The late DJ-producer Larry Levan (1954-1992) treated his sets like literature. He played and produced music that fed the body with beats and heavy bass that reverberated through dance floors and human bones, yet there was a method to this visceral communication. Levan wouldn’t just go right from an O’Jays song about music to a Phreek 12” about sex. He stressed the need for “a slight pause, a sound effect, something else to let you know it’s a new paragraph rather than a continuous sentence.” By that measure, Genius of Time, which compiles more than two and a half hours of the 12” mixes Levan made for a variety of artists, is the most danceable novella of the year.

Focusing on his ‘80s heyday, the set’s 22 tracks are only a fraction of the hundreds of records Levan produced, and can’t really convey the breadth of his DJ nights. According to Love Saves the Day, Tim Lawrence’s surprisingly technical history of dance music culture, Levan was just as likely to spin rock records like Ian Dury’s “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” as Sylvester’s anthemic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Lawrence recounts the level of detail that went into New York’s legendary Paradise Garage, the nightclub where Levan manned the steel wheels for ten years: custom-made speaker cabinets, wooden floors and moving-coil cartridges were all crucial to the sound that Levan made for the club’s mainly Latin and black gay clientele. Anyone listening to this set is probably a long way from the cocaine-fueled pre-AIDS club atmosphere it was originally intended for, but Levan’s special genius is immediately accessible to anyone with ears.

Genius of Time opens with what amounts to a mission statement: “Life is Something Special.”
Originally credited to the New York Citi Peech Boys, a group Levan helped found, this light and airy mix is a perfect warmup track. Over a rippling piano intro, a voice announces, “This is something special for you” before hand claps introduce the beat and instruments gradually come in: a piano riff, vocals, a rhythm section and finally a scratchy electric guitar riff. It’s a huge sound that’s light on its feet; it’s not just the instruments that carry the beat, but the spaces between them; the time is in the pauses. The track lasts over nine minutes but it’s a mantra that you wouldn’t mind hearing all night.

This 2-CD set is almost worth it just for the Peech Boys tracks that open and close it. Among its other 20 tracks are female divas like Syreeta, whose upper register sounds like some kind of otherworldly woodwind on “Can’t Shake Your Love;” and Gwen Guthrie, who takes a snack spread that one might ordinarily associate with Iggy Pop and transforms it into a sultry disco come on with “Peanut Butter.” Guthrie is well-served by Levan; his remix of “Padlock” weaves the same contradictory alchemy of the opening Peech Boys track, laying down a dense carpet of percussion and light funk riffage as the singer floats above it. It’s an unlikely approach for a song about locking up your heart. Licensing issues prevented the set from including popular Levan mixes like Instant Funk’s “Got My Mind Made Up.” But you do get an almost unrecognizable Smokey Robinson dub mix in “And I Don’t Love You,” which slyly borrows a sinister keyboard lick from “Thriller.”

Levan was a major influence on the house music to come, but he wasn’t interested in strokeout level bpms. The Peech Boys closer “Don’t Make Me Wait” is practically at a ballad tempo, and builds to a hard rock guitar passage. Levan was known to play records that wouldn’t seem to be dancefloor material, and by tweaking a club’s mixing board or just by sheer persistence, he would transform it into a message that the body could only respond to by movement. This musical transformation is summed up on Levan’s mix of Merc and Monk’s “Carried Away:” “I don’t know where I am/ In New York or Japan.” Genius of Time will carry you away on the most affordable and reliable form of transportation: music.

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