Must Be the Music: The Nightlife Culture Interview with DJ Herbert Holler


By Gamal Hennessy

Music is the heart of nightlife culture and DJs are the people who keep that heart beating every night in New York City. This week, NCI is proud to present three interviews with unique DJ’s filling clubs and dance floors all over the city. We begin with a pioneer of nightlife culture and the creator of the Freedom Party, DJ Herbert Holler.

NCI: You have been involved with nightlife culture for almost 10 years now. What do you see as the biggest difference between the environment you found in 2004 and what you see now?

HH: I’ve actually been involved with nightlife culture for 18 years now, if you can believe it. I started in 1994 promoting Giant Step parties. I was one of those dudes standing outside near the Cube on Astor Place, handing out flyers. (Ahh…The good ol’ days!) The main difference in the culture between then and now is that today, the culture itself has been turned into big business—molded, processed, and mass produced. There are “parties” everywhere. There are individuals calling themselves “DJs” and “promoters” everywhere. They’re pumped off the assembly line like bags of chips, so of course quality of the nightlife suffers. There’s still a culture, though, just not one with as much significance as before.

NCI: You told me that it is harder to figure out why people come to a party than to figure out why they stay away. What are some of the reasons people won't go out to a party and how have you learned to deal with those factors?

HH: There’re lots of reasons why someone may not come out. It could be location of the party, costs associated with attending (admission, drinks, food, transportation, etc.), what they’ve heard or not heard about the party, the kind of music played, maybe they’re tired, maybe they have to get up the next morning for whatever reason…The list goes on. I never know what’s going on in the minds of potential patrons, so I just try to make it as enticing as possible by taking away these obstacles. I choose venues that are easy to find and get to, I don’t charge a lot of money to walk in the door nor do I fuck with venues that hit you over the head at the bar. I make sure the music played is the BEST music in town (of course). I do my events on weekend nights so everyone can come out. I make sure I get the word out as much as possible, build as much buzz as I can, so people get excited and everyone’s talking about it. Etc., etc..

NCI: Explain the philosophy behind the Freedom party. What were you trying to create when you started and what have you learned about people and music as the party has developed?

HH: Freedom was created to, basically, help preserve NYC nightlife culture. Marc Smooth, DJ Cosi and I felt the BEST way to do this was to bring music back to the forefront. Make it about the music and the dance floor, and that in turn would work everything else out, from vibe to price. (Music is the answer!) Parties were mostly about attendees and how much money was spent. Freedom is about what’s being played. We completely flipped it around when we started in 2003. Today, we’re learning that a “classic” record’s excitement depends on what age group you have on your dance floor. “Funkin’ For Jamaica” was a big record for us when we started 9 years ago, and now, we barely play it. Most of our big records are from the later 80s, early 90s, and that has everything to do with how old the people dancing are.

NCI: You described the music that you play as music that has stood the test of time or will stand that test. What do you hear in a song today that tells you that song will last? Where do you find your new music or your musical inspirations now?

HH: For me, it’s pretty easy to determine whether or not a song will stand the test of time: Does it have soul? It’s that simple. Does the record have a soul? A heart? A spirit? Melodies help, but melodies alone don’t make classics. The song has to have an identity, tell a story, DO something other than pull out pop devices and clichés. Most people think Isaac Hayes or Al Green or James Brown when they think of soul. But I think soul can be in anything. Dubstep, electro, commercial dance music, pop…All these things CAN have soul, and I find when they do, they stick around a lot longer. (Adele, Gotye, etc.)

NCI: Where do you see nightlife culture in the next 10 years? What will social entertainment look like in 2022 and will you still be a part of it?

HH: That’s too big of a question to answer on just one page. Shit…You can do a whole thesis paper on the future of nightlife culture. In brief, I guess…Nightlife culture will still be here, and perhaps it will find new breath, a new raison d’etre. Cycles play a big role in lots of different things. Perhaps we’ll enter a new cycle and see a revival in the respect and preservation of the culture. Maybe we’re entering one now. Regardless of where it will be, I will most likely be there with it. After all these years of spinning records and putting together parties (soon-to-be operating/owning), it’s safe to say that this is my calling.








Have fun


Nightlife Icon Danny Tenaglia Steps Away from the DJ Booth

Legendary DJ Danny Tenaglia wrote his fans a long resignation letter  on his Facebook wall earlier this week. The DJ who has played at the Winter Music Conference 26 years in a row and performed sets in Ibiza every year since 2000 is now looking to stop grueling schedule that has taken him around the world for the better part of three decades.

From the time Tenaglia started going to spots like Paradise Garage in 1979 until this week, he has been responsible for dozens of albums, hundreds of remixes and thousands of performances. His name is mentioned in the same breath as iconic DJs like Tiesto and Little Louie Vega. They were superstar DJ’s before everyone with an iPad could claim to be a DJ. He helped raise the act of driving a party through music to an art form.

Danny outlined much of his longevity and work in the letter to his fans, but house heads don’t need to be told what he has done for house music and nightlife culture. After his final party at Pacha on April 28th, we can only hope that one of his fans is inspired by his work to create new music and leave their own mark on New York nightlife.

If you have any memories of music or performances from Danny’s long career, please feel free to share them with us.

Have fun.


How to be a DJ


One of the current clichés in modern nightlife culture is the idea that anyone can be a DJ. Digital technology has taken an arcane and underground art and opened it up to the masses, leading to very mixed results.

There is a heated debate within the DJ world about technology, skill, celebrity and other sensitive topics. I’m not here to push a particular aspect of those battles. I want to offer some advice on how a novice can actually become a DJ and contribute to the creative aspects of nightlife culture. Whether you use Technics turntables or Numark CD-J’s, Serato or Abelton and whether you carry crates or computers here are some tips to get yourself started.

  • Love Your Music: Being a DJ is very similar to being a musician in the fact that very few of either group ever makes it to the level of Tiesto or Grandmaster Flash. In the beginning at least, you’re going to need something besides fame and fortune to get you through the sometimes frustrating world of nightlife performance. If you don’t love your music you’re going to burn out fast.
  • Learn Your Craft: There are two main ways to learn DJing; classical and formal. The classical method involves learning on your own or under a professional DJ who is willing to work with you. While this method use to take 5-10 years, now with online tutorials,  YouTube videos and books like How to DJ Right you can cut down that time considerably. This can be a stressful way to learn, but if you want to follow in the footsteps of the masters, this is the way to go.

The formal method involves learning DJ skills in a structured classroom workshop setting. There are several DJ schools currently in operation, including Scratch Academy and Dubspot. Because the skills have been synthesized into a curriculum, what used to take years can now take 6-8 months. While it doesn’t have the rebel cache of the classical method, it saves a lot of time and frustration.

No matter which method you use to learn, keep in mind that you will still need to practice to master the art form. You can try to fake it with an app, or software or other shortcuts, but there is no substitute for technique and professionalism.

  • Get Experience: At some point, you’ll have to get out of your apartment, go out in public and play. This could mean playing an open turntable night at a local bar for you, the bartender and a few friends. It could mean being the warm up DJ at a lounge, department store or house party. There is a skill to dealing with unfamiliar equipment and unfamiliar people that you can’t get by making mix tapes at home. Go. Out. and Play.
  • Develop a Sound: If you play the same songs that every other DJ plays, then you can be replaced by any other DJ. Unless you create your own party, most of us will have to deal with the musical styles of the venue, promoter or event organizer. However, you need to be known for something other than just a generic, cookie cutter vanilla DJ. This goes back to loving your music. The key is to be able to play everything but be known for something.
  • Grow: Being a DJ means being an artist. To be an artist, you have to expand your horizons in terms of the music you play, the people you play for and the things you are able to do. It also means not being left behind as the art evolves. Your collection of music, whether analog or digital needs to grow. Your relationship with venues, promoters and other DJ’s needs to grow. Your abilities not just to play music but to promote yourself and express yourself needs to grow. If you can do that, then your interest and love for the art form will give you back far more than you put into it.

This isn’t a comprehensive article, so if any DJ’s out there think I left anything out, or if anyone has a specific question, leave a comment and let me know.

Notice I left out discussions about buying equipment, industry practices and the pros and cons of one type of DJing over another. There are a lot of other people out there with more experience, knowledge and perspective than me if you want to read stuff like that. All I want to do is show you that there is an art and science to being a DJ and that if you put in the effort to become one you can have some fun, try something new and listen to some good music in the process.

Have fun






Show Some Love: How to Appreciate the DJ

By Gamal Hennessy

Music defines a scene and a venue more than any other aspect of nightlife culture. A good DJ is often the difference between a good party and just another club. In the past few years, digital technology, celebrity DJs and the economics of nightlife have transformed this urban art form into a mass market business. There are some people with nothing more than two iPods and a gimmick claiming to be a DJ. But if you want to tell the artists from the pretenders, consider three things the next time you go out…

Selection and Style: A DJ is often under a lot of restrictions when they play out. The venue has its format, the promoter is trying to satisfy his niche market and the random drunken requests all night impose limits on what they can spin. The challenge for a DJ is to transcend those constraints to express their own style. You can tell a lot about a DJ based on the songs they select and how much of themselves they reveal in the booth. A bad DJ plays the wrong songs for the event and the crowd. A decent DJ can stay in their lane and play the hits. A good DJ can take you back to great times in your past or expose you to gems that you’ve never heard before. A great DJ has a signature sound that builds a following and redefines a genre.

Transition: The artistry of a DJ isn’t really in the creation of new music. It is in the combination of music that already exists. One of the main technical skills that a DJ has is moving from one song to another in a way that is interesting and pleasant to the ear. Whether it is the seamless mixing of house, the scratching and beat drops of hip hop or the genre bending of mashups, the DJ flows from one song to the next. A bad DJ sounds like iTunes on shuffle. A decent DJ brings together similar songs. A good DJ can manipulate and maintain the flow in a room for hours. A great DJ combines songs that you like into a completely new song that you love.

Connection to the Crowd: Several DJs have told me that spinning at a party is an exercise in group psychology. As they play, they try to get more and more of the crowd to react to the music. As more people respond and the energy moves through the room the DJ can influence patrons to talk or drink, relax or go crazy, nod their heads or dance, stay or go home. A bad DJ ignores the crowd. A decent DJ is ignored by the crowd like background music. A good DJ can maintain a crowd for a couple hours. A great DJ can keep the crowd going all night so no one ever wants to go home.

Music Matters: There is one thing that I have learned from the DJs that I’ve known, listened to and played with; You can determine a good DJ from their set. It’s not about the technology they use, the genres they spin, the number of people at their parties or how many celebrities they know. It’s about the music. If you’re out somewhere and the boy or girl behind the turntables makes you feel better about being in the venue, that’s what matters.

When you find a good DJ, step up to the booth and let them know . They are often surprised that someone is listening to what they do and a compliment is always better than a drunken request…

…just don’t interrupt their transitions when you are saying hello.

Have fun.

Can Music Save the Clubs?

By Gamal Hennessy

Less disposable cash, more lost jobs and more concern about the economy has created a unique situation in nightlife. Patrons want to go out more to forget about real life for a while, but they have less money to spend. Venues have to fight with each other for fewer dollars. How can clubs differentiate themselves, attract a steady audience and do it without raising prices? The answer might lie with the musicians.

There is no doubt that the recession will alter the music scene in New York City. The question is how it will change. One music writer for Lucid Culture sees the number of clubs shrinking and with it, the number of venues that bands can play. They predict that large venues, very small venues and niche venues will survive while remote, middle of the road and tourist venues will die off. The writer sees a rise in non traditional performance venues, more acoustic, jazz and ethnic performances and a decrease in cover charges as venues attempt to entice patrons into the bar. One possible outcome that the blog doesn’t mention is the rise of musicians of various types as a way to help venues thrive.

As competition gets tighter and venues have to do more to differentiate themselves in the market, could this be a chance for music to become more influential? If a certain venue can become known for having certain kinds of music or musicians could that keep the crowds coming and keep the doors open? Could the clubs, DJ’s and the bands help each other to survive?

Rockwood Music Hall is consistently packed (probably because it’s just a little bigger than my apartment) with people coming to hear independent music. Santos Party House has thrived recently because of Q-Tip’s spinning and venues like APT and Cielo have become staples in nightlife partially because of the music that they play.

Every club can sell bottles or offer ‘specialty’ drinks. Branding might have to come from a different aesthetic. Music could be the thing to set venues apart and set us all free.

Have fun.

What’s Your Hustle?

Back in the day, “What’s your sign?” might have been the default pick up line. The new line now should be “What’s your hustle?”

A hustle is anything you do outside of your regular job to advance. Hustles can be legal, semi-legal or illegal. They can be done solo or in a group. A hustle is often thought of as a street level enterprise, but every aspiring writer, adult night student or part time real estate broker is working their own hustle…

So far this week, I’ve met the publisher of a liquor magazine, scored a couple of DJ gigs, facilitated a birthday party, set up a photo expert with a new client, scheduled a demo recording and negotiated a license agreement for my new book. All of this happened while writing for New York Nights, pretending to work at my day job and taking care of my people. That’s not bad for a short week, but I don’t think you can hustle by standing still.

I’m not alone in this lifestyle. This week I met a lawyer who doubles as a fashion designer. Two weeks ago I met a banker who also works as a club promoter. The musicians I hang out with at night are advertising executives during the day. More than a few of my DJ friends are lawyers. I date a social worker who is also a dancer. A driver for the car service I use is a music producer. When we go out at night it’s rare to meet someone who doesn’t have a hustle.

Most hustlers are working their way up, but I don’t think we hustle just to get ahead. The way I see it, millionaires from Jay-Z to Donald Trump still hustle, even though they don’t have to. Maybe hustling isn’t about money. Maybe it’s a frame of mind.

The willingness to hustle might come from several places. It could be that New Yorkers hustle by instinct, giving up their days working for the Man so they can spend their nights doing what they love. It could mean that the jobs we really want to do don’t pay a lot of money so we hustle to keep things from falling apart. It could just mean that everything on TV is crap so we find something else to do to pass the time.

Nightlife lends itself to hustling. There is a lot of stuff that needs to be done, but you usually don’t have to be there until your day job is done. Nightlife jobs often come with perks, but most of them don’t pay enough to make a living. These kinds of hustles are fairly easy to add into a normal life. Combine that with the fact that you can run things remotely through the internet and there are ready made hustles everywhere you look.

So what if you don’t have a hustle? Do you need one? Maybe not. Maybe you have everything you’re looking for in your job, your relationship and your personal space. Maybe you have enough money, freedom and excitement in your life to skip the hustle. If so, you should feel good about that. If not, then maybe its time for you to find your hustle.

Have fun.

Prince of the City 6: Making Myself Useful

When I started NYN in 2004 I only had a vague understanding of nightlife in the city. I knew it was complicated. I knew it was big. That was about it. I didn’t know where to go, or how to get in, or how much things cost.

So I went out to a lot of different types of places. I kept notes on which places catered to which people. I paid attention to how things worked. I tended bar, I became a DJ, I talked to comedians, musicians, owners and bouncers. And I drank a lot.

Since then, I’ve found out a lot about the different areas of the city and the different types of clubs in each area. Friends, co-workers and random people I never met before found out what I was doing and started to ask me for help when they were planning a night out.

Hey G, I’m taking this girl out for a date. Where should I take her?
My birthday is next week, where should I have my party?
Where is the best place for a drink around here?
What’s the best new club?

I’d talk to them about what they liked, what they disliked, and what was available. The more people I helped, the more people would come to me when they wanted to go out. It happened often enough that I came up with a system to give people choices on where to go and what to do. Then they could make up their own minds and have a good time.

I didn’t consider it a part of New York Nights. It was just something random I did for friends. A couple of weeks ago I started reading about websites offering personal fashion advice. I started thinking; “why not offer personal advice to people who are planning a party?” I’ve got the website. I’ve got the system. All I needed was a name.

I decided to call it NYN Insider because it would give people the same insight on nightlife that an insider has.

Now I can do my part to make New York a better place, one party at a time.

Have fun.

If you want to take advantage of NYN Insider just contact me.