If dance music had a first “superstar DJ,” it was Jellybean Benitez.
A South Bronx native born in 1958, Benitez had spun at Studio 54 before landing his storied mid-'80s residency at the west-side skating palace the Fun House, which held 2,500. There, Benitez spun records in a DJ booth that resided in the mouth of a 14-foot sculpture of a clown’s face. From April 1981 to June 1984, Benitez not only built his own following, but also crafted his own unique style, cementing the Fun House’s place as one of New York’s legendary clubs.
“It was crazy,” Benitez told The Fader. “You have to imagine that the place was packed with kids dancing until well after the sun came up, and they danced to everything -- I mean everything. They had to; most of them were underage, so they couldn’t go anywhere else.”
The Fun House was immortalized in the video for New Order’s “Confusion.” In his memoir, singer-guitarist Bernard Sumner recalls it as “a really wild place with a mainly Hispanic crowd, all shirts off and loads of tattoos. It had floor-to-ceiling lights shooting up, down and around the walls, and there were punch-ball machines dotted around the place with guys belting the living daylights out of them. The bouncers were enormous, like American cars stood on end.”
Often, latter-day dance-music writers try to play it cool by eliding the fact that Benitez dated Madonna during this period and produced her breakout hit, “Holiday.” But Madonna is one of the greatest pop stars ever and “Holiday” is one of the greatest records ever made, so there’ll be none of that here. Good on you, Mr. Benitez!
By the time the Fun House closed, Benitez had become the busiest practitioner of the relatively new profession of dance remixing. “His name became so ubiquitous, especially on 12-inch remixes of major-artist material, that one West Coast company stickered a record ‘NOT a Jellybean remix,’” Billboard reported in August of 1984.
Like his peers Frankie Knuckles and Afrika Bambaataa, Benitez’s taste matrix inspired a multi-disc anthology based on it. For Knuckles it’s the first two discs of The History of the House Sound of Chicago box set (as mentioned in a previous column); for Bambaataa it’s the samizdat Ultimate Breaks & Beats series. In Benitez’s case, it’s a four-volume set from 1998 titled The Perfect Beats, whose mix of electro, off-kilter funk, synth-pop, R&B, and rock includes all manner of crash-bang mid-'80s faves -- plus, as an envoi, a big clutch of classic hip-hop breaks on Volume 4.
The 66-minute sampling of Benitez on the decks at the Fun House (1984) -- judging from the selections, near the end of the club’s life -- is the very model of the man at work. Several also appear on The Perfect Beats, of course: Chaka Khan’s “My Love Is Alive,” ESG’s “Moody,” Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.” Benitez covered British prog-rockers Babe Ruth’s “The Mexican,” but here he plays the irresistible flamenco-funk original. Ollie and Jerry’s “Breakin’ ... There’s No Stoppin’ Us” still sounds fresh, joyous, nearly innocent -- not bad for a track thrown together last-minute by a couple biz lifers for a quickie exploitation soundtrack -- even as it bridges into greasy southern funk.
It’s not like being there, of course -- but it feels like it is, which is good enough.
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.