Larry Levan is often thought of as the ultimate DJ. He passed away in 1992, and yet the New York icon still commands an almost religious reverence from the dance music community. The Paradise Garage, a Manhattan venue specifically designed for Levan, is considered by many to be the greatest club ever to exist. By all accounts it was Levan's attention to detail that made The Garage so special. He would make sure everything was just so, putting as much effort into shining the glitter balls as maintaining the quality of music.
Levan achieved a remarkable amount of control over the crowd's emotional state—not only through his selections, but also through the lights and even the room temperature. He'd take The Garage on wild musical detours, playing ballads or freaky electronic oddities when the dance floor was most packed and screaming for more. Other times, he'd play two copies of a record for up to an hour, repeating particular sections to send the crowd into a bizarre transcendental state. His style was unorthodox, impassioned, at times unhinged and totally his own.
Levan's legacy endures primarily through his production and remix catalog. Alongside Francois K, Walter Gibbons and Tee Scott, he was among the first DJs to make a name for himself in the studio. His remixes were transformative, often taking the original records in completely new directions. They were primed for The Garage's system, a ferociously loud, bass-heavy rig that was likely the best of its time. An audiophile of the highest order, Levan was schooled in the ways of high-fidelity at David Mancuso's NYC club, The Loft. His meticulous mixes were optimized for big systems, and almost all of them still sound great today.
Genius Of Time compiles some of Levan's best work, and the songs with Gwen Guthrie—"Padlock," "Seventh Heaven," "Peanut Butter"—are exceptional. They come from the Padlock EP, a seven-track release that spiraled out of a simple remix request from Island Records. The marathon studio session, spent at Compass Point Studios in The Bahamas (at enormous cost to the label), let Levan collaborate with Guthrie and reggae masterminds Sly & Robbie. Their work was a revolutionary combination of tripped-out dub and funky electronic disco. The first minute and a half of "Peanut Butter" is perhaps the pinnacle of the style. The track drips in reverb and echo as it escalates the tension, before the beat sparks a surge of endorphins. Played at The Garage, with the lights off and the bass booming, it would've sounded life-changing.
Equally good is the music by Man Friday and NYC Peech Boys, two groups that prominently featured Levan. These records share Padlock's hallucinogenic brew of dub, drum machines and aching soul. Peech Boys' "Don't Make Me Wait" is one of the post-disco era's seminal moments, an over-sexed record that sounds both totally alien and inviting. Other standouts include Levan's mix of David Joseph's "You Can't Hide Your Love" and Esther Williams' "I'll Be Your Pleasure." Both are light on Levan's freaky disco touches but no less stone-cold classics.
But one thing nags about Genius Of Time: it's nowhere close to the definitive Levan compilation it could, and very well should, have been. The title hints at Levan's genius, but those without prior knowledge of him would leave without hearing some of his best music. None of his influential work for the Salsoul label is included. Inner Life's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," Skyy's "First Time Around" and Instant Funk's "I Got My Mind Made Up" are conspicuously absent; likewise Loose Joints' "Is It All Over My Face," arguably Levan's most visionary remix. These tracks were crucial to The Garage's sound and are glaring omissions, especially next to a few selections that are simply good. Merc & Monks' "Carried Away," included here, is one of Levan's least-known and weakest remixes.
There's a sense that Genius Of Time was compiled on a budget, with its music sourced from Universal affiliates such as A&M, Island and Motown. That's understandable in an industry forced to watch the purse strings, but what would Levan have made of such an approach? He was, after all, a perfectionist—not to mention the kind of guy that would happily spend weeks in the Caribbean frittering away company money. Furthermore, this compilation poses a serious question about posthumous releases. When artists pass on, there may be no one around to appraise such a project, leaving the record label, in many cases, to treat the work as they will. When hip-hop producer Madlib discussed how he might deal with this issue, he suggested an extreme solution: burn everything rather than be misrepresented. Genius Of Time is packed with fantastic, game-changing tracks, but it still only tells part of the Levan story.
01. NYC Peech Boys - Life Is Something Special (Special Edition)
02. Syreeta - Can't Shake Your Love (Larry Levan Mix)
03. Gwen Guthrie - Padlock (Larry Levan Mix)
04. Man Friday - Love Honey, Love Heartache (A Larry Levan Mix)
05. Merc & Monk - Carried Away (Larry Levan Remix)
06. Dee Dee Bridgewater - Bad For Me (Larry Levan Mix)
07. Bert Reid - Groovin' With You (Vocal, Levan Edit)
08. Tramaine - The Rock (Garage Vocal Version)
09. Man Friday - Groove (Larry's Yaw)
10. Jimmy Ross - First True Love Affair (Larry Levan Remix)
11. Gwen Guthrie - Seventh Heaven (Levan Mix)
01. David Joseph - You Can't Hide Your Love (Larry Levan Mix)
02. Grace Jones - Feel Up (Larry Levan Mix)
03. Gwen Guthrie - It Should Have Been You (Larry Levan Mix)
04. Loose Joints - Tell Me (Today) (Larry Levan Mix)
05. Esther Williams - I'll Be Your Pleasure (Larry Levan Mix)
06. Man Friday - Real Love (The Paradise Garage Mix)
07. Central Line - Walking Into Sunshine (Special Mix)
08. Jeffrey Osborne - Plane Love (Specially Remixed Version – Larry Levan Remix)
09. Gwen Guthrie - Peanut Butter (Long Vocal) Larry Levan Remix)
10. Smokey Robinson - And I Don't Love You (Instrumental Dub)
11. Peech Boys - Don't Make Me Wait (Extended Version)