"It wasn’t till I went to England that I saw the culture of house music, the many different styles and cultures of it," says Erick Morillo, a New Jersey native who styles himself "a new-school DJ." In England, in the early 1990s, he recalls, "I saw 2000 kids hanging on David Morales’s every note! Well, that did it. I gave up being a hip-hop DJ and started doing house."
For those who do not know, David Morales is a veteran DJ who makes what is perhaps house music’s sexiest and most soulful music. Morales at the decks takes the dancer directly into the passion that arises from a sweet rhythm: his music features female singers, and once in a while a male vocalist in support, in the manner of Ashford & Simpson songs. Morillo continues, "David told me, ‘Remember to feature vocals! More and more vocals!’ " It is perhaps the essential instruction for anyone who wants to succeed at house music.
Live at Avalon last Friday, Morillo played his conspicuously complex program in an unusually complex way. Rather than just employ two turntables as the main source of his music, he used two turntables and a two-disc CD player. Having as many as four discs spinning at once enabled him to create the most intricate overlays I’ve ever heard. At times he used the two turntables together in the classic manner to play two songs together for extended periods. But with his CD player, he was also able to quick-cut the underlying song into yet another track while keeping the overlying song going. He also performed several three-level overlays, and he topped off this display of dexterity with a number of sound-effect drop-ins.
Having four discs available also enabled him to splay the rhythm any way he pleased — to interrupt it with the volume control, for example, to change the genre of the music any time he desired, or to go a cappella ("I love doing an a cappella break"). He quoted old Donna Summer and used a sampler to reach back to Zapp’s ’80s-style vocoder funk ("I like Art of Noise a lot"), and at times his barrage of sounds did pay homage to that British studio group’s mastermind, Trevor Horn.
Unfortunately for Morillo, the dancers at Avalon did not give themselves completely to his music. They stopped when he did and danced when the rhythm resumed, but they did not shout and scream. And how could they? In the sexy, dark, simplified rhythm of house music, there is an orgasmic syrup so intense you can taste it. In Morillo’s intricate, orchestrated music there was more design than desire.
His biggest hit to date as a producer is Reel 2 Reel’s very C+C Music Factory–ish "I Like To Move It." But despite Reel 2 Reel and many similar 12-inch-single productions done for Strictly Rhythm Records, a major house-music indie, and despite his own two DJ-mixed CDs, One (which came out in 2000) and the new three-disc set Three (both on the Morillo-owned Subliminal label), he remains unknown to the wider American music public. No surprise that he’s more a fan of how things are done in the UK. "What I like about it there is that the charts are compiled strictly by sales, not by radio play. In England they also feature house music at outdoor festivals. DJs set up in big tents. There’s always a house-music tent packed with kids. And you also get the maturer dancer — people who do not come to raves."
Morillo probably also prefers the UK for its openness to all manner of rhythms. Here in the US, tastes tend to be more structured. To the American ear, he isn’t really a house DJ but rather a hip-hop-and-rock-oriented DJ who uses a lot of house-music sounds in his mixes and quite a few house-music songs in his program. Although his two CDs do incorporate singing, vocals take a back seat to instrumental fanciness. Three favors all manner of genres — Eurobeat, trance, ’80s funk, girlish pop, jazz dances, and garage — in intricate combinations. The three discs do differ: the first features soulful, David Morales–style sweet beats; the second follows the C+C Music Factory–ish vein of Morillo’s Reel 2 Reel tracks; the third adheres, more or less, to garage-style house.
What they have in common is the ton of sonic embroidery that Morillo adds to all of his programs. They zigzag and digress; they strike out in several directions at once. Whereas house music aims to sift out any sound that distracts from the soulful passion generated by the dark interplay between the rhythm and the singer, Morillo tends to sift it all back in. Indeed, in a Morillo mix, busy as it is with all the hubbub and the thousand moving bodies one finds on a real club floor, the singer and the rhythm rarely get close enough to each other to interact. So much for the advice of David Morales!