Mark Kamins: DJ and producer who helped launch Madonna’s career
In the late 1970s and early ’80s the DJ Mark Kamins was making a name for himself, spinning “Motown, James Brown, hardcore R&B and beyond” at downtown New York clubs like Trax, the Mudd Club, Peppermint Lounge and Danceteria.
During all-nighters at Danceteria in 1981 he noticed one of the regulars, a confident 23-year-old whose dance moves always seemed to attract a crowd of followers.
She introduced herself as Madonna, and gave him a cassette of a demo she had made of a dance track called “Everybody”. “I gave it a listen and thought it was great. I liked it and the floor liked it,” said Kamins, who managed to sneak the unreleased, rather basic, version of “Everybody” into his DJ set, and soon offered the singer his help in securing a record deal.
Like many influential DJs of the era, including François Kevorkian and Shep Pettibone, Kamins had been remixing tracks for the dancefloor but had designs on becoming a fully-fledged producer, and he made his involvement in that capacity part of the package.
Since he was an A&R consultant for Island Records in New York, he played “Everybody” to Chris Blackwell but, despite having bankrolled the “Mutant Disco” of ZE Records, the Island supremo passed on Madonna.
Kamins and engineer Butch Jones had just finished doing a dance mix of “Big Business” for David Byrne’s
3 Big Songs EP which reconfigured the grooviest segments from the musical score the Talking Heads mainman had composed for choreographer Twyla Tharp’s project The Catherine Wheel.
Figuring he had nothing to lose, Kamins played “Everybody” to Michael Rosenblatt, an A&R man at Sire Records, who was impressed, and took the tape to his boss Seymour Stein, who had previously signed the Ramones, Talking Heads and the Undertones. Even though he was recovering from surgery, Stein insisted Madonna came to the hospital and signed her on the spot, originally to a two-single deal, in 1982.
Kamins blagged his way through the recording session at Bob Blank’s Blank Tapes Studio in New York with a few pointers from his friend Arthur Baker, another DJ-turned-remixer/producer, who suggested keyboard wizard Fred Zarr. His input helped shape the sparse, proto-electro sound of “Everybody”. They also worked on a track entitled “Ain’t No Big Deal”, but this was ditched in favour of a 12-inch club release featuring a six-minute “Everybody” and a longer dub version on the B-side.
A song “about getting people to dance and lose their inhibitions”, as Madonna put it, it was favourably reviewed by Billboard and became her entrée into the trade magazine’s Hot Dance/Club Play Chart, peaking at No 3 after the singer’s series of personal appearances with two dancers and a low-budget video clip directed by Ed Steinberg.
In December 1982, Madonna graced the cover of Dance Music Report, published by Tom Silverman, the founder of Tommy Boy Records, and a friend of both Kamins and Baker, but, by the following year, Kamins was history and she was working with the guitarist and producer Reggie Lucas and her new beau, DJ John “Jellybean” Benitez, on her follow-up single “Burning Up” and her international breakthrough hit “Holiday”.
Kamins said he “wasn’t left in the dust like a lot of other people. It’s great to produce a record and watch it climb up the charts. My producing career exploded.” He subsequently remixed “I Want Candy” for Bow Wow Wow and was responsible for the Midnight Mix of “Too Shy”, which helped launch Kajagoogoo in the US in 1983, and the Gates Of Heaven Mix of “Im Nin’ Alu” by the Israeli singer Ofra Haza in 1988.
He also mixed or produced most of the alternative floorfillers – “Love Tempo”, “Genius” and “Atom Rock” – by Quando Quango, the Factory Records electro-dance group featuring the Hacienda DJ and future M People mastermind Mike Pickering. Kamins also worked with the radical performance artist Karen Finley, another Danceteria habituée, including a collaboration with Sinéad O’Connor on the 12-inch version of “Jump In The River” in 1989.
Born in 1955, Kamins recalled that he was always “the guy who played records at parties.” He started in his teens, decades before superstar DJs, expanding his horizons beyond New York and DJing in Europe, Japan, the US and South America in the 1980s.
“I became the first DJ booked to travel and play in all these other countries,” he said in 2008.
“Rock bands are now doing DJ sets. 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.”
He died of a coronary in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he had been teaching. Paying tribute, Madonna said:
“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.”