Nearly a decade ago, DJ Susan Morabito rebranded herself by adopting the mononymous moniker Morabito.
“As the generations switch over, you have people leaving the scene every season and a new, fresh batch of cookies coming out of the oven,” says Morabito, explaining the rationale behind the rebranding. Of course, by that point in time Morabito had already established herself as a household name among seasoned gay clubland devotees as well as fans of underground and afterhours house music in general.
As it turns out, the year 2022 marks a milestone in the career of the pioneering female DJ, who, to extend her baking metaphor, has proven herself to be one tough cookie with remarkable freshness and staying power that beats them all.
Although she’d rather not focus on it, this fall will mark Morabito’s 40th anniversary in the business, dating back to when the lesbian DJ was new on the scene in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. Even after all these years, Morabito says her passion for sharing the music she loves has never wavered.
“I’m continually working with an influx of new music,” she says. “DJ is a spontaneous art form. I never know what I’m going to play next, and that’s what keeps it so fresh for me, and why I love it just as much now as I did when I first started. It just hasn’t gotten old or tired.”
At one time or another over the past three decades, the New York-based DJ has managed to play at most if not all of the leading dance parties and events known to gay men — many times over in some cases. That includes D.C.’s Cherry, which tapped Morabito to spin as the Saturday night DJ at its inaugural edition in 1996. That makes Morabito “Cherry’s longest-running DJ,” in the words of Allen Sexton, president of the Cherry Fund, the non-profit that oversees the events. And, as such, Morabito was granted first dibs when it came time to pay tribute to the event’s 25th anniversary.
“We reached out to Susan out of courtesy and respect to her and her long-term support of the organization,” Sexton says. “We gave her the option to play whatever [event] she wanted to. She chose to do the afterhours, which is her signature sound.”
Cherry’s “25th Anniversary 2.0” is set for the second weekend in April, two years after original plans for the anniversary fell victim to the pandemic. After postponing the anniversary twice, organizers are finally eager to watch the community come together to dance and raise money for organizations serving those affected by HIV/AIDS and mental health issues.
Morabito will spin at Flash for the Saturday afterhours in the wee hours of Sunday, April 10, as part of a “Serve & Strut” lineup that also includes DJ Alain Jackinsky plus DJs Aaron Aanenson and Isaac Escalante ushering in the sunrise on the club’s retractable roof level.
The full weekend lineup includes an impressive array of entertainment with other Cherry veterans returning to headline the weekend’s main events, including DJs Tom Stephan and GSP for the party’s “Runway” event at Echostage on Friday, April 8, Micky Friedmann and Shane Marcus for a “Flawless” night at the Howard Theatre on Saturday, April 9, and DJ Nina Flowers to “Pose” and close the weekend at Union Stage on Sunday, April 10.
Circuit Mom will also return leading a bevy of performers for both Friday and Saturday night events including Maddelynn Hatter, Zeta Jones, CT Hedden, and Digna. And Cherry co-founder Moody Mustafa will celebrate his 65th birthday with an annual blowout Saturday afternoon dance party at Soundcheck featuring DJ Joe Gauthreaux.
All told, 21 DJs will spin at eight events across seven venues marking Cherry 25, including the party’s debut at Union Stage on the Wharf and Decades in Dupont Circle. “We had looked at some additional venues pre-pandemic,” Sexton says, but that changed as a result of “us scaling back and just being mindful of still coming out of a pandemic year and people’s concerns of what that actually means.
“It’s been problematic getting us to the finish line with what all that’s entailed,” he continues. “But I’m very excited to finally get back on our way and continue to support our community, and to do what we try to do best.” He expresses cautious optimism about the anniversary, based on early ticket sales and buzz about the event.
“We anticipate it to be a very, very good year.”
METRO WEEKLY: You’re returning to Cherry this year to help celebrate the 25th anniversary. You were an original DJ at the very first Cherry. That’s really something special.
SUSAN MORABITO: It is! I am extremely honored to be a part of the 25th anniversary of Cherry. I’ve been a part of many of the Cherry’s — the first one and probably six or seven in between, maybe more. It’s a wonderful organization. They throw a great party and they put their hearts and souls into it. So when all that stuff comes to the table, it elevates not only the party, but it elevates the energy of all involved and all who take part.
And I’m doing an afterhours, which of course I love. I have to admit afterhours is my favorite to play. If I have my choice, I would always choose an afterhours, even though it has less people, generally. Afterhours, for me, has a tendency to be a little darker, or edgier, certainly not commercial. And it’s not [songs] you’re going to sing along to. You know what I’m saying?
It’s more underground — you can push the envelope musically. I feel you can get away with more new music, far less familiar music. They’ve already heard the familiar music at the main event. So come afterhours time, I find them to be a lot more open to newer sounds.
MW: By the time you spun at Cherry in 1996, you already had a solid decade of DJing under your belt. How did you get into this line of work?
MORABITO: When I was 15 years old, I thought I would become a radio DJ. The appeal of that was obviously, first and foremost, music. Back then, I thought that radio DJs chose the songs. And I really enjoyed going to record stores. I would save my lunch money, part of it at least, and would go to the local record store/head shop. And I would leaf through the bins, looking for music. And they would play them. And I enjoyed that. So I thought that if I was a radio DJ I would be able to turn people on to the music I liked.
I learned at some point, by the time I was 18 or 19, that, outside of a college radio station, you had a music director who told you what to play, and that was all based on the power of a record label. A radio DJ is the gift of gab more than anything. That’s the skill. You’re really not choosing those records. So that was a little disappointing.
When I was 20, I went to a gay bar for the first time — Traxx, in Cleveland. Within five minutes of being there, I remember hearing disco. And it was interesting because at that time, in my mind, I thought disco was just that commercial “Ring My Bell” type of stuff. I didn’t know it went beyond that. Here I’m in a gay bar and I’m hearing disco I have never heard in my life. In my mind I hated disco, and I didn’t even know this stuff was disco, but I eventually realized, yes, indeed, it was.
And I was blown away. I was blown away that there was this music being played and you had a couple hundred people on the dance floor, maybe 300 or 400, and they were just exuberant and ecstatic and joyful. And I was like, “Where is this music coming from? What’s going on here?” So I walked around the club and I found the DJ — DJ Eddie — who was high up enough to see and feel the dance floor. And I’m looking in the booth, and I see three turntables and — at the time, I probably didn’t know what it was, but — a mixing board.
I was just obsessed. It was like, I can’t believe this. I’m watching this guy go through these crates he had, maybe three or four crates with all these records in them. And not only was he choosing which ones to play, but he was putting it together in a seamless way. I had never experienced that before. That’s the art of mixing. And then you take it to the art of creating a journey. Not only are you choosing the tracks, you’re also mixing them in a seamless manner, and you’re creating a story, a journey, with them. So that was it.
Not only was I ecstatic about that, but this was also a gay bar. So this was a whole coming-out process that was going on, and finding myself, and finally realizing for the first time in my life where I belonged.
MW: It all came to a head at once.
MORABITO: That’s right. We have a coming-out story in addition to “this is what I want to do with my life.” So I started going to gay clubs, mostly men’s. I did go to women’s, but mostly men’s, because the music was much better at men’s clubs. That’s how it all began.
MW: On that note, even today you play at clubs or parties that primarily draw crowds of gay men. Do you play many women’s events?
MORABITO: Very few. I’ll play them depending on the crowd that they get and the expectations of me. If a female promoter called me up and said, “I want you to do this event,” my first question is going to be, “What is the musical vibe like?” Meaning, if there’s an expectation for Top 40, “Sorry, I’m not your girl.” “If you want house music and tech-house music, and are going to back me on playing what I feel is appropriate, if your crowd is open to all that stuff, yeah, I’d love to do it.”
There have been a couple of lesbian parties that are very open and accepting. I did one for Whitney Day at the House of Yes here in New York and her crowd was amazing. It was all about good music and serious dancing. And I played what I wanted to and what was appropriate for that event. So it was a lot of house music.
So if I’m in a situation like that, and that goes across the board — as long as it’s my vibe, I’ll do a wedding, I’ll play a straight party, a women’s party, a men’s party. If you want Top 40, no. If you want a particular sound — this is a discussion I have with people.
MW: Did you have role models or mentors who helped you learn how to become a DJ? Or were you primarily self-taught?
MORABITO: I started going to a club called Keys. And there was a guy by the name of Greg Whitback, and I loved his style. I really liked him as a DJ. So I started hanging out there and befriended him and asked him if he would teach me how to play. And he said, “The best thing I could tell you to do is, just hang out, sit in the booth, watch, shut up, and listen. And all music goes in 4/4. So when you’re listening to music, count that.”
I bought another turntable and 12 records — because records were expensive, very expensive — music is so cheap now — and over time I built up that collection. And I practiced on these mediocre turntables. And eventually, I got a job in a lesbian club [where] I was a bartender. The women wanted to make requests, and I wasn’t down for that. And they were really, what I thought were bad requests. It was all this Top 40 stuff, which is fine. I shouldn’t say bad, I don’t want to offend anybody, but that’s not what I was into.
Well, the owner of the club, Chad, also owned a men’s club. And he said, “Susan, you’re very talented. And you can really go places with this.” What eventually happened was, he gave me a slow night at his [men’s] club, maybe a Thursday. Eventually I worked my way up to Friday. At that point, Chad had also told me about a club in New York called The Saint, which was this miraculous perfection of a club. I started coming up to New York as often as I could. I would drive up with a couple of friends to go to The Saint.
And that’s when I learned you could take people on a journey that I never knew existed — meaning, a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the end, the music would come down for a gentle landing. After they’d had the frenetic, high-energy peak, then it would slowly come down. Granted, the club was open until two o’clock in the afternoon — it would go from 11 p.m. to two o’clock in the afternoon. Then on special parties, it might go till 3 or 4 p.m. And you’d have one DJ play those 15 hours. It would be an arc of an evening.
MW: You’re getting at one of the key ways the scene has changed over the decades. At the very first Cherry, there were three DJs in total, one per event, over the course of a weekend. This year there are more than twice that number of events and many times that number of DJs over a single weekend. Do you know how many hours you’re going to be spinning this year?
MORABITO: Three and a half. A mere three and a half!
MW: Do you miss spinning those all-night marathons?
MORABITO: Oh, yeah. And I do them as often as I can. If I had my way, I would want the whole night. But not all promoters want to do that. There are certain clubs where I have the whole night. They’re not as long as they used to be. I don’t need to have an 18-hour set — I’m good with eight hours. Three is way too short for me — just as you’re warming up, it’s over.
I really like to delve into different energy levels. I like to go to different places. That’s how I was brought up. You don’t have the full journey anymore. Even if you have one DJ, in a lot of the clubs, they don’t bring it down. Now, I particularly really like that. And I have a tendency to go to places where I’m going to get a little bit of that because it’s still out there.
MW: Do you go out when you’re not the DJ?
MORABITO: I do. I’m extremely particular about where I’ll go and who the DJs are because I don’t do it every weekend. Been there, done that. There were decades where I went out almost every weekend. I work a lot on the weekend, so I’m perfectly fine staying home on a Saturday night watching Netflix. But if I do go out, I’m incredibly selective.
MW: Back to your roots in Cleveland, did you grow up in a big family?
MORABITO: Three sisters. Two older, one younger. I’m a middle child.
MW: Were you musical growing up?
MORABITO: I played the bass guitar for a while, but that’s it. It wasn’t like my parents sat me down in front of a piano and I played, no. I played the bass guitar when I was in high school with some friends, we had a basement band. I got by. I certainly wasn’t great. This is all based on my deep, profound love of music and sharing music that I find.
When we go back to why did I want to become a radio DJ? Because I thought they shared what they found. Well, this job, what I do now, I’m like your personal shopper. I spend twenty hours a week sifting through a lot of garbage to bring you the best and then share it.
MW: Was coming out a challenge?
MORABITO: Well, the way I did it wasn’t the smartest way. At the time I was a bartender at Isis, the lesbian bar. And then I was a DJ in Cleveland. And somebody from one of the morning TV shows came in, they wanted to interview two men and two women. And everybody at the bar worked nine-to-five jobs, and they couldn’t do it. But I could. And the woman I was with, at the time, also worked a nine to five, but she could do it.
So we go on The Morning Exchange as the two lesbians. And my parents don’t watch morning programs — my mother wasn’t even up until noon. But one of my father’s friends saw it and told my parents. I had no intention of coming out that way.
My mother was mortified. Not only, “What are the neighbors going to think?” But “This is the way I find out my daughter’s gay?” Now, my father, he was a real street guy. So he knew something was up. I was a tomboy and I’m certainly not the most feminine lesbian walking the earth. And so he kind of had a feeling. I knew they talked about it at some point, but it was just a really shitty way of coming out. So for like nine months, my mother wouldn’t talk to me. And I don’t blame her. But eventually, she did.
I feel it’s our responsibility to educate [our parents] on homosexuality, because the go-to for them is, “What did I do wrong? Where did I fail?” And I had to explain that to her: “You didn’t fail. It’s not you. It’s the way I am. I was born this way. I’m very happy.” That took a little work. And then maybe a year or two [later], my mother’s at bars in Cleveland on the dance floor when I’m playing. How fabulous is that? Now, my father? No.
MW: It sounds like she was the night owl anyway.
MORABITO: Oh, my God, she was fun. My mother was so much fun. There she would be, with a glow stick in her hand, and lapping up all the attention from the boys. “Oh my God, you’re Susan Morabito’s mother?!? Oh, my God!” And we’re both Leo’s. So she really enjoyed it.
And then I brought girlfriends home. We shared a bed in their home. So, it’s like anything, it’s a process.
I’m very fortunate and grateful that my mother was so embracing and a part of my homosexuality. My father couldn’t care less. He was a racist and a bigot and all that kind of stuff. So I was gay. Great, whatever, as long as you’re happy, but he really couldn’t care less.
MW: Are you close to your siblings?
MORABITO: Yes, I am. I’m very close to all my family. I have a wonderful family in spite of their political views.
MW: I was wondering about that.
MORABITO: Yeah, it’s tough. I struggle with it. I absolutely adore my nieces, but they’re anti-vaxxers and they’re not politically savvy. And I have to keep that in mind. Like many people in the Midwest and the South, and the majority of people who watch Fox News, they’re limited on where they get their information, and they don’t trust the media. What I’m saying is nothing new since Trump, since 2015. It’s hard for me. I struggle with it because it’s very painful to hear them say the things that they say, and I really have to bite my lip. And sometimes I don’t.
MW: How have you managed to get through the pandemic and weather COVID?
MORABITO: It’s really interesting because I was fine with it. You have to realize that this is a very isolating job. I’m at home all day, mostly, besides going to the gym, grocery shopping, occasional lunch and dinner out. I work from home. I’m music shopping. I’m working on production and remixes. I’m answering emails. I’m doing PR with Facebook. Nobody’s in this apartment but me. So it’s an isolating job except when you go to a club. Music shopping alone takes about twenty hours a week, and I’m alone doing it. When the pandemic hit, it really didn’t change much except live performances.
MW: When things started to open back up last year, were you at all worried about getting back out there? Do you worry now about new variants emerging?
MORABITO: Yes and no. I’m triple-vaxxed. So Omicron was Christmas to January. And the thing with Omicron — unfortunately, it was highly contagious. Fortunately, if you were vaxxed, chances are you weren’t going to get really sick and you were not going to die from it. Now, I haven’t had COVID.
During the peak of Omicron, I got in several planes and I went to Puerto Vallarta for a gig. And then the next day I went to L.A., so here I am in a capsule, meaning the plane. But when I’m in a club, I’m not in the crowd, I’m in the DJ booth. And there’s a real protective mechanism with that. I don’t like a lot of people in my booth, so very few people come in the booth to say hello — they might wave. And a few might come in and we’ll hug, but that’s real limited. The biggest risk was probably being in a plane, but I wore an N95 mask.
My worry with COVID is that I was stupid enough to be a smoker for almost 30 years. I don’t know how it’s going to affect my lungs. It does cause damage, scar-tissue damage, on your lungs. And considering my lungs have been around for a while and I was a smoker, that’s what makes me a little iffy about it. So if the numbers are really high, I’m not gonna go out on a dance floor. I’ll play, but I won’t put myself in the middle of a dance floor. It’s not worth it to me.
MW: You’re a pioneering DJ in general, but also a woman in a male-dominated industry. You must have some war stories.
MORABITO: There definitely have been people who would not hire me because I’m a woman. One was a guy from L.A. who eventually did hire me, but said to several people he would not hire me because I’m a woman. I don’t want to out anybody, I’m being cautious here. But one promoter wouldn’t give me a whole party. Because I’m a woman, he didn’t think I had the stamina. However, I did end up getting that 18-hour party in time. But in the early days, I would hear a lot from guys, “What would you know about what we want?”
And what they were missing was, “I go to the same parties you do. That’s why I know what you want. I’m on the dance floor with you.” I’ve got an ear, I know what this is about. “I don’t have to have a dick to know what you want.”
MW: What do you hope for your future?
MORABITO: I’d like to get some good, solid tech-house productions out. I’ve been really focused on that lately. I certainly have not been focused enough on it in the past. I keep doing stuff and doing stuff and I don’t feel it’s good enough. And I have to get over that hump. That’s been one of my biggest drawbacks. I just need to keep putting stuff out, whether I think it’s good enough or not. And that’s held me way back.
MW: You’re a perfectionist, right?
MORABITO: Yeah, I am. I really am. And it can be problematic.
MW: What’s the expression? “Perfect is the enemy of the good,” is how Voltaire famously put it.
MORABITO: Oh, my God, I love Voltaire. I don’t know that. But that’s great.
MW: The club scene has changed a lot over the course of your career.
MORABITO: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s changed for the better. Cellphones are a distraction. I think people spend way too much time taking photos or texting on the dance floor. I get all that, but I wish they would do it off the dance floor because it distracts from living in the moment while you are on the dance floor. So I find that a change that’s not for the better. I remember being on dance floors when you didn’t smoke, which you [can’t] do now, you didn’t bring a drink, and you didn’t have cellphones. You weren’t texting. You weren’t looking at a phone with this bright white light shining out at you. All that’s a big distraction to me as a dancer. As a DJ, I don’t see it.
However, I played one Brut party and there were four guys in front of me. All they did was keep taking photo after photo after photo and showing each other and giggling. I could not have been more annoyed. It’s like, “You’re a distraction. You’re not adding anything to the energy.” And they were killing my vibe. I really had to work hard to completely ignore them and look beyond them so I could feel the energy of the crowd. That’s what gets you going is the energy of the crowd.
DJing is a spontaneous art form. I give, they take, they feel it, I feel that energy, and that kind of gets me going. It’s a give-and-take thing. So if somebody’s in front of you texting, or taking photo after photo and showing each other photos and giggling, it’s like, “Ugh!” I don’t think that is for the better.
I also don’t like that there’s not a journey anymore. It doesn’t have a slow arc going up and then coming back down. I don’t think that people [today] have dance floor etiquette — “excuse me,” “pardon me” — as much as they did even twenty years ago. And I think a lot of what I’m saying is about drugs. Certain behavior is drug-induced.
There’s also a lot more sex on the dance floor. The dance floor is a sacred space to dance on. I understand touching each other and feeling each other — go to the back room. There’s a place and a time for everything. So many guys now, they’re having full-on sex on the dance floor. That’s what backrooms are for.
MW: You think that’s happening more often today?
MORABITO: Sex? You didn’t have sex on the dance floor twenty years ago. Black Party only. You never had sex on the dance floor elsewhere. I think sex on the dance floor has been really big since PrEP, although I’m not sure how old PrEP is.
MW: PrEP emerged on the scene about a decade ago now, and has been in widespread use among sexually active gay men for a majority of the time since.
MORABITO: Okay, so that makes sense. So, yeah. So since PrEP, I’ve noticed more sex on the dance floor. I’ve noticed the past seven to eight years, it’s almost at every party that I’ve been to. And it is what it is, but I don’t think that’s better.
MW: Maybe one upside of widespread cellphone use is that it makes it possible to more easily and quickly reconnect with your friends if you get separated at a club.
MORABITO: No, that’s bullshit, because we found our friends before. I spent twenty years without a cellphone and we always found our friends. How? “Meet you at 3 o’clock next to the DJ booth.” And that’s the way it always was. That’s a lame excuse.
MW: Are you an active social media user?
MORABITO: I am. I’m very cautious about offending people. So yes, I’m an active Facebook user. You have to be, because it’s marketing. If I didn’t have a professional, active Facebook page or Instagram, it would hurt me. You have to keep yourself on people’s lips. So yes, I’m very active on Facebook for that reason.
But I also like to see what other people are doing. I like to see what my peers are doing. And even on a personal level, I like Facebook also because it keeps you in touch with people that you’re not going to be in touch with [otherwise].
Sometimes I really hate Facebook. I think it’s toxic. But I take it at face value. I do enjoy it. From certain people, I’ll see things that make me laugh. And I even enjoy the political stuff. I post political stuff all the time. We can’t be quiet. I’m not saying I do it every day, but you can’t stay quiet.
MW: The last thing I wanted to ask you about concerns the primary way we listen and enjoy music these days, which is through streaming. Can fans find you on streaming sites? And has that become an important part of spreading the word for you and connecting with your fans?
MORABITO: Well, I do have stuff on SoundCloud and MixCloud, which is a different kind of streaming than Twitch. Twitch would be a live performance, a video/audio thing. I enjoyed it and it was great seeing people on there making comments and enjoying it. It was the savior of the pandemic for myself and many other people.
Some people like livestreaming because that’s what they’re doing now. And I do acknowledge that, and I need to be more mindful of their needs. I have had people say, “Oh, please stream, please stream. I don’t go out anymore.” What Twitch has done, is brought fans of mine from all over the country together.
So, I did do the Twitch thing during the pandemic — I know a lot of people still do it. I stopped once I started working in clubs again. The Twitch thing is fine, but I like a live audience.
Morabito will spin as part of Cherry’s Saturday “Serve & Strut” event beginning at 3:45 a.m. on Sunday, April 10, at Flash, 645 Florida Ave. NW. Tickets are $75 plus fees for “Serve & Strut,” or $130 plus fees also including the “Flawless” event at Howard Theatre. Full Weekend or VIP Passes are $309 to $339. Visit www.cherrydc.com for more information and the full lineup.
For more on Morabito, visit www.morabito.nyc.
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