Despite this, Mood II Swing's contribution is often overlooked. They were club kids but never made the jump to DJing, a decision that probably diminished their profile. They were behind a huge crossover hit, Ultra Nate's "Free," but were only credited as remixers. While fellow New York artists like Masters At Work and Armand Van Helden became household names, Mood II Swing remained cult favourites.
John Ciafone and Lem Springsteen are strikingly different characters. Springsteen is outgoing, charismatic, talkative; Ciafone is younger and introverted. Even today, two decades after they first met, their differences are stark. Both grew up in or around New York City. Springsteen came from a family with ties to soul and disco. His father was an accountant for The Commodores. His mother was friends with the mother of Vaughan Mason, the man behind the proto-house classic "Break For Love." Springsteen was a promising young pianist and, after his mother set up a meeting, Vaughan took the youngster under his wing to teach him music production. With Mason's help, Springsteen released two R&B-influenced singles, but by 1988, when he was barely out of his teens, his solo career had fizzled out.
Ciafone had been exposed to early hip-hop while living in Manhattan. A few years later, he began making beats for local rappers, honing the drum machine skills that would later anchor Mood II Swing's sound. Both Springsteen and Ciafone started exploring the city's nightlife, seeing DJs like David Morales at Red Zone and Junior Vasquez at Sound Factory. These legendary clubs mixed house, hip-hop and disco with harder techno and rave. When Springsteen and Ciafone met in 1990, their experiences at these parties were a major talking point.
Springsteen remembers it well. "When me and John met at a local club party for college kids, I thought, 'Look at this guy, producing hip-hop.' All these underground hip-hop kids, they kind of look a certain way. I played him a lot of sounds that I had in my catalogue at the time, and he liked them. Then we kind of talked about putting a band together."
They found, in Springsteen's words, "a gorgeous Egyptian" lead singer. Greg Ruben, Mood II Swing's first manager, was a friend of Louie Vega's. Ciafone and Springsteen saw this as a huge opportunity. Vega had been an important DJ in New York since the mid-'80s. Masters At Work, his new project with Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, was hot—their latest track, a remix of the pop act Debbie Gibson, was becoming an unlikely New York anthem. Vega received a demo from Springsteen and Ciafone's band. He liked what he heard.
Soon, though, that gorgeous Egyptian left the band, jeopardising Ciafone's big break just as it arrived. Fortunately, Vega saw something in the young producers. As Springsteen recalls, "He kinda said, 'You know, you guys can work together as you and John, and just sell some dance records, instrumentals and songs around New York.' That's how we started."
Vega invited Ciafone and Springsteen to his recording sessions. At the time Masters At Work were working out of Bass Hit Studios, a synth-stacked space owned by the engineer Dave Darlington. (MAW would later take over the studio.) Here, Vega worked seven days a week, often till dawn. Ciafone and Springsteen were waiting in the wings, taking it all in.
"They were doing marathon sessions back then, man." Springsteen says. "We were, like, these young kids doing three-day lockouts. Louie worked all the time, he didn't sleep. So that's how our lives became. At first, you know, we were just learning and sitting in, and then playing on different things. Like maybe part of the bassline, giving ideas and stuff and sharing ideas. But there was constantly people coming in and out, you know. From different singers, different producers, different DJs. Different musicians. It was like a whirlwind."
Mood II Swing stepped up to remix Masters At Work. As Springsteen puts it, "Louie was testing us out." Mood II Swing's "Big Thick Dub" of MAW's "Gonna Get Back To You" encompasses a lot of what made their music great. The track shows the immediate chemistry between Springsteen's taste for the soulful and Ciafone's hard, intricate beats. In many ways their work was much more than the sum of their individual talents. This interplay, combined with their apprenticeship at Bass Hit, meant Mood II Swing sounded fully formed on arrival.
One of the first releases to have a huge impact was the Wall Of Sound EP, released on Eight Ball Records in 1992. This contained two lethal club weapons, "8 Ways To Knock Down A Wall" and "I Need Your Luv (Right Now)." Using a Roland Juno-106, Roland SH-101 and an E-mu SP-1200 drum machine (a favourite of both hip-hop and early house producers), Mood II Swing set out to make a series of stripped back tracks built for the clubs where they hung out. Both tracks had propulsive percussion, with hats and snares weaving to create a constant sense of energy and groove. These drums, taking cues from Ciafone's hip-hop past, would become a Mood II Swing trademark, endearing them to DJs and crowds across the dance music spectrum. The results still sound amazing today—the thick analogue sound of "8 Ways To Knock Down A Wall" is especially timeless.
Vega kept Mood II Swing close. Springsteen co-wrote the MAW hit "I Can't Get No Sleep" and contributed to several of the group's affiliated projects. Ciafone lent his signature drum programming skills to Gonzales and Vega's work, perhaps most notably on Soul Fusion's "Bass Tone"—one of the most pared down and rhythmically irresistible moments in the Masters At Work catalogue.
Mood II Swing's involvement in Barbara Tucker's '94 house classic "Beautiful People" is the best example of how these collaborative sessions worked. That recording included 11 vocalists and four writers, including Springsteen, with MAW providing the overall direction. With so much talent around, a glut of material was created. When an eager, inexperienced Erick Morillo came looking for a break, Vega helped. Together they repurposed a snippet of "Beautiful People" to form Hardrive's "Deep Inside," thus creating two of the '90's most-loved house tracks in one session. In a recent twist, Kanye West used a snippet of "Beautiful People" on The Life Of Pablo, thus giving Springsteen a meandering connection to the most talked about album of 2016.
The sessions with Vega weren't always so productive. "I wrote a song with Donell Rush called 'Perfect Day For Company,'" Springsteen recalls. "Louie produced the music. We recorded a full vocal, background vocals. India, all these people singing background. Louie calls me up one day. He's like, 'Come to the studio, we're doing something different.' I'm like, 'OK.' We come up with a groove, a bassline. And he invites Donell in and Donell just starts ad-libbing in the vocal booth, and that becomes the record. So I'm like, 'We spent all this time doing a full song and you're not even gonna use it?' He's like, 'Nope!'"
Mood II Swing soon had a reputation on par with their mentors'. Between 1994 and 1996, they released close to 100 tracks, including remixes and collaborative works. Free from the the touring schedules of many of their contemporaries, Mood II Swing could dedicate 100% of their time to the studio.
Even more remarkable, though, is their strike rate. There's hardly a bad track from this period, and the best stuff is as good as house music gets. Stand outs include "Do It Your Way," "All Night Long," "The Slippery Track," "Ohh," "Move Me," "Call Me," "Sunlight In My Eyes" and "Closer." They were also gaining a reputation for their remixes, which were often more like original collaborations, with Springsteen and Ciafone writing and producing new material. Kim English's "Learn To Love" and Loni Clark's "Rushing" are just two examples of tracks that appear to be Mood II Swing remixes but are actually something more.
It was perhaps the Mood II Swing dubs, the stripped-back instrumental tracks, that made the biggest impact. They were inspired by both the New York house scene and techno clubs of the era like Limelight and The World. "There's a lot of techno DJs and producers that have influenced me," Ciafone says. "That definitely has an impact on how I produce dubs." Soon techno acts were playing these records themselves. "Move Me" and "The Slippery Track" were hammered by DJs like Laurent Garnier, Juan Atkins and Sven Väth. When London DJs began pitching up Mood II Swing dubs, the fast, lurching grooves caught the imagination, helping to inspire UK garage. Even today, "Closer" remains a UKG classic that's been rehashed countless times by British remixers. But locked in their New York studio, Mood II Swing were unaware of their trans-Atlantic influence.
A turning point in the duo's story came in '96, when they were drafted in to work on Ultra Nate's album for Strictly Rhythm. Springsteen was excited. "She was different than the screaming divas that I was hearing," he says. "Really moody, and it was very sexy and different." The track to come out from their collaboration was "Free," a record that would go on to sell nearly half a million units in the UK alone. Simon Dunmore, now head of Defected, was working at AM:PM when he first heard the track. "I was sent the demo from Strictly Rhythm in January 1997 and it blew me away," he says. "It was the biggest record at the WMC that year and the rest is history. I knew it was going to be a club anthem but radio is always tough to predict. Once the record got out there, however, the reaction was pretty much instant. We quickly realised that there was something pretty special going on."
Despite the huge success of the track Mood II Swing didn't get a huge bump in recognition. "We didn't really get a lot of credit for it because a lot of people think we actually remixed it," Springsteen says. "We come from the mentality that she was the artist and even though we were the producers, she's the one that's going to present the record all around the world and perform the record. If you read the credits it says, 'written and produced by Springsteen & Ciafone,' you know. But in the media it was Ultra Nate, Ultra Nate, Ultra Nate. Which we were OK with."
Springsteen and Ciafone say that their lower billing on that record may have come from the fact they had no management. They'd never considered marketing themselves or building a profile. The duo was simply focused on the music, perhaps to their detriment. "When 'Free' blew up we were so floored because we didn't travel as much," says Springsteen. "We weren't surrounded by promoters and fans, so we were kinda clueless."
Although Mood II Swing weren't aware of their own reputation, the industry was. A major London music publisher signed the duo to a big deal off the back of "Free." But rather than buying into Ciafone and Springsteen as the seasoned songwriters they were, they just wanted another version of the Ultra Nate hit. "I got really confused at that time," says Springsteen. "Between where I came from and where I am now. 'OK am I now in pop-land?' And because with the music publishers they have you working with all these different people. They're throwing me and John in these writing sessions with Amy Winehouse producers and working for Kylie Minogue, and we kind of left the underground for a while. So all of a sudden now you're thrown in these situations with these major obligations and responsibilities of a publishing deal. But at that level, the expectations are very hard to reach unless you have a staff, a team, major management. So it was an eye-opener. And politics were out of control. You know, it just finally came to a halt, and we had to kind of regroup."
Unfortunately, Mood II Swing picked a particularly bad moment to regroup. Just as "Free" reached its peak in Europe, the vibe of New York clubs was changing drastically. There was still a crowd for the soulful sound Mood II Swing favoured, but it was small and increasingly distanced from the city's prevailing trends. The big clubs, Twilo and Tunnel, were turning to tribal and progressive house, with Junior Vasquez and Danny Tenaglia leading the charge alongside British imports Sasha and Digweed.
The industry itself was changing, too. Napster launched in '99, helping to precipitate the industry's bumpy shift from physical to digital formats. In 2000, Strictly Rhythm, Mood II Swing's primary label, joined forces with the major label Warner Music in an ill-fated pact that would eventually put them out of business for five years. By 2001, independent labels were wobbling atop a shifting landscape. A few years later many of them would go bust.
Mood II Swing were in a particularly tricky situation. They didn't have a DJ career to fall back on. Their skills as songwriters were becoming unfashionable as instrumental dance dominated the clubs. Their talents in big studios became redundant as producers began finding simpler, less expensive ways of making music. They continued to work together, but also began branching out on their own. Ciafone moved to LA and turned in a notable remix of Underworld in 2002. Springsteen went down an increasingly soulful path. Nothing they put out was especially bad, but none of it reached the heights of their best collaborative work. When I ask how they adapted to the post-2000 world of dance music, Springsteen sums it up bluntly: "We didn't!"
Still, Mood II Swing's music remained a force in clubs. These days, they're finally aware that their music still has a cultural cache, and they are starting to DJ out. Their touring schedule already looks solid, with gigs at Dimensions Festival, Corsica Studios and Smart Bar locked in.
Dunmore believes Mood II Swing's comeback is long overdue. "They get props from their peers but their work is not recognised in the public domain like in the same way that MAW, Todd Terry, Frankie Knuckles or David Morales is." Likewise Hector Romero, one of the key figures of Frankie Knuckles' and David Morales' Def Mix label, sees Mood II Swing's work as pivotal. "Their contribution to house music was just as important as MAW and Def Mix." 25 years since they first met, it looks like Mood II Swing might finally get the recognition they deserve.