Good Night Mr. Lewis: Gabby Mejia Breaks Up the Family at Santos

Last year at this time, and the year before that, and the year before that, I ended many of my evenings at subMercer, that Andre Balaz subterranean paradise in his Mercer Hotel. I would hang outside with lifelong friend/door guru Richard Alvarez and his sidekick Moses, or join the scene downstairs presided over by totally cool, hip, fun, temptress Gabby Mejia. Gabby was the reason to be cheerful for a mixed bag of adults who found this small joint with big music important. It was the kind of place that you didn’t have to think about "what was going on.” There was always Gabby, Richard, and Moses. There was always a great DJ, except maybe when I played, and the crowd was always sexy, always smart, and were never-looking-for-the-same-ol’-predictable programming featured around town. It was my secret spot that I told everyone about. Every summer it would close down as the Balaz crew headed to Shelter Island or other exotic lands to reboot.

Every year, when I lamented the end of summer, the knowledge that subMercer would now reopen was a reason to be cheerful. This year it hasn’t reopened and Gabby has moved on. They say it’s for renovation and I’m hoping they get it open again soon. Without Gabby I’m not sure it will be the same. It might be like Casablanca’s, Rick’s Cafe American without Rick, or Studio 54 without Steve Rubell. Often, a persona is bigger than a place. Andre Balaz didn’t get where he is without some smarts, so I figure he’ll make it right but won’t finish the "renovations" until he does.

Meanwhile the amazing Gabby Mejia is throwing a party and she has lined up all her usual and unusual suspects to make it right. It’s this Sunday in the basement of Santos Party House. It’s free. There are dozens of DJs lined up, including Arthur Baker, Stretch Armstrong, Cosmo Baker, Eli Escobar and Lloydski, Justin Strauss, Citizen Kane, Geology, Rok One, and so many worthy etceteras. I caught up with Gabby and asked her to tell me all about it.

Tell me all about the event.
The party is titled “Break Up The Family,” after the Morrissey song, because it’s a final family reunion of sorts, as the tight clan we’d formed over the last three years in subMercer is dispersing in order for wings to spread, as they purposefully should and inevitably always do. After three incredible years as subMercer’s director, and having started the first legitimate music label putting out original productions (and vinyl) for a hotel, I decided it was time to pursue new musical ventures. I stepped away from management and operations in order to focus primarily on musical programming and curating, and everyone else on the team was sort of naturally graduating onto the next phase of his/her life, too.  I thought the song was very fitting, as its lyrics denote a certain maturity in reflecting over the years and one’s own evolution, then realizing it’s time to fly the proverbial coop – but not without first wanting to see and hug all your old friends and peers that were with you along the way.

When subMercer closed for renovations, I was bowled over by the public’s reaction – all the heartfelt letters and social media testaments of the positive cultural impact we had had on the underground music scene – all by fostering an environment of creative freedom for DJs to fully express themselves and their individual styles on the decks.  I realized then that we had to get the gang back together one last time for a proper farewell, so I wrangled all our residents for a final showcase of their talents on the decks. 

And the legendary Arthur Baker is in this?
I also called Arthur Baker, who is a dear friend, mentor, and personal hero of mine, and he happily agreed to fly from London to headline the party.  Arthur is a seminal and legendary producer, who arguably changed the trajectory of dance music when he and Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force emerged from a late studio session one night with the groundbreaking hit "Planet Rock," which introduced the world to the revolutionary new sound of the Roland 808 drum machine.  He also went on to produce hits for New Order and Rockers Revenge, amongst others.  His music greatly influenced a lot of today’s dance music and inspired the careers of many of our DJs. It’s a great boost, too, for any DJ to get to play alongside such a musical pioneer. 

Tell me about the decision to move on…and leave the wonderful Andre Balaz family. How could you leave this gig that’s seemingly a dream?
Leaving AB was a hard decision because he was always so encouraging and gave me total creative autonomy at sub to develop and curate it as I saw fit. I’d been with the company on and off since 2004, between four hotels in NY and Miami; but in the end, I realized I had my own, independent goals I needed to pursue, and they understood and supported me in my decision. What is the legacy of subMercer?
subMercer was the best professional experience of my career thus far, and the one of which I’m most proud because we built a reputation of never compromising on the quality of the music or talent that played there. It was so intimate that it really ran like a family. There wasn’t any sort of clear vision I had for the place when I took it over.  I DJ myself, and most of my friends are DJs, so it just sort of happened very organically that it became such a music-driven club.  Once it started to come together, we really focused on making it really NY-centric to support the underground music community here.  A lot of clubs in the city these days tend to book European DJs, but we wanted to support our local community. NY has always been at the forefront of cutting-edge dance music, and we want to keep it that way. 

Nightlife in NYC is very bottle dependent. Can a standalone club survive without being in a hotel or part of a larger corporation?
No, I don’t think independent, free-standing clubs need to be bottle dependent to survive. I think you just have to have confidence, high standards, and maintain your integrity in the biz. Integrity is everything; it establishes your credibility and often adds to your longevity. When your output is consistently associated with good quality, people start to rely on that consistency. 

A woman in a managerial, programming position is rare in nightlife. What did you do to be one of the boys, or did you just say “fuck that” on day 1?
It certainly wasn’t always easy being a woman in senior management and being a music booker (two completely different jobs) – but I wear velvet gloves over my iron fists, and I’ve learned how to assert myself if/when necessary.   In the end though, that’s really all irrelevant. Once again, it’s your integrity that earns you the respect of your peers. 

You spend a lot of time in Miami and you confided in me that you will be spending more. You have a decade of excellent nightlife experience and a strong musical base. Tell me about the cultural differences between NYC and Miami besides the beach, the weather, and the Cuban sandwiches.

So much that’s great about Miami — for starters, it’s culturally Latin. There’s great music and a burgeoning art scene and Art Basel.  I’d like to bridge the two cities musically more, bringing Miami DJs up here, and vice versa. Last year, for Miami’s Winter Music Conference, I was able to put together a two-night underground party with a killer lineup that included Arthur Baker, Radio Slave, Rory Philips (who flew in just to DJ our party), and a slew of other big name DJs from LA, London, and NY, as well as too many DJs asking to jump on and play, too, after they had just headlined at Ultra. It was a ridiculous lineup that would have taken most promoters months to coordinate and organize, but I got it done in one afternoon, four days before the date of the party. 

Gabby Mejia

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