Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy: Adventures in Sound
“If an endeavour involves music in some way, Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy probably does it.” So said The Village Voice when they interviewed the audio aficionado last year about her “dream DJ résumé”. Indeed, her 20-year-career has left no musical rock unturned. Few can say they’ve been tutored by two of the most respected party connoisseurs in DJ history, David Mancuso and François K, run a record label, toured the planet’s best clubs, assembled many an esteemed dance compilation, written for music magazines, made radio shows for millions of listeners and created an events brand, Classic Album Sundays, that has been franchised all over the world. And that’s not even the half of it.
An unsung hero of New York’s 90s disco explosion, Boston-born Colleen was to that scene what Mary Anne Hobbs is to the UK’s electronic underground. Her radio shows, Soul School and Club 89 on WNYU, were the only ones to truly explore the crossover between disco and house, old and new, and to reflect the city’s fizzing dance music culture. House luminaries like Lil’ Louis, Danny Krivit and Louie Vega joined her for interviews – Vega took it so seriously that he even brought his own sound system along to the station for his guest mix.
“I had a very dedicated listenership,” she says. “In fact, a lot of people from Riker’s Island, the New York prison, used to tune in. The guards would play my show because it was Friday night and the inmates would write to me, or I’d be their only phone call of the week. It was pretty heavy duty!”
Similarly, through her many re-edits and releases, Colleen has aligned herself with like-minded artists. She has produced original music with dance music veterans like X-Press 2’s Ashley Beedle (as Darkstarr Diskotek), former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas (as Wild Rumpus, with a new album out later this year) and remixed some of the most adventurous women in music, including Bat For Lashes, Sinead O’Connor and Planningtorock.
Life could have turned out rather differently. Colleen was always a music fan – she even had a radio show at her local station, just outside Boston, when she was just 14 – but she was intent on studying anthropology and ethnomusicology at college. “I got accepted to Columbia for a masters degree, but I had no money,” she laughs. “And then I realised that I had a choice: either I was going to be on the outside looking in and be the academic studying the culture, or I could be part of making it happen. So that’s when I decided: I’m in it now.”
The momentum began to gather pace in New York when she was introduced to David Mancuso and his pioneering members-only night, The Loft. The Loft had been a cult party in the early 70s, long before disco music had been given a name. It’s where DJ legends like Frankie Knuckles could be found hovering over the DJ booth and David Morales, it’s been rumoured, would sweep the floors at the end of the night. It wasn’t a glitzy affair, but its dancefloor-focused values inspired Studio 54, Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, Nicky Siano’s Gallery and countless other infamous New York clubs that came after it. Colleen’s friend Adam Goldstone, a well-known house DJ in the East Village, took her along when it reopened in the early 90s and Mancuso became her friend and mentor.
“It completely transformed my life,” she says of the experience. “The music had all of the deep, psychedelic and emotional soul that I found in rock music, but had never heard in dance music until then. People of all different races, ages and economic backgrounds were dancing together in a way that I’ve never really seen since. So, I started going every week, pretty much by myself.”
Key to the experience, however, was Mancuso’s ingenious sound system, which forever changed Colleen’s relationship with music. “It was an audiophile hi-fi rigged to act like a club PA,” she explains. “David had no headphones because he used a top-of-the-range preamp, so you had to know what speed and what cut your record was and then cue it by eye. One backspin and a $5000 cartridge would be gone.”
The result was a blissful, spiritual clubbing experience. The fruits of Mancuso’s Hi-fi tinkering was, in non-audiophile terms, crystalline sound that wouldn’t mangle your eardrums. Put simply, says Colleen: “It was the revelation that you could stay on the dancefloor for eight hours and have a good time without your ears ringing the next day and without losing your voice because you were trying to have a conversation with the person next to you.’”
Cosmo soon became Mancuso’s protégé, one of the only DJs to play with him at the Loft and, eventually, filling in for him and hosting The Loft by herself. The few other DJs to enjoy such a privilege had been François K and Larry Levan. “It was crazy,” she says. “I’d finish my job at Joe Claussell’s record store, Dance Tracks, lock up, get my records, play for 12 hours and then open up at the store at 1pm. Now my minimum set is five hours – I can’t even get into it in two.”
From The Loft, Colleen brought her disco dedication to the international circuit as Cosmo. She toured extensively in Europe and Asia, as well as holding down guest slots at François K’s night, Body & Soul. But when she finally settled in London, it made sense that she brought the place that made her name with her. Ten years ago, Colleen started the Lucky Cloud Sound System, a non-profit community of party people, including dance music historian and author Tim Lawrence, dedicated to recreating Mancuso’s party in the capital.
The group invested in a state-of-the-art audiophile sound system modelled on David’s own and threw quarterly events called Journey Through The Light (also known as The Lucky Cloud Loft Party). They’d fly David over from New York for the party. “It’s a very warm, welcoming place,” says Colleen, fondly. “A lot of people on the team married one another and their kids come along now, too. People regularly come from all over Europe to be there, from Italy, Portugal, Greece, Scandinavia, Germany… Just like The Loft, it’s a place where people of all different ages can mix and enjoy the music.” Now 68, Mancuso rarely comes over to London, but Journey Through The Light hasn’t lost any of it sparkle. And, for Colleen, she’s at the helm just like she used to be.
In the past two years, however, Colleen has found a new groove as the driving force behind Classic Album Sundays. The bi-monthly record club gives music fans an opportunity to enjoy iconic rock, pop and dance albums played in full through some of the world’s best hi-fis. It’s a punk rock reaction against the diminished quality of music wreaked by the download age, but it’s also about championing the real joy behind music, the ethos that has underlined much of Colleen’s career: the art of listening.
The idea immediately touched a cultural nerve, and what started as a low-key Sunday afternoon event soon erupted into a global phenomenon. There are now CAS events from London to Tokyo and Oslo, at UK festivals like Vintage and Bestival and, this summer, a special series focusing on David Bowie, involving the producers behind his albums, as part of Red Bull Music Academy’s programme in New York. Colleen continues to reflect the breadth of her music knowledge in the event’s expert curation, focusing on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon one month and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless the next, coupled with the insightful introductions she gives to each album.
“It has synthesised all of my experience into something tangible,” she says. “When I was producing my radio shows, I interviewed Nirvana just before ‘Nevermind’ came out. Now I can put on an event to mark the twentieth anniversary of that album and put the story together. It’s about the relationship of relevance; of showing where something came from and why it’s still relevant today.”
For Colleen, it has also brought that dream DJ résumé full circle. “It’s almost like being the ethnomusicologist I thought I was going be, but without with a PhD,” she laughs. “Instead, I’m doing it with a hi-fi.”