When David Mancuso died last week at the age of 72, dance music aficionados and historians were left staggered by the news. His name may not have registered for pop/rock music fans still reeling from 2016’s roll call of VIP deaths (Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Maurice White, and Natalie Cole, just for starters) but anyone versed in the mythology and facts of how dance culture (disco and House) was birthed and who the midwives were knows that Mancuso is every bit as important a name as any of those more well-known figures.
A great place to get some idea of the genius and vision of Mancuso is Josell Ramos’s 2003 documentary Maestro, which tells the story of the holy trinity of 1970s dance clubs that were the incubators for global club culture: Paradise Garage, Sanctuary, and the Loft – that last one being Mancuso’s brilliant baby. The film is flawed (it could be much more tightly edited, and it has about seven endings) but it is the most complete overview to date of the origins and trajectory of American/global dance music. It covers everything from the anti-gay NYC laws that plagued any spot where gay men gathered to dance, to the technical innovations by dance culture figures that changed the music industry and sound systems, to the toll that AIDS took on the culture. And at the center of it all is Mancuso, founder of the legendary Loft club, founder of the DJ record pool, and the brains and ears behind reshaping the club speaker into what it is today.
Mancuso founded the Loft in 1970 as an invite-only party. As it grew into a steady gathering spot, he established an entry fee of only $9.99 (if you paid with a ten, he’d insist you took the penny in change) and that included food. But if you couldn’t afford the cover that week, he’d let you write an IOU. He understood that for the base he was attracting and catering to (largely Black, Brown, LGBT, and poor), that one night a week when you could meet up with friends and shake your ass on the dancefloor might literally be what saved your life. He had strong, utopian (almost flower child) politics that he held on to throughout his life, and that shaped every project he undertook. He was an unapologetic product of the various political movements that rocked America in the 1960s: Civil Rights, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-war protests.
He knew that for a lot of people, a few hours of escapism was actually critical self-care in a world that grinds them down. And as dance culture exploded into a world of superstar DJs, exclusive guest lists, and exorbitant door fees, Mancuso lamented that the real power of possibility of the dance floor was being lost. At one point in Maestro, he notes that he could “open a club today,” but the overhead he’d have to charge in modern day New York would mean that much of the diverse crowd he’d most want to host couldn’t afford to get in. And that wasn’t an option for him. “It has to be something that is affordable,” he says into the camera. You have to mix the economic groups. That’s where you have social progress.”
Here are a couple of clips of Mancuso in action.
Top photo courtesy Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images