Richard Grant and friends (Photo via Spiros Ferentinos/Facebook)
Veterans of New York's club scene are mourning the passing of Richard Grant, who reportedly passed away from natural causes at age 71 sometime shortly after the new year.
As one of the owners of the original Sound Factory, Grant was instrumental in transforming New York nightlife. Nominally gay, Factory was in fact the first club in New York—and probably anywhere else—that attracted such a broad cross-section of the city: muscular Chelsea boys and outer-borough Italian-Americans; suit-clad yuppies; homothugs, banjee boys and voguers. Its extended Saturday hours gave Junior Vasquez the perfect platform to experiment and create a whole new way of DJing.
Richard Grant remains in death as in life a very private person. What is known is that he was born in Toronto, attended Downsview Collegiate, a secondary school in the North York area, and Humber College. One source told me he moved to New York from Florida where he worked in the fashion industry.
In 1988, Vasquez and nightlife impresario Christine Visca opened and closed Bassline, a small club that attracted the attention of Phil Smith, a co-owner of Paradise Garage, where Vasquez was studying how DJ Larry Levan killed it each Saturday night. Grant joined the team the next year and brought management skills learned in the business world. In 1989, they opened Sound Factory in a converted warehouse at 530 W. 27th St., at a time when the western edge of Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood was still an abandoned industrial wasteland. By not serving alcohol, the club could skirt the mandatory Sunday closing between 4 and 8AM, thereby merging the underground vibe of an afterhours club with a big-room attendance. By 8AM, the dance floor was packed, and stayed that way until well into Sunday afternoon.
What kept them there was Vasquez's unique sampling, mash-ups and ambient sounds. Sometimes, he stopped the music cold to build up to a dramatic crescendo that drove the crowd wild; other times, he'd repeatedly throw down the opening bass line of tracks like Inner City's "Good Life" over and over again without ever leading into the song itself. Vasquez took full advantage of the club's booming bass, so much so that even a deaf club-goers could be found bobbing perfectly in synch to the floor vibrations.
Vasquez's association with the House of Xtravaganza and the House of Aviance lured voguers for the first time out of their Harlem ballrooms into a mainstream dance club. Every morning around 8AM, two men shining flashlights at either end, converted the back bar into a makeshift runway. Among those fascinated was Factory regular and Vasquez BFF Madonna, who was inspired to write her 1990 hit "Vogue."
"It was the most incredible dance floor I've ever been to in my life," says Kevin Aviance, an internationally known performer and fashion icon. "That place turned my life around."
Sound Factory was also one of the first clubs that brought together curious young newcomers with established dance floor "tribes." Part of this was due to Grant's openness towards those others would view as competition. Jason McCarthy, manager of John Blair's popular gay parties at the Roxy on Saturday nights, recalled that Grant "always comped our staff without our asking. He didn't see it as adversial relationship." After Roxy closed around 6AM, many patrons trekked nine blocks north to continue the party.
Why did such a successful club close suddenly in 1995? The answer depends on whom you ask. Visca left the year before. Smith had became increasingly involved in Sound Factory Bar, a smaller gay club that brought "Godfather of House" Frankie Knuckles back to New York from Chicago. Some claim the landlord forced the remaining partners' hands. Grant himself told Billboard that it was a pre-emptive move. "Contrary to rumor, we did not lose our cabaret license," he said at the time. "But we knew that was a danger, so we decided to close."
Smith converted the old space into Twilo, a trance-oriented club famous for its Phazon sound system. It was closed by the city in 2001 after a few widely reported overdoses that included charges security had ignored or even put passed-out patrons into a storage closet. Vasquez tried a residency at Exit, but his adamant stand against drug use produced an atmosphere many found oppressive.
Grant reopened Sound Factory in a warehouse on far reaches of West 46th Street in another old warehouse. He also ran into narcotics-related problems—on March 7, 2004, Grant, along with his two top security staffers, were arrested and charged with aiding and abetting drug sales, the result of an extensive three-year undercover operation.
A jury in 2005 acquitted Grant of all charges. But then-Mayor Giuliani had the last laugh. By forcing Factory to close for an entire year during the drawn-out legal proceedings, Grant lost his entire investment estimated at $3.5 million. The club, never reopened, now houses the New York branch of Ibiza-based Pacha.
Most people, like Aviance, remember Grant as a "wonderful man, very straightforward, no nonsense, no bullshit." Never known as a party animal, he kept his focus on the business and artistic side of the club, according to McCarthy and others. Above all, he kept himself out of the limelight. His private remained through his death just that, private.
The timing of Grant's death couldn't have been more ironic: On January 18, "Out of the Ashes: Phoenix Rising," a party at Stage 48, was to have heralded the renaissance of Sound Factory. His family reportedly kept the news of Grant's death as quiet as possible so as not to put a damper on the party — exactly what Grant himself would have wanted.