Recognition is a funny thing. Out of our line of sight, we often miss the undercurrent of momentum and only catch the waves as they bubble up and crash over. If the current is strong enough, some of us get pulled under, losing reach and interest of the surface. To this day the house and techno sounds of Chicago, Detroit, and New York are still the undercurrent, generating waves, but never cresting. Their swells have reached shores around the world, gaining an international reverence by now that’s well documented and enduringly traced back to these American cities.
Manny Cuevas was pulled in early when he received a WBMX house music mixtape from a cousin. In 1985, after settling in the unsuspecting City Beautiful, he became a force for pushing the burgeoning sound at parties, on the airwaves, and through productions. This makes him the very first to surface in Orlando, and Florida in general, with this newly evolved style. His involvement in the movement’s nascent stages led him to friendships with some key players and eventually a position as A&R for Afro Acid Digital, the label spearheaded by acid house pioneer and creator of the infamous Wild Pitch style DJ Pierre. Manny is a man of God in an often unapologetically hedonistic industry, but one whose peace brings comfort to those around him, rather than the opposite which can sometimes be the case. Not trying to relive a bygone era, he is very much focused on the now, continuing his production work as DJ M-TRAXXX and keeping on top of his podcast.
Shoulder to shoulder with our ideas in a lot of ways, we knew we had to have Manny’s combination of roots and a forward thinking mentality on an event with us, if he would accept, and that we couldn’t let this opportunity pass without getting him to answer a few of our questions. His story and accounts of Orlando reflect a greater ongoing narrative that seems to be cyclical in nature, one Open House Conspiracy (OHC) could currently be included in, and captures the struggle of dance music in America outside of its major hubs. A lot has changed since the days of exchanging mixtapes on cassettes, but how much progress has house music culture made in the greater consciousness of cities like these? This is why we wanted to help Manny tell his side in an interview where we talk about roots, musical evolution, club history, today’s outlook, and even religion, all as they pertain to house music.
First of all, it has been ten years since you played out in Orlando. Why? What was it about OHC that changed your mind?
Well, the last time I DJ’d in Orlando it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I got booked to play at this event and when I opened my set with an unreleased DJ Pierre Wild Pitch track the promoter came up to me like, “Hey, that’s too hard. You’re going to scare the crowd away. Play something deep!” I was like “Deep? My music is deep — mentally-deep!” So after that track I went into a Robert Armani classic ‘Ambulance’ and the crowd loved it! The bottom line is this: if you’re going to book me to play at your event, I have to play one hundred percent what I am feeling at that moment and throughout the entire night. I’ve been doing this for now over thirty-five years and I love music, all kinds of music, and when I DJ I need to express myself musically through whatever I am feeling at that time. I also can’t just play one style of music all night. Depending on how I’m feeling, I like going from a gospel vocal track to maybe dropping right into an acid joint, then maybe backing that up with a deep disco classic — no rules style! I Like hearing different frequencies and my style of mixing is very raw. I don’t worry too much on perfect mixes, it’s all about the music for me.
In any case, I always felt like the city of Orlando was very close minded. If you go to a deep house party, all you’re going to hear all night is just that. Don’t get me wrong, I love my deep soulful house, but not all night long. I like to hear different styles of music in a DJ set. Like our KCP parties from the mid ‘80s to late ‘90s, we took our crowd on a musical journey. We would play deep house, acid trax, Detroit techno, hip-hop, Latin freestyle, dancehall/dub reggae, etc. and mix it all up. Those parties were amazing, but that’s yet another story.
The reason I decided to do an OHC party was because I attended one of their events and I loved how their resident DJ Austen van der Bleek aka bleek ‘n coy played. For example, he would maybe drop a deep four on the floor joint and back that up with a raw minimal beat track. He was speaking my musical language. [laughs] Not to mention the venue where their parties are held, the Sandwich Bar, is a very small and intimate joint with a nice sound system and a very mixed, friendly crowd.
When did you first hear house music?
The very first time I heard house music was in 1985 when my infamous cousin gave me a mixtape from a Chicago radio station WBMX. Side A was Farley “JackMaster” Funk and side B was Mickey “Mixin” Oliver. After hearing it once, I was totally hooked! Prior to that I was into new wave and early industrial music.
Can you stitch together the disco, new wave, punk, industrial, and house music phases you went through? This was kind of the natural progression for a lot of people right?
Yes, it was a time where house music was always fresh and there was really no segregation in musical styles. I grew up in South Lorain, Ohio which is a suburb of Cleveland and as a kid I listened to Detroit’s CKLW AM radio station across Lake Eerie which played everything from motown to rock ‘n’ roll. Artists like David Bowie and Elton John were influencing me as I remember watching them perform live on television for Soul Train. Then, as I got a little older, disco kind of meshed in. The motown music began getting a little more upbeat and later the sounds of Philly started to roll in with amazing strings. My ears were always opened to the different styles that came along, though I did find myself always wanting more.
When new wave came in, again it wasn’t like bam! New wave, here I am, it all kind of meshed in as disco was at its peak. Punk arrived and I remember hearing some of that music by groups like the Dead Boys and Generation X in the late ‘70s and for some reason I liked the raw aggressiveness in that type of music, yet I always had one foot on the disco beat. So basically, punk and disco merged and new wave groups started to pop out. One of the first that I still love to this day is Blondie with Debbie Harry on vocals. From there, funk music started with groups like Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Roger Troutman and Zapp, P-Funk, Slave, Ohio Players, Cameo, Instinct Funk, and of course, one of my all time favorites, Prince. That type of music (funk) to me was the bad-boy of disco and I loved its raw edge.
I am the first. In 1985 nobody in Florida was playing house music, period. It’s a fact, I was the first to introduce Orlando to Chicago and New York house music, Detroit techno, and even Italian disco at my parties.
At the same time rap music came around, we’re talking late ‘70s, yet to me it was just another form of disco since they basically rapped over popular disco records and talked about partying and having a good time at the discos, etc., but throughout it all new wave really stuck hard with me with groups like Joy Division (later New Order), Depeche Mode, Yazoo, OMD, Billy Idol, Talking Heads, The Clash, Human League, Culture Club, Heaven 17, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, etc. and a lot of the new romantic groups coming from the UK at that time (early ‘80s).
Then, approaching the mid ‘80s, I started getting really into dub reggae and industrial music — weird combo, right? But I just like certain elements of both styles, the hard edge of industrial and the dub echo effects of reggae music. It was always about elements in the music that I liked; a basic cowbell in a track can make me go nuts. [laughs] Seriously, if you knew me well, these things you would know about me.
Then in 1985 my infamous cousin introduced me to house music which, still to this day, I can’t describe that feeling I got when I first heard it — indescribable. What I do remember was the mystery behind it and the track that got me one hundred percent hooked was “Farley Knows House” by Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, those strings took me to planet Mars! [laughs]
How can you tell that you were the first to bring house and techno to Florida? Is it simply a matter of you being the one to claim it with nobody to come along and say they were actually before you?
I am the first. In 1985 nobody in Florida was playing house music, period. It’s a fact, I was the first to introduce Orlando to Chicago and New York house music, Detroit techno, and even Italian disco at my parties. I’m sure there are still some people in this city who can back me up. Not to mention, after all these years, nobody has stepped up to the house plate to let me know they were the first. Bottom line is there is/was nobody else before me, period. It may sound like I’m bragging, but the truth has to be known and I’ve been quiet for much too long — this is my time to speak up.
I remember when I attended Full Sail Recording School back in 1987–89 and when we started our first class we had to stand up and introduce ourselves and tell our class a little bit about what our goals were for after we graduated. I remember I stood up nervously and said something like, “Yeah, my name is Manny Cuevas and I plan to continue to grow in the evolution of house music: producing it, remixing it, and educating this city and the world on it.” Something along those lines, and my teacher was like, “What is house music?” I basically had to break it down to him and the class. Although I did get a couple of guys from Miami who clapped for me since the first signs of house music were surfacing in the south around that time during Winter Music Conference. I also want to mention that Bruce Swedien (Michael Jackson Recording Engineer) lectured one of our classes at Full Sail and I asked what he thought about house music or if he even knew about it and he surprised me by saying he was familiar with it and felt that maybe I was on to something good — but I’m digressing.
You know, I remember when house music first started. My brothers from Chicago were all into it like myself, but as soon as it hit overseas and started to break big, a lot of the DJs were claiming they were the Godfather. The same thing happened in Orlando, but in Orlando it was worse because, besides my parties, the rest of the city caught on very late and those who claim to be the Godfathers weren’t even playing house music until around 1990? And I have to laugh at that. Another thing I must mention, one of the best record stores in Orlando back then was Murmur Records on Edgewater and Princeton in College Park. I remember giving the owner, Don, catalogs I would receive from Chicago’s infamous record store Import’s Etc. and I’d put stars next to the names of records he should order and sell at his store. He did order a few and a lot of the DJs that you would later read about bought all of them, that’s a fact! I can go on and on and on, but the bottom line is that I am “Thee Originator” for Orlando.
I also have to add that my brothers and I were the very first to introduce house music and techno over the airwaves in Orlando on Rollins College WPRK 91.5FM. We started in 1989 and went through 1997 — those shows were bootlegged overseas. Here’s a true story, one day I was at the legendary club Warsaw in Miami during the Winter Music Conference back in 1994 and Spanky of Phuture came up to me with DJ Pierre and told me that they were selling my WPRK Radio tapes on the streets of Berlin with the same cover I used to make for them to give out as promos to the record labels, but they just took off my mailing info. [laughs] Now this is before the Internet came along and to have one of your mentors tell you something like that — wow! I knew I was doing something right. [laughs]
How and when did the nickname ‘Thee Educator’ come about? Who was calling you that?
That name was given to me by a lot of the DJs — mainly the ones from Chicago, Detroit, NYC, and London/UK — who were guests on my radio show and/or when I introduced their music for the first time on WPRK 91.5FM or at my KCP events. Also the people who worked at the various record labels that sent me promos — like Transmat (Detroit), Power Music (NYC), Vibe Music/Music Plant (Chicago), etc. — would always get tapes of the show from me when I featured their unreleased tracks and they were pretty much blown away by the fact that some Puerto Rican homie in Orlando, Florida was pushing the real-deal house and techno over the airwaves and at my parties. Then it caught on to the promoters and club owners who would later ask me about how they could reach these DJs whose records I was playing so I’d link them to the DJs directly or through their personal booking agents who I would later work with closely. DJ Pierre used to call me “Tha Man” because he said I was the one everybody looked for when they wanted a hook up. [laughs]
How do you think things would have panned out if you had started working for WBMX in Chicago with the Super Mix 6 (Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Bad Boy Bill, Julian “Jumpin” Perez, Mike “Hitman” Wilson, Frankie “Hollywood” Rodriguez, and Fast Eddie)?
Man, that’s a great question, I think about it all the time. When I left Full Sail I originally got hired by WBMX to do edits for the house music they were playing on the mixes for regular radio play rotation. That’s how popular house music was in the city of Chicago alone, but unfortunately WBMX changed their format two weeks before I moved to Chicago. Now, that really hit me in the gut, but if WBMX would have stayed, I believe I would have been doing more production and remixing/editing and maybe promoting the best underground parties in Chicago. I honestly didn’t see myself continuing to DJ, I wanted to make the music instead and work more behind the scenes. I never liked the attention DJs got; I’m really a shy person around crowds and get nervous quickly. [laughs]
As the first to push the sounds of Chicago house and Detroit techno in Florida, can you go into more detail about the landscape back then and what you were doing differently?
Yes, Aahz was an amazing club indeed! I used to go there a lot with friends, but what Kimball was playing and what we were playing at our parties was night and day.
Well, back then I really didn’t know how huge Chicago house and Detroit techno would be. Actually, I didn’t even call it (Chicago) house and the term (Detroit) techno didn’t even exist yet. I simply called it all Chicago style music and mixing which consisted of different elements. Like I mentioned earlier, Italian disco was one of the elements which actually caught my attention at first on the WBMX mixes. In any case, back then I just wanted to educate Central Florida with these new sounds coming out of the Windy City. There really wasn’t a plan or anything. There was something mysterious about this music that took a real hold of me and I wanted to share the feeling I was experiencing at that moment.
What kind of resistance was there?
Besides those that attended my parties in the very beginning, the rest of Orlando just didn’t really get it at first. I tried to get a DJ job in every club in Central Florida, but after hearing my demo mix tapes, the club owners usually would say something along the lines of, “This city is not ready for these sounds.” So I basically had to do my own events. At first there were simple house gatherings and then later we rented spaces. Our KCP parties, there was nothing like them.
The Rolling Stone article they published about Orlando’s scene in ’97 credits Kimball Collins and Aahz in ’89 for being the house catalyst. What part of the city’s story were they missing?
Yes, Aahz was an amazing club indeed! I used to go there a lot with friends, but what Kimball was playing and what we were playing at our parties was night and day. Kimball concentrated mainly on the European sounds while we banged out straight up Chicago, Detroit, and NYC beats. Our parties were really underground, nothing like what was happening in downtown Orlando.
The sounds of Chicago, New York, and Detroit are not what Orlando latched on to, breaks and progressive house seem to have really taken off instead. Why do you think this is?
I believe Orlando was influenced a lot by Miami bass/freestyle music for those who got into breaks and the only underground clubs in Orlando, which were very few and far between, were playing new wave and industrial and I believe that crowd got into the progressive sound. Other than that, this is the deep south and back then it was a whole different world.
If you had to take the state of music in Orlando’s pulse today what would you say? When was it different?
I actually see a rise in the Orlando house music scene today with this new generation. They seem very educated (I’m sure with the help of the Internet). Though, on the down side, clubs today close way too early compared to back then where they would go to 12 noon or later around the mid ‘90s. Not to mention the after hours parties were sometimes starting at 3AM with Club Firestone being the best alongside Simon’s in Gainesville.
What artist do you think today’s partygoers would be most surprised came through Orlando?
Hmmm… one person that comes to mind is Moby, before he blew up in the mainstream. He opened up for the Shamen with Mr. C at Visage Night Club in 1992. That was a great show! Also Ministry performed at a now defunct club in downtown Orlando called Electric Avenue on Amelia Ave. back in 1986 — now that was an amazing concert! One hundred percent industrial music!
When you were on the radio and helping DJ Pierre get Afro Acid Digital off the ground as an A&R, was it difficult to find time balancing everything?
Yes, it was very difficult indeed. I never slept, had two cellphones constantly ringing, was listening to hundreds of demo submissions every single day, and promoting the label/releases plus DJ Pierre’s albums. Not to mention working on my own tracks and doing remixes which I usually did last minute and in a rush because I was so focused on building Afro Acid Digital. Also at that time I was doing two weekly radio shows, one with DJ Pierre on the UK’s Push FM and my infamous No Rulez Radio Show on PirateRevival.co.uk. Along with other guest radio spots on other stations world-wide so, yes, I guess you can say it was a labor of love.
How much of a role do you think sacrifice plays in the industry?
Sacrifice is the main ingredient in this business. No sleep for starters or family time — which to me is very important since I’m a dad. Also, when you work as a head A&R for a record label, you tend to have to put yourself last when it comes down to pushing or working on your own music. You might have to play a lot of gigs for almost free or for free promotional purposes… I can go on and on, but basically having your candle burned from both ends continuously and still being able to maintain.
How did you connect with people like DJ Pierre, Roy Davis Jr., and DJ Sneak?
DJ Pierre I knew through various people from record labels and his booking agent at the time, Roy Davis Jr. I met through Pierre, and DJ Sneak I knew before he was DJ Sneak, when he was just Carlos Sosa who used to work at the Hip House Record Store in Chicago. Sneak always hooked me up with the latest Chicago joints hot off the press. True story here, one day Sneak was playing records for me and he looked at me and said, “Bro, I’m going to come out with my own banging record someday and blow up as a DJ/producer,” and about one year later he did just that. My brother Sneak is one true house gangster!
What was it like working with acid house pioneer DJ Pierre? You can’t really get much closer to the source than that.
We’re like family. For me it was like working for my own blood brother; his kids call me uncle Manny! [laughs] Not to mention his amazing wife Andrea is like a sister to me. When Pierre was touring we would have our marathon phone conversations [laughs] and when she had their first baby, Nia, I remember we were talking on the phone and Nia was crying and screaming. So Andrea was like, “Manny, do you hear her?!” And I’m like, “Wow, yeah, she seems upset, let me let you go.” And Andrea’s like, “It’s the wrath of Nia!” [laughs] Then before we hung up she said, “Name your next record that.” [laughs] And I did, which I released on Japan’s label Galaxy Records under DJ M-TRAXXX.
Do you recommend the younger generation learn the history and roots of this music? What advice do you have on how to go about it?
Ever since the explosion of the Internet, people started rewriting history to best fit themselves.
Yes by all means. I would suggest the younger generation check out websites like deephousepage.com which has a lot of members that lived disco and house music from the start. Also join groups, like on Facebook, that have members who actually DJ’d or attended these original clubs and parties from the ‘70s–’90s. Just read, download, learn, and respect the forefathers. I actually am hoping to get my website up soon so I can share not only my history, but the many thousands of tapes I have for download. Funny thing, I have donated or traded tapes from my own collection with people all over Planet-E since the ‘80s and now see them all over, on other websites and even YouTube. I mean, I have seen tapes traded in the past with my own hand writing. For example, a Farley on WBMX tape I saw on YouTube; I remember I used a black and red marker/pen to label my tapes and I know my handwriting. [laughs] Crazy how these tapes circulated, but I digress…
Do you see anything distinguishing what gets documented and what is overlooked in this music’s history? Has it gotten the story right for the most part or excluded some in favor of others?
Ever since the explosion of the Internet, people started rewriting history to best fit themselves. I don’t care what the Internet says, in fact the Internet is the main platform where everyone with a voice has something to say about what they feel concerning something that they haven’t lived and yet people somehow, for the most part, believe it?! So forget what the Internet has to say. The crazy thing is that I lived some of these stories and yet in interviews the stories get twisted. It’s to the point where I don’t want to hear about the history anymore. I know it and lived it and want to leave it there and move forward.
Psalm 150:4, which you brought to our attention, basically describes house music. Do you think Jesus and his disciples were wandering the earth creating raw house beats? Or on the seventh day God created house music? For real though, is house likely a divine or sacred rhythm? According to a verse taken from the popular house scripture “In the Beginning,” Jack created the groove from which house music was born.
Well, if you read the Bible, throughout the entire Book music played a big part in the celebrations. For example, weddings lasted for days. Theologians even say there were weeks of non-stop celebrating with music and dance. One perfect example would be when Jesus and His mother Mary were invited to the Cana wedding where Jesus turns water into wine. Theologians say that Jesus enjoyed himself dancing with His friends and family at the wedding. Also if you read the book of Psalms (my personal favorite), it’s actually songs and poems mainly written by King David who was a musician and loved music and dancing. As you can read here in 2 Samuel 6:14 “Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might.” And David was a man after God’s own heart in Acts 13:22. Actually, I released a record on Power of Love Productions called “David’s Dance,” which I dedicated to King David. In any case, yes, I believe God gave man the intelligence to create this music that would bring people together in love and dance we call house. Yes, even that dark Detroit techno that you would hear at a club like Tresor in Berlin. Like my favorite verse in the bible, Psalms 150:4–5, says, “Praise Him with drums and dancing, praise him with harps and flute, praise him with cymbals, praise him with loud cymbals (Techno)…” and it goes on. Actually all of Psalms 150 is about praising God with music and dancing. House music is, to me, sacred.
Since Larry Levan, some DJs have been worshipped like gods, building up to some being held on a pedestal even more so today and for much less. How does a man of God look at this? Are they false idols?
First of all, for me, there is no DJ on this planet near to being a god or even close to my God. I see them as DJs that knew how to use the gift God blessed them with. I also believe when they came face to face with their Creator God said, “Job well done for using the musical talent I gifted you with and you using it to spread love and bring people together.” I sure don’t think anyone prays to any DJ that passed on to have their souls saved. Though I’d wish that people would talk more about our Heavenly Father who should get all the glory for this music we all love so much. It’s because of His creation and blessings that we are able to do what we do in music.
God bless my friends.