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The beginner's guide to: garage music

Vinyl record
(Image credit: Future)

Forgive the sweeping generalisation, but we reckon it’s fair to say that most musical styles are invented by musicians and producers first before being adopted by labels, DJs and journalists. Garage music - at least in its original form - is an extreme outlier. Not only can we trace the sound back to one club, but it also comes back to one DJ: Larry Levan.

Levan was born in Brooklyn in 1954, growing up surrounded by music thanks to his mother’s passion for jazz, blues and gospel. As a young, gay Black man in the post-Stonewall New York City of the early ’70s, Levan immersed himself in the city’s underground music scene, first as a dressmaker in Harlem’s ballroom community, where he met Frankie Knuckles, and then as the pair explored scenes like David Mancuso’s Loft and Nicky Siano’s Gallery.

Siano took the pair under his wing and introduced them to DJing, with Levan starting his career playing at NY gay venues such as the Continental Baths bathhouse and the 143 Reade Street warehouse.

After Reade Street was shut in 1976 for fire regulation breaches, owner Michael Brody hired Levan to be resident DJ at his new venue, Paradise Garage, which opened in 1977. The former parking garage on King Street in west SoHo became synonymous with Levan, and by the early ’80s had become an iconic venue and a key part of New York’s underground club culture.

At a time when the music industry is waking up to the importance of celebrating the role of Black culture in defining the scenes we know and love, Levan’s story couldn’t be more fitting.

Levan’s sound was initially very much influenced by Siano’s musical tastes and DJing style: an R&B-heavy approach to what had already become known as disco music, but with a much more open, freeform sound than the disco scene, which had become commercialised and whitewashed beyond recognition.

Levan adopted Siano’s love of Philadelphia soul like MFSB and string-heavy disco from New York’s Salsoul label, mixing in rock and post-punk, gospel, proto-house and R&B.

The eclectic blend of music played at the Garage quickly became known as Garage music, but the music itself was only half of the story, with Levan’s obsession with sound compelling him to work with Garage audio engineer Richard Long to perfect the club’s system.

As the years went by, Levan’s style moved closer in line with the early house coming out of Chicago, though he never abandoned his disco roots.

Paradise Garage closed its doors in 1987, by which time house emerged as the dominant dance genre and Levan was struggling with crippling drug addiction. His influence on the music scene was obvious, though, despite his personal problems, most clearly in the sound of DJs who followed in his footsteps (Junior Vasquez, Tony Humphries, Todd Terry, Kerri Chandler and many more), but also in terms of club culture; London’s Ministry of Sound, for instance, was heavily inspired by Paradise Garage, commissioning a custom Richard Long sound system and booking Levan for a regular series.

The music played at the Garage had never been a genre in the sense of a single, distinct, easily defined style, but by the late ’80s the idea of ‘garage house’ had emerged to describe a particular type of house preferred by Levan: delicate, soulful, often with vocals and clear influences of gospel and classic disco. This style evolved to become the dominant sound of early ’90s house, often referred to simply as garage and splintering off into its own distinct style, which went on to evolve into speed garage and inspire UK garage.

Levan sadly died in 1992 at just 38, but his legacy is huge: he helped define house, and how we think of club culture. At a time when the music industry is waking up to the importance of celebrating the role of Black culture in defining the scenes we know and love, Levan’s story couldn’t be more fitting.

The eclectic sound of Paradise Garage in just three tracks

Peech Boys - Don't Make Me Wait, 1982

Levan’s own studio career saw him produce, write, mix and remix an impressive catalogue of tracks.

We could choose from a wealth of garage favourites here. It’s hard to omit Loose Joints’ Is It All Over My Face? (Female Vocal) (opens in new tab) or Taana Gardner’s loping 100bpm stomper Heartbeat (opens in new tab) (which would reportedly clear the dancefloor when first played, later becoming a crowd favourite), but we’ll plump for the Levan-produced Peech Boys project.

Don’t Make Me Wait is a proto-house classic: gospel-inspired vocals, LinnDrum beats and funky synths. Pure perfection.

Jeanette Thomas - Shake Your Body (House Shaker Version), 1987

By the late ’80s, Levan was still playing R&B, disco and other styles, but he’d also embraced the emergence of what we’d now consider to be more conventional house.

Shake Your Body falls under the broad, loosely defined banner of garage house; Levan played it at the Paradise Garage closing night in September of 1987 and continued to play it in sets at other garage-friendly clubs including New Jersey’s Zanzibar.

ESG - Moody, 1981

The early Paradise Garage sound always embraced the full musical spectrum, branching out from Levan’s disco roots to explore everything from avant-garde music to rock.

NY post-punk/funk group ESG’s Moody is a perfect example of something that feels like it shouldn’t work in a typical dance club context - and indeed, it seems impossible to believe music like this could ever have worked in the ’70s disco scene - but its edgy, sinister groove became a garage favourite.

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