Remembering DJ Anita Sarko: The Only Downtown Club Trendsetter That Mattered

by Taylor Hill

Taylor Hill’s tribute episode “Danceteria: Selections from DJ Anita Sarko” will air live on Freeform Portland Wednesday June 26th at 4pm Pacific.

There’s a random trajectory to Anita Sarko’s formative years. She grew up in Detroit and was educated in Arizona. Her first DJ gig was at a college radio station in Atlanta. But her appetite for culture soon led her to New York, where her story really starts. After firmly planting herself at the center of the bustling NYC club culture, she quickly became known for her eclectic and evocative musical mix.

In 1979 she became the VIP room DJ at Tribeca’s Mudd Club. It was here that DJ Anita Sarko became the selector antithesis to Studio 54’s blown out schmaltzy disco glam, and established herself as a genre defying taste maker, among the first to bring hip hop downtown. As the 80s raged on she became the resident DJ at the all too hip all too new wave Danceteria.

It’s hard to overstate how important these clubs were to music culture back then. They were basically the breeding ground for all new music. And downtown nightclubs like The Palladium and Danceteria (both with resident DJ Anita Sarko) were among the first to be truly culturally diverse. Sure, white people would cruise up to Harlem to gawk at black culture in the jazz era but it was still very racially segregated and unequal. This new wave downtown club scene represented a very mixed audience, racially and sexually.

On any given night Anita, a midwestern white lady, could be playing African boogie records for a group of Puerto Rican club kids and that was an entirely new thing culturally. It was clear this was an inclusive community. The bands from this scene and the records made during this time reflect the many influences of its demographic. Rock, rap, pop, world, dance, gospel were all melding and cross sectioning, to varying musical results, and DJ Anita Sarko was at the helm.

She did all the things the mostly male, mostly radio, disc-jockeys were doing, did it better, and did it in high heels. According to entertainment journalist and nightlife chronicler Michael Musto, “She really was alone in a man’s world.”

A sharp wit and bold attitude set her apart. Musto continues, “She was a tough broad who didn’t like being mistreated … Anyone who requested a particular record from Anita was greeted with the retort that she wasn’t a jukebox, otherwise you could just bend her over and put in a quarter!”

Anita brought up-and-coming acts like Madonna and the Beastie Boys to perform some of their first shows. She worked with the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and designers Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs. As a music and nightlife journalist she wrote for downtown magazines like Paper, Egg, and Interview.

However she started struggling in the twenty first century to survive as a New York elder. Digital was replacing vinyl and streaming was replacing DJs. And as Rudy ‘Ghouliani’ set out to wash the mean city streets with a gilded firehose, gentrification began replacing legendary nightclubs with high end apartments and shops.

This part of Anita’s story becomes very sad. No one would hire an aging woman to work the floor in a trendy nightclub. Her radio show on SiriusXM was dropped and she went broke. A cancer diagnosis in 2010 didn’t help matters either. She survived the cancer, only to take her own life in 2015 at the (alleged) age of 68. Her exact age was estimated. Anita, ever mercurial, kept it a secret.

I could go off on the music industry here – pointing out how much money gets thrown at the same boring acts while true pioneers get neglected and left in the dust. But I’d rather focus on Anita, in her prime – a powerful force to be reckoned with. Talented, innovative, influential – a beacon of light illuminating the past while pushing culture into the future. Strong, determined, and not taking any shit from anyone. Decked out like a Hollywood movie star, cueing up her next record.

Taylor Hill is a writer, musician, and freak currently hosting The Based Goth Radio Show, Wednesdays 4-6pm, on Freeform Portland.

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