Kerri Chandler, Club Zanzibar & the Jersey House Sound
Mar 27, 2023
Ana Monroy Yglesias
5 min read
Back in the '80s and '90s, the groovy sounds of house music were blossoming and echoing in clubs in Chicago, New York, and its neighboring stepbrother, New Jersey. While it all came from disco, the Jersey sound was a more soulful, gospel, and R&B-influenced version. Over in Newark, the famed Club Zanzibar was the epicenter of the Jersey sound, led by resident DJs Tony Humphries and Kerri Chandler.
Newark and the nearby East Orange, where Chandler grew up, were tough cities filled with violence, and music and church were the solace to many. For over a decade after it opened in 1979, Club Zanzibar, provided a safe haven for the queer community (the iconic 1990 documentary "Paris is Burning" was filmed there) and beyond, filled with disco and house. It was modeled after Larry Levan's iconic New York house cauldron, Paradise Garage, and even featured the exact same sound system.
"New York had infamous clubs… I got to play at the Garage when it was closing, back in the '80s… There were so many places. They popped up overnight. New York was more like, I can’t say a fashion show but they were more upscale than we were. It was like decadence, cash, sex, drugs. All we had was hope, gospel, and some kind of raw talent," Chandler told Attack Magazine in 2014, explaining the difference between the different house scenes.
"Chicago, same kind of thing: a lot of vocals, a lot of gospel but the difference is it’s cold as hell. They got the fucking Hawk [wind] to deal with! They wanted to have to fun too. They got everything there: good, bad, ugly, gospel. It’s about how you grow up in the culture around you. You make what your surroundings are."
You can hear the New Jersey sound in the music of homegrown house singer Adeva, who brings soaring, gospel-inflected vocals on her 1988 funky house cover of "Respect." On "Walkin'," from her 1995 collab album with Chicago house legend Frankie Knuckles, Welcome To The Real World, they go full gospel house with a choir backing her.
At Zanzibar, you'd also hear the soulful grooves of Brooklyn-born house singer Barbara Tucker, like her 1994 No. 1 Dance Club hits "Beautiful People" and "I Get Lifted," produced by New York house legends Masters at Work. Those lucky enough even got to witness her performing these house classics live at Zanzibar.
Humphries began his DJ career on the radio at New York's WRKS 98.7 Kiss-FM, and after landing a few gigs at Zanzibar, convinced its owners to give him a Wednesday night residency in 1982. He soon became the king of Zanzibar, using skills he'd learned as a radio DJ and from watching Levan play, with the goal of keeping clubbers dancing for hours on end.
Chandler was born into a family of jazz musicians and a DJ father. He grew up surrounded by talented local artists, like Kool & The Gang, who he got to study working in the studio. Chandler's dad caught him playing his prized turntable setup at age 13—a big no-no—but was wowed by his skillful self-taught selection and his mixing. So, Chandler got his first DJ gigs opening for his dad at the local racquet club, after which he spun at Club America, next to Zanzibar.
Since he was still a teenager, he wasn't allowed on the dancefloor where he DJed, so he'd go dance at Zanzibar after, where he knew the staff. He fell in love with the music there and would soon be making his own contributions to the Jersey sound. In the '80s, he got his own residency at Zanzibar, where he'd DJ reel-to-reel tapes, a tedious skill he recently began revisiting.
In 1988, before Chandler even had an official release out, Humphries started playing his edits on his radio show. Then in 1990, Chandler gifted the world with the first taste of his immersive, infectious grooves, with the Superlover / Get It Off EP, as his Three Generations trio. Chandler is also responsible for unforgettable house classics like his 1998 remix of "You're in My System," 1998's "Atmosphere" and "Rain," 1995's "I Feel It" and far too many more to name. These can all be credited to the Jersey sound cannon, but much of his music also had a huge influence in New York, where he spent many of his DJ hours.
His music was not only an important part of the Jersey sound, but also of the emergence of deep house. When digging through his extensive catalog of pure gems, all with an intricate musicality and uplifting energy, there's no wonder he's been named the Stevie Wonder of House.
Being influenced by and breaking into the New Jersey scene was pivotal in his career. As he told Attack Magazine, it was "the springboard." He continued:
"Tony was kind of the voice of all of us at the time. I guess Frankie Knuckles was Chicago’s voice for those guys. We had Tony and David Morales. Once I met one person and they knew what songs I made, everyone welcomed me in. I guess I was the kid and a lot of people thought I was going to be a flash in the pan. That was a fun part for me, trying to make it understood that I wanted to be around for a long time."