A true house music icon, George Morel has long had a hand in virtually every aspect of the culture, from his origins throwing basement parties to his production work on classic hits like 2 in a Room’s ‘Wiggle It’, to his role as an A&R at Strictly Rhythm in the label’s prime. No wonder DJ Magazine once credited Morel as “the Quincy Jones of dance music”.
We caught up with Morel, who is now enjoying calling his own shots as the head of Groove On Records, and slamming away in the studio.
According to your bio, you started learning to DJ as a young teenager. How did you first discover house music? Were you sneaking into clubs as a teenager? How did you make the transition from your bedroom into actual DJ booths in actual clubs?
At the age of 12, I attended block parties in my neighborhood during the summer, and it inspired me to ask for a set of turntables for my birthday that same year. After non-stop daily practice, by the time I was 15 years old, I started to organize my own parties in basements and empty apartments on Saturday nights. If my mother left for the weekend, I would turn our apartment into a mini-house party and used the entrance money to repaint the place before mom returned home. There was no holding back!
After one year and a few parties under my belt, I wanted to see what a real club was like, so I sneaked into the Fun House nightclub where John “Jellybean” Benitez was the resident DJ. As I walked in, I noticed a massive clown face, with the DJ both located inside of the clown’s mouth, looking over the dance floor. Between the light, the sound, and the amazing DJ both, that’s when I knew I wanted to be a club DJ and expanded my world that very same night.
Was house music all around you in New York, or did you have to really search to find it?
A few years later, after listening to Tony Humphries on the radio, I discovered house music. Then records from Chicago started to arrive into the New York DJ stores. New independent labels from Chicago kept popping up with house music with such amazing fresh and cool electronic sounds. They were like hotcakes to me, and I just wanted to get my hands on the next one like the music junkie I still am to this day.
In particular, I took to KMS and Transmat records out of Detroit, in which Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May won me over with their sound.
Did you ever contact Kevin?
Yeah, I managed to contact Kevin Saunderson and asked him to send me a handful of each one of their releases so I could circulate them to a few of New York’s best known DJs. This helped open doors and make relationships with other DJs, which became useful later on.
Since there was something special about this new sound, I kept wondering on how the crowd would react to it on a big system, since I was still playing in my bedroom. I was able to get the records right into Larry Levan’s hands and heard him play them at the Paradise Garage. The crowd embraced the sound and since then I knew that house music would be here to stay.
How did you make the transition from your bedroom into actual DJ booths in actual clubs?
Shortly after when I was 17 years old I landed my first DJ job on Tuesday nights at a club in New York City called Traxs, which turned out to be a great underground music nightspot for the Paradise Garage followers (I’m glad they never asked for my ID, ha). This opened so many other doors in the music industry from record label promoters, producers, and even talk about the possibility to play at the Paradise Garage. I also managed to enter into the top promo record pool during that time, called For The Record, of which David Morales was in charge. As a DJ in those days, it was very prestigious to be a member of this elite DJ Club.
You were VP of A&R at Strictly Rhythm at a very dynamic time in the label’s history. How did you get involved with the label?
I got involved with Strictly when I submitted to them their second release, called ‘Voices in The Dark’ by Roommates. Doing so gave the label its starting point for others producers to submit product.
Soon after, I submitted ‘Special’ by Sir James, and these two releases gave the label the house music image in the market. After I released several productions on Strictly Rhythm, it was a no-brainer for the new label to offer me the A&R position as an additional ear on the label.
Could you name two or three records that you’re particularly proud of having signed, and tell us a little about each one?
One of my old time favorites I signed was ‘My Family Depends On Me’, by Simon, in which I had to get involved on finishing the production in order to complete the song. ‘My Family Depends On Me’ brought interest from Warner Brothers for an album deal. I later signed ‘Who Dares To Believe In Me’ by the Believers, which I still love to this day. However, one of my all time favorite signings came from ‘Who Keeps Changing Your Mind’ by South Street Player, aka Roland Clark. After signing this single, Strictly was in doubt of my decision. However, my heart and ears kept me believing in the record regardless of everyone who doubted me.
During this time, Strictly turned itself into a corporation-style business and had forgotten what got us to become the number one house label. Therefore, I decided not to get involved in the corporate politics and simply do what I always loved and was there to do, which was look for new music and expand the label. This only made me realize I needed to stay focused and believe in myself the way I did when I first started out with turntables and discovering new music. It was not long before ‘Who Keeps Changing Your Mind’ blew up and was licensed by Ministry Of Sound records, and the rest is history!
My passion for music grew stronger throughout, and I decided to create my own label, Groove On Records, to continue the vision I started at Strictly and be part of both labels’ worlds.
Having several gold records under your belt, what comes to mind when you look at your wall?
This is a very good question. I have to say, to know that I did not come from a music background other than two turntables. Watching how success unfolded every step of the way, I see them as my music college eegrees. They also bring lots of great memories and remind me of the amazing musical collaborations I have experienced in my career.
You’ve done extensive solo work, and also had tons of collaborations. Do you prefer one to the other, or are the two methods necessary to balance each other out?
Whatever it takes to finish a record and make it the best it can possibly be. As long as there is good communication and respect on getting the project done.
You took a few years off from producing and releasing records. Why, and what brought you back?
I decided to take time off due to my hectic DJ schedule and to have more time with my family. These two loves will always be my side no matter what happens in my life. At the same time, I have to say, the production side never left me. I just did not have ability to be able to fully focus in the studio due to all my traveling, and the jetlag didn’t not help either!
This is something most DJs have to face and attempt to balance. I simply wanted time to line up my vision for the future and take the direction that would work best for me. During my time off, I would release a very limited amount of releases to simply keep Groove On flowing and my music production addiction satisfied. Now that I managed to cover all those areas, I’m ready to go forward once again.
What’s it like owning and running a record label today as compared to the days at Strictly Rhythm?
It’s nearly the same, but at the same time, it’s so much easier with the all the technology that is offered out there. What used to take weeks to get done, can now be done within minutes and a simple push of a button. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to run a label, but you sure have to maintain the dedication to keep it running.
House music seems to be much more fragmented now than it was when you were starting out. What are your thoughts on that?
It is great to see how many different areas dance music has developed into, and at the same time, how DJs become stars within each fragment of the sound as it has spread worldwide. There are enough house music styles for everyone to choose and enjoy without limitations of choice. It’s like switching from one radio station to another but enjoying all of them just as much.
What are you working on now in the studio, and where are your productions headed?
I’m working on several projects and planning on releasing six to 10 records a year under the George Morel name. My music productions are heading more on the electronic side, by which I would say tech house, darker, deeper grooves and my Morel’s Groove style remixes.
From time to time I will also be releasing commercial, big-room bangers with new vocalists, such as ‘What Ever You Want’ feat. Karina, ‘Wanna Touch Me Too’ feat. Raquel, and another single with Michael M., to name a few.
Given your history in A&R, you must have your ear pretty close to the ground… Any up-and-coming talents we should be looking out for?
There are so many great talents out there. If I were to name them all, my list would be endless. Through my label Groove On Records we been handpicking some new talents and you can look out for some new releases from these guys.
Who’s inspiring you these days?
As to my inspiration, without leaving my roots behind, I have to say it’s coming from Mendo, Dennis Ferrer, Nic Curly, Nic Fanciulli, Loco Dice, Luciano, and the legendary Sven Väth and Carl Cox!