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DJ Johnny Dynell Wasn’t Just on the ‘80s NYC Club Scene, He Was the Scene

Meet the man behind Madonna’s early Danceteria days and Night of 1000 Stevies. He’s seen it all and he’s here to tell the tale
Deborah Harry, Johnny Dynell, Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite, and Clark Render, NYC February 1992. (Credit: Patrick McMullan/Getty Images)
Deborah Harry, Johnny Dynell, Lady Miss Kier from Deee-Lite, and Clark Render, NYC, February 1992. (Credit: Patrick McMullan/Getty Images)

By now everyone, or nearly everyone, knows the legendary tale of Madonna pedaling her songs and pestering DJs to play them in the once upon a time of ‘80s New York clubs. Madonna was the coat check girl working at Danceteria where Johnny Dynell was one of the DJs she implored. The rest is history. 

Since that time, Johnny’s importance in the New York club scene has only grown in stature. As a DJ, producer, and promoter, he reshaped the city’s nightlife with his boundary-pushing sets and groundbreaking events. His legendary parties like “Love Machine” and “Mudd Club” became cultural touchstones. And the track “Jam Hot” remains an iconic anthem of the era, blending disco, funk, and Latin rhythms. 

Dynell at Jackie 60 in 1991, NYC. (Credit: Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

After the heady, druggy, arty ‘80s, one of his ventures was launching the now mythic club Jackie 60, which blended high-low performance and Weimar-influenced, scantily clad, cabaret-inspired shows. The club closed in 1999, but was notably ahead of its time in embracing all genders and persuasions. Regarding current events, for over 30 years, Johnny and his wife Chi Chi Valenti—they married when they were “just kids” and he was DJing at the Mudd Club and she was working the door—have produced “the largest and longest-running Stevie Nicks fan event in the world,” the annual Night of a 1000 Stevies, which brings Stevie enthusiasts and bold-name celebrities together to sing and impersonate all things Stevie. 

Johnny remains an in-demand DJ. He travels the globe to play insanely glamorous parties, clubs, and all manner of events. You might expect him to be cliche, ironically hip, and chillishly blasé. But in fact he’s the opposite, engaging and easy to talk to. He’s interested in art, fashion, music, current affairs, and politics, and like any perpetual globe-trotter he has adventures and stories galore. 

Though he’s friends with name-recognition creatives like Debbie Harry and Marc Jacobs, he has a remarkably down-to-earth vibe. He gets excited about planting daffodil bulbs at his house in New Orleans. 

When I get to our interview appointment early, Johnny is already there, standing outside, celebrating a sunny spring day in New York City’s original music hip neighborhood, Greenwich Village. 

Dynell and Amanda Lepore attend Susanne Bartsch and David Barton’s Toy Drive at TMPL West Village on December 14, 2018 in New York City. (Credit: Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Susanne Bartsch & David Barton’s Toy Drive)

Fail-proof song that gets people dancing?

One song that is always a floor filler is Cheryl Lynn’s “[Got] to Be Real.” It’s happy, upbeat, and so danceable. I play it for a lot of different crowds. From black-tie galas to 1,000 gay men in jockstraps on Fire Island. Works for any crowd.

You pay tribute to early New York DJs Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan, but do you ever play something like Cilla Black’s “You’re My World” or one of Serge Gainsbourg’s sexy French songs? 

Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and so many from that first generation of DJ pioneers were my teachers. I owe them a debt of gratitude. I played some Serge Gainsbourg in Milan last month before a Max Mara show—“Je t’aime… moi non plus,” “Ballade de Melody Nelson,” “Ces Petits Riens.”

Terry Toye, Marc Jacobs, Debbie Harry, Johnny Dynell, and Page Powell attend ‘The Stephen Sprouse Book’ launch event at Atelier New York on January 13, 2009, NYC. (Credit: Shawn Ehlers/WireImage)

Madonna and the ‘80s?

The ‘80s were an exciting time, especially in downtown New York nightclubs. That is where it all was happening. I was very fortunate to be a DJ. When Nina Hagen sang about “AM/PM, Pyramid, Roxy, Mudd Club, Danceteria” in her 1983 song “New York New York,” those were the hottest downtown clubs and I was playing at them all. It was a very creative scene. 

Everyone was a designer, a filmmaker, a painter, or in a band. Some of these kids became big. Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat were fixtures at the Mudd Club, and Madonna worked the coat check at Danceteria. In 1983 fellow DJ and producer Mark Kamins signed Madonna and me. She recorded “Everybody,” and I recorded “Jam Hot.” Both of our songs went on the radio, and we were off on our journeys. You never know what will happen in life. Some people get rich and famous, some people get happy, and some fall off fire escapes.

How has DJing changed since you first started out? 

This would take a book to answer properly, and there are a few great books out there already on the subject. Love Saves the Day and Life And Death on the New York Dance Floor by Tim Lawrence, and Last Night a DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster are all fantastic and all true!

What’s your preferred BPM range? 

My favorite types of music to play are house, tech house, and disco, so they are usually around 126 BPM.

What’s your stranded-on-a-desert-island song?

“As” by Stevie Wonder.

Anita Sarko and Johnny Dynell at the Stephen Saban Party for Stephen Lupino at the Palladium, March 5,1986. (Credit: Patrick McMullan/Getty Images)

Favorite headphones?

The nice people at V-MODA gifted me some gold and white headphones inscribed with “DADDY.” So glamorous!

Favorite DJ suitcase?

I have this fantastic DJ bag from Overland. I’ve had it for many years. It’s like a tank and has been with me all over the world.

What are some of your favorite New York venues?

In the East Village, I go to Club Cumming or the Parkside Lounge. In Hell’s Kitchen, the hottest new club is Red Eye.

Biggest misconception about DJs?

That we are all rich.

What do the best DJs have in common?

Most DJs are really nice people. They are basically people’s people. They have to be. There will always be some competition among them, but I’ve always found DJs to be very supportive of one another.

Do you ever get nervous before a gig?

Yes. I get nervous and anxious and I hate it. I’m like, “Oh my God, what am I going to play?” Once I’m on stage, however, I feel like I’m home and I’m okay. A glass or two of red wine really loosens me up. 

Favorite kind of event? 

I’ve worked in a lot of gay clubs over the years, and they have the best audience for a DJ. A gay crowd knows what you’re doing, and they appreciate it if you are good. Every summer I play for the Underwear Party at the legendary Ice Palace on Fire Island. I’ll look out and see a thousand nearly naked gay guys dancing and think, “This could be 1979.” Things change, the world changes, but I think that people are still having as much fun as they used to.

Dynell performs during the 26th annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party, celebrating EJAF and the 90th Academy Awards, March 4, 2018 in West Hollywood. (Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for EJAF)

Do people hit on you when you’re DJing? 

Yes, sometimes they do, although not as much as when I was in my 20s! 

Guys are cool about it. They’re like, “Hey, man, what’s up?” They just need a yes or a no, and that’s it. Girls are another story. They can be relentless. They will dance seductively in front of the DJ booth for hours, trying to get your attention. 

What music is big now?

In 1979 a radio DJ in Chicago proclaimed that “disco was dead” and blew up a dumpster full of disco records at baseball’s Comiskey Park. Disco was seen at the time as being Urban music for blacks and gays. 

This stunt was probably closer to a Nazi rally than a music event, and it ended in a riot. Today, almost 50 years later, disco is bigger than ever. It has evolved into various forms like hip-hop and house. The Nazis lost.

Do you ever miss the old days at the Mudd Club, Danceteria, the Limelight, the Tunnel, Area, the Palladium, Jackie 60…? 

The clubs in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s were amazing because it was all so new, but I’m not one of those “back in the day” people. You know them, “back in my day” or “things were better back then” people. I’m still having fun, and I think other people are too.