A world away from the red rope exclusivity of Studio 54, a group of working class kids from New York's outer boroughs created their own alternative scene. Their place of worship was The Funhouse and the high priest of hedonism a Latino DJ from the South Bronx named John "Jellybean" Benitez. Located at 526 West 26th Street, The Funhouse became a breeding ground for the new electronic sounds of the street, and made Jellybean arguably dance music’s first DJ superstar.
The Funhouse was opened in March 1979 by owners Joe Monk and three neighbourhood friends Ronnie, Jerry and Vinnie. In its first years spinners included Bobby "DJ" Guttadaro, Jim Burgess and Jonathan Fearing, but the club struggled to create its own identity. "When it first started I wasn't very attracted to the club, because I felt it was just a kind of low end version of the regular commercial places around town," says Body & Soul DJ Danny Krivit. "But then it became more open to kids and in doing that they started to really go towards the electro kind of stuff; things the kids were more into. And there weren't that many clubs that focused on that around Manhattan."
The Funhouse really made its mark on New York club culture when Jellybean took to the decks. Bringing with him an exuberant, predominately straight, street crowd of young Puerto Rican and Italian Americans, Benitez worked his magic from inside the mouth of a huge grinning clown. Loaded on cheap amphetamines and mescaline, Jellybean's fiercely loyal crowd would go wild to his mixes, barking when a favourite tune came on.
Born in the South Bronx in 1959, Benitez had his life changed following a visit to The Sanctuary, where DJ Francis Grasso held court. "I had been to some smaller clubs but that was the first time I experienced a New York City underground place," says Jellybean. "It took me completely out of what I was used to, having grown up in the South Bronx. The crowd was a real mix of everything and there was a different kind of sophistication. There were just so many people dancing to all these amazing records I hadn’t heard before."
"I was so fortunate to be living in New York, being the age that I was, and going to hear what people now consider the legends at their peak, playing in the clubs they were most famous for." - Jellybean Benitez
These trips to the decadent Hell's Kitchen club opened up a whole new world to the wide-eyed teenager. "Me and my friend Tony Carrasco (who later helped form Klein & MBO) started going to all these different clubs in Manhattan and would hunt down the music we heard," Jellybean recalls. "We'd go to Colony Records and Downstairs Records to try to buy this stuff that just wasn't available anywhere else. We were like music junkies. And all these different DJs would be talking to the guys behind the counter, so we'd ask where they played. So that's how I first met David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, Richie Kaczor and all these guys."
Jellybean had the bug and trips to legendary nights like Barefoot Boy, Galaxy 21, The Loft and The Gallery followed. He watched DJs Tony Smith (later to spin at The Funhouse), Walter Gibbons, David Mancuso and Nicky Siano closely. "It was all so new and exciting," he says. "It was constant, improvisational experimentation. I was so fortunate to be living in New York, being the age that I was, and going to hear what people now consider the legends at their peak, playing in the clubs they were most famous for." In 1975 Jellybean had his first residency at Charlie's in the Bronx trying to break underground club music to a salsa crowd, but was eager for a spot in Manhattan. "There was this place called Experiment 4 which was owned by the same people that ran Galaxy 21. That was great because I had been trying to get to play at a club in Manhattan for as long as I could remember. The thing was I was 16, and looked like I was 12. But I finally convinced the owner to let me play. So I had my New York residency and that's where I met people like François (Kevorkian), who was working at the club. And once I played there other club owners wanted me."
Bookings at Xenon, Hurrah and Electric Circus helped build his reputation, but it was at The Funhouse that Benitez stamped his mark on the New York scene. " Judy Weinstein who ran the New York Record Pool told me that the owners were looking for a DJ," he says. "And so I met them and we got on and that was the start of my residency there." Jellybean soon realised The Funhouse was something different to his previous residencies. "I had already been playing at all these places but I would consider them to be like glamour clubs, really. The Funhouse allowed me to get back to the kind of scene that I had first experienced at clubs like The Loft and Paradise Garage. It was an underground club, a gigantic room with a Richard Long sound system. It had everything these other clubs I loved with the one difference – it was straight. All the other big underground rooms were predominately gay."
The late opening hours on both Friday and Saturday nights enabled Benitez to experiment. "On a Saturday I would start at 10 PM and go through until 10 or 12 on Sunday morning. Having 10 to 14 hour sets allowed me to really try a lot of things. Especially when it hit five in the morning and you had 2,000 people who weren't going to leave that room. I was able to play whatever I wanted. When you get into that morning hour you really learn about programming." Already building a big following amongst the kids at the club, Jellybean's name reached further across the five boroughs thanks to radio. "WKTU asked me to do a mix show on the air on Saturday nights," he says. "Between that and having the core underground base at The Funhouse, that really broke my name."
Jellybean's eclectic sets were founded as much on the block parties of The South Bronx as the underground disco parties of Manhattan. His was a hip hop mentality where such disparate tunes as Babe Ruth's "The Mexican" and "Disco Circus" by Martin Circus made perfect sense together. "I was from The Bronx of course and had seen guys like DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash play in the parks and block parties. So I was learning from the street with hip hop and the beats, and then at the same time I was hearing what Larry (Levan) and David (Mancuso) were doing and then what Walter Gibbons was doing. Honestly, I thought I was the greatest mixing DJ in the world until I heard Walter at Galaxy 21. He just totally blew my mind because he was not only a great mixer but he also did a lot of stuff like these hip hop DJs did, not scratching but these quick cuts. I would watch him in the booth and think, 'How the fuck did he do that?' So I would go home and try and do the same."
"They have a crowd [at The Funhouse] that's very open to strange things. So we can make our records for them because they are ahead and usually everyone else will catch up." - Arthur Baker, 1983
With its hard-edged sound system and intense crowd of open-eared dancers, The Funhouse became a testing ground for the raw electronic productions that for many was the club's signature sound. "We'd go to the Funhouse, and we'd see what people were getting off on," Arthur Baker told the NME’s Richard Grabel in 1983. "'Planet Rock,' 'Walking On Sunshine,' those records were consciously made to get over at The Funhouse. And a lot of other producers who have had success with electronic records… a lot of these producers test out records there. They have a crowd that's very open to strange things. So we can make our records for them because they are ahead and usually everyone else will catch up." It was also a perfect environment for Jellybean to experiment with his own mixes. After co-producing Warp 9's electro classic "Nunk," he entered the famous Blank Tapes Studio alongside Arthur Baker to mix the aforementioned "Walking On Sunshine" by Rockers Revenge. "I just became really interested in making records," explains Benitez. "I wasn't in the first wave of remix producers, but was certainly part of the second wave. And The Funhouse had a big part in that."
Jellybean honed his skills on a further series of productions and mixes tailored for the Funhouse crowd. These included Babe Ruth's "The Mexican," Freeez's "I.O.U" and Jimmy Spicer's "The Bubble Bunch." "Russell Simmons (who managed Spicer) would come to the club and say, 'Do you want to play some hip hop?'" recalls Benitez. "We would go to The Fever in the Bronx together so I totally got all that." With Jellybean's roots going back to the block parties, he became a central figure in bringing b-boy culture into Manhattan. "Whereas The Roxy was about bringing the hip hop downtown and opening a lot of people's eyes. The kids (at The Funhouse) didn't need their eyes opening," says Danny Krivit.
Beneath the grinning clown's head where Jellybean spun, a crew of acrobatic dancers known as buggas watched themselves kick dancing in the mirrored pillars that circled the floor.
While Jellybean was undoubtedly the king of The Funhouse, Tony Smith, one of the DJs who first inspired the young Benitez at Barefoot Boy, also deserves mention. "I thought Tony brought a lot to the club. He kind of pushed the crowd and got them into certain things," says Danny Krivit. "My first (Mr K) edits 'Feelin’ James' and 'Rock The House,' they were records I couldn't really give to my friends like Larry (Levan) at the Garage because it just wasn't their sound. But I brought it to Tony at The Funhouse and it really was their sound." Mixed by Tony Smith's friend Walter Gibbons, Strafe's "Set If Off" was just one of the future New York anthems he broke at the club. "I remember Walter gave him 'Set It Off' before he brought it to the other DJs. And Tony made it happen there," says Krivit. "The same with 'Rock The House.' That was a huge record for them. And that was well before it came out."
The playground atmosphere of the club was set off by an amusement arcade with Pac Man, Space Invaders, pinball machines and an electronic punching bag. Back on the dance floor and beneath the grinning clown's head where Jellybean spun, a crew of acrobatic dancers known as buggas watched themselves kick dancing in the mirrored pillars that circled the floor. "Because they were young kids I felt like they were very much into 'this is the new dance' kind of thing," says Danny Krivit. "So there was a lot of circle dancing and flipping, it was like they were there to be seen for their skills."
A 1983 article in the Village Voice by Steven Hagar focused on The Funhouse's most obsessive dancers. "They brought in a new style: gym shorts, t-shirts cut off at the midriff, sweatbands. The look was a reaction against the let's-dress-up-and-hustle craze that swept through New York in the '70s. According to some Funhouse regulars, the buggas prefer to take a lot of drugs (mostly speed) and just... bug out. They usually dance in front of the mirrors, slowly accelerating. The outer limbs are a furious, windmilling blur, while the upper torso and head remain remarkably stationary."
"They were so musically astute... it was like playing for a room full of DJs." - Jellybean Benitez
Jellybean recalls the attention to detail of these young dance fanatics. "They were so musically astute and knew every song, instrumental, remix or whatever. They knew the names of the remixer and everything, so it was like playing for a room full of DJs in that respect. They were real dancers who felt the music as well, so I could play anything from rare stuff from my early days of clubbing to all the early '80s stuff that was coming out."
The Funhouse crowd was both fanatically loyal to the club and fiercely proud of their neighbourhoods. As Richard Grabel explained in the NME, "In corners of the dance floor you'll find groups breaking into spontaneous chants to the music, shouting, 'Bronx rocks the house' or 'Brooklyn rocks the house,'" For these young kids from the outer boroughs, a night in The Funhouse provided a hedonistic escape from the drudgery of everyday life.
One of the young Italian American partygoers was a pre-fame Madonna who became the girlfriend of Benitez during the club's peak. Jellybean would go on to produce her breakthrough track " Holiday." "In my mind I wanted to be a record producer," he says. "And I convinced her and the record company that I was capable of delivering what they needed. I started playing it at The Funhouse and gave a copy to Larry and he started to play it at The Garage. It was an anthem of the street before the record even dropped. Madonna hung out in the DJ booth every night so the crowd knew her and it just exploded."
"It was funny because I knew the paparazzi from taking pictures of these celebrities at the clubs I played at, but now they were shouting my name." - Jellybean Benitez
Their relationship cemented Jellybean's celebrity status. "When the 'Borderline' video came out our whole world changed," he says. "Because by then she was becoming a pop star and having her picture taken. We would get on a plane and people would be there with cameras, we'd go to a restaurant and everyone would take pictures. It was very different for me. I had seen it going back to the glamour clubs when celebrities like Diana Ross and Cher would seek sanctuary in the DJ booth. So I had seen it from afar but now it was like the other way around. It was funny because I knew the paparazzi from taking pictures of these celebrities at the clubs I played at, but now they were shouting my name. I was used to a kind of DJ celebrity in the underground clubs but walking down the street nobody knew who I was. But when all this started happening that all changed."
With three hits in the Top 40 Jellybean started to re-assess things. "I was making so many records; like two or three a week. I had produced the Madonna stuff. I was getting ready to do the Whitney Houston. As much as I loved playing records I also loved challenges, so the opportunities of making records and learning about the technology behind it and the musical part really appealed. It was amazing to me and I had to make a choice. I couldn't do both."
When Jellybean left The Funhouse in June 1984, one of his protégés and a fellow Bronx Puerto Rican, Little Louie Vega, was named the new resident. He became one of the leading DJs of freestyle music. Founded on tunes like Shannon's "Let the Music Play" and taken to the next level by producers such as the Latin Rascals and Omar Santana, the hard-edged syncopated freestyle sound was a perfect match for a young crowd that had been schooled on both Kraftwerk and Tito Puente. But The Funhouse itself had seen its best days and the club closed down in 1985. It was replaced by the night Heartthrob, where Louie Vega continued to hammer freestyle anthems like "Red Hot" by Trilogy and "Show Me" by The Cover Girls.
After 20 years away from the decks, Jellybean returned to the New York club scene thanks to an invite by David Mancuso to play at one of his occasional Loft parties. "That was one of the sweetest acts I can remember," Benitez says. "It was an amazing night and I realiZed I should start playing again. So I spoke to Louie Vega and we also did a party together. And immediately I started playing in all the right underground events in New York City." Jellybean continues to play an important part in keeping the flame alive for underground dance music in New York. His long running Ain't Nuthin But A House Party sessions and Feel The Spirit continue in the vein of the clubs that first inspired him, with a cross-generational crowd of serious dancers. "So now we are here ten years later and I still do my parties," Jellybean concludes. "It's funny how the whole thing started with me going to places like The Loft and now David helped me get this whole thing back together. It's come full circle."