Save The Robots - New York City

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New York City - Calm Before The Storm Sunday October 28th 2012

Words RL

Photography by Darrin Harris FrisbyFB / Storm shots RL

Tuesday October 30th 2012

I’m writing this in Jersey City at my friend Stephen Grimes house the day after ‘Superstorm Sandy’ hit the East Coast of America.  I can still hear the constant sirens of Fire Trucks and Police cars in the area and the insistent hum of generators being used to pump water from people’s homes.  I’ve just returned from a walk around Jersey City and witnessed first hand the damage caused to this area.  We have had no power for 24 hours now and no power means no Internet, no information, no phones and no niceties.  I fully charged my laptop before the storm hit as we were well warned in advance and decided to get as many thoughts down as possible while my battery life lasts. 

I intended to write a piece on New York before the storm came but the extreme events have refocused the post. Firstly, I realise what a natural disaster can do to one of the most advanced cities on earth and secondly just how precious power is for a city and it's people.  The most important item in a disaster is a phone so you can communicate with emergency services, family and friends. As I am abroad the prohibitive cost of Internet usage and calls means I am reduced to text messages. I presume the phone masts are also down or depend on electricity, as I have had no signal all day.  I anxiously watch each attempt to send a message home drain valuable battery life.  I have no information and looking at the scale of the storm damage leaves me fearing that we are far from an end in sight. It is always so easy to plug in a phone, we don’t even think about it twice until there are no outlets for recharging.

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The winds were strong last night but more damage has been done by floodwater.  The high winds have caused; fallen trees, ripped off roof tiles, scattered signs across the streets and torn hoardings from their supports but they have done far less than the flood water.

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All along 5th street where I am staying the basement flats are flooded by 6 inches of stinking river water, closer to the river four blocks away it’s 6 feet.  The boardwalks have been thrust upwards and split and there is debris everywhere, left after the river has receded since it’s highest levels last night.  Most people have been up all night pumping the relentless tides out to little avail. Many areas have no running water, and there is the serious problem of dirty water returning from overflowing drains. I am stuck far from home but I don’t have the unenviable job of cleaning and re-building that millions of people do along the East Coast. As we walked through Jersey City we stopped and spoke to people on the streets and heard stories of deaths, evacuations and extreme hardship caused by the storm. They were humbling and made any complaints I had seem petty. 

Wednesday October 31st 2012

We looked across the Hudson River this morning and could see no lights in Lower Manhattan at all.  The skies were black with heavy clouds so the offices would be lit if they had power.  To witness a city the size of New York with the plug pulled was deeply unnerving. It’s even stranger as just 24 hours previously I was in a huge warehouse, lit up like a movie set, situated right next to the water on Java Street.  It became one of the first zones to be mandatorily evacuated on Sunday.

The extent we rely on our screens to survive for necessity, as well as for fun, is hitting me now.  The first move we all make when we are waiting is to reach for our smart phones. We have developed incredibly low boredom thresholds and having no power is basically very, very boring.  Once the immediate danger has passed it becomes a game of killing time and trying to gather information from other sources.  People are finding ways all over the city to charge their phones, some large buildings and supermarkets have generators and people are plugging into their power.

“When and how can I get out of here?  When will the world be back to normal?“

My phone has now lost service and so I have no contact with the outside world at all.  I am relying on information passed to me in the corner shop that has been the first store to open and the news is bad –they hope to have power on within four days.  I am starting to get really edgy without having communication and information.  We decide to take a drive to find gas (petrol) so we can charge our phones in a friend’s car and find areas further inland that have full power and open gas stations.  We find nearby Secaucus has power and we spot a bar that has Internet.  We sit there like screen junkies for over an hour without talking as we check our messages and find out what has happened on the news.  The bar is packed with people doing the same thing.  As we watch the news we realise the severity of the situation.  Atlantic City and Long Island have been particularly badly hit. There are reports of as many as 60 people dead and the death toll is rising.

Without lights it feels very late very early.  It must have been so boring in the old days, no wonder they all had 16 kids!  There’s not much to do except try to get some sleep.  I’m awoken at 2am with the room lit up like a stadium, every light in the house has come on at once.  I have no idea where I am for a few moments. Although it’s only been a relatively short time since the storm it seems totally alien for a light switch to actually trigger light.  In the morning we realise again how lucky we are to have power as all of Lower Manhattan is still in the dark…

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I have been going to New York for many years.  It has been a huge inspiration for me in many ways.  I feel like I’ve come home when I arrive.  My friend Stephen Grimes moved out to New York from Leeds in the early nineties and so I have always had a place to stay.  When Steve moved to NYC he was introduced to a guy called Jimmy Maylo. Jimmy was deep into the New York house scene and was helping do promotions for a new label called Prescription Underground.  The guys running Prescription were Chez Damier and Ron Trent and they were based in Detroit and Chicago so he was working New York for them.  Jimmy and Stephen had been going to a club called The Sound Factory and one Saturday night, when I was over, we made an arrangement to go along with Chez.  The whole experience was different for me from UK clubs.  The night didn’t really get going until 2am and ran through to 12pm on Sunday.  In England, at the time, clubs closed at 2am!  I remember we gathered at someone’s apartment before going to the club.  The atmosphere was excited and expectant, everyone had been before except myself and they enthused about the DJ at the club – Junior Vasquez.  You know you’re going to a special club when you get butterflies in your stomach and you feel nervous.  You start to ask yourself questions like,

“Am I going to get in?”, and, “What will it be like?”

These thoughts are mixed with the genuine excitement of going into the unknown and the tantalising expectations of what the night has to offer.  When I go out I want to hear new sounds and I want the DJ to inspire me but I also want a show – I want lights, camera, action!  That night at The Sound Factory at 530 West 27th Street I was given everything and more.  

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Vasquez was the King of New York back then, he was carrying the torch left by the recent passing of Larry Levan and running with it.  He had the club, he had the sound, he had he lights, he had the crowd and he had the skills.  He played all night and he turned it out each and every week for 12 hours.  In England time was so short that DJs would get 90 minute sets as standard. You play a certain way if you have a short set and, likewise, if you are playing all night at The Sound Factory NYC you have the chance to develop a different way of playing.  Junior teased records in for ages; he played dub versions with one line vocal hooks from the main song, he would cut different frequencies to emphasise sections, strip it right down before finally dropping the full song.  He was a master programmer.  The progression of the night would be perfect.  He also didn’t do it alone, the lighting was totally synced to the music.  To this day I still don’t see lighting worked as well as it was in The Sound Factory and it amazes me.  It is such a fundamentally important part of the night for me.  People go to clubs to experience intense sensations, the most important of which are sight and sound.  If you sync the two then you achieve far greater sensory input.  Junior would play dub tracks and the lighting op would drop the lights to black out and fire off strobes.  Junior increased the pressure and the lights would flash and brighten.  Junior reached a peak musically and the disco ball would be illuminated with beams of pure white light that shone on everyone and everything in the space.

Special nights shared create strong bonds and we were all equally blown away by the events we witnessed at the Sound Factory.  Over night I resolved to make music for Junior to play there.  Here's the old workshop at the Farmhouse in Rothwell, Leeds.

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I kept in touch with Chez and organised the first ever Prescription Underground tour of the UK with Chez alongside Ron Trent in 1993.  I wasn’t a promoter but I knew all the best clubs house clubs and managed to put together a run of shows at Ministry Of Sound (which at the time was the best club in London with DJ Harvey as resident), back to basics, The Subclub and DIY at The Marcus Garvey centre in Nottingham.  It’s strange to notice that these clubs, with the exception of the Marcus Garvey, are all still around 20 years later as house music venues.  In downtime between gigs the guys stayed at the Farmhouse with me where we had built the fledgling 2020Vision studio.  We created a series of records there under the name ‘Chuggles’.  The first one came out on Prescription and was called ‘Thank You’ – Junior received a test pressing and started to play it at The Sound Factory every week.  I was back in England but Jimmy Maylo kept me filled in with how the track was going down there.  It became a bona fide Sound Factory classic. 

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 On later visits to NYC I was introduced to other big clubs in New York; The Limelight, Shelter, Club USA and The Roxy.  None came close to the Sound Factory but I did come across another DJ that blew me away – Danny Tenaglia.  DT had his own experiences at Paradise Garage and also held a vision to create his own Levan inspired legacy.  Junior was starting to play far more commercial music at the Factory while Tenaglia stayed true to the underground with his trademark tribal sounds and dub techno.  They both played in similar ways but Tenaglia kept the edge that is needed to rock discerning crowds.  He didn’t really have a great space to play in New York until he moved to Vinyl so the best place to catch him became The Winter Music Conference in Miami at Groovejet.  One night on the floor there in 1998 he ripped up the rulebook and performed the single best all night house music set I have ever heard (to this day).  But that’s another story, as I digress from NYC.

I travelled to NYC with the back to basics promoter Dave Beer a few times. In 1995 we ended up at The Limelight one night as he had become friendly with Superstar Dj Keoki, who played there.  Keoki invited Dave back to an after party at his friends place and I tagged along with my friend Stephen.  This was my first real experience of the ‘club kids’ as the press at the time were calling them. I suppose it was a similar tag to the EDM one that is being used in the states now for ravers.  At the flat they were all taking Ketamine.  It was the first time I had ever heard of the drug and this was years before it grew popular in Europe.  At some point in the proceedings one of Keoki’s friends passed out on the floor.  We went to help him but all his friends just laughed saying, “Oh look Michael’s in a K hole again!”  He came round, instantly the star of the show.  Keoki picked him up and introduced us to Michael Alig. I thought the whole scene was lame. I was relieved when Steve told me we needed to get out of there, as they were doing his head in. Less than a year later in March 1996, alongside his friend Robert Riggs, Michael Alig killed his flat mate and drug dealer Angel Melendez.  Alig chopped up Angel’s body in the bath and threw him into the Hudson.   

Over in Leeds we had finally secured a session with Danny Tenaglia at The Pleasure Rooms venue of back to basics.  I had been playing long sets at the club, as Leeds was the first city outside London to be granted late licenses to 6am.  So I was feeling confident that I could open for Danny and we could play the whole night between us.  It is still one of my favourite sessions I ever played.  There have been many peaks for me in house music over the years but that time around 1996-98 when DT was at his very best was the Himalayas.   There was a glass roof at the Pleasure Rooms so it got light in summer on the floor around 4am.  The last two hours became like an Ibizan terrace party, around 5am the Leeds faithful held a voguing competition in Danny’s honour, he was in hysterics.  Danny enjoyed my warm up session and we stayed in touch.  It is one of the greatest accolades on my CV that he invited me twice to open for him at Vinyl for ‘Be Yourself’ in New York City.


Another spot I have really fond memories of in New York was Save the Robots.  Robots was at 25 Avenue B where the East Village borders Alphabet City.  Every time I visit NY I am amazed at the transformation of nearly every area through gentrification.  I wasn’t there in the 70s but even when I started going Alphabet City was rough but full of characters.  I have never actually been scared walking the streets of NYC, I guess that has been through naivety though.  Alphabet City was still a place you could wander about and feel like you were in a movie.  Save the Robots was super underground, it felt like a London squat party.  We went down really early in the morning, maybe 6am. I remember venturing down into a basement with small rooms and the craziest selection of drag queens, hip young thangs and heads getting down.  It was also the first time I heard Doc Marten spin that morning.  That trip must have been around 1992.  Nearly 20 years later I’m back in town to venture into the heart of another robot.

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'Emilia' Photo Courtesy of Peter Uprecht

I was at the Robot Heart bus many times during Burning Man and was blown away. I was one of the last stragglers there on the Sunday morning with friends, having a dance about, when a familiar face come out of the crowd and introduced himself as Jason Swamy.  I had known Swamy from previous trips to New York several years ago when he ran a Sunday club called Zouk. He is now one of the resident Djs at Robot Heart. We got chatting and he introduced me to the Robot Heart crew. It was to late for Burning Man but they were keen to have me play for them and asked if I could come for their show in New York for Halloween. It was the perfect end to a magical Burning Man trip

Robot Heart is really something special.  Every time I think I’ve seen it all something else comes along to inspire.  I was unsure how the Robot Heart experience would translate from the Black Rock desert to Brooklyn. I had hooked up in New York with two of my favourite people in the world; Garrett Roche and Huggy. Huggy was my original DJ partner at back to basics so it was special to have him fly up as a surprise guest from Orlando, where he now lives.  We got down early to the venue to check it out and soundcheck. The space was a huge Warehouse right next to the river on Java Street. I believe it is used for films. 

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Photo courtsey of Christian Lamb

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I had already seen the West Coast bus 'The Bot' at Burning Man but they have a second bus based in New York called 'The Copy Bus'. It is actually bigger but very similar and the sound is also by Know Audio.  The bus is fitted out with their trademark LED video panels by Light Harvest Studios with a different Heart sculpture on top. An army of VJs then worked on projecting 400 ft of IMAX scale imagery on to the walls. At the end of the space was a giant robot, made from LED strips with lights shining out of it’s eyes. East coast based art cars had been deployed to retain the Burning Man feel. All that was needed was 3000 people, each and every one dressed up in Halloween costumes.  They came.  We went back to the venue after battling the crazy halloween traffic around 3am with old New York friends Alexia Conville, Ariel Danziger and Bobby, one of our orginal Sound Factory crew.

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The theme for the party was Robot Heart on the Fucking Moon.  I’ve always been a space head so that’s the way I went rather than the traditional scary Halloween approach.  It started out as the complete space suit but it was real hot inside so the helmet, gloves and eventually the top half all got stripped down so I could play without fainting! 

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I wanted to share my previous experiences from my times in New York with the people.  I have so much love and inspiring memories from the city and it all needed to come out through my music and be clearly presented. I wanted people to feel like I did at the Sound Factory and when I first heard Tenaglia.  I wanted the underground feel of Save The Robots and I wanted to make sure the music represented 2020Vision and my artists. Most of all I wanted to make it a special night.  If someone gives me a chance to play at the best party in the world on the best rig in the world I’m going to respect the opportunity and work it to the full.  A few years ago I would have been nervous about playing for such a big crowd but I was just totally hyped and ready for it.  I had loaded in samples from NASA missions, sci-fi special FX and spacecraft sounds from movies to throw into the mix. I wanted it to feel like being on the set of Star Wars in the middle of an interstellar battle.  I knew there was one record, that above everything else summed up my times in NYC, that had to be dropped - Carl Craig presents Paperclip People - Throw. To see that go down was a peak moment for me.

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For a magical couple of hours I was there; playing on the fucking moon to the most beautiful earth creatures, from behind the controls of the most advanced space ship ever created by humans….

I eventually made it out of New York by catching the Chinese Lucky bus to Boston and flying out of there.  I still have good friends evacuated from their homes and living day to day in the city. Some can't return until March. There are millions who have damaged homes, hundreds who lost loved ones and thousands with limited services still.  Just because it’s a developed city doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help.  Here are ways you can get involved –

How You can Help

Burning Man Help Initiative

White House Official