For a relatively new nation, the United States of America has gifted the world some of its most significant and best loved developments in popular culture, not least with its music. From the Great American Songbook and the evolution of rock and roll to the dawning of hip hop and house music, no other country has shaped what the world listens to more. It’s little surprise to discover they are the world’s number one exporter of music.
From the countless advancements America has contributed to popular culture there are undoubtedly eureka moments and peaks of creativity. So enduring are some of these achievements that accepting such can be tough on younger audiences. In 2017 which 20 year old hip hop fan wants to hear that the early 90s was the best era or, similarly, which enthusiastic clubber wants to hear that Studio 54, The Loft, Paradise Garage, The Sound Factory Bar or even the US-inspired Hacienda were much better than what they enjoy today? Acknowledging such almost seems to belittle the still vibrant and evolving descendants of these strands of culture. And it makes you sound like a has been.
That having been said, to many there is an identifiable golden age of American dance music. When American soul music spawned disco in the mid 1970s a unique, dance-floor-lead culture was born that changed how the world enjoyed its music. It would change how and where we danced to music, it would change who its key figures were and it would make music and dancing accessible to legions previously disenfranchised.
From 1976 until the mid 1980s the dance music produced set the foundations for almost everything we still hear on today’s dance-floors. Caught in a moment between the grand, old style of making records and technical advances that would swiftly enable a great slimming down of personnel, the dance music of that era benefitted from existing on a production line of highly skilled contributors that is unparalleled and which contemporary music economics dictate could never again be repeated.
Songwriters, arrangers, producers and armies of musicians and vocalists were each employed to lend their abilities to producing music for the dance-floor. Today’s equivalent pieces often pale in comparison, perhaps as much of it is made by one or two non musicians in a digital studio. That advancement, if it can be called such, can as much be attributed to one person as it can to economics; the DJ.
Today’s dance music is not only played by the DJ but quite often made by them (or at least issued under their name). Though this has vastly elevated the DJ’s status and importance, could this not have happened at a detriment to the music?
Back in the earliest days of disco culture the DJ’s first forays into the studio were tentative. Though originally regarded as perhaps one of the least important cogs in the production of a dance record, their input would often hold significant importance in how the music would be enjoyed, leading to the start of their elevation in value. One of the pioneers in the growing role of the DJ was John Morales, who here presents his fourth volume of M+M mixes for BBE.
“You don’t have to do a lot to change something.” says Morales, who has been re-editing and remixing dance music since the late 70s and is regarded as one of the safest pair of hands to entrust with such responsibilities. “It can be tricky when you’re remixing classics that people love. It’s a hard one to win because you either do too much and people don’t like them or you do too little and people don’t think you did enough. There’s a fine line. I just try to interpret them the best way I can, make them a little more contemporary and a little more friendly to the dancers and the DJs.”
Morales’s work has been key to the advancement of DJ culture and his name has, even if considering only the correctly accredited records, appeared on countless dance classics from the earliest days of disco.
“First off, it’s important that I had like the original track,” he says of his selection process. “Secondly, I just try to listen to the original and decide whether I think I can take it somewhere else. Part three is being able to get the multi track stems and then seeing if it’s possible to do something with them. A lot of times they’re incomplete or there’ll be a lot of bleeding. I’m very big on drop outs and isolating individual instruments or vocals and if there’s a lot of bleeding then it’s impossible to do.”
From the early days of a DJ’s involvement in helping produce a track, which saw him enter a studio to quite often help solely with rearranging and extending, through days where overdubs were employed to create often radical reworks, to today’s standard of being alone at a work station, empowered by modern technology, the traits of Morales’s re-edits and remixes has remained remarkably similar. With great respect paid to the original recordings he has consistently produced mixes of records that appeal greatly to dancers and DJs, contributing to and helping expand the lifespan of the work he touches.
On this fourth volume of M+M mixes we see perhaps the most diverse selection of Morales’s mixes to date. “If you look at the tracklisting of this particular collection it’s not really a full-on disco or dance music compilation,” he says. “There is disco, but there’s also soul, R&B, a little bit of funk. If you take Frankie Beverley’s “Joy and Pain”, Cher, Barry White, The Jones Girls – which is a really downtempo song – there’s a lot of different styles of music on there.”
The genres of music contained have widened with this collection and so have the catalogues of music available. For the first time in BBE’s M+M series, the vaults of Sony/BMG have been opened to John Morales and we can now feature some fine examples from the golden era of American dance music from labels like Philadelphia International, Columbia, RCA and Arista with names like Cheryl Lynn, Jackie Moore and The Emotions appearing for the first time. An impressively large number of Motown associated names also appear on this collection, Tata Vega, Diana Ross, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks all featuring, thanks to Universal Music who also enabled the likes of Tamiko Jones and Atlantic Starr to be included. Though Morales’s work with many of these much cherished artists is typically respectful and often subtle, this compilation also displays evidence of the determination and skill which he frequently uses to reach the goals he strives for.
“Back in the day overdubs were not really something that we did,” explains Morales. “We probably started doing them in about 81 when the labels started to give remixers a little bit more authority with what they wanted to do. Most of the stuff that was done between 1977 and 1980 were just extended versions. When drum machines, MIDI and keyboards came in during the early 80s and things started to be programmed, that all changed. When Sergio and I were doing remixes back then we would bring in percussionists and keyboard players for the overdubs.”
“On this collection there were a couple of things that were tricky. Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real” was a very well recorded track, but unfortunately the piano was recorded in the same room as where the instruments were. Any time I tried to isolate the piano I could hear everything else. It was almost impossible to use it to form any kind of breakdown. I’d almost decided that I wasn’t going to remix it as it was going to be too difficult, but I really wanted to. So, I ended up finding somebody who could duplicate the piano, note for note, exactly as it had been originally recorded, so I could use it in the sections where I wanted to construct a breakdown.”
“Eddie Kendricks’s “Girl, You Need A Change Of Mind” too,” he adds. “This was really a rework. It’s the single track on the album where I didn’t have the original stems, so I had to take the original, re-edit it and then do a bunch of overdubs. It’s the only one that’s a little bit housey, perhaps more in the nu-disco mould. It maybe sounds a little bit out of place compared to everything else because of that, but I like it so much I really wanted it on there.”
With a sometimes light but always deft touch, on M+M volume 4 John Morales continues to breath new life into some of the best loved moments from the golden age of American dance music. Through his work we are better able to hear and understand why dance music culture is perhaps more popular and relevant today than it was, over four decades ago, when he began helping its advancement to the status it holds today.
Words by Marc Rowlands