Colleen "Cosmo" Murphy, Mancuso's most trusted protégé, reflects on the rich life and legacy of her mentor.
Colleen "Cosmo" Murphy was one of David Mancuso's closest friends and artistic collaborators. She is also the founder of Classic Album Sundays and co-founder of Lucky Cloud Loft Party. After Murphy began attending and playing records at Mancuso's Loft parties in New York in the early 90s, he adopted her as one of his protégés, eventually telling Time Out New York in 2000, "She's very devoted and very pure about the music. She's one of the only people I would trust both with the music, the equipment, and the dancefloor to fill in for me." Below, Murphy reflects on the rich life and legacy of her mentor—and explains why the lessons she learned from him about the value of selflessness are just even more relevant today than ever.—Michelle Lhooq
My close friend and mentor David Mancuso passed away earlier this week. I am devastated, as are thousands of other Loft devotees. Some of them have met David, and some of them haven't, but all have been irrevocably affected by his approach to music, sound, and the community spirit instilled by his parties. He changed the lives of so many.
My husband and I were with David Mancuso in Moscow for a few days in 2006 during the Iraq War. While we were waiting in the lobby of our luxury hotel, looking and feeling somewhat out of place, a motorcade of cars pulled up to the entrance. Out of one of the more inconspicuous vehicles emerged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whose security team swarmed around her as she power-marched through the lobby. I looked over at David, who had a mischievous sparkle in his eye, and I could tell he was up to something. Suddenly, he stood up and started shouting, "Love saves the day! Love saves the day!" over and over again. She pretended not to hear.
David Mancuso was a rebel with a cause. But his cause did not revolve around the narcissistic, over-inflated, ego-led aims of most DJs. In fact, David did not consider himself a DJ at all. His cause was informed by the ideals of the 60s counterculture, and was concerned with respect, equality, love, and freedom. This may sound like reverent, outdated "hippie-speak" to a young, contemporary audience, but I would argue that this set of values is not only defiant, but absolutely imperative in the face of the growing right-wingism of the Western world.
David began hosting regular parties at his loft at 647 Broadway in New York City in 1970. He was a modest and introspective man who was motivated by the civil rights movement, women's liberation, gay liberation, and class equality. At his private Loft parties—which still take place to this day—people gather to dance and communally celebrate, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and economic class. David's aim was to build a community of like-minded souls and to provide an inclusive safehaven where the only requirement was an open mind. In this era of social division, this is a very daring concept indeed.
In today's age of perpetual self-promotion, being selfless is about as rebellious as you can be.
Of course, music was, and still is, the main ingredient and unifying force at the Loft. David selected the records, but he considered himself a "musical host" rather than a DJ. He didn't want the adulation that so many DJs covet, and only put himself forward to play the records because it was his home and his soundsystem. He felt his role was that of a musical conductor, that he was channelling the music as an intuitive response to a telepathic conversation with the dancers. He once wrote me, "Surrendering to the glory of music is a good thing."
David hated the "Godfather of Disco" moniker that has so often been bestowed upon him in recent times, not only because he did not want to be put upon a pedestal, but because he felt it was inaccurate. David started playing records before the disco movement, and his long musical journeys— which often extended over twelve hours—were comprised of soul, funk, R&B, psychedelic rock, jazz, dub, and anything else that worked within the flow. These endless musical excursions had dips and peaks and were much more dynamic and emotive than the blinkered, BPM-ruled, genre-specific DJ sets that are all too common in club music today.
Obviously, he did play records that are now viewed as important works of the disco canon. Many of these were first tested out at the Loft, and then disseminated to other working DJs via The New York Record Pool—the first DJ record pool, which he co-founded in 1975. There were also occasions where David's more esoteric musical choices became regional radio and club hits. Sometimes, they even entered the national Billboard chart, as was the case with his championing of Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa," released in 1972.
But to David, the musical selections were just as important as the sound. He had always been inspired by the sounds of nature, but it wasn't until he bought a couple of Klipschorns from soundsystem designer Richard Long that his unbridled and resolute pursuit of sonic perfection began in earnest. In the 1970s, with the help of Alex Rosner, David put together a system that surpassed that of any of his contemporaries, and which has stayed pretty much intact to this day. He spent an eye-watering amount of money on multiple Klipschorns, Mark Levinson amplifiers, Mitchell Cotter turntables, and handmade Koetsu cartridges—audiophile sound equipment that achieved the sonic purity David desired.
For him, the purity of the sound was about relaying the message of the music in the way the artist intended, unsullied and unmixed. He often told me, "The sound of the music should be the dominant factor, rather than hearing the soundsystem." The Loft sound set-up was widely regarded as the best by his DJ peers like Francois K and Larry Levan and dancers alike. Producer François Kevorkian—who is known for his impeccable sonic mixes—recently wrote that he would "go into the studio and pretty much do certain things to a mix because [he] knew they would sound so good on the system at the Loft."
"Surrendering to the glory of music is a good thing."—David Mancuso
It was through sound and music that David and I grew close. I started attending his Loft parties on East 3rd Street 25 years ago, when I was 23, and after a few months, I mustered up the courage to ask him to play records on my radio show, Soul School, on WNYU. He asked if we could have a chat first. We went out for a drink and discussed the synchronicity and nonverbal communications a musical selector could have with a dancer, or in my case, my radio audience. We hit it off not only on a musical level, but a spiritual level as well.
He came up to my radio show, marking the first time he had played records outside of his home. Soon after, in 1993, he invited me to play some records with him at the Loft. Strangely, he didn't school me on the ins and outs of his soundsystem; he trusted me to handle his Koetsu cartridges that retailed in the thousands of dollars. Decades later, after an intense audio mentorship with him, I asked David why he had entrusted me with his set-up so many years before. "It starts with a vibe long before one hits the turntable," he replied.
After the first time I played records at the Loft, he would often ask me to co-host on the turntables, and sometimes to fill in for him in his absence. When I made the move to London in 1999, he and I put together the David Mancuso presents the Loft compilation series for Nuphonic. Once in London, we teamed up with our friends Dr. Jeremy Gilbert and Tim Lawrence—author of Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture 1970-1979, much of which is centered upon David and the Loft—to establish The Lucky Cloud Loft Party. David helped us source the sound system for the quarterly party, and musically hosted it until he retired from playing records for good.
So began another phase of our relationship, as David taught me about the hi-fi components of the Loft-style soundsystem that Tim, Jeremy, and I had bought: the efficiency of horn speakers, speaker placement, delays, phasing, turntable setup, cartridge tracking force, psychoacoustics. The list goes on and on, and I have emails and handwritten notes that should eventually be collated.
He also passed on lessons about social behavior patterns and how to enable people to self-govern themselves in a party space—spiritual and social teachings that stand in direct contrast to the primary focus of most clubs, which is to sell drinks. Rather than adhere to the conventions of the commercial club business, David saw the party and dance floor as a sacred place where people could "let it all out."
But the most amazing thing about David is that he wasn't proprietary about his knowledge. He wanted to share it and pass it on, as he had a vision for the Loft to endure after his demise. My last phone conversation with him was this past Sunday, a few days before he passed. Along with many other future plans, he reiterated his idea of creating a Loft Foundation, which he wanted a select group of us to incorporate. He felt the Loft was not about him, but that he was the caretaker, and that he had prepared some of us to carry the torch.
Without a doubt, David changed our lives. Even more significantly, his spirit lives on through the continued Loft parties in New York, and as well as direct descendants of it that have been blessed by David: the Lucky Cloud Loft Party in London, Last Note in Rome, and Satoru Ogawa's parties in Sapporo, Japan, which use a nearly identical sound set-up to the Loft. I hope, and believe, that the Loft parties and spirit will continue after our generation of Loftees and Loft caretakers pass to the next realm. Only somebody who is selfless can orchestrate that. And in today's age of perpetual self-promotion, being selfless is about as rebellious as you can be.