Tim Lawrence: Dance Music’s Most Prolific Journalist

Tim Lawrence sat down at The Baltic Social in Liverpool following the launch of his latest book, “Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor 1980-1983,” striving to shed light on such a significant era of dance music…

Over the last few weeks, I have gone from undeniable naivety surrounding the roots of dance culture to discovering that vast amounts of history are attached to such a tightly interwoven scene. After one of our writers, Andrei Sandu, wrote a piece reflecting upon the life of the party thrower, and more importantly social innovator, David Mancuso, I became infatuated by the mysterious figure who previously had never appeared on my radar. Now, as someone who is new to music journalism, only a few months out of University and just 22, my breadth of knowledge is unsurprisingly small and falling into this world has possibly been one of the most exciting personal discoveries I have ever made. I am not here to preach the words of Mancuso or the history of the New York Dance Floor, as I for one have only just begun my journey into discovering the social significance of what happened through the 70’s and 80’s in New York. Rather, this is the story of how I came to be sat in front of Tim Lawrence, author and authority on the birth New York club culture, as he spoke so passionately at the Baltic Social on Monday night. Wanting to dive ever-deeper into the history of New York party culture, I sat down to hear what Lawrence had to say…

Illusive and often publicly withdrawn, there have been many in-depth descriptions of David Mancuso. It is here, following his sudden passing, shortly after his 72nd birthday, where I can pinpoint my new found interest in this history. From discovering the reason and rhyme behind 1970’s rent parties to learning of the Mancuso’s sound-centric focus, Lawrence’s works offer readers insights into a world so unknown to so many. Inspired, I started to playlist this music, delving deeper into a scene that had such a significant impact on such a diverse community of people. People from any background, whether it be along ethnicity-lines, gender or sexual orientation…Mancuso brought them together promoting inclusivity, leaving judgement at the door.

With little previous reading of Lawrence’s acclaimed material and a distinct lack of knowledge compared to many that would be sat in the room beside me, I buckled up my apprehension and went along to The Baltic Social with an open mind. For someone who finds themselves easily distracted, listening to Lawrence, I was transfixed. 

With Greg Wilson presenting, the wealth of knowledge that stood before me in the room was huge: two experts in the field, representing different points of view. Tim Lawrence, the observer, a University lecturer and prolific journalist whose knowledge on New York and furthermore national dance culture precedes anyone I have heard of before and Greg Wilson, Liverpudlian DJ and renowned producer/remixer – sharing an inside story as he played his own significant role in the Manchester dance scene around the time of the legendary Hacienda nightclub. As Tim tells us during their conversations, the Hacienda was an attempted replica of the ideals behind clubs such as the Danceteria and Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage – both venues that promoted non-capitalist and non-commercialist values of inclusivity. Had the Hacienda venue not been supported by New Order, there is no doubt it would have caved within months. As well as his DJ and remixing career, Greg Wilson is also known for his highly valuable contributions to the on-going commentary surrounding dance music and popular culture. Combined, these two were able to carve through the hugely absorbing story of the New York dance floor and its outward impact upon the world.

After Greg Wilson introduced their relationship; one that sprouted from the London Loft Parties, Tim Lawrence took us back to the beginning…past the writing of his current book, past the creation of Love Saves The Day and back to where his journey into dance music documentation began. Originally commissioned to solely write a book documenting house music, Tim Lawrence found himself discovering an undocumented history that held a social relevance far broader than the narrative of house music alone; with stories that dated back before the era’s of 80’s house music and techno raves. 3 years on, as Lawrence jokes, he is still yet to begin his book on house music. However, with his latest release concluding in the 1980’s, there is anticipation that the next chapter of his endeavours will finally send his studies into the house music age. Author of some of the most captivating documentations of contemporary dance culture ever written, Lawrence speaks on how he only stumbled upon the history of David Mancuso’s Loft after a rival academic told him that an interview with the DJ was “not worth it,” claiming that “the man just ran parties, he keeps himself to himself.” While I am only part way through “Love Saves The Day,” his first book, his writing on Mancuso’s legendary parties is already captivating to say the least.

With Mancuso only passing last week, it felt as if Tim Lawrence had set aside this talk as a tribute to the man that he had interviewed, befriended and written so much about in his books. He tackled the difficult question of what he thought Mancuso’s reaction to the current political climate may have been and quite rightly said that the alienation the now president-elect was creating within his campaign would have scared the social butterfly. Sadly, as Lawrence shared, in Mancuso’s last hours his vision for total inclusivity may have never seemed so far away – a glum thought for someone who has inspired so much social progression in his life. Moving on, Lawrence raised a very scary but harsh truth, that the mechanisms putting these people into power today seem to be a similar force of people to those who stood behind the 1979 “Disco Sucks” campaign at a baseball game in Chicago. People who openly stated disco was for homosexuals and black people, a frightening similar “anti-inclusivity” openly racist stance to the one we see today in many president-elect supporters.

Lawrence then went on to read a passage from The Loft before talking of the relationship between key characters such as Larry Levan, a significant figure of the infamous Paradise Garage, and how he became renowned for his remixing abilities. He talked  Nicky Siano, who after being banned from The Loft for dealing on the floor, began The Gallery, a club which Mancuso said came the closest to replicating the “vibe” that he aimed to produce in his own home. The Gallery would gain huge popularity over the summer months with Mancuso venturing inside for its high-intensely and overwhelming energy, something that he did not expect. After all, Mancuso believed you should never raise the volume above 100 decibels, why would you wish to pain your guests?

All through his talk the astounding wealth of knowledge radiated through as Lawrence pieced together the history, from memory, remembering the exact dates, locations and names of all involved. His deep insights were complimented by Greg Wilson’s wise interjections, steering the talk’s path through interesting tangents such as the reasons for Levan’s saint-like figure and relationship between what was occurring in New York and the delayed progression in dance music throughout Europe at the time. He explained how Levan’s fame arose from his desire to captivate parts of both The Loft and The Gallery in his Paradise Garage home, all while defying the previous guidelines set by bar owners to drop the energy on the floor to push people to the bar; the original role of the DJ surprisingly enough. Who would have thought that a DJ was paid to clear the dancefloor at points!

His profound analysis of the way in which culture and art stemmed through the party scene, offering insights into the likes of Jean Michelle Basquiat, who made his name through rent parties, was astounding. During questions, Lawrence sublimely took his audience back to the beginning, right to where the core of a story began, only answering the question many minutes later once he was sure you had the background knowledge required to understands it.

Heading home in the rain after this talk, I thought in amazement at how these figures, notably Mancuso, had created such an impact without gaining wide-spread recognition. It seems it was not in their nature to rise to fame, just to bring people together in a safe and sociable environment; combatting the social difficulties of the time. Interactions with authors like these are important; educating young people like myself to understand the legacy of these figures and the significance of what they created. The importance however, lies not just with figures like Mancuso and Larry Levan, who have inspired such social progression, but also people like Tim Lawrence and Greg Wilson who make it possible for anyone across the globe to tap into these significant parts of social history and learn from them through book talks.

Champions of a forgotten history like this should be celebrated…those who can inspire a generation of younger people, including myself, to continue learning.