Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Ugly Truth

I started DJing professionally in the early 2000s which was towards the end of Rudy Giuliani's term as Mayor of NYC. Most people already know that the Giuliani administration had a major impact on New York City nightlife. Most 'notably' would be the re-enforcement of 'the cabaret law'. The basis of this law is: "Any room, place, or space in New York City in which patron dancing is permitted...requires a Cabaret license" ( At the time, the only way to obtain this license was if you're establishment was NOT located in a residential neighborhood. So in other words Giuliani made it illegal for people to 'go dancing' just about everywhere in New York City.

Fortunately for me I wasn't a very good DJ in the early 00s so the issue of 'patron dancing' wasn't exactly an 'issue' for me. I do however remember that the cops use to stop in and do their rounds at almost every single one of my gigs. So... this wasn't just a a stupid law, this was a stupid law that was also being aggressively and regularly enforced by the NYPD. I found it all to be kind of amusing but of course the owners of these establishments did not find these situations to be very funny. Many of them were slapped with fines, and in some cases certain establishments lost their liquor license simply because they didn't enforce the 'NO DANCING' rule.

At some point I started to do some research on the origins of 'the cabaret laws' in NYC. The law was originally established in the 1920s when Jazz (once known as the "devil's music") was a new and progressive genre of music that was sneaking it's way into bars, clubs and lounges all over the city. The law was basically established during prohibition as a way to regulate nightlife. But most people believe the law was also established to shut down the jazz clubs in Harlem with the fear that Jazz would become popular enough to crossover to a widespread audience. According to an article in the village voice "A lot of people considered jazz to be a... degenerate music". These people also believed that the music promoted "inappropriate dancing and behavior". The Cabaret law also made it illegal for artists to perform with out a "cabaret card". The criteria for obtaining a cabaret card was that the artist had to be "of 'good' character" (oh how objective). Some of New York City's most legendary nightlife performers including Billie Holiday, Chet baker, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and many more were not able to obtain a cabaret card or their card was revoked. I suppose it was because they were not of "good character".

The cabaret law was eventually put on the 'back burner' in the 1960s and not taken very seriously until the mid 1990s when the Giuliani administration aggressively re-enforced the law again (as apart of Giuliani's well known "quality of life" and "zero tolerance" campaign). "Coincidentally" when the re-enforcement of the law returned in the 90s there was another progressive genre of music that was rapidly cultivating through out the NYC nightlife circuit (hip-hop).

I usually try to keep my posts on this blog "nice and light" but some things just hit me like a ton of bricks. Life is usually pretty simple from the DJ booth but a recent experience just reminded me of the cabaret laws in NYC. Even with all the problems we have in the world, "NY's finest" are still out and about trying to stop people from committing "the act dancing"!? But we all know that this has nothing to do with "dancing". I could list dozens of examples to 'spell it out' but I think it's pretty clear. It's actually very disappointing because I do love NYC with all my heart. It's difficult to understand how such a beautiful city that is so culturally diverse with a community that seems to uphold such strong values in social justice, is still accepting a legislation that is built on fostering discrimination. SMH.