To some, Moby was electronic dance music's first recognizable star, the first to put a human face on the genre's otherwise anonymous beats, bleeps, and burbles. To others, the fact that he abandoned his underground beginnings to sign with a major record label also made him its first sellout. "I don't understand the criteria that people use to evaluate whether or not an artist sold out," Moby tells Q&A. "Moving to a major label is the most arbitrary thing in the world. Do they still make music that you like? The things that fans and music journalists get upset about are ridiculous. There are so many things in this world worth getting upset over and this isn't one of them."
Born Richard Melville Hall in New York City Sept. 11, 1965, Moby's nickname, a reference to his great-great-granduncle, Moby Dick author Herman Melville was conferred upon him in infancy. His father, a chemistry professor, was killed in an automobile accident when Moby was 2 years old, and he moved with his mother to Darien, Conn., to live with his grandparents.
Throughout his early years, Moby's creative tendencies were encouraged, and he received classical training on the guitar beginning when he was 10. He later picked up on keyboards, drums, and bass. At the same time, he became interested in religion, if only for a short period of time. "[It] was around the same time that I first discovered masturbation," Moby recently told Rolling Stone. "When I was 13 was when I first started jerking off, and I felt so guilty that I thought I would take countermeasures. But my first attempt at being religious lasted about three months."
Despite the classical training, Moby gravitated toward rock and roll, performing in numerous punk, new wave, jazz, and metal outfits, including a band called the Vatican Commandos. He performed with anarchist noise rockers Flipper while the band's singer was in jail and also signed on for a stint with the group Ultra Vivid Scene. After a brief flirtation with college, Moby moved back to New York and began DJing, eventually releasing a series of singles on the independent label Instinct.
The most popular of these was 1991's "Go," a track mixing the ethereal melody from the theme to the TV series Twin Peaks with insistent, club-friendly beats. An underground hit in the United States, the single actually entered the Top 10 in England. Thanks to its success, Moby became the hot remixer of the moment, working on tracks by the likes of Michael Jackson, Brian Eno, and the Pet Shop Boys. Other original tracks followed as well, including 1992's "Next Is the E" and 1993's "Thousand," which, with its insane pace of 1000 beats per minute, was declared by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the fastest single ever. His first full-length album, Moby, appeared on Instinct in 1992.
The following year, he signed simultaneous contracts with Mute Records and Elektra. On Mute, he released Ambient, a selection of unreleased material from the late '80s and early '90s. There was also The Story So Far, which compiled singles from his Instinct years. The Elektra deal yielded an EP, Move, and in the spring of 1995, Everything Is Wrong, the album that brought him widespread attention in the States at last. He also performed at that year's Lollapalooza festival.
When Animal Rights appeared in 1996, fans and critics were taken aback by Moby's sudden abandonment of dance music for guitar-heavy thrash-rock. It received mostly negative reviews, though it's hard to say how much of a role the element of surprise played in that. To prove he hadn't abandoned techno entirely, Moby released The End of Everything, an instrumental album, under the pseudonym Voodoo Child.
In addition to his music, which is often upbeat and celebratory, Moby's albums have been noted for the essays he writes in the accompanying CD booklets. On Move, there's a simple plea to fight against the torture of animals. Everything Is Wrong contains a pair of screeds against, well, everything, but primarily concerning themselves with the environment and the Christian right (which, Moby says, "is neither"). There are also dozens of facts he collected supporting recycling, veganism, and anti-nuclear efforts. The notes to Animal Rights similarly promote extending basic rights to all beings and rip on the Christian Coalition, which somehow got his name on its mailing list.
More remixing work followed Moby's appearance at Lollapalooza, including mixes for Aerosmith, the Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica, and Soundgarden, and he produced the track "Walk on Water" for Ozzy Osbourne. Moby also signed on to produce the years-in-the-making next album by Guns 'N Roses, though it ultimately didn't work out.
I Like to Score marked Moby's return to dance music in 1997. A compilation of his tracks from movies such as Cool World, The Saint, Joe's Apartment, and Scream, the set is most notable for the reappearance of "Go" (which, of course, had its Twin Peaks connection), and "James Bond Theme (Moby's Re-Version)," which used breakbeats to breathe new life into the time-worn classic.
Play, Moby's first release for the V2 label, appeared in 1999 and proved to be his most ambitious project yet. The record is divided into roughly three types of music, the first section being a series of tracks built around field recordings of black music from the early 20th century. The second batch features Moby on vocals, while the third presents several contemplative instrumental tracks of the sort that were also a part of Everything Is Wrong and Animal Rights. The disc earned Moby a pair of Grammy nominations, including Best Alternative Music Performance for the album as a whole and Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the track "Bodyrock."
From his music and his public statements (I Like to Score and Play also contained Moby-penned essays), it's apparent that Moby is continuing to evolve as an artist and as a person. "There have been a lot of drastic changes and it all has to do with my understanding of the world at the time," he tells Q&A. "There was a period where I was atheist, agnostic, and a period where I dabbled in Eastern religions. And when I became a Christian in 1995, I tried to be conservative. I tried to adhere more to cultural Christianity than trying to find out myself about the teachings of Christ. So there have been a lot of epiphanies and revelations. And I hope that it will continue to change. I would hate the idea of having a static belief system. The world is such as vast and unknowable place that I can't imagine figuring out one way of explaining things."