He played his first paid DJ gig on January 1st 1976; produced, remixed, romanced and lived with Madonna during her breakthrough years and lorded over the disco scene during its heyday in NYC. This Friday he comes to Ireland for the first time ever. Ladies and Gentlemen, give it up for Jellybean Benitez.
What are your earliest memories of disco?
“I guess it was going to The Loft with David Mancuso and a few other clubs. I grew up in a neighbourhood in New York (the Bronx) where kids aspired to be bouncers and that’s how they found out about nightclubs.
I bought a lot of records when friends had parties and sat by the turntable in case they’d be scratched or stolen. I thought to be a DJ you had to have a voice or be on the radio. Then one of the older kids said that in a club the DJ has 2 turntables and the music never stops. And they play tracks over each other. My immediate reaction was that’s a horrible idea.
It boggled my mind but when I started going to the clubs and checking it out, it seemed pretty cool. I borrowed my sister’s turntable much to her chagrin, went to Radio Shack and they started explaining about microphones and mixers and what to do.
It was all new, this whole phenomenon. Places with big sound systems and lights. I went from doing parties to experiencing this. You couldn’t find out about the clubs in the newspapers or magazines, it was from word of mouth and record stores.
I lived in the Bronx. I’d go to clubs ask DJs like Nicky Siano, Tony Smith and Danny Krivit, hear what they were playing and then go downstairs to Colony Records and ask them about it. Sometimes, they’d say it’s an ‘import’. I was like: ‘What’s an import?’”
When did you first meet Madonna? How did that relationship unfold? Do you have any contact with her anymore?
“I was DJing at the Fun House and it was quite common for record companies to bring by new records or works in progress in the hope that I might listen to them and help break it. She was one of those artists who came in. She told me she was working on her new album. talked about remixes and asked if I’d be interested. We exchanged numbers and lived together for two years.
The first track I remember by her was called Everybody. It was a big record for me at club level. I was playing at the Fun House on Saturday nights for 14 hours so had some room to drop it. I thought it was a good record and getting good reaction. I liked it because it was soulful, it had this alternative side to it, was radio friendly and the girls were dancing to it and singing along.”
Jellybean dated her for two years) and produced Holiday as well as remixing Borderline, Lucky Star and Everybody from her self-titled debut in 1983. When pressed a little further on his relationship with Madonna, he hints that he will reveal more in a forthcoming book before adding:
“We’ve been friends for decades. I knew her when we were both broke. We experienced things for the first time together. There’s a connection there. She’s still the same woman to me she was back then. The media have created a persona of her which I get and understand. But for women, it’s a difficult balance between fighting for what you want and believe in. By doing this they can often end up being labelled difficult to work with and a bitch for being opinionated. That’s a lot of the misconception about Madonna.”
What are your memories of the impact of AIDS on the disco scene in the 80s?
“That was really difficult. We lost so many talented people in the arts. People were quite promiscuous during the early to mid 70s era before Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta. I was 17 in 1975 and I saw these people who were ten years older than me and come from the ‘free love’ era. Drugs were about, not out in open but there. The only sexual diseases people got were things like gonorrhea syphilis and herpes.
Then when AIDS arrived, it got out of control. It was labelled a disease that only gay people had which made people prejudiced and homophobic. The whole thing snowballed. At the time I had a phonebook and it was strange to have all these numbers in my book and the people no longer with me. I couldn’t bring myself to cross them out. I lost a lot of people.”
What is the essence of a great club from your experience?
“First and foremost it is about the people who attend. It depends on their intention – some come in to get lost in music and dance and have a great time, some to meet people. A balance in between those is the right combination. Then you need a DJ who connects to that audience, is present and aware. The interaction that happens is really special. It comes down to art of programming rather than technical aspects. The other component is sound which really impacts on the experience. You don’t want ear fatigue which shortens the night. If the sound system is fitted properly you should feel the music and hear it but not be overwhelmed.
Who do you rate musically on the DJ circuit these days?
“I like the Martinez Brothers and Black Coffee – they are two DJs who are really special and create great atmospheres when they play. There’s also a bunch of women who are rarely ever spoken of. I hope to see more of them headlining. Our industry hasn’t been fair to them. DJs such as Kamala in New York, DJ Venus and Ultra Nate.”
Do you have an all-time favourite dance track?
“Love is the message by MFSB, That really is the origin of uptempo r’n’b, disco and house.
Everything comes from that song.”
Interview by Michael McDermott