[Photo by Alex Colby]
It’s impossible to discuss the history of NYC Nightlife without considerable mention of this prolific musician, whose recordings have cemented themselves into the foundation of all dance music. As a club DJ, he has spun in basically every legendary spot the city has boasted since the 1980s, and he’s partied with luminaries ranging from his Ball family House of Xtravaganza to superstars Elton John and Debbie Harry. To this day, he remains one of the most in-demand stars of the scene, spinning such huge events as Night of 1000 Stevies and the Black Party. And hell, he put out a big Vogue record a whole year before Madonna. It’s DJ Johnny Dynell!
Thotyssey: Johnny, thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions! As I’m writing this, I’m listen to your classic 1983 single “Jam Hot,” which sounds like it influenced so many dance songs over the decades. Do you feel like you hear pieces of the song in a lot of other stuff? I know Fatboy Slim officially sampled it.
Johnny Dynell: “Jam Hot” gets sampled, remixed and covered constantly. I went on iTunes recently to buy it (It was easier for me to pay the 99 cents than to look for it), and I saw that there were like a hundred versions of it. I was shocked.
A lot of people know the 2010 remix that Tensnake did, but my absolute favorite is a cover version that this great Hip Hop group from Australia called Koolism did. I like it better than mine. It’s so funky.
[Performing “Jam Hot” at Danceteria in 1983. Photo by Chris Savas]
You’ve had such a prolific run as a recording artist and club DJ, going back decades. Had you always suspected you’d have a lifelong career in music?
Hell no. I came to New York to go to art school in the late ‘70s. At the time, downtown was a very creative scene. Art, music, fashion, film–everything was connected, and anything was possible. I started playing in No Wave art rock bands, even though I had no musical training whatsoever. That led to DJ’ing and recording. But music was never my original goal.
Where’s your hometown?
I’m from a very small town on the Canadian border.
What were your earliest musical influences?
Growing up there was always music playing in our house. My mother especially loved R&B like James Brown, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin. There was always a radio playing.
What was it like in your early days of exploring NYC nightlife? What were you seeing?
New York was very creative and very exciting in the ‘70s and’ 80s. Originality was crucial. Today, people freely appropriate things from the past and pass them off as their own. When I go on a music site like Beatport, I find it virtually impossible to find a song that is not blatantly stealing from another song. I’m sorry, but putting a new kick drum under “September” by Earth Wind & Fire is not writing a new song! Then I get sick as it goes to number one on Beatport.
Some people defend this by saying “there’s nothing new under the sun,” but that’s bullshit. Disco was new. Punk was new. Hip Hop, Scratching, Rap, Break Dancing, Voguing… they may have had their roots in something older, but they were all brand new.
In 1979, I saw Grandmaster Flash in this church basement and I lost my mind. It was totally new! That’s what I’ll always remember about my early days in New York. How fresh and original everything was. Today for example, it’s all about deep house, acid house, etc., and I love it. I loved it 20 years ago.
How did you join the House of Xtravaganza, one of nightlife’s largest and greatest ball house families?
I was first exposed to the Ball House scene at the Paradise Garage and hanging out at The Piers, but I officially became an Xtravaganza in the 80s through my DJ friend David DePino. Angie was my mother, and David Ebony was my father.
[Mother Angie Xtravaganza at Nell’s]
Were you a dancer as well?
I am definitely NOT a voguer. In fact, David Ian and Danni Xtravaganza used to make me vogue at TRAX, and everyone would just roll on the floor laughing. Some of my Old School Ganza sisters will STILL try and get me to vogue at parties like Battle Hymn. They just want a good laugh, the bitches.
The Madonna Effect dictates that gays raised from the early ‘90s to today know “Vogue” primarily from her single, even though you and Xtravaganza basically invented the dance and the scene–your “Elements of Vogue” was the original anthem!
In the mid ‘80s, I worked with Nick Egan & Malcolm McLaren a bit. I loved the way Malcolm would throw different cultures together, and come up with crazy new hybrids like mixing hip hop with square dancing or opera. After his success with the Duck Rock and Fans albums, he was in LA looking for something new. I called him up and told him to get back to New York and check out the Ball House scene. It was so him!
At the time, I was trying to help Jennie Livingston get money for her film Paris Is Burning, so I stupidly sent Malcolm some of Jennie’s video footage. Of course, Malcolm immediately sampled it and “Deep In Vogue” was the result. [My wife] Chi Chi wrote the famous lines in the song: Sometimes on a legendary night. Like the closing of the Garage. When the crowd is calling down the spirits. Listen, and you will hear all the houses that walked there before.”
Around that time, the House Of Field was born. (I actually have duel citizenship. Mother Angie and Father Pat Field allowed me to be a “Field-Xtravaganza” because the two houses were more like sisters than competitors).
At the very first downtown crossover ball, the now legendary House of Field Ball, Chi Chi and I met London designer Kitty Boots. We talked about doing a Voguing record. Two weeks later David Ian, David DePino, Chi Chi and I were in London recording “Elements Of Vogue”. I wrote the music on the plane and gave Ian a rhyming dictionary to write some lines. He wrote like ten pages, and I just took the best as verses. I will always love the lyrics to “Elements Of Vogue,” they’re so funny. David Ian was an absolute genius.
“Elements Of Vogue” came out a year before Madonna’s “Vogue”. It’s not as commercial or has sold as well as hers obviously, has but I’ll always love it.
I noticed that you are credited in the cast of Liquid Sky, one of my all time favorite crazy cult “scene” films from the early ‘80s!
Yeah. I was cut out of most of it (thank God!). Originally it was, like, twice as long. It was ridiculous. They cut out, like, an hour. It’s so stupid.
How did your own DJing career begin?
I started DJing at the Mudd Club. I wasn’t trying to be a DJ; like a lot of things at the time, it was just random and crazy. Justin Strauss and I both started at The Mudd around the same time. Then we went on to DJ at AREA. I played Wednesdays and Fridays and Justin played Thursdays and Saturdays. It’s nice to see that he’s doing so well now, and it’s fun to run into each other. We have such a long history.
[DJing at AREA, photo by Patrick McMullan]
The dancefloors in the era you came up in were mixed: gay and straight and everybody in-between. And you worked the legendary floors, as you’ve said: AM/PM, the Pyramid, the Roxy! It was all about the music and everybody coming together. It’s so hard for queer kids today to understand the appeal of that, or how it worked. What would you say it was that made that scene great?
Things are so compartmentalized now. Frat boys are in the East Village, hipsters are in Brooklyn, twinks are in Hell’s Kitchen, and they all have their own soundtrack. Back then people mixed more, and the music was more varied. When I look back at the songs that we played at, say, AREA or Danceteria, the variety is astounding. Everything from Talking Heads to First Choice. We played reggae, and songs by Fela. It was much more creative.
Were you consistently recording and writing your own music while you were DJing?
Yes. I’ve always had fun putting out quirky records. I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some incredibly talented people. Arthur Baker, Malcolm McLaren, Eric Kupper, Jocelyn Brown, Peter Rauhofer, David Morales and Danny Tenaglia, to name just a few.
For the past few years, I’ve been working with Pink Martini from Portland. I co-wrote “Una Notte A Napoli” with them. Carlos Santana recently did a cover of it, which is gorgeous. I also did a total ‘70s Disco remix of ABBA’s “Fernando.” Pink Martini recorded this (in the original Swedish) with the Von Trapp great grand children. And last November, Pink Martini released their album Je Dis Oui. I co-wrote a song on that called “Segundo.” It’s a classic Cuban son montuno.
On March 31st, I have a song called “The World of Tomorrow” coming out on the TRAX album I ❤ NY. This album was complied by Tyler Stone, and has songs by New York’s hottest House DJs. It benefits Youth Communications, a Chicago based non-profit group that helps teens.
Spinning vinyl is a skill most newer DJs have never even attempted. Music technology is obviously amazing today, but nothing can replicate that raw vinyl sound. Do you abide by the Old School, that “Real DJs” do vinyl and everybody else is just hitting “Play?”
There is this really cool thing that happens sometimes on Monday nights at Bowery Electric in the East Village called Mobile Mondays. DJ legends like Nicky Siano, Tony Smith, Joey Carvello or Danny Krivitt spin vinyl 7-inch 45s. It’s truly amazing to watch these artists work songs that are, like, two minutes long! They asked me to do it, and I tried and tried and tried to put it off, explaining that I haven’t touched a record needle in 20 years and don’t even own vinyl anymore… but finally I said I’d do it.
I borrowed a few 12-Inch records from Will (Carry Nation) Automagic, and played an hour set. There were all these people crowded around to watch me. But watch me what? I put the needle on the record, then mixed it into another record. That was it.
That’s when I realized how limiting vinyl is for me now. I’m not Grandmaster Flash, I don’t scratch or put on shows. I just play records. I couldn’t loop or do any of the things that are possible with digital music. Vinyl sounds a lot better, and I really admire the DJs that play it, but for me it’s too limiting.
Some kids today add “DJ” to their name on Facebook, hit play on their laptop and call themselves DJs. They are not DJs. Susan Morabito and I talked about this one night at Scissor Sundays. We agreed, you don’t have to spin vinyl to be a “Real DJ”, you can play with a laptop. It’s what you do with the technology that makes you a DJ.
How many actual vinyl records do you still have? And what’s your favorite?
I have about 30 records now. Records that are autographed, rare test pressing, or records that have sentimental value… but that’s it. I would say that “You Know How To Love Me” by Phyllis Hymen is my favorite record, but that might be because that’s what I’m listening to right now.
You mentioned your wife Chi Chi Valenti, another NYC club legend. How’s she doing?
This time of year she is always swamped with her “Night Of 1000 Stevies” event at Irving Plaza. This year will be the 27th. She is also a board member of Howl Arts, which keeps her busy with the Howl Happening Gallery on East First Street and The Actors Fund East Village wing. She works too much.
[Chi Chi at Night Of 1000 Stevies. Photo by Jeremy Rocklin]
You and Chi Chi are well-known for being co-founders of Jackie 60, the legendary early 90’s party–and, later, club (that would eventually become Mother). Anybody who lived through 90′s nightlife have tales to tell about Jackie 60. How would you describe what made the scene so special to the uninitiated?
Jackie 60 was a community. It was never “Johnny & Chi Chi present…” It was always “Jackie presents,” because, who is Jackie? “We’re all Jackie,” we would answer.
I think Jackie 60 was special because she was the culmination of a Downtown art/club scene that was quickly coming to an end. From our disco beginnings through punk and new wave, through house music, club kids, drag performance etc., the experiences were all churning around in our brains. Our combined history at The Pyramid, Boy Bar, AREA, Danceteria, The Mine Shaft, Esquelita… all came together every week in the different themes. There was “Phantom Of The Paradise Garage” and “Valley Of The Queens: Secrets Of The Pyramid.” There would be tributes to “The Trucks” or “Lee’s Mardi Gras.”
What came out in the 500 themes we did over ten years was really just a reflection of our lives.
That’s why on the last Tuesday of 1999, even though Jackie was still packed every week, we closed it. At first I didn’t get it, but Chi Chi was very adamant about not bringing Jackie into the 21st century. She saw what the Meat Market was going to become, and wanted no part of it. She wisely knew that Jackie belonged with her legendary 20th century nightclub sisters that had gone on.
What is your favorite memory from that period?
That’s a tough one. Every week, there were supermodel catfights and scandalous couplings, as well as all the incredible shows on the stage. Performers took gigs at Jackie 60 very seriously, and we pushed them. Michael T in blackface was a rapping “Snoop Truthy Truth” in “Fiddler In Da Hood,” Sherry Vine was Jonbenet Ramsey in “Daddy’s Little Prostitute.”
We cast Amanda Lepore as Sid Vicious in our production of Sid & Nancy.” Amanda was amazing in drag as a man and gave an Oscar worthy performance. Amanda Lepore is a stunning beauty, but hiring her to just sit on a couch with a bottle of vodka is just a waste of her talents.
[Debbie Harry, Rob Roth and Paul Alexander in “Revenge Of The Geisha” at Jackie 60. Photo by Paul Brissman. Still from the upcoming movie “The Last Jackie.”]
The big clubs started going down in the 90’s due to skyrocketing rents, impossible ordinances, drugs and crime and changing nightlife trends. It’s more difficult than ever to keep them going today, as we’ve seen from the recent closing of XL and the upcoming end of Space Ibiza. Can we–should we–save the big clubs?
I’m a firm believer in letting the marketplace decide. If a city is tuned into the Zeitgeist, as New York still is (for better or for worse), she will produce the clubs that she needs. As Michael Musto said, “Each generation gets the clubs that they deserve.”
I remember going to the opening of the Palladium; it was gigantic. Chi Chi just turned to me and said, “It’s all over.” And it was.
When I play in some smaller American cities, I notice that a lot of times there are just one or two clubs, and they have usually been there for, like, 40 years doing the same thing week after week. New York, on the other hand, is cutthroat: she is always changing, evolving, killing off the weak, thinning the herd. The small clubs of the 70s turned into the big clubs of the 80s, which turned into the small bottle bars of the 90s.
Getting it right is a crap shoot. We were involved with Crobar in the 2000s. It was such a beautiful club with an amazing sound system, and basically was perfect… but it couldn’t make it. Even though there were, like, 4,000 people every Friday and Saturday night, it just wasn’t enough. That’s crazy.
What are some of your favorite floors to play in today?
I play for a lot of special events like the Elton John Oscar party in Hollywood, and the AMFAR party at the Cannes Film Festival. They are really fun, and they raise a lot of money for AIDS. But playing in clubs is really in my blood. That’s where I’m most at home.
As far as a favorite dance floor, I’d have to say playing at The Ice Palace on Fire Island is always special. I really get off on the club’s history, and being a link in her chain. I think of all the legendary DJs that have played there, and of all the dancers that have passed on. Young gay boys today take it all for granted. They have no idea what it has taken to get to this place. I tell them to Google Michael Fesco, or read Love Saves The Day, by Tim Lawrence.
[Elton John Oscar Party. Hollywood, 2015.]
How do you think nightlifers have changed today, compared to how they were in the 90s?
I know it’s a cliche and I know I sound like some Grumpy Granddad, but a lot of kids today don’t seem to be living in the here and now.
Last year, I was playing at this club. We had just opened the doors, and there were about ten guys standing at the bar, all of them on their iPhones of course. I’m sure they were all on Grindr or Scruff, and probably sexting the guy standing right next to them. It’s like, if Logan Hardcore was drowning in the Ice Palace pool after one of her afternoon shows, these kids would be Instagramming it with the hashtag #help! or #loganisdrowning! or #Someonecall911! Not one of them would think about reaching down and actually pulling poor Logan out of the water!
Besides having mad skills, you’ve clearly lasted as long as you have because you’re adaptable. And there’s a variety of gigs that you’re involved in:
1) FEMME at Drexler’s in the East Village. You were just there on March 12th, and maybe you’ll return next month?
I [also] spun there for the opening [two months ago] with Matty Glitterati. It was amazing. The looks were off the hook! The boys were girls, the girls were boys… I gave up trying to figure out what was what and that is EXACTLY what needs to be done today.
2) Daniel Nardicio’s Mr. Nude Orleans “pageant” and party in New Orleans on March 19th! New Orleans is a mad fun gay city. And naked people are always fun!
New Orleans is such an amazing city. It’s like the last stop on the L train. Chi Chi and I have an 1880s Double Shotgun house there that we are fixing up. In fact, Daniel Nardicio and Jake Shears have places around the corner from us. It’s nice.
Daniel has been doing cabaret shows there for a while now. He’s brought Alan Cumming, John Waters, Dina Martina, Lady Bunny, and in April is bringing Diamanda Galas to the Joy Theater. Daniel and I doing “Mr. Nude Orleans” is just a logical step.
In events like Mr. Nude Orleans, do nudity and general sexiness ever prove too distracting when you’re Djing?
No, I’m really just about the music. However, I do love the sense of freedom and joy that these parties have. There’s something so primal and tribal about them. The Black Party and Daniel Nardicio’s Underwear Parties both have this fantastic feel of old New York. I think one big reason is that there are no cameras allowed, and people have to check their phones. There are no selfies, no Snapchats, no texting or sexting. People have to actually interact. It’s great!
[Daniel Nardicio’s UNDERWEAR PARTY at The Ice Palace, Fire Island. 2016. Photo by Koitz]
3) Speaking of which: THE BLACK PARTY on April 1st, location TBA! That one, of course, is infamous for being the source for Anything Goes. Have you ever DJ’ed that one before?
I think I played in the Lounge a few years ago but no, the Black Party is not a regular gig for me. I was really, REALLY honored to be asked. The Black Party is so legendary; I’m very excited about it.
Chi Chi is the major creative/planning force behind this event, as you’ve mentioned.
“Stevies” is a loooong running party/show that’s evolved considerably from just a place where everyone dressed like Stevie Nicks. Can you even describe what it is today?
“Night of 1000 Stevies” has gotten so big, we do it with Live Nation now. People travel from all over the world to come to it. It has sold out Irving Plaza for the past four years, but somehow Chi Chi makes sure it still maintains its underground style and sense of humor.
And no, Stevie has never been. She loves the night and has supported it, but she is always on tour somewhere when we do it. However, she did say that one day she will come dressed “as Stevie” and no one will know who she is until she walks up on stage and sings “Edge Of Seventeen.” I just love the idea of the real Stevie Nicks dressing up as one of our 1000 Stevies. Life imitating art?
[Night of 1000 Stevies 2014, by Jeremy Rocklin]
And I’m sure there’s a lot more coming up for you… Pride is already right around the corner!
Besides Pride in New York, I might be doing Pride in New Orleans with Daniel Nardicio. I hope that works out.
Finally: You mentioned fellow DJ legend Michael T earlier. I interviewed him recently, and he seemed rather pessimistic about the future of nightlife. What are your thoughts about what lies ahead?
I’m a little more optimistic (and a lot prettier) than Michael T. The reason I’ve dropped so many names in this interview is because I’m hoping that kids will Google them. I’m hoping they read Love Saves The Day and Life & Death On The New York Dance Floor by Tim Lawrence. I’m hoping they put down their phones when Logan Hardcore is drowning in the Ice Palace pool and pull the bitch out. I’m hopeful about the future. I think the kids are alright.
[Hangin’ with the kids on Delancy Street. Photo by Sabrina Haley]