Good Night Mr. Lewis: Mark Kamins, International DJ

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Legend has it that Mark Kamins was bugging Sire Record’s Seymour Stein for a producing gig, and Stein told him to get his own act. That act turned out to be Kamins’ ex-girlfriend Madonna. Stein was so anxious to sign the material girl that she was rushed to his hospital bed to get it done. Mark’s production of her first single “Everybody” still bangs dance floors today. Kamins’ production career includes work with the Talking Heads, Sinead O’Connor, the Beastie Boys, and my old friend and Danceteria bartender turned performance artist Karen Finley. When I was going through my wonderbread years in the nightclub world, I looked up to Mark and always felt privileged to have a few minutes of his time. I caught up with him via Skype as he is now living in Europe, and we chatted about the music and the rise of the International DJ.

Where are you now? I’m in Paris, then I’m going to Moscow, and then Tokyo for a month.

You’ve made a life for yourself as a traveling DJ. Well, now I’m like Barbara Streisand — I’m on my retirement tour, then I’ll come back out of retirement next year.

Can a person like you retire? I don’t think so. DJs will play till they die.

Years ago before I was in the nightlife business, I looked up to you like you were a god. You were one of the people on the scene who was not just making music but was also leading the way, taking everybody to a place they hadn’t been before. Where was your beginning in this business? I was always just a guy who played records at parties, from when I was ten years old on.

You DJed at places like the Mudd Club, Danceteria, and Peppermint Lounge. My first gig was at Trax, which was the rock club on 72nd and Columbus. And that’s when Jim Fouratt and Rudolph heard me and Sean Cassette play, and they decided to put both of us together in the booth at Danceteria.

What are your memories of Danceteria? There were at least three Danceterias; the first one was on 38th Street, and it was an illegal Mafia club with no liquor license, but we sold drink tickets. Jim Fourrat had this concept of bringing the bands, and Rudolph had this concept of image, and we were the first club to have video. The magic of the first Danceteria was Jim and Rudolph taking Sean Cassette from Hurrah (which was Arthur Weinstein’s first club) and then taking me from Trax, where I played Motown and hardcore R&B, and putting us together in the booth at Danceteria. We opened at 8 p.m. and played till 8 a.m., which was the first time two DJs played together for 12 hours. Sean would go into punk, and I would go into James Brown and beyond, and that was the magic of it. This was around the beginning of the new wave era, with the coming out of the Sex Pistols. Those were the original seeds of new wave.

New wave to me was one of the most fun music genres. I guess now that music is going that way, the electronic music is happier. Do you see that in Europe also? What’s going on in Europe right now is amazing; it’s a very 80s feel, but its very electro. A lot of bands want to sound retro; they don’t want to sound fresh from all the new technology. They want to record on tape, they don’t want to record on the computer. So it’s really exciting when I listen to these kids, even my son’s band, The Young Lords … it’s amazing, that these young kids can take the new music and do that again.

In the 50s we had jazz, the 60s rock, 70s disco etc., and somewhere around the 90s and 2000, there wasn’t much new music being made. Now it seems that there’s a new type of music or a new energy coming. Can the mash-up be considered a genre? No. I’m a DJ, and every DJ has the same record — it’s how you play that record, that’s what makes a difference. So what’s happening now is that new kids want to hear live music, and its killing old school guys like myself and Frankie and Jellybean. Rock bands are doing DJ sets, which is now the hippest thing in Paris, and one of the hippest things in New York. So, in a funny way we’ve gone the full circle — we killed live music and bands in the 80s, and now they’re killing the DJs.

Bring me back to a time with the Beastie Boys, with Madonna and seeing a type of music, seeing a person like that — the talent of the Beastie Boys coming up through the nightclubs. First of all, I think Danceteria was a magical space like Andy Warhol’s Factory or Max’s Kansas City or CBGBs. Jim Fouratt and Rudolph had this amazing finesse to hire people that they believed in. Why were the Beastie Boys the sweepers at Danceteria? Why was Madonna one of the dancers? Why Sade was the bartender at Danceteria? That’s crazy shit man. So you’re talking about a magical moment, a magical space, and a magical time where it was the beginning of something. Even Karen Finley was the bartender, and LL Cool J was a busboy. Rick Rubin, who is now one of the greatest producers in the music business, his first gig was playing with the Beastie Boys on the second floor of Danceteria because I had to go to a gig in Europe. I have a Polaroid picture of that night.

How did you help to launch Madonna’s career? I produced Madonna’s first record, “Everybody”. I discovered her and brought her to Seymour Stein. At that time, I was working for Chris Blackwell at Island Records, but I was the DJ for the Talking Heads so I knew Seymour. I brought Madonna to see him, and he gave me a singles deal, and then we did it. That was probably her best record, the only one she made with a live drummer.

You went on to work at other clubs like Mars, Tunnel, Palladium, and at one point decided to take your show on the road and you ended up in Russia, Japan, and Brazil. Every time I spoke to you, you were coming from someplace like that. A lot of club promoters and club owners came to see me, and they would come up to the booth and say, “Forget about what’s happening here, would you come and play in my club?” And I became the first DJ that was booked to travel and play in all these other countries.

That was unheard of, and I remember you bringing back world beats, stuff from Greece, Spain, Africa, that people had never heard of. And Belgium and Japan also … there was one record shop in Japan called Wave that actually had every record from every country in the world.

There was a time when DJs didn’t travel internationally, and the beginning of it was with you, Mr. Mark Kamins. I opened the doors for a lot of guys, especially in Japan. We opened the first real nightclub in Japan called Turia, and then a few years later we opened Gold, and that was the first club where every two weeks I would bring in a DJ from New York. I loved it. It was the first time David Morales, Little Louie Vega, Dimitri, and all those guys left New York City.