Turning the Tables

After braving years of backlash, techno's first crossover star, Moby, spins back to his DJ roots

As "electronica" fades into the annals of show-biz hype, the genre formerly known as techno finds itself at a crossroads between enduring underground popularity and a still-elusive wider breakthrough. By extension, so does its first superstar, Moby, who will be DJing at Edgefest on Sunday. Born Richard Melville Hall (a few generations removed, he claims, from distant uncle Herman Melville; thus the nickname), the diminutive New York DJ-composer is a singular talent in any music category. But his star has sunk among the millennial hippies who made his Twin Peaks-sampling B-side "Go" a club hit in 1991 (and a recent ravesploitation movie title, as well).

After a string of early-'90s dance classics--among them the divalicious "Move" and the electro-gospel number "Next is the E"--Moby would seem to have achieved a certain stature among the warehouse-dwelling masses and record-stack technophiles. But in 1993 he elicited grumbles from the underground when he became rave culture's first hero to sign to a major label (Elektra). And when his full-length debut for the label, Everything is Wrong, won Spin's "Album of the Year" award, the backlash erupted in force. Moby hadn't yet blasted the dam on the mainstream, but his intentions were obvious. Everything was an inclusive, genre-straddling dynamo that revealed its maker's jack-of-all-styles ambition. Its mall-rocking beats and asphalt-slicing guitars embodied the worst fears of techno ideologues at the same time as the subculture rapidly started barring the gates against anyone with the taint of commerciality. (Hip hop and indie rock were going through their own "keepin' it real" phases at the same time.) This former hardcore punk even had the gall to say he saw nothing at all wrong with being--yeccch--a pop star.

Moby responded to the backlash by becoming increasingly vocal in interviews about his disenchantment with the insular rave world. Then, in 1997, he unleashed Animal Rights, a jarring, bipolar album of soothing instrumentals and blindly raging guitar dissonance. This was Moby's line in the sand: a passionate, often brilliant album that, like Prince's Dirty Mind, served notice that he could and would do whatever the hell he wanted. Coming at a time when the record industry was throwing all its chips into marketing Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers as rock stars, the album's mix of Meat Is Murder ethics and just-try-to-dance-to-this noise sounded like artistic suicide. But in the aftermath of the '97 "electronica" wipeout, the post-rave generation finds itself awash in a morass of second-rate big-beat bands filling sitcom soundtracks, and Moby's refusal to participate in the hypefest looks almost shrewd in retrospect.

After completing his Elektra contract with a patchy 1997 compilation (I Like to Score), Moby spent a year and a half making his latest album, Play, out this week on V2. Like Animal Rights, his new offering isn't exactly techno, but it's not another guitar massacre, either. Instead, the new work has the down-tempo subtlety of trip-hop, minus the echo-chamber jazz clichés. Cuts like the blues-disco "Honey" and the gospel bounce tune "Run On" are built on samples of Alan Lomax's seminal 1930s field recordings of Southern black folk-blues and sacred singers, and they make the long-vaunted spiritual side of this "nontraditional Christian" more audible than ever. Whether or not this spells his redemption in the eyes of the rave world remains to be seen. But judging by our recent phone conversation (I was his 250th interview for this album) and his trance-spinning DJ appearances in Chicago and elsewhere, Moby is at peace with both his own iconoclasm and impossible audience expectations.

 

CITY PAGES: You've been DJing a lot recently. What got you back into doing that?

MOBY: I DJ'd a lot from 1984 to about 1992. But in the past seven years, I haven't done any. What got me back into it, honestly, was that I enjoy it, and there's a lot of great records being made. When I DJ, I don't play any of my own records; I only play other people's. I like my records, but I think that there are better dance records out there than mine--I wish I'd made them.

CP: There was nothing conscious, then, about getting back into the dance fold? After Animal Rights a lot of your longtime fans felt alienated from what you were doing.

MOBY: No. When I made Animal Rights, I wasn't trying to alienate anyone, and by DJing again, I'm not intentionally trying to de-alienate anyone, either [laughs].

CP: But a lot of people took that album as a sort of kiss-off move. How did you intend it?

MOBY: I actually made three albums at the same time: Animal Rights, an instrumental album called Little Idiot, and The End of Everything [under the name Voodoo Child]. I saw them as being like three sisters. Taken together, they make sense in a weird way. I guess I intended them as a sort of difficult, self-indulgent, adolescent body of work.

But when I was growing up, musicians did strange things; that's what I loved about them. Like the Beatles making "Revolution 9" or Lou Reed making Metal Machine Music. Part of the musician's job description is to sort of be a little bit outside of Top 40 culture, to be a little bit willful and self-indulgent at times. That's the type of musician I want to be. I don't want to be someone who's easy to market.

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