House of House: A Brief History of Paradise Garage and the Genre It Defined

In the Garage

Flashback to the late 70’s. The exterior of 84 King Street was an unassuming parking garage, but past the runway and through the doors thrived a unique piece of dance music and LGBTQ+ history, a venue featuring a custom-made Richard Long sound system, parties that lasted well into the next afternoon, a superstar DJ still considered one of the greatest of all time, and a sound that would define a genre and a generation.

It was Paradise Garage.

Although the Garage officially opened in February 1978, most sources agree that unofficial “construction parties” began there forty years ago this month. No matter what date you choose, the Garage — one of the most important incubators of gay and lesbian dance culture and dance music more broadly — was a hot ticket from the start. Music fans wanted to come and hear the newest records, the queer community wanted to come to dance without fear of persecution, and everyone in town wanted to be a part of what was going on.

Paradise Garage was especially important because although it specifically catered to gay and lesbian patrons, people of all colors, sizes, and orientations were welcome. In contrast to Studio 54, the Garage was a nominally members-only establishment. Despite that restriction, the average person could typically get in if they had “the look,” or if they came along with a card-carrying member. This inclusive exclusivity may seem counter-intuitive, but the creation of this type of space gave queer dance culture a forum in which to thrive and develop into the diverse array of musical expressions we know today.    

paradise-garage

Above: the Paradise Garage logo – a nude man’s torso, featuring a juicy bicep, a tambourine, and dangling vials of poppers.

A New Sound

At the Paradise Garage, nothing was more important than the music. The DJs who spun at the Garage and the artists who played there (an impressive roster that includes the likes of Chaka Khan, Evelyn King, Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Grace Jones) came to define a new genre of music. As Louie Vega of Masters at Work put it, “If you went to the Paradise Garage a lot, it was like, ‘That’s a Garage record.’”

A Garage record had big, soulful vocals, and heavier R&B and funk influences than the house music that was beginning to emanate from the American Midwest. Garage artists traditionally differed from other house musicians in their instrumentation choices, too. Whereas the house pioneers coming up in Chicago experimented with drum machines and analog synthesizers, most of the records spun at the Garage featured orchestras and live instruments. As Garage proprietor Mel Cheren put it “The music Larry played, like the Salsoul Orchestra and MFSB, was made by orchestras, by live musicians. When the kids in Chicago wanted to start recording, they couldn’t afford that, and the computer came into being, so they did it at home and it was stripped down, with no vocals…House is Garage on a budget.

An Unconventional DJ

It’s impossible to discuss the distinctive sounds of Paradise Garage without also mentioning its distinctive DJ, Larry Levan. Levan was, by all accounts, a discerning tastemaker and a party perfectionist. Even on nights when he wasn’t performing, he would flit around the club tweaking the bespoke sound system’s EQ to accommodate changing conditions: as more and more patrons entered the club, their bodies would absorb more and more sound, and Levan in turn would adjust to compensate. According to RBMA’s history, Levan even went so far as to turn on the lights, cut off the music, and clamber up a ladder to polish the venue’s disco ball during peak hour.

Larry Levan is remembered as one of the greatest DJs of all time for his connection with the crowd, his taste, and his style. Despite his ability to create “butter-smooth” mixes when he wanted to, Levan frequently chose to challenge his audience through DJ techniques that remain unconventional to this day. He was known to leave seconds of dead air between records, replay a new track for an hour straight, or play acapella mixes in place of full tracks.

Apart from his avant-garde technical mixes, Levan’s selections were instrumental to the development of dance music in New York. He was such a tastemaker that A&R reps and radio DJs would come to the Garage to hear him spin, knowing that whatever records he chose would almost immediately become smash hits among their target demographics. Eventually, Levan founded West End Records, a label that served as a home base for artists creating this kind of music.

Reverberations

Today, electronic musicians and electronic music fans know of garage as a musical genre. When electronic music fans use the term, they’re almost always referring specifically to UK Garage, which was a natural outgrowth of disco and house music mixed with the influences gleaned from UK-based genres including breakbeat, jungle, 2-step and ragga. Many may not know, however, that this term came from — you guessed it — The Paradise Garage.

The Paradise Garage’s sonic influence isn’t limited strictly to garage. West End releases left their mark on a diverse array of genres, from reggae to rap to pop to EDM. Garage records have been sampled by artists including Robyn (Loose Joints, “Tell You (Today)”) Daft Punk (Karen Young, “Hot Shot”), A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers, Black Eyed Peas, Lil Wayne & Juicy J, and much more.  

Just can’t get enough

For a more in-depth history of Larry Levan’s development, RBMA’s Saturday Mass feature is a great jumping-off point. The inimitable @garageclassics, AKA paradise_garage_bot. Originally established by Drumatrixx magazine, the best bot on Twitter blasts out a new heater from the Paradise Garage Discogs playlist every half-hour. There are some fantastic first-hand accounts of Paradise Garage experiences to be found at paradise-garage.net and Disco-Disco. The New York Times published a feature in 2000 on the club, with insights into Mel Cheren’s experience as its manager. For even more Paradise Garage info, check out Bowery Boys, GLBTQ Archive, LGBT Historic Sites Project, and Tina Paul’s website.  

And if you’re feeling inspired to make your own garage track, you’re in luck. We pored through Splice Sounds and hand-picked samples that characterize garage. Dig into them here.

 

Max Rewak Max Rewak is a record producer, audio engineer, and music writer, based in New York and currently working in Sounds content at Splice.