‘How did I go from being a gigolo where rich white women pay me for sex to being a hermit?” wonders Jamal Moss. Now 42, and settling into middle age, the underground dance producer is worried he’s let himself go. “I’ll be off living in my bubble and then, when it comes to interacting with humans, they look at me like, ‘Did you just come out of a cave? You smell like a wildebeest.’”
Actually, Moss smells fine and, having flown in from Chicago to play in London, he’s clearly not a very good hermit. He records as Hieroglyphic Being, making lo-fi tracks that sound pockmarked and cobwebbed – the magnificently funky How Wet Is Your Box was sold by one record store with a note reassuring customers that these weren’t manufacturing errors.
Moss releases as many as eight albums a year of these raw and erotic tracks. The latest, The Disco’s of Imhotep, aims to heal listeners just as the doctor Imhotep healed ancient Egypt. “I’m thinking of this whole other galactic picture, of trying to make the world a better place,” he says. “I get so caught up, I forget basic essentials.” Like what? “Like getting proper underwear.”
For a long time, Moss couldn’t even afford underwear. Adopted by ramrod-backed Christian parents at the age of three, he began to drift away from them when he discovered Chicago’s nightlife at the age of 12. “They were dropping the Bible, thesauruses, the Encyclopedia Britannica in front of my face. These were their guides to the universe. And I had a different way.”
Although he was into such aggressively noisy industrial artists as Throbbing Gristle and DAF, Moss was scared the first time he went clubbing. “I’d never experienced something like that, especially the loudness. These people were not dressed like black folks I’d seen. They were like something out of a Billy Idol video.” He was turned away for being too young. So – “after a lot of working out” – he returned and was invited in by the legendary DJ Ron Hardy. “I just sat in the corner. I didn’t dance. I was in shock and awe.”
Moss began amassing peers, forming dance groups who would “battle” at parties. “We’d go to the library and watch videos of ballet dancers, so we could go to the next party and show off what we learned. It was sophisticated. Hip-hop pushed a ghetto mentality, house had a global mentality. You had nice shoes and a good hairstyle. You smelled, talked, moved a certain way. It was the first time I saw men with Fendi purses, or in velour jumpsuits. Bandanas, earrings, combat boots – looking like a black pirate or Errol Flynn.”
He went to live with his impoverished biological mother, who had grown up amid “that disco-cocaine situation”. He remembers a diet of sugar and mayonnaise sandwiches. Their relationship soured and Moss became homeless as a teenager, working at loft parties so he had somewhere to sleep. “I was thrown to the wolves, unloved by both sides. I had to try and survive, find some form of love – and the only form of love I could remember was the people from the parties.”
He also started selling his body. “In my mind, if I could get a roof over my head, and some breakfast, yeah, I’ll fuck you,” he says. “Someone would say, ‘There’s this woman that wants to meet you, she likes the way you dance.’ Well, why doesn’t she come dance with me? ‘Oh, she wants to dance with you, just not on the floor.’ I ended up being with doctors, lawyers, even a social worker.”
Another client was a rich financial analyst. “We’d hang out, have conversations. We only had sex five or six times. She was nurturing, a kind of nurture I didn’t get from family members.” She funded him through a summer school and junior college, which led to a place studying anthropology at university. “You’re growing up hearing gunshots. Now you got people with three fridges. People are giving out free samples at the new organic shop. It was a shock to the system.”
While he was at university in the 1990s, he became a middleman in party planning, taking a cut from both the suburban white kids who wanted to put on raves (and “looked like Ferris Bueller”) and the venue owners. Making music seemed like the next step for him. “I’m working through my sorrows inside the machines,” he says. “Not truly connecting with my family, people you loved and lost, friends who betray you. I’m exorcising all those demons.”
Moss’s albums have titles such as The Fourth Dimension of a Nubian Mystic and The Seer of Cosmic Visions, meaning he’s often dubbed an “Afrofuturist” – a term he bristles at. “I don’t know any people on the planet who have been through as much rebranding. In the 70s you were ‘black’, before that it was ‘Negro’. We come off an assembly line every 20 years. ‘Afrofuturism’ is for intellectuals in universities, dinner party conversations. I got sick of going to these Afrofuturism panels and events – there’d be 1,000 people, with 30 black people, and one under the age of 19. And that’s in an area where there’s a large black population, walking back and forth to work, mopping floors, driving buses.”
He gets enervated as we talk about racial inequality in the US, calling the police “the Klan with a badge and a gun”, and arguing that the black psyche is now seriously damaged. “Desegregation was about begging whites to accept us as humans: you treated us so bad for hundreds of years, but we still want to be with you. That’s fucked up!” Surely racial equality isn’t borne out of black self-loathing? Moss eyeballs me. “Dude, it gets deep. We’re the only people on this Earth who’ll be kicked down, and come back and kiss the motherfucker’s ass who put us in this situation, hoping to just fucking breathe.”
But he tries not to get bogged down in US politics. “If you look at the history of the world, it’s been the same thing over and over. Human beings were once like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to kick it with these apes – imma be an ape with a loincloth.’ People get caught up in that, but it’s a distraction. I look at myself as being part of a global human culture: black folks create stuff, Asians make the technology and white folks put the dollars behind it. Everybody has their place. They all need to focus on what their true purpose is: to do the best they can until it’s time to go. I see how ugly the world is – and I’m doing my part to make it better.”
His brow wrinkles as he talks about his artistic quest. “You can get so withdrawn in what you’re doing, the love of your life can’t see what you see. They might be interested in you, but certain things you do they can’t understand. It’s been that case for me for a long time.” He finds connecting with people on tour equally hard: “People want to party and do drugs and fuck. They don’t want to hear about my trauma.”
But he argues that the dance scene, which once gave him a family and a roof over his head, can still be a force for good. “The Chicago youth needs house music. They’re caught in a cycle of violence that’s bred through hip-hop and R&B culture in America. All they see are cats portraying violence, disrespecting women, showing opulence. It’s just tits, ass and pussy – that’s tearing the world apart. I want other artists to make stuff that heals the world, not divides it, because when I came up through the scene it brought together black, white, gay, all under one roof.” House, then, can be a home.
•The Disco’s of Imhotep is released on Friday on Technicolour.