Reconstructing Memorabilia: How sickness and recovery led John Morrison to his surreal new remix project - WXPN
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On March 3rd of 2018, John Morrison was hospitalized with symptoms that seemed like a bad case of the flu. It was the beginning of a ten-day gap in the Philadelphia musician, journalist, and DJ’s memory.

Morrison — a writer for The Key, host of WXPN’s Culture Cypher Radio, and co-host of the excellent Serious Rap Shit podcast — had contracted  viral encephalitis, and describes his stay at the hospital as “two weeks of intense hallucinations, pain and non-stop testing.” Ten days in, on March 13th, his cognitive functions started coming back; it’s the first day from this time that he can remember. And one of his first orders of business was getting back to music.

As he described on a recent episode of SRS, his family brought turntables, mixer, and sampler to his mom’s house in West Oak Lane, where he stayed while he rehabbed. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t stand longer for than 30 seconds,” he describes. “But I had a lot of time to make beats, and remixes.”

The result is Memorabilia, a new album of flips and interpretive versions of classics by Beastie Boys, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, and basically any a cappella verse he could find. A beautiful track called “Brandy Be Down” re-imagines the R&B singer’s hit with MC Lyte as a bouncy psychedelic dreamscape; “Creepin’ With Thom and Tariq” juxtaposes classics by Radiohead and The Roots.

The album is out today on Bandcamp, the two-year anniversary of its genesis, and it comes with a short film by New Orleans-based artist Wino that he describes as “Yo MTV Raps on acid” — a heady montage of clips of commercials, rare music videos, and more. For release day, we chatted with Morrison over Facebook Messenger about the project, and how it simultaneously celebrates and strengthens his musical memories.

The Key: On the last Serious Rap Shit episode, you mentioned that March 13 was the day you regained full consciousness after being hospitalized, and you started chopping these songs up right away. What was the initial intent — just you needed something to do? Or was it more intentional, to start getting your motor skills and cognitive skills back in shape?

John Morrison: I think that more so than anything I wanted to “test out” my musical / cognitive skills. On the days leading up to the 13th, I was only partially out of it, but I couldn’t see or hear music properly. I wasn’t blind or deaf, there were just crazy glitches in how I perceived things — for example, music sounded like a skipping record at one point. I just needed to know that I could still make music. That was a big part of it.

TK: How many songs do you estimate you worked on during the time you were in recovery? Did all the music on Memorabilia come from that timespan, or did some come from after?

JM: Some of these remixes I had made before I got sick, and some of them after. I made a ton of music in like the first 6-8 months after I got out the hospital but only a fraction of that music made it onto Memorabilia.

TK: Calling it Memorabilia feels like a reflection of something else I’ve heard you discuss on SRS, about how you found it hard to remember things from around when you got sick, as though large chunks of your memory went missing. In addition to collecting songs and artists you love from your past — the way you talked in the album’s “liner notes” on Bandcamp about being surrounded by magazines and old tapes while you recovered at home — do you see this project as a way of preserving for you those memories of music in your life, stuff that could have gone missing?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. When I was in the hospital, I became really obsessed with old things, memories, the past etc. Even if you look at my Facebook activity from around that time (spring into summer of 2018) when I was in the hospital, I was furiously sharing old Hip Hop records, rare demo stuff etc. I feel like this whole process has been an attempt at healing / self-soothing. It’s terrifying to have your mind and memories compromised in the way that it happened to me, and I think that all of this music, these songs and wanting to dig into significant things from my past was my way of trying to get better.

TK: I do remember noticing an uptick in your FB sharing of old videos from YouTube. I didn’t connect it with you being sick — even though I knew what had happened, I kind of assumed it was tied to stories you were working on. And you’ve definitely kept at it, too! It’s almost like a way to stay in shape, exercising your musical memory.

JM: Yeah, definitely. I was just telling someone that I think I work differently now. I was always into digging into the history of music, but since I got sick, I’ve been doing it at an even more furious pace. I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to piece back together or hold on to, but it feels like the right thing to do.

TK: What was it about the remixes you chose for the final tracklist that made them make the cut? Do they form a loose narrative, is it the way they flow together sonically?

JM: Initially, the album was loosely divided into two sides: Teenaged years and Adult years, but I abandoned that in favor of just including the strongest songs, the ones that resonated with me the most.

TK: Is there a track that’s your favorite from this record, and if so, why?

JM: As far as favorites, I love “Creepin’ With Thom & Tariq” because the sample is gorgeous and it’s a novel thing to hear Black Thought rapping on a track with Thom Yorke. “Creep” was such a huge song when I was in high-school, this was my way of taking something super familiar and turning it on its head. I also like “The Come Up” because it’s hard and rugged and ends with a Buffy The Vampire Slayer monologue. My homie Elenore gave me a box set a while back. Lol

TK: Can you tell me about the cover art that Lissa [Alicia, contributing writer for The Key] shot? I imagine every piece of it has some significance to you — and we don’t have to get into what each individual item means — but what was that process like, designing and creating that image? I’m guessing it was a collaboration?

JM: Yup! It definitely was a collaboration. I wanted an aerial shot of just a pile of stuff, but stuff that represented my childhood; cassette tapes, records, comics, 4-track recorders, VHS tapes etc. We took an afternoon to arrange and shoot everything and then Melissa edited / texturized the image after we shot it.

TK: Do you think you’ll follow this up with another remix project from this same body of work? Or do you want to turn back to your original instrumentals? Something else?

JM: I may bundle up some of the “spares” into a separate project, but maybe not. I’m definitely going to do some more instrumental music and I’d LOVE to produce vocal stuff for artists and myself. Rolled Gold (who helped with post-production on Memorabilia) and I were actually working on a Rap album (me MCing and sharing production duties with a few other folks) when I got sick. When I got out the hospital, I couldn’t walk, so going to the studio and recording with him was out of the picture. I’d absolutely like to do something like that in the future. I’m open to a lot of things musically.

John Morrison’s Memorabilia is available on all streaming platforms, and can be ordered on cassette via Bandcamp. His next episode of Culture Cypher Radio airs at 7 p.m. Friday, March 20th on WXPN — 88.5 FM in Philadelphia, XPN.org worldwide.

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