In music, and especially in underground music, the word “legend” is thrown around to the point where it loses all meaning.
What is a legend? It’s someone who broke the mold – someone whose sounds, techniques – even his style – changed things forever. It’s a pioneer that everyone who followed after emulated, whether consciously or not.
In dance music, the person you’re talking about is John Morales.
As half of the famed M+M remix team, John Morales has taken the helm on over 450 remix and production projects (the exact number is unknown). Among his remix hits are Disco anthems such as “Young Hearts Run Free” by Candi Staton, “Dreamin” by Loleatta Holloway, “The Player” by First Choice and “Make It Last Forever” by Inner Life.
As he’s back on the scene as a DJ and mixer, rather than talk to John strictly about the good ole’ days (about which he’s been interviewed for countless documentaries, books and magazines), we had a very long conversation about other matters close to his heart: playing Southport Weekender (the seventh time he had DJ’d in the last thirty years), the state of the music industry and, where my interview began, with his ten year hiatus from the studio…
I was re-reading the liner notes for the 1st volume of the M+M Mixes, and it mentioned that you went 10 years between releases. Someone might read that and wonder about the “dark years”. What were you doing during that time?
Well, back in 1993, I got a dose of reality when I got into a health kick. I had stopped smoking cigarettes and started going to the gym and all of that supposedly good, healthy stuff. I was working out of a studio in Lower Manhattan and I’d go to the gym everyday and get on the bike and do some weights.
One day I was on the bike and my heart felt like it was trying to beat out of my chest. I figured maybe I was overdoing it so I took a couple of days off. I got back on it and my heart started racing again. At this point I got scared and figured I better go to the hospital and get this checked out.
Well, I’m in the emergency room and they have to shock my heart back into a normal rhythm and I’m realizing that this isn’t just overdoing it; this is a whole ‘nother animal. I was in the hospital for about 6 or 7 months with an arrhythmia – tests, tests and more tests.
It really broke that groove that I was in. I realized that I really needed to chill out and relax and reassess, considering that things in the music landscape were changing…
And around that same time, I was just starting to feel really burned out and worn down from all the years of 24/7. I’d been working for 15 years straight, staying up for two or three days at a time. So, basically, I stopped mixing and producing altogether, and took a step back. I got into working in the emerging software side of music for a company called Steinberg for a few years. I’m not sure how far you go back but if you remember the Atari computer, I worked for them at the same time, as they went hand-in-hand. Those were the only computers with a built-in MIDI and were really musician-friendly.
How did you get back into the groove?
I had the itch for awhile, but didn’t really feel the inspiration to do anything, plus there were other things going on in my life. I moved to Philly for a couple of years. Then slowly I started to get inspired so I pulled all of my old gear out of storage and started setting it all up again.
It was around that time that my dear friend Paul Simpson called and asked me if I still had my gear. I said yeah, why? He had a mix to do but didn’t have anywhere to work on it. That was Marvin Gaye’s “Funky Space Reincarnation”. We were working on it when his parents became ill, and he had to go away, so I took over. The A&R guy at Universal was happy with how it turned out. Coincidentally, he didn’t live that far from me so I invited him over for dinner one night, and after talking for a while he told me they were in the process of doing a expanded version of Marvin’s “In Our Lifetime” and asked me if I’d like to mix it. Thanks to Paul and Harry, I was reborn.
I love what I do. One day I work on Marvin Gaye, the next day I do some House track. I’m always feeling challenged and motivated. I think it’d be hard if I just worked on the same stuff like some of the House guys do – on just one style all the time. Today I could roll out of bed, go down to the studio and work on an acoustic ballad; tomorrow I could work on a big dance record. I love what I do and it’s a different challenge every day.
You played Southport Weekender for the first time last year. I knew about your residency at the Stardust Ballroom in the ’70s but I didn’t know you were still DJing.
I played at Southport in front of I guess about 5,000 people – and that was actually the 7th time I DJ’d in the last 30 years. I’d done a couple of guest spots, at Club 1018 and the Limelight once or twice in the mid-’80s.
Credit here goes to Dimitri from Paris who brought me back to it, when Dimitri did his compilation Nightdubbin’. He had a launch party at a place here in New York called SubMercer and since I had material on the CD, he asked me if I wanted to come play there. I told him, “Man, I haven’t DJ’d since I don’t even know when.” He was like, “Nah, just come down and play a little music…” So I did and later he told me, “You don’t sound that bad for a guy that hasn’t played for 30 years.” So I started to explore that again.
Southport has been one of my greatest experiences as a DJ. There are about 5,000 people there and honestly I felt a little overwhelmed. My musical selection was good but my technical skills were lacking. Louie Vega’s there and Kerri Chandler and one of my favorites, DJ Spen. It was just amazing to share the same stage with them and to be promoted as one of the “big figures” of the event. Talk about pressure!
I really don’t see myself as a “legend” and when people ask for a photo or an autograph I feel kind of weird. In the ’70s and ’80s, I was doing what these guys are doing now, and a lot of times people remind me of that and the Sunshine Plates. They’ll say, “Hey, Bro, you started all of this. You’re an OG!” And I was thinking, “Hmm. Maybe I did!” At the time I didn’t think about it because I was doing what I loved, making music. It was weird to Google myself one day and find all of these articles and see myself on Wikipedia and everything.
Sergio, my partner, was one of the nicest people you could meet. He was doing all of the socializing back in the day (not that I couldn’t). But I was a studio rat and would handle all the technical stuff and stay there. It’s like a marriage where you’re both bringing something different to the table. I’d go into the studio and he’d come around at 10 or 11, he would help with the creative process and then take a copy of the mix we were working on to one of the local clubs like the Paradise Garage. I mean, I didn’t really want to do that part of it at all, so that worked out fine.
In the early days I was working with my all-time favorite Jocelyn Brown and I’d go with her to all of the different clubs with the tapes for her to sing with. Sometimes we’d do two or three clubs in a night. I remember saying, “I’m looking forward to the day we won’t have to do this shit anymore.”
But it’s like many of my friends say to me, “You have to look at it this way: you’re a brand, just like Coke or Pepsi. You have to get out there and put yourself and the M+M brand out there.”
Disco edits have become almost trendy in Europe lately. Why do you think that is?
I think the trend toward Disco edits is born from a few things. For many, it’s an inability to get original tapes and wanting to make longer versions or re-arrange certain songs so they can be played in the clubs. There are a bunch of guys who have done edits of my mixes. One guy sent me a re-edit of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and I just said, “Look, the digital download of that is 17 minutes long!” Even when I play it, I only do so for maybe 8 minutes. But you never find yourself glancing at your watch during that time and that’s what you’re looking for. When time is not an issue, you know you’ve got a good mix. If someone is feeling bored about 3 minutes in, that’s when you know that something is missing.
Having been away and then back in it at a top level, what do you think about where House Music is at right now?
I was recently talking to my friend Kenny Bobien, one of the great voices and writers, in Miami. It was about the House scene, a very somber and serious discussion. I said that we just had to face some facts. I feel that in today’s musical scene there is no money or respect for House Music. Realistically, it’s a small community. Selling tracks at $0.99 each on Traxsource – how much do you think you can make doing that? How many producers or people on this side of the industry have regular day jobs because they can’t survive on what they’re making from their music? There’s a very, very small portion that work full-time at this.
I mean, I hear from some guys who make and produce House Music. “I put this track together and I’m offered no more than two or three hundred dollars for it. I paid my keyboardist three hundred!”
But the radio support isn’t there – Louie Vega and Kevin [Hedge] do their show on WBLS here in NY, which is great, but their playlist to me is a little more mixed – certainly different from what you’d hear when they play at Cielo. It’s geared to a larger, more diverse audience.
House Music is not going to the masses. There are a select few who make a living off it, and a vast majority that don’t. And the biggest problem is file sharing which I think affects the House scene immensely – no one wants to pay for music.
And lot of the recording industry now is being dominated by trades.
Yeah, I’ve seen that too. You mix a track for me, I’ll mix one for you. Or someone wants to release a track and will give you a few hundred dollars and wants half the publishing for it. That’s why so many guys are doing it themselves now. It’s sad to me to see good and talented people unable to do what they love because of the economics of it.
There are also the folks who put on the airs of being some kind of House version of Miles Davis, but don’t actually play a single instrument.
But there’s a talent to that too. I was transferring some master tapes for Nervous Records recently, and came across some of the Hip-Hop stuff from the ’90s. The way they’re constructed, some of these tracks, where they take the smallest sample of this and that and patch it together with all these other things…
At first I thought it was crap and not creative, but stepping back and actually listening to it with that kind of concentration, I said, “This is really ingenious.”
How does that compare to the experience back when the tunes on the M+M Mixes were made?
I wrote in the liner notes for the M+M Mixes Volume II CD that the producers of today unfortunately have a limited experience. They rarely if ever get to see shit come together – the experience of the different nuances added by all the different great musicians working together. You might get it on the first take or the 11th take. I wrote, “Nowadays the great halls that once housed studios are vacant, hollow rooms that echo with the sounds and memories of the great music they once created…”
I mean, until you have the experience firsthand of hearing rhythm sections like Baker, Harris, Young, MFSB and on the other artists like Brass Construction putting the Funk down, you haven’t experienced what music is about.
For me, I’m so grateful I’ve been in those rooms when the electricity was just incredible – people just jumping and hollering in the studio when you hear the real shit. Thank God I was there.
There’s definitely something lost when making a record on your laptop. People come to my house and are just blown away by all of the equipment and stuff. I can’t say for sure if it’s better or worse – this is just how I make my records. But deep in my gut I feel like what’s being made today is a shell of what it could be, if some of these guys had a real band and people making their ideas come alive.
I remember hearing someone walking out of a club, saying, “I’ve gotta go, I can’t take these bongos for another two hours…” And I agree. You can go two hours in a club without hearing a single vocal. You can go hours without hearing any song saying anything to you. I mean, tell me to leave, tell me to stay, tell me to take a shit in the middle of the club – tell me anything! But let there be a voice! This is why I love Soulful House – usually there is a song and a story to go along with the great tracks.
I don’t want to belittle anyone. Any craft, whether you repair cars or air conditioners – it’s something you have to learn. When I mix, it’s in three dimensions: it’s front to back and it’s left to right. If you like or don’t like a mix or how I’ve executed my ideas or breakdowns I’ve made, that’s one thing, but I don’t think you can say that my mixes don’t sound incredible.
I’ve been working on the Teena Marie project and had the pleasure of remixing “Behind the Groove”. I took it to a club I was playing at in Miami and walked out into the middle of the floor and said to myself, “This sounds fucking amazing!” Some guys walked up to me and said, like, “Man, this is fucking crazy!”
How many of the tracks on the CD have been heard before?
There are 18 tracks total on the CD but I’ve done about 34 different mixes. Eleven of the tracks are new mixes. The other seven are from back in the day, and it was something like I couldn’t get the tapes or didn’t have access to them.
Everything on the CD is a mix or new version people haven’t heard before – not in this format. The whole concept was to keep true to the original. I didn’t timestretch them, didn’t fix time – I did them the way they were. I was talking to Kenny Dope and he was saying he had to timestretch a track before mixing it. I asked why and he said “Because a lot of today’s DJs can’t mix. If I don’t keep it in perfect time, they might not be able to play it.”
These tracks go from 118 bpms to 123 to 115 all within the same song, because these cats were really playing. They moved with the vibe and weren’t worried about trying to keep perfect time. Some of the songs wouldn’t work and wouldn’t be what they are if they worried about keeping perfect time.
I spent nine months putting this together. I really hope the second CD does well. It’s really sort of a “best of”. It starts with the first mix I ever did – Inner Life’s “Caught Up” – and ends with Jocelyn Brown’s “Make It Last Forever”, which was the last one that I did. I wanted to put out the kind of CD that nobody would listen to and skip around on. I didn’t want them to skip over anything.
You worked on so many tracks, I’m curious about something. There’s a famous story in which Aphex Twin forgot about doing a remix for some major label rock act, gave them something completely unrelated to what he was supposed to be mixing, and they released it. Have you ever done that?
It was a completely different track? No, I couldn’t do that. There were times when I rushed something out. One time I remember rushing something out because I was sick and it became a Top 10 track in the UK. I had a stomach virus, came into the studio and told Joe, my engineer, “Just turn the lights down and let’s just bang this out.” We did the mix in like five hours. A month later it was in the Top 10 on Top of the Pops in the UK. I couldn’t believe it. I went to the UK and worked there for quite awhile after that. I’ve spent 60 hours trying to finish a mix before, and this one… Maybe I should get sick more often.
With the release of Volume II, are you going to be touring at all, and what can the people who come to hear you play expect?
After the first compilation was released, I did some DJing mostly in Europe. With this one, starting April 4th I’ll be playing throughout Europe for the next six weeks.
As far as my DJ sets, I really love Soulful House, and to me it’s the closest thing to good ole’ Dance and R&B. I’ll mix some in, which I think sometimes throws people off. I told Louie Vega and a few of my DJ friends, “I don’t want to be thought of as that guy that just did stuff back in the day, with a disco ball spinning and John Travolta standing in the middle of the floor.” I mix in stuff that I appreciate and love, and hopefully show that sometimes this old dog still can hunt.
Terry, thank you so much for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with your readers. House Music is very important to me.