David Morales is spinning. It's three in the morning, and he is working the decks at Manchester's Paradise Factory club. "When I work," he says, "I take people on a journey. Sometimes I'll play for seven, eight hours. I'll take them up, bring them down. It's all about contrast - light and shade."
Morales has taken them down for a few moments. He is playing a simple, pulsating groove of drums and congas. The dancers move gently, breathing in long draughts of the fetid air, like athletes pulled up at the end of a race.
In the DJ's booth, Morales seems to be absorbed in his own private world, but if you look closely you see that his eyes are watching the crowd, evaluating, choosing the moment. He lets it ride for a few seconds more, then his hand moves to the controls and cross-fades to the other deck. Suddenly, the bassline pounds. The kick drum vibrates up through the sprung floor, while each crack of the snare seems to explode inside the head.
These days, Morales no longer needs to work the clubs for the money, but he says he does it to keep his roots refreshed. The 31-year-old New Yorker has come a long way since his first DJ dates 15 years ago. His success at clubs like Ozone Layer and Red Zone provided his passport to the world of remixing, and by the end of the 1980s his long string of remix credits included artists as diverse as Whitney Houston and the Pet Shop Boys.
In recent years, Morales has staked a solid claim as a producer-songwriter, working with soul singers like Ce Ce Peniston and Jody Watley, and house pioneers Ten City. However, his career went into overdrive with the release of his own album The Program, credited to David Morales & The Bad Yard Club. As a showcase for his talents, it could hardly be bettered. His skills were as deftly applied to the album's reggae-influenced tracks as they were to the easily digestible soul anthems. The first single, 'Gimme Luv', equally demonstrated his aptitude for both the groove and the song. In fact, the 'song' is a big thing with David Morales...
"I guess I'm a dinosaur," he admits. "I'm old enough to remember when dance music was about real songs - like Denis Edwardes' 'Don't Look Any Further'. That record still works today. If a track's got a groove, and it's a song, it'll stand up.
"So much music these days just shouldn't get released. It's too easy to string a sequence together, press up a few hundred copies and release it. I'd rather take a track and move it up to the next level. It's not easy, writing songs. Tracks are nothing - songs are a deal."
Last year, Morales proved his point emphatically with his reproduction of Shabba Ranks' 'Mister Loverman'. What had been little more than an obscure Jamaican dancehall track became a worldwide hit, opening the door to the mainstream charts for a whole range of other JA acts.
"I ended up getting rid of most of what the original producers did," Morales reveals. "I gave it a hip-hop beat, wrote a new bassline, and put some strings and piano on. I sampled Maxi Priest singing the word 'Shabba', then built a whole chorus from a sample of the 'Mister Loverman' line."
The record's success caused Morales to re-evaluate the direction that his own album was taking.
"The cheapest studios in New York are luxurious compared with anything in Jamaica. But what you do get there is the feel, the vibe"
"I wanted to do some tracks in Jamaica so that I could capture the whole essence of the place. I wanted the dirt, the grunge - the equipment that's filthy. The cheapest studios in New York are luxurious compared with anything in Jamaica. But what you do get there is the feel, the vibe. You could bring the musicians to New York, but you wouldn't get the same feel."
Morales is disarmingly modest about his own musical abilities. He usually works with a trusted cadre of musicians and singers, and he plays down his own keyboard skills. But he is living proof of how much the modern DJ and the producer have in common.
"I've got a pretty good studio at home, where I do my pre-production work. I've got a good selection of chum machines - Roland, Alesis, Yamaha. I still use the Akai MPC60 as a drum machine/sequencer, but sequencing these days is usually done with Vision on a Mac. I like Roland synths, and I use the Akai S1000 for sampling. I've got a couple of Lexicon reverbs, a Korg, and a Roland SRV2000. It's all racked up and I take it around with me, but often I hire things in. The guy who does a lot of my keyboard programming usually brings some ancient synths when he comes."
As he describes working in Jamaica, Morales sighs with nostalgia.
"You get up — sun by the pool for a while. It's so tranquil. I'm used to working 16 hours at a stretch, but in Jamaica six hours is a long time. They're very 'soon come' about the whole thing.
"On 'Gimme Luv' the first thing we did was to get the rhythm parts down. I was working with Sly Dunbar, and a guy called Handel Tucker was playing the keyboards. We got this really slamming groove going, then we started calling out words and hooks... 'Gimme love, Gimme Love, Gimme that kind of love'. I was singing out the bassline, and Handel was programming it as we went along.
"As it happened, there was a guy called Papa San in the next studio. He heard what we were doing, and came in and put the rap down. That was it - the whole basis of the song was done in a couple of hours. Later, I asked Robbie Shakespeare to come in and do the bass. We got some girls in to sing the backing, and the song was there."
He makes it sound easy. But the quality of a Morales production depends as much on what he leaves out as on what he puts in. His work testifies to the dictum 'less is more'.
"Piano, strings, some bass and some beats - that's usually all that I'll sequence. I use a lot of live parts - percussion, saxes, flutes. That's what really lifts a track. But for me, all that stuff's only there to support the song."
Interview by Keith Raynor
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