Best Of '99: Moby Plays With Hip-Hop Roots

Electronic artist's new album also incorporates vintage folk and blues samples.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Wednesday, June 2.]

NEW YORK — After devoting himself to noisy punk rock on 1996's

Animal Rights, techno veteran Moby has returned to electronic

music on Play, released Tuesday. But it's not exactly the electronic

music his fans might expect.

"It always surprises me when people talk about electronic music and

exclude hip-hop and R&B," Moby said as he sat on the roof of his Lower

East Side apartment building on a sunny spring day. "There's nothing

organic about [them], and I mean that in a positive way. Hip-hop and R&B

are just as electronic as Aphex Twin."

Such Play tracks as the album's first single, "Honey" (

HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Moby/Honey.ram">RealAudio

excerpt), and the upcoming second single, "Bodyrock" (

HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Moby/Bodyrock.ram">RealAudio

excerpt), use thumping, syncopated beats and turntable scratching

clearly derived from hip-hop. The simple piano part that runs through

"Honey" was inspired, according to Moby, by a sample used in the 1987 song "The Bridge Is Over" by rapper

KRS-One's Boogie Down Productions.

While his roots are in techno and punk, the 33-year-old artist called

himself a longtime hip-hop fan, citing rappers and producers like Rakim,

Busta Rhymes, Timbaland and DMX as favorites.

Moby even indulges in a bit of low-key rapping — which he prefers

to call spoken word — on some Play tracks, including "Rushing,"

which also features a lush, melodic chorus and a biting, bluesy guitar

solo. Moby played or sampled all the music on the album.

Play betrays influences well beyond hip-hop. Just as prominent are

sounds from a more unlikely source — early-20th century folk and blues.

On "Honey," "Natural Blues," "Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad" (

HREF="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get-music/Moby/Why_Does_My_Heart_Feel_So_Bad.ram">RealAudio

excerpt) and "Find My Baby," Moby puts his studio wizardry to

work on ghostly vocal samples from vintage field recordings made in the

South by the late music archivist Alan Lomax.

He used the field recordings, he said, for purely practical reasons. "The

nice thing about those recordings ... is that they're all a cappella,"

Moby said. "There's no music attached to them so it's easy to sample them

and chop them up and make them songs."

If there's a novelty aspect to mixing vintage Americana with the glistening,

pulsating sounds of 1999, Moby doesn't admit to it.

"My only goal is to make music that excites me," he said. "I never try

to be innovative."

Mixing genres of music is nothing new for Moby, who came to prominence

in 1991, when he was a rave DJ, by releasing a house-music version of the

theme to the television show "Twin Peaks."

Born Richard Melville Hall, he played in punk-rock bands as a teenager

and released his self-titled debut album in 1992. His 1995 major-label

debut, Everything Is Wrong, won critical acclaim for its mixture

of dance music with orchestral and rock sounds.

Animal Rights, on which he plunged headlong into punk and metal,

was received with less enthusiasm. After Animal Rights, he released

I Like to Score (1997), which consisted mainly of songs he'd written

for soundtracks.

In spite of the grandeur of some of his music, Moby hardly exudes an

unapproachable aura. During a recent interview, there was a large hole

in the right knee of his jeans, and his green T-shirt had seen better

days.

He was a solicitous host, even insisting on holding down a troublesome

"record" button on an interviewer's microcassette deck.

As is almost all of Moby's work, Play was recorded in his amply

equipped home studio, which takes up the first room of his spacious,

light-soaked apartment.

Clearly, he doesn't mind spending time there — Moby said he wrote

and recorded no fewer than 250 songs in the course of making Play.

He estimated that he recorded "maybe 40 or 50 punk-rock songs; 30 or 40

house-music things; 30 or 40 things that are in the style of this record,

that could've been on this record but just weren't good enough; and then

just a lot of crap — non-genre-specific garbage."

Moby will have an opportunity to leave the studio when he takes Play

on the road. The artist is planning to tour U.S. clubs with a full band

from mid-July to mid-August. No dates have been finalized, according to

his official website (www.moby.org).

In the meantime, Moby is making a few promotional appearances, including

an in-store performance at the Virgin Megastore in New York's Union Square

Wednesday (June 2). The 10 p.m. EDT performance is scheduled to be webcast by

SonicNet at midnight.