Kevin Tenn Nichols, aka DJ Tennessee, came to the big city from a small southern town with disco glitter balls in his eyes and quickly managed to penetrate the nightlife scene. Tenn DJ'd and also gogo danced at some of that period's best remembered places, and paused to tell me about it all.
Hi, Tennessee. When did you move to New York?
I came in July 1987. I had lived in Miami/Fort Lauderdale from '85 to '87 and met enough New Yorkers to know I needed to be here. I'm from Oldfort, Tennessee. The population was less than a thousand people back then. I'm the grandson of sharecroppers!
Was there anything good about being from a small town like that?
Yes, it gives you the incentive to want to hurry up and get the hell out of there. Keep your mouth shut and know your wagon's got a bigger destination on it.
Tell me some things about your Florida experiences.
I had been on an episode of Miami Vice as an extra. John and Andy Taylor and Eartha Kitt, Robert Palmer, and Chic were all in it. I was in a scene on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. There was a club in Miami called Fire & Ice. It was like our Pyramid, except it was punk, new wave, and goth. They were constantly changing the décor, and there was a cross section of reggae and underage rockers dressed like Robert Smith from the Cure. Andy Warhol came with a very young David LaChapelle taking photos and I said, "I got get my ass to New York."
When you moved to New York, was that your first time here?
Absolutely. People still comment on my accent. You should have heard me then! People would stop and say, "Wait a minute." Total Gomer Pyle. I do voiceovers, so I've learned how to perfect a lot of different accents.
Did you get into nightlife right away?
I got off the bus at Port Authority and made my way downtown right away. Times Square still had that Taxi Driver feel—smoke, coke, kung fu 24-hour films, and everything. You wrote a Village Voice article called "The Death of Downtown." [Rock/performance club] Danceteria had just closed. I thought, "Oh shit, I missed it." Little did I know we were just getting started. I got here and saw your article and thought, "Oh, shit. I have missed everything." But the great thing about New York is it's always going through a renaissance and rebirth, and it's sometimes good and sometimes bad.
Did you want to be a DJ from the start?
I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live with Gilda Radner. I'd sung in rock bands as a teenager. We played a bar like in The Blues Brothers —we had chicken wire in front of us and beer bottles started flying. I played records and got more into DJing in Miami. There was a club called Back Street in Lauderdale (there's one in Atlanta). It was like a beautiful New Orleans-type building. I was working there as a busboy and had gotten into club culture. When I came to New York, I went to the Paradise Garage before it closed. I also wandered into Haoui Montaug and Anita Sarko's No Entiendes cabaret and sang a song and blew them out of the water. Haoui said, "You'll be the singing waiter." Seeing Anita DJ, I said, "I gotta get into this." Both Haoui and Anita lived their life on their own terms and they left this world on their terms. [Sadly, both icons took their own lives.]
How did you get into DJing?
Doug Wah at King Tut's Wah Wah Hut [an East Village hangout/performance space] and Hattie Hathaway at the Pyramid gave me gigs. After I had played at Pyramid or Wah, either Michael Alig or Steve Lewis said, "You should come to Red Zone" [an uptown dance club]. Dmitry [from Deee-Lite] had been playing there and he had shown me how to mix records and gave me some house records. He showed me how it was done.
Did you feel power over a crowd?
Yeah. I'm real picky and a connoisseur of music and I love not only the power over the crowd, but I'm a Hitchcock guy—"The scene must be played like this. I need this piece of music for this particular moment." It was great knowing there were people who appreciated music as much as I did. When you're a kid picking cotton and chewing tobacco, you have these dreams of Saturday Night Fever or SNL or being on an episode of Soul Train . It was just great that I was able to do that. When I was nine, I was dancing in my underwear on my coffee table. And speaking of that, [promoter] Chip Duckett hired me and Xavier Mendoza, my then boyfriend, to gogo dance at Mars, and Dean Johnson hired me to DJ at Rock and Roll Fag Bar at the World. Michael Connolly or Johnny Dynell usually did it, but they were doing other gigs, so I got to play. Haoui also got me to play at the World. It was freezing cold. They never did have any heat. They didn't pay any of their bills. There was no heat in that dump and the commodes didn't flush. I remember warming my hands on a lightbulb as I played "Break For Love" by Raze. I looked around and there was Run DMC, Robert Plant, Debbie Harry--and Prince came in. I couldn't believe all these people were in the same room. It was blowing my mind.
Did a celebrity ever request a record from you?
I remember being at Nell's when Mike Tyson leaned over to Dmitry and said [adopts high-pitched voice and lisp], "Can you please play 'Love is the Message' "?
Do you have a partner today?
Lord, no. I was crazy about someone for many years, but he's crazy.
Did you get involved in sex, drugs, and rock and roll back in the day?
There's always got to be someone flying the plane or steering the ship. I always said, "If they put my name on the marquee at Palladium or on flyers, I would not give kids a bad performance." I was so into the music and so wanting to do a good job and keep the job. To be honest, I was like Tatum O'Neal, smoking weed and cigs and drinking when I was 10 years old, and I had dabbled with coke and Ecstasy a little bit. As for sex, young people are amazed when I tell them everyone used to go wild in clubs and it was just par for the course. You know the Jane West Hotel? [It's currently called the Jane Hotel.] I was DJing for Dean Johnson for his Pubic Hair Club For Men party. Today's gogo boys don't know how easy they have it. Dean would make us jerk off in front of the crowd. He'd say, "You're not getting paid until I see this happen." And this was when the hotel was a complete drugs and whore hotel, with transients.
Sex was on the uprise at this point because of awareness about safer sex. Did you partake?
There was a lot of voyeuristic element because everybody was so terrified about AIDS. It was definitely safe sex—usually masturbation or light oral, but I did see straight couples having sex at Limelight. One woman was riding a guy on the couch next to me DJing. I glanced up and I saw her bouncing up and down on him. It was so wonderful. I was the Saturday DJ at Limelight for five years running, and during the daytime, I worked there removing graffiti from the bathroom wall.
Nightlife attracts a fun bunch of people who are never boring, but sometimes it attracts toxic characters. Do you agree?
It's like that line in Feud : I don't know if it enables them or creates them. It's a bit of both. It's something that eats its own tail, it's always chasing it. And it's about rewarding bad behavior and narcissism.
But is that the norm?
I'd say it is, for all the freaks and mafiosis and narcissists I worked for, yes. But I could have worked in a cubicle and had a boring life. I made sure my life was like an episode of Baretta or Police Woman . I had quite a ride.
Did you ever have to wait tables?
I was a third shift waiter at 103 [the popular after-club restaurant that was at 103-Second Avenue]. One reason I started getting DJ jobs was I started giving nightclub people food for free. Dean Johnson didn't have no money and I'd feed him, and I'd give Hattie Hathaway and Hapi Phace pie and coffee. When Guns N' Roses first broke and they played at the Ritz, which later became Webster Hall, they came into 103 and all these metal heads followed. That place was like the Burger Palace in Grease —it's where everybody went. You could order a coffee and smoke until the sun came up. People would come after going to the Saint, the World, Pyramid, Wah Wah Hut, and Save The Robots. At Robots [an after-hours club], there was one crazy night with Grace Jones and David Lee Roth, who had both shown up at the same time. Dave had lost his stash and was looking on the floor—"I know it's gotta be around here somewhere, man."
Remember when Madonna had her Sex book party? [At Industria Superstudio] David Lee Roth came in with someone from a record company. They said to Grace Jones, "Grace, you know David." She replied, "Ohhhhh, yesssss" and walked away. She used to have them park her limousine in front of the Copa gay club in Fort Lauderdale and she'd roll the window down where everyone could see her in broad daylight. She had a compact and was putting on lipstick. When they got too close, she'd open the car door and try to hit them with it. "Stay back!" There was a club called MK. She was there once when I was DJing. She and her Jamaican boyfriend were in oversized fur coats where they looked like the Michelin man. She had a disco clutch. I remember her picking up chicken wings and putting them in her purse. They got ready to leave, and her and the boyfriend fell down those marble stairs. She got up and dusted herself right off. At the Palladium, the New Year's Eve with Deee-Lite and Grace Jones was one of the last hurrahs--it remained a popular nightspot, but that night was legendary. It was $20 to get in. It was so crowded that at 3AM, Susanne Bartsch came and asked, "Would you all do the show again? We'll pay you again." Grace Jones threw a fit, saying, "This makes it look like I'm the opening act for Deee-Lite." She left.
What was your relationship with RuPaul?
I worked with RuPaul a lot. I was a big creative consultant with Ru to create a lot of those early downtown shows.
Are you still in touch?
Ru's very busy and I don't want to bother him. It's like Louis B. Mayer Crawford. [ laughs ] We had our differences, but we don't want to fight because we're old friends.
And Lady Miss Kier?
You know, I'm a dancing genie in the "Groove Is in the Heart" video.
How did you meet her?
I saw her gogo dancing on the bar at Pyramid. I thought, "Who is that? She's Rita Hayworth, Goldie Hawn, and Bat Girl."
Tell me some of your exploits with Miss Kier.
Kier and I would go shopping. We'd go to Domsey's in Brooklyn, where you could buy clothes by the pound. Kier would have this baby doll dress and pink foam roller in her hair and one of her teeth blacked out. I found a Pee-wee Herman polyester pants suit. We decided we were going to keep them on and wear them out of the store. These mean kids were throwing rocks at us! Back then, Williamsburg was tough. They'd eat the current residents alive. Kier stopped and said, "Look how we're affecting them. They really hate us." I was like, "Let's get the hell out of here." She's having an analytical conversation. [ laughs ]
How did that era all end for you?
I thought every one of us can be snatched up by the feds or the IRS at any moment because we worked at Limelight. Meanwhile, there was so much drug dealing going on in my building on Stanton Street, and I had it out with the landlord about it, and he had it out for me. He hired a drug dealer to kill me—to get our apartment. [The landlord ultimately ended up in jail.] I had to pack everything and leave in the middle of the night. I lost all my DJ gigs, I lost everything. As bright as my star was burning, it was crash, boom, bang, it was over. My 500 dollar apartment now rents for $5000.
Where did you move to?
I went on the road with Kier. This was the summer of '96 and I did a tour called Enit. I stayed with [Funtone USA Records'] Dick Richards in Atlanta.
What are you up to these days besides DJing?
I've been working on my memoirs and I've got all these photographs. I've had a cable access show, Tennavision , for 20 years. It's on Channel 56, Monday nights at 12:30. For the last year, it's been on autopilot and I've been running reruns. Recently I reran the one with [late drag star] Sweetie. I'm gonna start producing new episodes. Before there was Youtube, there was Tennavision . I had an in at the record companies and wanted to fill that gap MTV wasn't doing when they shifted to reality shows.
Who's your idol?
I want to be like Dolly Parton. In a conservative Christian home, they're playing her gospel album. Go to a lesbian biker bar and they're playing "Jolene." Turn on WBLS and Whitney's singing "I Will Always Love You." Go in a gay bar and they're playing "Baby, I'm Burnin." On a Caribbean island, you hear "Islands in the Stream." Dolly has universal appeal. That's what I've wanted, where you can't put me in a box. Dolly always said, "I'm not leaving country music, I'm taking it with me." At 52, I still have my dreams and I'm still hoping for mainstream success.
Image via Young Richard