John 'Jellybean' Benitez

John 'Jellybean' Benitez "DJs are so aware of what's happening. We're there every week and we have the audience right in front of us and our job depends on what we play."
The ascendance of the 'beat box' -the Roland, DMX or Linndrum computers - is an emotionally charged issue in contemporary NYC disco. Originally coming out of rap, where a simpler manual model added punch to record scratching styles, it has become the dominant mode (along with a panoply of synthesisers) in dance music making. Many older DJs, musicians and aficionados dislike its replicant unerring beat. The drum computers are perfect for modern producers thinking in multi-track terms, where vinyl - as opposed to a live performance group - is the ultimate product. For kids in New York, electro-beat music comes right off their nervous systems. Its hard-edged scrambled sounds are in perfect sync with urban street life.

The Funhouse, where Jellybean plays records every Saturday from around midnight till 8am - for an audience of between 1000 and 3000 Italian, Latin and Black kids - is the seedbed for electro bop. The dancers, possessed and gymnastic, are the perfect test audience for producers who bring their reference discs, master tapes and test pressings to check over the clubs monster sound system. On my first visit it reminded me of a meeting between hardcore punk and disco.

Jellybean overlooks the dancefloor from the gaping mouth of a clown. A teenage-looking 25-year-old, he grew up going out to clubs with his friends from the Bronx. Jellybean is the most vocal adherent of the DJ as producer (the phenomenon already in action) of the club mixers I spoke with. While he was already involved in studio mixing as early as 1979 (Mantus' 'Dance It Freestyle' and Novella Edmunds' 'Hotstuff') his work really took off after he forsook freelance spinning at Xenon and Electric Circus to build a consistent following at The Funhouse. He mixed many of the new Streetwise/Tommy Boy style releases including the seven inch version of 'Planet Rock', 'Pack Jam' by The Jonzun Crew, 'Walking On Sunshine', and Quadrant Six's 'Body Mechanic'. His connection with the production team of Arthur Baker and John Robie has been widely noted in articles on The Funhouse but his first production work was done with writer/producer team Lottie Golden and Richard Scher. They progressed from freelance song writing to producing the all- electronic 'Nunk' and 'Light Years Away' for vocal trio Warp 9 with help from Jellybean.

As I write their latest venture is for Baker's Streetwise label - 'Girls Night Out' by Ladies Choice, which will feature vocals by Golden, Catherine Russell, Tina B (of Rockers Revenge) and Ada Dire of Warp 9. The collaboration between Jellybean and the various musicians/producers who frequent The Funhouse underlines the friendly competitor status of the various independents. Their work is a new school of New York dance music springing from a direct interchange between the clubs and the producers.

SH: How do you see the history of mixing?

J: "I know that when I started buying a lot of records, Tom Moulton's name started showing up. They were already doing remixes when Joe Palmentari was on WPIX, Disco 102, back in 75 probably. That's when I was still a DJ in my bedroom, stealing my sister's turntable out of her room, using a Radio Shack mixer with no cue. I couldn't figure out how to get in in the exact spot.

"The first promo 12inch was Walter Gibbons' remix of '10 Percent'? "That was released and there was one on Sceptre at the same time -'Nice And Slow' by Jesse Green."

Weren't there some promo 12inchers before that? "The first promo 12inch I ever got was 'Mellow Blow' by Barrabas on Atlantic and Doug Riddick was supposedly the one who invented the idea of putting songs on a 12inch."

You said the first DJ to inspire you was Walter Gibbons. "There were DJs before that who inspired me. I was sort of like a DJ groupie. I used to read about them in Melting Pot magazine of N.A.D.D. (The National Association of Disco DJs). I thought I was the best DJ in the world until I heard Walter Gibbons play. Everything he was doing back then, people are doing now. He was phasing records -playing two records at the same time to give a flange effect - and doubling up records so that there would be a little repeat. He would do tremendous quick cuts on record sort of like b-boys do. He would slam it in so quick that you couldn't hear the turntable slowing down or catching up. He would do little edits on tape and people would freak out."

How would you describe your mix sound? "It depends on the record. A lot of mixers have a certain sound of record that they mix. I try different types of music. A lot of mixers only do records that work for their audience but their audience is sort of locked in whereas I have a young, predominantly straight, Latin crowd which is a little more open minded to different types of music."

How would you characterise your live sound at The Funhouse?

"Maybe a lot of Latin percussion. I know my sound is a combination of Walter's and mine and part of the hip hop culture from the street from my early days."

How do you see hip hop music as having influenced the discos? "Not discos -rock clubs. The B~ck clubs find it's putting them down. The people who go to clubs in suits don't really relate to the street at all. I find that more White people are into raps and scratching than Blacks unless they're young."

At The Funhouse do you tease them with little bits of other songs? "I do. I like finding songs that sound like other songs. This week I was playing 'I Hear Music In The Streets' (by Unlimited Touch) and I had 'The Music got Me' by Visual. The guy goes 'I hear music in the streets' and when he's going to sing 'music' I switch to Visual but just the beginning where there's no downbeat and then go back."

What the DJ brings to remixing and producing is a real sense of specific audience. "DJs are so aware of what's happening. We're there every week and we have the audience right in front of us and our job depends on what we play."

From your perspective how do you see the music changing now? "A lot of people seem to be copying the Baker/Robie sound which is going to get boring. I got to the point where I was playing and it seemed like I was in a video arcade. Certain records come out and influence a whole sound. The influential records that I'm playing now are Visual, David Joseph and Warp 9."