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An Oral History of the Legendary 80s Club That Introduced Toronto to House Music

Before the raves and entertainment district, the Twilight Zone was the city's answer to New York's Paradise Garage.

by Benjamin Boles
May 30 2016, 5:35pm

The Twilight Zone poster, image courtesy of Norbert Ricafort

Toronto city council's relationship with nightlife has been historically antagonistic, but they recently broke from that tradition this year by approving a motion to rename a small lane in the entertainment district, after late club the Twilight Zone.

Running from 1981 to 1989 at 185 Richmond Street West, the legendary afterhours institution was Toronto's answer to the Paradise Garage, and is the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by Colm Hogan called Back To The Zone. Run by brothers Tony, Albert, David, and Michael Assoon, the Zone took direct inspiration from the Garage, right down to the state-of-the-art Richard Long soundsystem. It was the city's first real taste of a New York-style underground club.

The former garment district where the Assoons opened the club was mostly empty warehouses at the time, but years later would become home to dozens of shiny nightclubs, which have since been largely replaced by even shinier condos. In contrast, the Zone was a gritty, raw space, with walls covered in graffiti, including some left behind by the Beastie Boys when they were in town opening for Madonna.

Unlike the scenes in New York, Chicago, and Detroit, not many Toronto DJs made the move into production during that original era, which means traces of that period remain mostly in the memories of those who were part of it. THUMP tracked down some of the people who were there from the earliest days to set the record straight on the beginnings of the city's house scene at the Twilight Zone.

Richard Long and Robert Goodman installing the Twilight Zone soundsystem, photo courtesy of Albert Assoon

Mitch Winthrop [DJ, producer]: People talk about the Paradise Garage, and everything they say about the Paradise Garage is everything we say about the Twilight Zone.

Curtis Smith [DJ, producer]: It was a place where you could come and be yourself. As long as you had your cover, you were in. You'd see people who were black, white, straight, gay, whatever. You'd see people from the medical profession showing up still in their scrubs after their shifts. I remember this one dude who worked at Mr, Submarine, and would show up there in uniform. Every week he'd be there in the same spot by the speakers in his uniform.

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Mark Oliver [DJ, producer]: I would go there after I finished DJing at the Tasmanian Ballroom, and I would be one of the only white guys there most of the time. I think there's more segregation now though, in some ways. That was the only place to go on a Saturday night to hear house music all night long, so anyone who was into that sound was there. Even the gay clubs weren't really playing house back then, it was more Hi-NRG.

Nick Holder [DJ, producer, owner of DNH Records]: The soundsystem was just mindblowing. Up to this day I've never heard a sound system in Toronto that sounded that good.

Albert Assoon [DJ, co-owner of the Twilight Zone]: I think we got lucky, in the sense that Richard Long wanted to try out some new technology. He charged us a lot for our system, but he gave us the best that was available at the time. He would send his customers from all over the world to Toronto to hear the sound.

Fashion show at the Twilight Zone, photo courtesy of Albert Assoon

The Twilight Zone stood out because it had no liquor license, stayed open until after dawn, and attracted a broader mixture of cultures and sexualities than was common at the time. It was also the first club outside of the US where DJs like Chicago's Frankie Knuckles and New York's David Morales would travel to play.

Assoon: DJs didn't really travel back then. We started it off with Kenny Carpenter, then we started booking David Morales after that, and then Frankie Knuckles, and then it became a regular thing. We also brought up David Delvalle, who made a really big impression in Toronto. He used to do things like turn around backwards and scratch with his elbows, and do crazy shit like that. Derrick May and Alton Miller used to come visit from Detroit to party at the Zone, and they'd bring their records, so we let them play one night too.

Michael Griffiths (left) with the Assoon brothers, photo by Charmaine Gooden

The music in the early years was a mix of genres including disco, new wave, hip-hop, calypso, and more. When house first started creeping into Tony and Albert Assoon's sets in the mid-80s, it was the first taste most people in Toronto had of the new sound coming out of Chicago.

Holder: I think the first time I heard house was around Grade 8. I went to school with the younger sister of the Assoon brothers, and she gave me a cassette of them DJing. I remember freaking out when I heard it.

Dave Campbell [DJ]: I remember thinking, what is that? In the very early days, you could only hear it at the Zone. You couldn't hear it anywhere else on a system like that. It could regulate your heartbeat.

Winthrop: House music was here in Toronto the same moment it was in New York. That was especially because of the Assoons. They were getting the same records that Frankie Knuckles and David Morales and all the big New York DJs were getting.

Barry Harris [DJ, producer]: The Assoon brothers were ahead of everyone, even the record stores. That was very key, and that's what made them leaders. Even myself, working at a record store, I couldn't get the test pressings they got.

Assoon: We started getting house tracks really early at the Twilight Zone, because we belonged to Judy Weinstein's New York record pool For The Record. We were privy to new releases that weren't going to come out publicly for sometimes up to a year and a half later.

Following the increased availability of house records in stores, the genre quickly spread to other Toronto clubs, with a handful of nights dedicated to house.

Oliver: There was the Diamond on Wednesday nights, with Jason "Deko" Steele, and then Sundays at the Copa, where Barry Harris played. Those nights and the Twilight Zone on Saturdays were the staples, and you'd pretty much have the same downtown crowd at those nights every week.

Winthrop: Barry Harris was playing house, but he was mixing it with like Run DMC and the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now."

Harris: I ended up at the Copa in March 1986, replacing Chris Sheppard on Sundays, who'd moved over to RPM. At first to smooth the transition, I was playing more of his kind of alternative music, but within about two or three months I'd morphed into playing a different kind of alternative, which then morphed into house. I remember at 11:30PM each week, we had to stop the music so they could clear away all the drinks for last call, and then at 11:45PM, boom, I'd go into house.

Albert Assoon on the decks, photo courtesy of Back To The Zone

House music began to make its way onto the airwaves, both on college radio and on live-to-air club broadcasts on influential Toronto station CFNY. Those shows helped spread the sound beyond the downtown core, and became an essential part of nightlife culture.

Harris: It was harder and less accessible to get this music back then. [Ryerson University station] CKLN was very instrumental in that scene, and in particular, Dave Ahmad's Sunday afternoon show "Dave's Dance Music." At the time, freestyle wasn't a dirty word. It didn't become really stupid until the late 80s, but in the beginning was kind of cool. He played a lot of that stuff and a lot of the 110 BPM R&B songs, so eventually as the house scene came up, that became part of his show as well.

Winthrop: I started doing my show on [York University's] CHRY by 1987, and right around the same time, [University of Toronto's] CIUT had a show with Barry Harris and Julie Levine. Julie and Barry had a very talk-heavy show, they were very academic about what they were playing. With my show, I wanted people to feel like they were eavesdropping on a party. So I would invite my friends down, and every time I decided to say something, I would switch on all the microphones in the studio.

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Campbell: Malik X was bringing that whole pirate radio thing over with Radio London on CKLN. He took exactly what they were doing in London, and brought it here.

Hedley Jones [DJ]: We started doing the club broadcasts on CFNY from the Lizard Lounge, where I played from one until four in the morning. That caught the attention of Club Max, who wanted something edgy, so we moved there. [Record stores] Carnival and Play De Record would supply me with all the white labels, because they knew that every time I played one of those tracks, the next day they would sell out of it. It was a great thing that I kind of fell into.

At Club Max, I used to have Mark Oliver start off the first hour or so, and I'd play after him until six. After the bar was closed around three, the people who wanted to stay had the option, but nobody else could come in. You'd have 50 to 100 people in there, partying until six because they didn't want to leave and there was good music.

The Twilight Zone Halloween crowd, photo courtesy of Albert Assoon

By the time the Zone closed in 1989, house music was well established in Toronto, and that pent-up energy had to go somewhere. Alongside the new clubs that were starting to cater to that crowd, there was a busy warehouse party scene, with many events operating as illegal "booze cans" (Toronto slang for unlicensed after hours bars).

Winthrop: There were a lot of people who mourned the Twilight Zone like the death of a best friend. I know some girls who went down there and took pieces of the bricks to have as a memory.

Oliver: I was there closing night, right until the end. I ripped a piece of fabric off one of the couches as a memento. There were a lot of tears that night. Much of the Twilight Zone crowd ended up at Kola, at 457 Richmond, and that was a fantastic place. I remember playing an 18 hour set there, with the windows open in the loft on a summer morning, and the breeze coming in.

The only problem there was that it was an illegal booze can upstairs and a dance club downstairs, and they'd get noise complaints. I remember it got raided one night when I was playing there, and I got five tickets that night.

Smith: After the Zone closed there was a void that had to be filled, and we basically did whatever we could to fill that. This was also during a recession and the money wasn't necessarily flowing, so if you wanted to do something, you found a way. For some people, that meant actually kicking in doors and throwing parties. There were definitely a couple of times that I played spots where I know there was no way in hell the promoters had the keys to the place.

Around then, I started playing out at this place called the Actor's Lab at 8 Britain Street. We had a catering license, so every week they'd have to get a license so we could serve booze. Some weeks they couldn't get one, and we'd serve anyway. We had people up at the front who'd run to tell us to clear everything away if the cops came. There were no windows, so it really was a sweat box. But it meant that once the place filled up, you could really crank the system and not get any noise complaints. We actually brought Frankie Knuckles to play there.

Farley "Jackmaster" Funk and Mitch Winthrop at the Masonic Temple, photo courtesy of Mitch Winthrop

Assoon: I opened up a place called Boombamakii, and I tried to keep the Twilight Zone feeling going there, but I got into problems with that. I guess the booze cans were a little bit too much competition. At the Twilight Zone, we didn't have to sell any alcohol, because we had a very strong following of people that came to just dance and listen to the music.

By 1990, a lot of booze cans started cropping up, and I think people got used to going to after hours parties and drinking. I had a great opening night, but the fact that I didn't sell booze cut my clientele down by half by the second week, and by the third week it was cut in half again. I reacted by trying to provide some alcohol to some patrons, which wound up getting me in trouble.

Campbell: The warehouse parties were hit and miss, and then the whole drug culture got involved, and then of course the police started busting them. It never really filled that void. Tom Davis was a big Zone-goer, and he started running the Wednesdays nights at the Cameron House, which was an off-night of the week, but they played great music. It was a phenomenal night.

Carlos Mondesir [promoter]: What really always gets missed in my view are some of the gems that played house mixed with other stuff. The smaller club offshoots of the original warehouse scene, like the Caribou, the original Octopus, SOS, and the acid jazz Wednesdays nights at the Cameron House.

Lineup outside Copa, photo courtesy of Barry Harris

There was almost no crossover between the original house music community and the early rave scene that started exploding in Toronto around 1992. It wasn't until the second half of the 90s, that the lines between the two would start to blur, when the first generation of ravers outgrew their phat pants and discovered house.

Oliver: We started the first Exodus parties at the end of 1991 at 318 Richmond, and within a short time, raves became this young, hardcore, drug-fueled, music-fueled scene. There was some crossover, because a lot of people are open-minded, but it was very different. I hate to put it this way, but the Twilight Zone was more of a black crowd, and the rave scene was much more white.

Mondesir: We were already seasoned clubbers, and the thought of partying with tweaked kids with glowsticks was as ridiculous then to us as it would be today.

Winthrop: The house scene wanted nothing to do with it. We were snobs. We didn't want anything to do with glowsticks, phat pants, or stuffed animal backpacks. It became very segregated between those scenes.

Campbell: At that point, you had all that house coming out of New Jersey, which was all based in gospel and very soulful. We just couldn't get into the farting sounds of techno.

Smith: We wouldn't interact with them, at all. It probably wasn't until 96 or 97 that you started to see those two worlds begin to collide at all.

Holder: I played one or two raves, but it didn't really interest me. I don't think there were many people who graduated from house into rave. It went more the other way around, many years down the road, when ravers started getting into house music.

The media hysteria over the exploding Toronto rave community made it seem like after 1992 there were no other afterhours parties, but the original house scene didn't shrivel up and disappear. Warehouse veterans like Nick Holder, Dino and Terry, Peter and Tyrone, and Art Department's Kenny Glasgow all began to make their marks as producers by the middle of the decade, and the opening of Industry Nightclub in 1996 finally brought the rave and house scenes together under one roof. Roxy Blu opened in 1998, which helped spark a major revival of soulful house in the city. Even today, if you follow throbbing bass down the right alley in Toronto, you might still stumble into sweaty loft full of dancers trying to recapture the magic of the Twilight Zone era.

All interviews conducted separately and edited for clarity.

Benjamin Boles is on Twitter.