The Odyssey

 

 

 

How Shelter survived system drama and instant fame
to become New York's only music-centered club.

By Kerri Mason

Shelter isn’t just a club. For years, the Shelter name has been a signifier across the globe, code for diversity, house music classicism, and unrestrained dance. Shelter’s a club, a party, a record label, a remix name. During its years at New York’s Vinyl, now Arc, it was a Saturday sister party to Sunday’s Body & Soul, both more sober and adult affairs than most club events worldwide.

Co-owner Kevin Hedge (at right) isn’t your standard club guy, either. For one, he’s an artist; both a DJ and part of seminal house music production duo Blaze. But most importantly, Hedge isn’t shady, underhanded, uninvolved, or profiteering. He’s been crafting the sound and feel of Shelter alongside resident DJ Timmy Regisford since 1990. Shelter’s current incarnation, a four-level dance club in midtown’s Garment District, is a massive investment for Hedge and his partners, not just in terms of time and energy, but money as well. But generating profit, or even breaking even, is not high on Hedge’s list. “As a club owner, I’m not taking your money and putting in my pocket,” he says. “I’m not fly; I’m out on the dancefloor, dressed like everybody else. And my place was built for people like me.”
Like Hedge, Shelter is as old-school New York as it gets: Unlike Body & Soul, it was never the subject of two-page spreads in Spin magazine, or a magnet for European tourists looking for a “vintage” NYC experience. Nor did it ever generate overseas gigs for its DJ (Regisford is known as “the maestro” to the Shelter crowd, but never joined the international list of superstar DJs). It remained very much an underground thing; open to all who were interested, but below the surface nonetheless.
As New York clubland eases into its lounge-y, VIP room, dress-up phase, Shelter stands alone; a sweaty, dance-oriented, music-centered hold-out. “Shelter is built for dancing and music lovers,” says Hedge. “You don’t wear Gucci or Prada when you come here; you wear Nike or Adidas. You know you’re gonna sweat. There’s 25 tons of air on our main floor, and you still get hot because when 700 people are all moving, there’s nothing you can do. Our place is built for that.”
This is the story of how Shelter survived eviction, the drama that came with the world’s most famous sound system, instant fame, and New York club politics, to become the city’s last for-the-music space left standing.

Mobile DJs?
Shelter the club first opened in 1990 at 6 Hubert Street in Manhattan’s Tribeca district, with owners Regisford and Hedge. The space was medium-sized and plain with an old-school Bertha-based sound system – perfect for the down-and-dirty vibe of Regisford’s knob-working sets. When the club closed and changed hands in ’93, the Shelter party went mobile, going from club to club. But when 6 Hubert became Vinyl in 1996, Hedge and Regisford prepared to return Shelter to its original home. On Labor Day 1997, Regisford was back in the space that to many was as classic as the Paradise Garage.
But with the close of Twilo, the club that single-handedly brought trance and progressive music to New York, in May 2001, the New York club landscape changed drastically. And the owners of Vinyl (which would soon be renamed Arc) decided to go with another promoter, formerly of Twilo, for their Saturday nights. “They wouldn’t renew the lease to the Shelter party,” says Hedge. “We asked for until they end of the year, but they said no, gotta be September. So we knew we were finished, and then 9/11 happened.”

With New York businesses in decline across the board, and after a decade of success, Hedge and Regisford thought it might be time to “just stop.” But as Hedge explains, the party and its community remained too vital, and had become too much a part of their lives. “I thought about the faces of the members of Shelter, the people who came every weekend, even the people who came occasionally who loved the party, who loved Timmy’s music,” says Hedge. “I saw those faces and I kept thinking, what are they gonna do? That’s my family. I see them every week. We spend 12 hours together every week. A lot of those people see me more than they see their own mothers and fathers.” Hedge’s thoughts quickly turned toward finding a new venue of Shelter’s very own. “I started thinking about the investments my [Blaze] partner Josh [Milan], Timmy and I had, and the capital we had sitting in the bank. Did we want to use our life savings to build a new venue?”

“Our Phazon”
After some soul-searching, the Shelter crew decided to soldier on (“I couldn’t let those people down,” said Hedge), and started scouring the city and its surrounding areas for an appropriate spot. After seriously considering a spot in D.U.M.B.O. (that’s the District Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), they settled on Speeed instead, a club on 39th Street and 6th Avenue that had fallen off the NYC radar and was known primarily for one-offs and hip-hop nights. The four-floor space was also notorious for its crackly sound system and odd rectangular layout. Many considered it to be a strange choice, but Hedge had his reasons. “It was in midtown, not really where I wanted to be, but it had a liquor license and a cabaret license. All we had to do was make it right,” he said.

It was at this point when Twilo again would affect Shelter’s destiny. Hedge knew he needed to replace Speeed’s worn-out sound system, and at the time of Twilo’s shutdown, its customized Phazon was thought to be the world’s best. And it was still sitting in the gutted Twilo space on West 27th Street, collecting dust.
Hedge said it wasn’t the name that got him. “Coming from downtown and not being in the Twilo scene, I didn’t know Phazon from a hole in the wall. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me.” But after a visit from engineer Steve Dash, who analyzed Shelter’s top floor, the space they had designated as the main dancefloor, Hedge and his partners were convinced.
Shelter bought the former Twilo system. The installation was arduous, and even required bringing up new electricity from the basement (“That thing’s pulling 200 amps,” says Hedge). There was endless tweaking, pushing of speakers, moving of stacks, and rewiring. And in the end, the fit wasn’t right.
Regisford’s instrument-based soulful house was worlds different from the synthesized progressive that the Twilo system was used to. And like most DJs of his style (see Little Louie Vega and Body & Soul’s Francois K), his mixing methods relied heavily on EQ manipulation, quick cuts, and even volume changes, while Twilo-type DJs mostly used smooth overlays.
“We wanted the system to have more dynamics in terms of what we could actually do with it on the fly,” said Hedge. “The way Phazon sets it up is the way they’d like it to stay. They set it at eight and eight, and then it just stays there. But that’s not this music. That not the way Larry Levan created this style, or the way Timmy plays, anyone who plays our sound – they work out a sound system.”
So slowly, Shelter made the system its own, so much so that Hedge refers to it as “our Phazon.”
“We changed the system so it can be very dynamic, unlike any other Phazon,” says Hedge. “You can get really loud, or get real soft. We made it so that the EQs are real active; you can really get inside the sound. We put a digital effects box in too. Our Phazon is for deep house; it’s not gentle. It’s got more balls and teeth.”
Add around 16 High End Systems Trackspots, a bunch of pinspots and other assorted fixtures from Excel Lighting, and Shelter was just about ready to go.

From Underground to “It”
Hedge says he wasn’t ready for what followed: instant public interest and hugely attended parties. With the Shelter party in its usual Saturday slot and a to-be-determined roster for the rest of the nights of the week, Hedge expected a slow start. But Shelter opened in January 2001, in a city that was just post-disaster and had been abruptly stripped of other clubbing options – Twilo and Tunnel most notably. Something had to give, and for many, especially with the Phazon name attached, Shelter was it. “The first night we had a party in here there was a snowstorm. But we did 1,600 people that night, out of the blue,” said Hedge. “I was expecting my Shelter people, because I knew they were waiting for it, but we also got all these people we never saw before, a real Manhattan crowd. I’m thinking, where did these people come from? How did they hear about Shelter? None of these people ever came down to see me. And then New York magazine voted us best new club, and Time Out put us on the cover.”
When Erick Morillo announced that his Thursday night Subliminal Sessions was moving from longtime home Centro-Fly to Shelter, the transformation was complete: Shelter had gone from Hedge’s “little place for my people to call home” to New York’s new “it” club.

Hedge says he wasn’t even ready for his crowd to start coming, let alone the whole of New York’s clubbing population: “I was thinking, once I get the place to where I want it to be, then I can get house people to come in, because they never been here before. In the next 12 months, I was gonna build the place to be on par with Centro-Fly and other clubs this size. We were going to build out each room, get really good designers. But it got much too popular before I was ready.”

Danny, Timmy, Junior?
Eventually the rift between Shelter’s philosophy and that of the newly interested crowd became too deep, and with the departure of Subliminal in July, the popularity of the club waned, to Hedge’s relief. “I don’t think my dancefloor being a whole separate room will ever make it palatable for that kind of audience,” says Hedge. “At Subliminal, the lounge would be full with 200 people, and nobody on the dance floor. I don’t care, it’s not my party, but for Shelter, we have 600 people in the club and it seems crazy busy because they’re all on the floor.”
After surviving the initial flurry of interest, Hedge and his staff look forward to implementing grand plans for the future. Shelter’s basement level, called Sub-Shelter, will eventually be used for live performances, “like an S.O.B.’s or Village Underground,” he says. The plans for its new JBL sound system are already drawn up.
And Hedge would like to book big name DJs, like Carl Cox, on small nights. “Book him on a Wednesday night, automatically cutting out people, then pre-sell it with a 1,500 person limit, and have the club wired where you can get the sound through the whole place,” he says. “I want to start a Wednesday night where we book big acts like that, and it’s always pre-sold, so it’s not an uncomfortable experience. I don’t want 3,000 people.”
Hedge’s eyes get wide as he muses about his dream line-up: “My ideal club, if I could entice Danny [Tenaglia] on a Friday, and Junior [Vasquez] to work on Sunday – I know they won’t work together – but I could somehow create Danny Friday nights, Timmy Saturday, and Junior Sunday. I wouldn’t open any other night. Because the room is built for what they want to do.”
While he’ll be the first to call that schedule a pipe dream, Hedge will still muse about it out loud. Because it’s ideas like that, not $30 covers and massive bar receipts, that honestly get him excited.

But don’t take Hedge for a fool: The business and competition of the New York nightclub world interest him as deeply as the music and vibe. “When I hear Arc is closed on a Saturday, and we’re open, it’s like an amazing turn of events,” he says with a glimmer in his eye. “I’m hoping to build out the club, finish all of the legal work, and learn more about nightclub business. You can’t be shady with the SLA and the city with codes and violations – all of that is hard, honest work.”
But it is the enduring philosophy of the original Shelter club and party that drives all of the club’s ventures. “I want it to be a multi-use place, but ultimately it has to be about the lifestyle we live at Shelter,” says Hedge. “And that lifestyle is about having a place where we’re all together, whites and black dancing and coexisting in one space, and feeling like they don’t have to be other than what they are.”

     
Copyright 2002 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2002 TESTA Communications