How A Music Duo Went from Obscurity To A Number One Dance Hit.
The subject of a documentary by THUMP -- Vice Media’s dance music channel -- “Icy Lake” by Dat Oven was a cult classic among dance music aficionados and 90’s clubbers. Described by THUMP as “a rally call for vogue dance battles and runway performances,” what made “Icy Lake” so different to other dance music records of the time -- or since -- was its eerie sound and strange vocals: a joke voice message left on an answerphone.
Dat Oven was a duo. One half was Shunji Moriwaki, a music producer in search of ideas, and the other half was Jeffrey Gratton, a dancer, actor, and singer who had ideas but who didn’t know how to produce music, even if he knew that he wanted to. Although Jeffrey decided not to appear in the THUMP documentary, ORTTU recently tracked him down in New York and sweet-talked him into giving us the inside scoop on Dat Oven.
“I had wanted to make House music from the time I went to my first club which played it, and that was The Sound Factory in early spring 1992,” Jeffrey told us. “I didn’t know how I would end up making it but I definitely had that as a strong aim for a number of years. I was 32-years-old. I hadn’t been to a club in ten years, so that was a new chapter in my life and it came on the heels of ten years of pursuing acting, singing, and dancing, which I dropped the minute I discovered the Sound Factory.”
Jeffrey and Shunji met at a fashion showroom in New York City’s East Village, where Jeffrey was working. Shunji was one of his boss’s clients and a regular at the showroom. The two became acquaintances and Jeffrey discovered that Shunji was a music producer and DJ. Then Shunji invited Jeffrey to his home studio to discuss ideas for making music together.
“He had a tremendous musical and technology background,” says Jeffrey. “And he had tremendous finesse, technically, producing and working with the technology of electronic dance music. But his music was very dry, and he knew it, and he wanted ideas. So I became his idea guy and he became my programmer.”
One of the things that set Dat Oven apart was its use of real vocals: recorded conversations and voice messages. Over a period of about 12 months, the duo released three records, each one with the same approach to vocals. And all three climbed high in Billboard magazine’s electronic dance music chart.
“These were always a photograph of someone speaking,” says Jeffrey, “not a painting. We began to make various collages with soundbites, and the soundbites were always chosen on the basis of what was being spoken about and then what was the tone of voice of the person when they were speaking. If the person was bored with what he or she was talking about, no matter how exciting the topic was, unless we were making a song about boredom we weren’t going to use it.”
Dat Oven’s big break came after they managed to get a copy of “Icy Lake” into the hands of Junior Vasquez, probably the world’s most famous DJ at that time. He had made his name at The Sound Factory, but at that point, he was spinning at the Palladium. “That was our lucky break track,” says Jeffrey.
Above: Jeffrey Gratton today.
“My closest friend at the time had a dark sense of humor and he left a fake suicide message -- a joke suicide message on my answering machine,” Jeffrey told us. “I think it was 1996. And knowing him as well as I do, I had no fear whatsoever that this was a serious message. He said ‘I think I’m going to throw myself into the icy lake’. By accident, I saved the message. And a couple of days later I realized that this was a really, really fun soundbite and that this belongs in House music. So we brought it into the studio. Then we intentionally created a very Twilight Zone-influenced soundtrack to go with it.”
Junior started playing “Icy Lake,” and because it was so weird and different, the clubbing elite was soon talking about it. But no one could buy it. Junior had the only copy, and Dat Oven still didn’t have a record deal. Then, while attending the Winter Music Conference in South Beach, Florida (the Burning Man of dance music), Jeffrey made a number of acquaintances in the music industry. One of them, Jason Chin, was on the lowest rung of the ladder at JellyBean Records in New York City (the music label of Jellybean Benitez, Madonna’s first producer). Jason told Jeffrey to drop by his office if he ever wanted to. And a couple of weeks later, armed with a tape recording of another song by Dat Oven -- “Chelsea Press 2” -- he did exactly that.
Jason took Jeffrey into his boss’s office and they put the track on the stereo. Unexpectedly, his boss walked in while it was playing. He loved it, and signed Dat Oven on the spot. “Chelsea Press 2” would reach number one on the Billboard dance chart in America.
After the meteoric rise of Dat Oven, by his own account, Jeffrey went “through a long, slow crisis which included a lot of spiritual work.” He’s still working with music and recorded conversations, but the emphasis and the point have both changed. Gone are vocals about sex, drugs, and negative emotions. Now, with Word and Respect dot com, he’s creating custom music for clients, recording them talking about what makes life meaningful and wonderful for them, and then using these soundbites to make custom tracks that remind them, in their own words of the beauty of life and the beauty of their own individual being.