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n dance music, classicism is in the eye of the beholder. Check Azuli Records' stellar compilation series Choice: A Collection of Classics, which spotlights formative cuts chosen by superstar DJ/producers (Frankie Knuckles, Jeff Mills and Francois K, among them), and marvel at how varied and far from the mainstream most of these "classics" are. Dance's canon is, in fact, so large and accepting that producer/DJ Morgan Geist (loved equally for his solo work and that as one half of Metro Area) deserves applause just for balking at it via his DJ mix Unclassics. Touted as "a collection of Italodisco, Euroboogie & other sonic rarities", Unclassics hails misfits, misfires, stragglers and strangers from the sub-54, electronic disco form that only recently has been celebrated (and canonized) itself. Equal parts curator and adoptive father, Geist presents pristine-sounding versions of twelve songs that nobody cared about and assembles them into a sound stream that's entirely lovable. By consciously not making The Best Italo Album in the World . . . Ever!, Geist may very well have made the best Italo album in the world, ever.
The New Jersey native, who's so articulate, he practically interviews himself, shared his thoughts on the mix at a greasy spoon near his home in Brooklyn. (Apparently, you can take the boy out of Jersey, but you can't get his ass out of the diner.) What follows is an edited version of the conversation that ensued.
Richard Juzwiak: How long have you been collecting Italo disco?
Morgan Geist: Not long. There are some really nerdy collectors out there. I only buy stuff if I like it. I mean, there’s some real garbage out there. Early on, some stuff that's Italian I liked without knowing it was an Italo disco thing. Like Kano, “I’m Ready” and “It’s a War” and “Holly Dolly”. All the Kano stuff I knew from being into Detroit techno because Kano was a big thing there. I was into all that shit and “I.C. Love Affair” by Gaz Nevada. But I think a huge turning point was when this guy Ference [aka I-F] in Holland came out with a mix CD called Mixed Up in the Hague. It’s funny because I knew of Ference forever, but I don’t feel like I’m part of the crowd that championed “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass”, which sort of turned people on and spawned the whole electroclash thing. But I was really curious about Hague because I knew he was a good DJ. I have friends in Boston that were into him because of that. Before I heard it, they used to tell me that he played Italo disco and I would think, how can people listen to that shit? I was thinking he was playing [Black Box’s] “Ride on Time,” or IRMA and DFC—that was my idea of what Italo disco was because it’s still called that. Or Italo house.
Is Unclassics sort of the inverse of the classic-filled Mixed Up in the Hague?
Exactly. You got it. The whole thing with Unclassics is that there’s the disco canon that everyone understands that’s played at bar mitzvahs and weddings and Mets games, you know, “Y.M.C.A.” and “I Will Survive”. It’s almost universal cheese. And there are some great tracks in the canon, I’m not going to knock it. [First Choice’s] “Dr. Love” is awesome. There’s a reason those things work as party tracks. That's the one canon and then underneath that is the underground canon, sort of Garage or boogie stuff. But you have these shrinking parallel canons and the Unclassics, I thought, didn't fit into any of it. Part of it is because they're fucked-up tracks. That's what is captivating about them to me, there's something wrong with each of them. And that was difficult to convey to producers when I was licensing the songs, because I didn't want to insult them.
Because you had to pitch the mix?
Well, I wanted people to understand what was doing. There's a Eurofunk track on there called "Manshortage". It's by this guy named Lewis Martinee and he does Ricky Martin remixes now. He's the only American on Unclassics and when I called him to license it, he was like, "Why do you want that? That's the worst track I ever did", and what I wanted to say was, "Yes. Exactly." But I couldn't really say that, so I was like, "Oh, you know, I play it and it's sort of a cult hit up here." So that was sort of weird, how there's something off about all of them. But I think that's why they didn't work, they didn't succeed or fit into anything. Ference's stuff, on the other hand, is considered part of the Italo disco canon. And part of the canon was already around because of Chicago, there were tracks that were huge out there. But I think people need to realize that this stuff wasn't this canonic thing before that Ference CD. I don't think people credit him enough. And he's also so underground that he's not going to go and try to claim any throne. I think for our generation, for people who didn't listen to it the first time and especially Americans outside of Chicago and Detroit, they weren't hearing this kind of stuff and Ference absolutely turned everybody onto it.
His Italo disco is what I think of when I think about Italo disco.
And his crates are deep. He has amazing records and he has this online radio station, Cybernetic Broadcasting System, which is amazing. That's poisoned a lot of the market, too, because you have these obsessive-compulsive geeks with cash who live on eBay and just drive the prices of these records up so much because they hear Ference play them. It's bizarre.
The Unclassics take on the genre, though, is different. It's more disco-disco.
It's less arpeggiated. The Unclassics CD itself is weird because the way I wanted to do it was this remastered stuff and I wanted to present it as an unmixed compilation with these exhaustive liner notes, photos and all this shit. And then I realized that there's going to be four people on this planet besides me who give a fuck about that.
I think you're underestimating the appeal.
Put it this way: financially I'm not underestimating it because it would be really expensive to make a booklet and everything. It's not a fucking Beach Boys box set. Unclassics is already this financial nightmare, because I licensed everything and even as far as the song choice, the whole project was a compromise. There were a lot of tracks that I wanted to put on there that I either couldn't find the people or was thinking of it and then they'd get bootlegged by some douche bags in England or Germany.
Anything in particular?
Yeah, [Starflight's] "Dance to the Beat" I wanted to do. It was this Belgian thing and it came out on one of those Automan bootlegs [in 2002] and its one-sheet even said, "Morgan Geist charted this." I mean, I've since stopped doing charts. I didn't think people were reading that shit. This came out and I was like, I've never heard anyone play this record. And then I saw the one-sheet and it mentioned me and I was like, "Fuck this." And even [Charlie's] "Spacer Woman", for example, Automan bootlegged that. It's tough because it's a specialized enough niche that once someone bootlegs a track, it kind of ruins its market. You'll have maybe 500 people afterwards, maybe hangers-on who didn't get the Automan bootleg, who'll want it. It just doesn't justify the licensing cost.
Tell me about the mixing of Unclassics. Was it done on computer?
Yeah. The distributors convinced me to put the little sticker on the front that says "mixed by Morgan Geist." I didn't want it to focus on me at all, but they said it'll sell better if there's a name attached to it. I paid for 24-bit remasters from the original reels, so I wasn't about to go record a bunch of shitty records on my DJ Jazzy Jeff mixer. It was really a studio mix. I bought a CDJ-800 so I could mix it like it was on a turntable but still use the high quality digital files. So it wasn't a live mix. And I've never pitched it as such.
Well, there's very little mixing, actually. There are a lot of quick cuts.
Yeah, and there are also edits where tracks mix together in ways that would never happen with records, because with some of them, I got the 24-track tapes so I'd start mixing parts of the song in. During Purple Flash’s “We Can Make It”, for example, the bass line comes in alone and then the drums start coming in. That doesn't happen on the record. I think Unclassics flows pretty well considering that it starts out at 100 bpm and at the end it's at, like, 130. It was hard to fit that all into an hour. I didn’t want it to be too long. I realize that even though the stuff appeals to me, it's a little hard to take. Every song is sort of over-the-top. Most people don't want to listen to Italo disco with some guy talking about buttfucking a hooker.
That song [Victor's "Go On Do It"] is absolutely amazing. The moral at the end?
Yeah. The moral about love after he's like, "Something hard / Oh my god / So I slammed it in her butt / Till she had enough." That's hilarious. That was produced by Alexander Robotnick. Victor, luckily, is from Chicago. If it were an Italian guy rapping on it, it would have been totally out of control. Those lyrics with an accent on top of it.
He's really effete, too.
Well, Victor's gay, even though he's saying "she" the whole time. It's funny because his rapping style—his "rapping style," that's kind of stretching it—it's almost like old, old party rap, like early hip-hop and radio DJs. I like "Go On Do It" because it's in no key. The bass line is doing something and the stuff on top is doing something else, and then it goes into that one, gorgeous new wave part.
You didn’t even try to mix in Gaz Nevada’s “Special Agent Man.”
I wanted to have a comedown after the ridiculousness.
It’s definitely denouement.
The Purple Flash track that precedes it [“We Can Make It”] is so emotional.
It’s grandiose, yeah. I wanted it to settle down. And also, I wanted to let the full Nevada track play. That song is such a weird mood. It’s really dorky. Danny Wang got me into it. I knew “I.C. Love Affair”, I didn’t know “Special Agent Man”. It’s almost like you have to be a nerd to get into it. It’s not that compelling on first listen. Everything’s in the background, but once you start listening to the details it’s nice. And once you learn to bear through the male vocal part.
Do you love all of these tracks?
Yeah, I do. I mean, I hate them now because I'm so sick of them. I kind of painstakingly assembled the mix and just the memories associated with them now are unpleasant because it was so hard to license everything. But yeah, some of them are my favorite tracks. Like Discotech’s "Disco Special". When I got into disco that was one of the first records I ever bought. This was probably '95 or '96, when I stopped digging for disco records to sample and started digging for them just to listen to. That's one of my favorites. And the Purple Flash is a big favorite of mine, even though I'm a little tired of it at this point. When I got it, I was like, "Oh this is gorgeous", but I listened to it too much. I used to play it out a lot.
On the Unclassics 12" [part of the vinyl series that's a counterpart to the CD mix], it's listed as an instrumental. Is there a vocal version?
Yeah. I met the guy who did that track, Pierre Perpall, he's from Montreal. With "We Can Make It", he was going for this easy jazz thing and it just came out sounding like a weird hi-NRG track. His vocal almost sounds like Neil Diamond with a Quebecios accent. Anyway, I was licensing Purple Flash and he'd be like, "Hey, Morgan, you gotta check out this Giorgio Moroder-like track I did from the '80s if you like that kind of stuff, Pluton and the Humanoids". And I was like, "Yeah, whatever, Pierre." I ignored him for 10 phone calls and then on the 11th I heard him and said, "Wait, wait. You're saying that you're Pluton and the Humanoids?" I thought it had to be a coincidence so I played it from my iBook and he was like, "That's me!" I'm actually trying to convince him to do a new Pluton and the Humanoids album that I could help produce, which will be another adventure in failure. There's like four people who would be into that.
Is your record collection disproportionately vintage?
I don’t buy any new shit.
Well, I would if I found something I liked, but I can’t remember the last time I found something new. I don’t really like new dance music that much. I’ve been doing electronic music long enough that you have to do something really weird for me to like it. Music’s captivating when I don’t understand it completely and a lot of dance music you can just figure out on first listen. When I started, I was into being able to make music really cheaply, the DIY thing. I loved how techno and house had their roots in thrift shop machines that were chopped off by big studios. I thought it was great that you could get a sampler and drum machine and make a track. But now that that’s become the de facto standard, like with Reason and all these cookie-cutter dance machine boxes purposely built to make grooves and emulate all these sounds, it’s almost backfired on me and I’ve turned into almost an aging rock musician asshole. I now have a really expensive late ‘70s Trident mixer and I buy nice preamps and stuff—everything that I was always against. I’m now trying to make really good-sounding music. I think that’s why I don’t buy new stuff. You can just hear the cheapness. With the laptop stuff and even going back and listening to some of the techno stuff that I love, I can tell it was engineered really badly. But I disappoint myself in a way because I feel like I’m getting old or something. I feel like I was more of a rebel at the beginning, just like, man, by any means necessary, just using really cheap gear.
Are you always finding new old records?
It’s starting to slow down. But there are so many records out there. I think if I were just a record collector, I’d despair. But as a producer, you can get a shitty record and still learn something from it. In that sense, I’m always going to find something new. I can find a song I don’t even like, but it might have drum sound that makes me go, “How did they do that?” Used record shops are educational. I forget who said this—Danny Wang, maybe?—used record shops are just sad, you know, collections of broken dreams. The Thing in [the Brooklyn neighborhood] Greenpoint, especially a few years ago when it wasn’t so picked over, there were just so many labels and artists you’d never heard of. And you could tell that it was the person’s big moment and now it goes for $2, and we’re picking it up for kitsch value. It’s sad. And our records will be in that spot someday. It kind of humbles you.
Well, you seem humble as it is.
Well, that’s good, but I mean, whatever. You can’t believe hype. Metro Area was weird. It was weird having people pay attention. It sort of bothered Darshan [Jesrani] and me. I think the record could have done way better, but we were struggling with ourselves. As label owner, I was like, dude, strike while the iron’s hot. But as people, as producers who want to keep a low profile, it was hard to go interviews and go talk about it over and over and over again—especially to people who were only into it because someone had mentioned it. Like, this interview is cool because no one gives a shit about Unclassics.
I think a lot of people love it, though. There was a thread on [the message board] ILM proclaiming it the best mix of the year. A lot of people agreed.
Well, when I say nobody gives a shit, I mean the mainstream and those who don’t have their fingers on the pulse of nerd music. Whereas with Metro Area, we had Details magazine coming to us.
It was hip.
Yeah, it was hip, which we’re absolutely uncomfortable with.
What about that makes you uncomfortable?
We don’t like having our pictures taken and we don’t like talking about ourselves. Even the whole Metro Area concept, it was abstract, it was a title and two colors and our names were small on the back. We wanted the music to speak for us. That’s also why we didn’t have vocals. We wanted to do vocal tracks but it always seemed to put a face on it, y’know, Metro Area featuring X. Or even having lyrics and telling people what to think. So, it was weird to have to be like, “Oh, this is us.” We felt conflicted. We felt lucky, but even between the two of us, it was tough because I run the label and I was a lot more willing to bite the bullet than Darshan. He doesn’t run a label. The artist side totally resonates with me, but since he’s less in touch with the business aspect, I think he had even less patience for the stuff that I did. He’d be like, “This sucks, this sucks,” and I was like, “Dude, there’s people who make music their whole life and no one pays attention.”
Did all this effectively end Metro Area?
No. We’re working on things really slowly. It’s a little frustrating. We have different work ethics.
Are you doing anything else in the Unclassics series?
I’ll probably chuck the remnants onto a 12”. There will probably be a three-track 12” with the rest that I got vinyl rights for…
Was Victor one of those?
With Victor, I’ll probably do its own 12”. I licensed the 24 tracks, so I’m going to do my own remix of it. The 24 track is hilarious because you can just mute everything and just listen to the rap. It’s pretty awesome.
Do you think you’ll do another Unclassics mix?
If this one sold well, I was thinking of following it up with not another 12” series, but another mix. But it was so much work. I was so happy to see it get wrapped up. I don’t know if I can do it again. It was really for the love of the music. I knew it was going to be a financial disaster. I shouldn’t talk it down that much. I haven’t lost money and I’ve made a little, but it was a lot of work for a little money. And it was absolutely about the journey.
Does Darshan have any interest in doing one?
I’d actually like to do a Metro Area mix, but Darshan’s more interested making music right now. The DJ-mix thing, though, is really just about product. Making music is my favorite thing and that’s where creativity comes to the fore. I mean, I think you have to be somewhat creative when putting a mix together, but I’m much more a producer than a DJ. I always thought that DJing was amazing and could make a great night, but I also thought that the music had to be the most important part. Besides, I don't think I'm the best DJ and that's another reason why I didn't want Unclassics to be Morgan Geist's Mix CD. I can play. I have good nights and bad nights. Being a producer, you get offered gigs because you make records. But there are older guys in Chicago and New York who just played for parties and they could fuckin' knock my socks off. People think the DJs make the music. In some respects, I guess, it’s true. DJs can break tracks or a DJ can make you hear a track in a way you’ve never heard it before. But I don’t want to be 45 and out at 5:00 in the morning, spinning for kids 20 years my junior. I just want to be somewhere with my studio.
As Morgan Geist
Quadri Locular 12” (Matamorphic)
Premise EP (Environ)
Linking Tunnel 12” (Clear)
The Driving Memoirs LP (Clear)
Titonton & Morgan 12” (Environ)
What is Today's R&B;? 12” (Environ)
As Metro Area (with Darshan Jesrani)
Pina 12” (Classic)
Metro Area LP (Environ)
By: Richard Juzwiak
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