The close of the last century was a time of great transition and upheaval for Richard Melville Hall, better known as American electronica/techno pioneer Moby. After fearing that he’d done irreconcilable damage to his career with the abrasive punk rock experiment of 1996’s Animal Rights, the Connecticut-based musician would consider calling it quits in favor of resuming his degree in architecture. But instead, he persevered in order to make the most commercially viable and acclaimed album of his life. Released in 1999, Play performed disappointingly upon arrival and seemed to sound the death knell for his career before finding success in the years to follow, eventually making history after each of its 18 tracks were licensed for inclusion in advertisements, films and television shows.
Once revered among electronica’s creative stalwarts, the familiarity and omnipresence of Play began to breed contempt from fans and critics that ensured he would never rise to the summit of culture to that extent again. In a move that would go on to take little toll on his bank balance but had an insurmountable effect on his perceived credibility to many impressionable listeners, his most lucrative period in the limelight also saw the veteran producer follow in the footsteps of other unprepared adversaries by drawing the ire of one of hip-hop’s most notoriously outspoken figures.
Sparked by comments made at the 2001 Grammys that derided Eminem for what he viewed as “homophobic, anti-Semitic & misogynistic” rhetoric in his music, Slim Shady launched a two pronged assault in which he lampooned Moby as a “36-year-old bald headed fag” on The Eminem Show’s lead single “Without Me” before labelling him a “little girl” and expressing his willingness to “hit a man with glasses” from the stage at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. With Dr. Dre’s star protégé at the height of his powers, the cumulative effect of this barrage from one of the world’s biggest superstars and the backlash from Play’s commercial ubiquity meant that while Moby’s career was not laid to waste, his public perception had been irretrievably altered, and his music would never become as entrenched in the zeitgeist again following the release of 2002’s 18.
Through the broad lens of the millennial and hip-hop head alike, his reputation has been largely reduced to a vindictive punch-line, an afterthought banished to the annals of music history rather than being viewed as the boundary-pushing force that he once was. Or at least, that was the case until an emboldened and innovative artist in his own right drew inspiration from one of the songs that helped spell Moby’s downfall.
Built upon Play’s signature track “Porcelain”, A$AP Rocky’s mythmaking “A$AP Forever” retains the ambience of its source material and transforms it into a heavy-hitting street anthem, concluding with a reimagined outro that centers on a duet from Moby and Khloe Anna. Fittingly acting as a reassertion of Flacko’s own prowess after his commitment to music was placed in doubt due to his dalliances with fashion and celebrity, he recently explained why he felt compelled to incorporate the sample into his music to Genius:
“N*ggas ain’t see Moby since Eminem was killing him. I was like, ‘Man, Moby, that song is nostalgic.’ That’s just like one of the biggest, commercial songs from the ‘90s and shit like that. I think a lot of parents, they get that feeling when they hear it, like you just kinda have some kind of connection to it and for the youth. It’s like fresh air for them. They don’t really know that shit like that, so it’s like a marriage in old and new.”
When the feud between Eminem and Moby began, it was convenient for the hip-hop audience to discredit his opinions as the words of a curmudgeonly has-been that had no real investment in or comprehension of the art form. When in reality, the relationship between Hall and the genre was born of the same respect and admiration that Rocky has expressed in his direction since first citing him as one of his favorite artists to Fuse back in 2012.
Detailed in a personal blog post from 2007, Moby revealed that his first forays into music actually came during a stint as a hip-hop DJ. After purchasing Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” in 1982, Moby claimed that the blossoming genre left a profound impact upon his life, remarking that “it seemed as if during the ’80s white music stagnated and black music was exploded, sonically and technologically and creatively.” Infatuated with its culture and sound, Moby admits that he “tried to dress like a rapper”, felt that his early days DJ’ing in his native Connecticut came complete with a “holy duty to bring hip-hop and house music to the new wave kids of Fairfield and Westchester counties”, and claims to have played instrumentals for Daryl ‘D.M.C’ McDaniels to freestyle over at New York nightclub Mars. Released under the moniker of ‘The Brotherhood’, Hall’s debut single emerged in 1990 as the Jimmy Mack-assisted “Time’s Up” and features breakbeats, socially conscious lyrics and verses that are clearly derived from the ‘golden era’ sound that he initially discovered in “The Message”‘s unfiltered urban reportage.
Ever since those tentative first steps into the industry, Moby has regularly celebrated his roots in hip-hop, whether it’s by way of collaborating with the legendary Public Enemy on 2004’s “Make Love Fuck War” or actively defending it from puritanical conservatives on Twitter. Aside from lending “Porcelain” to the A$AP Mob figurehead’s lead single from Testing, his output has also been sampled by artists ranging from Lil Wayne (on Tha Carter III bonus track “I’m Me”) to Mobb Deep to Homeboy Sandman and Three Six Mafia-affiliated Supergroup Da Headbussaz to name a few.
Although hip-hop may be the most lucrative and dominant genre in the world today, Moby also used his considerable influence to steer attention towards an array of MC’s at a time when they were on the precipice of mainstream exposure in the early 2000s. Inspired by the genre-melding ethos of Lollapalooza, his touring festival ‘Area’ aligned rock, pop and dance music artists such as David Bowie, New Order, Nelly Furtado, Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfeld and Gwen Stefani with appearances from OutKast, Busta Rhymes, Da Beatnuts, The Roots, Kelis, Planet Asia and more over the course of two star-studded editions.
While it’s unlikely that there will ever be any reconciliation between Em and the prolific electronic artist, what deserves reappraisal is Moby’s standing among rap circles as a champion and supporter of its expansion throughout the years. Still as much of a scholar of music as you’re likely to find at 52 years of age, his prominence may never ascend to the heady heights of the past, but today’s hip-hop community could do a lot worse than follow Rocky’s lead by embracing him as not only a fervent admirer of their work, catalogues, and artistry but as a potentially valuable source of inspiration.
Head here for our rundown of everything you need to know about A$AP Rocky’s hugely-hyped new album Testing.
- Words: Robert Blair