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​Jellybean Benitez: A Night In Paradise

  • Jellybean Benitez PHOTO BY MARC BAPTISTE.jpg

This Sunday 27th November is Ministry of Sound’s second 'A Night In Paradise' fundraiser party, after a hugely successful sell-out event this time last year. It’s a night to commemorate New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, where house music was born from its house DJ Larry Levan and his contemporaries.

The club is also remembered fondly for its LGBT culture, and for being one of very few places that would admit people suffering from HIV during the endemic. Paradise Garage also hosted the world’s first ever HIV fundraiser in 1982. Profits from the event are being split between New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the UK’s Terrence Higgins Trust.

Ministry Of Sound has booked some of the biggest New York names to ever grace the Garage since 1977 until its closure 10 years later: Jellybean Benitez, David Depino, Joey Llanos, Victor Rosado, and Severino all feature in the main room, with Rochelle Fleming of First Choice providing vocals on the night.

I had a chat with house hero, Jellybean Benitez, about the event, what it means to him and his fellow New York turntablists, and how he’s managed to keep his career as active as ever since the early '80s.

Jellybean (acquiring the monicker from his initials, J.B) was raised in the South Bronx area of New York after moving from Puerto Rico with his mother and sister. After regularly attending disco nights in Manhattan, his desire to become a DJ became strong, and before long he was a big name fixture at many of New York’s biggest clubs, Paradise Garage among them. Jellybean would eventually become famous for remixes, putting his own touch on tracks by Madonna, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, A-Ha and more. He also produced Madonna’s hit, Holiday.

“I’ve done close to 100 gigs already this year,” Jellybean tells me in his strong New York accent, cementing the fact that his original house style is still drawing crowds. He was one of the first ever producers approached to remix existing music. “Record companies knew what the potential [of remixing] was, but these superstars that I was working with had no idea why the record company was asking them to do this. How someone could, in one day, go in, reinterpret their song and make it more accessible. They’d created their art, and no one had ever touched it without their input. And here was someone named Jellybean who was going to go in and do something to their song – it was an alien concept.”

While the Paradise Garage may be gone, Jellybean is still very active in New York, and is very grateful to have been part of its dance music scene.

“I have a residency there, so I’m there a lot,” he says. “I was lucky enough to have been born and raised in the Bronx. I was able to go out and hear some of what they now refer to as the legends of dance music and house music in their prime – before and during my own DJing career. I never stopped and thought, 'Oh, this is history; one day people will look back and say they saw Larry (Levan) at the Garage.'"

With Jellybean about to play his headline slot at Ministry of Sound, he remembers how very different it was back in the Garage days.

“We’re talking about a time where the DJ wouldn’t have a monitor, headphones, couldn’t change the tempo of the song,” he says. “Honestly, the first time it was explained to me that a DJ in a club was going to play two songs simultaneously - one as it was ending, and one as it started - I thought that was a horrible idea! Until I saw it happen and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”

Unsurprisingly, Jellybean is very much looking forward to Sunday:

“Really it’s a tribute to the Paradise Garage,” he says. “And also to Larry [Levan, the Garage’s resident DJ, who passed away in 1992]. It’s a fundraiser for a very good cause. I’ve done three Garage tribute parties in New York already, which has always felt like a purist, Garage-head experience. I’ve played Ministry of Sound before, but this will be a different experience. It’ll be like home! It’s gonna be great.”

And of course, having all these pivotal names who played at the Garage under one roof will be quite the spectacle – many of whom are good friends of Jellybean’s.

“I know Joey [Llanos] and David [Depino] from going to the Garage,” he recalls. “Victor Rosado I met there also. Rochelle [Fleming], I’ve known for decades.She’s amazing; a real singer’s singer. Even her soundchecks are amazing!”

It sounds set to be a night to make history, just like the Paradise Garage did itself all those years ago. Get down to the Ministry of Sound if you can for an epic night of dancing – how often do you get to say you’ve been to an epic party and done vital work for a charity? With Jellybean Benitez behind the decks and Rochelle Fleming on the mic, it’s down to the revellers to keep the flame of the Paradise Garage burning brightly.