. It's the same thing I've been saying throughout my career which is basically that you do a little bit of research. You find out about the area where the club is, find out who the residents are, who has just played, who will be playing and you just try to get closer to that audience. See if they're into disco stuff, more commercial stuff, more contemporary stuff, do a little research and usually it works out for me. A little homework, that's all.
What things do you miss from the dancefloors you were playing to in the 80s?
What do I miss? I think they're about equal. And I'm not trying to give you an easy answer by saying that. Again, the longer the set is that I play, the more it feels the same. Because that way I've gotten so many different types of music, I feel like I'm together with the crowd. If they're still with me after five or six hours then it feels the same as when I played at Zanzibar or Ministry or anything that I did back then. It's all about the control and how the vibe of the room is after a couple of hours. That's when you know where you are.
In what respects have dancefloors improved? It could be in regards to audiences, sound, the physical aspects of the clubs...
Well, the sound is close to what it was. There are some powerful club soundsystems, but for me nothing can compare to The Loft with David Mancuso, what with him being so particular. There were powerful ones from Richard Long, all the clubs that he did. So, nothing can be like back then. But, it's pretty similar now. I certainly don't find it to be a major problem.
Do you still enjoy travelling, coming over to Europe, playing in Ibiza...
Oh my goodness. Well, that's changed a little bit! Hahaha! I feel like I get paid to travel. Hahaa! It's a little difficult when you have to do seven or eight hours. I'm going to Australia soon. Anything over eight or nine hours starts to be a little tedious. But, you know what, once you're off the plane you always feel happy, you're getting ready for another good event. So, it's all about getting off the plane!
You're not the first DJ I've heard say that they DJ for free, they get paid to travel!
Ahahahah! It's true! It's true! We spend more time travelling than we do playing.
What have you got forthcoming in terms of studio work and any other plans?
I have a mix of the Running Back catalogue coming out, Gerd Janson's label. I'm working on an album Tx2 with Tony Varnado. We've been together since doing all the remixes in the 80s and 90s. I've got some things coming, they're just not finished yet, but I would say within the next month or two it should be done. I'm going to be doing another red Bull talk in Australia.
The first one was great. It shocked me. Then we did one in New York, that was about New York. But this one is going to be focussed on Zanzibar, so it'll be great to get that on the record. Then I'm looking forward to coming to do the gig with Roger. Man, that's going to be crazy.
Catch Tony Humphries at Hard Times at Church in Leeds on Saturday 16th September. Tickets are available below.