The last party at the Paradise Garage
The view from the DJ’s booth as disco gave way to hip-hop and houseBy John Ryle • September 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 1,052 words
On a crisp winter’s night in 1984, in New York, with Mick Jagger, my then employer, and the art dealer Robert Fraser, I went—for what proved to be the last time—to the Paradise Garage, a black, gay dance place in the West Village, one of the most remarkable night clubs there’s ever been. Keith Haring, the graffito artist, then on the cusp of fame, was there too, in his white T-shirt and Buddy Holly glasses. And a Saturday-night crowd, mainly African-American, mainly male, numbering about two thousand.
The Paradise Garage was just that—a garage. A multi-storey car-park on King Street, with one level transformed for the club. It was early morning when we arrived; the place had been packed since before midnight. There were big-finned cars parked inside the ground floor entrance, left over from the day, their bumpers gleaming behind concrete pillars. In the middle of the parking area stood an airport-style metal detector. Would-be patrons of the club were obliged to pass through it. But the metal-detector seemed to be less of a security precaution than a rite of passage, a threshold leading to another world. A curved concrete ramp led up to the second level of the building. From there it was straight onto the dance floor.
At the Paradise Garage you had to dance. There was nothing else to do. No alcohol was served. There was only a juice bar—busy, noisy, but not that cruisy. Dancing was the thing. And cocaine was the drug of choice. Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s anti-coke rap number from the previous year, “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”, was high on the playlist; but many of the club-goers were neglecting the crucial parenthesis.
The last days of disco, the dawn of hip-hop
The mid-eighties were the heyday of the Garage, coinciding with the last days of disco and the dawn of hip-hop. Larry Levan, the emcee, played both kinds, end-to-end, in a style that Hilton Als, a New Yorker writer who is a deejay himself, has labelled, with fond irony, the “disco of cruelty”.
“We stood in the DJ booth and watched,” Als wrote recently.
All the queens and fag hags were dancing on the floor below him, but Larry Levan was not interested in their love. He was interested in testing the limits of his audience’s endurance. He played music that imitated the effect of the drugs his audience had taken… one short intense burst joined to another by a bass line.
Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer and Patti Labelle—the reigning divas with their mellifluous noms de danse—all of them got needle-time at the Garage. But so did the new sounds then entering the musical domain at the mixing desks of the rap masters—the scratches and yelps that were joining the fixed beat of drum machines.
In the mix at the Paradise Garage were the seeds of the later flowering of modern dance culture: house music, which Larry Levan has a claim to have invented; and its tricky-to-distinguish successors, rave, hardcore, jungle and the rest. At the same time, out on the floor at the Garage, a profusion of new, vertebra-threatening dance styles was in evidence: breakdance, robotics, electric boogie, styles that still had the bloom of youth on them.