There are few legends in the dance music community like Danny Tenaglia. We had the chance of a lifetime to visit Danny backstage at Coachella and probe his mind, diving into one of the most valuable archives of electronic music history. He had a lot to say, so let’s dive into part one of our in-depth interview.
If you could sit across from eighteen-year-old Danny right now, with all the current knowledge you have, what advice would you give your younger self?
The advice I’d give is perseverance. The more you put in, the more you get back. It doesn’t even have to be music related—it can be whatever career you want to get into—you’ve got to hit the books, you’ve got to study, you’ve got to focus. I started as a very young teenager, so it’s almost been forty years. I made my first record in 1988 and got signed to Atlantic Records, that was a stepping-stone for me. That opened up the door for me to get a lot of remixes. So much has changed, even from when I was that eighteen-year-old kid; I lived in Brooklyn, and I told people that my dream was to cross the Williamsburg bridge to Manhattan and work in a nightclub. That was it. You couldn’t dream beyond that. There was no traveling to other cities. It was barely even your name on a flyer. People just knew. I started around 1975, locally in Brooklyn, and as soon as I was eighteen I started going to clubs and all that. It didn’t go in a big way for me until I moved back to New York, and started working at The Roxy in 1986, then I started doing Twilo the same year. It was around 1993 that I made “Bottom Heavy,” and that was the song that started getting me phone calls to travel overseas. I stuck with the residencies in New York—Roxy, Twilo, Tunnel, Vinyl, all the way through 2004, every weekend—plus traveling and doing a lot of remixes in the 90s. People had that back then; their name on a record or CD. Something physical.
How did you make your remixes in the 90s?
If I was doing a remix they would send me the masters. 24 tracks, and often we would do two machines to go 48 tracks. Now with Ableton and Logic they’re unlimited, but it’s crazy… you got this one reel that was about 14 inches, probably weighed about 15 pounds, and you could only record 16 minutes on it. I know that a lot of people still do recording that way, you know, big budget people, because they want that warmth of the tape.
Do you identify more as a remixer or an original producer?
I always approached it from a production point of view. I think I started to come in the era where it was additional production and remix by, as opposed to the 70s and 80s, where you’d remix pretty much what existed, but in the 90s we started taking it to the next phase by hiring musicians, and that’s where I really got a passion for it. I would hire guys to do solos and really strip it down, very often I would just use the acapella. Madonna, Blondie, Cher, all that stuff I did was just like, “alright, new tempo, now let’s mix it up.”
What are the first five steps you take during your creative process in the studio?
The first thing you do is lock the acapella to a new tempo, or the tempo that you desire. I’m usually a 126 bpm; I think the most I’ve ever done was 127. If the song is much slower to begin with—a great example is when I did Madonna’s “Human Nature,” it was originally 80 bpm, her fake vibrato to begin with… when you speed it up, it was warped. So there were many remixes I wouldn’t even take, because I thought, “what am I going to do to this?” It’s a ballad, give me a dance record. So that’s the first process I would do. Strip it down, or if I’m just given the acapella, lock it, then put in a kick drum, then you start building around that. I’ll usually do a kick and a bassline. I don’t even own a sample pack. I know I should; I probably do with the engineer in my studio. I use Logic and Ableton now. I always hire an engineer; from my experience in all my sessions, they work great together. I think Ableton is limited; it’s a great application with Logic, especially when you’re making dance tracks. When you’re warping a track, Ableton does it better than Logic.
Was there a lot of pressure when using studios?
The most I ever got for a remix was a $30,000 budget. There were many times where I spent half that or more in the studio. The mastering process would be taken care of by the label, but the mixing would be done on my end. I was signed as an artist in 1988 by Atlantic Records—I used the moniker Deep State—but as a remixer, it was around the same time. So you start out, you pay your dues, maybe some things you do for free, even out of your own pocket, maybe get $2,500 or $3,000, then you start getting more. If you start charting, or deliver a #1, an “oh let’s get that Danny guy again,” kind of thing, that’s more and more and more. Once the labels closed, there were no more dance departments; everything went out the window. And everybody started building home studios. People started doing mixes for free just to get their name recognized. So, for me, my name was going this way as a DJ, getting calls to go around the world, and I started getting good fees, so why would I want to hear the same song for two weeks and get a couple thousand dollars when I could be touring and playing one great club one night and then to the next one, enjoying the journey. That’s my first passion: being a DJ. In the studio, I love the creative part, but it can get mental at time listening to the same thing, or waiting for the engineer. The same kick, and this-that-this-that… next. Talk about rewinding tape, waiting… now it’s all done right there. Click.
When people ask you what you are, what do you say?
DJ first. Producer second. And a frustrated musician third.
What’s your favorite club you’ve ever played?
I’d have to say Vinyl, where I was a resident from 1999 until 2004. We’re having our 11-year reunion in May at Output—it’s been 11 years now that we celebrate the closing of Vinyl. It became condominiums. Vinyl was much more raw. Vinyl had no liquor, so it was about the dance music. Have you ever been to Stereo in Montreal? Think Stereo. And that’s the way clubs used to be for me in the 70s and 80s, I was like “I want to do this, this is where I want to be,” where it wasn’t so much about the bars, especially today with the VIP and all that.
What’s your take on the focus becoming more about the DJ these days?
That’s why I always like to keep it dark in the booth. I like people to realize that for me, the party’s still on the dance floor, not in the booth. Coming from a person that used to be out there on the dance floor, wanting to be in the booth, I still got the same mentality that part of me is on the dance floor. So I don’t really like when there are all those LED screens behind me, but sometimes I understand the nature of the event. You know, I gotta make a living. I’m not gonna go to EDC and say, “no screens!” I played EDC, with Carl Cox… he’s amazing and a friend of mine. One of his most memorable New York events was playing with me at Twilo. We’d always reminisce on that when we see each other.
Who were your biggest inspirations when you first started?
I mean, there are names I can mention that go back to the 70s that nobody knows… and I could mention Marvin Gay and Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd… but DJ-wise I’d say that it’s well known that a lot of DJs like myself from New York revere Larry LeVan from the Garage, which was another nightclub like Stereo. It had no liquor. So the people were there for the music, and it gave you the opportunity to stay open late, because there was no liquor. There were no drunks, there were no cops, there were people partying, but it wasn’t like today. To think it’s a billion-dollar business today. To think of some people who can command up to a quarter of a million dollars for one 90-minute set. That hurts. They don’t know what it is to lug record boxes. Me and Carl Craig were just talking about that.
What’s your perspective on the changing industry now?
It’s frustrating to some degree, but at the same time there’s a lot of people in this world that make millions of dollars, like spoon-fed people. Maybe your dad owns a car dealership; there’s always this kind of stuff that can make a person rich that they didn’t necessarily work hard for. When I hear about so-and-so making that kind of money at some of these gigs, it makes me kind of happy to think that DJs have come a long way. We live in such a shady world where a lot of them don’t recognize the guys like myself who really paved the way. And even the guys before me. I know guys like them might have even been frustrated by guys like me who started touring the world and making good figures. I’m in 39 countries now. I didn’t think I’d leave Brooklyn.
In no way am I comparing myself, but only in the context of recent newsworthy stuff, but look at Madonna. People are torturing this woman about her age. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Madonna, but she’s obviously made a great impact on this world as an artist, but all of a sudden the way she’s being disregarded because of her age is wrong. Maybe she deserves it, maybe it’s karma. Her behavior on stage is nuts, though. I think I’ll make out with Avicii later.
How do you feel when someone might say, “oh you’re a DJ, like Avicii or deadmau5?”
I was actually going to get to this part. There are some that are deserving. I think deadmau5 is a great artist. When you listen to his productions, you can tell this guy’s working. There are a lot of them that are in the studio and earning it. It’s not just because of one hit. It doesn’t matter, even if you’re not a DJ, if you’re someone that’s put out a record, whether it be country or rap, and all of a sudden you’ve sold twenty million copies… you don’t get it. And here you are still struggling with your nine to five job, whether you’re me or you or whoever, it feels like they hit the lottery and you didn’t. So I, for the most part, don’t mind. On the other hand, I don’t follow a lot of their music; I don’t know one song by Steve Aoki. But David Guetta I’ve known for twenty years. He’s put his life into it. He’s not in his twenties. I think many guys are deserving of it.
There’s a part where you become part of the machine. You have agencies and companies and representations in different countries. I don’t even know how to relate to that. I’ve been doing this all my life and I’ve never been with an agency until last year. It was just me and my business manager in New York. Because of my residencies in New York people had an easier time reaching me. But once it blew up in this kind of way and me maintaining my kind of underground appeal, not going for the commercial thing… I couldn’t write a pop song to save my life. Maybe I wish I could; I wouldn’t have to hit the road so much.
Tell us about New York.
In 2001 when the twin towers went down, I was just turning 40. I saw those in my view all my life from where I was raised. That affected me deeply. I was in New York at the time it happened. I realized, wow, you just never know. I was in the studio remixing Kings of Tomorrow, that song “Finally,” and I was being offered from Vinyl to buy their sound system because they were getting a new one. So I was starting to make a little money at the time, starting a little savings, so I decided to buy that sound system and find a place to put it. And eleven years later I’m still paying the rental by myself so it’s kind of hard. I never really merged with anyone. I’m still trying, but I’m really fussy.
For a minute there, “Music Is The Answer” was in the pop charts in the UK, but because we didn’t back it up with a video and I wasn’t the person singing—I didn’t want to be in the video—it became a little frustrating. It was an underground label merging with a major. I said no, I don’t want to be in a video.
After all these years, I don’t consider myself a person that’s in the business. I’m not in the music business. I’m a DJ, and you can hire me. Sometimes I get embarrassed when people ask me, “what do you think of so and so?” I know what I know; I have tons of music I’m constantly going through, but you could ask me about an act that people are really into… it’s hard to keep up. I’m an encyclopedia in a different way.
My roots are in soul. I like to see and hear stuff that has a little bit more of a rhythmic element to it. That’s why I like a lot of the tech house stuff. It’s got these rhythms and patterns that are almost Latin-esque in a way. But there’s that steady robotic element.
I’m doing the Vinyl reunion at Output in May. It’s a good energy. You can feel it in the air. There’s this old school energy. People that are hungry for it still. For it to be the way it used to be. I try to do that in every gig I do when I play New York. It permits me to play until 7 or 8 in the morning so I give them the full journey.
Many thanks to Danny and the Plexi PR team for making this conversation possible.