Among other things, DJs are storytellers.
Few took that principle as far as Larry Levan, who died 25 years ago this week, on November 8, 1992, of endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart lining he’d had since childhood, made worse by his longstanding cocaine and heroin habits. He was 38.
Levan is one of DJ culture’s titans, due primarily to his decade-long stint (1977 to 1987) at New York’s legendary Paradise Garage. Spinning all-night sets, Levan’s eccentricity was notorious: Famously, he’d stop the music mid-set just so he could clean the club’s disco ball. His mixing was devil-may-care—the tracks didn’t have to match perfectly as long as his transitions generated enough drama. And rather than simply lining up his records train-track style, Levan set out to match his songs lyrically as well as musically.
“Out of all the records you have, maybe five or six of them make sense together,” he told Collusion in 1983. “There is actually a message in the dance, the way you feel, the muscles you use, but only certain records have that. Say I was playing songs about music—'I Love Music’ by the O'Jays, ‘Music’ by Al Hudson, and the next record is [Class Action’s Levan-remixed] ‘Weekend.’ That's about getting laid, a whole other thing. If I was dancing and truly into the words and the feeling and it came on it might be a good record but it makes no sense because it doesn't have anything to do with the others.”
After the Garage closed, Levan’s behavior, already erratic, began to spin out. “He would deejay intermittently at clubs in New York, London, and Tokyo, sometimes so stoned he’d forget to put records on,” wrote Frank Owen in Vibe. “One night at [New York club] Trax, Levan was found asleep in the DJ booth in a pool of his own vomit.”
Frequently, Levan sold his records for cash. In 1991, he flew to London to appear at Ministry of Sound. “There's no question that when he arrived in the airport with no records, it was a rather interesting to figure out what he was going to play,” Ministry founder Justin Berkmann said in 2011. They borrowed a few crates of vinyl from a handful of Londoners, and when Levan spun, Berkmann said, “it was like someone turned the screen from black and white to color.”
In the late summer of 1992, the DJ went to Japan for a two-month tour where, Owen wrote, “Levan was treated like a star, a living legend. Fans waited for hours outside clubs to catch a glimpse or an autograph.”
Levan was known for playing to his own mood: If he was depressed, he’d play sad songs all night. So knowing that he would be dead two months later certainly colors how I hear his Live at Gold (Tokyo)—the Harmony Tour (September 1992). (Other mixes from this tour have surfaced, but this one, which appeared last year via San Francisco Disco Preservation Society’s trove of digitized '90s sets, is the longest—95 minutes—and the best sounding.)
The first hour is an up: Strutting numbers like Chaka Khan’s “I Know You, I Love You” and Billie’s “Nobody’s Business” dominate, and around 25:05 Levan executes one of his signature what-just-happened? transitions, from Don Ray’s near-frantic “Got to Have Loving” into “Let’s Get It Together” by El Coco, which feels about half as fast. Yet the join is nearly invisible—and right on beat.
But that’s only a warm-up for the shift that occurs at 1:01:30, when Levan fades Chaka’s boisterous percussion under the rising strings of Sylvester’s “I Need You.” Again, a slower song replaces a faster one, but the way Sylvester’s falsetto floats in the ether, powerful on its own, somehow feels personal—and mournful. After a couple minutes we find out why: Levan had slowed the record down, and suddenly speeds it up. This feels like a statement, not a mistake.
Sylvester fades out, and right as he disappears, the funky blues guitar that introduces Teddy Pendergrass’s “The More I Get, the More I Want” appears—a perfect match, and timed to jolt. Despite its forward motion, this is a deeply rueful song (just listen to the vocal), particularly placed after “I Need You.” Pendergrass fades out, and after a second’s silence, we get an a cappella refrain from the Emotions’ “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love” (widely sampled, most famously by Primal Scream in “Loaded”) as Levan brings Pendergrass back in, this time fronting Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ version of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.”
Regrets, he’s had a few—meaning the singer and the DJ both. Levan plays the entire thing and lets it fade out entirely. When he brings in Martha Wash’s “Carry On,” it isn’t quite convincing—too automatic, too pat. But the catharsis Levan engineered right before it is more than enough, and makes us know just what we’re missing with him gone.
Each Thursday, Michaelangelo Matos will spotlight a different DJ set—often but not always new, sometimes tied to a local show but not necessarily—and discuss its place in the overall sphere of dance music and pop.