Jellybean Benitez isn’t the kind of superstar who gets mobbed by adoring fans whenever he walks down the street – at least these days, now that he’s not dating Madonna anymore. But the old-school DJ from New York is a true dance-music pioneer, a shaper of history who produced or remixed many of the Material Girl’s hits in the early ‘80s, including “Holiday,” “Lucky Star” and “Borderline,” plus his own enduring tracks including “Sidewalk Talk.”
Benitez – real name John (he got his nickname from his sister because of his initials, J.B.) – also was a resident DJ at the infamous Studio 54 nightclub in Manhattan during its heyday in the late ‘70s. But the 40-year veteran will be performing at a much more low-key gig Thursday night at the Perez Art Museum Miami, where super-cool party promoter Poplife will present an event featuring interactive art, affordable drinks and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and soulful house and classic disco from Jellybean.
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Benitez talked about the show, his experiences at Studio 54, his opinion of today’s EDM, and, of course, a whole lot of Madonna.
What can we expect from the event?
Hopefully, people are in the mood to dance [laughs], because most of what I play makes people dance. I never know what I’m gonna play – I feed off the audience. I’m sure it will be eclectic, because it’s not a traditional venue, and I’m sure it’s gonna bring all kinds of people together, and ages. So I like it because it’s sort of like improvisational experimentation that allows me to tap into the present moment and feel the energy of the room and play off of that.
How long will you spin?
I think I’m scheduled to play two or three hours. Most of the sets that I do right now are usually in the six- to 10-hour range, so this will be a shorter journey, more festival-like than I’m used to. But I’m sure because it’s after work, too, that it will be different from when people are walking into a venue at 1 o’clock in the morning.
Is it safe to say your set will skew toward the old-school?
I mostly play soulful house and deep house and afro-house, and I always throw in some classic dance music, anywhere from 1972 to 2000, in my set. So when it’s not a traditional venue, I’ll probably play more classics than I normally do.
Was your experience at Studio 54 as epic as others have described it?
[Laughs] The thing is, it was like every day, so it didn’t seem unusual to me. Now, in retrospect, and looking at the current club scene, it was very different. People were, you know, free. They weren’t worried about a lot of the things that they worry about now [laughs]. So they were definitely much more open, and risk-takers, and did lots of drugs and drank and [had] unprotected sex, and everything else you hear about from the era. But having a bird’s-eye view of it, it’s definitely a different scene now, in that then, people really came there to dance and escape. I find a lot of venues now cater more toward bottle-service and people sitting around and facing the DJ booth, as opposed to just getting lost into the music and having a good time. They’re busy staring at the guy, or woman, that’s playing records. Before, people were aware of who the DJ was, but they were there really to dance.
What are some of your wildest moments at Studio 54 that you can talk about?
[Laughs] Ohh, I can’t, I can’t. It’s coming in my book – I’d say within the next 12 to 18 months. The outline is done.
Wow – do you have a title?
I do, but I can’t say it yet. It took me about a year to put the outline together, because so much happened. And I kept journals, and went back through my diary, and I had to get clear on dates, because a lot happened in that era, so I just wanted to make sure that it all made sense.
Speaking of that era, when you were producing Madonna’s early work, did you have the sense that it was going to be really big, that you were making history?
Well, I’ll say this: When I was working on the early stuff – “Holiday,” “Borderline,” “Lucky Star,” “Material Girl” – I knew it was gonna be big. It stood out from everything else that was happening on the club level. But to me, “big” was like a gold record – you know, 100,000 units. Like – wow, this thing is actually selling, and people really like it, and it’s going beyond the club and going to radio and spreading globally. So while all of that was going on, it seemed big, but at the same time it seemed normal. We were living together, so one day we were able to go outside and walk down the street and no one bothered us, and then once “Borderline” got on MTV, that changed everything.
But I do remember when Madonna performed at Studio 54, and [Sire Records co-founder] Seymour Stein came over to me and said, “You know, one day people are gonna look back at this, and this is gonna be historic.” But it seemed completely normal.
But it was a really special thing that happened. You know, you walk around, and every woman was dressing like your girlfriend, which seemed different, because it wasn’t happening to a lot of my friends [laughs]. Every time I’d turn around, I’d see a blonde with bangles on her wrist and her bra strap showing, and I was like, “Oh, she’s here!” And then, “Oh, no.” In that respect, it was almost like a Twilight Zone. I’d go out to a club and there would be hundreds of women dressed like here. It was weird.
Did you start dating Madonna before producing her music?
Yeah, it was right before – we met at the [New York club] Funhouse. It was quite common for record companies to bring by new artists, and we met, and she asked me if I’d be interested in working on some of her songs. And the rest is history, so to speak. We started working on stuff, then we started dating, then we started living together. And after about two years we broke up, and remain really good friends.
What’s the predominant feeling you get when you think of her and that period in your life?
Umm, it was very unique and special. Here’s a woman that was very clear on what she wanted, you know? And she was focused. At the end of the day, I meet lots of new artists, and I see the ones who go on to become successful – and by successful, I mean they can sell out the AmericanAirlines Arena. And the thing that I see in all of them is desire. And if they’re talented, that will only get them longevity. But it’s really about wanting it more than anything, because if you don’t and you don’t believe that, then no one else will. It’s a characteristic that I find in all talent, that goes from being completely unknown to being a global icon.
What do you think of the EDM that has infiltrated today’s Top 40?
It’s sort of a cycle. Dance music has become radio-friendly again, and I think it’s great, although I find that most of EDM doesn’t have a lot of soul for me, and I only say that because I grew up on Motown and soul music. And disco was really an extension of that music, and it was just uptempo R&B that became what we call disco.
And so I’m finding that a lot of this stuff is hooky and catchy, but it kind of reminds me of disco – I don’t know how many of these artists will be here in 10 years. It’s interesting that a lot of this stuff gets on the radio, though, and I think it’s great.