DJhistory classic interview: Victor Simonelli
Victor Simonelli is New York house royalty. Born and musically-schooled in Brooklyn, Simonelli grew up in an era where disco was giving way to the new sound of house, and that dramatic intersection is where his heart and many of his great productions lie.
A New York radio fanatic from an early age, he discovered dance music via his boombox dial before ever setting foot in a club. He became an intern at Arthur Baker’s Shakedown Studios, and first made his name as a producer in the dying days of Nu Groove with Groove Committee’s “I Want You To Know” in 1991. But it was the release of Feel So Right by Solution, an international smash, that guaranteed an excess of airmiles DJing in Japan, Europe and beyond. Although it was as a house producer that Simonelli forged a reputation, his influences came more from the New Jersey sound detonated by Tony Humphries at Zanzibar whose bullets were supplied by Blaze, Smack and Paul Simpson.
Victor was intimately involved in the formation of Northcott’s Sub-Urban Records, for whom he recorded countless classics (usually in collaboration with Tommy Musto) before starting his own stable of imprints, including Bassline and Big Big Trax. More recently, he started his Stellar and West Side labels, mixing his own productions with work by other producers. Today he lives in Sicily with his wife and children.
Tell me your family background?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. Grew up in Brooklyn. I was born in a house full of records. My father was and is a big record collector. My earliest memories are sifting through these big boxes of records and just pulling out what I would find and asking him about it and he would play it for me. He’d ask me what I thought about it. And this is going back to three or four years old. he’d really make it a point to focus on elements in the records and asking me what in particular I liked about the record, what I thought of it, what it made me feel. He really got into detail about the questions he asked me about music.
Was he involved in the music industry or just a collector?
He was never involved in the record industry but when I was about nine or ten years old he started doing parties. He’d rent a dance hall, Elk Lodge kinda places, and he’d do some inviting and get locals and kids to come down and I’d watch him play. It really impacted on me. After I started watching him doing his parties I started getting more interested in club music. I started tuning into radio, New York radio. I got my first radio when I was about nine years old and within minutes I was tuning down the dial searching for stuff and all my friends in the neighbourhood were the same too: “did you hear that track last night?”
“I was born in a house full of records. My father was a big record collector. My earliest memories are sifting through these big boxes of records and just pulling out what I would find and asking him about it and he would play it for me“
What were the stations you were tuning into and DJs who impressed you?
The stations were BLS 107.5, there was 99X WXLO that later turned into 98.7 KISS in the 80s and of course there was 92 KTU. They all had mix shows. On BLS John Morales was on there, on KTU I remember Jellybean being on there. On 99X which later became KISS there was Shep Pettibone and Tony Humphries came later.
When did you start collecting?
My dad took me down to J&R’s and they had a disco room. I remember it vividly. The walls were filled with 12-inches: Prelude, Salsoul, TK Disco, it was beautiful. They had a disco ball and lights in the room. Oh we’d spend hours in there. The first records were Fantasy’s “You’re Too Late” or “I Hear Music In The Street”, or “All Night Long” by LAX. Prelude was awesome. I loved that label, it was the right sound for me.
After you graduated from high school what did you study?
I went to a school called the Centre for Media Arts which was on 26th St in New York. I studied audio engineering. But they taught all types of stuff, anything to do with a studio they taught you there. So I remember learning how to edit there, with tape, on a Tascam 2-track (this is cutting tape, of course). I’d always wondered how editing was done and in the 80s with the whole Mastermix thing and Deadly Medleys; once I did my first edit that was it for me, man, I was editing like a mad man. All the time I’m going through school, I knew exactly where I wanted to be after I finished school and that was Arthur Baker’s studio Shakedown. That was the really the hotspot in New York. The club was the Garage, but the studio was Shakedown. Speak to anybody from the 80s about studios and they’d tell you that was the spot.
Did you know about places like the Garage? Were you going out to any clubs?
My two favourites were definitely the Zanzibar and the Loft. I’d take disco naps, get up three or four in the morning and go down to Newark, and from Brooklyn that’s a bit of a trek but I’d do it. To go to Zanzibar there was just nothing like it for me. There was an energy there that was like no other club I knew. And the Loft was… it was almost like being in a dream on the dancefloor, you’d really get lost in the music almost going into another dimension because you were surrounded there by people who were there totally for the appreciation of music. There were moments when it felt like you were flying away on that dancefloor.
“I knew exactly where I wanted to be after I finished school and that was Arthur Baker’s studio, Shakedown. That was the really the hotspot in New York. The club was the Garage, but the studio was Shakedown”
How did you get into Shakedown?
It wasn’t easy. I finished school and I started doing some work in a studio in New Jersey. I made the call to Shakedown and when I first called, Tony Moran, one of the Latin Rascals, answered the phone. I told him I loved their stuff and I’d love to come and intern there. I was really starry eyed about it. He was really kind. He said I could come and check out the studio but I never followed up the invite because I knew to get a job there I’d need to find the manager’s name, which was Tim Scott. I went down for the interview in February 1987 but Tim wasn’t interested. He said, “We don’t have space now.” And remember this was an interview for an internship which in brackets means working for free! So he said, “Keep my name and number and you can call me sometime.” I called every single month for the rest of the year and finally in December of 1987 I got hired. First session was sitting with Junior Vasquez who was mixing Rodney Franklin’s “Bustin’ Out” on Criminal.
Tell me about working there.
It was a dream come true to get the job. Basically, I just moved in. I wanted to make it clear to them that I was available for anything that they wanted me to do 24/7 and, I never left. I started with lining machines, cleaning the studios, picking up tapes from their storage, making runs for clients. I made it known that I could edit and I was really interested in editing some of the product they had. After several months, Arthur called in and said, “Listen Gail [Scott-King] can’t come in tonight, I can’t get any other editors, would you be interested in giving it a shot?” It was a Will Downing song, “SOS” that he had remixed on Island. Editing back then worked like this. He’d have several versions on tape. He’d have an instrumental, he’d have a club mix, he’d have a dubappella, he’d have just drums, a pass with vocal bass and drums, a pass with chords and vocals. So he gave me a stack of about ten tapes to listen to and asked me to come up with a 12-inch Club Mix.
First thing I did was listen through all the tapes, making notes as I listened. At 20 seconds there’s kick, snare and hi-hat; at 30 seconds there’s kick, snare, hi-hat and bass and so on. So it would take you a good few hours to go through all of the passes. Then I’d sit and think how I’d like to make my intro. Let’s start with kick and hi-hat, look for which mix has just kick and hi-hat and I’d copy it from one half-inch machine to another. So he came in the next day and he heard what I had come up with. He gave me a few tips, said, “Change this, change that” so I made the changes and he was satisfied. From that point on, I was in there, man. So every edit he needed done I was there. That was followed by Quincy Jones, Debbie Harry, Talking Heads. He never asked me if I was tired and I thank him for that, because there’s no better schooling than that. To be honest, there were times when I was dead tired and I’d be working in a room the size of a closet but there was no place I would rather have been.
Arthur worked you really hard.
I don’t think he would have thought of it like that because he had such a love for music that he went with the flow. We’d work Christmas, we’d work Easter. Holidays didn’t exist. Years after doing that now, I understand it. I’d do it exactly the same now. Even now there’s nowhere I’d rather be than the studio.
How did you go from editing to production?
Arthur would invite me to sit in with his sessions and basically it’s a natural progression from editor to remixer. If you’re editing the tune the producer’s gonna ask you to come into his studio and ask you for some input. Maybe like, “What kind of pass would you like?” So editor and producer worked hand in hand then. So he’d start asking me what kind of intro would I like, what kind of breakdown I wanted. So I was getting hands on experience of how he was mixing down and also other clients would see me there when they came in there, because I was there 24/7. I was always available and availability is so much. So they started inviting me into their sessions. Editing really taught me how to arrange songs.
Were your first releases on Nu Groove?
No. My first production was made in 1988 and came out in 89. It was called “Move To The Beat” by Interaction on Vendetta. I never produced a record before so I gave it the best shot I could. I was doing remixes for Arthur, like New Order, several records on Criminal like a Brooklyn Funk Essentials tune called “Change The Track”.
“We’d work Christmas, we’d work Easter. Holidays didn’t exist. Years after doing that now, I understand it. I’d do it exactly the same now. Even now there’s nowhere I’d rather be than the studio”
How did the Nu Groove material start happening?
Nu Groove was right around the block. Nu Groove and Fourth Floor shared an office. Lenny Dee who was also from Brooklyn worked at Nile Rodgers studio Skyline which was down the street from Shakedown and when he left Skyline he got an internship at Shakedown. He was already working on productions for Fourth Floor and Nu Groove. Lenny included me in what he was doing there. First production there was “Critical Rhythm” with Peter Daou on keyboards and his wife Vanessa on vocals. And because they shared an office, Judy and Frank at Nu Groove saw me doing shit for Fourth Floor and they figured, let’s ask him to do something for us. Lenny had already done Looney Tunes for them.
I think the first production I did for them was “I Want You To Know” by Groove Committee and that particular record was where I started to see a response from many people. Before that what I was doing it wasn’t getting much attention. I remember hearing it on Disciple’s show on BLS constantly. I remember Todd Terry getting in touch. He was involved in a label called E-Legal and we got together at his place and he explained something to me. He said, “Listen Vic, you got something going now, you keep on going with that vibe. Keep making records just like this.” He really put me in the right direction. So every time I went back into the studio from that point on I was just making Groove Committee records in my head. Next things I made were “Dirty Games” and “Feel So Right”. I took “Feel So Right” to Nu Groove for the follow up to “I Want You To Know”. But they turned it down in favour of “Dirty Games”.
I heard Solution was effectively stolen from you?
There was this guy named Felix [Ortiz] who was running E-Legal at the time. Man, it’s hard for me to explain, but let’s just say he didn’t have a good vibe about him. But blessings come in disguise. We never signed an agreement for that. I had done a record called “Givin’ It All I Got” which was the other side of “Feel So Right”. After Nu Groove turned down “Feel So Right” I didn’t have a label for it and Felix put it out on vinyl without any agreement signed. That vinyl got in the hands of everyone in New York. Tony Humphries is the one that really broke that record in New York. It was then licensed to a company in Italy called Under Control, again with no agreement. It just started getting licensed to compilations all without my knowing. It took time for me to understand what was happening because I was in the studio creating most days. It hurt, you know. By 1996 when I managed to take control of it we did a legitimate license deal in the UK with Soundproof.
How did Sub-Urban come about? You and Tommy Musto did everything on the label for the first ten or so releases.
I was at a party in Long Island one night and Silvio Tancredi was saying Fourth Floor wasn’t doing as well it could be and they needed some refreshing. They needed to come up with a new label and that’s how Sub-Urban was born. They just needed to get a bit of a “now” sound going and it would put them back on track. So I just started going out to Staten Island and between Tommy and I making all these tracks. After Sub-Urban started putting out these records, we started making waves so Nervous started calling, then Maxi and Eightball and Strictly which was then brand new.
Before I got the job at Shakedown I used to work at a gym in Brooklyn with a guy named Vincent. In 1993, he got back in touch with me and he had heard that I was doing music and he asked me if I’d be interested in starting a label so I said, “Yes”. That’s how Bassline started. I wasn’t very clued up about it. I didn’t know what having a label meant to be honest. But it sounded good [laughs]. But I’d got a feeling from some of these labels about royalties and how they never showed up. He financed the studio time, at Mac Quayle’s studio in Brooklyn, and I had the idea for “Do You Feel Me” in my head before I got there. The “Moments In My Life” piano part was obviously a huge inspiration but it’s replayed and we just based the vibe on that.
“Seeing a dancefloor is such a big part of production. You see what moves people and you see what doesn’t move people”
Once you started getting recognition you began DJing all over the world. Did that change how you approached making records?
Seeing a dancefloor is such a big part of production. You see what moves people and you see what doesn’t move people. When I started producing it was to satisfy DJs that I was listening to like Tony Humphries. When I went in the studio I wanted to make something that Tony’s gonna like. DJing added to my approach, when I saw how dancefloors worked outside of New York, you began to see things that didn’t happen there. It didn’t change my taste but it did broaden it.
You were relatively late starting to DJ weren’t you?
Not exactly. I was doing mobile parties before getting into production. That involved lugging equipment in the car to do block parties. It just seemed limited to me, though. It wasn’t as satisfying as production and mixing and writing, it just was exactly what I wanted to do. Spinning is nice. In some ways, with the new gear, it’s quite similar.
Which productions are you most proud of?
To be honest, there are moments in different productions that are favourite moments rather than favourite tunes. Sometimes there are elements that came together where I couldn’t even have imagined doing it that well in my dreams. It was just a magical moment created in that particular time. If it could be captured in a moment and be heard it’s those type of moments that are me. So it’s like capturing my emotions. I strive to do that in every production but there are only moments I ever capture that but it touches me when I achieve it because it’s like listening to myself. It’s deep.
© DJhistory.com 2009
Interviewed by Bill Brewster in London 8.9.09