John Morales interview: 'If you want to stay relevant you have to evolve'

John Morales spoke to Marko Kutlesa about the disco era, time restrictive DJ sets, his favourite contemporary producers and much more.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 20th Apr 2017.
Originally published: 19th Apr 2017

Image: John Morales at Liverpool Disco Festival Credit: Hannah Metcalfe

Born and raised in a Puerto Rican household in The Bronx NYC, John Morales became a key figure in the city's musical development in the 1970s and one which would have immeasurable impact to this day. 

He began DJing in the mid 70s at a time when the music played by DJs was almost exclusively played on 7” single or from albums. Finding the three minute single a restriction in the dawning of the disco era, John constructed his own medleys and edits of records and committed them to tape for use at his gigs. He soon became known to the wider music industry for these edits and initially worked with disco legends like Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael on tracks by Musique, Bumblebee Unlimited and Universal Robot Band, his first credited release being mix work on Inner Life's 'Caught Up In A One Night Love Affair' (1979).

Alongside a small handful of names such as Tom Moulton, Walter Gibbons, Tee Scott and Francois Kevorkian, John Morales became known as one of the pioneering producers whose work would transform the disco, soul (and later house) of the day into the extended format that DJs and dancers craved in this era of disco and which would appear on the first 12” singles ever issued.

Throughout the 1980s John Morales partnered with Sergio Munzibai as M+M and the duo became the most prolific remix partnership ever with over 650 mixes to their name, John keeping the name for his own productions when Sergio passed away in 1991. Following an apprenticeship on hands down the greatest disco labels of the day such as prelude and Salsoul M+M went on to provide mix work for mainstream artists such as Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones, Spandau Ballet, Aretha Franklin, Shalamar, Hall & Oates, Dan Hartman, Candi Staton, Melba Moore, Rose Royce, Billy Ocean, Debbie Gibson, Odyssey and The Commodores.

Having taken a break from music, John Morales returned to work after the millenium, embarking on a busy DJ career and a return to music production. He has released several compilations including 3 editions of M+M Mixes on BBE Records. Prior to John's appearances at Liverpool Disco Festival, Southport Weekender Festival and Suncebeat, Marko Kutlesa sat down with John to ask him about the forthcoming compilation and his career to date.

 

Hi John! What can we expect from your forthcoming compilation M+M Mixes Volume 4 on BBE Records?

Hi! A big variety. There's a wide range of music on this one, disco, soul, house, boogie, funky stuff and some downtempo stuff, ballads. Some Frankie Beverly, some Cheryl Lynn, Barry White, Diana Ross. Because it's 4 CDs (and 4 x vinyls) and about 35 songs, I tried to make it quite varied so it wouldn't all be the same.

Do you consider that mix of musics to be a departure from previous compilations?

I don't know if it's a departure, but it's expanded. This compilation is a lot bigger so it's given me opportunity to put a lot of different things on there. I just didn't want everything to be 4/4 and 120 bpm because I think after a while that just gets a little bit boring.

Because of when you started doing your mixes, you're quite closely associated with the disco era. New York was a really exciting place in the late 70s and early 80s, not just in disco music. Which other cultural developments did you enjoy, take part in or impacted on you in that era other than disco?

Well, a lot of people don't know that I was actually in a Latin salsa band when I first started. I was a percussionist. That's where I have my roots. I was a percussionist in a salsa band, then I went on to play guitar in a rock band. I high school I always wanted to do something in music and I slowly gravitated to disco stuff as it became popular in the mid to late 70s.

As you were drawn more towards disco did you maintain your interest in Latin and rock musics?

Yeah, absolutely. To this day I still listen to all types of music. If I like the song, I like it, it doesn't matter if it's rock, R&B, country, hip hop or whatever. If it's something good then I'll gravitate towards it. It's really helped me, to be open-minded to all genres of music. It made it easy for me to jump into any situation. If I was asked to mix an R&B song, I was ready to do it.

Out of all your peers from the early disco years, which other mixer's work did you most admire?

Well, there wasn't that many people doing it when I started, but people like Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons for sure. Jim Burgess. A lot of them were just starting out, people like Francois (Kevorkian). I don't think Shep Pettibone had started when I started. I guess that why some people regard me as one of the godfathers of it. There were really just a few of us, Tom Moulton and myself, some others, who really started the whole extended mix culture.

At the time I started there wasn't really anybody else to admire, it really was just starting out. It was a whole new culture. As DJs we were just trying to find a way to make some of these short 7” single songs a little bit longer. 

Of course back then it was all very new but now, with the benefit of hindsight, it strikes me that two of the names you mentioned – Tom Moulton and Walter Gibbons – they both had very, very different styles of mixing records. Tom pioneered the extended beat intro, but Walter would do really long drums breaks with effects and the kind of experimentation that still sounds strange to this day. Was it as striking back then that people's styles were so different?

Tom started a little bit earlier than the rest of us, but during that period most of us were just trying to figure it out as we went along. The thing about Walter was that he didn't really have any boundaries to the stuff he was doing. As you said, Tom basically was extended what was already there. We took it a step further doing overdubs, adding percussion, have breakdowns. Between about 1977 and 1981/1982 there were very few people doing it. 

From that era, who was the best club DJ you remember hearing?

It's a tough one. Everybody had their own style. We spent a lot of time going down to the (Paradise) Garage seeing Larry (Levan), then in later days we'd see Jellybean at The Funhouse and Mark Kamins. There were quite a few others that nobody really speaks about any more like a guy named Rick Richardson. Robbie Leslie too. 

Do you have any particularly strong or fond moments from your own time in the clubs of that era?

I think the first time I ever heard Larry (Levan) drop my mix of 'Caught Up In A One Night Love Affair'. The thing about back then, that made some people like him stand out, Larry would play whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. It wasn't like now, when most of us just try to keep things flowing at a certain tempo. If he felt like it, Larry would drop out of something that was 130 bpm to something that was downtempo. He was really unique. 

To be quite honest with you though, I wasn't the kind of person that was visiting a lot of clubs. Not like others did. Once I started doing studio work that was kinda where I wanted to stay. Once I started mixing I kinda moved away from going to clubs as much, particularly outside of going to hear the results of what I was doing. Between 1982 and 1990 I also did almost no DJing apart from particularly special events to which I'd been invited. 

Is it your opinion that maybe something has been lost in that so very few DJs would nowadays be able to do something like that bold and bloody-minded big drop in tempo as Larry did?

I think that what's been lost nowadays is some of the art of DJing. Nowadays you're lucky to get more than two hours in a set. Back then, most of us would be playing all night. You'd play from 10pm until 8am or 9am. Some people can get a bit lost if they're asked to do more than two hours these days. I think that's created an atmosphere where people just don't get a chance to experiment or stretch out, everyone's just concerned with making the most out of their two hours.

I fall into the same category now, of course, basically just playing bangers for two hours with a couple of more obscure things sneaked in. You just don't have the time to develop a journey, you can't do that in an hour and a half or two hours. That's an all night thing. I think that's a common response to what you'd get if you asked that same question to any old school DJ. When it's your turn nowadays you've just got to jump in and start punching, go for the knockout. 

As music moved into the 1990s, with house music really, something else developed within DJ culture in that the DJ wasn't just doing mixes, edits, any more, they actually became the composers, players and producers of their own music. Some people might view that as a step up from doing mixes. Is that the way you would view it?

Absolutely. It has to do with growth. Anybody who doesn't want to grow in the field they're in will get left behind. To be honest, I kinda dropped out in 1993 and I missed that whole mid 90s to 2000 group. But a lot of people from that period – Louie Vega, Kenny Dope, Todd Terry, David Morales – they grew into writing and producing, taking their thing to a whole new level. If you look today, those are the guys that are still around, the guys who jumped out of the DJ booth and into the studio, learned their craft. I think that in any business, if you want to stay relevant you have to evolve into what's going on. 

Well, yes, the fact that they're still around and still popular proves your point. But, on the flip side of that, it means that it's become the norm that the DJ also has to excel in the studio in order to take their career further and I'm not sure it's a good thing that everyone is pushed to do that.

Well, it's a financial thing. And nowadays anybody can make music, it's fairly simple and that's why a lot of music nowadays is really watered down, it doesn't have a lot of substance. When we made records back in the day we would work with real composers, real musicians, who knew what they were doing, who knew how to play. You had to take it somewhere musically.

Nowadays people just buy loop packs online. I'm not knocking them, but they just don't know anything about music. They're doing their best, they just don't have the knowledge. There just isn't enough money in making music any more. And so many people want to be DJs and to do that you have to throw some of your own records out there and a lot of these records are shit records. 

Ha! Well, to try and move towards a positive, whose records nowadays aren't shit? Which contemporary producers do you like?

One of my favourite people nowadays is DJ Spen. He's been around for a while, he's still relevant. People like Kenny (Dope) and Louie (Vega) too, for the simple fact that they really know how to make records. David Morales too and a bunch of other guys too who I've forgotten to mention, just because they have a knowledge of music, of how to make music and who to work with. Dave Lee/Joey Negro too, he's very relevant. He's doing the disco thing, the house thing, he's producing, writing, mixing. He's got it all covered. He's another guy who's been around for a while. 

What have you got coming up apart from the release of the compilation?

On my next trip I'm going to Cardiff to The Tabernacle, then to Glitterbox at Ministry Of Sound in London, then Liverpool Disco Festival. Some good things so I'm excited, some great DJs are also playing at some of those dates. 

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