Zanzibar, Kiss FM and the Jersey sound—Bruce Tantum spends time with the revered veteran DJ Tony Humphries.
As a key figure who led disco's transition into house, for some people Humphries practically is a god. Starting in the early '80s and running through the early '90s, he helped guide the way from atop his twin pillars: a pioneering mix show on Kiss FM (a slot he snagged though a chance meeting with another trailblazer, Shep Pettibone) and a legendary residency at Club Zanzibar in Newark. Later in the decade, Humphries, together with the label Movin' Records, helped forge the Jersey sound, a sometimes raw, always soulful style that's still one of house's most jubilant genres. Though he was always a DJ first and producer second, he made string of stellar remixes, from classics like Indeep's "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life" and Mtume's "Juicy Fruit," through to house gems such as Ultra Naté's "It's Over Now" and Romanthony's "Falling From Grace," to leftfield oddities like Longsy D's "This Is Ska" and The Sugarcubes' "Leash Called Love."
It feels surprising to have Humphries—born in 1957, whose defining accomplishments date back to another generation—serving as Running Back's standard bearer. But really, the typical Running Back tune is infused with the classic Tony Humphries style: a blend of thrust and depth, with a linear drive that's filled with the joy of clubbing's glory days. (It probably doesn't hurt that a few of the label's tracks feature samples that date back to the Humphries' beginnings.) Speaking on the phone from his New Jersey home, the gregarious Humphries talked about his path from local DJ to international superstar, his efforts to avoid the "Vegas act" trap and, of course, the Running Back mix.
Is it true that you weren't very established as a New York DJ before you landed the Kiss FM and Zanzibar gigs?
I had been playing around town periodically, but not really so steadily. But then, everything seemed to happen for me at the same time. It was Kiss FM 98.7 that got things going. At that time, Kiss had a huge rivalry going with WBLS—it was a competition of the New York streets. WBLS had the reputation of the number one soulful station at the time; it was black-owned and all of that. Kiss was the newer station, the upstart.
How did you manage to get the job at Kiss?
Well, Kiss had already hired Shep Pettibone and gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted on the weekends. And Shep is the one who brought me in.
How did you know Shep?
I met Shep at Prelude Records [where Pettibone worked as an in-house mixer] and just gave him a couple of cassettes of my mixes. Then at the end of the week, he gave me a call and said, "Hey, man, someone messed up and can't deliver his tape. Can you put something together by tomorrow morning?" So I did, had my boys deliver it to the station, and that was it, man. This was July 16, 1981.
You have a good memory.
Well, that was my first time, you know. Boy, that was something. It came out of nowhere. It was like, am I really on the radio? It was a serious, serious experience. And everybody seemed happy, and I liked to do those mixes, so I just kept going with that.
And that led to the Zanzibar gig?
Yeah, that happened in '82. There was this DJ hustle back then. You would have to go to the label's offices and pick up your product, your records. You'd have a weekly schedule: Prelude, West End, all of them. Anyway, at the time, Larry Patterson was also working at Prelude, and one week when I stopped by he said, "You should check out this club in Jersey!" He had already been playing at the club. I'm like, "Jersey? Jersey? Nah, that's alright, man." But Larry insisted: "I'm serious, you need to check it out." So Shep, myself and Jose Guzman, who was one of the on-the-air guys at Kiss, got in a car and drove to the club one Wednesday. And I was blown away.
It was like the Paradise Garage! A smaller version of the Garage, but that was it for me. I started going there more, for Larry on Wednesdays and Tee Scott on Fridays. Eventually they let me play there.
Were you a success there from the start?
No [laughs]. That first night was bad. I was used to using Technics, but at Zanzibar the system had been set up by [famed soundsystem designer] Richard Long, and he was a Thorens guy. And those Thorens turntables are belt-driven, not direct drive—and let's just say things were a little looser than I was used to. So here I am, attempting to play funk records, stuff with live drummers, and it was horrible! I was car-crashing all over the place.
They didn't immediately get rid of you?
Well, I got off, went into the men's room with Larry Patterson and started telling him how bad I felt. I said, "Larry, I'm really not this horrible. Please give me another chance!" And he said, "OK, give it one more shot this Friday." So Friday comes along. Larry was on, he had to go meet somebody down at the door or something, and he says, "OK, go ahead, play a couple of records." This time, I knew what to do: I played music with straighter drums, music with a modern feel. Nothing with crazy intros. I played it really safe with the drums that night. After about 20 minutes or a half hour, Larry just said, "Keep going, keep going." So I did. It went pretty well.
It sounds like your style was already beginning to take form.
Maybe. I figured out pretty quick just to play tracks that had more computer-driven drums, music with an open, dubby feel. And a couple of years later, when I began getting music from Chicago—from Trax and D.J. International—that was perfect. Mixing those records was pretty easy [laughs]. But I was mixing in a lot of R&B records with the Chicago tracks, too.
How often were you on Kiss during this period?
I was on three or four nights a week—Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And then every day at noon. And then maybe two nights a week at the club, on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. It was a serious rotation. I somehow kept that up through the early '90s.
How did you manage it?
I was a lot younger, that's how [laughs]. Believe me, I had help from a few buddies.
What were they doing for you?
A little bit of everything, really. A big one was the promos and organizing them—that was huge for me. We would know where all the newest ones were, which ones were female-vocal tunes or male-vocal tunes, which ones were tracks. That would help me program my shows: female vocals, male vocals, then tracks, and just keep that rotating to keep people's interest up.
What made Zanzibar such a special place?
A lot of things. Let's start with ownership. The club was owned by Miles Berger, a real estate guy, and he had been taken to the Garage. He was impressed by it, and he was willing to spend a little money to have something that was kind of the same. He turned that hotel's ballroom into a little Garage, even down to the soundsystem. The clubs even shared some of the same DJs. Larry Levan used to do Wednesdays, and David Morales did Wednesdays at some point after I was there. And the two clubs shared a lot of the artists. Say Grace Jones was in town—she would do Zanzibar on Friday and the Garage on Saturday. The patrons would switch back and forth, too, with a lot of the same people going to both clubs.
So there was never a rivalry between the Garage and Zanzibar?
No, there was a lot of cooperation, and that helped to make Zanzibar what it was as well. We were like the Garage's little sister. I mean, it was understood that the Garage was number one—you couldn't beat it. But Zanzibar held its own. It was by far the best forum for dance music in New Jersey at the time, and the Garage was really the only place around that could top it.
Some of Zanzibar's DJs actually resided in the Lincoln Motel, where Zanzibar was located. Did you ever live there?
When I started at Zanzibar I was still living in Brooklyn. I was way out by Kennedy Airport, and it was a serious commute to Newark. But I got over that pretty quickly, and I lived at the hotel for a minute. That got tiring pretty soon. You get a girlfriend or whatever, and it's time to get the hell out of there. Someone offered me an apartment in East Orange, five or six minutes away, and I just kept the place. I'm still in East Orange.
East Orange was also the home of Abigail Adams' Movin' Records label and shop. Movin' played a big role in your sound, right?
Oh, yeah. I definitely played all the label's records, and that shop was like the Vinylmania of New Jersey, no doubt. Let me tell you—the three avenues of Movin' Records, Zanzibar and Kiss FM were a seriously powerful thing for me back then. I'd play something new at Zanzibar, I'd play it on the radio the next night, and then Abby would have it in the store as quickly as possible. That rotation just kept going and going. It was constant, and it was wicked. The only combination that was kind of similar back then was Larry Levan, WBLS with Frankie Crocker and Vinylmania.
Why did you end up leaving Zanzibar?
By the very early '90s, the club was getting a lot of attention, and pretty soon the British labels were coming, too. At some point, Danny Rampling came over. He wanted me to come over to the UK to play—he was doing Shoom at the time—but I just had too much to do! I just had too many responsibilities, especially because I was doing remixes by then, plus I had a girlfriend. I was like, "Thanks, Danny, but no thanks." But he and his wife stayed for a week and a half to try and convince me to go. And finally I said yes.
That was your first time in the UK?
Yeah, and it changed a lot of things for me. I did Shoom and I did High On Hope with Norman Jay, and Confusion with Kid Batchelor and Nicky Trax. I was shocked with how good it was. The next year, Ministry Of Sound's Lynn Cosgrave made me an offer to come over there. And I did. The flyer was a plane ticket with my name on it. And that was it.
Were you surprised that London accepted you so readily?
Surprised? I was seriously shocked! When I played that first date at Shoom, I was playing my usual selection, going from Ten City to Talking Heads, that kind of stuff. And they were just so into it. After that first trip, when I got back to Zanzibar, I told everyone, "You think you all are the shit? You have no idea!" In the meantime, the numbers at Zanzibar were starting to go down—the gay crowd started having other places to go, women were not coming as much. Around the same time, new owners came in, and they thought, "Well, we'll just go with whatever's hot on the radio." They wanted to go in a commercial R&B direction. At that point, the writing was on the wall for Zanzibar.
You must have been heartbroken.
It was almost a relief when I finally quit, but it did feel like I was letting people down. It was such a great platform to introduce new records and new talent. But the owners eventually changed the name to Brick City and made it into a hip-hop sort of place, so it wasn't my thing anymore. There wasn't anything I could do about it. They offered me a Ministry Of Sound residency, and I actually ended up moving to London for a while.
Was it tough to transition from having a home at Zanzibar to moving overseas and playing internationally?
Not tough, but... it was interesting, I'll say that. For 15 years, I was trying to get black people into more alternative stuff—then all of a sudden, I was trying to get alternative people into black stuff [laughs]. It was a big flip, but it was a lot of fun.
Is it still fun, a quarter century after leaving Zanzibar?
Oh, yeah. You know, right after I left I suddenly was playing England, Italy, everywhere else in Europe, then Japan—really everywhere. And I still am. I like to play wherever they want to hear me. But you know, I was born in Brooklyn, and it's still the best to play in my home base. It's still a big deal for me to play in Manhattan or Brooklyn. Even if it's not a lot of money, I'll be so happy to play at Cielo or Le Bain or Output.
Has it been a struggle over the years to not just be thought of as "the guy from Zanzibar"? Do you find people expect a set of 30-year-old classics when they come to hear you?
That's always been a concern of mine, and I really try not to fall into that trap. I don't want to be an oldies DJ. I don't want to be a Vegas act, you know? There is just too much new music, too many alternative sounds. I don't mind doing the occasional Zanzibar set, but that's only around ten percent of what I do. I purposely limit it, though certainly I'm not denying my history. I actually feel like it's my responsibility, at least a little bit, to be a bridge between then and now. I love to help make the connection between the old stuff and the new stuff.
How did this Running Back compilation come about?
That's because of Gerd Janson. It turns out he's a fan, which I never knew until recently. I actually don't do many of these label compilations anymore. But when I got the offer to do it and sat down to listen to the catalog, I thought, wow, I actually like this stuff.
You hadn't heard any of the tracks before?
No, I actually had some of those older tracks that Running Back has rereleased—like the Heaven & Earth one, "Prescription Every Night"—but not much else. It was a little bit of a challenge, but one that I didn't mind taking. And knowing how Gerd felt, I owed it to him to do the best job I could do.
Its selections are limited to Running Back releases, but it really sounds like a Tony Humphries set. Everything really locks together, and though you often let the transitions ride for a long time, you still give the individual tracks room to breathe.
That's just the way I play. That's what's always worked for me, and I don't think I could do it any different. I really wanted the overlays to feel the same as they used to be on the radio show. You know, Kiss FM relates to the photo on the cover.
The shot of you and the reel-to-reels, with the gold record on the wall?
Yeah, I like that cover a lot. I was still living in Brooklyn—that shot was in my apartment on Miller Avenue in East New York. That record is Mtume's "Juicy Fruit," by the way. Anyway, Shep Pettibone taught me to edit on those machines, and that's what I was doing in that picture—splicing a show for Kiss.
So that photo is around three and a half decades old.
Wow—you're right! You know, I don't think I've changed that much since then. I still love surprising people with music. There are few things I love more than going into a club where they're playing all techy tracks, and then dropping a song, maybe something old school with a soulful feel, on them. I love seeing people's faces when I do that. On the other hand, I might play something really unexpected, like The Slits' version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." I actually just played that at a recent festival in Germany, and it was so cool.
It sounds like you're not planning on retiring any time soon.
There's so much music out there, man, of all kinds—and someone has to play it, right? As long as I'm physically able to, I'm going to keep doing it. I'm just going to keep mixing stuff up.