Morabito: Moving and Grooving

“Shake your groove thing

Shake your groove thing, yeah, yeah

Show ’em how we do it now”

Those lines from the Peaches and Herb hit “Shake Your Groove Thing” kept me dancing ’til the wee hours many a night in the 80’s and 90’s. But the one “showing us how to do it y’all” was this week’s Portrait, DJ extraordinaire, Morabito. Few names have dominated the dance scene over the course of four decades and remain as relevant, current and celebrated as Morabito. 

Morabito started working at Vinyl Mania in Greenwich Village in the late ’80s, and soon landed a multi-year summer residency at the famed Pavilion in Fire Island Pines. Through “the circuit” of the pioneering AIDS fundraising parties, Morabito expanded her fanbase rapidly nationwide, playing at colorful events like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Morning Party on Fire Island, Black & Blue in Montreal, White Party in Palm Springs, Zoo Party in San Diego, Gay Days in Orlando, Blue Ball right here in Philadelphia, and Big Guns over Manhattan on the USS Intrepid for the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. 

Morabito was the first woman to headline the famous Saint At Large Black Party and has helmed events for Calvin Klein, American Ballet Theater, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Sotheby’s, Martha Stewart, Anna Wintour and Robert Isabell, not to mention New York’s most star-studded and glamorous night out, the prestigious Met Gala. For the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in 2019, Morabito was one of 2 DJ’s chosen to headline the event which was 

the largest LGBTQIA+ Pride ever held, and Morabito was joined on stage by another mononymous person, the one and only Madonna.

Still creating experiences for party goers on the dance floor, the legendary Morabito will be hitting Philadelphia on January 21st for her first ever Porkroll appearance! What is Porkroll you ask? Well, the Instagram page lists it as a monthly party in PHL for queer people with two dance floors and DJs.

I had a chance to speak to Morabito about her musical journey and her upcoming appearance in Philly. 

I understand you’re originally from Cleveland, Ohio. Tell me about that. 

I grew up in the city until I was 13 or 14, and then we moved to the suburbs. When I was about 19, I moved back to Cleveland on my own and lived there until I moved to New York in 1987. 

Any siblings?

Yes, I have 3 sisters, and I’m the third. We were all very different, but still close. Because of them, I have wonderful nieces and nephews and now I even have great-nieces and nephews. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was 15 years old, I thought I would become a radio DJ. There was a radio station in Cleveland, WMMS, home of the Buzzard, that I used to listen to. From a young age I loved music. I would save my lunch money and go to the local record store and leaf through the bins looking for music. Back then I thought that you as a radio DJ would choose the songs that you played, and I thought it would be cool to turn people on to new music that I’d found. But I later learned that, except for college stations, on commercial radio you had a music director who told you what to play, and that big money and the record labels were involved with what got played. So that idea for a career lost its appeal for me. 

What put you on a new path?

When I was 19, I went to a gay bar, Traxx, in Cleveland. I wasn’t out at the time, but a group of us after a baseball game were in a local bar and someone suggested that we go there. The minute I walked in I was captivated. It was around the time that Rocky Horror Picture Show was first out and I was fascinated by the drag queens there and enthralled by the music. It was the first time I felt like I belonged. I mean, I belonged with the baseball team, I was very athletic, but this was different. I was still not ready to come out, but something clicked. And when I stepped up to the dance floor, I was blown away. People were singing and dancing, hands were in the air, the lights were flashing, the music pulsating. It was magical.

At that time, in my mind, I thought disco was just that commercial “Ring My Bell” type of stuff, but this was disco I had never heard before. I walked around to see where it was coming from and found the DJ, a guy named Eddie, up in the booth with 3 turntables and a mixing board. He was pulling records and blending the music together into a seamless flow, which was also new to me. Seeing someone create a vibe on the dance floor was so cool. You become responsible for creating a community feeling in a way that’s profound. Immediately, I was like, this is it. I’ve found my calling. 

That’s cool. 

Yeah, there was a friend who used to go to the club with me, he was also gay but still not out either. Back then there was no way you were going to come out in high school. There was no support, there were no gay clubs at school. It’s a different world now. But we would go to gay clubs; we just didn’t acknowledge being gay. Eventually, we both came out. 

I found a lesbian bar, this is still in Cleveland, and I started going out more. There was a bar called Keys that I’d go to, and they had a really good DJ, Greg Whitback. He had a weekly radio show and I thought he was the bomb. We became friends and he would let me sit in the booth to watch and learn from him. I asked him to teach me and his answer was, “I can’t teach you, but I can tell you that, music goes in 4/4 timing, start counting your music, it will start making sense. And sit here, watch, and listen.” Then I went out and bought two turntables and 12 records and started practicing.

Around that time I was bartending at a lesbian bar called Isis and I started playing there, but I didn’t like the fact that people wanted to make requests. I didn’t want to be a human jukebox, I wanted to put my program together to create the vibe I wanted, and that doesn’t always work everywhere. But the owner of the bar had a men’s club called Chaps and he offered to let me DJ there. I started on a weekday shift but soon was able to spin on the weekends. As I got better he suggested that I go to New York and try my luck at the a club there called the Saint, a five million dollar all male membership club. I said, “Yeah, right, like they’d hire a woman at the Saint. and he said, “They have a woman DJ at the Saint, Sharon White,” and that encouraged me to try my luck. It made me feel it was obtainable. 

I was introduced to a guy who was from Ohio but lived in NY, and he’d let me stay with him. A friend of mine and I would drive all the way to New York to go to the Saint; this was in the early ’80’s. 

How long a drive was it?

[Laughing] If you only stopped to pee twice and you drove 80 mph you can do it in 6 and a half hours, but normally it was 8 and a half hours. 

Wow, that’s a bit of a trek. So when you started DJing did you face any pushback because you were a woman? 

In the early days, I would hear from the guys, ‘What would you know about what we want?’ and the answer to that was, ‘I know what you want because I party with you guys in the same space.’ And I know why they might have felt like that, because women weren’t generally part of that world. I mean, a woman wasn’t allowed in The Saint unless she was sponsored by a guy. I don’t know if that was misogyny or just questioning my credentials. Now there have been promoters who would not hire me because I was a woman. I remember one who wouldn’t give me a whole party because he didn’t think I had the stamina, but there was so much buzz around me that I think he felt obligated to try me out. I proved him wrong and in the end, he ended up hiring me a LOT of times! I even played the Black party a couple of times where women weren’t even allowed in! 

You mentioned stamina and I read that you prefer doing full all-night sets. 

I love working after-hours. For me, they have a tendency to be a little darker, or edgier, certainly less commercial. I feel you can get away with more new music, far less familiar music. They’ve already heard the familiar music at the main event. So come after-hours time, I find people to be a lot more open to newer sounds.

What’s the longest set you’ve done?

18 hours, that was the one who said I couldn’t do it and I fought tooth and nail to get the gig. I said, I may not be able to stand on a football line with you, but I can stay up 18 hours to play a party. 

What’s one of the wildest or most extravagant events that you’ve done?

The most extravagant was the Pines party in Fire Island, and I did two of them, first in 2014 and again in 2016. It was on the beach in the Pines, about 3,500 people, exquisite lighting, open sky, a beautiful built backdrop, and then the sunrise. It started at 10 o’clock at night and went until 6 o’clock in the morning. It’s incredibly well done. It was an honor to play. The Pines are such a huge part of the LGBTQ community and history. It’s a glorious party and 100% fundraiser. 

You said that when you DJ, you like to take people on a sacred journey. 

The journey to me is like a 3 to 4 act play. That’s not something you can do sandwiched between two other DJ’s, that’s why I like a longer set. When I have the whole evening to myself, we start off in a slower groove, it’s the introduction, the warm-up and as the crowd builds I start lifting the energy until we get to the peak, the climax, the frenzy. Towards the end of the evening, I’ll start to bring it back down, sometimes I’ll pick it back up again, depending on the crowd and how much time I have. The journey takes you places, it taps into feelings and emotions, it’s not a straight line. I compare it to sex, you have the flirtation, climax and the cuddle. As a DJ and as someone who loves dancing, it’s what makes it exciting.

What’s the joy that you personally take from it? 

It goes back to why I wanted to become a radio DJ in the beginning, from when I thought that you got to share the music that you wanted to. Well, this job, what I do now, it’s like I’m your personal shopper. I spend twenty hours a week sifting through a lot of garbage to bring you the best and then share it. It’s a tremendous feeling to not just turn people on to what you like, but to see what an effect it has on them on the dance floor.

I hear that you had an interesting coming out story.

[Laughing] I do. I was working at Isis as a bartender, and someone from one of the morning TV shows wanted to do an interview with someone from the community. They wanted to speak to two men and two women. Back then in 1982, most of the people around had 9 to 5 jobs and couldn’t afford to be outed so they couldn’t do it, but I could. The woman I was dating at the time, also worked a 9 to 5, but her boss was cool. So we went on The Morning Exchange as the two lesbians. 

My mother was a night owl, so she wasn’t usually up until noon, and my father was not a TV person and definitely didn’t watch morning programs, so I wasn’t worried about them seeing it, but one of my father’s friends saw it and told my parents. I had no intention of coming out that way. My father kind of had a feeling that I might be gay, I wasn’t the most feminine person, and I’d always been a tomboy. But my mother was mortified. Not only, “What are the neighbors going to think?” but also “This is the way I learn about it?” 

In hindsight, it was really wrong, not the best way for your parents to find out! My mother wouldn’t talk to me for 9 months and I don’t blame her. But eventually, I pulled on the heartstrings and got back in her good graces. And just a year or two after that you could regularly find my mother on the dance floor, glow sticks on her head when I was playing. She was a lot of fun and loved all the attention she got from the boys at the club. 

Sweet! Okay, spotlight questions, if you could own one famous original work of art, what piece would it be?

Oh! There’s a Rembrandt, I think it’s called “The Night Watch”. That would be my choice. I was in Amsterdam and it was on display in one of the museums with beautiful velvet ropes around it. I don’t know much about art, but the way it was painted really struck me and I was floored by it. 

If you were in a band what instrument would you play?

Acoustic guitar.

What’s a favorite quote or saying?

“You don’t know what you don’t know”. I say it all the time, I think it applies to so much. 

And finally, what’s something that you like about Philly and what can people expect at Porkroll? 

I like the rich history of Philadelphia and the old architecture. What people can expect musically is an underground house, tech house, and melodic techno sound. Regarding the crowd, they can expect a very diverse, friendly crowd of people. They have all ages, ranges, body types, races, and so on. We get a mix of people in harnesses and jock straps some people in drag. It runs the gamut. People are there for great music and something different that is not in the gayborhood.

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