I Am What I Play

François K has been a DJ for decades--yet he remains as outside of dance music's history as inside it

The worst thing that ever happened to dance music was that it became Dance Music. The former, lower-case version is, simply, a series of sounds that evoke a kinetic bodily response. Dance Music, the bigger-than-shit version, is a monolithic, institutionalized thing used by marketers, critics, and party promoters to bludgeon us into thinking a certain way about music. It has become so compartmentalized that it has lost its vitality. Consider it this way: Your grandma listened to swing, your mom listened to disco — the music was simply a vehicle for them to dance. But now, mention Dance Music and their eyes will probably glaze over as they mutter something about crazed kids and that Reader’s Digest article they read last month.

François Kevorkian has made the longest go at relevancy of any DJ/producer ever by concerning himself with dance music and not giving a fuck about Dance Music. He’s had a massive influence on club culture in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, while appearing on few — if any — magazine covers. Most raver kiddies probably haven’t heard of him, yet their favorite artists wouldn’t sound the way they do without him. And unlike the vast majority of his colleagues — the founders of such things as house music and the continuously blended DJ set — Kevorkian is no relic. His production work is still dissected and imitated by producers all over the globe, and his Body & Soul Sunday afternoon party in Manhattan single-handedly sparked a renaissance for complex, modern disco in the mid-’90s.

With a lineage that goes back as far as Kevorkian’s — which is back to the era of New York superclubs like Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage — Dance Music categories like house, techno, and garage really don’t apply very well to his work. His productions and legendary DJ gigs — which at one time lasted for eight hours or more — overflow with euphoric hand percussion, unsampled guitar riffing, stutter-step rhythms, sweaty diva testifyin’, devotional chants, and splashes of watery effects. His selections are damn near impeccable, he being one of the rare DJs who doesn’t subscribe to the theory that a set should rest on a handful of memorable records buoyed by a sea of blah filler tracks. Mr. Kevorkian is the guy you can refer your techno-phobic friend to, the one who still whines that electronic music “all sounds the same,” “takes no musical skill,” and “lacks human feeling.”

“The question I constantly revisit,” says Kevorkian, “is ‘what are the boundaries of dance music?’ Where does it stop? Do you want to get only the narrowcasted version, or the full Technicolor wide-screen surround version? I think most everything that has a beat is dance music, so I shop around for whatever I can find, whether it’s ethnic records from Uzbekistan or the latest craze in Berlin, or whatever’s big down in Kingston, Jamaica.”

That “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to song selection is the hallmark of disco’s ’70s golden age, when DJs like Larry Levan and David Mancuso would play Donna Summer next to the Steve Miller Band next to the Salsoul Orchestra. Kevorkian established Body & SOUL in ’96 to preserve this tradition of the DJ as navigator through uncharted waters. Since the tracks aren’t explicitly constructed to mix with each other (unlike those micro-genres like tech-house or trance), there’s a bit more care required in sequencing them together. When Kevorkian is spinning, you can hear right when the next song drops in, because each has its own structure — intro, a peak, and an end. It’s not just a series of beats designed to sound good when mixed with those from another track.

But with the rise of the cult of the DJ, the highly diverse journeys of the old school have been replaced by featureless intra-genre jaunts. Kevorkian laments this state of affairs to no end. “A lot of what DJs today are concerned about is mixing,” he says. “What a lot of people have gotten very stuck on, is doing the best mix possible between two songs. It’s not how good the songs are, it’s how good the mix is. It’s like driving in the Midwest — you drive two days straight without any turns. Very sad.”

Kevorkian picked up DJing after moving to New York City from France in 1975. He came as a drummer looking to make ends meet in R&B cover bands, and was soon hired by the owner of a disco called Galaxy 21 to drum along with the resident DJ, Walter Gibbons. Gibbons was one of a few DJs pioneering different techniques to extend the short dance songs of the time into continuous movements that kept dancers on the floor all night. As one of the world’s first DJs with a name that draw crowds to a club, Gibbons was not exactly tickled to be sharing the spotlight with some French nobody on skins. So he’d cut between records unexpectedly and try his best to throw Kevorkian off the beat. Despite this, Kevorkian used the gig as an education in sequencing, figuring out a disc jockey’s tricks.

It was during this time that he became friends with John “Jellybean” Benitez, a high-profile DJ who went on to introduce Madonna to the world. When Benitez couldn’t make a party one night, he let Kevorkian take his place behind the decks. After that first night, his drum set lay pretty much fallow from then on. “It was a lot easier to do than drumming,” he says. “When I started, I was the only one among DJs who actually knew music. They had more experience knowing records, but I could figure out all the records because I had knowledge of music, rhythms; how it went, where the beginning was — I had an unfair advantage.”

Residencies at infamous discos followed: Paradise Garage, New York New York, Studio 54, AM:PM, Zanzibar, and Better Days. Dance music powerhouse Prelude Records enlisted him as in-house remixer. It was there that he overhauled disco (which was mostly an orchestra-driven, technologically conservative affair) with the psychedelic studio effects of Jamaican dub. His touch on weirdo dance hits like Musique’s “Push Push (in the Bush)” and Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang!” laid the foundation for house music’s stripped-down drum machine bacchanalia, which took form in Chicago a few years later.

By 1983, disco had sputtered, and Kevorkian mothballed the turntables and tried his hand as a strictly pop producer. He mixed, remixed, and produced a bewildering number of notable artists, including Jah Wobble, Midnight Oil, Thomas Dolby, Kraftwerk, the Smiths, the Eurythmics, the Cure, Depeche Mode, the Pet Shop Boys, and Terence Trent D’Arby.

Then, around 1990, a sudden mutation in dance music lured him back to the life of late nights and stuffy DJ booths. “I was very cheap, you could get me for free at the time,” he laughs. “I would come to your house and just play records, because there was this whole crop of post-house, this really interesting period where you had the Orb, LFO, Deee-lite, Sounds of Blackness — a lot of exciting, really fresh-sounding left-field stuff that I just wasn’t hearing many people playing in clubs. However much I really didn’t want to feel like a house music DJ — and still to this day I don’t want to be called somebody who plays house — I felt that if there were records like that being made, I should be spinning them, even if it’s at somebody’s loft or little party with two people there. It didn’t matter.”

In the ensuing years, raves and DJ fetishism birthed a worldwide market for Dance Music, but the rekindling had a negligible effect on Kevorkian. He never became a superstar jock, and his label and party expanded their influence principally through word of mouth, not media fancy. And for all the singles he worked on that reached number one on the Billboard dance charts, he’s better known in Japan than in his home country.

“The Japanese respect that tradition of the really grand New York dance thing — that sort of glorious, flourishing, celebratory music — a lot more than the Americans do,” he says. “The problem with America I find is that at large, it’s a very Puritan country, and a lot of the aesthetic is somewhat bigoted, powered by racial prejudice, sexual prejudice — it’s all very either male- or female-oriented. I think the basic tenet of disco and dance music has always been that it’s questioning your sexuality, to the point where people openly qualify it as homosexual music, or music for faggots. And you know what? I’m totally fine if that’s what you call it, and that’s how you see it, then stay where you are and I’ll do my thing.”

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