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Boyd Jarvis: Remembering the Architect of House Music

Boyd Jarvis, who died after a two-year battle with cancer on February 16 at age 59, was one of the key architects of post-disco New York dance music. When I interviewed him five years ago, he was both genial and at pains to take credit for his innovations. It’s easy to understand why. Working with two synths — a Yamaha CS-15 and a Prophet 600 — Jarvis created “The Music Got Me” in November of 1982. Credited to Visual and issued the following year on Prelude, its plangent feel and simple patterns are a clear precedent for the Windy City’s recombinant cheapo disco, and it precedes the first Chicago house records by a year.

A synthesizer and organ player, as well as a radio and club DJ, Jarvis was a native of East Orange, New Jersey. He began hitting New York clubs as an early-Seventies teen, when there was little separation musically between the nascent disco and hip-hop scenes, and he cited Larry Levan, Tee Scott, Nicky Siano, Grandmaster Flowers, and Pete “DJ” Jones as favorite DJs.

Jarvis himself first got on the decks at outdoor parties in Fort Greene in 1977: “I was dragging my two huge Vox speakers. I had two Garrard turntables, [on which] you can really blend, but you can’t be doing any rugged scratching, and a McIntosh power amp. I would bring that shit out to the park. Right there at the corner, Fort Greene and Adelphi, plug up and had a little party, man, outside.”

Jarvis was an early regular at the Paradise Garage, which opened in Soho in 1977. “The entire room was designed to be a big huge speaker,” he remembered. But the recording studio interested him far more than the DJ booth. He began purchasing equipment, including, around 1981, a Yamaha CS-15 monophonic synthesizer. “I was intrigued by the ability to shape and create sounds,” he said. “Synthesizers can do some amazing things. I’ve created water. I’ve created wind. I’ve created chimpanzees jumping from tree to tree. I didn’t have any drum machine at that time. I created an artificial kick drum with the synthesizer and I played it with my finger. The snare was also artificial. I created that using white noise. You can make a combination of white noise and a tone and you can create a damn good kick drum.”

It was at the Garage that Jarvis first met Timmy Regisford. When Jarvis took his CS-15 to accompany another DJ, Derrick Davidson, at the NYC club Melons, Jarvis recalled, “Timmy happened to come down and heard me doing it and said, ‘Yo, what do you think about you doing my audition for WBLS with me?’ That was it, man. That started my whole career.”

With Jarvis adding keyboard lines and effects to the records Regisford spun, the duo would stay on the station until 1986. “We were so young and so naïve to be able to have that position and not knowing the power in that position,” he said. WBLS DJ program director Frankie Crocker had enough faith in Regisford and Jarvis that nothing held their creativity in check. “It was carte blanche. Wednesday was the day everybody came up to ’BLS to get their record played. Frankie had the chicken line. Anybody who came to get their records played — you’d better bring a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Frankie will not be playing your shit.”

Regisford, credited as co-producer on “The Music Got Me,” became Jarvis’s primary musical partner of the decade. “When I made ‘The Music Got Me,’ we didn’t even call anything house,” Jarvis said. “We call it club music or dance music. Most of that stuff was done straight to reel [-to-reel tape] in Timmy’s bedroom. I said, ‘What are we going to call this stuff?’ and he said, ‘Shit, let’s call this ‘bedroom music.’ ”

Jarvis was never too hot on early Chicago house — “I don’t know about the ‘jack, jack, jack your body’-type shit. It wasn’t too hard. It was too country for me.” The DJ classics he made with Regisford — including Circuit’s “Release the Tension” (4th & Broadway, 1984), Boyd Jarvis & Timmy Regisford’s “Battle of the Beats” (Next Plateau, 1985), and Colonel Abrams’ “You Got Me Running” (Echovolt, 1984) — had a far more professional sheen.

Billie’s “Nobody’s Business” (Fleetwood, 1986) may be his greatest record. Jarvis met the singer — real name Robin Williams — after leaving Studio 54. “Billie was kind of cute,” he said. “I was really trying to get some pussy. I was like, ‘Hey, what’s happening, baby?’ You know, that little spiel: ‘I am a producer and I make music.’ She said, ‘I can sing.’ I said, ‘Sing me a song.’ ‘The only song I know right now is a Billie Holiday song.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you come to my house? I got this track.’ I noticed that she had this little high range and I said [to] scream, [laughs] and she did.” A refurbished version of the Jazz Age standard “ ’Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do,” the track became a monster at the Paradise Garage, one of Levan’s all-timers, even though the club closed a year after the record’s release.

Following the success of “Nobody’s Business,” Jarvis had gotten heavily into cocaine; he entered rehab in the early Nineties. It was then that he found out his old assistant engineer Freedom Williams had issued a record, “Get Dumb (Free Your Body),” as the Crew featuring Freedom Williams — an early run for what would become C+C Music Factory — that heavily sampled “The Music Got Me.” “I don’t realize how bad it was until I was in Jersey one night at a club, and they played the record and I was excited. And then I started hearing the orchestra is coming and went up to the DJ, and he said ‘Yo, this is Freedom’s new record!’ I took them to court.”

The verdict, in Jarvis’s favor, set a sampling-law precedent. The judge’s opinion dismissed C+C producer Robert Clivillés’ statement that “Get Dumb” took a chunk of Jarvis’s track that was “mere background lasting for only a few seconds toward the end of plaintiff’s recording” as being “so untrue that I must question how defendant’s counsel could have allowed this statement to be submitted to the court in a sworn affidavit.”

Jarvis worked with big artists (he played keyboards on Jellybean’s 1984 single “Sidewalk Talk” and on Herbie Hancock’s 1988 single “Beat Wise”) as well as his clubland confreres. One memorable later gig was his late-Nineties residency at the Tribeca club Vinyl. “There was lots of drugs flowing in Vinyl,” he recalled. “I used to stash my boss’s drugs underneath the turntables. You had BTS, those little gangster white boys from Brooklyn coming in. They robbed the ravers. It was crazy: K-holes all over the place, bro. I have never seen such hilarious shit as these kids overdoing it with those drugs, that special K shit.”

In 2016, Jarvis was diagnosed with cancer; that October, a number of his colleagues — including Regisford, Francois K, Joe Claussell, and host Barbara Tucker — held a fundraiser at Brooklyn’s Output. Another colleague, Paul Simpson — who co-produced Serious Intention’s equally sparse and impactful “You Don’t Know” in 1984 — told Red Bull Music Academy in 2016, “Boyd Jarvis invented house…. When Boyd was doing it, the sound didn’t have a name.” Bedroom music, house — whatever you called it, it was Jarvis who first gave it shape. 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

What Kind of People Take a Sunday Evening DJ Boat Cruise?

On Sunday evening, as many napped away brunch buzzes or began prepping emails for Monday, a maritime bacchanal was held out on the Hudson. House music promotion companies Resolute and Sheik ‘N’ Beik commandeered the Circle Line for a very different cruise than the sightseeing tour you take when your parents come to town.

Sheik ‘N’ Beik’s Facebook page describes them as a “mechanism filtered from the electronic ether, generating euphoric sediment”, but in short what they do is throw fun parties. Because of the Circle Line’s proximity to Times Square, I was expecting a poor man’s version of the S.S. Coachella stocked with NYU frat boys looking to continue their Saturday night mixed with a few confused tourists. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a crowd of internationals and those you might glimpse in the background of a Page Six photo. These are people for whom Sunday night is very much still the weekend. Anecdotes of moonlighting for a week on a yacht in Italy filled the air.

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Bushwick-based DJ Connie opened the night as the boat pulled out into the Hudson. Her ethereal jams set a grooving tone as people’s second drink disposed of Saturday night’s hangover.

The boat itself was more Staten Island Ferry than luxury yacht — 12 dollar cocktails and metal folding chairs stacked in the corners. But that didn’t deter the revelry. By the time Chilean producer Alexi Delano started playing minimal beats, several hundred people were grooving and fist-pumping at the sunset.

France, Denmark, Sweden and Spain, were all represented on the dance floor. Many of the partygoers were nightlife stalwarts, people who have been in the electronic music scene before festival EDM culture skyrocketed the likes of Avicii and Flume to superstardom. “It’s a very diverse crowd,” said Connie after her set.

Connie
Connie

Resolute event organizer Nektarios Ioannidis, who described himself as a “party maker” as he danced in a coconut bra, has been throwing these boat parties for years. When I asked if he was considered one of New York’s top promoters he responded, “That’s what they say.” He had just gotten in from Ibiza where he said he was doing “the usual.”

Nektarios Ioannidis
Nektarios Ioannidis

These DJs and promoters occupy a sort of nightlife working class, not as immediately hip as the bands that get booked at The Silent Barn or sell out Bowery Ballroom a week after getting “Best New Music”, but rather focused on a sustainable party that can weather trends. Resolute has been hosting parties in New York for nearly eight years. From what I saw, they had all the right ingredients: hordes of gorgeous women, plenty of booze, and women baring their ass to the DJ.

There was a prevailing sentiment that the crew involved in these parties is holding down the underground club scene. Alejandro Sab, who is also a DJ and good friends with the promoters, said the structure of New York underground nightlife has, to an extent, fallen apart. “There was a time in New York when it was the center of this type of music. There used to be a core, but now it’s been diluted by mainstream elements.” The commercialization of electronic music has grown to the point where even the term EDM is resented by Sab and others.

The party did seem very tight-nit. The average age was a bit older than you’d find at house night at Cameo or Bossnova Civic Club, those who seek quality house music rather than chasing the latest fad.

Blond:ish closed out the night with a raucous set that gave the fifth hour of the cruise a new life. The Canadian duo of Anstascia D’elene Vivie and Ann Bakos got their start by winning the World Air Guitar Championship, and have been touring the world as DJs ever since.

Eventually the evening on the booze cruise ended. Some staggered home or went to a club to continue their evening. Though many had the impending work week to dread, for some, the party continued indefinitely.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

EDC 2012: House Music Beef With DJ Sneak Plays Out in Steve Angello’s DJ Set

Sneak called SHM’s music “fake shit” and said they “do not play house music” — as in, real house music.In early spring, a Twitter beef erupted between DJ Sneak, a Chicago house music legend, and Steve Angello, one-third of the DJ supergroup Swedish House Mafia.

On Friday, in front of a huge crowd at Electric Daisy Carnival at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Angello seemed to respond:

The L.A.-based DJ, whose sound is decidedly melodic and trancey compared to Sneak’s thick, funky, bass-line-driven music, played a track that sampled this phrase: “DJ on two turntables.”

During the Twitter spat the Swedish spinner was accused of playing the same sets on different occasions—essentially just pressing “play.” That didn’t seem to be the case last night on the “Cosmic Meadow” stage.

 

Sneak, of course, is of the school that believes house comes from the American inner city, a product of Latino and African American grooves that you can hear in diva samples and Latin percussion. What he was saying, essentially, was that we don’t need three guys from Sweden who stand around CD players to teach us about house music.

There’s no right or wrong here, however: Angello’s vision of dance music echoes the early days of rave-house, which featured pulsing pianos and hand-raising build-ups. That’s legit. In fact, Angello’s breakout hit was a redux of just one of those songs, Robin S’ “Show Me Love.”

Swedish House Mafia’s performance style — playing only its own hits, remixes and edits — seems to be a thing: Kaskade, David Guetta and other “DJs” do it because audiences expect it.

Anyway, it seemed to us that Mr. Steve was making a statement, playing tracks that sampled the phrases, “Tear the club up” and “Fuckin’ haters.”

At the end of his set, as he handed the decks over to New York progressive house legend Erick Morillo, Angello introduced him as “the guy who taught me how to DJ in clubs.”

Morillo chuckled.

That’s quite a teacher. You want authentic? I’ll match your Puerto Rican DJ (Sneak) with one born in Colombia (Morillo).

Game over?

Sneak, by the way, wasn’t booked for EDC 2012.

See also:
House Music Beef With DJ Sneak Plays Out in Steve Angello’s DJ Set