Ralphi Rosario is a Grammy Nominated remixer; producer and founding member of the influential Chicago DJ group Hot Mix 5. Because of his love for music and his desire to share it with others, Ralphi Rosario began spinning records for friends in the late 1970’s. Almost a quarter century later, he still spins for larger crowds at massive parties all around the world. As a member of the legendary group, The Hot Mix 5, he was a part of the #1 Radio show in Chicago on WBMX. The Hot Mix 5 were known all over the world for their turntable skills and unique style. Ralphi’s crossover hit, “You Use to Hold Me” became an overnight classic that is still played today and is considered one of house music’s anthems. Rosario continues to work as a DJ and remixer and has released several full-length albums. He has remixed tracks with some of the hottest names in music from Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Stevie Nicks, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Madonna, and so many more. This year he joins the Chosen Few DJs as one of the guests at this year’s Chosen Few Picnic & Festival. I recently had a chance to chat with him about his legendary career and his thoughts on playing this year’s festival.
Black Widow: You started DJing in your teenage years. When were you first introduced to the art form of DJing?
Ralphi Rosario: I started when I was about 12/13 years old. It was disco predominately and R&B that was played in the house. My brothers and sisters loved Phyllis Hyman and the O ‘Jays. I was learning how to play records at home when disco was coming out. I started to master what is what like to play two records together. I was intrigued by it all. When Disco DAI was introducing their version of the hot mix, which was the only thing out at the time, I remember loving it. It was such a mystery to me but I started looking into it. At the time it was just a hobby for me.
Black Widow: What made you want to learn how to DJ? Were you self-taught or did someone teach you?
Ralphi Rosario: I was listening a lot to mixes on Disco DAI and I was trying to figure out how they did this. I would hear each song on a normal rotation but when these guys were doing it, the music sounded so different. I snuck into a couple of parties at 13/14 when my brothers were playing. They were in a salsa band but they would have DJs play in between their sets. Some of the parties were at The Golden Tierra on Cicero and Belmont and another spot called Givenchy Manor on North Avenue and Central. Those were some serious disco parties. The first time I was really exposed to it all was at the Aragon ballroom. It was a battle of the DJs. Can you imagine hearing The Machine’s “There But For The Grace of God ” in a room that size? I was in the middle of the dancefloor dancing and the bass line dropped to “FunkyTown” and the entire place went crazy! I knew then that was something I wanted to do.
Black Widow: What did your first DJ Setup look like?
Ralphi Rosario: My 1st setup was a pair of Technics SL 1800s. They were just belt driven turntables that had these pitch knobs. I was running home after school practicing every single day. I would get two of the same records and mix them back and forth. I was doing it all just for fun. I never thought about doing it professionally. That’s not why I got into it. I just loved the music so much. It was the 70s you know? It was such a vast amount of good music!
Black Widow: How did you get involved with the Hot Mix Five? You were the youngest member correct?
Ralphi Rosario: Yes I was a freshman in high school. I belonged to a record pool called “Nbja” and a guy named Don St. James ran the record pool. A lot of DJs I knew collected records from this pool. I joined the pool and started to collect records and such. One day he told me a radio station, WBMX, was looking for mix reels. He said if you want to put together an hour show, I’ll submit it and get it to the radio station and we’ll see what happens. It was 10 or so members who submitted tapes to the radio station. I submitted tapes every week...and nothing! Then one day it was 10’o clock at night and I’m listening to the radio and they played my mix!
Black Widow: What was that like? What did that feel like especially as a teenager to hear your mix on the radio?
Ralphi Rosario: They didn’t know I was a kid! LOL! I wasn’t shocked, but I was overwhelmed! LOL! People didn’t believe me when I told them but at the end of the program they announced my name and my mom’s jaw just dropped! My brothers were looking at me like, “how the hell did you do that”? It was fun. I kept being consistent with it. I had a friend named Julio who was helping me and mentoring me. We would go the record stores together and the record pool together. He was instrumental in bringing those reels to reels to the record pool. He made sure I was doing one every week. He figured if I was on the radio station it would help with what we were doing with the Mobile DJ business. We did weddings, cotillions and such. I was a mobile DJ but I was doing stuff for the radio station as well.
Black Widow: What was it like being a member of the Hot Mix 5, especially at such a young age. How did you guys balance the different musical styles and ideas?
Ralphi Rosario: It was really cool. We all had great taste in music. We were just doing what we knew how to do to the best of our ability. We never worried about what each other was going to play. It was a great marriage of five different styles of music and we just did our thing. It just kept going and going and we got more popular. I was not expecting it. It was just a joy to play music.
Black Widow: When did you realize you could do this for a living and not just as a hobby?
Ralphi Rosario: I don’t think I had a moment persay. I do remember knowing I had something special when we did a few of our first Hot Mix 5 parties. We did one at Mendel that was really cool and one at UIC Pavilion. It was massive! We had 22,000 people in there! I was still not serious about it; just playing for fun. I was just going with it and enjoying the ride.
The inspiration came from so much music at the time. It was a lot of underground and disco. I was still young and didn’t go to clubs and such but when I was exposed to the underground music scene, things changed it for me. Benji Espinoza worked at a record pool I used to help run and he took me to the PowerPlant. He said Frankie (Knuckles) would like to meet you but we aren’t going until 5am! I was like are you crazy! LOL! We walked in and you have to remember, I ‘ve never seen this side of the city, I had no idea what was going on and I’m young! I remember walking into this really dark space with just a strobe light blinking, a big black box and a bunch of heads moving all over the place. The sound system was amazing! I was floored. I remember going to the DJ booth and Frankie was playing Jamie Principle’s “Waiting On My Angel” and all of the sudden he brings in the low end and the crossover and the entire room just lost their minds!
Black Widow: They always mention how dope the sound was!
Ralphi Rosario: It was! When you were inside The PowerPlant or The Warehouse, where the sound was so important, you heard the music the way it was meant to be heard. It was a huge thing for me. That’s when I got into the whole technical issue of it all.
Black Widow: When did music production and remixing come into play in your career?
Ralphi Rosario: I was inspired by guys like Jesse Saunders and Farley who were starting to produce and make records. I was really into the engineering side. The method of recording, and the technicalities of it all. I’ve always wanted to learn how to make records. Walking into a studio and watching how records were made was very captivating for me at a very young age. I stood in Chicago Trax Recording Studio just watching them do their thing. I’d assist and help them and asked lots of questions. They always answered my questions. I started getting into it and learning drum machines, how they operated and all that stuff. There were people along the way who helped me and assisted me and taught me. We were all in it together. We were learning from each other. It was great thing for me growing up.
Black Widow: You got to be a sponge, just soaking it all up?
Ralphi Rosario: Yeah absolutely!!! I was definitely a sponge when it came to making and playing records. They went hand in hand for me. I tried to investigate and learn as much as I could.
Black Widow: What inspires you to create music?
Ralphi Rosario: I am inspired by so many things. I can sit in a car and hear an old song and love the cord progression, or the lyrics to something or even something that someone says to me. My mind is constantly moving. I pick it up from everywhere. Especially now, with the ability to make music from home and such, I’m always inspired by stuff and I’ll start putting ideas down. Once it’s in my head, sometimes I can’t put it down and I’ll create something right away. I can’t stop.
Black Widow: LOL...I totally understand. I’ve had those moments with writing. Sometimes I have something in my head that I have to put on paper and I cannot stop writing until it’s completed. Sometimes I’ll even exhale really hard after it’s done as if I was holding my breath until I write the last word. Honestly, sometimes that is when you create something that’s 100% authentic.
Ralphi Rosario: Yes it’s very true! I’ve been so inspired by people along the way as well. During the time when New York had Def Mix, Kenny Gonzales, Louie Vega, and David Morales coming out, they were all so creative and I loved what they were doing. I’d go to New York and spend time just listening and observing and analyzing and I’d bring that energy back with me when I played in Chicago. Then I’d sit in the studio and create my own interpretation of what I heard.
Black Widow: As a DJ, what is the key to breaking new music to an audience that may want to hear one genre of house music?
Ralphi Rosario: It really depends on how you program it. You can’t just toss it anywhere. You have to make it fit somehow. If I have something new I want to introduce, its how you drop it in. It’s always been that way for me.
Black Widow: Does that change as you play?
Ralphi Rosario: Oh yeah! If you are playing a party with 1500 people, you have 1500 different tastes and not everyone is going to like the same thing. Not to mention, if I stick around too long in one type of genre, I’d get bored myself so it keeps you on your toes to know when to switch it up.
Black Widow: I’ve always said there is an invisible exchange of energy between dancers and DJs, what does that connection feel like to you?
Ralphi Rosario: I feel that. It’s always there. I never have a set program, you know? I go by ear and by what I feel at the time but I also go with what the crowd is feeding me and vice versa. You are right, it’s an invisible connection and it’s strong. I can look around, see and feel it.
“I don’t want to look at a laptop, I don’t want to scroll too much in front of a CDJ, I want to see people’s faces”
Black Widow: When I interview DJs who have been in this business for a long time, that’s the number one thing they say! They want to see the crowd and feel that energy.
Ralphi Rosario: Yes, because that inspires you to see what else you can come up with especially when you are doing it on the fly, it’s the best thing.
Black Widow: It’s very organic.
Ralphi Rosario: Yes that’s the word! THANK YOU! LOL…I have to remember you are a writer! LOL…
Black Widow: LOL…yes I love words!
Ralphi Rosario: I’m using that from now on!
Black Widow: How does being from Chicago influence you as an artist?
Ralphi Rosario: I make sure I can still get that education. You have to know where it came from; the roots. That’s right here in my backyard.
Black Widow: Yes the education and history. It’s a huge reason why I created this site. It’s so important to me to document our history especially now because this music and scene are evolving so quickly. We have information on the beginnings of the genre but I wanted to document what’s happening now as well.
Ralphi Rosario: I couldn’t agree with you more. What you are doing is awesome!
Black Widow: Thank you! You have enjoyed such a long and successful career, what are the keys to longevity in this scene?
Ralphi Rosario: You have to be open to understand the different genres, the different sounds in terms of styles of house, dance and clubbing. You have to be open to what’s going on. In most cases, there may be genres I may not be crazy about but I try to understand it and make it my own. When you are in the entertainment business there's always change and you have to accept what’s going on around you and make it your own. You don’t have to do it but you do have to understand it.
Black Widow: What does it mean to you to play at the Chosen Few Picnic and Festival this year? What are you most looking forward to?
Ralphi Rosario: I am floored and honored to playing this year! These guys have worked so hard to make this happen. They have made this into an institution now and I’m so proud of what they’ve done. There is no one in Chicago who was doing this! You see how far it’s come. Terry and Alan told me it started off as a small picnic with a few people and now it’s tens of thousands of people! They stuck with it; they believed in it and have created something special. I’m so honored to be a part of this! I was floored that they asked me to play!
Black Widow: Really?
Ralphi Rosario: OMG! Yes, they are doing an amazing job on their own; they don’t need me to play! LOL! I’m just very humbled and grateful. It’s really cool to be acknowledged and appreciated!
Black Widow: What can we look forward to from Ralphi Rosario this year?
Ralphi Rosario: There are bunch of things I’m working on. I’m working on remixing some classics that we have loved for so long. We can make people re-remember them and re-introduce them to the general public. I have another album coming out in June as well! It’s been 20 years since I’ve done an album. It’s a compilation called, "The B-Sides" and its tracks with Terry Hunter, David Morales, new material and a few remixes!
Black Widow: Thank you so much for speaking with me. I really appreciate you talking the time to chat with me! This was great!
Ralphi Rosario: It was my pleasure!
Black Widow: Thank you so much!
I hope you enjoyed the first installment of the Chicago Spotlight "Chosen Few Edition"! Click here to take a listen to some of Ralphi's latest tracks! Look forward to interviews with Chosen Few guest Performers all month long!
Until next time,
See you on a dance floor!