As far as pioneers go, there can only be so many. Tony Humphries — while generally unknown to casual fans of dance music — is one.
Monumentally influential in spreading club culture across the United States and Europe, the DJ — who will play Denver's Black Box on Saturday night — has been a resident at iconic venues like Ministry of Sound in London and has created gold-disc house remixes for Janet Jackson. He also helmed a major mix show on New York City’s KISS-FM, a legendary but now-defunct urban radio station that introduced the world to Run DMC, LL Cool J and Public Enemy, as well as cutting-edge house music, for which Humphries is well known.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the ’70s, Humphries and his crew matured as mobile DJs, providing their equipment and talents to whichever New York City borough needed it and throwing clandestine parties.
“Someone was always watching the light pole that provided the electricity so nobody would trip over [the cord], or pull it out, and they’d alert us if the cops would come by,” he recalls. “It was illegal.”
Since urban sound-system culture was just breaking out, with competing crews battling for the same space, a primary reason for watching the pole was because, as Humphries puts it, “you couldn’t have the same people plug into the system or it would cancel each other out. The other people would just have to go home. They’d think, ‘Damn, we should have got here at five in the morning.'
“We used to do crazy stuff as kids, man,” he remembers. “We used to have the light posts, and these sort of public-announcement speakers on top of them. If you could get up there, you could take them, and we used to take them. We’d build our own systems with them. ... It was crazy the things we used to do as kids.”
Not long after those street parties, KISS-FM hired him, and he subsequently went on to define the Jersey Sound — a more soulful, raw, gospel approach to house music — at Club Zanzibar in Newark, New Jersey.
Newark , a working-class city just far enough outside of New York City to be a headache for many club kids to get to — was an unlikely spot for a widely influential style of music to bloom. With massive Latino and black communities, the scene embraced a wide array of music beyond house, techno and pop; gospel, African and Latin-inspired rhythms also graced the dance floor.
“The hours were long, so obviously you didn’t want to hear ten hours of straight house music,” explains Humphries. “If you’re going to pay fifteen to twenty dollars to hear this guy, you want to hear the whole damn spectrum, and whatever it is, it had better be quality.”
Humphries, now in his early sixties, still relishes diverse sounds and long sets.
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“I just played Tokyo and China. They were there for twelve, thirteen hours and didn’t want to leave,” Humphries says. “The best DJs are the ones who can program and handle lengthy hours. The more you play, the more you have to dig through your history. Because what if you run out of your tracks and shit? Are you just going to start over?”
He cautions up-and-coming DJs to pay attention to genre and offer a wide rotation, including pop tracks, shifting styles at least every fifteen minutes.
“You can play for fifteen hours that way, because people might be like, ‘I feel like leaving, but I know he’s going to play something I like here soon.’”
Tony Humphries, 9 p.m. Saturday, May 4, Black Box, 314 East 13th Avenue.