Written by D. Michael Taylor
Ask any DJ/producers if they crave some form of mainstream success, and many will scoff at you, claiming to prefer the grind of struggling in the underground. This is most likely a lie; every artist wants to be recognized for his or her achievements — along with all the critical attention and economic rewards. Most of them never get there, which is why the idealized “underground” is such a popular answer to the question.
Danny Harrison and Arthur Smith — the two men behind the British power production team Moto Blanco — have seen both sides of this equation. For almost two decades, they haven’t had any problem playing huge venues as major draws, while enjoying huge success as producers for major-label artists like Mary J. Blige, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna.
When you ask them about their mainstream success, however, you quickly realize that these two prefer to let the music do the talking for them — which might help explain their runaway success. “We are men of few words,” says Danny Harrison, who also works under the name Bobby Blanco. “Just listen to the music.” People have been listening to, and loving, their production work in one form or another since 1989.
A Mutual Love of Music
A mutual love of music is what brought Danny and Arthur together, way back when they had met as schoolmates. Like many great British music stories, it all started in a record store. “We met in the ‘90s in the now-legendary London record shop Big Apple Records in Croydon,” explains Danny. “I was making tracks on the weekends and evenings but had a ‘nine-to-five’ shipping in U.S. import 12-inchers, picking them up at the airport and selling them to the London shops. Arthur had a studio above the shop, so we’d always chat about music and stuff.”
Those chats led to an appreciation of each other’s musical tastes and talents, so they started cutting tracks together. “I honestly can’t remember the first track we did; I guess it was a U.K. Garage thing,” Danny recalls, “maybe a Menta track.” Soon thereafter, Defected Records signed the duo, and they were having a blast doing what they both loved best. Phoning up their DJ friends with fake bookings became a thing of the past, but that mischievous spirit still permeates the Moto Blanco sound.
As for that crazy name: Danny already had been using the pseudonym Bobby Blanco, and asked Arthur to come up with one of his own. Arthur had seen and loved the name Mikimoto in Japan. However, releasing a steadily increasing number of tracks as a “Bobby Blanco and Miki Moto remix” seemed tedious and verbose. So they shorthanded it to Moto Blanco. Not surprisingly, Danny notes, “Everyone thought we were a Spanish, Italian, or Japanese duo of producers,” as many still do! “They still get a shock when they find out we are two South London herberts,” U.K. slang for “couch potato.”
Croydon, where they met, was also the birthplace of Dubstep, the gritty, constantly evolving sound of the U.K. underground dance scene. Originally just dub versions of the more popular 2-Step Garage tracks that incorporated the breaks and dark basslines of Jungle, Dubstep has splintered into a myriad of micro-genres. “For me, the real pioneers of that scene were the U.S. guys,” Danny says — names like Victor Simonelli, MK, Todd Edwards, Jazz-N-Groove, Wayne Gardiner. “That was the music I was hearing and playing. We’d speed it up and play the dubs, but soon U.K. producers were bringing their twist to it — a bit heavier on the bass. It’s now U.K. Funky and Dubstep that are the sound of young London.”
Given the storied trans-Atlantic musical ping-pong effect between the States and Great Britain, it’s no surprise that the Dubstep sound eventually found proponents in the Hip-Hop and R&B scene, with producers like Timbaland cashing in on the kinetic sound. As for Moto Blanco, their sound evolved from Dubstep eventually to settle into the fun, upbeat, Disco-House variant that has made them the latest import sensation in the Circuit world.
AT Home Abroad
These two “South London herberts” have managed to find a happy home in the international — and, more recently, U.S. — Circuit scene. Just this year, they played some prominent tea dances and headlined the Pines Party, the big oceanfront all-night event, as well as the Saturday night before the even bigger oceanfront Ascension Party at Fire Island’s prestigious Pavilion. No doubt, it’s their infectious, happy sound, as well as their ability to draw marquee-name talent to their remixing abilities, that have the Circuit boiz dancing.
Even on those rare occasions when they have found a crowd unresponsive, they have managed to make omelettes from the broken eggs. “We’ve done gigs in Russia where our remixes have cleared the floor,” admits Harrison. “But fuck ‘em! The bar staff seemed to like it!”
Asked about their big-label appeal, Danny says, “In this game you’re only as good as your last mix. We’d been busy, but after the first Grammy nomination for Mary J. Blige’s ‘Be Without You,’ things went crazy. We were booked up with mixes for months and months, and it didn’t slow down.”
Miss Mary J. can have that effect on a career.
Not afraid of being radio-friendly, the duo was soon working with people like Leona Lewis and Jennifer Hudson. They both harbor a healthy respect for such artists. “They are all amazing songs and brilliant singers,” Danny said. “You can’t fail.” Despite working with such glittering talent, it was a complimentary email from the Brazilian Bossa Nova legend Sergio Mendes that meant the most to them as artists.
What does the future hold for these two venerable producers? Danny makes sure to point out that music is the driving force behind what they do, and that isn’t likely to change: “Even if we weren’t making music, it would still be in our lives! We live it, eat it, and breathe it!” They still love “a good knees-up,” when they have the downtime, and they enjoy the party scene in all of its variety. This lack of attitude and cynicism is as likely to keep them in the dance music spotlight as the music itself.
Danny Harrison concluded that a healthy respect for the past might be the best recipe for the future. “My earliest memories of clubbing were hearing a Funk track, then a House track, then Techno, Disco, Reggae … anything! The highs and lows of the night are what it’s all about. Good music is good music. I think we need to get back to that a bit more.”