Okay Richard, starting out at the beginning - what is the beginning?
Richard Vasquez: In terms of DJing, I started in '79. At that time, I had a full-time career in the advertising business, but I really loved the music. I started DJing at an after-hours club called Berlin that was located on Broadway. I didn't start out commercial, I started out after-hours. It was a Jamaican party until around three or four o'clock [in the morning] when it transformed into - at that time it was Dance-Oriented Rock (DOR), basically stuff like the Clash or Iggy Pop. It was dance music, but it was specifically dance music that was not disco. Disco was more for the gay crowd and this was something that they - mainly the British, had come up with to make a dance scene for the straight crowd.
Really? In New York?
RV: In London and New York. Here, there were places like the Mudd Club, Harrah! and Danceteria that were very European-oriented and dominated. They had British groups come over here and perform, so when you went out to a club there was usually a performance. There was a lot of exchange. There were electronic groups like New Order, Depeche Mode, the Thompson Twins and that sort of thing. But there was an overlapping for some reason of Reggae or "ska" and DOR. You would find it in groups like the Clash or UB40. About '81 I would say, I discovered the Paradise Garage. I was brought over there and it really changed my musical taste.
How did you get involved in clubbing since you weren't a traditional member of the scene?
RV: I would offer my marketing/design skills at that time. Graphic design was a big deal because they didn't have computer generated graphic art and that was a really well-paid field. That's what I did for a living. Mark Josephson, he was the sole owner of Rockpool - which was the DOR counterpart of For the Record. He and I were good friends. I did the graphic design for the New Music Seminar (which he co-founded with Tom Silverman and Joel something, I don't remember) in the early eighties and I got most of my records from the Rockpool. He really helped me along a lot.
Gradually that developed into me being not only a DJ but a promoter as well. I had parties in the early eighties at pretty much every major club and I had a mailing list of close to ten thousand. However, I did not collect very much music of the genre we now [call house] until I started going to the Paradise Garage. Quite often I was going to Philadelphia to a place called The Catacombs where David Todd was the DJ. Through going to Catacombs, I heard about the Garage and started going there. Eventually, I became friends with Larry [Levan] and we started to have more of a musical exchange. He was also very interested in DOR and I would say, that about five or ten percent of what he would play was DOR. The other DJs of his genre were not doing that. When I first started going to the Garage, I was suffering through all of that disco, just so that I could hear the Clash on that sound system! (Laughs)
Well that's backwards!
RV: Uh huh, but I'm honest! When you hang out in a place that has a good vibe, eventually your musical tastes start to change.
That's something else everyone talks about, Larry's ability to "program" new music into your mind by playing something over and over throughout the nite till you got it. It really worked. So, now you are friends with Larry and getting more involved in the scene, were you still working a day job?
RV: I actually had my own business but I quit that in '83 and was DJing and doing promotion full-time. I opened a club in New Orleans and I brought down Garage personalities to help me get it started. The actual closing weekend of the Garage, I flew down a plane-load of personalities to do a party there on Saturday, and then we all flew back Sunday for the rest of the closing.
Who were some of these personalities?
RV: I didn't have any of the major ones but these were people that were mainly part of Pat Field's group, House of Field- drag queens like Shelton who was known as Princess Diandra... he did Diana Ross impersonations and other things or Connie Girl. It went over well but at the time, I was a little bit nervous about the politics in New Orleans. After several parties there and feeling things out, the black community there was not responding to what we were doing and I really didn't feel that we could get the Paradise Garage vibe without the black community's support.
And you know, that's part of the problem here in Miami Beach too. The Black community here is either into hip hop or gospel and that's why we don't really have a good black house club here.
You learned to accept this music at one point, how do you think we can influence a new generation of listeners the same way?
RV: I think it's more the cultural environment. Brooklyn, Newark and Harlem are places of incredible cultural richness and intensity. You don't have that here. In New Orleans, they have the jazz thing but they were stuck in jazz from back then and were not really paying attention to where it was really going to. Here, from what I understand, ten or maybe fifteen years ago, if you were black, you had to have a work card in order to come to Miami beach - you weren't even allowed on the beach. So, the African-Americans here are not interested in the music that we like.
How long were you in New Orleans?
RV: I did that for about a year until Gregory Meyers - who was a friend of Larry's, a light man at the Garage and a good friend of David Mancuso's, told me that David was having real difficulties with The Loft. I had never been in the new Loft space [on East 3rd St] and when I went over there, it was really in bad shape. David wanted to take a sabbatical and we were able to work something out. My agreement with him was just to do it for one year but after that, The Choice was so successful and his attorney was handling things well for him so he said, "OK, another year" - which was fine with me. I gave up on New Orleans for this opportunity.
Were your house parties happening at the same time as The Choice?
RV: Not really, the Garage closed in '87 and I did about five monthly parties in my NY townhouse. The last party that I did, one of the roof floor beams gave way and the rubble fell down on the people below. The rubble happened to fall on a bunch of drag queens and Michael Alig [infamous club kid now in jail for murder] describes it as "legendary" in an interview he did with Anthony Haden-Guest for his book THE LAST PARTY. It was news all over town - "Richard's town house caved in! The party tore the roof down!" (Laughs).
Thus the expression was born!
RV: Yes! So David thought it would be a good idea for me to go in [to The Loft]. When I went in the club, there was no electricity. It had been turned off by Con Edison due to a bad, bad payment history and they were never going to turn it on again. There were gigantic holes in the roof, the floor was all in splinters and the sound system… only the speakers were left. The Choice was [supposed to be] a temporary incarnation to give David some rest because he had been doing those parties for years. It was immediately successful - opening night was packed, and that's because of the success of those parties I had at my house.
Who played opening night and how did you put together The Choice team?
RV: At my house parties, Gregory Meyers and myself would play and we didn't have any guest DJs at that time but when I opened the Choice, both Gregory and I were too involved in getting the club open - the complications of it, so we chose David Morales to do the opening. It was at that time that David was discovered by Frank Roccio of The World and within a couple of weeks, Frank had stolen David away from us. Gregory had played at the Ozone Layer [in Brooklyn] with David and they were very good friends. We had gone out there a lot and I loved the way David played, so that was good for me. Gregory also recommended that Joey Llanos would be very good as our security person at the club and since David Mancuso and Joey knew each other and were on good terms - that helped things along too.
Sadly, Gregory was starting to come down with HIV and I needed someone else to help me so I worked things out with Joey that we would alternate on Saturday's and have guest DJs on Friday. A few months later, Larry Levan came along and he wanted to play when I got tired on Saturday night. I was really honored that he wanted to do that. It became a regular thing and I would get tired earlier and earlier so that I could hear Larry play on my sound system. Then Larry started servicing the sound system on a regular basis and that became necessary because once we got Frankie [Knuckles] in there on Friday's. All the bass speakers were blowing and we would have to have Larry come fix it immediately, so Joey could play on Saturday with a nice sound system. Larry was extremely generous at that time and he said "Why don't you give me a Thursday." We did and that's when the Japanese people started pouring in because Larry had really blown up there.
Did you have any idea what you were doing or was it all just a good time?
RV: For me it was all fun and I lost a lot of money. I put a lot of money into an incredible sound system and I also put in about $75, 000 in sprinklers - which were absolutely necessary at that time. And even with that, we still got closed down. I didn't have any idea what I was doing I was just trying to keep the party going from the Paradise Garage. The Garage became something that I did every Saturday - all my friends were Garage people and I wanted to keep that going. Then Sound Factory opened about six months after The Choice opened and they took away a lot of the gay crowd and The Choice became more straight. We still had a gay element, but it became more straight. I liked it better that way.
I was coming down from college to be at The Choice - I loved to hear Basil play there. It was so dark, I just remember how dark it was.
RV: It had to be because that place was so ugly! We didn't want to put money into décor, we just threw up some balloons, covered up all the ugliness and put the money into the system.
You mentioned Sound Factory as a little bit of competition but wasn't The World or Save the Robots more competition right around the corner?
RV: The World was not competition because they were before-hours and we were after-hours. They really helped us along because a lot people would leave there and come to us. Before I would play on Saturday, I would always go over to The World and feel the vibe there, then make it a continuation because a lot of them came from there or Save the Robots. It was like the Golden Triangle - [partiers] would go between these three clubs. Eventually, the owner of Save the Robots [now Guernica] and I became great friends, and he would spend as much time at The Choice as he did at his own club.
That was my next question, if there was any camaraderie between you all?
RV: It was great! There was no feeling of competition among those three clubs at all. The feeling of competition was with the Sound Factory and I think more on their part than on ours. They were so big, they needed to get as many people as they possibly could.
When did you lose the club?
RV: I lost the club in 1990. Then Joey opened a club with the security guy from Sound Factory called Renegayde. It was extremely difficult to get The Choice crowd back at that point because by then, Shelter had opened. They had a very good handle on that crowd. Renegade was Joey's club and it was a small place in Tribeca but we could never really get it off the ground because of Shelter.
At what point did you drop out of the scene altogether?
RV: In '93. It was for several reasons. I was on my way out with a bunch of friends one Saturday night and one of my 'kids' let in some people who came in with guns and robbed us of everything we had. I also got hit on the head really seriously. Then a year later as I was coming from the dentist, I was again held up at my front door. My house was on the Bowery and I had lived there for seventeen or eighteen years. After The Choice closed on Sunday, the party would come over to my townhouse and last until Monday. I always had my house completely open - I never had anything stolen and there were never any incidents or fights in the thirteen years but at that time, everything had started changing.
I had met this personality - I'm not going to mention their name, they had been a porn star and were now looking to be a house artist and she (Ooops I said she!) had a bodyguard who was in the hip hop element. Techno and raves started taking over and house was dwindling, so I started to take more of an interest in hip hop. She had a bunch of people around her as bodyguards, and that was my big mistake because I'm sure it was that element who came…
… and bumped you over the head…
RV: TWICE! Second time I got hit on the head too. You know three strikes you're out! God was trying to tell me something. So I did, I got out. I didn't like the music, it was too noisy and techno and fast. It just seemed like we were all falling apart, even the Shelter. When I went there in 93, I didn't get the same feeling. I came to Miami in '96 and I did two years of nothing but meditation, exercise and reading. After two years, I felt very renewed and ready to do something again. It was [club] Level, who wanted to do a Studio 54 party and they found out that I had been around during that time, had the music and I knew how to play that. They asked me to do that party and it was a gigantic success. I've done it ever since then.
How would you describe your style: do you play for the dancers, to educate or do you play for yourself and hope everyone else just catches on?
RV: I play to please. I'm a crowd-pleaser but I like to try and give them a little bit of what they may not know. I don't try to force it on them at all. I think that I have good sensitivity in watching people's body language and how they interact with each other to know what's the right vibe to do at a particular time and I have an incredible amount of versatility. I don't think anybody here in Miami Beach has the versatility that I have. They tell me that some of the music I'm playing now is techno house and I really didn't set out to play that but…
…in pleasing the crowd! (Both laugh) You also have some pretty special friendships, why don't you talk about some of them and start with Melvin Moore [Subliminal].
RV: He currently lives in my townhouse and I met him at the Garage closing weekend. He came to my first party at The Choice. We became real good musical friends and he came to live with me when I opened The Choice. I was afraid of going to the club by myself when it was closed and we had an alarm that would go off a lot. He knew martial arts and he helped me a lot because I couldn't have gone to that location in the middle of the night to see why the alarm went off if I didn't have Melvin.
The Lower East Side and Alphabet City were really very different then and many people just don't get that when they walk down Ave A today.
RV: They don't know what it was like back then. I had a lot of guts to be able to do that at the time because that was not a neighborhood that I had visited prior to doing something in that space. I do have a profound faith that if you do things that are good and right, there's a very good chance that you will be protected. Now I'm sure there are exceptions to that.
Yeah! You got konked a couple of times…
RV: Well, then I wasn't doing things that were right. I should have gotten out instead of persisting. It was definitely time to step out of it for a while and I needed to be konked on the head a couple of times before I realized it. Melvin also played at The Choice several times and then he did his own party, which was Tar Babies. He had Danny Tenaglia and a lot of famous DJs play there. He still helps me get music from New York as well.
Then there's Joey Llanos… you two have also been close for years, talk a little about that relationship.
RV: Well, that comes from working together and having a person that is honest and very serious. He has very high integrity. Of course, he's tremendously talented and I guess our musical tastes at that time, overlapped pretty well. His crowd would come out for me and mine for him. I was still tied into the Danceteria, Area and Tunnel crowd… you know, like Michael Alig, Rudolph and all those people. He was very primary in the Garage crowd [coming] and that whole scene.
What do you think made those scenes so different? The Michael Alig and Rudolph scenes were so wild and on the edge…
RV: It's very complicated. I couldn't say very simply well, their party was white and our party was black. That was a lot of it, but their party was geared more towards people with money and our party was more street. Our core was not VIP - they were very fine people but they were not VIPs. Their people were not used to paying whereas the Garage crowd, most of them came in expecting to pay. Their party revolved around the sale of alcohol and ours revolved around whatever people brought with them. Some people would bring flasks. I remember Patricia Field was selling lots of these belts that had a flask. You couldn't bring a metal flask but they had this vinyl belt and they would have their alcohol in there. I think there are all kinds of things people can do to change their consciousness but the one that messes it up the most is alcohol.
So back to Miami and your residencies and what else is going on?
RV: I have a residency at Kiss which is a steakhouse. They were originally going to be a steakhouse that had strippers. Originally patterned after several places like that in China. Even though they had the ok to do that on Lincoln Road, they decided not to, and instead now the dancers are clothed. They are very erotic and sexy and some of them can dance really well. I play for the dancers and there are several pedestals where they can dance all over the dining room. There's a really good sound system in there and it's the kind of situation that I like because it's very social. I'm exposed to everybody there and it's very easy for them to talk to me and me talk to them. I have a lot of fun doing that. I've also played at most of the clubs here… Opium Garden, the Living Room.
What are those experiences like? Is it something you would like to do more of?
RV: I would like to do more of that but with specifically the Opium Garden, everybody that works there - mainly the people that book the DJs, wanted me to play on a regular basis so badly, and I did. Then an opportunity came on Christmas eve because none of their other DJs were here and one of the owners (who's French) said to the bookers, "How in the world could you book a DJ like that? It's not hip to have such an old DJ!" This guy wears dark suits with white shoes and he's talking about what's hip. So no matter what the others did, I could not play there again because the owner didn't like it and he knows that I kicked ass. They all do.
That's just some ridiculous ageism rearing its ugly head in the DJ world.
RV: Uh huh. I don't know of any other nightclub DJ that is as old as I am.
Do you want to go on the record?
RV: Yeah! I'll be 60 in July. I've been spinning for twenty-three years but I found DJs that started spinning as early as '71 or '72.
Well that's certainly the story with all those genuine pioneers like Francis Grasso, Mancuso, Nicky Siano or and all those guys. And speaking of all these DJs, were you involved with any of them back in the day?
RV: No and I didn't meet David until I did The Choice. I used to spend most of my time dancing on Fire Island. I went to Fire Island every summer from '68. It was only during the summertime when things slacked off in the advertising business a little bit that I could do that. All during the seventies I was working every waking hour doing advertising.
What do you think makes a good party?
RV: First of all the sound system and there aren't that many good ones around. There are getting to be more and more. [The system at The Choice] was kind of a restoration of what David Mancuso had designed for that space with additional ideas that were implemented by Gregory Meyers and his friend, Al Firestein. He is a recording engineer who was really good at what he did - but he was very expensive. We tried several other guys until Larry came along and started servicing everything. We spent a lot of money for that system for those days. I don't think there was anybody else who spent that kind of money except the Paradise Garage. That was money that I had saved from the advertising business.
Getting back to what makes a good party…
RV: I can only talk about here because that's all I know for the past five years. The next thing after [the system], is a very good promoter. Most of the promoters are into it for making a quick buck and that's all they know how to do. Some of them know how to do it long-term and build a good party that you can depend on, except that the owners don't understand it. The next thing is how much money is behind it. You need money to pay good staff and to do your marketing. Marketing is really important and we have several good marketing people here. The guy at Level, Maxwell is very good. Then of course if you have a good system, you'll get a good DJ automatically. I would put promoters before DJs, though. In NY, a lot of the owners are promoters as well. Here the owners don't really know anything about promotion. They have to hire them.
What's next? Will you produce music?
RV: Well this year, for the first time, I have a booking agent. When I met her, I was very reluctant to do anything except find me a residency here. That was all I really wanted. She hooked me up with her fiancé, who is
Mixmaster Padovano from Italy. He has a label called VOICE OF THE UNDERGROUND and while he was here last visit, he helped me shop for all the computer software stuff that I need to start mixing and making records. My first release is with them, it's a remix of "Cuba" by the Gibson Brothers. Every time I play that record here in Miami Beach, there is not another record - as far as a classic, that sets people on fire like that one. The record that he produced has redone vocals by Soul Express and I believe it will be one of the big hits of the summer.
Hint, hint… wink, wink! Must be nice! (Both laugh) Dare we say you live a charmed life? What keeps you so grounded?
RV: I just think I'm in the right place at the right time and in NY in 93, 94 - I wasn't. You have to really listen to what the universe says. When I came down here, I became a member of New Birth Baptist Church which has one of the most dynamic pastors in all of South Florida - it's a large black Church. When I first came to that Church, he was preaching about Abraham and how God told him that he had to move and of course we all know the story about Abraham and Lot. They wouldn't move from that place to the place they were supposed to go and finally, when they did listen to God's voice, the way He blessed them is just incredible.
God spoke to me and said that "if you stay here in Florida, I will bless you above and beyond anything that you ever expected." I came here thinking my life was over - that I had all the excitement, all of the fun and all the friends and everything. Then I came here, and for two years I had a very simple almost monastic existence. Little by little, God started blessing me. It's been amazing! I'm very surprised and I feel very grateful for anything that comes my way because I really didn't expect it at this stage of my life.
So when you were having all that fun, not knowing what you were doing and now twenty-three years later, you are making your first record…
RV: It's a pretty amazing story, right?
Yes, it is. What do you think about how the scene has grown and flexed a bit to give you the opportunity to come back around?
RV: You can't go wrong doing what you love to do. If you can possibly do that - stay single and don't have any kids, you can do what you want to do. Craig Kallman who is now co-president of ATLANTIC RECORDS, I knew him when he was fifteen. We became DJ buddies and after he got out of Brown University, he was very torn about whether to go into the music industry or be a lawyer. He could have been anything he is brilliant - and he is a really intelligent guy with all the right connections. He decided that he was going to do what he loved to do and look at him now? He's still young and has lots and lots to do.
Do you think we will ever get dance music to have as high a profile as rap music?
RV: No I don't think that we will because of the way this universe is constructed - you can't have everything be special. You can't have all special people because then there will be no real special people. I believe that our music is exceptionally high in quality and ideas and that's not anything that ever really takes roots in the masses. Hip hop is not what it was, it's so mass commercial pop that you don't even have the quality stuff like when they were just artists. I wouldn't want to see that happen to house. I'd like to see everybody get paid but I wouldn't want to see our artists go commercial.
Is there anything else you want to add? One thing we haven't talked about so much is the sex and drugs aspect of this scene to you.
RV: You won't get a lot of that sexuality stuff from me because all of my life I haven't been a sexually oriented person. I guess I relate to it more on the level of aesthetics. I like to watch beautiful people dancing but I don't have much interest in swapping body juices. Being in the music business you are surrounded by a lot of sexual people and I'm almost like a priest in the scene! They used to tell me there was all kinds of sex going on at The Choice and I never saw it.
You couldn't see anything in the Choice it was so damn black!
RV: Well my friends all saw it. Barry would always tell me what went on when we came home on Sunday and he was very good at describing it. That was good enough for me.
So what would you say is the most important thing you've learned about surviving in this business and how to be successful?
RV: The most important thing I've learned in the last twenty years is forgiveness. If you want to be happy, you have to walk thru life with an attitude of forgiveness. Especially in what we're doing. People will disappoint you around the clock but you just got to realize - it's hard to do, you just have to walk through life with an attitude of forgiveness and that way you can remain happy. I think I am a really happy person and I think that works for me.
Was there anyone you really looked up to as DJ or anyone you really just want to go out and hear?
RV: I've tried many times - ever since Twilo, to hear Danny Tenaglia play. Every time I go there's always a hassle at the door and I never get a chance to hear him. I liked to hear David and Frankie. I've heard his gospel CD - MOTIVATIONS and his roots are in the Pentecostal church background and we used to fellowship with him. I love it and listen to it quite often on Sunday mornings, which is a nice time to listen to it. Righteousness is not found in any particular institution. If you go to the Church you'll find all kinds of dishonesty and unrighteousness and if you go to the club, you'll find it also. Percentage wise, I don't think there's that much difference and I think the important thing is to be as righteous as we can wherever we are. Maybe the club scene is just a little more honest.
Well, it's our pleasure to speak with you and thanks for taking time to share your history with us!
RV: You're welcome.
RICHARD VASQUEZ ON GIVING US A CHOICE
From his journey through house history as a respected graphic designer, DJ, club owner and host with the most, to his current life as a Miami real estate agent and first-time producer, Richard Vasquez has always found success by following his heart. A true old-school innovator he's credited with throwing some of the wildest underground parties ever (both private and at the LES venue, The Choice) and for giving musical refuge to the industry's most revered talent, Larry Levan in his final days. With his lucky save of the original David Mancuso Loft space, he also provided deep soul dancers refuge in the post-Disco days before the opening of Club Shelter. In his sixth decade, Richard's soft-spoken nature and deep soul speak proudly of a man who's been there, done that and who has lived to tell the tale with love. Enjoy the ride and get to know the man who gave us a CHOICE after the Garage.