Circuit Chat - Manny Lehman

mannylehmandmorga2 photo by David Morgan

Manny Lehman
By John McHugh-Dennis (webmaster)

Manny Lehman is one of the top DJs in this country, with regular gigs in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami.

He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about how it all started, the different musical tastes of the boys across the country, and what his real passion is.

I thought the Abbey would make a nice, quiet interview spot... Did you know they're remodelling? Check out Manny's CD, Circuit Sessions 00.1, or stop by The Factory this Saturday (August 26) to hear him spin!

John:

How much control do you have over what you lay down on a CD? How much direction are you given?

Manny:

I had total freedom to pick songs that I would like to put on the CD, and then we went after licensing. I had total freedom up until the licensing part. Thats the part where the restrictions came in and there were songs I couldnt get, and when I couldnt get a certain song I put another song in place of it, so I had a chance to format it and then it became purely trial and error in terms of what was licensed and what was not. I pretty much had to stick to independent and import stuff because the big artists dont really license their stuff often with maybe a couple of exceptions like Victor Calderone who works closely Madonna. I had a lot of freedom though.

John:

Your mixes have a strong emphasis on female vocals. How do the artists feel about being remixed?

Manny:

I know theres a battle of creative clashes that sometimes happens with this. Most of them welcome it because it exposes them to another market like the Deborah Coxs, the Whitney Houtons, and the Marias. Thank God for them, because otherwise thered be not enough great music in the clubs that have vocals. Most of them I think at this point are very willing to lend their voices and their music over to that kind of styling as long as it fulfills the creative vision of the song and doesnt bastardize or destroy the song. When I was working at A&M Records I had the opportunity to remix Janet Jacksons songs, and Stings songs, and Cheryl Crows songs, and there always was artistic integrity involved. I think as long as you respect the song and the vocalist its no problem.

John:

Youve played a lot of major events. In looking back at those where youve played, is there one that kind of stands out? Or two?

Manny:

Theres a couple that stand out. The White Party closing parties have always been very special to me. Those are really kind of like my "thumb print" on everything. The Millennium March Cherry Party really was over the top probably one of the best parties Ive ever played.

John:

There was an article written in Miami Go where the reviewer was very enthusiastic about your work at that event.

Manny:

I was like, "Yeah, youre a little too generous!" That was an amazing event. The White Party Closing Party this year, that, and I would say the Millennium Party in Miami, the one after the Convention Center, the one at Levels, that was unbelievable. The energy my hair stood up talking about it. The energy was pretty ridiculous. Those are ones that stood out and theres also The Recovery Party at Black and Blue last year it really, really put me on the map. And Twilo Gay Pride this year. Those are the ones that stand out in my head.

John:

You have been working with Jeffrey Sanker for some time. If Im not mistaken, didnt you play the first White Parties?

Manny:

The first couple of years I played all three parties. I was the Welcoming Party, The White Party, and at that time it was just like a Farewell Party. Those were fun.

John:

How did you hook up with Sanker? Did he find you? Did you find him?

Manny:

He found me kind of. I filled in for a DJ at Studio One (now The Factory) one night, and he kind of came up and said "You kind of know what youre doing do you want to work together?", and I said "sure!" and from then on it was history.

John:

Both of you are from New York? Did you meet there?

Manny:

He came out here before I did. I didnt know him in New York. We were running in two different circles. He was working at Private Eyes, or whatever it was, and he worked at Studio 54. I was at The Paradise Garage downtown it was a whole other circle of people.

John:

How did you get started in music in general? I know you worked at A&M Records, but didnt you work in retail before that?

Manny:

I managed a very prominent record store in New York called Vinyl Mania. At that time it was the only store of its kind where everyone went to get their imports and independent records. Its the equivalent of The Perfect Beat. It was the only place to go to. While I was there I got the chance to interface with every great DJ and remixer of then and now, which was very, very inspiring to me. And thats how I became involved in the music thing, and the passion for club music was always in me because I was a club kid when I was in New York. I used to go out to all of these great clubs thats what kind of started it going to The Paradise Garage and hearing Larry Levan playing really just took it through the roof.

John:

How did the Vinyl Mania job come to be?

Manny:

I was going to the Paradise Garage partying, and found out about this opening for a salesperson at Vinyl Mania. I had quit college, and figured heck Ill go work for the record store, I love music. I talked to the owner Charlie and he was talking about club records, and I knew all of the information. Not just club records, music period, because Im a real I love music, and I love chart statistics, and I love "How many number 1s did Diana Ross have?". I knew my music, so he gave me the gig, and ultimately within a short period of time he made me manager, and within a short time we were a Billboard reporting store, and I got notoriety for having good taste in music and being able to pick imports that could cross over and become chart successes.

John:

Did you DJ after that?

Manny:

I started DJing right at the beginning of that. It kind of like came together at the same time. And working at the store, once again, the notoriety for having good taste in music was recognized, and someone asked me "Do you want to spin at my club one night?" It was a bar/club called the ? on 23rd Street. I was by no means ready for it, but I just dived in. I invited all of my friends, and it was this big, whooping party, and that kind of started the ball. It escalated to playing at the Palladium when it first opened, and 4D, at Roxys roller-skating it was just a really fun time.

John:

How would you characterize your style of mixing?

Manny:

Everybody has their little style. Were all like chefs. We have the same ingredients, its how we put it together.

John:

Im not sure that I would say you all have the same ingredients. I think your ingredients are somewhat different. I guess theres two ways that I look at a DJ theres the content, the selection of what he or she is playing, and then theres the mix.

Manny:

Thats a good point. I think it does start with content. I like Anthems like you said, I like female vocals. I like things that make people feel something. I think people sing along with it. But I also like my tribal beats, and my hard tracks, and my underground, and I mesh it together. Ill play a vocal, a couple of tracks, maybe a couple of vocals, a track, another vocal, four tracks. I just mix it together, and feel how the energy is going. But I always try to bring it back, weave it together with some kind of a vocal tie-up.

RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT! (the sound of the jack-hammer pierces our ears I hope this Abbey remodeling effort pays off!) Time to move to another table for a reprieve.

I categorize my style as very endemic and tribal and primal kind of like just bare-bones, break it down.

John:

Do you recognize other DJs music? If you heard an excerpt from a DJs work that you were familiar with, would you be able to name that DJ?

Manny:

Yes. I can tell by the way that they overlay the music. You can tell a persons style totally totally.

John:

What kind of music do you listen to for your own pleasure. Say youre just sitting at home relaxing what do you listen to?

Manny:

I listen to a lot of R&B. I listen to acoustic female stuff like Beth Orden and stuff like that. I listen to soundtracks. I listen to easy shit, you know, mellow. But I still will listen to my dance music at home just throw it on, and, you know, shake my tail-feather.

John:

In one of the interviews that you did, you mentioned that our club environment isnt creating the hits that it used to create and that there should be more Divas coming from our culture. Do you have a theory as to why that is, and how things changed to bring that about?

Manny:

I dont know why that happened. Its a mystery. You go to Europe, anywhere else, and Dance Music is huge. The rhythm of the clubs reaches out to the masses. Here

John:

Its a gay thing here, isnt it?

Manny:

Its a gay thing. I think its a stigmatized sub-culture thing.

RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT! The sound of the jack-hammer once again surfaces Wheres Alan Funt? (The Candid Camera host for our younger readers)

Theres been some break-through artists Cher revitalized it, and there are the Whitney Houston re-mixes, but there used to be a time when, you know, Madonna came from the clubs, Sylvester came from the clubs, Chic came from the clubs

RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT!

I think this was planned! Were being jacked right now!

John:

Must be one of my competitors put them up to this! Back to the music In Europe, Dance Music is not a gay thing?

Manny:

Everybodys into dance music in Europe, everybody.

RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT-TAT!

This is crazy!

RING RING RING RING! (telephone) Okay, time to seek shelter in Mannys car.

John:

What were we talking about?

Manny:

Dance Music in Europe.

John:

Oh yes.

Manny:

Even in Canada, their equivalent of MTV is very dance-driven. You go to Black and Blue, and its gay and straight, younger and older, teenie-boppers, all kinds of people. Its very multi-cultural.

John:

Is Black and Blue in Canada considered a gay event?

Manny:

Its considered a humongous fund-raiser. I dont know if its really considered a gay event. Its totally mixed. Its 20,000 people, and I would say half of its straight, easy. Maybe more than half is straight. Its young girls, young guys, its HOT! But its all these kids together. Its the most amazing thing youll ever see.

John:

Now I want to go!

One thing I wanted to ask you about is Drugs in the club scene. Youve been doing this for a long time. How do you think its changed? Has it gotten worse, or is it just more visible, or

Manny:

I think its more visible, yes.

John:

You and I are basically the same age, and I know when I was first coming out, which was when I was 19, about 20 years ago, cocaine was there, and speed was out there, and of course pot. For me, that was about it.

Manny:

Drugs have always been in the club scene, as many concoctions, and as many creations. Its become more habit to do it. Before people used to have a couple of drinks and maybe recreate a little bit, but now its kind of like ingratiated into the whole party atmosphere. And yes, sometimes it gets out of hand, but I feel like theres more of a sense of responsibility happening because people know that if theres too much of it and they keep doing it, and theres altercations, there are going to be ramifications. I think that people frown upon somebody whos taken it too far. Theres nothing uglier than seeing someone you know doubled over, fucked up. Nobody wants to see that it can be unattractive. Also for the person, it puts a damper on things.

John:

Youve played pretty much all over the map. I think that the three major cities which we consider to be the three major Gay Meccas of the U.S. are exactly the three cities that you play in pretty regularly New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. Is there a distinct difference between the type of music that the people in these cities like to listen to?

Manny:

Yes. Theres a definite, definite, definite difference. New York, of course is harder edged. They love their music there. Theyre very musically astute.

John:

Do you tend to try things out more in New York than you would anywhere else?

Manny:

Absolutely. And Miami is right behind it. Miamis on par with it actually. But Miamis a little more drum-oriented. They love drums down there. Everybody loves drums a good drum set, it rocks. But theres a sense of tribalness I guess because of the Latin element down there, and the tropical atmosphere, and the carefree vacation environment down there thats a little more kind of like shoulder shakin down there. L.A. is more... it doesnt have as much hard-edged music in there.

John:

Do you think thats largely because L.A. is such a melting pot? There really isnt an L.A. culture, per se.

Manny:

No theres not. Its a transient city. I dont know why it is, but L.A. likes more vocals, and thats fine. Sometimes they like a little fluff, a lot more fluff

John:

This is Hollywood!

Manny:

Its Hollywood, thats true. Theres a lot more fluff involved in the mix, and theres nothing wrong with that! Different Strokes for Different Coasts! Because of that diversity I think Ive been able to create my identity more, because I can combine the elements a little easier. But theres definitely a difference. Theres a difference between L.A. and San Francisco! Big difference. L.A. is more vocal and lighter-edged. San Francisco is more trancy and edgier. But they do like their vocals there as well.

John:

So is San Francisco kind of mix between New York and L.A.?

Manny:

Yeh, kind of. With a little bit of European in there. They like the tech there, or trancy sound.

John:

When youre playing an event, how much of what you play and the way you mix is planned?

Manny:

None of it. Im totally playing off of the energy. I mean, I may pick or decide I want to play this song or that song into this song somewhere during the night, maybe, but none of it is pre-thought. If you look at me play, Im flipping through the records thinking "Whatll I play next? Hmmmm." Theres like a minute left, youre looking, and Im still thinking "I dont know what to play next!" Some people dont work like that, some people do. Most of the people I know dont do that. But there are people who have a program, or maybe like a set they want to do, and then theyll wing it for a while, and then do another set they want to do.

John:

So you rely heavily on what you feel and what youre picking up off the crowd

Manny:

Yes, total energy flow. If its happening, lets see where it goes. And I think thats the magic of it. Because otherwise, you can program a CD. Otherwise, you can put it on a computer, and put a digital system in your club and not have a Disc Jockey. Part of having a live DJ is kind of like going to live theatre you never know whats gonna happen. They may fuck up, they may totally screw up the mix, they may lift the needle off of the wrong record, or they may just take the energy through the roof. You never know whats gonna happen.

John:

Do you still go out there and try to discover talent? CeCe Peniston was one of your discoveries. How did that all come about? You were at A&M Records then, correct?

Manny:

Yes. I worked in Promotion for A&M, and I indicated that I wanted to do Artists and Repertoire (A&R), which is signing and developing acts. They gave me the opportunity to do so, and the first thing I did was CeCe. Actually, it was the second thing. The first thing I did was a female rapper called "The Overweight Pooch", and she was singing background for "The Overweight Pooch". I heard that voice and I was like "Who is this Girl?", and we did a demo, and the demo was "Finally". It was just amazing, and now Im getting back into that. Right now I have a management company with somebody else and were developing a five-girl group that were signing to a major label the female N Sync so to speak, that kind of thing. I find that to be the most exciting thing. A lot of people ask me why I dont do re-mixes and stuff like that thats not in my system. I get tickled by the thought sometimes, I gotta be honest, but because I did re-mixes in New York during the 80s tons of them... I get really excited by finding the artists, finding the songs they should sing, putting them with the right Producer, and just making that whole cycle happen.

John:

Its the whole cradle-to-grave thing.

Manny:

That is so fulfilling, and so exciting, it really is.

John:

And it must be rewarding to feel that you put that person out there.

Manny:

It is the most rewarding feeling in the world, it really is. Its kind of like giving birth to this thing. Its like having a child, and having the child go to college and graduate, only in a much shorter time.

But getting back to "Finally" Seeing this 19-year old girl light up and brighten up and have this success and adoration for her come and she looked and me and she goes "Thank You".

John:

This is CeCe youre talking about?

Manny:

Yes. Its the best feeling in the whole world. That was the best feeling in the whole world.

John:

What advice would you have for people who are trying to break into the DJ business? Would it be different today than when you were getting started?

Manny:

I think it might be different. I think theres more of a notoriety that goes along with being a successful DJ these days. Because its kind of a pop sub-culture iconish kind of thing. I think its harder now because so many more people are trying to do it. But, follow your passion, and follow your heart. Its like anything else you have to be committed and you gotta be good at it. And you have to offer something a little different identity-wise. Anybody can buy the same records and mix them together technically. But its kind of like putting that personal twist into it that makes people go "Oooooh.. OOOooooohhhh" you know what I mean?

John:

What gigs do you have coming up in terms of Los Angeles? Where are you going to be playing? Arent you going to be at The Factory on the 26th?

Manny:

Factory on the 26th. I play there twice a month. Its my resident L.A. club. I work with Jeffrey Sanker and Sandy Sachs promoting. I like to keep my actual spinning dates to a minimum monthly to keep it special so to speak, because I know how easily uninterested the L.A. crowd can become. Im not trying to sound I mean, Ive seen it. Ive been playing in this club environment for quite some time, and theres a certain kind of short life span for excitement in Los Angeles

John:

Whats your favorite city to play in?

Manny:

Playing in New York is the most musically gratifying, it really is. I guess also because Im playing at the most amazing space, which is Twilo DJ Haven. Everythings so conducive to being a great party. Playing in New York just cant be beat. Miami is also incredible, it really is.

John:

Good luck with your spinning, and well see you at the Factory! Oh, and I almost forgot to plug your CD "Circuit Sessions 000.1" check it out guys!

 

To read other Circuit Chat interviews, click here.