Manny Lehman Storms The Circuit
by Matt Kalkhoff

If a Utopian nightclub experience actually exists on this mortal plane we call Earth, I believe I witnessed it firsthand just a few weeks ago at the Cherry 5 Closing Party in Washington, DC. Propelled by a frenzied whirlwind of pulsating beats, penetrating rhythms, and powerful vocals, the incomparable DJ Manny Lehman led thousands of party revelers on a paranormal pilgrimage to the Promised Land under the potent spell of his phonographic prowess. Consistently stellar performances have become the norm for this Puerto Rican prodigy though, and the remarkable combination of his exceptional talent, a playfully personable disposition, and the uncanny ability to dominate any room he plays has catapulted Manny to the pinnacle of dance floor prominence.

The Early Years

"No, I was never a porno star," Manny voluntarily points out, immediately setting the tone for what was to become a very entertaining interview. Born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, Manny’s musical roots trace back to a store called Vinyl Mania where he diligently peddled records to then-aspiring DJs like Hex Hector, Junior Vasquez, and Victor Calderone. During the early- to mid-80s, he also spun regularly at the Fun House, the Palladium, and other assorted New York hotspots for predominantly straight crowds. When he wasn’t slaving over a hot turntable himself, he frequently indulged in the innovative and inspirational sounds of his icon, DJ Larry Levan, at what New York Newsday once referred to as "an experimental sound laboratory housed in a Baptist church with a pagan dance party taking place in the pews" – the Paradise Garage.

Having gained an extensive background and knowledge of the music industry while working in its retail end, Manny eventually landed the prestigious position as Director of Dance Promotions at A&M Records. In 1989, he moved to Los Angeles to "feel the vibe" of the west coast, and to enjoy a much-needed change of pace. After several years of sitting behind a desk though, Manny became disenchanted with the changing corporate structure of the music industry, so he started focusing his energy once again on spinning live events.

After playing several parties for promoter Jeffrey Sanker, his DJ career shifted into high gear. Manny made quite a name for himself on the west coast playing "an aggressive hodge-podge of anthem vocals and tribal beats," and it wasn’t long before he was ready to launch his astonishingly successful assault on the gay party circuit. Manny formed a partnership with Sanker that spawned several high-profile play dates, including his breakthrough performance during the 1999 Palm Springs White Party weekend. This partnership also created the highly successful Los Angeles party, Orbit, as well as the release of his first continuous mix CD, "A Night In Orbit."

Media Mogul?

Although a significant portion of Manny’s time is spent on the road and inside a DJ booth, he still finds time to lead an active and rewarding social life. He also runs his own management company, and is always on the lookout for tomorrow’s stars. "I’m in constant contact with the next breed," he proudly announces. "I’m developing a couple of groups out here right now, including a pop girl group. I want to go more mainstream. I want to be a mogul -- the next David Geffen. I want to produce rock stars and discover the next Whitney or Mariah. That’s what I love to do; I love to find diamonds in the rough, and help polish them up."

One such project in the early 90s introduced the world to dance music sensation Ce Ce Peniston, whom Manny discovered and then signed to A&M Records. He went on to executive produce her first single, "Finally," which became one of the definitive club anthems of the early 90s. Ce Ce even recorded a special song, "Lifetime to Love," exclusively for Manny’s new compilation CD, Circuit Sessions 00.1, due out later this month on 4 Play Records. The label wanted Manny to produce the song for Ce Ce, but he decided against it, opting instead to simply "orchestrate" the song. "I haven’t really done much production work. I just haven’t had that itch," Manny explains. "I know studio work is very gratifying, but it’s also very time consuming, and I just don’t have the time right now."

Don’t be surprised, however, if all this changes in the future. Manny’s passion for discovering and promoting new talent, combined with his belief that strong vocals are conspicuously lacking in many new dance releases, may very well prompt him to explore further the production end of the music industry. Manny calls today’s club scene strong and vibrant, but he also points out that it is somewhat limited compared to the 70s and the 80s. Back then, performers like Sylvester, Donna Summer, and even Madonna were created and nurtured in the gay club scene, and each eventually crossed-over to enjoy significant mainstream success. Things are quite different today though, Manny regretfully reports. "I think our club environment is not creating the hits that I wish that it would. There should be more divas, more role models, more artistes that are coming out of our culture. I just wish that it would translate to something more culturally impacting outside of the gay community."

Responsible Revelry

DJ Manny Lehman is also deeply concerned about another aspect of our sometimes delicate community. Cautious not to sound preachy or condescending, he feels obliged to share his feelings on a very important, albeit controversial, subject that has plagued circuit enthusiasts in recent years. "As great as the circuit is, and as overwhelmingly popular as the events are, the partying sometimes goes to an extreme. I don’t want to preach about it, but I’ve noticed during several recent parties that there were an immense amount of overdoses – of people passing out – whether it was from GHB, dehydration, or exhaustion. There just needs to be a lot more control on that," Manny implores.

"There are going to be ramifications somewhere along the line for the community, the parties, or the cities where these things continue to happen. For example, Palm Springs, which is basically a very conservative city, may decide somewhere down the line that even though the White Party generates a large amount of revenue, it’s just not worth the liability or trouble if too many medical emergencies occur during this particular weekend. Or look what happened in Miami, where many of the parties stop at 5:00 a.m. now. We don’t know how much of that had to do with excessive partying and frequent overdoses."

"I just think we have to pull it back a little bit, get in control, and watch our friends. We may even have to be a bit of a scolding mother to our friends who we see misbehave, telling them to pace it up – to take it easy. You can have a good time and go to new levels of nirvana, but please don’t overdo it. As a DJ, a club promoter, and a fellow human being, I am concerned about the community nationwide. Until more major events are taken away from us -- like Morning Party on Fire Island was a couple of years ago -- some people may not stop. But then it will be too late. We just have to be careful and watch our friends."

It’s no secret that the club world is extremely volatile, and today’s hottest DJ can quickly become yesterday’s news. But Manny seems to have found a phenomenal formula for success that will surely keep him at the top of his game for quite some time. "My philosophy is to make people have a good time," he reveals. "I try to expose them to new music that they’re going to want to have in their life, and bring back some joyful memories of music that they know and already love, while creating something that will ultimately take them on a trip from A to Z, so that when they leave, they feel good." Traveling between coasts can also pose quite a challenge for even the most seasoned professional. It’s not always easy for a DJ to please a new crowd in an unfamiliar city while maintaining his or her artistic integrity and sense of style. But Manny has cleverly managed to blend the best of both worlds, creating a unique balance that has not only fueled his extraordinary career, but has also defined his signature style.

Looking Forward

Manny Lehman will celebrate his 40th birthday later this month ("I’m an old bitch, a dinosaur," he jokingly admits), but his biological clock is not going to inhibit him in the least. The self-described "crazy Gemini" is slated to spin a plethora of the circuit’s preeminent parties later this year, including Gay Prides in both Los Angeles and New York, Pines 2000 on Fire Island in August, Black & Blue in Montreal in October, Halloween New Orleans, and (it is hoped and expected) something during White Party Week in Miami. Manny’s home base will remain in Los Angeles, where he spins at least two Saturdays a month at Factory, the renowned club he and Sanker jointly promote. He also plans to continue nurturing and further developing his relationships at his two other residencies, Salvation and Twilo, among other projects.

"I would like to maintain a solid, consistent club base, and venture further into developing artists and interfacing with record companies again," Manny announces. "I will definitely continue the club thing, though, because I want to maintain a creative atmosphere that is both innovative and fun." He has, however, made a conscious decision to scale back his hectic travel schedule. In an effort to avoid the inevitable burn-out his current schedule would surely cause, he plans to start choosing out-of-town gigs more prudently. Nonetheless, he considers himself fortunate to have been hired for the top parties; to have worked with so many wonderfully talented remixers, producers, and DJs; and to have reached a point in his career where he can selectively pick and choose the events he really wants.

Heaven and Earth

Manny is one of the most celebrated DJs on the scene today, and this prolific purveyor of euphoric escapades and phonic poetry is finally enjoying the payoff from countless years of hard work. During his extraordinary journey, Manny has also earned the utmost respect and admiration of his peers.

Longtime friend and fellow DJ Billy Carroll attributes much of Manny’s success to his diverse background. "What makes Manny such a great DJ is his knowledge of the history of where dance music came from," says Carroll. "His varied tastes for a wide spectrum of music combined with his Latin roots, gay influences, and street knowledge, all come together to make his sets hot, spicy, and relentless." Twilo tag-team partner David Knapp agrees. "Manny epitomizes the new breed of circuit DJ. He can blend all flavors of music with the greatest of ease, keeping the energy pumping from start to finish. Having experienced the early New York club days has given him a profound insight into the DJ profession, and a depth of knowledge about nightclub music and patrons."

Manny’s amazing knack for effortlessly bridging the gap between heaven and earth with his unique musical style is undoubtedly best enjoyed from the dance floor, but the man behind the turntables is even more fascinating and entertaining than the music he plays. We are privileged to have such a remarkable role model representing our community, both in his greater industry and in our DJ booths. His dazzling work and dynamic character are setting the new standards to which others will soon aspire. Yes, Manny Lehman truly does epitomize the new breed of circuit DJ.

© 2000 Matt Kalkhoff

This article first appeared in Miamigo's June 2000 issue.