Legendary DJ and Club Innovator David Mancuso Dies at 72

Photo: American nightclub owner David Mancuso, owner of the Loft disco on Prince Street in SoHo, meets with the SoHo Artists’ Association to discuss their complaints, New York, New York, October 14, 1974. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)

With every passing, 2016 solidifies its place as one of the greatest times of transition in recent memory. Most recently, legendary New York City DJ and club innovator David Mancuso (October 20, 1944-November 14, 2016) died. His death marks the end of an era in many respects, reminding us that downtown New York has long ceased to be the hub of innovation and creativity.

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Mancuso pioneered the “private party” at his home at 647 Broadway at Bleecker Street. Back then, the neighborhood was filled with raw, desolate space that was once the site of a bustling industrial companies. Into the void, artists came, willing to live and work in spaces that were not zoned for residential use nor up to code. The Do-It-Yourself of ethos of the time was taking shape, as visionaries worked with what they had, and in doing so, created an entirely new world.

Mancuso took up residence in 1965, throwing about half a dozen rent parties over the next five years. On February 14, 1970, he hosted an invitation-only party called “Love Saves the Day,” which he marks as the official beginning of The Loft, by which the space would later be known.

Unlike earlier conventional clubs such as the Peppermint Lounge and Café Wha?, The Loft was an underground operation. It was not open to the public. It did not have a door policy. It did not sell food or beverages. It did not require a “Cabaret License.” It did not cater to trends. And, above all, the sound system was pristine. With Mancuso behind the turntables, The Loft became a space to break records to an exclusive group of guests, and in doing so he effectively started the record pool system, which facilitated the distribution of promotional records to well-placed DJs.

American nightclub owner David Mancuso, owner of the Loft disco on Prince Street in SoHo, meets with the SoHo Artists’ Association to discuss their complaints, New York, New York, October 14, 1974. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)

In a rare interview given earlier this year with Red Bull Music Academy, Mancuso discussed his minimal approach, relying upon the quality of the music and the soundsystem, and forgoing the technological accoutrements that other DJs use to enhance their sets.

With the heart of a purist, Mancuso revealed, “…there’s the other point where you use a mixer and you start imposing, like with pitch control.I would never, ever… to me, any time you touch the pitch control, it changes what the artist intended. When you change the pitch control of Billie Holiday singing, you’re going to change the characteristics of what you’re hearing.”

Mancuso was the first to break Manu Dibango’s “Soul MaKossa” and the Steve Miller Band’s “Macho City,” songs that would become classics of the nightclub scene, revealing his ear for sound, rhythm, and groove that cut across all genres. He played songs “from one end of the spectrum to the other,” creating a style that came to define New York nightlife. Like the crowd, the music was eclectic, but what it all shared was the relentless desire to get down on it.

The Loft opened just as the gay liberation movement went into effect, months after the Stonewall riots where LGBQT folks fought back against government corruption and abuse. It was a time when the Civil Rights Movement continued under the auspices of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, when anti-war protestors continued to fight to bring home the young men drafted to serve in Vietnam.

Mancuso recalled, “All this music that was coming from all different directions, it was all over the place. As long as you had a neutral place where people could come and just enjoy themselves, there was such incredibly good music.”

Because you can’t just fight for justice 24/7; you also need a release, a place where you can drop your guard, let go of the stresses and strains of life, and reconnect with joy, pleasure, and peace. This is what Mancuso offered with “The Loft,” a model so admired it was emulated through the 1970s and ‘80s with Paradise Garage, The Gallery, and The Saint.

In 1975, The Loft moved to 99 Prince Street in Soho, where it was met with community opposition. It lay low for a year before coming back and running through 1984. That year, he moved to Third Street between Avenues B and C, when the neighborhood was plagued by systemic government abuse resulting in drugs and crime. Though the location caused a fall out in attendance, Mancuso kept the party going, strictly underground, while taking it on the road for special events in Los Angeles and Shibuya, Japan.

In 1999, Mancuso released The Loft, a four LP box set with selections that can be heard online. It will take you back to a time and place that no longer exists. But the music doesn’t stop, and it evokes Mancuso’s soul, and the gift, which he so graciously bestowed. “People just want to have a good time,” Mancuso knew.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.