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
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
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  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.