Posts Tagged ‘DJ Stretch Armstrong’

The intoxicating promise of New York City’s night-life flyers

The new book “No Sleep: NYC Nightlife Flyers 1988-1999,” edited by Adrian Bartos (otherwise known as the d.j. Stretch Armstrong) and the archivist Evan Auerbach, and featuring the collections of dozens of artists, designers, and clubgoers, commemorates a time when Manhattan was one of the world’s great party cities. Like any account of how much fun New York used to be, it is also a shadow history of real estate. It is intoxicating to flip through these pages and take in the radiant diversity of names and musical scenes that each laid claim to the same city. But there’s also a stark sense of distance between then and now. Few of the venues listed in these flyers still exist, and it’s astonishing to recall how much of the city once seemed beneath the interest of speculators: the spontaneous, open-air parties that sprung up on the abandoned High Line, now one of the city’s prime tourist attractions; the once-deserted corners of the meatpacking district or Lower East Side, where boutique hotels and parking lots now stand. The Palladium, one of downtown’s largest clubs, is now an N.Y.U. dorm. Moby tells of one party with no address, just a cryptic directive to “be on the L train at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night.” He waited on the platform, and when the train arrived it had been taken over by club kids.

What “No Sleep” depicts is a much looser time, after disco and before the gilded age of mega-clubs and luxury bottle service, when the only guiding ethos was that anything was worth a try. There are flyers in the shape of candy bars, detergent boxes, and dollar bills, printed in eye-catching neon or in austere black-and-white. The bulk of the collection being from the nineties, there are plenty of variations on the Nike swoosh, remixed Bart Simpsons, and faux cigarette logos. Many specimens here are notable simply because they advertise events that are hard to imagine today: the release party for Jay Z’s first album; a Martin Luther King, Jr., Day party flyer drawn by Keith Haring, advertising the d.j.s Larry Levan and Jellybean Benitez; Moby, spinning all different genres, seemingly on every other page; David Faustino—better known as Bud Bundy from “Married with Children”—sharing a stage with Doug E. Fresh and Organized Konfusion.

Even as parties grew more established, their flyers were still full of inside jokes, cryptic shout-outs, manifestos squiggled into the margins. Bartos and Auerbach resist the temptation to make any definitive claims about the era, other than that it was a blast. It’s all anecdotes, a fitting way to highlight any good night out. There was the time Russell Simmons lost his phone somewhere at the Soul Kitchen party, and the d.j. turned the music down low so that someone could call it from a payphone. The time Nell’s, a tiny, exclusive club on Fourteenth Street, turned away Cher. Mostly, “No Sleep” is a chronicle of resourcefulness. These were clubs that sprung up inside decommissioned power stations, abandoned churches, community halls. A few pages are devoted to Mecca, a famed hip-hop party at Tunnel that brought the rugged and the glamorous alike to a deserted block of westernmost Chelsea. Though it would go on to shape the sound of New York hip-hop, its beginnings were modest, relegated to Sunday nights, because rap music still seemed a novelty.

Nostalgia is often a yearning for a different set of choices, or even fewer choices altogether. There’s something romantic about the power that a well-designed flyer and word-of-mouth buzz once held, and for the acts of communion and escape that took place with minimal concern for branding or profit, since there existed few ambitions greater than just making the scene a little bigger. “No Sleep” ends in the late nineties. For some, the tank was running empty. A particularly touching testimonial comes from Kenny Kenny, a club kid turned promoter, photographer, and doorman. “We were all broken birds trying to fly,” he writes, saluting the tribe of misfits he ran with, “but many didn’t make it.” He describes what was just around the corner: Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his obsession with beautifying the city by regulating “quality-of-life” offenses.

Of course, as long as there are young people drawn to New York—not a foregone conclusion, with rents these days—there will be resourceful thrill-seekers trying to have a good time. And there are still innovative young d.j.s and promoters renting out the backrooms of Chinese banquet halls and community centers, finding new places to throw parties. Today’s night life persists in the shadow of (and in spite of) the New York that came in the decades since “No Sleep.” As the journalist Nelson George recalls, “Looking through old flyers is to walk through a ghost town buried under high-rise condos, Starbucks and CVS stores, and remarkably anonymous 21st century architecture. Buried beneath them are clubs and parties that spoke for a wilder, more reckless and innovative city that the one we live in now.”

According to Lady Miss Kier, a d.j. and partygoer who would eventually find fame as a member of Deee-Lite, it was a time when a lot of clubs felt no need to turn a profit, since many of them were fronts for money laundering. Without that pressure to constantly expand, parties were free to experiment and build their modest freak fiefdoms. The memories that remain aren’t necessarily of the music or the fashions but of a sense of intimacy. A party flyer is a promise but not a guarantee. Maybe one tumbles out of a book that hasn’t been opened in a decade, marking an epic night out that you barely remember, beyond how small yet infinite the world once seemed.

DJ Stretch Armstrong takes us back to the Building club days


*pic from the personal archive of Stretch Armstrong*

THE STANDARD: How old were you when Building opened and what was your life like at that time?

STRETCH ARMSTRONG: I was 19, 20 years old. At that time, I was going to clubs every night. If I wasn’t working in them, I was hanging out at them. I was club-rich. I could go and drink for free. Anytime a new club opened that was the place to be, it was completely normal for me to go there three, four nights of the week. For a lot of us who were not just in the scene, but kind of connected to the scene, a club just became like everyone’s living room. When Building opened, it was the place to be and I was just kind of connected to that network of people.

Was the music the primary attraction for you?

That was a big part of it. Part of my reason for being in clubs every night was to be noticed, and to be a recognized face, so that it would make my chances of getting on easier. I totally wanted to play at Building. It was a great room to play in—massive, super high ceilings, big sound system, dark space. The dark space allowed people who might be self-conscious to lose their inhibitions and dance.

What was the most memorable thing you saw there, musically?

Building was where Kid Capri really made a splash. If you were into hip hop, you might know him, but if you were just more of a downtown club person who liked hip hop, you may not have known Kid Capri. He came to Building and utterly destroyed the place on a weekly basis. And, you know, that was before the internet, but the word of mouth was so strong, and what Kid was doing in that room, it just elevated him to a whole other plateau as a celebrity.

What was so unique about his style?

The DJs that I idolized coming up, like Clark Kent, they didn’t really talk. They were just nasty with their hands and their music. Kid Capri was the first deejay I ever saw who would regularly turn the music off, just like oozing with confidence, and with this super loud voice just command the crowd to do stuff. He would have them in the palm of his hand and the music would come back on at exactly the right time, just as he was getting the crowd into a frenzy. There was this give-and-take that was incredibly dynamic and powerful. He didn’t use the mic because he was making up for any deficiency as a deejay. It took his deejaying to another level because he was always nasty on the turntable, but the added dynamics of that crowd control, that was just something that people downtown hadn’t really seen.

Do you recall the people you’d see there?

De La Soul had a party there, Black Sheep did a party, A Tribe Called Quest. It was one of those clubs where the hip hop industry—whether people from labels, managers, or the artists themselves—were commingling with the club scene, the club clientele.

My favorite invite was for a short-lived night that Jessica [Rosenblum] started on Saturdays called Jessica’s Nickel Bag Lounge. The area was really, really high up, like four stories up, and it was closed off from the main floor. You took these industrial stairs. The flyer was a green piece of paper with a little Ziploc bag, the kind that you would cop marijuana in at Washington Square Park, with a chunk of oregano in the Ziploc, like a dime bag.

What made you keep the flyers from the club?

I think at some point I realized that these were ephemeral items that were a part of a really exciting time of my life. And I was right. Because as time goes on, you realize that that era from ’88, to maybe like ’92, was a really, really special time—in clubs, in music, and everything.

Are there specific tracks you associate with that time and the club?

Oh yeah sure. For house music: Lil Louis “I Called U”, Lidell Townsell “Nu-Nu”, Crystal Waters “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)”, Underground Solution “Luv Dancin”, Frankie Knuckles feat. Robert Owens “I’ll Be Your Friend”, Jay Williams “Sweat”, Bobby Konders “The Poem”. For hip hop: Nice and Smooth “Hip-hop Junkies”, Jungle Brothers “J Beez Comin Thru”, Black Sheep “Choice Is Yours”, A Tribe Called Quest “Can I Kick It”.

What you’ve got to remember is that back then New York was still the center of the world when it came to clubs and music and particularly hip hop. I mean all these records were breaking out of New York on the weekend mix shows and in clubs like Building. Back then, people went to clubs to hear their favorite song, which they heard on the radio. You would go to a club, to hear records that were hot, but you’re also going to hear new music. And that wasn’t something that would frustrate people—that was something that people looked forward to.

How was Building different from other clubs that were around at the time?

Building was a short-lived club. People were genuinely heartbroken when it closed down. It never went through the normal lifecycle of a club where, when it opens it’s hot, and then it gets less popular, and then, sadly, it becomes a hip hop spot. Building was very pro hip hop. I mean they had a lot of different things going on, but the hip hop nights weren’t just an afterthought or a footnote to a club’s previous glory days. From the jump, they were doing hip hop nights.

Do you have any Building stories?

Actually, I do have a Building story…it’s kind of a sad story. Kid Capri and I eventually became friends, I would say this was probably like ‘93, ’94. And we were hanging out and he tells me that he wants to buy Building and reopen it as his own club. I said, “Oh that’d be so cool, a deejay opening a club.” And then later that day, I happened to be in that neighborhood and I drove by where the Building was and it had just been torn down. It was a pile of rubble.