DJING SINCE HE WAS 11 years old, Chicago’s own Rafael "Légo" Rodriguez is now one of the most sought after djs and producers in the world. His Monday night Boom Boom Room, going on 14 years, is legendary – the longest running club night of any kind, anywhere in the world. His songs such as "El Ritmo de Verdad" and "When I’m With You" will pack a dance floor, and he recently did a hot remix for Beyonce.
I’ve been a big fan of Légo’s music for years, and wanted to know about his music and the never-ending success of Boom Boom Room. Here Légo gives me his thoughts on house music, number crunching club owners and the lowdown on Chicago’s house scene.
Tell me your musical influences and how you started DJing.
I first learned DJing when I was 11. I started young. My influence came from my family, which was very musical-oriented. I grew up in Logan Square, a good area when house music was still in its youth. My aunt (not much older than I was) would go and hear Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy play. She would go to the Warehouse and their parties and she’d come back with their mixtapes and different versions of songs. A lot of latin and disco. She was probably one of my main influences.
My first club gig was at Kaboom when I was 19, on Saturday nights. That when techno was really hitting hard. I stuck to my roots with house and I was getting the crowd hype. And you know with that type of crowd – the club owners were like “Well, techno’s hot. Why don’t you add techno to the mix?” I’m not a jukebox. I thought, maybe this isn’t the job for me.
Did you always want to be a DJ?
I really wanted to be a professional baseball player. I coulda gone pro but I had a knee injury in college. I never got over the whole mental aspect of being injured.
I got into DJing kinda young, and I felt if I had been more focused, I’d be playing professional baseball right now. But I spread myself real thin. I wanted to play baseball, wanted to be a DJ, I also used to dance. A lot of wear and tear on my knee. I was a b-boy.
My dad gave me the best advice: “Pick one of the two, you can’t do both.” In this world if you want to be great at something, you just got to be great at one thing.
Would you give up being a dj if you could have been a ball player?
Yeah. I would play ball in a heartbeat. That would be like me waking up everyday to go play at a park.
How did you get your residency at Red Dog?
HiFi Bangalore, he was the original guy who started the night. The original DJs were Freddie Bain and DJ Orlando. I was a guest DJ. When I went in there and played that night, he asked me, “Would you like a residency?” I was like, “Are you kidding? I would love to.”
It was weird, we’d get like 50 to 75 people – this was back in like ’93 – but all those people were jacking, dancing, sweating, letting you know that they were feeling the music.
One of my favorite memories was a guy who came in dressed to dance at like 11pm, there was nobody there, he walked to the middle of the dance floor, did a circle, pointed at me… He danced for a whole hour, and I spun just for me. Then he left – did a turn, blew a kiss up and bowed, then exited Red Dog. He came there for the little time that he had and danced for the whole hour.
I’ve had gigs where there were only 15 people, but I played for those 15 people. You have to have a club owner who is willing to let a night grow. We were blessed to have Red Dog. Fifty or 75 people – a lot of club owners aren’t hearing that. It grew and grew and grew from there.
If you’re young, the best way to get yourself out there is to throw your own events. Promote yourself, ’cause you can’t rely on other people all the time. You gotta get yourself exposure. Throw your own parties, even if it’s in a lounge with 20 or 30 people. You gotta let it grow and build a following.
And then you moved to Green Dolphin.
I had this idea years ago – why not move it to Green Dolphin? Even when Red Dog was open, the atmosphere – the same with Red Dog, you were surrounded with the energy the minute you walked in.
The night is going on 14 years now. I’m going on my 13th year. Boom Boom Room is the longest running dance night in the world and dance club history. Not just house – all musical genres.
Tell me about your loft parties.
Just because of the city, or more because of haters, jealous of what I’m doing… The police would come and say “We have other things to worry about and would have never known about your party…” Chicago is #2 in the U.S. in murders, so the city has other things to worry about than other people trying to throw a party.
I would like to cater to the youth because they need to be educated. They’re all growing up on this jigga what – you know, they don’t know nothing about house, they don’t know the history of house. They get a couple of turntables, they DJ for three months and they think they’re ready to get on. No dude, you got to pay your dues.
I wanted to educate the younger crowd, but I don’t want to go too young. I’m not trying to promote high schoolers to come to my party. We were being lenient in the beginning (not carding them) because of wanting to educate the younger people about what’s good music. We had to make it 21 and older just to eliminate any problems.
We’re keeping it more on the DL now. We were doing it like twice a month. People thought it was a club we were doing this party at.
What I’m getting into now is fundraisers. That way the loft parties can continue. Plus, we’re doing it now for a good cause. Percentages go to a good cause now which makes me feel good about it too.
There’s no place to go on Friday and Saturday nights, that’s why I started doing loft parties. People were thanking us.
What do you say about the labels people throw on you – of being a “latin house DJ”?
I don’t like to be called “latin house DJ” because I don’t just play latin house. I have stuff that’s latin-influenced and maybe some percussion behind it, but not all my music is latin house. I have soul. It does have latin roots and a lot of horns – I think that’s a reason why people think that it’s latin house. I just play house, just house.
A lot of people are trying to pigeonhole me as a “latin house DJ/music producer.” I’m doing some new stuff for NYSS (pronounced “nice”), a new label. It’s stuff that people wouldn’t expect from me, but some people who know me will say “Yeah it’s got that Légo sound.” It’s going to be a little different. I have a release coming out over the summer.
Where did all the jackers go?
It’s weird. Some of them got older. A lot of them I guess got tired with the scene. The scene is so diluted because there’s the wrong people doing the parties and they’re not doing it right.
Some are also being picky. When they get older, a lot of people fall into the trap of being nostalgic. “This isn’t what Frankie used to play at the Warehouse” or “This isn’t what Légo used to play at Red Dog.” You know, there’s new music out there. I’ll play classics from time to time but there’s too much good music out there that needs to be exposed.
How can we strengthen the house music scene locally?
Support. Buy real music, not illegally downloaded music. Request songs on the radio. That’s the one thing that house in Chicago does not have is a radio presence.
We were getting it with Sonic Boom Q-101. They took it off the air due to the fact that it wasn’t their regular music format and was actually outshining alternative rock. It was three years running. I was a resident house dj there. I was playing house! I wasn’t catering to nobody. We would skyrocket during those hours when the show was on.
Then they had a music director come in and remove the show. Which goes to show that they were afraid that house music would outshine their regular format. We had the listeners and we had the numbers. We were getting world renown DJs. Little Louie Vega was submitting cds like once a month.
Where do you find your music?
Everywhere. There are a lot of small labels that are just trying to get their stuff on. You might find a tune out there and that might help to get that label exposed, like Erasmus Faber’s “Back to Love” on Soulfuric.
Understand there’s new music out there. You can’t hear the same thing every Monday. I’ve had comments like, “What is Légo playing? It seems different tonight.” Because it’s new music, and that’s what I’ve always been known for – breaking new music.
But there are certain songs that people will receive the first time they hear it, or it may take four or five times before they actually feel the song, because it’s different, it’s not something they’re used to hearing.
There’s a lot of music that first came out there, and they would clear the dance floor, but eventually became dance floor hits.
Like “El Ritmo de Verdad”. When I first played that song, it cleared the dance floor. But the heads knew, the real people who felt the music – they knew, they were like “Aw, this is the jam.”
Any last words?
Just continue to support music, DJs. Quit being cheap. Quit trying to get on the guest list. You got these big name djs playing no music that’s good for the soul, and people are willing to pay $20, $30, $40 to see these fools. But then when you got all these djs in your own back yard, you’re not willing to pay five bucks to see them? C’mon now… How do you expect this to survive? You’re not supporting. It’s five bucks. Even if it’s ten bucks.
Everyone’s complaining these days that there’s nowhere to hear house music. It’s because house music lovers are cheap. Quit being cheap, cough up the ten bucks, so you can have a place to go to on Saturday and Friday, and we don’t have this suburban invasion. That’s why they gotta cater to them. Club owners, all they care about is numbers. If you can have a night where you’ve got big numbers of people coming in and spending money at the bar, club owners can’t argue with that.