NEW YORK — It’s one in the morning on a school night, but you’d never know it at Webster Hall. House music blares as gay black men vogue on a makeshift runway. Two large televisions are running a tribute to Willi Ninja, the legendary drag ball fixture who died last year of AIDS. Bill Coleman, who managed Deee Lite, is cutting up with a gay porn star named Colton Ford. Body & Soul DJ Danny Krivit is hanging out in the hallway. David Morales — the Grammy-winning dance producer — is doing shots at the bar.
These clubland luminaries may not be familiar faces to The New York Times Arts & Leisure reading public. But among a certain set of downtown club enthusiasts, their collective presence is a big stamp of approval for the party and its resident DJ, Quentin Harris. Over the last 18 months, he’s emerged as dance music’s wunderkind du jour, without the cheesy disco connotations normally associated with such a status.
Though he’s done chart-topping remixes for Mariah Carey and played the biggest clubs in Tokyo and Ibiza, Harris’ style bears little resemblance to most of what you’d hear on a radio station like New York’s WKTU or even at a bridge-and-tunnel nightclub like the one he’s spinning at tonight.
One minute he’s playing a techno-sounding drum track that’s accompanied by a saxophone and a grand piano. The next, he’s mixing in a song by a Spanish jazz singer. And just because this tattoo-emblazoned, proudly iconoclastic 37-year-old from Detroit can’t send dancers home without throwing in a proper diva anthem, he’ll drop in a scorching mix of Chaka Khan and Mary J Blige’s duet “Disrespectful” for good measure.
“He’s progressive and current, but soulful at the same time,” says Wayne Williams, a senior vice president of A&R at Jive Records, who hired Harris recently to remix Justin Timberlake. “Everything he touches is amazing.”
“I always try not to go for the obvious,” says Harris a few days later, sitting in a T-shirt in his recording studio in Hell’s Kitchen. “Like, R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion.’ Who would have thought of putting that on the dance floor?” He did, naturally. “I also did a remix of Ray Charles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ I don’t believe in genres.”
This story first appeared in the October 19, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Indeed, even Harris’ most commercial mixes defy easy categorization. For Timberlake’s hit single “What Goes Around Comes Around,” Harris layered the original vocal track over conga drums and interspersed the mix with violins, maracas, a sitar and a sample of an Indian folk singer.
On Timbaland’s “The Way I Are,” he paired the strings from the original version with industrial house sounds, an electric guitar riff, and the opening drum loop of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret.”
“With ‘The Way I Are’ I didn’t want to go the usual disco route,” Harris says. “The original version had a sort of Eighties feel, so I gave it a kind of electric treatment. It’s almost punk rock.”
Unfortunately, that mix won’t be coming out in stores — at least not officially. As with many pop records Harris works on, “The Way I Are” was done “on spec,” an audition process the major labels are using with increasing frequency to keep costs down and maximize results in the era of online file sharing. In the early to mid-Nineties, DJs such as Junior Vasquez and Armand Van Helden could make $20,000 to remix a single by Madonna or Janet Jackson. The fees could be justified then because a house remix of “Missing” by the folk group Everything But The Girl had spent over a year on the Billboard charts, where it sold nearly 500,000 copies. Shortly thereafter, a dance version of the power ballad “Unbreak My Heart,” helped propel Toni Braxton to number one, where she spent 11 weeks.
But then two things happened. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, which virtually eliminated the cap on the number of stations a radio conglomerate could own. As a result, companies like Clear Channel Communications gobbled up entire markets and filled the radio waves with music that did well in “call out research.” The change helped pave the way for Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, but it was terrible for punk rock, dance music and folk. Then came Napster and plummeting album sales, which forced the labels to slash their promotional budgets, DJ salaries included. Today, companies like Warner Bros. and Sony use remixers about half as often as they did a decade ago, and when they do, fees rarely run north of $10,000. In addition, with Twilo, The Roxy and The Palladium all out of business, there are very few “big-box” nightclubs left to play in New York. “No one is making any money anymore,” Harris says. “I lost $10,000 last weekend on my party.”
The upside is that advances in technology have made the process of making music much cheaper, while the need for less-expensive talent has enabled young producers like Harris to get their foot in the door. If a DJ gains a following from a handful of successful remixes, it will generally lead to lucrative gigs abroad, where DJs like Bob Sinclair and Tiesto enjoy pop star-like status.
“They practically had to call security when Quentin played in South Africa this year,” says Harris’ boyfriend, Roberto Novo, who runs a hair salon in the West Village. “It was like he was Michael Jackson or something.”
Maybe, maybe not. But there’s no question it’s a step up from three years ago, when Harris was working in the stockroom of Satellite Records, the Lower East Side dance music store that’s frequented by DJs like Danny Tenaglia and John Digweed.
One day, a friend on the sales floor passed an uncommissioned remix Harris had done of India. Arie’s “Ready for Love” on to Timmy Regisford, the DJ from Club Shelter, a weekly party that’s popular with gay black men. “He proceeded to play it to death,” recalls Harris. “Then I went to meet him and he told me, ‘You’re putting out the hottest stuff in the business.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I only have one record!'”
Regisford laughed and told Harris he should start opening for him on Saturdays. So he did. He also began to remix songs from every imaginable genre, among them Bjork’s “Hyperballad,” Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place,” Gladys Knight’s “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” and Nina Simone’s “Come Ye.”
Most of his mixes were not assigned to him by the folks at the major labels, so Harris released them himself on bootlegs. “I believe in making music available to people,” he says with a shrug. At any rate, no one complained. “It’s promotion for the labels,” says Coleman, Deee Lite’s former manager. “If they didn’t want people like Quentin to do remixes, they wouldn’t release the a cappellas.” Eventually, the suits at the record companies began calling Harris themselves.
Sony hired him to remix Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever.” Then Universal tapped him to do Mariah Carey’s “Don’t Forget About Us,” which hit number one on the dance charts. After that, Harris did Timberlake’s “My Love,” on spec and sold it to Jive. “I could tell immediately he was something special,” says Williams of Jive. So he hired Harris for “What Goes Around,” as well.
This spring, Harris went into the studio with Britney Spears to record a track for her new album, but the song was rejected for reasons that aren’t completely clear to him. “I think they were disappointed with it,” he says.
Harris has also found it difficult to fill some of the city’s bigger rooms, which he attributes to the fact that his sound is more soulful than most of what you’d hear on mainstream dance floors, and more progressive than what you’d hear in black clubs. “Even some of the Shelter people have been complaining recently that the music’s gotten too techno,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t please these queens.”
Nevertheless, he’s determined to keep trying. This Sunday Harris is playing at Cielo in the West Village. As he sees it, DJing is a form of public service. “It’s difficult and it’s frustrating, but I don’t want to give up,” he says. “Because it’s not all about me. It’s about offering people an alternative. It’s about giving them something that’s not out there. It’d be really sad if there was nowhere left to go in New York. Who wants to stay home all the time?”