Pioneering DJ David Mancuso gave club culture a multi-racial, polysexual makeover

Pioneering DJ, fanatical sound purist and cornerstone of New York City’s early club culture, David Mancuso set the template for the perfect get-down with his parties at The Loft in the 1970s. Following his death this week, Joe Muggs argues that Mancuso’s way of doing things has never been bettered.

I was born in 1974, about the time David Mancuso’s vision was really starting to make waves beyond his little corner of New York. His Loft parties did, of course, change so many things, but by the time I reached my late teens and went clubbing for the first time, he was all but forgotten. We knew about Frankie Knuckles, naturally, and we knew that Larry Levan was revered by older clubbers – but anyone who predate those foundational figures seemed lost in the mists of time. In the early ‘90s, “disco” meant kitsch: flares-and-afro-wigs student nights, with only the likes of Rose Royce-sampling S’Express hinting that it meant more.

My breakthrough to understanding club culture’s “ancient history” came through discovering a Brighton club called Mufflewuffle. They not only had a sophisticated, radically eclectic sound and an ultra-diverse, well-turned-out crowd, but they were totally plugged into the world of Nuphonic, DJ Harvey and Idjut Boys. In other words, they were flying the flag for Mancuso’s ideals in the post-rave era. Disco, I learned, didn’t mean one tempo or one rhythm – it could expand to include anything from any continent and any era, so long as it contributed to the magic of the party atmosphere. It also became clear that the inclusiveness of rave  didn’t begin with a magic pill in 1988, or whatever year zero people chose to impose, but was part of a continuous living culture going back to the end of the ‘60s.

Finding out more has been an ongoing process. I read Bill Brewster and Tim Lawrence, and found out more about how Mancuso had taken hippie counterculture, given it a multi-racial, polysexual makeover and a dose of New York grit, and created the blueprint for the club underground that is still with us today. Something that has musical and technological refinement, respect for past and present, and above all a love of the process and people at its heart.

Going back in time like this never felt like a retro process, because the more I discovered, the more I realized that Mancuso’s way of doing things has never been superseded, never been bettered. That’s not to undervalue any subsequent innovations: whether it’s jungle or club, handbag or dubstep, each new movement has provided a new set of perspectives on what nightlife and musical immersion can mean. But parties modeled on the Loft have never stopped being a particular and special place to be, not because they hark back to a golden age, but because they are right in the here and now.

It’s to my shame – and now eternal regret – that I never went to any of the ongoing Loft parties when they happened in London, let alone in New York. Likewise, I feel sad never to have met or interviewed Mancuso himself. I think I imagined, because of the continued vitality of the parties, that he’d just keep on keeping on. But having met Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy and Tim Lawrence, who worked with Mancuso to make them happen, and knowing many more people who went and got involved, I have no doubt that the electric spirit of the first parties in Mancuso’s own actual loft was still present and correct. And the more I continue to learn about the legacy, the more I see it everywhere – not just in laid-back, tripped-out disco parties, but all around.

It was no surprise, just to give one example, to learn about Mala developing a close connection to Mancuso’s colleague and friend François Kevorkian: DMZ and The Loft may have been very different in context and delivery, but there were certain core principles – a welcoming attitude, a respect for the physics of sound – that meant they really were only one degree of separation removed. The spirit of Mancuso and The Loft not only remains as valid and vital as it ever was, but is woven into so much that is beloved in our culture right now. Late ‘60s, early ‘70s New York was a broken and dangerous place, but in dark times Mancuso blew up balloons, fired up his beautiful sound system, and announced that Love Saves the Day. We need that message more than ever now, and thankfully the tools that Mancuso created are all available to us right now.