Robert Owens, LEGEND OF HOUSE
Ask any fan of dance music who their favorite male vocalist is and a lot will mention Robert Owens. Sure, there are other great male house vocalists out there, but with more than twenty years as a gifted singer, songwriter, producer and DJ under his belt, Robert has not so much embellished house music as played a large part in defining it. , and ‘Ordinary People’ are just some of the tunes that have borne his black velvet voice and gone on to become truly classic dance records.
In 1985 Robert met pioneering Chicago producer , who invited him into his studio. Together they formed with Ron Wilson and released a series of excellent singles such as or the instantly recognizable house standard . This cooperation culminated in one of house music’s first full-length albums ‘Another Side’ in 1988, after which the group amicably disbanded to follow their individual solo careers.
Following the call of , Robert went to New York in 1989 to record a track with the Def Mix posse – consisting of , and Frankie himself. This tune, so casually constructed, was to become one of clubland’s most emotive and defining moments: the sublime “Tears”. That song all about his life and struggles was the ignition of Roberts successful career as a solo artist. Signing with 4th & Broadway in 1990 he showcased his beautiful church-honed vocals and heartfelt lyrical style on the album ‘Rhythms In Me’, completely produced by the crew. His 1991 single ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ finally gave Robert the overground success he so obviously deserved, climbing the charts to 1 all over the world!
But Robert also stayed true to his records spinning club roots. As an innovative and globally in-demand DJ he is still dazzling crowds across the UK, Europe, Japan and America with his blend of house music.
In our first ever ‘LEGEND OF HOUSE’ feature, we couldn’t think of someone more deserving of this accolade. We welcome Robert Owens in this very special EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW in which he shares stories about his early beginnings, his humbling musical journey, his friendship with Frankie Knuckles and his recent collaboration with Soul Clap. Here is the story of Robert Owens, a true LEGEND OF HOUSE.
Where and when did your love affair begin with house music?
My venture into house music came before house music had a name. My first venture was within that club circle of DJ’s [in Chicago] who created a family environment – those clubs that Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles played. Frankie Knuckles, the warehouse, my experience with that whole family vibe came with him, there. The period that I’m talking about is before the whole term house music even evolved.
Can you shed some light into the name and the origin of House Music?
To me it came about because we were creating tracks in our basement in our house. Coming out of the disco era, they were playing disco classics and you had these obscure clubs where only a select clientele knew about. Some clubs were actually membership based and you could only get in with a member. Around ’83/ ’84 house music evolved and came into the picture. They heard all these disco loops and disco samples and that’s how they got inspired to go off and get the 808 and 707 drum machines to do their own thing in their HOUSE. But ,they all had to be inspired from what Frankie and Ron were doing and playing at that time. It stemmed out of the disco era.
Can you describe what club culture was like back then?
To date, what I tell a lot of people about that is the main focus and premise of what any club environment should be about is family, from the staff to the clientele. It should be rooted around building a solid foundation of people, a place where people can go as an extended family outside of their normal homes. Some people then didn’t even have homes. We created a safe haven. They were taken away from the normality and negativity they might have been dealing within their natural life. They found refuge there and in that environment. I think that’s what it’s about because music and the whole creative process has a healing power.
Who were your main influences at that time and who inspired you to get into the scene?
First Ron Hardy. He used to play at a club called the Den One in Chicago and then he went to California and started doing the Catch One and other clubs there. I knew him from sneaking in to the Den One where I had a fake ID when I was young. I would go and listen to him, so I was a fan of his before house music even evolved. Then I became a fan of Frankie’s but even before Den One closed, I went back to Chicago. Years later, I hired out Ron Hardy to come and play because I had so much love for him. He was shocked that I did and we sat in the booth and he was telling me how proud he was of me and I was like; “You’ve been an inspiration to me all my life!”, so it was wonderful to have that opportunity to come back and do something to show you how much he meant to me. You know a lot of people talk about how much someone means to them but when you actually have the opportunity to physically do something to show person how much you care, I think that’s really special.
A lot of artists answer “Tears” when I ask them this question, but was there 1 record you can think of that captures these moment’s best to YOU?
Oh god, there’s so many of them. Music is my life Patti LaBelle. That’s literally my life. I’ve seen her several times in person. Patti LaBelle is one of my favorite singers.
At what point in your life were you certain that this was what you were going to do?
If you have a reason and purpose behind what you’re doing, then you just wipe all the other stuff away and you look straightforward and always think on and up and beyond because your reason and purpose – and my reason and purpose is healing. I love to see people happy. When I look on the floor and see people unified and happy that brings a sense of unity and happiness within myself and eliminates any negativity I might be feeling.
Was there an exact moment that you realized you “made it” as an artist?
I’m still paying dues. I’m still spreading the message globally and on a plane almost every other week spreading the news. Until I hit a whole world that’s unified and united I made it. I’m still out there preaching that word. Everyday. I’m still paying dues…
Any self respecting house head will cite “Tears” as one of THE songs which catapults them back to a moment in time when everything was right in the world. Did you know that this song would come to be a classic and would have such an impact 20+ years after you recorded it?
I had no idea. It’s overwhelming, the thought of it. When I’m singing it now I think about Frankie looking down and blessing each performance whenever it happens. I remember one time seeing him (maybe about 15 years) and he said, “Did you ever think this track would do this?” I was like, “I had no idea.” It’s so natural and organic when you give something from your heart – that’s what house music is about! Most projects that I’ve done with people really liked something I had done before. I do my best when people don’t a chance to destroy what naturally came from me. I get to deliver exactly the way I felt. I wrote every word of Tears. I wrote every movement of Tears, even to the dripping and dropping effects. All of that stuff and nobody had a chance to change that. That’s really important to me.
Touching on the late great Frankie Knuckles, you guys were dear friends, tell us about your friendship and working relationship with him…
Frankie and I were roommates at one time. My old roommate (chuckles). The weeks before he passed I played for him. We did a Boiler Room set together. I warmed up for him at the Boiler Room. He came in and I just grabbed him and hugged him and he was shocked. He was saying, “I should come back to Chicago.” He wanted to work [with me] again. If there’s any sense of any regret, there might be the regret that I didn’t get back there and work with him. I’ve had chances but me being in England and him being in America – sometimes things just don’t happen. At least I got that chance to talk to him and play with him for that set. That was cool. Anytime someone passes, you have to look up and smile and think about the good times you’ve shared with them. That always brings happiness to my heart.
What’s your opinion about the current state of House Music?
A lot of young new producers (and even some old ones) don’t get that you should never forget your roots. Remember the things that made all of us famous. You don’t just push that to the side. Even if you desire to do something new and create a new movement, there’s nothing wrong with it. But always go to the roots. A lot of people ask me about EDM and all of these new people, I don’t even know what that music totally sounds like because life hasn’t drawn me to that side of field. I hear a lot of critical things about what they’re doing. For me, evolving new material, new artists bringing fresh things to the plate, you can’t knock somebody for trying something new. At one time house music was new. But I recently read an interview with Mary J. Blige over here in London and she’s just done an album with a series of new London producers etc. She’s hanging out at all of these different places and with that to know person and she don’t know nothing about the origins and roots of soul house – at least that’s what I got from her interview in the paper.
Misty has been on repeat for months here, thanks to the Soul Clap guys radio program and all we can say is WOW! This is seriously heartfelt and we can surely feel every note. Congrats on this amazing collaboration, it is a perfect blend of what’s old and what’s new… we cannot say enough about it. How did you and the Soul Clap guys (Charlie and Eli) hook up?
They approached me and he [Charlie] asked me to… I think we were all in Croatia. I just went in the booth and hung out with them while, they were playing. Wolf & Lamb and the whole crew of them were there and I intently felt something from the collective of them. I felt like a warmth, something special, I liked just how enthusiastic they were. I just absorbed that energy. The one that stayed in touch with me a lot was Charlie. He would call me from time to time. Whenever he would come to London he would invite me out. He invited me to see a Damian Harris exhibition here in London and we all hung out. I think they were all in Paris and He was like “If I come back would you do a track? Would you come in the studio and do a track with me?” I was like “Sure.” He changed his flight and he came over and I just went in and we just did it.
What was it like to working with Soul Clap?
It just happened. It was not like me coming in like I’m the legend, none of that! It was a few individuals coming into the studio and having a meeting of our minds. What you got? Here is what we got. Let’s see how it works out. No pressure. It was all about organic energy and love. I’ve been doing it like that for years. Again, a unique and natural moment in time, a scenario where we came in and we just gave from our hearts. He brought me a piece of music and he said this is special to me and my group and a bunch of us collectively did this. I said that I was trying to feel and absorb where they were coming from and then I wrote those words. I didn’t second guess myself. I just was like okay let me go and this is the feeling that I got from what they wrote and hopefully it will just match. It just came out like that and there was no let’s do it over none of that. I was like “Are you sure is it okay?” because I had to run out for another meeting or something. They were like “Yeah it’s cool.” Then they did a few mixes and also one with Louie Vega, which is another great inspiration. I’ve known Louis for years, going back to him inviting me and Loleatta Holoway to perform on stage. I recently reminded him about that performance. He was like “You remember that?” I was like “Yeah of course, you keep those moments!” We only got moments. You value and you treasure those moments and you try to remember those moments because every scenario is unique.
Please explain a little bit about your unique performances, which include DJing and singing.
Oh I’ve been doing that for years! You grab the mic. “Hello ladies and gentleman in the house. I’m Robert Owens da, da, da…” and then you mix a little bit and then up in the middle somewhere I’ll sing a few of the tracks. I don’t try to overdo it, if I just feel it a little bit every once and a while I might say something like; “How are you doing? What’s going on?”
You basically added what you love about singing and making music to your DJ sets, so to speak?
Yeah. It’s about gaining people’s trust. You think about being mobile individual, I’m going from country to country and sometime these people are skeptical at first. Okay, I’ve heard the name. What is he going to do? You have this kind of energy of like uhh but then maybe about 20 minutes later, they’re like oh okay he’s actually all right. There’s this okay, I’ve gained their trust. Let me try to take them on a journey. Then once that happens and you feel like you’re all on one accord and unified that’s where everything starts to just pan out and you just start feeling the unification and love amongst the crowd and you almost gain a family instantly right there during the course of those 2 hours. I’ve had situations in Japan where I played like 11 hours. After 11 hours they still were like “1 more, 1 more.” I’m like “Ok now, I’m tired. But let me see If got one more somewhere here.”
What keeps you both motivated after all this time? Tell us about the highs and the lows…
Seeing people happy. That really makes me happy. To look out to a crowd and try to bring pull people together. That can extend towards humanity and how you hope that eventually this world pulls together. We don’t see a lot the negative things that we’re seeing in these different countries. Syria and Iraq are different places. You hope that one day they’ll get it and unify their strength as people. I found a chance to go to some places where they told me not to go. I’ve been in Israel about 3 to 4 times and had amazing times in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. People just want to love and be loved and unite the ones that want to move forward.
Tell your fans some interesting facts they may not know about you…
My favorite past time is shopping. Besides music, that makes me happier than anything in the world. I like to cook too. That’s another favorite past time, and I make custom dishes too! Betty Boom Boom’s Baked Beans is a signature dish of mine.
Finally, is there anything you want to say to your fans?
I’d say love yourself and give that love back to the world. All that you accumulate within your craft – you should be thinking about accumulating it to give it back to humanity.
Robert Owens is one of dance music’s true legends, a man who has his roots in the future and his feet planted firmly on the earth – and a man who has never been afraid of sharing himself with others. That is clearly shown with him working along side todays crop of talented artists & producers like . His latest project with Soul Clap is out now on Traxsource.
Robert Owens artist page & releases on Traxsource
Interview conducted by Chris Mackay for Traxsource