Maybe it’s because he didn’t get to bed until 4pm, or the fact that he turns 47 this year, but David Morales is a touch pessimistic about the state of DJing – and the world.
‘DJing is becoming a fad,’ he says. ‘I started playing when there was no DJ culture. It was just about selecting music, no different from inviting friends to your house and playing music for them.
‘Now superstar club and house music DJs make six, seven figures a year. Keyboardists, engineers and producers can make money DJing, so they become DJs.’
Everyone wants to be a DJ and with software that makes it easy enough for nearly anyone to mix – Morales calls this ‘horrible’ – basically everyone is. ‘When you have [people like] Paris Hilton playing records … I was talking to George Michael and he said, ‘Oh let them play records’, and I was like, ‘Are you crazy? Not on my watch’.’
Morales, who takes to the decks at Dragon-i this Saturday, broke into house music in 1986 when New York City was buzzing with the energy and youth of a scene just gathering momentum. The Brooklyn native reworked pop songs from an illustrious list, including Madonna, Aretha Franklin and U2, and quickly gained a name as a highly sought-after remixer. Probably most notable are his frequent collaborations with Mariah Carey – from 1993’s girlish, fanciful Dreamlover, redone in pared-down tribal beats, to 2006’s hip pop jam Say Somethin’ as an uplifting vocal house track.
‘Sometimes, even if it’s a good mix, artists will look at me like, ‘What the hell is this?” Morales says. ‘That happened with Jamiroquai’s Space Cowboy – they hated the remix. And the remix was the most successful record they’ve had. The original wasn’t radio-friendly at all. It wasn’t even a song; I put it together like surgery. But the way I put it together wasn’t how he’d created it, as a jam session. [To them], somebody had distorted his picture.’
Morales is credited as one of the main movers and shakers in house music, and with popularising the reworking of pop fodder into dance floor gold. These days, however, the winner of the 1998 Grammy for remixer of the year sticks to DJing and producing.
‘I’ve mixed hundreds of records and at this point in my career I’d rather spend time making my own stuff,’ he says. ‘Remixing is a good start for getting experience before you move on to producing.
‘I don’t think I’m a superstar, but you don’t wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m a superstar’. Everyone starts from the same point doing it for free. I never expected to get this far in music,’ says Morales. ‘I’m not in the music business to make money. I DJ for free. I get paid to get on a plane, not to DJ. It’s something I love. It’s a crime to get paid doing something you love.’
Perhaps such sunshine-and-rainbows philosophy can be traced back to the loved-up ethos of the house scene Morales cut his teeth on. ‘[Back then], the drugs were different. It wasn’t as hardcore as what’s going on today. Ketamine, crystal meth – these are dark drugs. It’s not like MDMA or LSD or smoking grass,’ he says. ‘The drugs changed, the mentality changed, the music changed. It’s all going downhill. The end of the world is arriving. Just look at society. Look at the quality of life. Music coming out today lasts five minutes and the attention span has gotten so short.
‘What’s allowed me to be here this long is that I don’t follow trends,’ Morales says. He’s known for a distinctive style of pop remix, the Def Classic Mix which he honed with seminal house pioneer Frankie Knuckles when they started the label Def Mix Productions. The particular style of deep bass, crisp snare and rich melodies would later be widely copied in what eventually became a highly lucrative and popular pop/club crossover market.
As a producer, Morales’ work is energetic, fun and sexy – clean, tight bass and uplifting vocals with clear tribal and techno influences. He’s one of the biggest DJs in house, something of an anomaly in the generally faceless dance music world. Of course, not every DJ is invited to be a face of Iceberg Jeans, as Morales was for a 2000 campaign. ‘It definitely helped in getting the kind of publicity I couldn’t afford – my face was all over buses, billboards and magazines,’ he says.
Morales spent a decade travelling and DJing and it wasn’t until 2004 that he released his second album, 2 Worlds Collide. Just as his remix rap sheet in the 90s reeled in all the era’s biggest pop voices, 2 Worlds Collide took a roll call of the latest bright young things, not least singing prodigy and songwriter Lea-Lorien, whose Madonna-esque vocals front half the tracks.
‘After 20 years in the business, I’m proud of being an icon, someone that made a difference. It’s like being Michael Jordan in the music business,’ Morales says. So what’s next?
‘I’m not sure. I’m 46 and I can’t do this forever. I love music and can’t see myself doing anything else.
I want to get married and have more kids. I have two boys as it is and I didn’t raise them. Didn’t have Sunday dinners or teach a kid how to throw a football. My life hasn’t allowed me to be a family man.
‘I got married at an early age, before I had a career. [But] a career takes up space and dedication. When it comes to being an artist, you can only be successful if yo can make decisions without worrying if it’s affecting others.
‘I never tried to ‘make it’. That’s the beauty of it. I never knew I’d arrived anywhere. Next thing I knew, I was just there. Mine wasn’t a hard road – it happened naturally. It’s been a great ride, and it’s still not over.’
Originally published on May 8, South China Morning Post.