HOW NEW YORK’S PRELUDE RECORDS QUIETLY MADE DISCO HISTORY
For ten whirlwind years, magic was made at 200 W 57th Street.A Prelude ad in Billboard Magazine.
Of all the definitive moments in electronic music history, none has been more avidly documented than New York from 1975 to 1985. That decade, spanning the disco boom and the birth of house, has assumed an almost mythical allure.
The dance music fans who weren’t there to experience the real thing—which is to say, most of us—have to make do with photos of a young Larry Levan smiling over a rotary mixer in the Paradise Garage DJ booth, a jubilant dancefloor at David Mancuso’s The Loft, or beautiful people milling around on W 54th Street outside Studio 54. While New York at the time was a gritty, tough place to call home, its clubs brought people together to get down, regardless of ethnicity or sexual preference.
Larry Levan at Paradise Garage in 1979, shot by Bill Bernstein.
In the midst of all that electricity, Marvin Schlachter established Prelude Records in 1976 at 200 W 57th Street, right in the heart of midtown and close to the bustling clubs of the moment. From that address, the label would go on to release some of the disco era’s defining records, while also championing the nascent art of remixing. Its advertising pitch at the time: “Quietly, we’re making a lot of noise.”
Four decades have passed since Schlachter set up shop, and now the vast Prelude catalog is streaming on Beatport. Its major signings included several New York characters and collectives, among them Sharon Redd, D-Train, Inner Life, and production guru Patrick Adams working under his Musique project. (One of Prelude’s defining records is Musique’s “In The Bush,” which controversially paired its disco strut with the unforgettable 70s refrain, “Push, push, in the bush.”)
Schlachter was a consummate label boss, combining both business savvy and a keen ear for identifying talent. He and his partner Stanley Hoffman assembled a small staff in Prelude’s office, and in 1978 a young DJ named François Kevorkian joined the team in an A&R role.
In 2016, François K (as he’s more commonly known) is regarded as a house music trailblazer, whose long-running Monday night party Deep Space is a New York institution. Looking back on the formative years he spent at Prelude, the DJ is emphatic about the genius of Marvin Schlachter. “Prelude’s success was really all about Schlachter’s instincts as a record man,” he says. “He was often the one doing the major A&R work. Other record heads would rely on third parties for that killer instinct—Marvin Schlachter had it. To work for someone like that was mind-blowing.”
Prelude’s hopeful hits were tested first in the clubs of New York. If a record lit up the city’s dancefloors, wider success would surely follow. Major releases on the label would be cut to acetate disc from the master recording and distributed to a select few DJs. “We were able to get these super heavyweights like David Mancuso at the Loft or Larry Levan at the Garage or Tee Scott at Better Days to get behind the releases,” Kevorkian recalls. “That meant all the other DJs would follow.”
One of the DJs to emerge in early 80s New York was house music believer Tony Humphries. He vividly remembers his coming of age, hustling to join one of New York’s DJ record pools. Record pools at the time were another means for labels to get new music in the hands of influential DJs, who would then find out which ones struck a chord with dancers. Humphries puts Prelude right at the heart of his musical education.
“That was the period of me being the wannabe DJ,” Humphries recounts over email. “Playing to empty rented venues and hoping to get into a DJ record pool like IDRC or S.U.R.E. in the Bronx, or For The Record in Manhattan. At that time, getting hot wax from Prelude every week was mandatory, and vital to my set if I ever got that high-profile superclub gig in Manhattan.” Humphries would visit the Prelude office every Wednesday to collect free promo records from the department boss Michael Gomes. “I’m very grateful to Michael for giving a no-name DJ a chance,” he says.
Prelude was a dynamic presence in late 70s New York, often bringing artists together to make magic in the studio. Despite being hired in an A&R role, Kevorkian found himself frequently in recording sessions, learning production skills on the job.
While Kevorkian recalls feeling “extremely awkward” upon first meeting Musique’s mastermind Patrick Adams, he soon developed into one of Prelude’s biggest assets. His edits and remixes of the label’s catalog ensured their success in the clubs, and his output impressed the young Tony Humphries on those weekly visits to the office. “I have memories of the great François Kevorkian doing his incredible, timeless edits right there in the room next door to Michael’s,” Humphries writes. Humphries would later deliver a timeless remix of his own for the label, stretching Visual’s “The Music Got Me” into a proto-house touchstone.
While it’s now ingrained in dance music’s DNA, remixing was a relatively new phenomenon in New York when Kevorkian started out. Record producer Tom Moulton is considered the godfather of the “continuous disco mix,” with his experiments in the early 70s ushering in a new subculture alive with possibility.
At 1650 Broadway, only a few blocks from Prelude’s office, Frank Trimarco oversaw the Sunshine Sound studio. In that small, unassuming office, DJs came to press acetates from reel-to-reel tapes, effectively creating remixes in a raw, unvarnished form. It was amongst this atmosphere of creativity that Kevorkian found his calling, and took his talents to Prelude. In the early 80s, the label also enlisted New York remix king Shep Pettibone, whose Mastermixes for the likes of Inner Life, Jeanette “Lady” Day, and D-Train achieved legend status.
Several of Prelude’s major hits were fronted by women, including Sharon Redd, Barbara Mason, France Joli, and Lorraine Johnson. In 1982, Taka Boom, who together with her sister Chaka Khan was a larger-than-life fixture of the New York club scene, released “To Hell With Him” on Prelude.
While Taka now lives in LA, where she continues to record music alongside working as a professional chef, she can vividly recall the energy of New York at the time. “Larry Levan was one of the best people to know,” she recalls. “He was an absolute genius, but also just a regular guy I could go with to get ham and eggs. I was on bills with a lot of disco divas, like Loleatta Holloway and Grace Jones—and I was one too! Sharon Redd was my best friend at the time, and Prelude was a frontrunner in New York.”
Prelude’s wide-reaching influence belied the modest size of its operation. Once records passed the litmus test of New York’s dancefloors, a concerted radio push would begin. “Prelude would leverage that club activity for a massive amount of radio play across all the black radio stations, which started in New York with WBLS and then later with KTU,” Kevorkian says. “Then they’d use those numbers to push radio markets in the rest of the country to make those records part of their playlists. Once that was established, they were able to achieve massive crossover.” Prelude was also distinct in releasing not just 7” and 12” singles but also artist albums, with its catalog of long players including Musique’s Keep On Jumpin’ and France Joli’s Tonight.
In 1982, Kevorkian left Prelude to pursue his standalone career as a producer and remixer. After guiding his label through the disco era, Marvin Schlachter decided to call time on his passion project in 1986. In an interview with Disco-Disco.com, Schlachter estimated Prelude’s final release was “Your Love” by disco authority Greg Carmichael as Satin, Silk & Lace. Full of warmth and silky groove, it’s a perfectly bittersweet send-off.
After Prelude shut up shop, its publishing and recording rights were acquired by Canadian record company Unidisc Music, who have since put out a succession of Prelude greatest hits compilations. While the original versions still burst with life, it’s those François K and Shep Pettibone club mixes that incite goosebumps 30-odd years later.
Prelude Records belongs to an elite group of labels whose catalog has rightly earned the “timeless” tag. “It’s one thing to make a track that keeps people’s attention for even 40 minutes nowadays,” Kevorkian says. “Some of Prelude’s tracks will soon be around for 40 years and they don’t show any signs of abating.”
In the words of Secret Weapon’s 1980s Prelude hit, it must be the music.