DJ Spotlight: Ralphi Rosario
For readers of this magazine, the name Ralphi Rosario is already known to you as half of the highly successful live-set partnership with DJ Abel, Rosabel. Well, he just also happens to be one of the biggest names in dance music today. Chances are, if you've set foot on a dance floor in the past two decades, you've been enjoying his music. The Chicago native has one of the longest strings of hits with nearly every dance diva out there. He's also played gigs all over the world, both straight and gay. But wherever he is - in the studio or DJ booth - he always brings with him the signature bass line and syncopated percussion of his hometown sound, House music.
If not a musical prodigy, Rosario certainly represents what hard work at a young age can do. Born in 1966 of Puerto Rican parents and raised in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago as one of seven siblings, he started DJing when he was only 14, although by the age of 7, he was already grooving to Motown soul, R&B and the nascent disco. Jackson Five, the Commodores, Donna Summer ... those were his big influencers, and you can still hear their heavy bass and staccato rhythms in Rosario's studio work.
While still in high school, he became a founding member of Hit Mix 5, which helped popularize the music style that DJ Frankie Knuckles had formulated at the Warehouse, a club whose abbreviated name became the byword for this new music, House. Hit Mix 5 lasted from 1981 to 1989, and the remixes heard on radio station WBMX-FM became the crucible where Rosario forged his own musical vision. "My brothers were musicians," he recalls, "a trumpet and sax player. The radio show became my life." He readily credits Knuckles, as well as Junior Vasquez, another follower of Larry Levan, the legendary resident DJ at New York's Paradise Garage, for helping him formulate his style.
The young DJ was already getting gigs, although in bars that had a mostly straight clientele. Back then, it didn't matter so much. "It was everybody, a melting pot," Rosario recalls. "The music made people come together." Ironically, the booker at one gay club, he recalls, didn't use him because "I was perceived as being straight. They were very political." When he did start playing the city's gay clubs, he brought with him the sounds of his favorite House artists, like C+C Music Factory. If not spinning, he was on the dance floor himself, the better to absorb what was emerging in the late '80s and early '90s: not only House, but trance, which had just migrated from its Detroit roots, and electronica.
A Need to Record
Even then, however, Rosario was itching to do more than just play other people's records. "I had a lot of ideas," he recalls. "I wanted to learn how to become a recording engineer, so I could express those ideas."
It all came together soon enough. In 1987, barely out of his teens, Rosario collaborated with Xaviera Gold on a song that would become not only a megahit but that demonstrates how well Rosario had already absorbed and forwarded the tropes that define dance music. While the lyrics of "You Used to Hold Me" personify the "talk to the hand 'cuz you ain't my man" diva anthem, the threatening undertone of the minor key, the play of rhythm against bass, and the overdub of the chorus over Gold's track shows the maturity of a seasoned arranger.
In the music industry, success breeds success. Every artist seeks out the best talent they can find to do justice to their material, and Rosario long ago established himself as one of business' most reliable studio engineers. Rosario has created or remixed a string of hits for nearly every major dance artist, from Shannon to Mariah Carey, Pet Shop Boys to Dee-Lite, Donna Summer to Madonna. But unlike so many of his peers, he is equally comfortable in other genres, where he's done work for brand-name artists like Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Al Jerreau, Justin Timberlake, Stevie Nicks and Matchbox Twenty. His secret is simple: "I picture myself in the middle of a huge dance floor. My world is very technical, so I ask myself, 'Am I going to feel that vocal?'"
Able Was I Ere I Saw Abel
Yeah, I know: The palindrome really goes "Able was I ere I saw Elba." But unlike Napoleon, Rosario wasn't in exile when he found himself, on a Saturday night in Miami Beach, walking into Paragon, the legendary giant-room club on Washington Avenue. "On Saturday nights, I used to go to Warsaw, but it went straight that night," he recalls. "When we entered Paragon and I saw the size of that theater, I went nuts. It was so dramatic! I stood by the DJ booth and loved everything he was playing."
"He" was Abel, the Miami-based DJ who, as much as anyone, helped establish South Beach as a hotbed of club culture. Once inside Paragon's DJ booth, Rosario introduced himself. Except that Abel thought he was a phony. "He told me someone else was giving out cards saying they're you," Rosario explains. "The following week when I got home, he called me and realized I was the real one." A few weeks after that, Abel called again, only this time he was trash talking. As we all know, reading someone to filth in Spanish is an art form in itself, so Rosario gave back as good as he got: He made a track of the recorded phone message and called it "La Puta." The bitch loved it well enough so that the Circuit's greatest DJ bromance was born.
"We just started hanging out with each other a lot," Rosario says, "and then collaborating in the studio," for the reigning queen of the Miami dance scene, Gloria Estefan, among others. Industry people and promoters in New York loved the mash-up of Chicago House and Miami merengue. Among the admirers was one Ric Sena, who booked the duo for one of his Alegria parties, which have since become virtually synonymous with the name Rosabel. Outside the DJ booth, they were producing a slew of hits that would come to define House music in the 2000s, including "Don't You Want My Love," "The Power" and "That Sound." Their remix of Funky Green Dogs' "Rise Up" would become one of the songs most closely associated with Alegria, although it was their collaboration with Jeanie Tracy, "Cha Cha Heels," that would become the party's anthem (along with the Tony Moran/Zhana Saunders "Waiting for Alegria").
'I'm More of a Studio Person'
Even though he has headlined some of the biggest dance parties in the world, Rosario admits that "I'm more of a studio person." Happily partnered to a man he has known for 20 years, after spending 10 years practically commuting to Europe, he's now content to stay close to home and his studio. Even so, he's tempted to cities (and cruises) around the world for various gigs, although, true to his hometown, he still maintains a residency at Hydrate.
He also still plays "mixed" or primarily straight events, where he finds the crowd often more receptive to a range of styles than gay clubsgoers. It's not that he dislikes the pop anthems by one-named divas, but his is a big sound - and that needs a big room. Unlike some ultra-prolific studio DJs, he not only doesn't limit his set to his own production numbers, he makes sure to mix up his artists. "I don't go in with the attitude of 'This is my playlist,'" he says. "When I go into a room, I read the crowd. Or I add a twist and bring it up to the next level. I like having as many musical choices as possible."
For those lucky enough to be in Los Angeles to see in the end of 2012, Rosabel will once again be spinning the Masterbeat party. The rest of us will just have to keep our eyes and ears open for the next chance to hear this consummate DJ, because there are very few out there who can fill a big room with sound better than Rosario. For his part, Rosario compares creating music to making "medicine to play for people." As the song says about another magic man, "He's got the power to heal us."