Robbie Tronco

photos by Nathan Sherman



Philly’s favorite resident DJ
tracks the city’s club history.

By Adam Freemer

Pots banging around, cigarette smoke everywhere: this scene is common at Tiffany’s Diner in Northeast Philadelphia around 2:30 am. On any given night this is one of the “hotspots” people go to after a night out on the town. On one such late night in Philadelphia I conducted an interview with Robbie Tronco, the most well known DJ/producer in Philadelphia. If you don’t know his name, then you haven’t been in the business long enough. He’s been around since the ‘70s and has watched things go up, down and around for years and years.

Robbie Tronco is a force in house music. His production credits include hits such as “Oompa Song,” “FreightTrain,” “I.N.R.I.,” “Work This Pussy,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Ladies and Gentlemen: Mr.Billy Joel,” “Sail Away” and “Time After Time.” And don’t forget the house classic, “Walk For Me.” Here’s Robbie’s take on the music, the scene, the clubs, the sound systems, and a general take on the current state of affairs in clubland in Philadelphia and abroad.

Who were some of the first DJs you learned from? Well, going way back, so many. Frankie Goodman and Frankie Sasido out of Philly were really good DJs. One of my favorite DJs was this guy Richie Kasor. He used to spin at this place called Hollywood. Richie learned from this black guy back in the 60’s, I mean mixing on beat and everything. He used little 45s, I remember that, an old Bozak guitar amp, it was crazy! One of my favorite DJs of all time was David Todd at Catycomb’s. I used to go there for hours and just listen to music. It was the best. They had a real sound system, one of the best ever in Philly.

Is there any party comparable to that now? I wish we could get something like that back, but no. That’s like asking a New Yorker, “Where’s the Paradise Garage now?” A lot of that music from back then is in the music today. It’s in David Morales’ production, Danny Tenaglia’s production, but it’s a different scene these days.

What was the first club you worked in? I’d say Stephanie’s Palace…my first steady gig was Valentino’s or Club Chow.

What was dance music like then? It was the best! It was today’s music without the 909 kick on top. You had a lot of top 40 clubs, but all these underground clubs started building in New York. A lot of them were disco-oriented, but today everyone associates disco with “Disco Duck” and “It’s Raining Men.” Not that pop bullshit – the underground stuff is what I liked from the ‘70s into the ‘80s; songs you would never hear today unless someone samples them in a song.

What were the big records back then? At the Strand I played Marshall Jefferson, “Jack Your Body;” Todd Terry, “Can You Party.” Lot’s of good underground stuff too: “Vertigo,” “Free Yourself,” so many good tracks. Ask Danny Tenaglia; he knows what I’m talking about. The underground stuff from the late ‘80s is what’s happening now, with a little more filter and “tribalness” to it.

I was working at the Strand playing a lot of new wave and house mixed together back then. I remember I had a big poster of Jellybean [Benitez] in the booth. I was there six nights a week playing house when it first started here in the early ‘90s. People were much more open-minded. If it was a good song, it was a good song. There weren’t 28 different categories of house like there are today. At Revival or Memphis house heads would go crazy over these alternative and new wave sounds. It’s all just disco to me, but I liked the alternative sounds. Something like Miss Kitten’s “Frank Sinatra” today: It’s got an 808 kick – to me its new wave. Without the vocal it’s a house track, and with the vocal it’s alternative.

What have been the best parties and venues for you to play in Philadelphia? Probably The Strand. It was one of the first multi-level things to happen here. It had six different rooms. Revival was great too. If I can feel at home I enjoy it. A 10,000-person rave loses its intimacy. House has gone into a deeper phase: the deep Bedrock sound, the deep house sound. But that’s not very marketable in big rooms, especially here.

What was the first club to develop a house scene here? The Strand was one of the starting points. It was a cross between the imports and the new Chicago sound, which was really an electronic version of the Philly sound and new wave.
Early in the ‘90s Egypt started, nine years ago. I was at The Warehouse back then. I brought house music to Delaware Avenue [Philly’s main “strip” of clubs] for the first time back then. Aztec was playing Kelly and Marie, “Feels Like I’m in Love” and we were playing house, and it was crossing over into techno. Back then that whole novelty records thing was getting big too, like 2 Unlimited and “James Brown is Dead.” The Aztec owner’s girlfriend used to come over with a notepad and write down songs I was playing and ask me what they were.

Let’s go into the mid 90’s, what was going on in Philly then? I was at The Bank at that point. I was playing Meet Beat Manifesto, Nitzer Ebb, Moby, Kraftwerk. I played at Outback Jack and all these suburban clubs. I remember it was the Strictly Rhythm era – they were all good. Aly-Us, “Follow Me” was big. Roger Sanchez was huge – DJ Pierre, “Generate Power.”
In 1994-1995 I started doing the radio show on Q102 [local dance music, now a Top 40 station]. I tried to push the house music, and then when I got that late night underground show, Ear Candy, I really ran with it and began pushing it as far as I could. The city is really hurting now because there is no dance music radio play, just hip-hop and rock. I love all kinds of music, but it’s hard to play dance music when all they know is what’s on the radio.

Do you think if radio and MTV were more dance music oriented, like in Europe it would help? Of course. People react to what they see on TV and hear on the radio. I remember when Skribble was playing house – my stuff, like “Freight Train,” on MTV. It made an amazing difference.

Why do you think MTV isn’t playing dance music? It’s all about marketing, and to them the hip-hop is more fashionable. I think hip-hop is at a peak now. Hopefully more meaningful house will make it onto MTV. Look at the Dirty Vegas’ “Days Go By.” It’s an great track but if you put it on a car commercial and make a video then it’s huge. People don’t realize that song is an underground house record. It just goes to show dance can work.

What do you think about the whole European wave that hit a few years back: Twilo, trance, and all the import sounds? I always liked the imports. I always played them, but then this big marketing of European DJs started. I love many of the European DJs, but a lot of the DJs and the music coming out of Philly and New York started getting lost. There are so many local DJs and producers that don’t have jobs, yet clubs book a DJ for thousands of dollars from the UK to play a couple of hours, and sometimes he’s just playing what the local guy would be playing.

What do you think about the rise in the number of lounges in Philadelphia? Well with hip-hop being so big it’s difficult. People don’t understand that Philly is not New York; it’s always a few years behind. We don’t have big sound systems and big gigantic clubs like they have. It’s hard to get the music across unless you can really feel it. Club owners here don’t really understand that; they seem to be more into the décor and the drink specials.

You were at Shampoo for many years. What do you think with Shampoo going with a radio station playing pop/rock on their Saturdays? Well Shampoo always poured a lot of money into things, but when they started doing the late night parties until 6am it started turning into a late night venue. People only came for the big events, and then it turned into how they were going to bring the people in every week. Shampoo was a machine for a while, but the whole 2am law really killed off the scene.

What was the gear like when you started? They didn’t have the fancy gear they have today. I had a Bozak mixer and 2 Technics turntables. The first tables I worked on were the Thorns – real heavy beasts. Before the 1200s there were these 1100s, [which were] huge. There was no light on the turntable. We used to crazy glue [the light on] to see the record.

What kind of gear do you like to work on? They have so many mixers and CD players these days. I like the Pioneer CDJ-1000, but I like the dual CD player better. I make so much music, edits, and new tracks just for me or for a gig, so I play a lot of CDs. I love vinyl, but I love bringing a lot of music with me. I remember I played in Japan and I brought three cases of records with me. I almost broke my back! When I play out I like to bring vinyl and CDs, but my case, labeled “The Bible,” has so much in it. I could play forever out of it.

As far as mixers, I like the rotary mixers. I like the EQs on the sliders, but there’s nothing like a rotary mixer. I still love the Urei but I like the Rane [2016] with the EQs as well; it has lots of flexibility.

What really stood out as a good sound system when playing in Philly and abroad? Shampoo really had a really good system here in Philadelphia. When I left it was really sounding tight. Motion sounds good, Red Light in Canada, Mission in Japan, great systems.

What do you think about the current state of clubs, in Philadelphia in particular? Globally, clubbers are becoming more conscious of a club’s sound quality, but it doesn’t seem like that in Philadelphia. Club owners today don’t understand that a sound system in a club is like an antenna on a TV. We’re working with rabbit ears in Philly. They don’t understand that house music and dance music in general has to be felt and not just heard. Most of the club owners are just old bar owners with that bar owner’s mentality. They don’t understand the way things are [concerning clubs].

People don’t even know Steve Dash from Phazon is from Philadelphia! I remember working on Richard Long systems from 10 years ago that were better then just about anything in Philly today. They try and sell it cheap here. They open up a beautiful club, fancy décor, etc., and the sound system is secondary. They don’t understand what New York and other cities have understood for years. A successful club runs on layers. Two of the most important layers are sound and the lighting systems. So many clubs open with all this fancy décor and hype, but skimp on the sound and lights. They never last. I really hope they start to understand this here, or the scene will fade away even more.

Copyright 2003 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2003 TESTA Communications