Childhood nicknames are rarely sophisticated. John Benitez knows this all too well. When he was a kid, his sister started calling him jellybean, on account of his initials and that old saying “know what I mean, jellybean?”
“When I grew up in the Bronx, everyone had nicknames, because everyone was always getting into trouble, and it was the only way the kids could communicate and talk about each other without the parents figuring it out,” he remembers. “When I got jellybean, it kind of stuck.”
It “stuck” for 40-plus years actually. If you could ask Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson about their old producer John, they'd probably look at you with a funny grin and say, Oh, you mean old Jellybean? He's fantastic.
The goofy trouble-maker from the Bronx, whose 11-years-running party series, Free the Spirit, finds a home as Libertine's latest residency, grew up to be the man behind such iconic hits as “Holiday,” “Borderline,” and “Love Will Save the Day.” He remixed greats like Afrika Bambaataa, ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oats, and more. He oversaw the soundtracks of Back to the Future, Flashdance, and Police Academy — not to mention his illustrious disco career spinning regularly at historically brilliant venues Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, to name a few.
He's had an amazing career, but in 1986, he decided his days behind the decks were through. Fellow selectors David Mancuso and Louie Vega were hearing none of that.
“[They said] that I bridged the gap between what was and what was happening now,” he says of his encounters with the big-time DJs around 2001. “The two of them were nonstop: 'You have to do it, you have to do it.' But I only want to do my own party. I'm not interested in being booked.”
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Benitez finally caved and founded Free the Spirit, a night of authentic beat bumping that ranges in styles from soulful house to afro-house, deep house, and dance classics from the '70s to the '90s and beyond. Free the Spirit is Benitez' chance to capture the everyone's-welcome vibe of the late '70s, a place where people old and young, gay and straight, black, white, asian, and Latin can come together under one roof for one simple purpose.
“It's not a posers party or a party where people are coming to pick each other up,” he laughs. “It happens, but for the most part people are coming to dance and sweat – which is different from a bunch of EDM parties I've been to… [People] just come to dance, and they're aware that I'm there, but they're not standing there staring at me waiting for me to pump my fists.”
Having moved to Fort Lauderdale about five years ago, Benitez hopes Libertine's sexy chic atmosphere will be the perfect Miami home for his music-first free-for-all. It comes for a landing every third Friday of the month, beginning Friday, April 15.
Feel The Spirit with Jellybean Benitez. 10 p.m. Friday, April 15, and every third Friday of the month at Libertine, 34 NE 11th St., Miami; 305-363-2120; libertinemiami.com. Tickets cost $20 via residentadvisor.net.