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In Conversation: Erick Morillo

In Conversation: Erick Morillo

Andrew Kemp | Features & Interviews

“I am in love with my craft again; I’m in love with my art. I’m in love with DJing again because I’m not trying to get anywhere anymore. I’m just back to being the same Erick Morillo that I was when I started, but now at least I have all this knowledge, and all this experience that I can use to accomplish the things that I want to accomplish.”

Erick Morillo might have seen it all. One of the first truly international superstar DJs, the New York born producer found himself as one of the most in-demand electronic musicians in the world after hugely successful releases on Strictly Rhythm brought wealth, fame and the pressures that come with them, with a succession of top drawer decorations including 3 DJ Awards quick to follow. Continuing the path through an illustrious career with its fair share of twists, Morillo has spent the past two and a half decades refining his craft, this year celebrating the 20th anniversary of the launch of his own Subliminal imprint. Looking back on a career that has brought mountain top highs along with rock bottom lows, Erick reflected on the journey that brought him to where he is today. “Everything I went through I wouldn’t change”, he says, after clear consideration. “So that should tell you where I am right now, mentally, and where I am spiritually.”

Speaking ahead of a triple header of UK shows all booked in for Saturday 5th August, Morillo’s good spirits seem genuine. Fresh from sets in Ibiza, he muses on how to deal with the challenge of playing to three different audiences in a single day, as he’ll be doing at Birmingham’s Boxxed, Leeds’ MiNT Warehouse and Manchester’s Gorilla.

“I never plan anything. I have records that I know I wanna play, but I don’t know when I’m gonna play them; it’s one of those things where you just feel the vibe and see how it goes, because you can literally play three different cities and have every city be completely different”, he explains. “Maybe some cities like more vocals, maybe some cities like it a little bit harder, so you never know what you’re gonna get. I usually like to play one or two records and maybe see how the crowd react and then I go from there.

“It’s definitely going to be very taxing on the body but I’ve done things like this before, and if I can touch people - three different audiences in one night - and do it in a way when everybody’s happy about the set times, I’m more than happy to give it a go.”

Well travelled after decades on the circuit, Morillo has extra cause for excitement in 2017, with two decades of his primary label and greatest project now under his belt. Having masterminded over a hundred releases with the likes of Harry Romero, Paul Woolford, Jose Nunez and countless others benefitting, Morillo and his Subliminal team have plenty of highlights to savour, though one crowning moment still stands out.

“Definitely working with Jocelyn Brown and that record that I did with Harry and Jose called “Believe”; that’s definitely one of my favourite records that we’ve put on Subliminal, not only because I got to work with Jocelyn Brown, but just because of the way the record came together so organically”, he says, the pride in his voice unmistakable. “We had laid down all the background vocals, and she literally went in there and laid that whole lead vocal in one shot; it was divine intervention. She came out of the booth and I had a tear in my eye, she was crying, it was a very special record. When you hear that record you hear all those ad-libs and other stuff, and she did all that in one; it’s a five and a half minute record, and she did all that in one shot.”

Subliminal’s success caught many of its collaborators by surprise, with New York record stores very quickly picking it out as a label worth putting behind the counter for when their most important customers came knocking. “For me when we started Subliminal, having won the minds and hearts of all of the DJs and all of the stores so quickly, it was a surreal time”, Morillo explains. “I remember all the stores saying ‘as soon as a Subliminal record comes in, we’ll put it straight behind the counter [because] when all the VIP DJs come, they don’t care what you guys put out - they just want them.’ That was also something that was really special to me, because it was what we’d set out to do, but we had no idea we would achieve it so quickly.”

Spurred on by his early exchanges with Strictly Rhythm, a label that he emphasises was absolutely key to his early development as a musician, Morillo was clear that he wanted his own label to take on its own identity, spending eighteen months perfecting the brand prior to the launch.

“At the time Strictly Rhythm was one of the bigger labels, and we didn’t want to look like them; we didn’t want people to think it was just another New York label, so we got the jackets like all the Europeans were doing, with no die cut. We got the stickers… we were the first ones to put the stickers [on] to close the jackets, and we put all the information on the stickers. The logo as well... everything had to be right. We came out of the box. We had the first two releases in the can, so it was a one-two punch kind of thing. We took our time to get everything right, and I’m glad we did.”

Funnily enough, those first two records, though finished before the label’s launch, were actually released in reverse order, with Dajae’s vocals having to be removed from Da Mob’s “Fun” for legal reasons.

“For one reason or another [Dajae] could not be on the record, and we had remixes from Basement Jaxx, DJ Sneak - I mean we had a double pack with seven remixes, so we got Jocelyn Brown to re-sing it, and then everybody had to redo their remixes again with the new vocals. But everyone was more than happy to do it, and so even though [Da Mob’s “Fun”] was meant to be SUB1, SUB2, which is the Constipated Monkeys, actually came out first.”

That kind of patience and perfectionist attitude seems to be something that the music industry often lacks, I suggest, and maybe that’s particularly true now that technology has made music production so easily achievable.

““I think so”, he concurs. “We can start from the bottom: the producers. I think there are so many tracks out there that have got potential, but they’re just not finished… and then when it comes to labels there are labels that are releasing records that aren’t ready. I definitely think there’s a lack of quality control all across the industry and the DJ world.”

What was it then, that inspired Morillo’s meticulous approach to Subliminal?

“For me it was very, very important to have a label like Strictly Rhythm, they definitely nurtured me and helped me develop my skills and my sound. Once you have someone who believes in you it’s a lot easier to be creative, because you know you have someone there that will tell you if it’s not finished, and then you go back and finish it up.”

But it wasn’t just the label’s approach to musical output that set it apart, with owner Mark Finkelstein’s strong sense of probity all too rare among New York’s big players at the time.

“Mark Finkelstein was very into integrity, so I got paid all of my money. That was really important because obviously I delivered them their biggest record and my biggest record in “I Like To Move It”, and I subsequently ended up making all my money. If I had given that record to other NY labels I never would have seen a penny.

“Especially as I was a young kid - I was 21 years old. I didn’t know anything about royalties, I didn’t go to business school, so having someone in the industry who was so focussed on being integrity is why so many producers were going back. This is why Roger Sanchez and Louie Vega and David Morales and everybody was going to Strictly Rhythm, because everyone knew that they were going to be treated fairly. You can’t say that for other NY labels; I don’t wanna say names, but most of them just rip you off.”

Though a rocky recent history had seen Strictly almost fold in 2002 after a joint venture with Warner turned sour, Finkelstein was ultimately able to wrestle control back, and the label is once again releasing records independently. The story of the wider New York club scene, however, has proven less uplifting.

“New York and United States as a whole has really suffered”, Morillo admits. “We don’t even have one big club in New York City - not one! And we used to be the capital of clubs; we had such clubbing history, like the Tunnel and Palladium, and Twilo and Sound Factory, so many huge clubs. Limelight! You name it, we had every kind of club. And now you see it all and the laws have made it so that you’d be crazy to open a club over there.”

As is the case in many big cities where gentrification and commercial interests clash with creative spaces, New York’s clubbing scene was decimated by abrasive legislation and police policy in the late 90s, making it increasingly difficult for clubbing spaces to survive.

“You guys experienced it with what Fabric went through, but in New York we didn’t have a backlash with people complaining like Fabric had; it was a beautiful thing to see that everybody from the industry came together and stood up for Fabric… but we never had that.” His frustration is audible. “It’s because we don’t have dance magazines in America; we’ve never really had the culture that you guys have had. We just kind of got it and it went straight to cheesiness. We don’t have the community or the dance community that you guys have been able to cultivate throughout the last 37 years.

“There’s no community to speak of in America. There is none. So that’s why [the scene has suffered]. America being so big, whatever’s going on in NY, it’s not what’s going on in LA, or Florida; it’s all over the place. I don’t think there is a family - a dance family. I think sometimes [UK audiences] take it for granted that you guys took what we created, or what Chicago created, and turned it into a culture and developed this really robust club scene. When I hear you guys complain about the club scene it’s hilarious to me, because you guys have so much - a shitload of clubs.”

Whilst UK crowds will often speak of dissatisfaction at elements of the nation’s attitude towards partying, in America, Morillo suggests, such conversations don’t even take place.

“[Size] is one of the parts that makes it so much more difficult for [USA] to have that, because it’s so big and that makes it so much more difficult for everybody to be on the same page when it comes to the clubbing world. A record that is big in New York won’t be big in Florida, it won’t be big in LA. The only part that has crossed over is hip-hop, but dance music has not. Another thing that hurts America is that the radio only plays what the major labels spend a lot of money on. So the radio is only dominated by the record labels that spent $250,000 and up, to see if a record can work at radio, so as far as it comes to developing young, underground up and coming music, we don’t have the stage for it. You guys have. I remember when I first came to England, you guys had pirate radio stations, Kiss FM; all these stations that would cultivate and help break new music. We don’t have that in the US. We don’t have any of that.”

Such focus on mass appeal brings other problems as well, as Morillo found out during a dark period of his life spent battling addiction to ketamine. The loneliness and stress of a professional DJing career is often overlooked, with ideas of the glamour and excitement of the industry often superseding a more realistic view of the more challenging elements of life behind the decks.

“All I can tell you is that having gone through what I went through, it’s stresses that we put on ourselves. My stress came from being at the top, and then not realising what I was going to do with my career if I wasn’t gonna be the big guy anymore.

“Speaking for myself, and for DJs out there, all I can say is: it’s normal to have pressures. What my advice to people is, is talk to people. Go see a therapist. Not a psychiatrist, but a therapist; somebody you can share the emotions that you’re going through with. Because if you keep them inside, sooner or later you’re going to start to look for some sort of numbing agent, whether it’s alcohol, or pot, or whether it’s K, whether it’s coke - whatever the hell it is - and that’s where addictions begin. At least for me, that’s where it really started.”
Morillo's brazen honesty is somewhat disarming; it is clear that his journey has had its fair share of bumps in the road.

“It’s very lonely. There are the great parts, when you go and you play in a city like New York or come here to Ibiza or go to London - yeah those are great. But when you’re in Bulgaria or Russia, where nobody speaks English, all you can do is go to your hotel and get room service and wait for your gig. And that’s when it becomes really, really lonely. And again, I am not complaining; I am really blessed. I am really happy. But you know what, I remember when I first started touring, I didn’t care. I didn’t even care if I was getting paid. I was happy if you were paying for my ticket and putting me up in a hotel. But when you’re older, and you get used to doing it, that’s when you start getting a little jaded, and that’s when the loneliness sets in.

“In the beginning, when I was just starting, I didn’t have a tour manager, so I was just on tour by myself. Yeah, I had a great time. But when you’re in the middle of nowhere and nobody speaks your language, it is looooonellyyyy” - he draws the syllables out with a tone of despairing humour. “And the only channel you can watch is CNN International.”

A damning admission, perhaps, and yet one that rings out more like a statement of fact than a complaint. As conversation reaches a natural crescendo, the sense is that Erick Morillo feels like an enlightened man.

“Everything I went through I wouldn’t change. It was definitely something really rough not only to have gone through but something that I put my family through, I put my friends through... letting a lot of people down. But I’ll tell you what: if it wasn’t for everything that I’ve gone through, every wall that I’ve smacked my face into, I wouldn’t have ended up where I did, having my therapist and really taking care of myself, and that’s why now the output of music is so great.”

Having rediscovered his passion for what has amounted to his life’s work, he has reason to feel so energised. Turning on the swagger and humour that has stood out throughout his career, his focus changes to a series of UK dates in August, which culminate in a spell at Clapham Common for South West Four on Sunday 27th August.

“[I want to] tell everyone that I am so excited about playing, and that I can’t wait to play for everyone”, Morillo presses home. “So bring a towel, cos it’s gonna get sweaty.”

Photos courtesy of Erick Morillo

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