Moby’s Play is the most important electronic albums ever made. It broke electronic music in the U.S. in a way that had never been done before--analysts had predicted for 15 years that electronic music would be huge in the U.S. before Play came along, and it took the EDM boom of the 2010s before Play’s impact was fully manifest--and it did so ingeniously. Licensing all of the songs from the album to a bevy of commercials, movie trailers, and other non-album sales devices paved a new way forward for artists in the post-Napster era, got Play wide audience exposure (which would not have happened to an electronica record back then) and it also ensured that Play was the most heard music of 2000 and 2001 (it didn’t catch on commercially till the year after it was released).
The story of what is sampled on Play has been told many times over. Moby made electronic music featuring semi-obscure folk and blues artists, which was a daring way of recontextualizing musical forms--like the blues--that were basically disappeared from pop music. This 10th Anniversary Rolling Stone feature breaks down the samples song-by-song.
What brings us here today though, are a couple very specific samples, taken from a specific source. The most notable of these samples is Bessie Jones’ “Sometimes,” taken from Alan Lomax’s legendary field recordings compilation Songs from the South.
This song, very obviously, is the backbone of the first song on Play, “Honey.” According to that Rolling Stone interview above, Moby remembers getting the CDs of the Alan Lomax set--which was reissued in the mid-’90s for the first time on CD--from his friend, music writer Dimitri Ehrlich.
But according to what, at least to me, is the best single episode of a podcast I’ve ever listened to, that’s not the full story. According to this podcast episode, Moby borrowed the CD’s from Dimitri’s younger brother and never gave them back as he made Play and became a star, and Dimitri’s brother has been upset about that, and trying to get the CD’s back, for close to 20 years.
Heavyweight is a Gimlet Media podcast hosted by Jonathan Goldstein that is all about regret. Every episode is a person wondering about some central event in their life--their foster mom making them quit basketball, getting kicked out of their college sorority, changing schools because of being bullied--and wondering why the event happened like it did, why their life since has been the way it is, and if there’s any new understanding they can get from revisiting the people involved.
The episode in question is titled Gregor, and you can listen to it over here.
Gregor is one of those guys who’s reaching middle age and is not sure why he didn’t get the success that some of his friends did. He wanted to make important movies in college, but instead he makes commercials for a cleaning product. He feels like the opportunity he maybe had at some point to “be somebody” is all but gone. But there’s one thing he knows for sure: he wants his Alan Lomax CD’s, which he loaned to Moby in the ‘90s, back.
It turns out Gregor is the one who gave Moby the CD’s; Dimitri and Moby and him used to hang out a bunch, and he vividly remembers the conversation he had with Moby that led him to taking the CD’s. Next thing he knew, Moby sampled songs like Vera Hall’s “Trouble So Hard,” became a superstar, and lost touch with Gregor.
In the intervening years, Gregor repeatedly asked Moby for the CDs back, and for the first half of the episode, you’re firmly on team Gregor. The guy just wants to put something on his mantle that shows he existed, and these CD’s he gave Moby would fit that bill. He says that he’s like the guy who gave Shakespeare a pen; he had nothing to do with the creation of Play really, but the fact that he was the source of the samples means something to him.
It’s when Gregor and Jonathan execute the episode’s plan--to basically ambush Moby in an interview and ask for the CD’s back--that your allegiances switch to wishing that Gregor could just let it go. I don’t want to spoil the rest of the episode, but it becomes a meditation on aging, personal expectations, friendship, how fame is a miserable trap, and how physical manifestations of our achievements are ultimately hollow, while also being like a demented heist story. In the end, Gregor finds out he does matter, and that being friends with Moby before, and after, Play might mean more than anything else.
And ultimately, the podcast, even though it’s about the regrets of an ad man and his CD’s, is a weird window into the creation of Play. Every album is not just the result of someone locking themselves in a studio, writing some music, and releasing it. An artist can be impacted by any number of people in the creation of an album, and in the case of Play, and this episode of Heavyweight, we get to hear about one of them.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.