Mo Manley played our Pirate Radio at Foto Mercado hosted at the Ace Hotel Chicago. He’s been a guest at our friend Claude Money’s long running Soulelujah party and we linked up through that line of 45 vinyl heads. Like many DJs, Mo is also a graphic designer whose album artwork for labels like Funk Night & Symphonical are probably sitting in your crate this moment.You mentioned that you started DJing around 13 yrs old—what was your setup like? What were the bangers that you played? Did you start playing actual clubs before you could legally get in?
That’s true—I’ve always been deep into music ever since I was super little; there’s a pic I often use of me as a 3-year old with my Dad’s headphones on, and when I learned in third grade that we could make tapes of LPs on my Dad’s stereo I bugged him endlessly until he showed me how to do it so I could listen to stuff in my room. The first record I taped was Kiss Alive II, which made sense because I was endlessly drawing them in my notebooks—I can still put down a pretty mean Gene Simmons. Big ups to my cousin Brad for sneaking me that record when my folks didn’t want me to have it, by the way.
In junior high, I started buying hiphop 12”s with my lunch money. I grew up in the middle of the sticks in southern Indiana, and back then releases came out on Tuesdays…so I had to wait until the weekend to load up on whatever singles came out that week, $4.99 a pop. I was always kind of a record nerd…I remember bugging a DJ at our junior high dance if he had heard Madonna’s “Lucky Star” yet, which he hadn’t. What kinda DJ couldn’t throw down a Madonna record for a bunch of junior high kids in 1983?!? A lame one, that’s who.
Anyways, my setup then was hokey, but it worked—Realistic turntables with quarters taped on the headshells. Needless to say there was no mixing since we’re talking Radio Shack belt-drive specials, but I didn’t care—I just wanted to scratch anyways. I didn’t really get into better setups until I went to college and started doing radio shows there. I didn’t play clubs before I was 21—there weren’t that many spots in Indiana in the late 80s I could feasibly fake my way in to, anyways—but played plenty of house parties and occasional step shows in college and that kind of thing.
Bangers-wise, it was pretty much the days of Yo!, so you’d see the new videos on Saturday morning, then go get the singles that next week. I lived too far out in the country to have cable, so I would drive to my friend Kevin’s, who did have cable, twenty miles away (both ways! haha) to spend the night on Friday nights so I could tape Yo! at his place Saturday morning, then take the tape back to my house to figure out what singles I was going to go buy that afternoon at the mall—which was an hour’s drive the other way. It makes me sound prehistoric laying out the logistics that we went through in those days, but that’s how it was. It was way easier to bug my parents to let me order punk and new wave records in the mail, which I also did (props to Burning Airlines Mail Order in the back of Rolling Stone).
My friend Kevin had a 1968 Ford Galaxie convertible with two 15” MTX subs in the trunk, so sometimes we would drive to the mall—he’d buy tapes and I’d buy records—and we’d just cruise around listening to the newest stuff, the bigger the bass, the better. I remember that Cool C “I Gotta Habit” and D.O.C.’s “No One Can Do It Better” had the biggest bass we ever heard—hitting even more than Miami records did. But really, a lot of the stuff then is stuff you’ll still hear every once in a while in the clubs…all the “Golden Era” records and all that, and Lil Louis’ “French Kiss,” which blew me away the first time I heard that getting mixed into hip-house shows on the radio.
Oh, and Def Jef—I couldn’t wait for his first record to come out, and remember being bummed that the album mix was different than the video mix because it didn’t have the Joe Tex “don’t say nothin!” reference on the chorus for “Give It Here.” His “Dropping Rhymes on Drums” is still an ill 12” single, but that’s also probably because it uses the “Blow Your Whistle” sample and I love pretty much everything by the Soul Searchers.
My favorite records, though, were things I heard off the Red Alert tapes—the Buddy 12” mix, Ultramagnetic, Tribe’s “Pubic Enemy” and so on. It’s hard to pick “bangers” because so many 12”s had a least one mix that was great for club/party use—I mean, your average 12” had four or five remixes on it, so it was the thing to find “your” remix and try to use that one out or on radio shows to make it your stamp in mixes.
Soul summit is one of the biggest parties of its kind - how did it get started? Do you have any favorite guest DJs or memorable nights?
Soul Summit’s been going on for a little over eight years now, and while I’ve been the photographer for most of it I’ve technically been kinda “fifth Beatle” with the crew longer than not—I didn’t officially join SS as a resident until the end of the last year, although I was there shooting and playing every month for most of the eight years, anyways.
It got started when the founding three members—Dave Mata, Scott “Sloppy White” Williams and Chris “Duke Grip” Johnson—all decided to merge their individual styles and start a soul night at a club called the Double Door in Wicker Park. It was on a monthly weeknight for a while that first year or so—Thursday nights, I think it was. The night did really well, so the club decided to move the party to Saturdays from there on out.
The Double Door era of Soul Summit was one of those things that would be tough to replicate—it was a free party on a Saturday night on one of the busiest nightlife intersections in Chicago; the floor was the right size, it was the right kind of gritty, and the PA was really tuned to the general sonic power and color of 45s. We had a great tech crew with us there—Jesse on sound and Keith on lights—and once we started bringing in guest DJs to dip in with us it just went off. It really was this perfect intersection of everyone’s talents to create an evening—Dave figured out the booking, Chris picked movies to show, Scott created an identity for the party with his poster designs, and so on. The club closed last year, which was a huge loss to the whole entertainment/nightlife situation in Chicago without question. We were pretty proud that Soul Summit still held the record for biggest bar receipts in the club’s history, which is sort of understandable because we average about 1100 people coming through. . We’ve recently moved the party to a club called East Room in Logan Square now, which has that same sort of gritty vibe of the Double Door, and it’s been a great new home for us.
Memorable nights-wise—there’s been a ton, so it’s hard to pick. Some of my personal favorites would include when we started having more people in from the East Coast in particular, and you’d see the different styles that people would bring to the set. To me, Natasha Diggs, Skeme Richards and Rich Medina were the three guests that really broke the party open and showed the floor some different styles that we hadn’t had on before, so they set the bar moving forward. Seeing Steve Arrington pop up and sing “Weak At The Knees” with Peanut Butter Wolf was crazy…Breakbeat Lou’s been in several times, which is nuts because he’s the blueprint…Spinna came in and put down a monster three-hour set….we’ve had Maseo in twice now…Akalepse, Eric Boss, Boogie Blind, Diamond D…Adrian Younge with Ali Shaheed Muhammad....Cool Chris from Groove Merchant….I should stop, though, because I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out. Every guest we’ve had have brought themselves to the situation, and it’s been a beautiful thing. Also, just seeing the floor get hyped to soul records is great. Without a receptive floor you don’t have a party. We’ve also been really fortunate in that the crowd doesn’t request—they show up to dance, and trust the DJ to do their thing. I think I’ve only seen one person try to request a song, and that was to Maseo the first time he was in. He stopped the record and called her out on the mic on it, too, in a humorous “all good” kind of way, which was unforgettable.
You also design artwork for Funk Night and other labels—why do you think so many DJs are graphic designers? What are the similarities? I have a similar background (graphic design for tees & web) and both of our significant others are teachers, so it felt like I was meeting a Chicago version of myself!
Great question—I think it might be difficult to answer this without making some really broad, sweeping generalizations, but I would say that a fairly safe, common thread of a personal need for expression is in there, regardless of if it’s audio or visual. That might be an Ego thing at work or something, but again that’s where it gets broad and stereotypical, so I want to be careful there. I will say, though, that I don’t think I’ve ever met a graphic designer for record sleeves (or anything else, really) that hated music, and I know I haven’t met a musician or DJ who didn’t have some kind of jones for the visual arts in some form…so it's something about the wiring, I suppose.
Personally, I feel like making the label or sleeve is the vehicle for representing what you personally hear (or, sometimes, what the artist wants to ensure to convey), and you have to make an Object, anyway, so it makes sense for the whole thing to wrap together as a Statement. This is why I don’t get into digital downloads all that much—there’s just no there there to me, and it’s difficult for me to care very much about a thing that only exists “under glass” as a bunch of ones and zeroes. I’ll listen to stuff on my phone to pass time on the subway or whatever, but that’s mostly a convenience thing—and music is much more to me than something that’s simply a convenient way to pass the time. I like having the physical object. Maybe that’s me being old, but eh, it works for me. I feel the same way about books and magazines—I can’t stand reading on a tablet. It’s sterile.
Where have records taken you on the planet? Where do you still want to go?
I just started playing outside of the US in the last year or so—the first gig was in London—so as far as other places to go because of records, I could throw a dart at the map and be happy with most of the places it would land. I’m headed back to London again this summer to play, and also planning on making it to Helsinki, Tallinn and maybe St Petersburg if I can swing the time. Speaking of Tallinn, I’m sort of fascinated with all things Baltic right now—I don’t know what it is that’s going on in Estonia, but it’s a pretty fertile and modern place, culture-wise, so I’m definitely interested in getting there soon. I’d love to get back to Japan—I've only gone there on vacation, although I did buy a bunch of records while I was over there.
What advice do you have for the next generation of DJs and designers?
DJs: Let the record ride. Designers: Learn typography.
You concentrate on 45s - why? Does format dictate style?
I don’t know if I would say “concentrate,” but it has been a large slice of what I’ve been buying for the last 20 years or so. There’s things about them that I love—they’re loud, they get to the point, and you can carry a two-hour set of them in a shoulder bag and not kill your back….that’s a good trade versus three milkcrates of 12”s! You could make a similar "easy to carry" argument with digital DJing, I guess, but, again, ones and zeroes don't click with me in quite the same way, and I stare at computers enough during the day, anyway.
The 7" is also challenging to play with because they’re usually over in about three minutes, so you have to always be cueing—so I suppose they do enforce a certain sort of style to them, if you care to keep it moving and do some work versus fade/fade/fade. All that said, though, there’s a ton of songs out there that I’d still rather have a 12” of—disco in particular—because the breaks aren’t on the 45 edit unless someone comes along and punches the break in there on a new edit (shouts to the Undercover Brother at Fraternity for doing just that on the “Sing Sing” 45. Finally!). Plus there’s the dreaded cheap-o styrene 45 pressings, which you don’t run into often on the LP/12” format….aaaaand there’s a lot of profiteering and speculation in the 45 game, but I guess that’s the situation with anything collectible….so it’s not all great, but it’s still fun regardless.
Which records always stay in your crate?
I’m not sure there’s too many of those, because there’s just too much good stuff out there, and if I start keeping too many of the same records in there I feel like I’m getting stale and not pushing myself to play new things…but there are a couple where I sort of feel undressed if I don’t have it in my bag, even if I don’t end up playing it. One of those is Lonnie Smith’s “Move Your Hand,” and another would be Barbara Acklin’s “Am I The Same Girl.” If the party can’t get with those two records, I’m at the wrong party.