Mark Kamins, the legendary club DJ – who produced Madonna’s first single, and helped her to win a record deal – has died aged 56.
He was born on April 13, 1955. “I’ve always been the DJ type,” he admitted to Michael McKenzie, author of Madonna: Lucky Star. “The kind of kid who plays records at parties.”
Of the New York scene, Mark reminisced to Lucy O’Brien (author of Madonna: Like an Icon), “The disco scene was dying. The whole glitter, getting into Studio 54, all the ‘feeling-special’ shit was over.”
“New York was so musically creative at that point,” he enthused. “The late ‘70s was a very bad time. The Bronx was burning. There was no work. We were political, but there was nothing to motivate us other than music.”
As O’Brien has described, disco was being superseded by ‘freestyle’ dance music, hip hop, and post-punk sounds from the UK – and Madonna would become one of the first (and most memorable) new-wave dance artists.
By the early 1980s, Mark had found his niche at Danceteria, where he worked and played alongside The Beastie Boys (floor-sweepers) and artist Keith Haring (a busboy). “It was a very special place, like Warhol’s factory,” he commented. “It was more than a club. Everybody there was doin’ something.”
“Mark played every kind of music, way before the Balearic sound,” said producer Arthur Baker. “His use of Ofra Haza samples and jet blasts and sirens were risky, extreme and revolutionary.”
Madonna, who moved to New York in 1978, was “just one of the personalities” at Danceteria. “She had a unique fashion style,” Mark recalled. “She was always on the dancefloor and when she danced everyone would stand around her.”
One Saturday night in the spring of 1982, Madonna approached Mark in the DJ booth with a demo of her self-penned song, ‘Everybody’.
“She came without asking,” Mark recalled. “I love spontaneity, I believe it’s the magic of life. Madonna had a cassette, I threw it on, and it worked…I liked it and the floor liked it.”
“I was flirting with him,” Madonna would later tell Rolling Stone.
She was then living on and off in a rundown recording studio. She and Mark began dating, and he recalls sleeping with her on milk crates. “She wasn’t a homemaker,” he observed.
“When I first met Madonna,” he said, “She was living a hard life. But beyond her problems I could see something special. She was a star – I could feel it.”
Madonna put together a small revue, with dancers, and performed ‘Everybody’ at Danceteria.
“I was doing A&R for Island Records at the time but they passed on Madonna,” Kamins told Classic Pop (Issue 2). “I’d also been working with David Byrne and Talking Heads, so I had a relationship with some people at Sire. I took her to Seymour Stein, who was in hospital recovering from surgery, and he signed her on the spot.”
Madonna showed Mark her gratitude by writing another song for him: ‘Lucky Star’.
It was a one-single deal, but as Michael McKenzie noted, “It was a real contract for real money.” Madonna headed over to Blank Tape studios with Mark. The original plan was for another song, ‘Ain’t No Big Deal’, to be the A-side, but as Kamins told Peter Magennis of Record Collector, “In the end ‘Everybody’ had more soul to it.”
‘Everybody’ was recorded in three days, initially with another producer – but after hearing the results, studio executives favoured Kamins’ maverick vision.
“The song was really a tribute to a DJ and to dancing,” Mark said. “Musically, song-wise I come from the school of the lowest common denominator and I don’t think that music should be intellectual…The line ‘Dance and sing, get up and do your thing,’ is like a nursery rhyme. But I’m a great believer that less is more.”
‘Everybody’ was released on October 6, 1982. Madonna wasn’t featured on the record cover, and for a while she became known as “the only white girl on black radio.” While ‘Everybody’ barely dented the pop charts, it quickly became a club sensation. Executives at Sire now offered Madonna the chance to make an album.
“I was really scared,” she recalled. “I thought I had been given a golden egg. In my mind, I thought, ‘Okay, Mark can produce the album and Steve [Bray] can play the instruments’.”
Ultimately, though, Madonna chose a more experienced producer – Reggie Lucas, who had previously worked with R&B singer Stephanie Mills.
“I wanted Mark Kamins to direct me,” she explained, “but ‘Everybody’ was the first record he’d ever done.” This wasn’t entirely accurate, but as Daryl Easlea notes in Madonna: Blonde Ambition, Kamins – though “possibly the hippest player in the entire New York scene…in reality was [at the time] more of a figurehead than a hands-on producer.”
“When it came to working with vocals, I didn’t have the experience,” Mark said. “If you listen to ‘Everybody’ it’s a very thin voice. If you listen to the stuff Reggie did, he worked more, took her voice up to another level. That’s what Madonna needed.”
Though bruised by the rejection, Mark was shrewd enough to negotiate a percentage of future royalties for ‘Everybody’.
In 1983, Mark accompanied Madonna on her first promotional trip to London. Unfortunately, British clubbers didn’t take to her offbeat style as instantly as New Yorkers did, but her next single, ‘Holiday’ (produced by another DJ boyfriend, John ‘Jellybean’ Benitez), was a crossover hit.
“A lot of club promoters and club owners came to see me,” Mark said to BlackBook of his later career, “and they would come up to the booth and say, ‘Forget about what’s happening here, would you come and play in my club?’ And I became the first DJ that was booked to travel and play in all these other countries.”
In 1990, Mark produced Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Jump in the River’, and remixed a version featuring performance artist Karen Finley (another Danceteria alumni.)
Kamins also produced Finley’s controversial, taboo-busting 1994 album, Fear of Living.
“So what’s happening now is that new kids want to hear live music, and its killing old school guys like myself and Frankie and Jellybean,” he told Steve Lewis in 2008. “Rock bands are doing DJ sets, which is now the hippest thing in Paris, and one of the hippest things in New York. So, in a funny way we’ve gone the full circle — we killed live music and bands in the 80s, and now they’re killing the DJs.”
In more recent years, Mark lived and worked in Europe. In 2012, he taught EDM at the Fermatta Music Academy in Guadalajara. He had been suffering from heart problems for several months, and died on February 14, 2013. He is survived by a son, Max, also a musician.
“He wasn’t just part of the scene, he conjured the scene, he made it happen,” wrote musician and Dangerous Minds blogger Marc Campbell. “Mark was a force of nature that swept you up and carried you along on waves of upbeat energy, propelling you in the direction of your better self.”
“I’m very sorry to hear about Mark’s death,” Madonna told the Hollywood Reporter. “I haven’t seen him for years but if it weren’t for him, I might not have had a singing career. He was the first DJ to play my demos before I had a record deal. He believed in me before anyone else did. I owe him a lot. May he Rest in Peace.”
In October 2012, Madonna celebrated the 30th anniversary of ‘Everybody’ with a fan art competition, and an impromptu performance in San Jose during her MDNA Tour. She has also performed the song on the Virgin Tour of 1985, The Girlie Show in 1993, and London’s Koko in 2005.