DJ Danny Tenaglia Talks EDM and 'Preschool' Melodies
by brett sokol
Superstar DJ Danny Tenaglia steps out of the international spotlight and into a Miami getaway.
Danny Tenaglia taking some downtime in his condo overlooking Biscayne Bay.
“What I do now never existed in the ’70s and ’80s,” Danny Tenaglia explains of his teenage years as a DJ. “My big dream then was just to get out of Williamsburg, across the bridge to Manhattan, and to get a job in one of those fantastic discotheques.” Initially, he only made it to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Roller Palace, where he spent three years spinning records for roller-skaters, five nights a week. A gaze out the window of his sprawling Miami condo, with a soaring view overlooking Biscayne Bay, reveals just how far he’s come.
Indeed, these days Tenaglia is a globe-trotter, praised internationally by the dance world cognoscenti, famed for his marathon 15- to 16-hour-long sets at downtown Miami’s Club Space and Montreal’s Stereo, and saluted by Rolling Stone magazine as one of “25 DJs that Rule the Earth.” His forte? Artfully mixing classic R&B grooves with of-the-moment tech-house beats, sending clubland into a syncopated mass of sweaty limbs and whoops of joy.
Of course, if Tenaglia needs a reminder of where it all began, he can always revisit the Roller Palace. “It’s a Rite Aid now,” he laughs of the cavernous space, “but the disco ball is still there, hanging from the ceiling. I think it’s just up too high for them to deal with removing.” Back during his early-’80s job there, after the roller rink would close at 1 am, he’d stow his records and scoot over the East River to hear his DJ idols, like Bruce Forest at Better Days and Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage. However, neither of those spots was willing to open up its turntables to him. So in 1985, when a pal in Miami mentioned a nightly DJ gig at the newly opened Cheers (now the Booby Trap strip club), Tenaglia headed for Florida.
“We were the only game in town that had a liquor license until 5 am,” Tenaglia recalls of his Cheers residency during that pre-South Beach nightlife era. As Miami’s annual Winter Music Conference grew into a heavyweight gathering for the dance music industry, Cheers became their favored last call. Tenaglia made the most of the opportunity to reach those influential ears—soon his own hit record was being played in the same Manhattan clubs he’d once danced in. By 1990, he was receiving so much studio remixing work, he moved back to New York. In between overseas DJ gigs, from London to Tokyo, he remixed songs for everyone from Madonna to Michael Jackson—landing several Grammy nominations and eventually buying his Miami hideaway.
Accordingly, the last few years should have been ones of triumph for Tenaglia. Electronic dance music crossed over from an underground phenomenon to a commercial behemoth. Even Wall Street hit the dance floor: Last October saw electronic music promoter SFX Entertainment raise $260 million through a public stock offering.
Yet Tenaglia found himself increasingly frustrated. “The bigger the venue, the bigger the music,” he sighs. His passion for playing deep house, a style rooted in gospel, and techno, a sound based on trance-inducing minimalist rhythms, translated poorly to arena settings. What did wow huge audiences left him cold. “[Some DJs] make so much money selling out nightclubs,” Tenaglia says, referring to the scene’s current stars. “But I’m sure [they realize] the immaturity factor and the silliness of some of these melodies. It’s so preschool; it’s like listening to Sesame Street!”
Even worse, actual dancing was replaced by throngs simply punching the air with their fists. “They shouldn’t even call it dance music,” one critic griped in The New Yorker. “They should call it look-at-the-DJ-and-get-drunk music.”
“I just needed to collect my thoughts and stop living out of a suitcase. Where was all this going for me? Where did I fit into something like Ultra Fest? Am I going to have to change the way I perform?” Tenaglia muses, referring to his now-notorious 2012 Facebook post, which, after over 2,000 impassioned comments from his fans, was prominently reported by the New York Post as his “retirement” note. With a sheepish chuckle, he clarifies, “I was resigning, not retiring, but that got lost in translation. It was such a silly time for me. But I’m not going to say I regret it.” What resulted was a determination to redirect his life—less overseas travel, more downtime in Miami, a spate of new songs recorded with a live pianist, and a refusal to follow the cultural herd, however lucrative it may be. When it comes to deejaying at certain venues, “I told my manager, ‘Don’t even call me with that offer of stupid money. It’s just too tempting!’”
During the Winter Music Conference, Tenaglia will deejay poolside at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach on March 27, at Wynwood’s Ice Palace on March 29, and at Miami Beach’s Trade on March 30.
photography by gary james