Often tagged the king of techno —as well as the first face of techno —Moby is notable among the hordes of anonymous DJs merely because he has stepped out from behind his turntable to seek the attention typically awarded only to rock stars.
Yet his music —a symphonic combination of disco beats, punk-rock speed, and anthemic lyrics —withstands the focus. Conveniently, Richard Melville Hall’s nickname, given to him as a child (in reference to his great-great-great-uncle Herman Melville’s Moby Dick), fits perfectly with the pseudonyms of other techno artists like Aphex Twin, the Orb, and the Prodigy. But Moby’s devout spirituality, veganism, and abstinence from alcohol and drugs are a departure from the typically bacchanalian rave scene.
Moby grew up in Darien, Connecticut, where, while in high school, he formed his first band, the Vatican Commandos, a hardcore punk outfit for which he played guitar. After dropping out of college (where he studied religion and philosophy), he moved to New York and started hanging out in dance clubs and DJing. By 1990, he had released some singles and EPs for the underground dance label Instinct; these included “Go,” which set the Twin Peaks TV show theme to a frantic dance beat and went to #10 in the U.K. in 1991. This led to some remix projects (Michael Jackson, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, Brian Eno, and the B-52’s) and a record deal with Elektra.
With the release of 1995’s Everything Is Wrong, Moby stretched the techno sound; the album contains the expected high-BPM tracks yet also features a bluesy punk song (“What Love”) and the metallish “All That I Need.” For its release party, Moby actually performed some of the songs on acoustic guitar.
That affinity for guitar was prophetic; Moby’s 1996 followup Animal Rights revealed his passion for punk and hardcore —he even did a cover of Mission of Burma’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver.” The album drew mixed reviews, however, and many dance-music fans felt abandoned by one of their gurus. Meanwhile, Moby continued to work on film scores, and he released a compilation of his movie tunes entitled I Like to Score.
With 1999’s Play (#45, 2000), a party-pleaser that also ingeniously pushed musical boundaries with its combinations of electronica and old blues and gospel recordings, Moby managed to capture both critical acclaim (two Grammy nominations and top honors in the 1999 Village Voice critics poll) and legions of new fans (the album went double platinum in 2000 and sold more than 3 million copies worldwide). Suddenly, Moby’s music was heard in countless movie trailers, TV shows, and commercials, while the man himself became an unlikely poster boy for Calvin Klein. His former label, Elektra, tried to cash in on Moby’s new fame with the compilation Mobysongs 1993–1998, a survey of his earlier work. “South Side” (#14, 2001) featured Gwen Stefani.