Interview: DJ Danny Krivit on the Foundations of Disco, the Birth of House, and Vinyl vs. Hard Drive

Lifelong New Yorker Danny Krivit grew up around good music. His mother was a jazz singer, and his father managed jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and owned of Greenwich Village club The Ninth Circle. As a child Krivit met Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Charles Mingus, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. He later went on to run his dad's expanding club properties, and he took over their DJ booths. It's not a profession you'd expect from a musical prodigy, but Krivit hit the decks at the right time - at the birth of disco and modern club culture.

Danny Krivit
Danny Krivit

In the 1970s and '80s, Krivit rubbed shoulders with the disco and house elite -- David Mancuso, Larry Levan, Fracois K. -- and he played records at some of New York's most-legendary venues, including Area, Danceteria, Limelight, Tunnel and Paradise Garage. In the '80s he began his career as a remixer and producer, working on music for James Brown and MFSB (the proto-house classic "Love is the Message") among others.

In the mid-'90s Krivit teamed up with Francois K. and Joe Claussell to form a roving, ongoing party called Body & Soul. It tapped into the rave generation's newfound reverence for underground house and disco. In 2002 Krivit launched his own deep-house parties, 718 Sessions, which is also the name of his September mix-CD released via Nervous. Krivit still maintains a busy DJ schedule, traveling off to Japan four times a year (he recently married a Japanese pop star, too) and holding down several events in New York. Headed to Los Angeles for a Body & Soul event at the House of Blues Saturday and to promote his new release, the 52-year-old took time out to answer a few questions.

LA Weekly: We noticed you're in Japan a lot. What's the attraction?

Krivit: The reason I love going there is that, as a culture, I think they're a bit meticulous and really into detail and purity and quality. A lot of what I really want to come across with my music works best there. It's the place where I can be myself the most. I really love it. Musically, I'm the freest there. I do very well with 718 Sessions and a few things in New York, but even those have their limitations with the amount of people who are at that level. The amount of people at that level in Japan is a lot bigger. I go there three or four times a year. Lately we stepped up, doing two Body & Souls a year there, and I usually go once our twice on my own.

You grew up around some of the greatest pop musicians of the postwar era. Did you see DJing as a form of rebellion?

It's a little more the opposite. I was around all these musicians. I took it for granted. I was impressed, but not as much as I am now. I remember I was hanging out with Nile Rogers. He helped me pick up a guitar, and I started picking up a few things and started practicing and I said, I'll never be able to do what they're doing, so I'll play the records.

Was there a moment when disco changed to house?

The word disco had been around since the late '60s, but we really didn't refer to the music as disco until the mid-1970s: 'This is disco and a 12-inch.' With house music it was basically an overnight thing for me and for the people I knew. It had hit already in Chicago, and there was an import from Chicago that was the first record classified as house, [J.M. Silk's 1985 track] "Music is the Key." I remember before that we were playing records that I would now consider house, but we didn't have a name for them yet. There was a void between disco and house where people were scrambling to get the next thing. And I remember that one record kind of was, at least for the East Coast, the beginning of house.

From DJ histories like Love Saves the Day, one gets the impression that the average music fan wouldn't recognize most of what guys like you, Mancuso and Francois K. were playing in the '70s as commercial disco.

I was playing commercial disco songs when they were brand new and before they were exposed to commercial success. "Stayin' Alive" -- I had a promo copy, and it was a big deal then. "I Will Survive," -- I heard that record, I heard her [Gloria Gaynor] perform that record. It was the B-side of a hit she had in London called "Substitute." She was part of all these B-level acts and had fallen a little. She sung this song "I Will Survive" with heart, like she's really surviving. But I didn't jump on it as a big hit. [DJ] Richie Kaczar pushed it the way it should be pushed at Studio 54 and it became what it was. "Disco Inferno" was out a year before the movie [Saturday Night Fever] and it was a cool song. All the cool DJs were playing it, but by the time of the movie we had played it enough. A lot of these songs had histories like that.

Does the hipster revival of disco among straight, white, gentrifying New York hipsters such as LCD Soundsystem and those affiliated DFA label bother you at all? I mean, these are people who likely wouldn't have been caught dead in some of the more gritty discos during the genre's heyday.

It's interesting. I like to see that our music is coming around to a new audience. They obviously have a different take on things because they're coming from a newer standpoint. Lots of the time they're just sampling a piece of a record, and I would like to hear more. It's a compliment. It would bother me if this was associated with some kind of arrogance, though.

How is club life in New York these days?

New York is not doing that well in general. Compared to its heyday, or better days, there's a real absence of large clubs and even medium clubs. The little clubs aren't doing so great either. I find it hard these days to recommend a club. I'll recommend this party or that party on this particular night, but it's getting harder and harder to recommend even those things. I remember being able to recommend several clubs.

The city's crackdown on clubs and the gentrification of Manhattan are taking their toll.

I think it's something much more underneath that. It's about finance and real estate and making money, and when you have to pay this kind of money there's no freedom. It's, 'I got to make money.' Once you start getting into that realm it puts a different context on everything. The push for the laws and enforcement have been based on a mayor [Michael Bloomberg] wanting to please his constituents, who are much more involved as property owners now. The city used to be just rentals. Now it's turned around and everybody's a landlord who has something to say. Nobody wants a club on their block. And the smoking laws make everybody go outside and make noise for the neighbors and it just becomes an endless cycle.

It affects the artistic output.

Very much so. In the '70s the city was down, there was easy real estate and police weren't all that involved. There was all this freedom. People moved into the city with no money. There was freedom to open a club and not necessarily make money. It was just something you wanted to do artistically. I grew up in the West Village and it was alive with art and music and expression. And now it's almost like an empty street. There's nothing there.

Do you use vinyl, CD or a laptop?

Still vinyl. Both CDs and vinyl. Laptop -- I haven't gone there. It's not that I'm opposed to adding it as another medium, but it's a lot of work for someone like me who has so much music. It's daunting. Also, from both sides of the decks, I don't feel good performing with a computer, and I don't enjoy watching someone perform with a computer. Some people do a lot of work and do a good job, but I don't know that I could do that.

Do your DJ sets feature primarily contemporary music, or do you go old school too?

I play stuff with no age. It could go any which way at any moment. It's more about the sense of the music and where the audience is taking me.

DJ culture has foreshadowed file sharing with a history of exchanging mixtapes and promo records ,and with a liberal stance toward sampling and mash-ups. Do you give away music - podcasts or online mixes? Do you think free is good for business?

I don't do podcasts. I don't usually record myself in the booth. I think the giving away of music that was normally sold or controlled has pulled the carpet out from under the industry. But even the shows [where artists can make money] are going to have less impact if the audience respects the music less. Maybe you don't need a record collection anymore. Music has a lot less meaning now.

When it comes to vinyl, which I think is the most stable medium, I just want to remind people now is the time to buy. It's at a low in price and there's an abundance of it. People think it's going to be there forever and it's not. Stuff you will never see again is around now. So if you want it on vinyl get it now.

Krivit DJs with Francois K. and Joe Classell Saturday at Body & Soul at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. 21+. Doors at 9 p.m. Advance tickets $22.50. Info:

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