Occasional club disc jockey and record producer Junior Vasquez has become one of the key forces in dance music with his seamless mixing skills and intuitive knack for knowing exactly what his audiences want. People who frequented New York City’s Sound Factory in the early and mid-1990s knew Vasquez as the innovative musical ringleader of the nightclub and a link to what was looming on the musical horizon.
As the influential club’s resident DJ, Vasquez would spin records from late Saturday night through Sunday brunch, tirelessly and enthusiastically presenting the sounds of the moment; his gift for mixing tracks was soon in great demand. Record company executives took a keen interest in what Vasquez played and contemplated how he could reshape the music of their artists. Vasquez’s playlist was usually comprised of music only available on promotional test pressings; other material came from tapes whisked directly out of studios. Whether or not a particular single moved the crowd could be crucial to a musician’s career or a record company executive’s.
Born Donald Mattern in the early 1950s, Vasquez was raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a small town in the eastern part of the state. He spent endless hours as a child listening to records and dancing. His father, a butcher, sometimes took young Donald to his workplace; there Vasquez once watched his father kill a cow with a sledgehammer. “I’ve blocked it from my mind,” he told Rolling Stone’s Rich Cohen, claiming only to remember the wooden ramp that led to the slaughterhouse.
Vasquez’s interest in both music and dance seemed odd to his family and neighbors, and as a result, the young man felt out of place in Lancaster. He told Cohen, “I knew I was on my way somewhere else. It had to be a big city and far from Lancaster.”
After Vasquez arrived in Manhattan in 1971, he adopted a new name—simply because he liked the sound of it. He drifted from job to job, uncertain of where his dreams would lead him. In the meantime, he took college courses in art, fashion, design, and hairdressing.
Almost ten years after his arrival in New York City, Vasquez walked into a music store in the 42nd Street subway station to look for a Chaka Khan album. He suddenly experienced what Cohen described as “a moment of clarity.” He told the journalist, “All those records overwhelmed me. I knew this was my future.”
Vasquez began making tapes of his favorite music during this period, which led him to do the same for local radio stations. He started working as a DJ for small
Bom Donald Mattern, August 24, c. 1952, in Lancaster, PA; son of a butcher. Education: Courses in art, fashion, design, and hairdressing.
Began making mix tapes for radio stations and working as a DJ for small parties, New York City, 1986; DJ at the Sound Factory, 1989-95; began remixing singles, 1989, and coproducing tracks for various artists; released own singles “Get Your Hands off My Man,” “X,” and “Drag Queen,” Tribal/IRS, 1995.
Addresses: Office— This Beats Workin’ Inc., 254 West 54th St., New York, NY 10019.
parties and eventually branched out to increasingly larger Manhattan nightclubs as word of his talents began to spread. Described by Cohen as “wary and aggressive… austere and forbidding… with the rough-hewn features and cocky gait of an old-time boxer” and sporting numerous tattoos, Vasquez said of his break into the business, “I was never one of the pretty people. So I had to be a bulldog.”
In 1989 Richard Grant, owner of the Sound Factory, approached Vasquez and asked him if he would oversee the music end of his new venture. By 1990 the Sound Factory had far exceeded anyone’s expectations more than a dance club and showcase for new music, it had become a marathon Saturday night blowout, a place of sanctuary where twisting torsos and happily sweating bodies let loose, and where a week’s culmination of repressed primal energy came to life through Vasquez’s grooves. Said Billboard dance music columnist Larry Flick, “For many, the Sound Factory was a primary lifestyle component.”
Madonna recruited dancers for her “Vogue” video at the sparsely decorated club, and Prince was so enthralled with Vasquez after checking him out at the club that he hired him to remix his 1990 release, Graffiti Bridge. When the Sound Factory closed in 1995 due to conflicts over its hours of operation and New York liquor license laws, it marked the end of an era. “Where do they go?” Vasquez asked Cohen of the club crawlers,” remarking, “I feel sorry for them. I gave them so much but now can give to them no more.”
By the time the club closed down, however, Vasquez had developed numerous other creative outlets. He had produced and co-written Lisa Lisa’s “When I Fell in Love” single in 1993, produced six cuts from Cyndi Lauper’s 1994 Hat Full of Stars album, produced four tracks on Lauper’s Twelve Deadly Cyns disc in 1995, and was asked to produce an album for John Mellan-camp that year. He also produced and cowrote “Brand New Love” and “Behind the Scenes” for J. Quest’s album The Quest Is On and produced the Tom Jones single “She’s a Lady” in 1995.
In addition to his high-profile work with other artists, Vasquez has released his own singles: 1995’s “Get Your Hands off My Man,” “X, “and “Drag Queen,” all on the Tribal/IRS label. Hetold Rolling Stone’s Cohen of his creative method, “I’m an abstract artist. I take a whole lot of sound, put it in a barrel, shake it up like paint, and out come these wild designs.” Another area in which Vasquez has achieved great acclaim is in post-production and remix work. He has been known to completely transform a song—frequently making it more dance-friendly—by electronically manipulating its various components. He has provided this type of service to over one hundred musicians, including Janet Jackson, Annie Lennox, Paula Abdul, Elton John, Madonna, Duran Duran, Mavis Staples, Cher, Prince, Mellancamp, Naomi Campbell, Queen, The Time, Sheena Easton, and Hammer.
Clearly, the future looks promising for Vasquez in spite of the closing of the revered Sound Factory, which may eventually reopen in another location. Vasquez told Flick at the time of the club’s shuttering, “I keep telling myself that this is all happening for a good reason. Hey, maybe it’s time for me to go and reinvent myself—or to explore a new part of myself.” This attitude has continued to serve him, helping him to explore new territory in his work. According to Flick, it’s very likely that Vasquez’s most impressive and passionate output as a writer, producer, mixer, and DJ is yet to come.
Singles; on Tribal/IRS, 1995
“Get Your Hands off My Man.”
Lisa Lisa, “When I Fell in Love,” Pendulum, 1993.
Cyndi Lauper, “Hey Now … Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Who Let in the Rain,” “Sally’s Pigeons,” and “That’s What I Think,” Twelve Deadly Cyns, Epic, 1995.
J. Quest, “Behind the Scenes” and “Brand New Love,” The Quest Is On, Mercury, 1995.
Tom Jones, “She’s a Lady,” To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (soundtrack), MCA, 1995.
Wild Orchid, “Talk to Me,” RCA, 1995.
Billboard, March 11, 1995.
Rolling Stone, April 20, 1995.
Genre, September 1995.
—B. Kimberly Taylor