Ahead of his upcoming shows in Manchester and Leeds, Erick Morillo spoke to Marko Kutlesa about his history of hits, beating addiction and relaunching Subliminal.
Last updated: 18th Jul 2017. Originally published: 7th Jun 2017
Erick Morillo is in a good place right now. Over two years since his well documented rehabilitation from drug addiction he has released new music on his revitalised label Subliminal at a frightening pace (one new track surfacing every two weeks in the past year). He's preparing for a busy summer touring Europe, including Ibiza where he has been a yearly highlight for as long as many can remember and he's enjoying a healthy new lifestyle in his new home of Los Angeles.
Raised in Columbia, Morillo's rise to being one of the world's first global superstar DJs can be traced all the way back to when he was 11, the age at which he both began DJing and moved with his family back to New York, where he'd been born.
At a time when the still teenage Morillo was DJing in local clubs, he met Latin reggae star El General, with whom Morillo made the 1991 single 'Muevelo', a mixture of reggae, house music and rave which was a surprise hit. In 1993 he released his first single on Strictly Rhythm, a label he would have a long association with.
His second release for the label as Real 2 Reel was an even greater success than his platinum selling debut. 'I Like To Move It' repeated Morillo's fusion of rave and reggae and was an irrepressible global hit that garners love and listens to this day, not least due to it being an ever present highlight of each movie in the Madagascar franchise. That single alone propelled Morillo into near unchartered territory as a globally in demand DJ, as aspect of his career for which he has received many awards.
Morillo followed this with more hits as Reel 2 Real including 'Jazz It Up' and issued the club slaying 'Reach' in 1995, a collaboration with Louie Vega. He founded his own label Subliminal in 1997 which went on to release several hits featuring vocalist Jocelyn Brown and others by the likes of OnePhatDeeva, Joey Negro, Praise Cats and Harry "Choo Choo" Romero. Erick has also been a regular presenter on MTV, launched several sub labels of Subliminal and collaborated with Puff Daddy.
Why did you move to LA? What opportunities does that city offer you that you couldn't get in any of the other cities you lived like New Jersey, New York and Miami?
I think it's because the record industry is run out of here. This is where all the record companies are. This is where a lot of the artists come to record, so if you want to set up a session it's easier. Everything I want to do in the near future is here. It's also very healthy here. I love the weather too.
Miami it's very hard to work. It's a vacation place, beaches, partying. So, if you set up a session and everybody is just waiting to get out because they want to go to a club or the beach. It's a different lifestyle. New York? I just don't like it. I grew up there, but I don't like the weather. You go from one extreme to the other. The traffic, it's too much for me.
Congratulations on your 20th anniversary of Subliminal! Which tracks from the revived Subliminal catalogue do you feel best exemplify your vision of producing music that bridges the best in underground sounds but with a strong vocal?
Well, I think we kicked it off right with the track I did with Eli and Fur 'Thunder and Lightning'. I think that was the perfect vocal, big bassline, tech house record. I think that set the tone of where we're going. That's the niche I want to fill, adding vocals to underground records. I know how to produce vocals and not all the kids that are coming up now know how to do that. There's such a void in good vocal records. It's either really pop, cheesy shit or it's an instrumental, no vocals at all.
One of your more recent tracks 'No End' which features Kylee Katch has a vocal sound that is quite intimate. That seems to have been a trend over recent years on many vocal records that make it big in some club territories, for instance on Ibiza. Would you agree?
What I can tell you is that unfortunately the house of old, the divas, the church singers, that is now looked upon as being old. Whenever anybody hears that kind of vocal now they see it as old and the DJs don't want to play it. The vocals that DJs are still willing to play are that melancholy, more sexy, laidback, not in your face style. So, yeah, I think you're right. These are the vocals that are now working with DJs.
You worked in both styles. In the past you've worked with vocalists who have a more traditional NYC disco or gospel approach, for instance Jocelyn Brown. Do you miss that style not being around on the dancefloor?
I definitely miss it, I just know it's difficult to get DJs to play it. I certainly miss working with talented vocalists like Jocelyn Brown, Barbara Tucker, India, Dajae. I miss that whole vibe. I'm not saying it won't come back, it's just the DJs that are out there right now are championing tech house and a vocal style that's not that. I tried it. My second release on the new Subliminal was a track called 'A Second Life' which was that kind of style and people didn't want to play it, the DJs were not receptive to it. This scene is led by DJs, so if they don't play it then there's no way people are going to play it.
Do you think there is a difference between the sound of Subliminal now and the sound it used to have?
Absolutely. Before we were very focused on filtered disco house. We took chances, we did techno records, a lot of different things, but we were definitely known for the disco filtered vocals. I think now we're quite melodic, tech house, techno at times, but quite a way from that disco sound.
I enjoyed some of the music released on the Subliminal Soul label. Is there a place for music like that in your future as a producer or on the label or, again, is now just not the right time?
Oh, no, that's coming. We're actually relaunching both Sondos, at the end of June, which will be geared more towards Latin, tribal, techno, the more tracky stuff. Then Subliminal Soul will be relaunched in the middle of July. That's going to be more soulful, funky, deep house stuff that maybe won't sell as much but I think there'll be a niche for it. I'm doing some of those projects myself.
That's exciting news! That was the part of your catalogue I would always check, I loved some of those records.
Yeah, me too. Mustafa 'I Submit 2 U' is still one of my favourite records.
In early records like 'Muevelo' and 'I Like To Move It' you can hear elements of reggae, hip hop and Latin music which I know you grew up with. What's less obvious to me is where the synth line, an almost European rave sound, comes from? How did that sound come into your life?
When I started DJing I was 11 and I was mixing a little bit of everything, hip hop, reggae, disco, rock n' roll, some Latin music. When you're growing up as a DJ you've got to be able to play everything because you start at 10pm and you don't finish until 5am. That's what a DJ did. They weren't know for being celebrities or superstars.
So, I grew up with a very eclectic taste in music, and when I started producing I started sampling from all the different kinds of records I had in my collection. I was trying anything. 'I Like To Move It' is a mixture of calypso, a Trinidadian reggae guy, techno keyboards. When I finished it I thought, "I don't know what this is but fuck it, let's see what happens." And look what happened with that record.
Some advice I give to young producers is never, ever don't follow what you grew up with, what you know, because you may be able to give it a different taste. You may be able to change it to the point where you can have a hit record with something that you're not even sure what it is. Don't think, oh, Afrojack's not going to play this. Fuck that. Just do what feels right to you. Go wherever it takes you. Thank God I went in my own direction.
Did you go to the cinema to see the film Madagascar knowing that your track was going to be in it?
Absolutely. I'm really happy it turned out to be a good movie, because sometimes animated can be a little too young, just for little kids. I enjoyed it, and the fact that the record became synonymous with the movie. Every kid who saw it walked out of the theatre singing that song. I had friends calling me saying that not only had I driven them crazy with that record in the early 90s, but now their kids won't stop asking to hear that song.
Then for it to go on to be used in the next two movies also? I mean, what more can that record do for me? First it brought me to Europe, to see DJ culture there for the first time in 1992, now it's introduced me to a whole new generation. It just keeps on giving and giving. Some people ask me if I'm embarrassed by the record and I'm like “Are you fucking kidding me?” That record has changed my entire life.
To mention another of your earlier records, I heard Kenny Dope play most of the night in a pretty small club in Liverpool in 2015 and he played 'Jazz It Up', the original version without the vocals, and it sounded great!
When I did that I'd said that I wanted to do live drums and live bass on a record and so I brought musicians into the studio with me and that's what came out. Again experimenting, always trying to do something different. And it ended up being such a big record. You had that one, you had Smooth Touch 'House Of Love' and 'Tripping'.
When I started going to the UK and I would listen to Kiss FM it felt like every record I had done was resonating across the UK. It was a great time for me, doing a Reel 2 Real album with EMI but also with all these underground records taking off. Subsequently some of the ones that took off, like 'Jazz it Up', ended up being retitled and coming out as Reel 2 Real records, because I was trying to put albums together.
I know you met Louie Vega in the early 90s but how did the actual session for Lil' Mo' Yin Yang 'Reach' come about?
Gladys Pizarro (Strictly Rhythm) invited me to go for dinner with her and Louie Vega came to the same dinner. I already knew who he was, I was a fan. I would religiously go to the Sound Factory Bar every Wednesday to hear him. We were literally just having dinner and drinks when he decided that we should just go to the studio to bust something out. I was like ”errr....OK!”
The first project we worked on was a remix of 'Dancing', a record I had done with Barbara Tucker. It worked so well that we decided to go in again and that's when we did Lil Mo Yin Yang. Working with him was like a dream come true, because I was such a fan of his and Kenny Dope, Masters At Work. The remixes they had put together in that era were so ahead of their time, it was ridiculous. For me, it was star struck city. He would do the keyboards, I would do the drums and samples, it was a really good partnership. Louie works really good with people, he's not aggressive, he's very giving. Just a great guy.
What's the most difficult thing you've done in your life?
To this day, I think the most difficult thing I ever did in my life was overcoming my ketamine addiction.
What was the hardest thing about rehab and what is the most difficult thing about staying straight?
Well, I went to rehab three times and even after all three I never gave up alcohol. That was what seemed to keep pulling me under. So, besides the fact that I hurt so many people, I think the most difficult part was coming to the realisation that I was going to have to go completely sober. I gave up everything and started taking care of Erick.
It was a scary thing because you think life is going to be boring then. What's life going to be like if I can't drink and if I can't go to a place where there's drinking? You stop worrying about the future and you start focusing on the right now. So, the beginning of being completely sober was the hardest part. Once I had six months under my belt it was very easy.
Has it changed your perception of what it's like to be in the club, that environment or the afterparty?
You know what, to be honest, I wish I could tell people that it was because of the environment I am in that I became a drug addict, but it wasn't. I never partied when I went to clubs, I never did that. I always partied when I was at home. I partied when I was with a girl, when I was isolating in my house. So, I don't look at it any differently, but what I will say is that if I've changed my mind about anything it's about how dangerous and destructive alcohol is. The effects of alcohol. People just don't understand.
Also, another thing I changed my mind about is the power of therapy. Not psychiatry but therapy. To be able to speak to somebody about the stresses of your life so that you don't have to use alcohol or drugs to try to escape from the problems you may have.
You said in a previous interview that one of the pressures that contributed to you seeking an escape through alcohol and drugs was the competition you felt from a newer generation of DJs and producers. In hindsight, how do you feel now about how you reacted to this new competition and how has your mindset changed in regards to how you now view them?
Well, after a lot of therapy I've realised it was my ego that felt like it was being left behind and I no longer feel that because, you know what? I've accomplished so much in my career and I'm happy about who I am today. I don't have to be the biggest, the greatest, the youngest. These were just pressures I put on myself, “Oh my God, that's it, my career is over!” I did it to myself. Because I didn't talk to anybody those ideas were just stuck in my head and that made me depressed and made me want to use. Now I don't feel like that.
None of my hit records came from me sitting down trying to write a hit record. All of my hit records came from me sitting down trying to do a club record and they happened to blow up in the clubs. I lost sight of that. I was so stuck in this thing of “My God, look at what he's doing! I gotta get a record on the radio!” Now I don't look at it that way. Now I'm doing records that I love, I'm playing records that I love. I haven't had this much fun making music and playing records since I was in my early 20s.
What have you got coming up in the foreseeable future in regards of the label and your own productions?
I have a record called 'Gone' with Junolarc, Chris Child and Ora Solar that's just come out. Danny Howard just premiered it on his show the other Friday. I hope it's going to be a big summer record in the clubs. I have another record with Andrew Cole featuring Kylee Katch 'Cocoon'. I have two vocal records coming out this summer with a girl called Bella Hunter, the first is a Latin thing. There's a lot of records plus the relaunch of Sondos and the relaunch of Subliminal Soul, so no shortage of projects.
Aside from relaunching Subliminal and being incredibly prolific as a producer in recent times, have you channelled your extra energies anywhere else since recovering?
In taking care of myself. I do yoga, I work out, I have a nutritionist, I eat very healthy, massages. Just little things to take care of myself. At the moment I'm also writing a book, I'm writing a TV show, there's quite a few places I'm channelling my energies. I'm excited about the future, but I don't have to go anywhere. I'm happy where I am, here, today.
I've released a record every two weeks since last May and 90% of them I've been involved with. I'm very happy where I am right now and if I never have another hit record, hey, I'm the guy who did 'I Like To Move It' [laughs]