Manchester is rarely backwards when it comes to music scenes, past and present. Nevertheless, it’s not every day bonafide Big Apple house music royalty swings into town, and it’s even rarer that happens for a free party.
This Sunday Escape to Freight Island goes someway towards bucking trends, then, with the arrival of Joaquin ‘Joe’ Claussell for Better Sundays, a non-ticketed, all-dayer in the shadows of monolithic Mayfield Depot. For those less up on their New York electronic music history, his name is synonymous with one of the most respected soirees that side of the Atlantic, Body & Soul.
Running since 1996, co-founded by John Davis and turntable legend François K, alongside Danny Krivit, Claussell has held things down in the booth as one of the revered resident DJ since the event’s inception. Founded on a principle of soulful, organic grooves and inclusivity, welcoming all walks of life onto one seething dance floor, what began at Manhattan’s Club Vinyl has since become an international powerhouse. Throw downs have taken place across the globe, but each maintains that original ethos.
Punters can hopefully expect a taste of those vibes this coming weekend, with the aforementioned Manchester session. Joining in the booth is the man who made this possible — one of our hometown’s most significant, if elusive, music heads: Irfan Rainy. A chap who lays claim to a legacy beginning in the mid-1980s, when he started collecting vinyl, he has been a selector’s selector since around 1990. Between then and now he has set up the highly respected label, Rainy City Music, played a key role establishing the reputation of sorely missed club The Music Box, and now runs a trio of events in and around town. Namely, the 15 year old Community, Rememba Fela (an annual fixture which pays homage to Afrobeat pioneer and political activist, Fela Kuti), and Do One.
The latter just marked three years of evening parties at Birch Community Centre, with author, academic and music historian Tim Lawrence making the trip from London to discuss his book, ‘Life & Death On The New York Dancefloor 1980 – 1983’. Betraying that the event is inspired by the New York underground, we meet Rainy at Freight Island on a Monday afternoon and start by asking where his connection to and passion for America’s biggest sprawl comes from.
“I started buying records in 1986. I’m a sort of studious guy — my Mum was a school teacher, and whatever it is — a movement in fashion, art, anything — I just want to know what it is, or was. I’m like that with records. So I got a job as a kid in a clothes shop just to go record shopping at The Spin Inn in Manchester,” Rainy replies, explaining that early experiences at The Haçienda confirmed his love for US dance music over other strands played at the fabled venue, which he’d often leave around midnight to make the pilgrimage to a then-fledgling Ministry of Sound in London, a space directly inspired by New York’s nightlife.
“The next stage was like: ‘I gotta go to New York’. I started going over in the 1990s, and over there we used to go to parties at three in the morning and leave at three or four in the afternoon. What’s amazing is that no one took anything, although some people smoked what are called Philly blunts. Anyway, it was the first time I came in contact with the Black LGBT scene, and it was a game changer.”
Self-describing as “a New York-Manchester connection that New York knows”, by comparison Rainy has always preferred to keep a relatively low profile on home turf. Rather than push for recognition through the many aspects of our city’s nightlife heritage he has been involved with, the focus has consistently been on what’s next. Whether that’s parties in the foyer of Oxford Road’s Contact Theatre, or the Curry Club he founded pre-lockdown to spread word about which eateries are best for which dishes. Another example of that commitment to learning, and then sharing knowledge.
“I used to see the most horrible shit in Manchester,” he says of how the city was during his formative years. “But when I went to New York, I saw it as the great civilising act. It civilised me. I’m not being funny, we were quite raw as kids, you know? I used to go to London, but that was just like a big version of Manchester, just massively developed. What I loved about New York is how they accept all comers.
“When I first was DJing in [Manhattan’s] Meatpacking District, I walked down the street one evening and I saw loads of Black prostitutes, but they were fucking massive. They were like six foot, six foot three, six foot six. I could see they were transvestites, they were all Black, but they were Black gay men, prostitutes, and that was a normal occurrence in New York. I thought ‘Wow, I feel really conservative, I need to sort myself out’, you know? Going there it sort of civilised me to some degree. And I thought ‘right, I’ve got to bring some of this back to Manchester’.”
Importing attitude and culture from across the pond involved a number of things, taking inspiration from seminal countercultural NYC iconography including David Mancuso’s infamous Loft parties. After Rainy met Claussell in New York, the latter was drafted for a night at The Music Box, which, indicative of Manchester’s current direction, is now Oxford Road’s Tesco Metro. Luke and Justin Unabomber were also involved, with honours shared between their own monthly at the venue, Electric Chair, and Rainy City.
“I know a lot of artists in New York, but ‘Joe’ Claussell is one of the special ones. There’s a machine called an isolator. Like a kill switch, you can do things like take all the bass out or all the middle out, where the vocal is. He really goes to town on that and has made it his own. He had a machine developed for him in Japan in the 90s for just that,” Rainy says of why Claussell was the only choice for Sunday’s lineup.
“When he came to DJ for us at The Music Box, he freaked me out because he played The Doors, ‘The End’,” he continues. “I was like, fuck, you know — what the hell is this? I mean, it starts with a helicopter. He’s also the first guy I ever heard to play a full 17 minute Fela Kuti song in the middle of a set. I’m the only other person who lets one song play for 17 or 19 minutes… Artistically he pushes all our buttons, and that’s one of the reasons why, to me, he’s the iconic New York guest.”
Joe Claussell joins Irfan Rainy, The Unabombers, Neil Diablo and Lil’ Minx for Better Sundays at Escape to Freight Island, Mayfield Depot, on Sunday 19th June. Entrance is free, doors open at 12PM.