Few electronic artists working today have as much respect from the techno and Chicago house music scenes as Robert Armani. A Chicago original, he's done it all - promoter, producer, international DJ superstar. Working with many of dance music's most heralded labels, including his own Traxxmen label, Robert has cut a swath through dance music and left a string of club classics in his wake. He's making an appearance in Indianapolis this Saturday along with Traxxmen label-mate DJ Feedback, and took a few minutes while in his studio to grant this exclusive interview to NUVO.
Rudy: How's life treating you?
Robert: Man - its pretty OK (laughs)
Rudy: Officially, how long have you been a DJ?
Robert: Since the age of 14. Fourteen years old DJing, throwing little block parties...
Rudy: It's been a minute, hasn’t it?
Rudy: Let's talk about those early parties. Some of your early BASEMENT parties in Chicago were attended by a lot of artists and talent to come out of that scene. DJ Rush and R Kelley were some of the more recognizable patrons. Is there something special that you can identify from that time period and that place that sparked the creative burst that came out of Chicago?
Robert: Let me put it this way: almost every DJ coming out of Chicago recorded in my basement. Me and DJ Rush, we were the first ones. So... Glenn Underground, Boo Williams, Paul Johnson... There's a lot, so I can't even begin to name them all. They made music in my house first, so I put a lot of people on.
Rudy: That's like the guided tour of the history of the house sound of Chicago.
Robert: Yeah that's what it was, right there.
Rudy: Let's go back to one of your best-known tracks, "Circus Bells", with that legendary Hardfloor remix. That record - the original mix and the Hardfloor remix - have their fingerprints on tons of techno records that have come out since they were released. A new bootleg or new remix seem to get trotted out pretty frequently. What's it like for you to hear that influence permeate the world of dance music the way it has?
Robert: That's pretty good right there. I mean, a lot of money's been stolen from me (laughs), but it's good that people are sampling my music. It keeps it going. I love to hear the newer remixes of what somebody else has done.
Rudy: You've cited influences from the early Chicago scene like Armando, Mike Dunn, and Frankie Knuckles, going back to the origins of where you started. Let's bring it up to current. Who are some of the working today that interest you, and is there a breakout start you've been keeping your eye on, particularly with your work on your Traxxmen label?
Robert: There's so many talented DJs out there. I basically don't have my eye on particular DJs because there's so many of them.
Robert: Back in the day, we DJ'ed with wax. All these upcoming DJs are DJing with computers. I'm old school. I'm still working with wax, and just recently stepped up to CDs. It might seem like I'm dissing people who are messing with laptops and all that, but they're doing what they do.
Rudy: Different tools for different folks, I suppose, but it's nice to know that there are still people committed to doing things as they were done from the beginning of DJing. You mentioned the influence of technology on the art of DJing. Do you feel the technology has diminished the amount of skill it takes to become a good DJ?
Robert: That's what I'm saying. With laptops - you don't sweat with a laptop. You're just clicking buttons. Back in the day, you were going through your wax, searching through your CDs. Now, you can click a mouse and the records are synced already. With wax, you have to hustle to get it on cue, and put in work to sound good. Again, it may sound like I'm dissing them, but it's the new age and a new way of thinking. I could be doing that, but I'm not choosing to do that.
Rudy: I see your point because I come from the same time period of starting as a DJ, and to see the march of technology through the craft that we've devoted our lives to, and to see how a lot of the fundamental skills have been taken over by the software is a little disconcerting. The technology has become a crutch for a lot of guys, rather than something used to further the art of DJing.
Robert: That's what I'm sayin'. Back in the day, I was carrying two crates of records through the airport. It was like a hundred pounds each. You were carrying that for like a half-mile from when you got off the plane because you didn't want to check your records (laughs). Right now, you can just bring out your laptop and that's it. You've got your lineup already... Digging through your wax - that's getting you into the groove, right there.
Rudy: There's something a little more tangible about working with vinyl, and you really have to know your records in order to be able to pull off some of the stunts you need to do, working with vinyl.
Robert: If you're DJing with wax and that record jumps, then you hurry up and spin it back to get back on beat. That's "working", right there. That’s why we got paid the big money back in the day... I mean, there's a lot of big name DJs out there that are doing "pre-mixes" right now. I mean, they drop a CD in and they're "mixing". You don't know what they're doing. You can't fake it with wax, though.
Rudy: You've taken a different path than a lot of the Chicago producers, because you've really embraced techno as well as the signature Chicago sound. What quality of the harder techno style of music is attractive to you?
Robert: When I DJ, I try to mix it up. I'll come techno, I'll come hard, and then I'll slap some club in there, some house music. It'll be on my speed, so you'll have a popular club song but played a little faster than people normally play it.
Rudy: We know about your history with Chicago, and we know that those early Chicago records were a huge influence on Daft Punk. They paid homage to that history in their video for "Burnin'", which featured you, DJ Sneak, Roy Davis Jr., Derrick Carter, Paul Johnson and a ton of other folks from the Chicago scene. How did that project come together, and what was that experience like?
Robert: Hooo - that was wild right there (laughs). That was one wild night. We had a lot of fun that night - I especially had a lot of fun.
Rudy: Where did you shoot that?
Robert: That was in downtown Chicago; I can't remember the name of the hotel - but I had a lot of fun... You know, you wake up like "Who is this? Where'd she come from?" (laughs)
Rudy: I mentioned Paul Johnson briefly, and he recently played Indianapolis. The two of you have a pretty long history. For those that don't know, explain the history you and Paul share.
Robert: That's my cousin, right there. We go way, way, back. I mean, we used to be in his front room sampling our voices, making bass sounds, treble sounds, through an old Casio keyboard. It was the first keyboard that came out that could sample. We'd be in his front room trying to make beats and learn it, learn it, learn it. I was the first one to put Paul on, so when I went to Italy with ACV, I put him out on that label. So I was basically the first one to put him out there. I put out a lot of people, and helped a lot of people get put on.
Rudy: And worked with a lot of different super-influential labels - Djax Upbeat, Dancemania, Trax Chicago. You've been going strong for close to 20 years, and you're set to play Indianapolis this Saturday, July 10, at TRU nightclub. You're here with your Traxxmen label-mate DJ Feedback. Have you played here in Indy before?
Robert: yeah, I played there a while ago... I'd say it's been about ten years.
Rudy: I've been listening to some of the newer Traxxmen material to get familiar with your newer releases so I can better explain what the club is in for when you and DJ Feedback get here on Saturday. Even in the latest Traxxmen material, hard stuff included, there's still that heartbeat of Chicago. Everybody wants to know what you're bringing to the Indy show?
Robert: I'm comin' hard, so... (pause) When I get through with that party, they'll be saying, "That was one of the LOUDEST DJs I've ever heard up in here" (laughs).
Rudy: (laughs) What kind of material are you releasing currently and where can we pick that up?
Robert: I'm doing a lot of remix work and stuff that's coming out on Beatport, so just go to beatport.com and type in "Robert Armani" and - boom! - you'll see everything new that I've got out. I'm on their charts right now, so things are going real good.
Robert Armani and DJ Feedback are playing the Party 'Til Dawn event at TRU nightclub on Saturday, July 10.