Joey Beltram and Jonah Almost Talk New York Nightlife, Then and Now

On Peter Gatien-era clubs, the early days of house and techno, Queens, and more.

Queens native Joey Beltram is a techno legend. With his hit singles “Energy Flash” and “Mentasm” in the early ‘90s, he became an instant icon of rave culture — to the point that in 1997, Daft Punk was already shouting him out as a pioneer in their track “Teachers.” Among the innumerable “club rats” he unknowingly mentored is Jonah Almost, a producer, DJ, and It-Boy-at-large who also shares roots in Queens. This summer, Jonah sat down with his idol (over Zoom) for a State of the Union on New York nightlife. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.

You can find more of some of our favorite artists on the topic of NYC in the Talkhouse Reader — only a couple print copies left, by the way!
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Jonah Almost: So it’s funny: this is supposed to be on the state of New York nightlife, but I’m actually taking this call from Berlin. For me personally, I remember my introduction to techno was when I was 18 and I went to Berghain for the first time, in 2013 or 2014. I came back to New York and I remember I was like, I wanna find this club culture. And at the time, there was kind of a lull. There’s been a resurgence, I feel like, in the last couple of years. 

Joey Beltram: Oh, yeah.

Jonah: But I remember coming back to New York and being kind of unable to find that scene. You know, there were a handful of parties, but nothing really. Now we have Basement, we have Paragon, there’s Lot Radio, there’s Bossa Nova. There’s all these different clubs.

Joey: It blew up even bigger after the COVID lockdowns. When that was over, it came back to life so quickly, and bigger than I think it had been in many years.

Jonah: Yeah, it was really crazy. But it made me wonder: how did you discover techno, at least in the New York world?

Joey: Well, now we’re going back a long time, to the ‘80s. I’ve been DJing since 1983 or ‘84, and I was into electro when I first started. I was writing graffiti and stuff, and part of all that. I was maybe 14, so I wasn’t playing out to clubs back then — it was about making tapes and passing them out in school, and you’d hope people would copy them. That was like our way of going viral back then. Then it was more about what’s entertaining to listen to when someone pops a tape in, maybe driving their car or just listening to it in their house; it wasn’t about people dancing to it or what entertains people in a club. So it was electro, and then house music. And then by the time I started changing my focus from the tape culture to trying to play out to clubs, that’s when techno started being a thing.

Jonah: The raves and everything. 

Joey: Yeah. It was a more experimental kind of vibe than house music at the time. [Techno] was a little more on the cutting edge. At the beginning, I just kind of threw it all together as house music, and then it branched off into its own thing. That’s how I got into it, because when I started producing that’s what I was into at that moment. Then I kind of just rolled with it for the next 30-plus years.

Jonah: Yeah. It sounds so cheesy now, because of what Berghain has become, but it really did change my life at that point. I was so young and [had] no context of techno music. I thought it was like shitty American EDM or something, I didn’t really understand the differences. And then I went and experienced that and it was just everything. The setting, the sound, the bass — I could feel it in my ears and my body, ringing for days afterwards. I took that energy back to New York. It was like pure liberation, hedonism, everything, and I was like, I want to be a part of that. That’s what compelled me to start producing my own music.

I remember I started reading Moby’s biography at the time. He talks about the Storm Raves that Frankie Bones was doing, and then how “Energy Flash” took the scene by storm… He was namedropping all these different artists and tracks, so I started looking them up, and that was when I discovered you. I was really inspired because you’re from Queens, and my family’s also from Queens. At the time, I was living at my grandma’s crib in Jackson Heights, and I bought some synthesizers and just started trying to produce on Ableton and make my own tracks and shit like that. I feel like that discovery of techno and wanting to contribute something to the culture is a really powerful feeling.

Joey: Right. I think that’s probably the coolest way to get into techno, to just discover it in the club. I always wished I could not know anything about techno and then just walk into a club and hear it for the first time.

Jonah: Yeah, it’s really crazy.

Joey: But yeah, I experienced it when it was in its earliest DNA, and it just evolved into a thing. When I think about techno music [now], it’s something else altogether.

Jonah: How do you feel growing up in New York and living in Queens inspired the sound that you were trying to convey?

Joey: I don’t know, because there wasn’t anything really like that around when I was coming up, especially where I lived in Queens. 

Jonah: Where did you live in Queens?

Joey: In Middle Village, near Metropolitan Avenue, the last stop on the M train. I mean, what got me into that style, or just doing more cutting edge kind of music in general, was I used to listen to Tony Humphries. He would play a whole range of different types of house music, and even disco. It was a very eclectic kind of set he would put together on the radio. He would come on at midnight, after the hip hop shows — Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, then Tony Humphries would come on and play house music ‘til, like, 3 AM, and it was live from Club Zanzibar. There was a portion of his set where he would get into really cutting edge stuff, and I always liked that part the best. I would tape it, and when I started making music — I didn’t even know what records he was playing, but I knew that even though it was on the radio, it was live from Club Zanzibar, so there were people dancing to it. I would imagine that and just try and create stuff with that same vibe. 

Then I’d try and find those records in the record store. I’d go into the city, Vinyl Mania, or downtown there was a place called Rebel Rebel. And that was more like a rock store — every time I’d go in there I got a punk rock vibe, and then there was this little section that was imports, dance music from Belgium

and Germany and stuff. And I just started making that kind of music.

onah: My first exposure to New York nightlife [was when] I was probably 14 or 15 and I saw Party Monster — the club kids were all listening to techno and they had these crazy parties. But one thing that I remember reading in the book [version], Disco Bloodbath was, they talk a lot about the difference between the bridge-and-tunnel scene versus the Manhattan scene. And so when I moved to New York and I was going out, I had a little bit of imposter syndrome, because I was living at my grandma’s deep in Queens. I would have to walk a mile to the train, or take a bus and then take the train and then do a transfer and then get downtown. And it’s like, I’m with all these rich kids whose parents are paying for everything… I felt a little bit of a disconnect. So when I was starting to make music, there was a bit of this frustration, or maybe self-consciousness I felt about that. I was wondering if you ever felt that back in the day?

Joey: No. I was just happy to be in a place where I could hear the music I like when I finally was able to go to clubs. I think the first club, like real New York City nightclub, I ever went to was the Tunnel.

Jonah: Yeah, of course. The Tunnel was iconic.

Joey: Yeah. It had a different configuration when I started playing. It used to be a real train tunnel, I guess, once upon a time — in the back, you could still see the tunnel, and they even had train tracks that they brought in and put a light at the end so it looked like the train’s coming. The DJ booth was back there, but when I first went there, the DJ booth was all the way on the other side of the club and it was in a cage. There was a DJ [playing] called Johnny Dynell — that was my first real New York City nightclub experience, and it left a big impact on me. 

Jonah: He’s still around — I think I’ve actually seen him live before. He’s in the gay world.

Joey: He’s one of the guys I never really got to meet. I’d love to meet him one day. He was amazing. Actually, that whole night I don’t think I went on the dance floor once — I was leaning up against the cage just watching him play. He was playing a lot of Todd Terry stuff, but he had Todd Terry stuff that hadn’t even come out yet. 

Jonah: Oh, hell yeah.

Joey: It was just great. And then a couple of years later, I got to play there and it was completely different. I actually felt a little disappointed that they changed it, because I always wanted to play in that original configuration. The way they changed it made sense, where now the DJ booth was looking down on the dance floor. But just for nostalgic purposes, I liked that original setup. But before that, the only thing that I had to equate to nightclubs was, we used to have a lot of roller skating rinks here in New York in the ‘80s, and on certain nights they almost became like little clubs for teenagers. Everybody would roller skate and they they would make it like a dance floor. There was a place here called the Oasis in Ridgewood, on Fresh Pond Road — that was in, like, 1985. I was 14 or 15 back then, and there would be a line around the corner of teenagers. Parents would drop their kids off thinking they’re just going to roller skate, and it was like a little nightclub, basically. They had a DJ. 

Then I went to the Tunnel, and then I would go to all the clubs, [like] Limelight. There was a year or so of me going to clubs and just paying to get in, [then] the following year I was already being asked to play those clubs. Because I started making records when I was 18 years old, and back then, they used to let you into clubs. You had a wristband that said you couldn’t drink.

Jonah: I had a fake ID, so I remember when I was 16, I was going to these clubs in New York, just finessing my way in. I’ve always been a little bit of a club rat. I love to go out. I love the magic of nightlife and dancing. What’s actually funny is, I feel like I rediscovered my love of dancing on this trip to Berlin. Now that I’ve been in the scene for a bit, a lot of times when I go to the club [in New York], you’re chatting with people, you’re socializing, you’re running around. In New York nightlife, there’s definitely an element of schmoozing. The more known you are in the scene, the harder it gets to just go dance and be anonymous and just vibe, you know?

Joey: Yeah, definitely. I mean, when you’re flying and you’re playing — it’s not that you don’t want to be out, but you’re dealing with jet lag, so it’s hard to stay all night. But every now and then, there’s someone else that you’re playing with and you’re just like, Yeah, no, I gotta stay. I get on the dancefloor and find a little corner where I can just get into it myself and no one really knows that I’m out there.

Jonah: Yeah. Let me ask you something: People in Europe really fuck with my sound, and I get love in New York, but in New York, I’m more known as just, like, this hot guy on Instagram. Whereas in Europe, I think people are more into the sound that I’m trying to convey. Obviously in places like Berlin, techno is the mainstream. How did you feel about being received as an artist in Europe versus in New York? Because from what I understand, you blew up in Europe first, right? 

Joey: Yeah. I had releases on labels in New York at the time — Nu Groove and Easy Street. Then that put me on the radar with certain labels in Europe — R&S, obviously. Novamute. I started shifting my focus more over there. It just excited me a little more. So in the very early ‘90s, I focused more on what was going on in Europe as far as bookings, and I really didn’t play as much in New York or the States. I spent a week in New York, and then two weeks in Europe, and just back and forth. It was like an endless tour for 10 years.

Jonah: That’s sick.

Joey: Yeah. I was in my 20s, so it was exciting. It became more exciting than just going across the bridge into the city and playing a club there. Also, when I was starting out in the ‘80s, my dream was to one day play nightclubs in the city — because my whole world was New York, so I never thought beyond that. Especially with this music, I didn’t know if the rest of the world even knew about it. All the records that I was buying were on New York labels, or Chicago labels, and all the people that I admired at the time were New York City DJs: Larry Levan, Tony Humphries, Jellybean Benitez. So my initial goals were to be like that, play somewhere in Manhattan… 

Then by the time I started producing and getting gigs, I did play at those New York City clubs, but then I started getting offers to go to Europe. I had no clue about any of that. That was a shock to me — like, people in other parts of the world are not only into my music, but they want me to come out there and to hear me play? So I jumped at the chance. And it was just amazing. I never wanted to play anywhere else after that. It was something I’d never even dreamed about. 

Jonah: Did you ever meet Peter Gatien?

Joey: Yeah!

Jonah: That’s sick. You grew up in the New York that people my age dream about. The era of super clubs, the kind of lawlessness… The Palladium, Tunnel.

Joey: I was lucky enough to play all those places, many times. It was a good time. I mean, in some ways, I like things a little better now. 

Jonah: In what way?

Joey: I don’t know… I think probably because there were more gatekeeper types back then. It really was hard to get into the scene to where you could play. I was able to somehow get in, and it was more because I was able to build up a following in Europe. I had a lot of music I put out in Europe that came back here, and people even here didn’t even realize that I was from here. So I kind of kind of snuck in. It was like, “Oh, you’re from New York?” They found that out after it was too late. [Laughs.] 

Jonah: Yeah, it’s annoying. There were a lot of people who wouldn’t give me the time of day until somebody else in New York who was more influential gave me the time of day. Then they recognized me.

Joey: It was a lot of that back then. It was always the same rotation of the same [DJs]. So, yeah, it was cool to play these places and to be a part of that to an extent, but it also got old really quick. Because it was like, “These five DJs play at this place all the time and that’s it.” Now it’s a lot different. There’s more variety. Even the same clubs, they’re changing their themes every night and what they play.

Jonah: One thing I feel like is hard, though, is the infrastructure of clubs in New York has changed. Basement is the only one that is really giving you that sense of — I mean, a big thing for me is being able to wander around the party and have space to get lost and explore every little nook and cranny. But New York is just super fucking expensive, so clubs are small and you’re often in just one room the entire time. That’s what’s fun about Berlin, they have all these giant super clubs still. I guess that’s what New York used to be like.

Joey: Right. 

Jonah: Artist to artist: do you feel satisfied knowing that you’ve made hits, that you’ve impacted the culture?

Joey: Yeah. I have a big back catalog of music, a very wide body of work to look back on. I’m proud of what I did. I also did a lot of self editing back then, too — I mean, I could have did a little more, but there are a lot of things that I didn’t release because there was something not right about it, not up to par. Sometimes I’ll look back and find an unreleased track and I’ll be like, I should have released that. That would have been a better B-side than what I ended up going with. But for the most part, yeah, I’m pretty happy when I look back on it all.

Jonah: Yeah. You feel like you’re always your own worst critic, too. 

Joey: Yeah. Sometimes you just gotta give yourself room to breathe with the music. If I start to feel that way, I’ll come back to it a month later and try and listen to it. When you hear it over and over and over again while you’re working on it, it can lose its magic a little bit. But then you go back to it and it’s fresh again, and you can hear choices that you probably wouldn’t have made if you just worked through the track straight through.

Jonah: You can look at it with a critical eye. 

Joey: Yeah. It’s almost like you’re collaborating with an earlier version of yourself.

Jonah: That’s a good way to put it, because you’re constantly evolving as an artist.

Joey: Yeah, exactly.

Jonah: Maybe one day we’ll get the Joey-Jonah collab.

Joey: Absolutely.

Jonah: I’ll get on the track — “Ecstasy, ecstasy. . .


Jonah Almost is a producer, DJ, and It-Boy-at-large from New York. His EP, The Exhilaration, is out now.