In the late 1970s into the 80s, before its disintegration into a magnet for prostitutes and crackheads,The Lincoln Motel, located on the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel, was a powerful vortex the disco universe. While downtown Manhattan had the Paradise Garage and Midtown had Studio 54, Newark had Club Zanzibar.
Located in the second floor ballroom of the Lincoln, Zanzibar took over the space formerly known as Abe’s Disco. Under the creative direction of Al Murphy and with its formidable line-up of massively influential deejays, starting with Hippie Torrales and Gerald T, the club became the laboratory from which was spawned some of the best dance music to appear on the planet. Many of the deejays became influential producers like the mighty Tony Humphries, some started record labels like Francoise Kervokian. Others, like the late Tee Scott and Larry Levan, went on to pioneer new styles of club music that incorporated garage and house and eventually techno.
Music historian Bill Brewster describes Club Zanzibar’s lavish debut:
The opening night of Club Zanzibar was on August 29th, 1979. Newark had never seen anything like it. Local television filed reports from the club; there was a live feed from radio station WNJR. There were jugglers and magicians, Le Clique-style dancers adorned in paste-diamond jewelery and showered in glitter. To top it off, Murphy and Berger had installed real lions and tigers in cages. The whole of New Jersey’s musical royalty turned out, with Kool & The Gang, Tasha Thomas and the All Platinum stable hanging out in the DJ booth. Remembers Hippie Torres: “[All Platinum’s] Joe Robinson came up to me saying, ‘Look, we have this record. The first it was played was last week on a radio station in Texas. Nobody else has played it in the New York area. I want you to play it.’ It was ‘Rappers’ Delight’. Those were the kinds of things happening on opening night. It was a really amazing night.”
Zanzibar was close enough to New York to pick up on the Manhattan vibe, but far enough to create its own sound, often referred to as Zanzibar music or the “Jersey sound.”. In addition to its own brand of flavor, Zanzibar deejays were known for dropping songs into the mix from bands like The Rolling Stones, B-52s, ESG and Talking Heads. The crates were not segregated. No song was exempt, as long as it shook the dance floor. Latin, rock, garage, house and disco shuddered the boards.
Mix master Tony Humphries
Despite superficial differences, Club Zanzibar was to dance music, what CBGB was to punk - a raw space where young artists could freely explore their creativity, experimenting in front of open-minded and enthusiastic crowds. In both clubs the D.I.Y. spirit thrived. Zanzibar was a testing ground for new sounds that would eventually pop up on the shelves of record stores in the form of 12 inch dance mixes. The turntables at Zanzibar launched many one-hit-wonders. It was almost impossible to keep up with the amount of vinyl that was piling up in places like Manhattan’s legendary Vinyl Mania.
I think the reason clubs like [the Garage and Zanzibar] were such an experience was because the records weren’t just of one type,” reflects Tony Humphries of that lost era. “It wasn’t like going to a house club or a techno club or a classics club, everything was intertwined. The hours were long so obviously you didn’t want to hear ten hours of straight house music. If you’re going to pay $15-20 to hear this guy, you want to hear the whole damn spectrum and whatever it is, it better be quality. And, believe me, you had to come with everything possible. Talking Heads and The B-52s don’t sound like Zanzibar/Garage records but they were. They were just funky records. I think that’s what the appeal was.”
The Lincoln Motel was demolished in 2007, long after Club Zanzibar had closed. It had become, in the words of The New Times, “a depressing symbol of Newark’s downfall” and, as described by one real estate developer, “a blemished, rat-infested drug-haven eyesore.” Like so many of the seminal music venues of the 1970s and early 80s, Club Zanzibar’s influence has outlived its brief red hot history. Some things are etched in the memory, others, like Zanzibar, work their way down to the bone.
DJ Punch reminisces about the glory days of Club Zanzibar:
Thanks to Bill Brewster, Bernard Lopez and Hippie Torrales.