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?’"