An insider’s look at the Milli Vanilli project
When the Milli Vanilli lip-synching controversy broke in 1990, I was not surprised. Nor did I really care. I wasn’t a fan of their music and I had no idea about how the music industry really worked. I believed what I read and saw. And with time, Milli Vanilli completely dropped off of my cultural radar.
So it was. Life moved on. Eventually I found myself working in the music industry. Things are not what they always appear to be. Smoke has its mirrors and in the end, people will believe whatever gets broadcast the loudest.
And even with everything I’d seen and done, I still never thought about the absurdity of the Milli Vanilli episode. Not until I saw the recent article at PopEater titled Milli Vanilli, the Real Story- 20 Years Later. I thought I was going to read a juicy pop-culture train wreck – something akin to another Britney Spears exposé. I was hoping to revisit old jokes but instead, I stumbled onto something real, honest and very human.
The truth is, those kids got worked. They got set up and thrown out. I don’t know – maybe I’m more cynical or realistic nowadays or maybe I see things from a different vantage point because of the business I’m in, but let’s think about this for just a minute. Let’s look at this from an insider’s perspective. Does it seem credible that a pair of kids who could barely speak English could fool their tour manager, their production manager, their sound engineers, their roadies, their publicist, their label reps and every other person involved in live sound production? Or does it seem more likely that the business of show business was hard at work?
So I started thinking about all the things that Fab must have seen. What amazing stories and real insights into the music industry and human nature he must have. I tracked him down in Holland where he is busy creating music for the underground dance scene and asked about his current projects, how his experiences from the past have shaped his present, and about the future of the music industry. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
Hi Fab, I know I caught you coming out of the studio. What you are working on?
Right now, the main project is called SMFM and those are the initials of my partner and myself but it also stands for Supplying Mirages For Mankind – meaning that we are supplying sounds that allow people to escape from their daily routine. That is what music provides in general.
It’s a medium from which I can really express myself and say what I want to say. This is one of the reasons that I enjoy working on the dance music project. There are no rules as far as sound or even writing a song. When we’re in the studio, it never starts the same and I can say whatever I want to. And right now, I am in the process of wanting to express everything I feel.
Why dance music?
Dance music is the kind of music where you break boundaries. This is why a lot of the labels go to dance DJ/Producers to get the remixes that they need to get done – to get this new flavor – this new energy.
Dance music is worldwide and you can see how it has affected pop music. Timbaland has always been using some of the equipment that dance producers are using. Lady Gaga is dance infused, her first record was made by a team of producers based out of Holland.
What else has dance music done for pop music?
I believe that you need to look at vocal production. It is true that nowadays Auto-Tune is being used to the maximum. Cher was one of the first to have that crossover to pop music – that was a huge record. But before that in Europe, Auto-Tune was used for a long time before they dropped it. Then America picked it up and started again and then took it to the next level.
I have no problem with people using it when it’s a gimmick and we know what it is. My thing is though, if you use vocal correction in the studio and then when you go onstage you don’t perform – you know it’s playback – then you know, it’s a little confusing.
What do you mean?
Well, the credibility that people used to need to have as artists in order to make it is not the same as it is today. The kids of today just want to see the video onstage. They don’t really care about the live aspect of an artist. You have a lot of huge stars of today going onstage and lip-synching their whole show.
Yeah, I actually think that when someone pays a few hundred for a ticket that they need it to sound - expect it to sound just like the CD.
Exactly – this is the catch 22.
So look, I want to put this in the context of Milli Vanilli because you guys were accused of doing something similar.
Yes. But what we were doing at the time, a lot of people – actually, it was customary in the 80’s to have European artists lip-sync to American or English vocalists. We got caught but there were many, many, many projects who were selling millions of records like that for years.
Yep – the only difference is you were singled out.
Voilà- like we say in French – voilà. Exactly.
Now – the point I was making. OK, so what’s the difference? I didn’t sing on the record. But what is the difference between someone who uses pitch correction in the studio and then doesn’t sing live? There is no difference.
And at the time, you couldn’t have been the only ones. Who were your biggest music competitors? I don’t remember so well, who else was popular at the time? Was it New Kids on The Block?
There were New Kids but there were lots of people – some names well, no - I’m not going to go down the list – I don’t want to blow the whistle on nobody. But there were also a lot of people in Europe. Bunch of groups. Fact of the matter is we got caught and that’s it.
I’m not holding anything on nobody. The only thing is – the one thing I don’t really like is the fact that the 2 people that were upfront, the smallest links in the chain – those were the ones who got the beating. And in reality, the industry, they were able to walk away scot-free and were able to invest the money they made into other labels and create other careers.
How old were you guys at that time?
But Fab – you must have at least gotten paid?!
Well… That’s another story. I can’t really go into that one. We got used and abused and spit out.
Were you getting royalties or were you on salary?
No. No. No. I can’t really go into that. Maybe in the book or the movie – they did a number on us. That’s all I’ll say. It’s funny, people will say, well you must have made so much. And no, it’s not like that. I’m not the first one in line.
Well I’m sure Frank (Frank Farian) got paid but still not as much as…
Frank was the creator – trust me – he definitely did very well. The business part of it – the American counterpart did very well. It’s not a secret. You can go and do research. You can go to the Wall Street Journal and find out how much the Milli Vanilli project brought to the label. And the labels continue on. We get thrown to the side. But they are still there.
The industry is shrinking but it’s getting smarter. When you look from the outside, you hear that the music industry is not making any money. That’s not true. The music industry has diversified. If you are a brand new band and have the chance to get hooked up on a video game, you are going to do very well. The game industry has brought so much revenue to music it’s crazy. That’s one.
Then, you also have the Ringtones. We don’t talk about it anymore because it’s yesterday’s news but it’s still there. People still buy them. It pays the bills.
And now we’re back to playing shows. Shows are where the money’s at – selling records – it varies. Now, new artists who sign to labels have 360 deals. Just because the industry went down a bit, now they get new deals – like they didn’t have enough before – now they’re dippin everywhere.
Yeah – shows and merchandise used to be just for you guys – but now they get a piece of it all.
Yep – the hands are in there really deep. This is what they did. Now it’s 360.
The dance music industry is very interesting because it’s Internet-based. Very savvy. A lot of technology. The fans know. The dance music fans know their music, know their DJ’s. They know the playlists of their DJ’s and research the music that is playing.
So there are lots of deals with online labels. You can go half and half. So if a song hits a compilation - instead of getting paid 2 or 3 cents - sometimes out of 2 dollars you can get a dollar.
The way music brings revenue has gotten smarter – more than ever. Look at the iPhone, the Blackberry – all those phones and what they’re doing. Music is as much a part of our lives now as it was before. I say, it’s even more now. It’s everywhere. People don’t do anything without music. It’s true that a lot of kids are getting it for free. But some people also pay for their music. Look at iTunes. Look at this machine.
Where do you think the industry is going?
No one knows where this industry is going. Nobody. It is wide open. That’s the beauty about it. That’s what I love. I’ve been waiting for this. I came at a time when MTV was only playing Michael Jackson. Rap was on Yo! MTV Raps. Milli Vanilli crossed over into the pop market and was an MTV baby at one point. But it took sometime for music to merge - for the separation to blur. You have the pop charts, the R&B charts, the country charts, you have the Latin charts. I mean, everything is divided. In Europe we have one chart and everything lands there. And it seems like in American music – the top 200 – it seems like everything is finally merging. It’s because of people like Timbaland who are traveling so much – bringing different types of sounds. Now, hip hop doesn’t even sound like it did in the 90’s. Listen to Lil Wayne or even Jay-Z. Who would have thought that this combination of sounds is where we would be? Who could have imagined this new flavor? Things change.
In music, you can always go back in time and see where it all started. Nirvana was a pioneer with alternative music. It was around, but when they came around, they just took it all the way. I saw them on TV and thought - wow, this is dope! This is the shit! What is that? I love all kinds of music. I listen to everything: jazz, classical, R&B, World Music. You name it. Music is music. I grew up in Europe. We listen to everything. Flamenco, Salsa. Merengue. Music is so rich and I am glad to see – more and more – I see the world. There is more of the world in music. There is not just one thing.
Things change. And we don’t know where it’s going to be. I just know one thing. That is: be creative. That’s it. Being creative is the future. It’s always been the future. If you can be as creative as you can be and not follow but create your own lane, you will be the pioneer. People will follow what you are doing. And I think that is the better position to be in.
And for more information on Fab and on SMFM, please see below:
Check out Fab’s new music and art here:
Watch those old Milli Vanilli videos all over again!
Hear more music by Sean McCaff:
Record. Collaborate and Share:
SMFM is the newest dance music project for two of the genre’s leading lights. The name stands for “Supplying Mirages For Mankind” as well as its individual principals world renowned DJ Sean MCcaff and his partner, global superstar Fab Morvan.
“Our goal is to take people out of their daily routines and challenge people’s ideas about society, culture and behavior,” explains Morvan, best-known as one-half of the world famous pop group Milli Vanilli, who has re-connected with the dance music world after living in Holland and collaborating with DJ/producers such as Don Diablo.
“Many of us seem to overlook these truths, we're hypnotized by the dream machine operated by the powers-that-be or gate-keepers.”
“Consciousness is an integral part of our daily lives. For those who’d rather not walk with blinders on, music can be a powerful tool to awaken the sleeper in us.”
Morvan has been working on solo material while also participating in the upcoming Universal Pictures feature film on Milli Vanilli, produced by Kathleen Kennedy (E.T., Schindler’s List, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, etc.) with a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson (The Terminal, Rush Hour 1, 2 and 3, Catch Me if You Can), executive-produced by his manager, Kim Marlowe.
DJ Sean McCaff has been a fixture at dance parties and clubs in New York, Ibiza and the Netherlands since 1987. He has produced for such labels as Little Mountain Recordings, GrooveTek, Waterloo Productions, Hard Time Recordings, Spiritual Records, United Records, Vibe Records U.K. and his newest label, Coochy Ku Records. He has had releases licensed to compilations such as Ministry of Sound (“Sister Bliss”), Lost Treasures, DJ Tiesto’s Global Clubbing and Spiritual. Among his collaborators are N.Y.-based Astro & Gyde, DJ Ramon, Medway and LiquiNova principal Sven F. McCaff’s tracks have been played by such notable DJs as Sander Kleinenberg, John Digweed and Sasha and Jimmy van M. His residencies in clubs all over the world include Cocoon Lounge and Mezzo (Netherlands), Le Souk and Waterloo Club (N.Y.), Kabal (Kansas City) and Millennium Party (Croatia).
Sean and Fab were introduced by a mutual friend in Amsterdam, one with ties to the top tastemakers in dance music. In Sean’s Den Haag studio, their musical union was realized with an explosion of tunes and the satisfaction of harmonious, creative communication, which propelled them to join forces and embark on a long-term project together.
“We both knew magic was going down,” says McCaff.
The culmination of their collaborative efforts is ready for enlightened public consumption. SMFM are preparing to hit the road this year, performing around the world. See them soon at a club near you.