David Morales spoke to Marko Kutlesa about his renowned remixes, working with Frankie Knuckles and much more ahead of his summer gigs.
Last updated: 30th May 2017. Originally published: 25th May 2017
Few who have contributed to dance music have had as influential an impact as David Morales. A DJ and producer who hit the international scene in the early 90s via releases including his debut album, it is to Morales more than any other producer that the credibility, power and popularity of dance music remixes can be attributed.
So popular have his sometimes radical remixes been, turning near non-starter material from the likes of Mariah Carey, Jamiroquai, CeCe Peniston and Alison Limerick into huge, global, dancefloor hits that from the early 90s dance music remixes became a de rigueur facet of most mainstream artist and major label single releases.
Co-founding the Def Mix production house with fellow dance music lynchpins Judy Weistein and Frankie Knuckles, Morales's remix services went on to be requested by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Pet Shop Boys, U2, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Kylie Minogue.
A DJ since the 1980s, David's famous Red Zone residency in the early 90s saw him, uniquely at the time, mix American and UK dance music together and inspired the moniker for much of his dub mix work. His Red Zone mixes became a must check for house music DJs the world over, as successful an underground alternative to his main vocal remixes. He also established other production aliases including The Face, who scored a global hit with 'Needin U' in 1998 and Moca who released 'Higher' in 2000.
He was nominated for his first Grammy Award in 1996 as a producer on Mariah Carey’s album Daydream for the song ‘Fantasy’. He was nominated again the following year and ultimately won the 1998 Grammy Award for Remixer of the Year. Alongside Tony Humphries and Louie Vega he currently makes up the Kings Of House DJ triumvirate and maintains his own solo DJ schedule as well as his production career.
Following two stunning recent sets at Liverpool Disco Festival and prior to appearances at Southport Weekender Festival (10th June), Suncebeat 8 in Croatia (19th - 25th July) and a season long residency for Glitterbox on Ibiza, Marko Kutlesa caught up with David Morales to quiz him about his history and career.
Which of your remixes are you most proud of and why?
That’s a hard one to answer since I've done so many remixes in my career. But the ones that definitely stand out for me are; 'Finally' by CeCe Peniston, where I sampled the drums from 'Let No Man Put Asunder' by First Choice and had Satoshie Tomiie play keyboards. 'Dream Lover' by Mariah Carey, which was the first time that an artist re-sang the song in a whole different style and key. It was the first time that I submitted a new original track from scratch.
'Mr. Loverman' by Shabba Ranks. 'Mr. Loverman' was a dancehall record. I totally changed the arrangement of that song. Besides adding some hip hop drums and again arranging new music I added a sample of Maxi Priest from a different Shabba Ranks song that I had mixed called 'House Call', I rearranged vocals and created a new chorus which made them end up changing the title of the song to 'Mr. Loverman'.
'Space Cowboy' by Jamiroquai, where I sped up the track and totally rearranged the vocals to create a structured song, because the original was really a jam session. What’s funny is that JK hated it. 'Dirty Cash' by Stevie V. The record company was ready to dump the record but because it was such a big record for me at the Red Zone I asked the record company to let me remix it. The song went on to be #2 on the pop charts.
And of course 'Where Love Lives' by Alison Limerick. That was mine and Frankie Knuckles first big record that we mixed together. All of these songs went on to become big pop hits and sell millions of records. So in hindsight I made a lot of people rich.
How would you define the sound of a Red Zone mix? Why did you establish that production title? Why did you retire it for a while and why did you bring it back?
The Red Zone Mix for me was a hybrid of NY meets the UK. I was spinning at a club called the Red Zone from 1989 – 1992. In 1989 I took my first trip to the UK to play at Sin at the Astoria with Pete Tong and Nicky Holloway. When I first went to the UK I was a star. I wasn’t a star in my own country! Clubbers knew my music. I had my own section on the wall in the record stores, it really was something new to me.
There was something about some of the UK sound that I loved. So the Red Zone was a great venue for me to showcase my new style that I had created, I mean I was playing KLF 'What Time Is Love', Snap 'The Power', just as an example. So my A sides were true to the song and the break of the song was what I created the Red Zone dub from. The Red Zone sound was a darker sound. And since I was spinning at the hottest A club in New York at the time, it became accepted and world renowned.
I retired the sound after I left the club. For a moment I had labelled some mixes the Dead Zone. So now after over two decades I decided to bring back my dark side hahaha. Over the last couple of years I’ve had people approach me about bringing back the Red Zone sound. I’ve even had clubs ask me to play Red Zone style.
How do you decide which of your tracks will be released as The Face, Brooklyn Friends or Red Zone? What's the difference in the sounds of each alias? Do you sit in the studio and try to make a song that fits the alias, or do you only decide after each piece takes shape which name it will appear under?
The Face is my disco side. Brooklyn Friends is my percussion instrumental underground side and Red Zone is the dark side. I usually start a project in that way. And sometimes some tracks organically take on their own journey.
Which of your dub mix workouts do you consider to be your best?
I like a lot 'So Hard' Red Zone Mix by Pet Shop Boys, 'Mr. Loverman' World Mix, 'Sonic Groove' by Utah Saints. And I’m sure there’s a whole lot more. I’m drawing blanks at the moment.
After the Chicago group Fingers Inc split up their vocalist Robert Owens was invited to come and do some work with the Def Mix production house and quite quickly two timeless classics, in 'Tears' and 'I'll Be Your Friend', were issued. It seemed like it was going to be the start of something special, a combination capable of ongoing success, so why did that not continue?
Both me and Frankie actually produced a whole Robert Owens album that was released on Island Records in America after both 'Tears' and 'I’ll Be Your Friend'. There’s been talks over the years about getting back together and collaborating. I actually have a couple unreleased songs that I did with Robert over the years.
Other than those who have already been involved with Def Mix like Satoshi, Hector and Quentin, which other producers do you feel would make a natural fit within the organisation?
Hmm... Def Mix is a family. We never intended it to be a business. It’s just something that happened organically and it’s still like that I believe.
I read in a previous interview you saying that you used to take LSD and go to the Paradise Garage and The Loft. I know you to be too wise a man to advocate the use of drugs, but can I ask if you think LSD at all changed your perception in any more permanent way than just making sights and sounds seem sharper for the duration of your trips?
Well, yes, as a young clubber I have experimented. In my days it was LSD, cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines. They were our party drugs. We took drugs and went to hear music and dance all night to the next day. Taking LSD was definitely a TRIP [laughs]. We danced, we laughed and just had a great time.
'Needin U' famously sampled 'Let Me Down Easy' by Rare Pleasure. Do you remember where you were the first time that Rare Pleasure record had a big impact on you and which DJ played it? Do you associate that record with any DJ in particular?
'Needin’ U' was based on two records from the 70s. One was 'Let Me Down Easy' by Rare Pleasure and the other was 'My First Mistake' by the Chilites. And it was a tool that I had made for myself to play out. It was only because of the reaction that I was getting from playing it that forced me to release it. I first heard a DJ by the name Larry Patterson play both of those records at a club called Zanzibar in Newark, New Jersey. I immediately loved both records.
Which records do you most associate with Frankie Knuckles, either in regards to ones he made / mixed or ones that he used to play? What do you consider his signature spins? Did you ever request he play a song for you while he was DJing in a club?
I loved Frankie’s mid tempo sets, they were my favourite. Sounds of Blackness 'The Pressure'. 'The Whistle Song', 'This Time' by Chante Moore, 'Rock With You' by Michael Jackson and of course 'Where Love Lives'.
Which of your vocal mixes should have become a hit or a club classic but didn't?
Ha! I feel like that about my last record with Janice Robinson called 'There Must Be Love' but there have been a few. I mean who knows what will make it and what won’t.
One song you provided a great house mix for is 'Love Thang' by First Choice. But you also produced a near 10 minute disco mix of that track (which I absolutely love and would happily dance to for an extra 10 minutes) and I wanted to ask you, considering the existing disco era mixes of that track, what had inspired you to add your own mix that was so faithful in its adherence to the original disco style?
I grew up with 'Love Thang' so to remix the original was an honour. For me it was about remixing the original. Doing a house remix was just about trying something different without taking the integrity away from the song.
Have you similarly ever been approached to do a remix (or heard a song) and thought “Yes, I'd like to mix that” but felt that you would prefer to do a mix in a style or genre that wasn't the 120+ bpm house music that was probably expected from you post 1995? Which tracks?
It’s why after 1995 I sort of dropped out of doing remixes because after the success of Steve Hurley’s remix of Michael Jackson’s 'Remember The Time' everyone expected a house remix. What was challenging about remixing 2-3 records a week was that they were different tempos. To do a 4/4 120 BPM mix everyday got boring. Not that I’m not doing that today but at least it’s my own record.
Considering that your mixes of tracks like 'Space Cowboy' by Jamiroquai, 'Finally' by CeCe Peniston and 'Dreamlover' by Mariah Carey were not just radically, unrecognisably different from the original versions but that they were also, to millions of listeners, considered to be the definitive versions of these songs, do you think the music industry underestimated or undervalued the worth of the remixer in regards to royalties and credits?
As you, Frankie and Def Mix were pretty much the Gamble and Huff of the first half of the 90s, in hindsight do you not think that, if anyone could have pushed for a change to that lack of appropriate accreditation, it could have been you guys?
I can write about this subject all day. We were rewriting the music for songs. We should have been getting both publishing and royalties on remixes that were released as the mix that represented the song on radio and the stores. We made people rich and all we got was a fee. But that’s how it was. It’s even worse now. Nobody cares anymore.
Me and Frankie were sort of the Gamble & Huff of our time but unfortunately no big artists had approached us to write and produce original tracks with them. Even Mariah Carey did that to me. It was very frustrating. It’s like we’re good enough to remix your record and give you a hit but you won’t bring us in from scratch. It was cheaper for them this way.
You look quite sexy and in shape when you are sometimes pictured wearing no t shirt in clubs (or on the cover of tattoo art magazines – not that I'm stalking you!) I hope I look that good when I'm also in my 40s! Do you have a specific fitness or gym regime that you stick to in order to maintain your figure and if yes what is it? (also, if you could recommend me one food to stop eating in order to help with my figure, what food would you suggest I cut out?)
In your 40s? LOL! Try 55! I’ve been training for 30 years so it’s been a lifestyle for me. It’s not always easy because of my schedule especially during the summer. When I’m on point, I go almost everyday and sometimes I workout with a trainer when I need that extra motivation because as you get older it gets harder to motivate yourself.
The other most important thing is diet. I can change my body in three weeks with proper training, diets and most of all rest. I suggest you cut down on sweets, bread, pasta and less beer.
You, Louie Vega and Tony Humphries are The Kings Of House. Who in your opinion are the Princes Of House and which royal title would Frankie Knuckles hold were he still with us?
For me there are many kings in the house music scene. We’re just three out of many that have represented house music. There are many princes out there. I like Teddy Douglas, DJ Spen, Joey Negro to name a few. It’s hard to remember when you’re put on the spot. As far as Frankie Knuckles…… HE IS THE GOD OF HOUSE MUSIC!