Circuit Chat - An interview with DJ Ron Thomas

 

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An Interview with DJ Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas has quickly become one of L.A.'s top Djs, and was recently added to Billboard's prestigious list of reporting DJs for Dance (what that means for those of us in the party scene is that he'll get his hands on the tracks first)!

Ron took a moment to speak with John McHugh-Dennis about his career, including his work with Thunderpuss, his opinions on Napster, and also his new CD, "Music at Night" (pictured right), available March 13th in record stores.

Keep an eye out for this guy... he's movin' up!

Check out Ron's new CD in stores now!

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John:

Tell us a little bit about your beginnings, and how you got started in music.

Ron:

Music has always been a part of my life. The first time that I DJ'd was for my sixth grade graduation dance, and in the seventh grade I bought my first pair of turntables. So I've been mixing since I was twelve years old, but it was mostly a hobby that I did for fun. I did house parties, school dances... things like that. I never really pursued it professionally then. In college... I went to Loyola... I studied Communications with a focus on sound in Post Production (film, radio, music). I didn't really DJ at all at that time.

John:

So what brought about your interest in being a DJ?

Ron:

What attracted me in the early days was the hip-hop mixing. I didn't get into House music and Dance music as we know it today until the mid-80's, which is when that type of music really started to develop and take off. In the early 80's I was into all the New Wave stuff - Soft Cell, Depeche Mode. That was what really attracted me to music - all the groups from England... You know how some people at school are known as the jocks? I was always known as the music guy. That was my thing.

When I started college, my dad was Mr. Business. He was always telling me: "You know, you should study business!", but that just wasn't me. After Loyola, he really wanted me to get a Masters degree. I knew I would never really need it; it wasn't my thing, but I did it for Dad. I got a scholarship from Pepperdine, and after I finished undergraduate in 94, I started there and finished in 97 with a Masters in Mass Communications. For the longest time, my dad really gave me a hard time about it (the choice of music as a career), but finally he saw that it was what I really loved to do, and that I was doing well in my coursework, and he became really supportive.

John:

What does your dad do?

Ron:

He's a Civil Engineer. Two different worlds! He didn't get it. He's a Math, Science, numbers kind of guy.

John:

How did the GROOVE radio thing happen? (many of us first heard Ron as a DJ on the now defunct GROOVE Radio)

Ron:

My boyfriend Phillip was driving to work the first week that GROOVE was on the air, and ran across it.At the time I was working as an intern for Randy Sills at Moonshine Music (he now owns 4Play Records). Phillip called me and said "Hey, there's this new dance station on the radio! You should call them!" I called them, and got a job there starting in a sort of intern-like thing, but things quickly changed, and I was on the air.

John:

For many people, especially gays, GROOVE was THE station to listen to. They didn't listen to anything else. Unfortunately, the station didn't last long. What happened?

Ron:

What went wrong? The famous question. GROOVE was wonderful in that it didn't sell out to the corporate mentality when it comes to music. Radio in America is so cut-and-paste, and paint by numbers; they field test every song. I have so much respect for Egil and Steve Tsepelis - they wanted to challenge the norm. Egil and Steve, even in their KROQ days, were fighting for what they felt was right, and pioneered this dance and kind of underground airplay.

The 103.1 frequency is a curse because it's not a large, powerful station. It has two transmitters - one is in Santa Monica and the other is in Newport Beach. I think it was 5000 watts total. It got some key areas of L.A. - Orange County because of the Newport transmitter, and L.A. because of the Santa Monica transmitter. But the whole Valley, because of the mountains, was very iffy. Key populations were missed, which made it difficult to bring in some key advertisers. It also never did that well with the Arbitron ratings because of the Valley situation. And without the Arbitron ratings, it's hard to charge the higher rates.

GROOVE.COM is back to the original Egil vision.

John:

Are you doing anything with GROOVE.COM?

Ron:

Yeh, I do guest spots every once in a while. I was on the air with them twice last summer. When I went back to GROOVE.COM, I realized how much I missed it. Working for the radio station was very stressful... there is so much internal drama trying to survive with ratings and revenue. But playing on the air was fun - one of those experiences that you never forget. To me, it's probably what it's like for some of the people who have been on The Real World - it can be Hell, but it's one of those life-long experiences that you come to cherish down the road.

John:

How did the transition from radio to club DJing happen?

Ron:

I started DJing in West Hollywood in January 1996 in a couple of hole-in-the-wall bars that I won't even mention. I had a friend who DJ'd, and he got me in. GROOVE and Micky's both started at about the same time for me.

John:

Is it a lot different spinning at Micky's than say, at The Factory, or one of the big dance clubs?

Ron:

Oh yeh. It's very different. A lot of DJs nowadays have their one thing that they're known for, like Trance or Tribal. I think that a good strength of my work, thanks largely to my experience at GROOVE and clubs like Micky's is that I play multi-formats. I always appreciate the classic circuit DJs like Susan Morabito or Warren Gluck because in the old days they did these 12, 15 hour marathon sets, and they had to cover all gamuts of the spectrum. That's the way I like to program my musical sets. Early night I start out kind of garagey and housey, then build up the energy to harder, tribal, trancey stuff, and later come down.

Micky's is more programmed to the masses. You've got to play the hits. But even there, depending on the nights, I play differently. On Saturdays you get a lot of the tourists that don't go out much - I call them "musically challenged". I'm a little safer then. But on Tuesday nights they get a lot of 18 year olds, and I love playing for them because they're so open... you can really take them on a journey.

Red Dragon is a big club that I play much differently for, and Spike is definitely a whole different ballgame. I love doing that because I love all forms of dance music - harder stuff, pots and pans, fluffy stuff...

John:

How much of what you play is dictated by the club? Do the owners give you a direction?

Ron:

I've never been told what to play by the Management. I think that maybe if other DJs get off the track, they might be approached by the owners or managers. But I haven't.

John:

What is you favorite L.A. club to play at?

Ron:

Either The Factory or ICON. The bird's eye view of The Factory is awesome... and I love the lights at The Factory. I also love the booth at ICON. At first I thought I would hate it because of the potential for people to bother you, but there they don't mess with you. Probe had the best DJ booth because they had four monitors - 2 in front of you, and 2 in back. I always told Duretto that - he hated them!

John:

What is going on with ICON?

Ron:

It's coming back. The club is being rebuilt.

John:

Are they going to take advantage of this opportunity to improve things, or are they just rebuilding what was there?

Ron:

I don't know, but I asked the promoters to bang it into the owner's head that they should fix some of the problems that limited their crowd capacity. I'm no zoning expert, but I heard that a sprinkler system and another bathroom could allow them to increase the capacity. This is what I've heard from people, so I don't know if it's true or not. I also hope that the building is sound-proofed more, because that was another issue. ICON is my favorite venue in Los Angeles. It's a legendary club, it's been here for twenty years, and up until just before they closed they were the only gay after-hours club. It would be a tremendous loss to the gay club scene in Los Angeles and around the world if we lost this club. Boys - stick to it!! Be Loyal!! I have no problems with the other venues, but the gay community should try to support all of the good clubs.

John:

How do you feel about the fact that many of the big events bring in outside DJs?

Ron:

Lately I've seen them supporting a lot of the local DJs. For some reason L.A. has this insecurity about itself that other cities don't have. In L.A., whenever there's a big party, they feel that they have to fly in some big DJ from out of town. Even 300 miles North, in San Francisco, they don't do that. They really get behind their talent like Phil B. or Neil Lewis, and they really headline them. Same with South Beach and New York. But lately it has been better. Sometimes the promoters will bring in a DJ from a big city, and there'll be this perception by the club-goers in L.A. that the DJ must be well-known in the city where he/she came from, when in fact, nobody there knows who they are. I don't want to name any names, but that's happened several times. It's all perception.

John:

Do you think it's important for a DJ to play outside of his home town?

Ron:

Not necessarily. I am trying to branch out now. That's the next step for me. Other than L.A., I've played in San Francisco, I've played in Seattle, I played in Columbus, Ohio, which sounds like nowhere, but they have a whole scene there. I think that becoming a star in your city doesn't necessarily mean that you should branch out. It seems like a natural progression, but some people just do their thing here. It really depends.

John:

What is your measure of a successful night as a DJ?

Ron:

You can tell. People dance...... and people DANCE. If they're having an okay time, they are on the floor kind of going through the movements. You can tell if they're really into it - screams, hands in the air, smiles on their faces. I know when I've nailed a night before the end of the night.

John:

Let's say you're missing... You look around and you notice that the people aren't into it... and sometimes, maybe the people in the crowd might not be having a good night. If you see people aren't getting off on what you're spinning, what do you do? How do you know which direction to turn? Do you just kind of try a little bit of this, and then if that doesn't work, try a little bit of that? You have to be real subtle about how you steer things.

Ron:

I never miss! (he chuckles). Fortunately, especially in L.A., I know the crowds, I know the people. If something's not working... if vocals aren't working, you go harder... go Tribal. The venue, the time of night, where people are on their little "journeys"... You kind of know what to do. Knowing the crowd you're playing for and what works for them is really important. I joke with my friends and call it my "music research" when I go out... When I'm out I watch what people are playing and what works for the crowd.

John:

Is it hard to go to a club without feeling that you're working or paying too much attention to what's playing to enjoy it?

Ron:

I always am paying attention, but it's fun to me... it's not work... I don't mind doing it. This kind of gets back to your question about out of town DJs... Because I'm here, I know what the people here like. A problem that frequently happens with out of town DJs is that they can really miss or really hit. There have been times that I've played out of town where it was an okay night, but I knew I didn't really connect with the crowd, because they're used to their own thing... When I play other cities, I research what is happening in the scene there to try and gauge what to give the crowd. One of my strengths is that I really do play for the people - I don't play for other DJs. There are two camps - everywhere I've been - even at GROOVE - there's always two audiences. There's the mass, and there's the critics, or the Industry. And the two sometimes clash. At GROOVE, there were songs that Programming and the Music department hated, and we would say "We're not playing that cheesy crap!" Horrible songs... even I thought they were horrible, but those request lines were ringing for them, so we played them.

John:

How much do you think the club that you play at has to do with your success as a DJ within L.A. and outside? Is there a lot of prestige that goes with playing at certain clubs?

Ron:

Oh yes, definitely. Especially the clubs that really get behind their DJs and advertise their DJs. It's like the old saying "Publish or perish".

John:

It does seem as though the names of the DJs are playing much more prominently in the ads for clubs these days. Do most DJs have managers?

Ron:

Many DJs do have managers. Earlier this year I was talking to someone who expressed an interest in managing me, and I was very interested in working with this person. Before we even met to discuss things, my name was on a flyer for an event that I had never agreed to do. It's important to find somebody who you have a good working relationship with and you trust; someone who's going to make you be fair and really push you, and not put you on the back-burner while they focus on other DJs on their roster. They really need to communicate, and involve you in all steps of the process... and ask you before they commit you to a gig or turn down something!

After GROOVE I worked for a management company called Stilletto Entertainment, which is Barry Manilow's company; it allowed me to see the other side and how management should be done, as well as some nightmare stories. I'm currently talking to someone else who is interested in managing me, and I think this time I'll be going through with it.

John:

Tell us a little bit about Thunderpuss, your other life outside of DJing.

Ron:

Okay... You've already heard much about my past. First I was at GROOVE, and then Stilletto. After Stilletto I was at Megahit Records doing A&R work (they also put out my first compilation, "Celebrate" last year). This business is like one big, happy family.

Megahit was a label owned by Jeff Johnson, who formerly co-owned the now dormant Interhit Records (Abigail released "Let the Joy Ride" on that label) with Chris Cox, who went on to found Thunderpuss with Barry Harris.

For those of you who don't know who Thunderpuss is, they are one of the hottest re-mixing duos in the country. For example, at one point last year, of the top 10 Billboard Dance Records, 5 of them were theirs. And that's a huge feat.

Chris and Barry needed somebody at the Studio to help out doing general things, and I had been friends with Chris for many years, and he knew that this was an interest and a passion of mine. I serve as their apprentice/assistant, and it's a wonderful opportunity - I'm learning so much.

John:

What is it you want to gain from the Thunderpuss work?

Ron:

It's a tough business. DJing is a tough business, but remixing is even tougher. I definitely want to venture into the other (remixing) arena. During my undergraduate work at Loyola I studied Sound Engineering and how to run Studios. In High School my friend and I had a ghetto recording studio where we would mess around and make tracks. I'm thankful to Chris and Barry for giving me the platform to exercise this passion of mine. They've given me full carte blanche to their studio, and they really try to involve me - I get to watch the whole process. I'm starting to build my own personal studio now, and six months ago when I was getting the first pieces of equipment I realized how much things have really changed from when I was in college. Some of these digital sequencers were all just gibberish to me... I'd look at the screen, and be so intimidated. Just being there every day and watching what they do... I've learned so much. All of a sudden, I'll be doing something, and this light bulb will go off, and I'll just know how to do something. I won't know how I figured it out, but from watching them every day, it just clicks. It's really cool, and I'm very thankful to the guys for it.

John:

Speaking of remixing... You have a new CD out, right?

Ron:

Yes. And I'm really excited about it. It's kind of through Megahit again, but it's actually a partnership with a new label. It's a double CD import set called "Music at Night", and the catalog of music that I had to work with was just wonderful. It's a really cool compilation, and I think people will like it.

John:

I have one last question that I have to ask in light of what's going on with Napster in the courts. How do you feel about the Internet, and technologies like Napster? There are a lot of people in the business upset about the loss of revenue. But then again, it's a great way for an artist to get his stuff out there.

Ron:

Coming from the other side, having worked for a label, and now putting out my second licensed compilation, I understand why people (in the business) get upset. And I'm not necessarily just talking about the Internet, I'm talking about licensed, legal music. A lot of effort and money goes into legitimately licensing music for compilations. Bootlegging has really hit the pockets of the labels.

John:

It can be a great marketing tool... CeCe Peniston released "Lifetime to Love" on Napster, and allowed for free copying, and I think you'll see that more and more.

Ron:

And Madonna did that.

John:

Do you agree with the argument that some of the Napster advocates make which says that if you just put the music out there (on the net) and let people have access to it, this will lead to more record sales?

Ron:

Theoretically, it sounds good, but it doesn't work that way. Napster is a good research tool. I honestly don't use it that much, but it's nice to have it when you hear about something and you are curious about how it sounds (or sounded). I have stuff that I've played which originated as an MP3. If I really want the record, I will go buy it to have a clean-sounding, hard copy. The Music Industry... not just the Music Industry... I've seen entire movies on the Internet... The Entertainment Industry as a whole needs to re-visit the distribution of product and find a new model. I do believe that artists and labels deserve compensation for their work.

John:

Thanks Ron, and good luck in all of your ventures!

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