Susan Morabito

Susan Morabito is an iconic DJ in the LGBTQ dance scene who is famous for taking her crowd on a journey (a continuous movement of emotion, sensuality, and spiritual transcendence that sonically transports dancers from one level of intensity to the next) as they dance from 5 to ten hours. She is also renowned as one of a few female DJs in the Circuit, a community of Gay men and their allies who frequent annual weekend-long dance events called Circuit parties.

Susan Morabito (soundcloud.com/s-morabito, May 2012) Top image: playtdance.com/sfo1107.html

In terms of sound, Susan Morabito is associated with a soul-infused style of spinning, incorporating rhythm and blues, progressive, tribal house, deep house, Afropop, disco house, and gospel house into her sets.

Challenges

As someone who has been playing for predominantly Gay male crowds since 1987, Morabito displays a singular longevity in a field that often values masculinity, muscle, youth, and good looks over experience. Most notable about female DJs in the Circuit is their ability to get the Circuit crowd, infamous for its body fascism (arrogance associated with muscle and grooming), to grant women iconic status in the DJ booth.

Slim of build and with close-cropped hair, Morabito has occasionally been mistaken for a boy. In a notorious incident in the Ice Palace on Fire Island in 2007, Morabito was playing a benefit party when the local Suffolk County Police broke into the DJ booth. In front of horrified partygoers on the dance floor, the police roughed her up and cited her for noise, in part because they thought she was male. The case was quietly settled with an apology from officials involved.

Morabito in the booth (classicchicagohouse.com/sunlight-spot/sunlight-spot-archive, May 2012)

Background

Morabito was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Her interest in music began at a young age, and she moved from playing bass guitar to playing records. In 1979, she entered her first Gay bar and professed herself “absolutely amazed at what I was hearing and people’s responses.” She purchased two turntables, a mixer and 14 records. “I was one of those kids, I’d save my lunch money and get music,” she recalled. When she realized that a radio disco jockey was at the mercy of the station’s playlist, she focused her energy on the club scene.

Morabito was still living in Ohio when drove to New York City for special parties. There she met Candida Scott Piel, one of the few women involved with the legendary Lower East Side Gay male nightclub, the Saint. A Yale graduate and longtime AIDS activist, Piel became a fierce advocate of Morabito and introduced her to Bruce Mailman, the original Saint’s impresario.

Although Mailman did allow another female DJ, Sharon White, to spin at his club’s Saturday night parties, he told Morabito that he “didn’t want to give me a whole party because I didn’t have the stamina being a woman,” Morabito recalled. That kind of anti-female bias is something she has confronted throughout her career. Even though there are several successful female DJs, both in Gay and mainstream nightclubs, “There’s still a big prejudice against women DJing,” she said.

myspace.com/susanmorabito/photos, May 2012

Nevertheless, she persevered. During the day, she worked at Vinylmania, one of a handful of stores in New York City that catered to DJs, and was just down the street from her small second-floor apartment on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. Vinylmania exposed her to new music and gave her visibility in the city’s thriving DJ community.

Fire Island

Morabito spun at the Ice Palace, a club in Cherry Grove, one of the two primarily Gay communities on Fire Island, a barrier island off the east coast of long Island, New York. She also was playing small clubs and bars in the NYC. Her chance to make a bigger name for herself came in 1992 when she played the Pavilion, the disco that dominated Fire Island Pines (also known as “the Pines”), a community just to the east of Cherry Grove. The Pines is an affluent summer resort town populated mainly by Manhattan’s Gay male moneyed class. The effect of playing the Pavilion was immediate and dramatic. She established a residency at the Pavilion, which led to gigs around New York City, the nation and in Europe.

The next year, she played her first major Circuit weekend, the Morning Party. Benefiting the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Morning Party had moved from a house party in the Pines to the beach itself. The party sprawled alongside the Atlantic Ocean, with a mammoth dance floor set up on the sand. The event lasted from noon until evening, when the encroaching tide began to pour over the dance floor. While Morabito did not play the Morning Party itself that year (she would do that two years later, in 1995), she did play the Pavilion the night before. Billed as “Drums of Passion,” the night was a triumph and firmly established Morabito as one of the major DJs in the increasingly popular Circuit.

myspace.com/susanmorabito/photos, May 2012

Hotlanta, Phoenix Rising, and the Black Party

Morabito’s career was boosted by another major Circuit event called Hotlanta. Built around raft river races in Atlanta, Georgia, the weekend-long August party attracted thousands of Gay men from around the country, and Morabito played the main event. She placed herself in the company of the single-named DJ Buc and a few veterans of the old Saint (which closed in 1986) such as Michael Fierman, Warren Gluck and Robbie Leslie, as one of the legendary DJs from the previous decade who could still draw a crowd in the 1990s. She also began playing the immensely successful Phoenix Rising parties that took place immediately after the Miami White Party, one of the oldest ongoing AIDS fund-raising dance parties in the country.

In March 2003, Morabito was the first woman to DJ the NYC Black Party. Produced by the Saint mega-club since its founding in 1980 (and by the Flamingo, another Manhattan Gay male club, the year before that), the Black Party continued with the Saint’s successor organization, the Saint at Large, after the club closed. The Black Party features live sex acts and episodes of impromptu sex among thousands of participants. When Morabito played such an unabashedly sex-oriented and predominantly Gay male party, she undermined stereotypes that women were unfit for such events. She also played other Saint-at-Large dances, including the White Party, Halloween, New Year’s Eve and Sleaze Ball.

New York Notoriety and Studies in Provincetown

Morabito has played major clubs in New York City, including Twilo, the Roxy, Sound Factory, Limelight, Exit, Octagon, Palladium, Discotheque, Cielo and Splash Bar. In 1994, she played a dance party aboard the USS Intrepid, a former battleship-turned museum anchored off the West Side of Manhattan, as part of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. She and Don Tobias co-produced Sunday night parties after the Black Party called Equinox at Octagon. She also organized AIDS benefit morning parties (dances held the next morning after an evening event) on the Sunday before Martin Luther King’s birthday at Octagon, and a post-Pride event (Climax) with Piel.

CD cover for one of Morabito's continuous mix compilations. Morabito's music is popular outside of the clubs as well. She regularly releases compilations to dedicated fans (amazon.com/Equinox-Susan-Morabito/dp/B00000AEQP, May 2012)

Morabito also provided music for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s 2001 Benefit Gala, a tribute to the White House style of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, co-hosted by Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour. In addition, she played designer Calvin Klein’s summer party in 2004 to celebrate the opening of his beach retreat (Elysium in Southampton, New York) as well as major events for the Museum of Modern Art and the American Ballet Theater. Alongside her live spinning, Morabito has released a steady stream of compilation dance albums.

In May 2007, she moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts to study music production through the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and continued to play Gay clubs and events. In May of 2012 she moved back to NYC. She attributes her longevity to her ability to read a crowd’s mood and play for the occasion.

The Journey and Sex as DJ Folk Metaphors

Wherever the venue, the journey remains key to Morabito’s performance. As she described it: “My sound depends on the party, but it’s a journey, whether tribal or edgy or anthems. I would bring the crowd up to different places, then down to a gentle landing.”

myspace.com/susanmorabito/photos, May 2012

The journey involves dividing a set between musical genres in a way that the crowd never leaves the dance floor because they look forward to the next shift in soundscape. Since the beats per minute (BPM) for the entire event rarely transgress 125-135 BPM, an astute DJ pays close attention to how the crowd reacts with each selection. Morabito’s journey will usually begin with deep house songs, complex percussion, and vibrant lyrics. This is also the time when Morabito gets churchy, playing gospel house with praise songs, both to Jesus and to various African gods in African-based religions such as Brazilian Candomblé and Cuban Santería-Lukumi. Mid-set, she may go into a progressive-tribal set with driving rhythms and few vocals. Towards the end of the set, the music shifts to lighter, vocal-laden songs designed to summon forth heartfelt emotion rather than orgasmic heat.

Morabito compares such an evening to steps involved in good sex: foreplay, intense passion, climax, and cuddling. She emphasizes, however, that sex in this case is a metaphor so that the average non-DJ can have some understanding of what she does in the DJ booth. When asked if her musical set for an event was a journey or sex, she said, “Sex is a journey!”

Other female DJs in the Gay male dance scene are Sharon White, Wendy Hunt, Lydia Prim, Kimberly S (Spalding), Ana Paula (from Brazil), DJ Pride (Yvette Fernandez), Alyson Calagna, and Tracy Young.

Steve Weinstein
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Further reading:

Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. New York: Grove, 2000.

Walters, Barry. “Spin Doctor” in The Advocate. February 17, 1998, 61-62.

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