Remixes are now part and parcel of almost every club release, so it’s strange to think that even in the late 80s they were a relatively new entity. One of the prime innovators of this art form is John Morales, the Bronx-born Producer, Engineer, Remixer and DJ who has worked with Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Shalamar and The Rolling Stones, among countless others.
He started his obsession with music as an impressionable 12-year old working in his local record store for free 45s, laying the foundations of his love for an eclectic range of music he’d DJ in the years to come. First remixing Disco records out of necessity because they’d only last around three minutes, Morales edited songs by literally cutting and pasting reel-to-reel tape with a razor, which allowed him to extend tracks so he could play them in his sets. He was actively involved in the burgeoning 70s and 80s scene in New York clubs like Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, renowned institutions that defined the era.
Morales’ work-rate was unfathomable; he was spending days at a time in the studio engineering for acts such as Inner Life, Jocelyn Brown, Curtis Hairston and Class Action, as well as working with esteemed producers Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael. Partnering with Sergio Munzibai in 1982, they formed the M & M remix team and the duo would produce well over 650 remixes until 1989, with Sergio passing away in 1991.
After falling ill in 1993, Morales took a break from music for almost ten years, but carried on working for Atari and Steinberg (creators of music software Cubase). After a steady renewal of his musical career, recent years have seen him busy as ever – DJing around the globe and sharing his story as one of the most important figureheads to emerge from New York’s legendary Disco and Boogie scene.
Since his return he’s worked on remixing the 25th anniversary edition of Marvin Gaye’s ‘In Our Lifetime’ – he’s also been compiling his back catalogue of remix work in the form of the M & M mix series, now in its 3rd edition, as well as last year’s ‘Club Motown’ and ‘Motown Divas’ compilations. We caught up with the Disco icon at one of his Bump & Hustle London residencies to discuss growing up in the Bronx, the importance of his Puerto Rican heritage and what young producers today are missing out on.
You have a gruelling tour schedule this summer, with residencies in London and Ibiza. How are you finding it in comparison to the constant studio time back in the day?
It’s harder to keep up with it now ‘cos there’s a lot more DJing than in the past. Before it was 80% in the studio, 20% DJing. Now it’s more like 50/50. And ‘cos I do all my work at my home studio I find myself flying back home for 3-4 days midweek. Like today – we’re here at the Bussey Building, I just came from Bulgaria, tomorrow morning I fly back home until Wednesday when I catch another flight to do my thing in Ibiza. I’m just trying to get stuff done!
How are you finding Ibiza? Did you ever go there the first time round?
No – last year was the first year I played. I had a residency so I got a bit of a feel for it. Fortunately, I know a lot of the other guys that are playing so I can always go see everyone else and get a feel for what’s going on.
In 2011 you mentioned there’s no money in House music. That was before it became commercially prominent, especially in the UK. Do you think that has changed?
It’s just a select few that are making enough money so they can do this for a living. If you were to interview 10 people that are doing House music, probably 7 of them have a regular job. It’s really hard ‘cos the problem is the way music is delivered these days, everything’s digital and the payback is very small. Selling downloads for like 99 cents, you’re lucky to get 30 cents. So you gotta sell big volumes and there’s not that kind of demand.
John with late Disco artist Sylvester
The increase in streaming poses another problem.
It’s gonna get interesting. You find most guys DJ to supplement their production – it’s their main income. All these guys like Kenny Dope, DJ Spen, Karizma, Louie Vega… they all have heavy DJ schedules – that’s where everyone’s making their money.
You play in Europe a lot. Do you find it different to playing in the States?
It accounts for about 70% of bookings at the moment. And to be honest I don’t do a lot in the States ‘cos for the kind of stuff I do, there’s not a big acceptance. Especially in New York, there’s not a lot of clubs that cater to House, Disco and Boogie. And most of the ones that do, have residents that don’t like to share their time, so it gets kinda hard. It’s easier to travel ‘cos you’re more of a commodity than somebody who just lives down the street.
The New York Disco scene in the 80s was a real hub for more marginalised people – Black, Hispanic and LGBT communities. Do you think the importance of this diversity is lost on some people getting into Disco now?
See the places I’ve been fortunate to play at, you get a really diverse group of people. Especially in the UK, it’s kinda like a melting pot for people that are… I think the key word is open-minded. I’ve played a club in Bristol that was just college kids – they were barely 20 years old, they were all in to it and they really get it. It’s refreshing and it’s the way to keep pushing the music forward, to have the youth accept it and acknowledge that it’s cool to like. People use the word Disco but I prefer to call it Dance music ‘cos the stuff I play is a little more underground, a bit edgier. When a lot of people think of Disco, they think of Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta, ABBA and all that. It’s like – I don’t go anywhere near that kinda stuff!
It’s quite squeaky clean.
Exactly. My stuff is a little more Boogie – ya know Leroy Burgess, Black Ivory, that New York Disco stuff. Boogie stuff that led to House music. There’s a fusion. And I utilise it in my sets. A mixture between Boogie, House and Deep, I kinda just intertwine it all.
How was it growing up in the South Bronx? That must have been quite rough, especially in the 70s.
I guess I grew up more in a middle-income family ‘cos my parents worked real hard to keep us out of that area, we were kind of on the fringe of it. But I grew up in it all ya know, I was just lucky that from a young age I really took a love to music. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to a little radio, tryna figure out what I wanted to do.
You have Puerto Rican heritage, and Sergio was Cuban, do you think that plays a big part in the music? A lot of your tracks have very Latin percussion elements.
Definitely. In my house we were Puerto Rican, we spoke Spanish and listened to a lot of Salsa which was very rhythmic and percussive. When me and Sergio started the whole M & M thing in the early 80s, and even when I started stuff in the 70s, percussion was always a big part of the rhythm bed for us. I still use it today in everything I do. I always thought it was the driving force of the track. Also there was always music in the local park. I grew up in areas where you had Afrika Bambaataa, then the whole breakdance thing and Hip-Hop stuff started. So I was there in the parks when they had the battles, I grew up in that whole environment. I consider myself fortunate that I’ve lived through all the different genres of music as they’ve come and gone. I’m pretty understanding of where the roots and all the transitions happened.
John with Tina Turner
Do you think you’d have the freedom in the studio as a young producer today, working with so many skilled session musicians, the way you did back then?
No, it’s definitely a big loss and it’s unfortunate that the real talented young people of today don’t have that opportunity to experience what it’s like to be amongst really great musicians, just trying to find the groove, or that element that sets off a vibe. Watching people like the Philadelphia Rhythm Section or Baker, Harris & Young…Brass Construction. I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of these people. Just knowing what it was like to be in the same room and what it feels like when it really kicks off. The vibe, you just don’t get that anymore. It’s sad. And even I live in that environment now where I sit by myself in the studio and have to self-motivate. There’s nobody there to say: ‘Yeh that part was really great!’. There’s no inspiration to make things sound better, there’s nobody pushing you ‘cos the majority of the time you’re by yourself. There are very few people that collectively make music together now, it’s usually individuals that bring in other people and it’s reflected in the way it sounds. If you compare music from the 70s and 80s that was actually made with real musicians, against something now, you can really tell the difference. Just in the construction of the music, the way the lyrics are laid out. The singers used to sing a whole song, now they sing a little part – cut and paste – so there’s no diversity. A lot of stuff sounds the same, there’s not as much place for individualism.
Do you think the little nuances and subtleties have been lost in productions?
You use the right word. It’s the nuances of a performance that don’t make any two alike. Sometimes those little nuances are what make the difference between an average record and a great record.
John in the studio with Sergio
You played guitar when you were young. Did you ever have to play instruments in the studio?
When we first started doing this thing we didn’t have big budgets, so I’d do a lot of the percussion stuff myself, a lot of the keyboards. Usually I’d take it to a certain place ‘cos I’m average – but I don’t want average – so I’d put down an idea and then get somebody else to take it to where it needed to go. I had a keyboard player, we’d call him Jazzy Dave, the guy was just phenomenal. He was like a wind-up doll, you’d wind him up and he’d just fucking go – it was great. Sometimes I’d put down some really cool stuff and we’d end up keeping it.
You didn’t get credits for some of your earliest remixes, was this a problem at the time?
When I started doing it, it was new. I’d get credit for everything but the remix. Mix Engineer, Recording Engineer…but they didn’t know what to call some of this stuff! And the problem was some people would get credit for other people’s work, it was crazy in the beginning. I used to get really pissed about it, but now I’m just glad that I’m still here. I tell people – my legacy is what it is and if I die tomorrow it’s not gonna change.
How was it getting back into music after such a long time out, was it a shock to the system or did you gradually bring yourself back in?
When I reflect on it now I think it was just something that was waiting to happen. It was a rare chain of events. I tell the story quite often. It was Paul Simpson who was the person responsible for me coming back. I was just dabbling at home with stuff, he called and was working on a mix saying ‘do you wanna do it?’. He had to take off, then the A&R for Universal came to my house saying ‘I got a project for you’…one thing led to another. I then got a call from BBE looking for some master tapes, they asked me to do a compilation. Everything started to snowball, it was like constantly putting gasoline on the fire and it just got to the point where now, I’m probably twice as busy as I ever was when we were at our height and we were pretty busy back then!
John at his home studio in New Jersey
How was it working for Steinberg?
It was great but I actually started working for a company called C-Lab, which is now Logic. They folded, then I started work for Steinberg when I stopped doing music ‘cos I got sick. I was just reppin’ their stuff in the New York area. It was good ‘cos it kept me current in all the technology, so I always knew what was happening in the construction of music even though I wasn’t active in it. I knew what the latest tools were and what they were doing, so when I came back I didn’t have to learn anything. I knew how everything worked.
A lot of people associate you with being old school but you’re actually very interested in the latest technology.
My stuff is old school but I utilise all the technology to make it sound as good as it can. I’m always up on everything, I do beta testing for a lot of the software companies. For me it’s important to know what the tools are and what they do. So if I have something in my head I have a reference of what it can do, whether that’s Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools. To me they’re all the same.
Even though you primarily worked with instrumentation in the 70s and 80s, you must have witnessed the start of sampling.
Oh yeah, I remember the first time we got a sampler – AMS – it had like 2 seconds in it! We were like holy shit! We can actually record a snare drum into it. I saw the beginning of the whole digital age: digital recorders, sampling, emulators. Like I said, I was there watching it all happen. The best thing I did was embrace whatever it was and learn about everything. I’d rent all the latest gear just to figure out how to use it.
What are your thoughts on sampling? A lot of the stuff you’ve worked on has been flipped. Class Action’s ‘Weekend’ has been sampled in a lot of Footwork and Juke tracks for instance.
When Hip-Hop and the whole sampling thing started, I didn’t really think much of it. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was transferring some tapes for a Hip-Hop company, that I actually came to the realisation there was a lot of creativity involved in putting this together – all these little samples. I realise now how cool it was, 20 years later. I just listen to it and think ‘God, they use a little string or guitar part and all of a sudden they have this great track’. I appreciate the creativity of sampling, but especially nowadays people are outright just taking your shit and calling it something else. I hate to say it but a lot of guys have got some big balls now! They’ll take it and just change the name slightly. I’ve heard a lot of my stuff just totally get sliced and diced and it’s like something else. Even the Disco re-edits, ‘cos a lot of the guys can’t legitimately license the tracks they just bootleg them. It’s a free-for-all and people wonder why nobody’s getting paid doing music ‘cos people just do whatever they want.
Are you still doing a lot of production work at the moment?
I did something for Mayer Hawthorne that’s already been released. I’m working on a compilation with DJ Spen, we’re gonna do some original productions. I’m doing another compilation for BBE called ‘Me And My Friends’ which will be stuff I’ve done for Kenny Dope, Joey Negro. Ya know it’s like payback for all the favours that you do, I spent years doing all this stuff for everybody so I thought I’d do a compilation of it all. That’ll be out at the end of the year or beginning of next. I’m slowly putting together another Club Motown compilation and just started working with Sly and Robbie – that’s pretty exciting. I’m very busy all the time.
What about the next 5-10 years? Your legacy is certainly set in stone, do you feel you have to continue making and playing music?
Music is a life choice. It pretty much supersedes everything. Anybody dedicating their life to music understands it’s like a drug. The more you give it, the more it wants.
Words: Hugo Laing