“This Is My Life”: John Morrison And His Musical Love Letter To Philadelphia
An intimate look at the lifelong Philly resident’s debut album
Born and bred in the city of Philadelphia, music has been in DJ, MC, producer, and writer John Morrison’s blood as long as he can remember. “This is my life,” he tells me. “And it has been since I was a child.”
It all started way back in the mid 80s when his older brother Devin was a member of the rap group Devastating 4. “Imagine Ultramagnetic MCs or Marley Marl style production with three women MCs,” John says. “They would perform all over the city and open for Ultramagnetic — I think Kane and Biz Markie — just mad pioneers. Their live setup was really unique because in addition to the three MCs, my brother would be on stage with a Roland 909 and 808 doing the beats live along with a DJ.”
Devin’s involvement in the music scene sparked John’s initial desire to produce, but it was a family tragedy that inspired him to pick up the mic — he started penning his own raps in the spring of 1990 after his father was killed. In the wake of his father’s untimely death, John spent a few years MCing as a way to work through the aftermath before his older brother taught him him how to make beats.
After a few initial sessions, John’s brotherly bond with Devin continued to play a key role in his musical evolution throughout the 90s. “My brother would show me breaks and give me sample material,” he explains. “He was the first person to give me his copies of the Ultimate Breaks & Beats compilations. So I had knowledge of sample source material in hip hop from a pretty young age.”
“This is my life. And it has been since I was a child.”
It wasn’t long before studying sample sources turned into DIY beat battles between Devin, John, and a close friend of theirs. “My homeboy had the SP-303 when it came out,” says John. “Me, him, and my older brother used to have beat battles in the crib, but it wasn’t like a beat battle where we were playing pre-made beats. We’d challenge each other at finger drumming on the machines or like, ‘Who can come up with the hottest beat in 10 minutes?’”
Despite many years spent honing his skills as a producer and an accomplished DJ, John didn’t release his debut album SWP: Southwest Psychedelphia on Deadverse Records until 2016. But for fans of his DJ sets and unreleased production, the album was well worth the wait. A sonic representation of “ a day in the life in his Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood” told through a collection of instrumentals, the album manages to take bits and pieces of John’s vast influences and work them into an impressive musical love letter to his city. Based on initial reactions, the love seems to be mutual. “Folks have really responded well to the album,” he says. “I’ve had folks who’ve moved away tell me that the album reminds them of home, which is amazing.”
In addition to showcasing his breadth of musical knowledge, the album also demonstrates John’s skills as a musician and sound designer. “Creation Theme”, one of Southwest Psychedelphia’s shining moments, started when John used Reason’s Thor polyphonic synthesizer to create a sine wave as a basis for the song. “Back in the day, when I used the Ensoniq ASR-10 to make beats, I would use a sine wave as a building block to create my own keyboard patches,” he says. “Sometimes, I’d make them sound like those bubbly low-passed bass tones that Dilla used to use. Sometimes, I’d use a sine wave to make a patch that resembled a Rhodes or Wurlitzer electric piano.”
“I’ve had folks who’ve moved away tell me that the album reminds them of home, which is amazing.”
His built-from-scratch electric piano sound allowed him to play chords in Reason that laid the perfect foundation for the song. Once the foundation was set, he used Reason’s powerful FX to take the song to a different level. “I added a few delay and chorus effects to give it that dreamy feeling. Almost like one of those Hawaiian lounge or exotica records from the 60s,” he says.
Though it sets the tone for the song from the very beginning, the idea to use a well-known Reggae vocal sample as an integral element came later. “It was really just me playing around on Instagram,” he says. “After listening to the video, I just decided to keep it because it sounded good.”
“58th & Chester Get Biz” is another gem from the album that finds John channeling the love he has for his city into something beautiful. “Chester Avenue is the main strip of Southwest Philadelphia that we lived in when I made the album. That song is kind of an ode to that corner,” he says.
And, in the same vein as “Creation Theme”, “58th & Chester” started with a basic chord progression and a bit of experimentation. “Just me sitting down and playing piano,” he says. “I wanted this to have a grainy, dusty sound so everything is a little distorted and processed.”
As for the sample of arguing teenage voices that closes out the song, John hit the streets of Philly armed with an audio recording app to capture that perfect ending. “The sample of the kids arguing at the end came off of my phone,” he says “I used to just walk around the neighborhood and record shit.”
“It was really just me playing around on Instagram.”
Now that John is hard at work on his next project — this time a rap album — he is reverting to the spongelike approach he took to music before creating Southwest Psychedelphia. “Before my partner and I moved into the neighborhood and apartment that inspired the record, I went on a crazy digging spree — just preparing to absorb and synthesize all of these influences, then spit them back out,” he says.
After completing and Southwest Psychedelphia, John is starting the process all over again. “I’m doing the same thing now in anticipation of making my next record,” he says. “Just digging and turning myself on to music I’ve never heard in preparation to make something new. Kinda like a bird building it’s nest.”