Moby opens up about his new memoir ‘Porcelain’ [Interview]
Moby’s latest album isn’t featuring a slew of brand new house or ambient tracks. Instead, it’s an addendum to Porcelain, his new memoir covering a significant portion of his time in and around New York City’s dance music scene in the ’90s. When discussing the album and book with the legendary DJ/producer, from the onset, his 50 years of age and the perspective that both age and success have afforded him are instantaneously important.
At 35, Moby released Play, an album that’s gone 35 times platinum worldwide, and is irrefutably timeless due to the album being licensed in its entirety for commercial use. As well, he’s 30 years removed from being Richard Hall, a Harlem born and 20-year-old club kid venturing into the bizarre underworld of New York CIty’s then-iconic underground black, gay and Latino club scene. Thus, at 50, he’s hyper-aware, insightful, excited, and wistful about the days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as contemplating what lies ahead.
What led you to writing Porcelain?
So, I guess about four or five years ago I was in a party in Brooklyn and I was telling stories about what New York City was like in the ‘70s and in the ‘80s when I had moved back to New York after I was born in Harlem in 1965. I was telling these stories about what New York had been like and the people I was talking to, who had recently moved to New York, were fascinated by them. I was telling stories about crack neighborhoods and cheap rent, etc. and these people said that I should write [these stories] down. I’d always assumed that memoirs were things written by old politicians, reality TV stars, old Frenchmen or something like that. I never thought that I was old enough or venerated enough to wrote a memoir, but over the past ten years there’s been a lot of precedent for musicians writing memoirs. I mean, there’s Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards…at this point almost everybody’s written a memoir.
I thought it’d be interesting so I thought I’d make it about me, but also about New York and dance culture. Dance culture in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had a unique quality to it that, and this is in no way to malign or criticize current dance culture, but nowadays, the underground becomes known globally in about a day. In the “ye olden days” of 1989, there was a true unknown underground that existed in DC, New York, LA and London. They had these dance scenes that, unless you were there, there was no way to know about it. There weren’t blogs and fanzines. There were clubs, DJs and hit records that only existed in these small geographic areas.
My experience was kind of odd and unique was because dance culture in the mid-to-late ‘80s was almost exclusively Latino, African-American and gay, and I was right in the middle of it as a straight white guy. That was such an odd perspective that I was allowed to have, and it really felt like a privilege that I could go to hip-hop clubs and house clubs and freestyle clubs and be the only straight white person there. I felt so grateful to be involved in it.
So there’s a two-disc set of songs that adjoin the book, and it’s not your own records, but a collection of great club tracks that defined your dance culture experiences in the ‘80s and ‘90s. What about these records, as say, a straight white male being “allowed” into this experience made things like Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw” or Strafe’s “Set It Off” stand out to you?
I feel like, and it’s tricky talking about race and culture, but white people have had some good moments — punk rock was a really good moment — but as the ‘80s progressed, white culture didn’t progress and white culture became not so interesting. By 1985-1986, white culture had become R.E.M.. And [while] I like R.E.M. a lot, [their music is] very gentle. The culture had become nice, gentle new wave music. Which is perfectly fine, but when comparing R.E.M. to Public Enemy, Derrick May, and early house music, and I think that even (R.E.M. frontman) Michael Stipe would agree that the guitar music of the late ‘80s just couldn’t compete with what was coming out of the black/Latino dance world. I was so excited by what was happening sonically. When you hear Public Enemy’s (1989 album) It Takes A Nation Of Millions… it sounds like the apocalypse! It’s the same thing when I first heard house music. It had such a raw quality. Some of the early TRAX, DJ International and Strictly Rhythm records were so raw. There was such an unpolished quality and it reminded me of late ‘70s punk rock and post-punk. That’s what drew me in.
White people writing songs about white experiences can be okay, but I already knew that. Some white guy from the suburbs writing about what it’s like to be white and from the suburbs is someone telling me what I already know. A gay man in Chicago writing songs about what it’s like to be gay and African-American in Chicago? I know nothing about that, so it’s almost like this anthropological or modern history to it. It’s also about the antecedents, too. If I listened to a guitar band in 1985, I knew they were influenced by Big Star, who were influenced by the Velvet Underground, who were influenced by whatever. But when you hear Marshall Jefferson on those early house tracks or the early hip-hop records that would sample classic R & B tracks, and I knew this was influenced by records and culture that I didn’t know, that was really exciting.
So, let’s talk more about records and context. In the modern era, the idea that digital culture and production are so intertwined creates a seemingly unlimited number of possibilities for records and contexts. What do you think about this progression?
I guess it’s tricky because we do live in this era where culture is decontextualized in so many ways. I don’t know if it’s either good or bad. It’s hard for me to generalize because sometimes, there’s a qualitative aspect to it which means that when the record it good, we’re willing to be forgiving, and if the record is bad or exploitative, we can criticize the process. It’s hard to generalize, but I do really like how international, democratic and egalitarian electronic music has become. In the days when I made electronic music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, you needed samplers and synths, and had to be in a city where you could press up records and bring them to DJs. Now, any kid with a laptop can make a record at noon in New Zealand and put it up on Soundcloud, and by 1 PM someone in London would’ve heard it. That is so interesting and exciting. The language barrier has also been transcended. Up until recently, to make a viable pop record it had to be recorded in English. Now, we have kids in South Korea making great dance records, so records being recorded in English doesn’t even matter anymore.
Back to New York City for a second. Club culture is taking hold again in the city, but in an era where wealth, privilege and access are definitely much more a part of the scene than they were 30 years ago. How do you believe this change defines this era against what happened in the City back then?
I remember at one point in the late-’90s and early 2000s when gentrification was really taking hold in New York City. I went to some club — I can’t remember which one — and at some point I realized that the people who were going to this club just wanted to observe. They didn’t want to create anything for the club or add anything to the club, they were just there to drink, dance and observe. When I was growing up, you’d go to nightclubs in New York and in other places and the people in the nightclub were contributing to it by making records, designing clothes, promoting the night or something to add to it. Few people were just paying and receiving [the culture created]. Musicians need audiences, but I think there’s a different ethos or culture that comes along when consuming culture as opposed to creating it. Ideally you can do both, but I feel like a lot of these [club and dance culture haven] cities have become cities of consumption. Werner Herzog summed it up best when he said — and I don’t know if I 100% agree with this — in Los Angeles they make things and in New York they buy things. I personally find it more inspiring to live in a culture where every morning people don’t say “what can I buy,” they say “what can I make?” It’s a different orientation to being alive, and I find it more inspiring.
So, outside of NYC as well, there’s also a redevelopment happening that feels very much akin to the vibrant, youthful and less “commercial” and “commerce-driven” club scene that cities like New York created in the ‘80s. What do you think is the cultural culprit that’s responsible for this resurgence?
If you’re 22 years old, you want to go out every night, take drugs, go home with people, stay up all night, dance and go crazy, and you should. That’s why I don’t trust my perspective. When I start talking about “how things used to be,” I lose objectivity because in some extent I’m talking about “how I used to be.” So when I’m talking about how great things were in 1987, I’m also talking about how nice it was to be 22 in 1987. I’m sort of lamenting my loss of youth in addition to the change of culture. I feel like 22-year olds are always going to make great records. Give a 22-year old an electric guitar in 1962 and they’re going to start the Rolling Stones. Give them a sampler and they’ll invent hip-hop or house music. Give them a laptop now and…well, that’s when you realize that 22-year olds are always going to make the most interesting culture when they’re in an urban environment. It’s been going on a long time, be it John Coltrane and Count Basie, or it’s also happening right now. I’m glad it’s still happening, but I feel a little wistful that I observe it from the perspective of a 50-year old and that I’m no longer 22. I mean, there’s things I like about not being 22 as well, like it’s nice to be older and wiser, but, yeah.
Words by Marcus Dowling. Find Marcus on Twitter.