The electronic music icon digs out a mix of classic house and techno from 1991 and talks to us about life in New York City at the height of the crack and AIDS epidemics
There are a lot of stories about Moby, and they’re pretty much all true. He once licensed an entire album for adverts, films, and TV shows. He’s a vegan and staunch animal rights campaigner. He was once estimated to be amongst the richest DJs in the world. The point is, Moby is famous, famous enough to have stories about him filter into popular musical folklore – yet at the same time, not many people actually know that much about him.
That changed earlier this year when Moby released his first memoir, Porcelain, a surprisingly frank account of the musician’s years in New York City between 1989 to 1999. Recalling a strange, debauched decade that saw him score international chart hits, meet legendary figures from Madonna to Run-DMC to Sonic Youth, and fall in love with a professional dominatrix, Porcelain changed many people’s perceptions of who Moby actually was. But more than a story of his own life, it’s also a love letter to New York City, tracking its transformation from the sick, defective, but undeniably brilliant city it was in 1989 to the cosmopolitan, post-Friends, pre-Sex & the City place it would become by the end of the decade.
In promoting the memoir, Moby dug out some of his old mixes, made as he was building a name as a resident DJ at New York gay club Mars and as a techno producer. His mix for Dazed dates back to 1991 – it was originally created for a Japanese radio station, with Moby dusting it off after finding it deep in his archives.
Moby took some time out from his schedule in his current home in Los Angeles to talk about the mix, New York’s early techno scene, and his time DJing at Mars. In conversation, he’s an exceedingly nice guy who has clearly amassed a lot of stories over the years (when he notices my Skype display picture is a photo of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, he immediately jumps into an anecdote: “Giorgio mainly lives in LA, and he came over for tea the other day…”). But he’s also incredibly frank, discussing death, drugs, and depression in as plain a demeanor as he talks about discovering house music for the first time.
Check out the mix below, and read on for our interview with the electronic music icon.
This mix looks back on your roots in New York’s techno scene in the early 90s. Tell me about that time.
Moby: I was working at this nightclub called Mars, which was on West Side Highway in New York, and it was huge. It was five or six levels, all totalled. It had six sound systems, and all of them were amazing. Before I got my job there, my DJ experience had been at a bar in Port Chester, New York, and DJing at an all-ages club for a Christian youth group in Connecticut. The way I got my job was I dropped off a mixtape. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to do that – the person who took it actually laughed at me. But then the guy who was hiring DJs thought it was such a novelty that he actually listened to it. Normally you had to already be a DJ (to get a job as a DJ) – the other DJs there were (people) like Mark Kamins and Clark Kent who’d been DJing already for quite a long time.
What was your introduction to electronic music?
Moby: It would’ve been Donna Summer in the mid-70s, in the car with my mum when I was nine or ten years old and hearing ‘Bad Girls’ or ‘Hot Stuff’ or ‘I Feel Love’ on AM radio. There was that period in the mid-70s where disco was just ubiquitous. One of the things that I loved about early disco was that it had that futuristic quality to it, because I was obsessed with science fiction – some of the early disco actually felt like science fiction to me. It evolved from there. In the late 70s into the early 80s, so many new wave and punk rock musicians got seduced by the world of electronic dance music: Simple Minds’ Sons and Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, New Order… A lot of people, including (Detroit techno pioneers) Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, cut their teeth on electronic music with new wave bands. I know that one of Derrick May’s biggest influences was Depeche Mode.
When did club music start coming to New York from cities like Chicago and Detroit?
Moby: People started playing house music in New York pretty much as soon as it was invented, which I guess would’ve been around late 86, early 87. And that’s when I started hearing a lot of the early Trax records, like Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk, Mister Lee, and Marshall Jefferson.
“At the height of the crack epidemic... almost every time I came to work, I’d hear about someone who’d been shot or killed. And it was also the height of the AIDS epidemic, so people were dying of AIDS” — Moby
Were you directly involved in the scene, or just passively absorbing it?
Moby: In 1986 or 1987, I had a friend from Ireland who had read an article about this new type of music called ‘house music’. We didn’t know anything about it, except that it existed. So I spent honestly like a couple of months just going to every record store and asking about house music. No one knew what it was. And then I went into this record store in New Haven, Connecticut called Cutler’s and asked the man who ran the dance music section if he knew. He was this old queen who took me by the hand and he said, ‘Honey, let me introduce you to house music.’ He had this section that had every house record that had been released, which at that point was about 40 records.
What are your strongest memories of Mars?
Moby: One aspect that, as time has passed, has seemed increasingly odd and interesting, is how much I was such a part of that world but at the same time so separate from it. Because it’s a world that was predominantly gay, black or Latino, and I was a straight white guy. I loved being involved in that world, but I did always feel like an outsider. One of the more unpleasant recurring things that happened – because this was at the height of the crack epidemic – was almost every time I came to work, I’d hear about someone who’d been shot or killed. And it was also the height of the AIDS epidemic, so people were dying of AIDS. It felt a little bit like Sarajevo during the war – people you knew were dying left and right. It was this tragedy that you sadly became accustomed to at the time.
“If you were a 22-year-old kid (like me), dark New York was great, because rents were cheap and New York was filled with interesting people. If you were an 80-year-old grandmother, dark New York was hell” — Moby
Do you think it’s odd that when people talk about the gentrification of New York, they maybe romanticise this dark period?
Moby: Yeah. Clearly when New York was at its darkest, there were different demographic groups who were impacted by it in different ways. If you were a 22-year-old kid (like me), dark New York was great, because rents were cheap and New York was filled with interesting people. If you were an 80-year-old grandmother, dark New York was hell. If you were a seven-year-old kid walking to school, New York was a terrible place. I always have to cautiously romanticise it, understanding that just because I had a good time, doesn’t mean everyone there had a good time. Also, I realised in writing the book, on the one hand I’m nostalgic for this baffling, dysfunctional city that was dangerous but filled with creative people and also really inexpensive, (but in) being nostalgic for that I’m really just being nostalgic for being young. Part of the nostalgia is just that I was 24 years old when the book starts.
As your celebrity grew, did you miss having a direct involvement and closeness to the club community?
Moby: (pauses) Yes. It’s funny because from the beginning, in 1990/91/92, this celebrity that I had was very much an extension of that community. Also with New York there was a lot of precedent for that. There were people like David Morales or DJ Dmitry from Deee-Lite or Junior Vasquez or Danny Tenaglia who were very much a part of these scenes, but were also celebrated. So when I started to have the beginnings of success, I simply felt like I was moving a little bit into the realms that guys like that had already occupied. If you’re a rapper and you suddenly start selling millions of records, you can’t hang out in the way that you used to be able to hang out. But in the dance scene, when I started having success I still was going out to all the nightclubs and was still friends with all the same people, but (with) just a patina of recognition that hadn’t existed before.
“Headlining Glastonbury was nice, but at that point I was such an entitled, narcissistic alcoholic that it wasn’t good in terms of happiness or emotional well-being” — Moby
What about further along the lines, into the 2000s? I was looking earlier and something I didn’t realise was that you headlined Glastonbury – it seems such a long way to come from Mars. Is it strange looking back on that?
Moby: Yeah – when the album Play became successful, clearly that level of success leads to you being alienated from the community that you come from. It’s actually stuff that I’m trying to write about in book two. Book two is supposed to cover 1999 to 2009. For me that was the very dark period. That was the period where I was drinking too much and doing too many drugs and just being very narcissistic and entitled. Oddly enough I have way more fondness and nostalgia for the really humble early beginnings of the dance scene. I’m much more nostalgic about (that) than the days where I was headlining Glastonbury. Headlining Glastonbury was nice, but at that point I was such an entitled, narcissistic alcoholic that it wasn’t good in terms of happiness or emotional well-being.
Has there been anything cathartic about revisiting these periods for your memoir?
Moby: Writing a memoir is just like really odd, psychedelic time travel. You get to revisit these periods from your past, but in doing so you also start to see patterns and themes that you might not’ve been aware of when they happened. With time and age, you gain some quasi-objectivity.