“MOCEAN WORKER MAKES IT BIG” may never be splashed across
The New York Times
Sunday “Styles” section, but a headline like that may not be so important to him. New York City — based Mocean Worker — aka MOWO, aka Adam Dorn (www.moceanworker.com) — is content to float over the radar and fly back under again, using his broad industry knowledge to build a 21st-century audio career.
A man with three names: Adam Dorn, Mocean Worker and MOWO
photo: David Weiss
Dorn's resume is long for someone who's just 35: He's an electronic music whiz in the studio with equally hardcore touring experience supporting his four full-length album releases; a former in-demand bass session cat; and a film remixer, producer, label head, publishing/licensing master and overall entertainment business expert. To understand how he wears so many hats successfully, it helps to go back a full 20 years, when Dorn — not yet eligible for his driver's license — was given permission by his parents to leave his native Philadelphia for the Big Apple to start a career on the four-string.
“The main reason why I do many different things was because the start of my career was as a sideman,” explains Dorn in his Manhattan apartment, which doubles as a Pro Tools|HD — based studio. “I was called upon to play pop, funk, jazz, Broadway and sight-read all kinds of stuff. You had to do as many things stylistically as possible, just within one job. Everything you can do well is an asset, and you have to be able to concentrate on learning as many things as you can do. Your skills have to be varied, and you can't do just one thing, or if you do, be the best in the world at it.”
Looking back on his beginnings, it was MOWO's moxie that won him his start. As that same 15-year-old, Dorn started a mail correspondence with in-demand jazz/R&B/rock bassist and producer Marcus Miller, who invited him to hang out in New York City for a session or two. Dorn took him up on it and was immediately hooked on the scene. Negotiations for release from high school (provided he earned his GED first) went smoothly, aided by the fact that he had an uncommonly understanding father, the esteemed Atlantic Records music producer Joel Dorn (Charles Mingus, Bette Midler, the Allman Brothers).
Once in New York City, Miller took Dorn under his wing, letting him look in on every aspect of record production with the likes of Roberta Flack and Luther Vandross while MOWO supplemented his income as the “absolute piss boy” at Quad Studios. It was his next gig — as the daytime tape librarian at Right Track Studios — that really helped Dorn. “I spent every night working on Marcus Miller records,” he recalls. “On his team, I learned a little about every person's task, including what the artist is like to work with; the producer, engineer and mixer's role; what it is like to be the programmer on the date; meeting sidemen.”
Dorn kept taking things to the next level, playing bass for the likes of Chaka Khan, Vandross and French pop star Patrick Bruel, who took Dorn to France for three years. It was that extended stay that got him fully immersed in European DJ culture and production gigs
The tracks that Dorn hoarded for his own nefarious purposes became his brilliant 1998 debut indie album, Home Movies From the Brain Forest (MOWO! Inc.), a musically proficient synthesis of drum 'n' bass and jazz that led to the 1999 Mixed Emotional Features, Aural & Hearty in 2000 and Enter the MOWO! in 2004. During his journey from indie to major-label artist and back again, Dorn learned even more music business lessons — not all of them pleasant.
“Palm [which put out his first albums] always seemed to be struggling, but I got really lucky with [Mixed Emotional Features] because we did a lot of licensing,” he explains. “It also almost crippled me because the label would say, ‘We put the music on films and made money, so we won't give tour support.’ It's smart economics if you think about it: If you're already in the black, why put a six-piece band on the road?”
Fortunately, he wasn't just a typical artist getting slapped around by a label head, because at the same time, he was a label head. As co-founder with Joel Dorn of the jazz archival reissue label 32 Records, Dorn oversaw highly successful releases by Mahalia Jackson and Slim & Slam. In that capacity, not only did Dorn become highly conversant in the business of releasing records, but also in mining a catalog for samples and bending them to his will.
By the time he was creating Enter the MOWO!, Dorn had become a full-on sampling freak, a development that means he can pare his production plant down to a single laptop if need be, as long as it's outfitted with Propellerhead Reason. “I'm probably one of the top five fans in the world of Reason,” states Dorn. “When I first started making records, I used an [Akai] MPC3000, which is a sampler with a great sequencer. That's exactly what Reason is, but the difference is that [Reason's Dr. Rex module] gives me the ability to take every sample I've ever sampled and, combined with their other application, Recycle, my sample library is about 12 times bigger than it was because every sample now has multiple slices in it. So you can take an old jazz record, cut it into four or five slices, assign them to your MIDI keyboard and create something cool when you put a dotted quarter-note delay on a slice and tune it down, for example.
“There's other stuff in my studio, like an Avalon 737 and Empirical Labs Distressor, but I don't use it as much. Pro Tools is a really, really expensive sampler. I literally drop the needle on the record and record it into Pro Tools to prepare it for use in Recycle. I'll record a 30-second snippet of something, and you'll never hear it in a context where you would recognize it.”
The result was a snappily inspired sound for Enter, which is still selling well nearly two years after its release. Meanwhile, the next Mocean Worker album is almost complete.
Encapsulating what he's learned from his two-decades-long education, he says, “I've made business mistakes. All you need is to get ripped off once, and then you realize you need a contract for everything, and that publishing is of über-utmost importance. When you start to work in the music business, you come to understand album design, artwork, PR, sales, budgets. When artists say, ‘Man, the record label ripped me off,’ well, record labels don't rip you off. You just didn't do your homework.”
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