There isn’t much I can tell you about Tom Moulton that you don’t know already. Tom made modern DJing possible, though he’s never been one. He was probably the most indispensable person in terms of making dance music what it is today, but has never been much for clubs. In his career, he’s worked on some 4000 to 5000 records and you get the sense that he can tell you the story behind each and every one.
Dimitri from Paris is fond of saying that “the love for music has long since left the industry, as you may have noticed.” But the greatest mixer of all time, the inventor of the 12″, the extended mix, the full side LP medley and so on – Tom Moulton the man is still in love with the music.
Dimitri from Paris has mentioned hanging out with you when he’s in New York, and this interview was pushed along by DJ Meme when he was out there. It seems that few of your peers have kept as involved in the following generations as you have.
Oh, I’ve known Dimitri for a long time. I met him through Michael Paoletta at Billboard. Michael told me that this is someone you should know. This was a long time ago –
Back when Dimitri was with DMC?
I think so. Meme is just great. He has that voice, you know? “Tommmm… I’m at the airporrrrrt… I’ll see you sooooon.” [Tom does a great Meme impression, somewhere between a James Bond villain and the Voice of God.]
But to answer your question, I like people. I’m not into “stars” or “superstar DJs” or any of that. But I’m a fan of people who do a good job at what they do. I’m not into this for the whole social trip. If you’re nice to me, I’m nice to you. If you’re not, I don’t want to know you. I give everyone an opportunity to screw me over, I guess. I think it’s the only way not to become bitter and suspicious and looking at everyone like they’re going to screw you. Otherwise you live with such negativity.
I think it comes with age, though – you just have to decide to get rid of all of the baggage. I mean, getting screwed used to be called “paying your dues”.
So this conversation started out talking about a couple of ’60s soul labels from Chicago, One-derful and Mar-v-lous.
I would love to get those tapes, especially [Alvin Cash & The Crawlers’] “Twine Time”. I think it’s only been released as an 8 track mono. They could really sell some of those today. I tracked down Ernie Leaner’s sons about the recordings, but I never heard back.
Soul is my number one favorite. It’s not the easiest to mix and you have to be careful when you’re doing it that you don’t ruin the song. But my tastes in music vary enough that I never get bored. I like to work with jazz. I can work on a ballad or a country song or a rock song. I have 4 or 5 projects I’m working on at a time. It’s nice to be able to do that. People always ask the question, “What kind of music do you really like?” I like records you can listen to, even without dancing. The only kind I don’t like is what I call “cutesy wootsy”. There’s a thin line there. It’s a good challenge for me to work within these parameters. There’s a space where you can be creative.
When it comes to the blues and soul, so many great artists from the States had to go to Europe to make a living. I’ve tried to point out this parallel to a lot of dance music artists from Chicago, like Marshall Jefferson moving overseas.
In Chicago you had so many classic labels, like Chess and Vee-Jay Records. When I was a kid, those were really amazing. But what did radio stations in the US want to know about Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf?
I remember a story about hearing Marshall Jefferson. I was in Tower Records at about 11:30 at night. It was 1985, right when the first CDs started coming out and they had maybe 80 CDs in the entire store. I started hearing this beat and was flipping through records to that rhythm. I asked the guy behind the counter, “What is this playing? ‘DJ International’? What’s that? Is it on CD?”
And the guy started laughing at me. “They don’t even put the Beatles on CD. You really think they’re going to put this on there?” It was actually a 12″ record from Marshall Jefferson.
One of your recent mixes that received a lot of acclaim was the extended A Tom Moulton Mixes for Kings Go Forth from Milwaukee.
Yeah, I was contacted to mix a song they were working on, “Don’t Take My Shadow”, which was eventually released on David Byrne’s label. It was a damn good song. It reminded me of almost like a crude version of MFSB. I loved that song. It’s big in the UK too.
I have a pet theory about older music and the re-issue craze that’s going on. And that’s that it was always easier to release a record – even when that meant vinyl – than it was for music to find an audience. Do you think that’s true?
No. Maybe it used to be, but not now. I used to be a promotions man, and back then, the way to create a buzz with something was to take it to radio. But if radio ignored it and decided they didn’t want anything to do with you, it automatically became “the world’s best kept secret” because it wouldn’t do anything without radio support.
Radio and AT&T (back when the phone company was a monopoly) had the same attitude: If you don’t like it, get somebody else. Well, there wasn’t anybody else! That was the arrogance and attitude they had. But then the clubs started playing Disco, and they sensed that their power was threatened. I knew sooner or later they would call this a fad or a fake thing and something totally without merit.
I mean, I was the guy who was saying, “Hey, this isn’t much of a threat and you guys still have this MTV thing to deal with.” But I knew the backlash was coming. When you have that kind of power, you don’t like it when people take it away. Top 40 radio hated playing black records and that’s what it was seen as. What they didn’t understand was that good songs and good performances have staying power.
But I read a lot of history, and if you know history you know that nothing ever really ends abruptly like that – it just migrates into something new. It sheds its shell and spreads its wings into something else. If you leave something out of history, then it’s not so easy to figure out. That’s why history has to be written down – without it, we can’t connect the dots.
Now that you’ve mentioned writing, I found an archive online and read all of your Billboard columns from the late ’70s. I learned a tremendous amount about music and Disco in particular from what you wrote down at the time.
Are they online? I didn’t know that. When I was writing for Billboard, it was “Us Against The World”. I was always positive in my column because I wanted to help, not hurt, Disco.
I think we could probably come up with the names of 5,000 individual remixers working today. The whole process seems to be almost industrialized. How do you feel about the state of things today?
I’ve been in the biz all of my life. Years ago they had a saying: match a good song with a good performance and you can’t lose. Today it’s almost a case of trickery versus talent. I’m not taking away from what people do today, but I think you have to rely on a great song and a great performance. Is the London Symphony going to perform your song? Then you know it’s a great song.
I was looking through the TSOP contest winners and God, I don’t know… You have a beautiful song with a great hook and both of those things are discarded. It’s the rats following the flute player. People say they haven’t heard an organ in a song for a long time, so organs are “out”. They don’t get it. With everyone copying everyone else, everything sounds the same. There are so many people out there doing the same thing as everybody else.
A great record will always be a great record. By a “great” record I don’t mean a “hit” record. An example of a great record? “Funkytown” is a great record. That guitar strum in the chorus? Every time you hear it, it always sounds exciting. “Love is the Message” came out 36 years ago and it’s still a great song. It’s still slapping you in the ass years later. Certain records cross that threshold and capture the magic.
The songs then were great. They were really songs. To grow up without that… where do you go from there? I don’t know what they fall back on.
Like when my album came out in the UK. The record company told me they expected it to make a splash and then disappear. It was almost like they had made a final decision before the album even came out, while I’m optimistic about it.
Well, then we have 165 days when the album is in the Top 100. They say, well, then it’s the exception… But I knew it would be the exception because these are great songs. Don’t give it all to me – we put a lot of great songs on this album.
Philadelphia International Classics: The Tom Moulton Remixes is a 4 CD set released in the UK in April; a US version is coming soon. Philly ReGrooved Volume 3 is forthcoming in the next few months as well. Tom can be reached on facebook.