House music has a lot of heroes, but few are as universally respected as Chicago’s Robert Owens. As a vocalist, a DJ and a producer, he’s someone whose music is central to the scene. Tracks like ‘Tears’ and ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ speak to the golden age of 80s/90s house music, which is once again a focus of interest for a new generation of eager young clubbers.
So it was really the perfect time for us to sit down with Robert, who in person is just as charming, humble and positive as you’d expect him to be. But don’t forget that as a Chicago house original, Robert’s seen a lot in his 20-plus years in the game, so he’s certainly got a lot to say – spiritual he may be, but he’s also far from soft. We cover his roots in the Chicago of the 70s and 80s, his love of his adopted home, London, his very spiritual take on house music as a culture and some of his annoyances when working with producers as a vocalist, as well as some of his experiences as a club promoter in New York in the 80s. Plus he mentions his London residency, Society at Dalston Superstore, as well as his plans for a new album. Because as he says himself, you have to keep creating in this business…
So Robert, do you ever miss the Christian Bookshop life?
(laughs) That never happened!
I know, I’m sorry; I just had to say it… [the lie that Robert quit dance music in the 90s to run a Christian bookshop has constantly been repeated as fact]
Is that still in there? It keeps re-appearing online. It seems that someone, somehow, wants some kind of spirituality to be a part of my life (laughs). They want me to have a Christian bookstore, they want me to have some kind of spirituality… but the thing is, I have never stopped doing music; music is literally my life.
When I did my research, I thought that sounded a bit unlikely. I’m aware that some DJs are religious people – for example, Curtis Jones (Green Velvet / Cajmere), Todd Edwards…
Well, I’m a real street boy – I came from the streets. I left home when I was 16, you know? I just got tired of people tossing me from one adult to another; I literally grew up in the streets, surrounded by criminals and gangbangers of all kinds; I’ve been around all those kinds of people… but you know all the people I’ve been around have always seen something special in me, beyond what I saw in myself. And that pushed me to wanting to travel and also to making it easy for me to adapt to different situations, for example to live in different countries – I never had no fear because I was used to living a street life.
And getting into clubs and stuff too (smiles) I was just lucky, I think. I just attracted the right people, I think, at 18 I had two jobs at one time, but I was always lucky.
Yeah, I mean you grew up in the Chicago of Richard Daley (infamous political boss and ally of Joe Kennedy, amongst others), the Outfit – it’s always been a shady place…
(laughs) It’s always been rough… you know, I remember some guys walking over to us on the Westside in Chicago and we literally crossed the road and they saw and just started chasing us! Like, ‘What you doing on this side of town?’ There were, like, ‘pockets’ and if you don’t know the areas and movements then you can get into real trouble. And the same thing in California; some of my brothers were Crips in California and you had this gangbanger scenario where if you had red or blue on [Crips identify with blue and Bloods with red – BnB Gang Ed.] and you even had on their colour, it could be a real problem.
You know there are places in London like that – not with colours, but if a kid from say East London is caught out of his are, anyone can get ‘caught slipping’, which is an American phrase, but…
I never knew London was like that, but I think that’s because I’m kind of isolated to certain areas; I’ve always stayed in places like Kensington, Hampstead, Maida Vale; I’ve stayed in some pretty decent areas so I’ve never really experienced that here. I’ll be in and then I’ll be out of town on weekends DJing around the world and then when I’m back in town I have my set group of friends; we might go to a pub or go to the West End, so there’s really just been about 6 basic places [that I know].
But I mean even round here in Shoreditch, there’s a lot of nice people with money and then there’s a lot of council estates – you call them ‘projects’ in the US, we call them ‘estates’, but it’s the same struggle – the same drugs, violence…
Well, you know I’ve been around rich and poor and I’ve realised that there are just good and bad people – like for instance, the night I do at the Dalston Superstore, Society – it draws in everything. Gay, straight… they say we have the straightest night down there (laughs).
Well, Dalston Superstore is a gay club – I mean mixed, but a gay place primarily…
Well, I’ve always drawn an audience that is mostly straight but I mean these guys that came down from Peckham and this guy said to me ‘I’m a pimp, I’ve got hoes…but somebody told me about you and I had to come down here and check it.’ And he was with a whole crew! They were just standing there watching me! But later they was just hanging in the club, just there talking to people… and you know, THAT is the magical thing about house music and in building a unified format that’s centred around family and love and this goes beyond genres, beyond creeds, colours – you get to the root of human nature, you get to the root of organic emotions and feelings and drawing people together for love. And it don’t matter if you’re rich or poor….
See that was the beauty of house music for me, even going back to [in the pre-house era] clubs like Studio 54, I look at the same principles. A lot of people ask me, ‘What was it like then compared to now?’ Well, for me it’s the same thing! If you’ve got a situation where there’s a unified situation and you’ve got people already enjoying themselves and they’re in an emotion of escapism from their normal reality or their negative situations that they might be going through, or any struggle or strain, then you can get the same thing that we had back then…
Well Robert, that’s blown a couple of questions I was going to ask, but anyway…
(Robert laughs politely)
So how do you find living in London? Because you’ve been over here a while now, right?
I’ve been living in London since 1990. Man, I think I came here on the first house tour, about ’84, 85 or something…
I didn’t realise it was that long! Was that the tour that wasn’t very attended [due to people’s ignorance of house at the time]…?
Yeah… sorry, I’ll turn off my phone (Robert got a text earlier but kindly didn’t answer it, he checks it quickly now.)
So you said that you were shown a lot of love over here…
Oh yeah, I’ve been loved to death over here and people would just ask me to visit and so I’d just do that, sometimes I’d just come over and hang out at the clubs, whatever. Because I feel that a lot of learning about the music industry is learning about people; I think that the greatest thing you can discover in life is your communicative skills. You learn a lot more about yourself and you learn about giving back to humanity. I believe that no matter what you achieve in life, you need to give back to humanity – something’s been given to you, so why not give it back?
And you say you’re not a religious man!
(laughs) Well, it’s not about that, I’m someone who often feels quite isolated; a lot of my thoughts are about what I feel is right. I mean I grew up around a LOT of negative things, but two me there’s two things: good and bad. And if you lean one way or the other then you know if people are treating you one way or another, then you know what makes you feel good and if you’re a sensible individual, then you try and put that back to life. Because that’s how you can achieve this happiness.
I agree… but I think that’s also one of the hardest things to do.
People make it hard. I think it’s harder to be negative, to be filled with greed and envy and all of that. I wake up happy; a lot of times I wake up smiling. I try to radiate that thought out into my day. The thing that usually disrupts that thought is people that come towards you with negative energy, but you have to learn to dodge it. If you can learn to dodge it, then you can stay on that same frame of mind.
I think perhaps because you up in such a negative time, in such a negative place, it gave you an inner strength to be able to direct yourself this way.
And it also made you want to escape that negativity. Me already being used to being out and having no fear of street life and stuff, it made it easy for me to leave the gangs, the shootings – I’ve seen a lot of shootings, a lot of gang stuff…
You’ve mentioned before having family members involved in the street life – but you’ve not mentioned the Crips before… I know there are a lot of heavy gangs in Chicago…
Well, there’s the [Gangster] Disciples and I grew up with cousins in all of that. And even my father was a gangster; I’ve seen him knock people out with one punch! Because they’d been standing there arguing with him for too long – ‘I can’t argue with them, one punch and they’re out!’ I had an instant fear of him (laughs). I was thinking, ‘He can’t even talk to you too long!’ I’ve seen him do that several times. I even had an aunt who was like that… I’ve seen her literally pick guys up and throw them across the bar! I’ve seen people hit her in the face like she was a man and her just throw them around and knock them out. I knew I was from a TOUGH family. And people like that, when you know you can’t beat ‘em up fist-fighting, then you know it’ll end up being a gun thing, but they had people terrorised, but how could you focus on trying to grow and learn in that kind of environment; you’ve gotta try and escape, or become a part of it.
I mean among the gangs I would do parties and people would want me to play the music – people would ask me to sing when I was working, I remember being on a conveyor belt and they’d be like, ‘Rob, sing us a song while we’re doing the dishes!’ Even in the stock room – I used to work in Shipping & Receiving in a hospital – and they’d be asking me to sing. So there must be something there, because in every different environment I’ve been in, they’d be asking me to do something like this. I never took it seriously at first…
I used to sing with the Voice Of Cornerstone [choir] with James Cleveland in California and they tried to get me to do a lead solo and I did alright in the rehearsal, but when I had to sing in front of the whole congregation; the whole thing was just too much for me.
You’ve said that before; that early on you never wanted to be centre stage.
Yeah, they put me right up front and I was just overwhelmed. So it’s funny I ended up being a lead singer… but I always wanted to be the person who put things together; who put little groups together. That’s always been a part of me.
So how do Chicago and New York compare to London? Do you go back much?
You know they never book me in the States, which is shocking -once in a blue moon they might, but my booking agent says that in the States they’ll try and book me in the place and want me to be exclusive there and they don’t want to do a flight-share with other people. I mean it doesn’t make any sense for me to go all the way there for one gig but they don’t want to pay a decent price, so you compare the dollar to the pound and it’s just a different system. It would make sense for me to do three or four shows, to balance out the situation, but, well…
So where are you based in London?
I live in Dalston, right around the beginning of Stoke Newington. I love it round there; at the weekends it’s amazing…
It’s so busy now, isn’t it? I’ve been writing about the area for a few years now, but in the last year it’s just exploded…there are so many venues now.
Oh yeah, ok. You know Dan Beaumont, the owner? He took me down there to see when they were putting in the soundsystem, but I’ve not played there yet.
The sound has been worked out very well; the Function 1 sound has been installed and tuned properly. Gene tore it up that night…
Oh yeah (smiles fondly) I’ve known Gene for years, I’ve known him since he was in high school and we’ve always given each other music, so I can imagine what he played…
He played a real mix of things – he’s said subsequently that was his intention, to show people different vibes and different sounds in house. And I think people were surprised at how just nice he is personally… perhaps people don’t expect that, as a legacy of the excesses of the 90s?
Well, I think that there’s a lot of rotten attitudes in this scene – and it’s not worth mentioning any names, I’m sure we all know the same collective of people who believe with such stupidity, in my opinion, because whatever you have achieved in this industry, people put you in that position.
It’s got to be about respecting the culture, at the end of the day…
And Gene does that by not being arrogant, by treating everyone well…
He’s always been like that, ever since he was a kid. I mean I hung out with him when he did the Boiler Room and it was just like we’d just seen each other yesterday. Any of that collective: K Alexi, Terry Hunter, it would be just like yesterday, because I’ve seen them developing since high school. With me they would always be the same and they were always little characters; they had personality and had a love for people. They involve themselves in their performances; each has their own style.
You know Gene actually compared Dance Tunnel to [Ron Hardy’s ] Music Box, so it would be interesting to see what you think of it when it’s going off…
Well, from the booth being all the way in the back sort of reminds me of the Music Box from that angle, because that’s the way it was set up in one elongated strip. You know in the Warehouse, the original first one has three different levels, with the booth in the back, a more elongated room – but it was three different levels, with a basement level for chilling and drinking and stuff.
As we’re talking about partying, you’ve mentioned playing Berlin in interviews, how has that been?
I’ve played there so many times over the years, at so many different places – I’ve played there with a band! (laughs)I want to get back to that actually, I was supposed to do another album for Compost a whole live thing with a band but we’re negotiating that at the moment. But I’ve been doing a lot of work as a featured vocalist on other artists’ tracks at the moment so that’s kind of stalled me, because sometimes labels don’t want to put out things when you’re already on a whole lot of stuff. I mean to me, you have to keep going and keep creating. I don’t think it can ever be too much, because if you don’t have a hit on Top Of The Pops or whatever, why should you be stalling?
To me, house music has never been appreciated, at least financially, like an R&B type track, so why should you rest on your laurels? I’m pretty rapid in my thoughts; I spend half my time waiting for other people to do their definitive mix or whatever. Because usually, when I go into the studio I can put a track together in 15-20 minutes – if I really want to be complex or thorough, then it might take me, max, about two hours. To really define things, if I really want to think about something. But the root of working on something, I’m really quick. And sometimes, that’s too quick for some people. Sometimes when I work directly with people, I’m like, ‘Do you like it?’ and they’re like ‘Oh yeah, it’s cool’ and then I won’t hear from them for 2-3 years and sometimes the track comes out and your whole pattern can be chopped up, or they’ve only used half your verse, or a quarter of your backing… and they’ve just destroyed the whole idea! So anybody listening thinks it’s all screwed up – it doesn’t make sense.
To me, I think that if you’re working direct with an artist, get him to do exactly what you think is right, that’s comfortable between both of you, while you’re there together in the session. Then in return do a mix directly related to what ya’ll did. You can always do alternative mixes, dub mixes, whatever but I feel it’s actually really disrespectful to be there with someone and tell them, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s cool, that’s great!’ and then when they leave destroy what they’ve done. It’s so one-sided… and this happens CONSTANTLY. All the time when I work with people and it’s the most frustrating thing.
Then in return, they don’t even end up releasing the stuff you’ve done together – there are at least 20 or more tracks that people haven’t put that I’m on. Sometimes I just stop for a while because it just becomes frustrating when you can’t get people to be honest with you about your material and sometimes they’ll wait until something surfaces and the there’s a buzz on me and then everybody will start to throw their tracks out with me on them, which is still screwed up. You should understand yourself and understand people and try and do the right thing. If you’re going to put something out then do a track then do it, don’t keep hoarding loads of stuff for the sake of it.
Is it possible that people find it hard to be honest with you because you are, after all, ‘Robert Owens, house music legend’?
(laughs at the notion of anyone being intimidated by him) I’m very open! (laughs again) I honestly think that the best way to get something good is that both of us need to be honest. I am no different to anyone else – I am capable of making mistakes, everybody is capable of that. It’s about the both of us bringing out the best in each other.
On the subject of production, you’ve worked with a fair amount of D&B artists – do you listen to it much yourself?
Not really (smiles), off and on I listen to some of it. Like Icicle, the last one I worked with, I listened to London Elektricity when I toured with them for a bit – we did a thing with the band at fabric, man that was good! But you know when people send me stuff; I can hear something in it. I can do that for any genre of music and that’s why I am open to work with any type of artist. I wouldn’t mind working with a hip-hop artist, to do the chorus on a rap, if someone approached me. I think you should be open to trying everything.
I’ve worked with a lot of D&B guys – the first one I think was London Elektricity ‘ My Dreams’, I think it was. And when I first hear it I was like, ‘Where do you sing into it?’ Because it’s so fast… but then when I went out to some of the parties and I saw how you’d get into it and you’d go in-between stuff… so I learnt about it from hanging out.
So what D&B parties did you go to then?
Well when they did parties at Cable, some fabric ones….I went to a few different ones, to get a feel for it.
So when you go out, do people recognise you?
Sometimes…(smiles) I was at Egg [in Kings Cross, North London] last night and I was standing by the booth and people asked me ‘Are you Robert Owens?’ They’re trying to get me to do a Tuesday night there, as a residency….
You used to do a night there before, right? How was that?
It was great; I loved it! People would come down from Manchester, Leeds; people would come from out of town just for the night, so it really built up a big following. Sometimes we’d open both floors and we’d have a really solid crowd. There are people that met their girlfriends there that have babies now. I still see them off and on and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m still with the same girl…’ so that’s great, to feel like you’ve been a part of someone’s life like that.
What was the crowd like?
It was very mixed – you had husbands and wives coming out, so you’d get people in their 40s, then you’d get the young ones so that’s the future…
So there’s been a real resurgence in house music of late and there seems to be a real interest in people like you, who were there the beginning.
I did Gameboy festival in Switzerland and it was about 7 or 8 young kids who were the organisers and they’d hired me just from reading about me. I did a live set with Mercury, where they had keyboards and everything and I DJed afterwards and some of them came over and just grabbed me and they were crying; there was just so much emotion in the moment! It was amazing, I was so touched, because they’d known nothing about my past, but they’d studied me… South Africa has been the same for me too, I’ve had people say ‘Well, my pops said I needed to come out and see you.’ So I tell them, ‘Next time, you tell pops he need to come out and see me too so we can have a beer!’
‘Because I’ve been passed down from generation to generation and you get young kids, studying on what people were into before. And you might have these parents, they have big families so they can’t get out like before, but their kids are coming out and investigating and they are keeping the scene alive. But then you get somewhere like Cornwall [South Western UK coast county] and the whole family comes out – I’ve seen kids grow up, have kids and come out with them – and even groups of families come out to see me. Sometimes I’ll go back to some of their houses and hang out and you really feel a part of it, a part of a family.
(We briefly discuss the debate and its racial implications, as many of the recriminations that are found online do appear to have racial overtones…)
Well I don’t get booked into these kinds of places, so I’ve not seen this for myself. But jungle had a lot of a very urban crowd and it got destroyed because of an attitude and that’s not being a racist; it’s just pointing out that a collective of people have changed an atmosphere and tagged a label onto the wrong types of music. I’m lucky in that I naturally draw a melting pot of cultures and people know they coming into an environment to release themselves of a negative thing; I mean those guys who were pimping, they were street guys, so when they rolled in they possibly wanted to have some attitude but because of the environment, because of watching me, their attitude changed – even if it only changed for that evening.
I think that’s something that a club should give you from the moment you come in –because I’ve run clubs; I ran clubs in New York and from my door staff all the way in… if the doormen gave you the right attitude, you felt good coming through the door. They greeted you with a smile. I had these two striking guys who like seven feet tall, they were models, stunning guys… I mean, women would be like ‘Goddam! I saw you from all the way over there…’ And that put you in a good mood, as they were friendly to everybody. Then you go in and that puts you in a good mood, but if you start to act wrong, security will see you as you will stand out from the happy crowd and they you gotta go – you either get into it, or you get out of the way. Any clubs needs that – a set of staff who are a family unit and if somebody is a problem, they need to be gotten out quickly, before they can disrupt the peaceful nature of the club. It’s not just the people in the club; it’s the whole organisation. It’s about saying that there are rules and this is how it’s going to go… and if you come in here, then no matter who you are and try it, then you gotta go!
I agree completely; the two things I’d get rid of from clubland if I could would be bad doormen and ketamine…
Now with that stuff, you can be playing anything, that’s probably why vocals lost out as people couldn’t understand it! But with clubs, the people at the door, they should put you in a mood that makes you feel good –and it’s a shame that a lot of negative situations have happened with the urban community, but it’s a reality and somebody needs to shake it up and change that, so when somebody walks into a club like that, they need to be taken out, bam! If they see that they don’t have a chance – because you shouldn’t come out if you want to have a fight or do negative things – you should come out to relieve yourself of negative things.
The thing is I draw such a mixed crowd, such a collective that it’s not one-sided. No one group dominates at my crowds – everyone embraces each other and the music.
So when did you run clubs?
Oh, back in New York I had a club called Visions. The Sound Factory was right across the street and on a holiday I might have over 2000 people in the place! People told me that Spike Lee had been in the place, I didn’t even know…. I was up in the booth, drunk! (laughs)
So what kind of era was this?
Oh, this was the 80s… let’s see, I left New York and I would go back and forth and probably about 1986, ’87, ’88, ’89, because I moved over here in 1990. We had a lot of staff from Sound Factory, where people had fallen out with Junior (we both laugh). Well I’d moved to New York and people would meet me and I’m someone you can take on face value, in general. I mean, there’s silly things that can upset me and there’s negative people but normally, you see what kind of person I am. So a lot of them were drawn to me and back then I was doing all kind of gigs so I was flooded with money, so nothing was a problem – I could afford to be the head of something like that. I mean, I just picked whom I wanted of the people who’d been done in before – they had something to prove (laughs) so it was all good. I’d have big meetings around a table at my house and I’d ask people ‘What position do you want?’ and I just made a whole committee with these people and designated positions, if there was a problem at the pressing plant I’d run down there to see what was going on and if I could help out?
But it got to a point where if I went out of town and came back, well, we had these drag houses, like La Beija or Extravaganza, all of them became a part of the club so I felt that when I turned up to the meetings I would ask people, ‘Who are you?’ and they’d say, ‘I’m a part of Visions.’ So then I’d say (smiles), ‘Really? What’s your name?’
We had people from everywhere – some of the dancers used to dance with Janet Jackson, Mike [aka Michael Jackson]; all of them was a part of Visions. I have a friend, Koshin Satoh, who used to to design all of Miles Davis’ clothes and he did stuff for Micheal, U2, everyone. He even did the Michael Todd Room he had in the [New York nightclub and music venue] Palladium, he re-designed the whole thing. He’s got a whole history of stuff and is totally worth looking up. Heavy, heavy person. Me and him are still really good friends and he pulled out pictures of Visions which I was so surprised that he had all this stuff – I don’t have some of this stuff!
But it’s amazing that friends I will run into from time to time will have kept little pieces of history of mine…
Yeah, I don’t have a lot of the stuff he has. But the history of going back to all of those old clubs, to remember different things, especially in New York at [Studio] 54 – I had a chance to perform there – the Warehouse, Ron Hardy at The Den [his pre Music Box venue], I rented that briefly. There’s a whole collage of stuff that I could go back over for years – but it all makes you what you are. If you really embrace all the positive things you’ve been though, it can help you contribute in a more positive way.
Visions as a club is not really a story that’s been told, is it?
Oh no, no it isn’t… but (smiles) people know about it. I mean, even in the middle of the club there were these old fashioned cars and you could sit in them and watch movies on a big screen, we had an old fashioned popcorn machine and that kind of stuff, if you wanted to get away from the dancefloor. Then if you got to the other side there was a dancefloor there, we even had a rooftop level, but it would have been too expensive to try and open everything up, so we only really did that on holidays. But we got a lot of the local club owners frustrated even to the point where once they called the Fire Department on us; because I had taken the crowds of a lot of the other clubs. There was this ‘Oh, he’s come from Chicago and he’s doing this and this and this…’ and I was like, ‘I’m just doing what people are suggesting – people from here are coming to me and saying ‘Rob, you could do this, Rob you could do that…’ and I’d say, ‘I’ll try it.’
So you were DJing there a lot?
I DJed there at every party and there was one young guy Derek Fox whom I gave his first break and he was probably my main warm-up DJ. He was a big part of all the houses. I used to go to some of their balls – some of the dancers had been in Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ video and in New York a lot of people knew me from my music, so I had a good profile. Even at [legendary African American entertainment venue] the Apollo, they tried to get me to do the Apollo. Ralph Cooper Jnr (the son of ‘Amateur Night At The Apollo’s’ infamous MC / founder) was a big fan of mine… but then my managers turned it down, talking about how I wasn’t ready! That was really awkward, as I was really upset – and time I’ve worked in any environment where I’ve thought something was good for me and I’ve been controlled by management who’ve felt they should make every decision for me, has made rebel and pull away from them, because it should b 50/50, some of what you feel and some of what I feel. Something like that you do not turn down… the legacy behind that place alone! It was a benefit for Sarah Vega, something like that? But I mean, Ralph Cooper Jnr, he used to come to parties, he was a huge fan of mine and for him to get me to do that, I’d have got the chance to meet his father – how could you do that?
I don’t want to get into a lot of negative things, but a lot of people I’ve worked with have turned down a lot of things that could have been beneficial for me and I think that when it’s that sort of thing, it has to be because of ego. It’s one-sided. Rooted too much around ego. Both of you should share your thoughts on the development of an artist – it shouldn’t be just your way or the highway, because I’ve had a lot of that in my life and it’s always been ‘the highway’!
I try and fall into synch with what’s happening from what other people have been playing. I can get a general idea of how people are reacting from what’s being played; I don’t have a set style, I’m more like roller-coaster ride, I’d say (smiles) – there’s disco elements and a fusion of deep, minimal, uplifting vocal house. I need to gain your trust to see how you react, but then I know I can here or there. But for me it’s about educating but also about entertaining and opening your mind. That’s how house music was born; it was integrated and tested into what was going on in certain circles. I try and bring that philosophy into what I do today.