Last Friday night, ERICK MORILLO, one of the major creators of house music's second generation (1992 to 1999, when he was known as "Erick More"), dropped a 90-minute set at Quincy's Ocean Club at Marina Bay. Morillo doesn't often play the Boston area any more, yet by the huge number of mostly South American folks -- Morillo was born in Colombia and always works his roots -- who came to Ocean Club paying top dollar, it was clear that he still commands full loyalty from those who have sustained his music since he first founded Subliminal records, and before that.
The Ocean Club crowd loved him even though what he played only slightly resembled the sultry, 124 to 126 beats-per-minute house music that made him famous. From the moment he took the decks until this writer left, an hour later, to see Stacy Pullen -- more about that gig down below -- there was dancing and raising of hands, standing on chair backs, and singing the words of the vocals that Morillo fed into his mix. Today, his sound moves at 127 to 128 BPM and tends to the chorale-like, synthesizer surges of "progressive" and the ethereality of "trance," both long favored as pop music (especially overseas). House music adepts expressed much disappointment at the ethereal version of Morillo -- tracks like "If this Ain't Love," "Gravy," "Live Your Life" (all of them big hits, though). Some even dismissed "Stronger" -- which opened the second part of his set -- despite its potent house-music texture and beat.
Yet to complain of Morillo's Ocean Club set because it wasn't what he was doing as "Erick More" in 1997 really is beside the point.
What Morillo did play, was mixed and shaped with an aggressive two hands working four CD players and an oversized mixboard. He never coasted. He tweaked beats, quick-cut tracks, overlaid melody on rhythm. He also jumped hurriedly from style to style and voice to voice. Usually this writer is annoyed by rapid-fire style jumps in a DJ set. Yet Morillo's mix of reggae, pop voice, rap, "progressive," the buzz of electro-house, and, yes, two overplayed dance hits -- "Save the World," by Swedish House Mafia, and Green Velvet's "Flash" -- spoke a definitive message: that Morillo will work his DJ hands off, even at the sacrifice of stylistic consistency -- not to mention the house sound of "Erick More" -- to honor his fans' every taste.
Cultural diversity at 128 BPM may annoy the house music purist, and most DJs who attempt it sound embarrassingly unfocused. Still, no less an underground band than Parliament Funkadelic once proclaimed "One Nation, Under a Groove." Far from this writer to chide Morillo for attempting to do just that at Ocean Club -- and almost succeeding.
Having received the Morillo message, this writer joined a friend going to Good Life to see a very different long-time master, STACEY PULLEN. Pullen hails from Detroit and has worked that city's "techno" style for at least as long as Morillo's career. Unlike Morillo, however, Pullen remains an underground DJ -- his ticket price cost less than a third of one Morillo tab. We descended a narrow tunnel leading to the "Vodka Lounge," a quadrilateral room at the back end of which Pullen was DJ-ing with a PC Traktor program and two vinyl 12-inch discs.
His tempo was a funky 122 to 124 BPM, his sound a low growl. Into the growl he spliced chirpy samples and the tape-delayed voicings fans call "glitch" (cousin to the seance-like voices heard at the intro of early Funkadelic tracks). The room was so full you could barely squeeze through it. Heads were bobbing, bodies bending; hands were raised in the air as Pullen dropped various versions of the same bluesy low-register prowl. His rhythms had soft surfaces and soulful insides -- techno in its depth and pounding, but house music in its sentimentality.
Pullen played not one track that this writer recognized. Every minute of it was therefore a train to unfamiliar places, albeit on a route consistent with his long-time signature (no diversifications for him). The route never curved off. The message was "you can count on me." No matter how many voices of tipsy, or delirious, mischief, or snark can be patched into a groove, and no matter how unexpected a quick cut from one upper-register flip to another, the groove is what it is and always will be what it is, you can count on it, trust it, even believe in it.
Pullen showed that he believed in it. He executed every mix or drop with a surgeon's attention to detail -- and a researcher's knack for as yet unplayed possibilities. From the trusted familiar Pullen took his fans into new sound shapes and new ways of saying yes to things accepted as true. It was musicianship at its sublimest level, as true of Pullen's turntabling as it was of classic jazz improvisation.