Big Apple Beats – Tony Rohr

From house to drum n bass, music usually emerges from a localised community, before blowing up big time. Just ask the residents of Chicago and Bristol.

Scenes form, and then history is all but made. Through this process we’ve been gifted boundary pushing sounds, but there’s a downside. Bandwagons pull up, people jump on, and before you know it there are countless emulators, often receiving more attention than the originators.

Some producers prefer not to adhere to this cycle. Instead they keep their head down, and continue making the tracks they want, rather than tunes they think this year’s en vogue imprint will be interested in. Take Tony Rohr for example. An Illinois scratch DJ turned internationally acclaimed, New York-based techno producer, his is a story of perseverance and faith.

At the end of February he added the album Oddlantik Avenue to an already impressive ouevre, with a little help from Cari Lekebusch’s H Productions. On the disc you can hear honesty underpinning each kick as it thrusts, jacks, rumbles and drives its way through 10 tracks of dark moods, electro-influenced builds, and stripped percussion. To put a fine point on it, it’s a real LP that’s guaranteed to get heads bobbing, and hands thrashing whether played to a room full of ageing hedonists, or fresh-faced youths. That’s no mean feat.

And all this is before we’ve even mentioned his acclaimed live PA. A meld of back catalogue beats and free sequencing influenced by everything from B Boys to Berlin, it’s the kind of performance that puts shame to those responsible for sending crowds to sleep with a personality-free, bland laptop soundtrack. Not that Rohr admits this, because his rhythmic integrity is equalled by a welcoming nature and approachable attitude, as we discovered during a quick chat about US licensing laws, staying true to oneself and buying shit dance music.


P&S: Hi Tony, how’s everything in Brooklyn today?

TR: “Actually, I just moved to Long Island, it’s much closer to the beach, a completely different pace of life.”

Sounds a lot more chilled out. So, musically speaking, things appear to be bubbling over in New York right now. How is it on the inside?

It’s always had a bit of health to it, we’ve got all these ideas and tons of great producers. There are all these different schisms to the scheme… well, not schisms, but, you know, the nu house thing, nu disco, or whatever they’re calling what the guys like Soul Clap are doing, then there’s the techno guys, the house guys…

So there’s always been a lot of talent, it’s just now what’s different is that we have the parties, and the people going to the parties. That wasn’t as strong back, say, after 9-11. Then the smoking ban hit, and the Cabaret License bullshit…

The Cabaret License?

Oh, did you not hear about this? Well, in, er, around the [Mayor] Giuliani days, kind of late 90s and early 2000s, there was this old law from like the 1920s- during the prohibition era- where you had to have a license to allow people to dance in your club. That started to get focused on, and it became a quick and easy way for people to just shut down venues and say ‘Well, there’s no Cabaret License’.

Do clubs still come up against a lot of difficulties in New York then?

It’s a combination of two things, I think. Firstly, there’s a new crop of promoters that have really been doing it properly, even just starting one-offs, where it’s like a rave or whatever. These have morphed into a situation where it’s like a VIP party, so it’s invite only, regardless of how much money you offer. The only difference being, anyone can be invited, you just have to RSVP.

So then those parties weren’t like dungeony warehouse type things anymore, they were nice affairs that people wanted to go to, but with amazing music. These guys kind of branched out, so now there are new faces in the clubs, because they really believe in the music, not just in getting asses into clubs, and I’m liking the fit. So there’s all that.

“But also it’s true that things have eased up in New York. There was the rave task force, then the Cabaret License, no smoking… Whereas now they’re more worried about people blowing shit up, so the police are a little more like ‘Why should I care about a bunch of kids going to a party and having fun when I need to be watching out for people driving buses with bombs into Empire State Buildings.”

So has the scene become more organised, like Europe?

I’d say definitely. Maybe not on the scale of Europe, it’s much more organised over there, as it’s been big business for a lot longer. But here the organisation is definitely there, with people like Resolute, Made, Black Market Membership… These guys have been doing stuff for a while, and I’m pretty sure it’s like at first they knew they would be in the red, for some time, but now everything they touch is gold.”

In terms of your own music, it’s possible to describe it as being closer to Europe than America in style. What would you say?

It’s always been a case of trying to keep my own style on things, just because I don’t like following the trends. And I see a lot of people do that. You go on Beatport or Juno, and listen to the Top 10, or Top 100. This tune sounds like that, which sounds like this, this, and this. Yeah, they’re all doing great and everyone likes them but they all sound the same. I mean, I might not be the most popular when it comes to what I’m doing, but at least it’s definitely me.

So, the new album on the reborn H Productions. What’s the story behind that?

Well Hybrid, or H Productions as it’s now called after a cease and desist, is a label I loved when I first started DJing way back when all the Swedish stuff was coming through. Cari is good friends with Alexi [Delano], who is like a brother to me. And it’s only a matter of time before friends of friends become your friends.

So I had had this album in mind, for a while. But the whole pitching and feedback process was happening over the summer, and in Europe nobody answers the phone in summer. It’s just like ‘Gone to lunch- back in September’. So I was excited, and looking for an outlet, but the only people who were getting back to me to say ‘I played this’ or ‘this went down well’ were Cari and Alexi.

Cari then mentioned he had got the push and was starting up Hybrid again, full force, and asked what I had got. I told him I had this album, and he knew the tracks already. He asked ‘what do we need to do to package it and release?’ That’s when I thought that here was someone that was passionate about the music, and always had been, so why did I need to go elsewhere? Basically, it was logical really.

It’s well documented that you started out life as a college scratch DJ. How did it happen?

I was into hip-hop, heavily, in the 1990s. I wanted to be Grandmaster Flash and guys like that, with the tricks and stuff. But, I don’t know, I think you can’t play like that all the time, and I sometimes needed to play things clubbier or housier, but I was buying some real shitty stuff.

Then on one of my trips to Chicago I met DJ Hyperactive, who worked at a record store called Hip House, and he was just kinda picking out tracks, very instrumental, synthy stuff, and I was just like ‘what’s this, what’s that?’ To me it completely opened my eyes. All the things I loved about hip hop and electro, the instrumentals, where here in a genre without any vocals, no cheese, just straight up goodness! I was just into it, straight away, and it’s gone from there.”

How often do you make it back to Chicago?

Once in a while. I still have family in Illinois, and head back once or twice a year at least. And I’m usually back there once a year for gigs.”

Finally, what’s next?

Well, we kicked off some Hybrid parties recently, I played one in Amsterdam. It’s kind of basically a cast of H Productions guys going here, there and everywhere with Cari, and the next one I’m playing at will be at Berghain in April. On top of that I’m just trying to get the album out to everyone, create a buzz around it and try and get things prepared for a new live show that I’m trying to organise. So I’ll probably test that out in New York a little beforehand, that’s how I usually do things. And then I’ll be keeping on making music and remixing, I’ll never stop doing that.

Tony Rohr’s album, Oddlantik Avenue, is out now on H Productions. See what we thought of it here.