London’s longstanding DJ Rubber Ron takes us back in time to explore the roots of club culture
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with esteemed DJ legend Rubber Ron – who has played for an array of high profile figures in the music world – as he reminisces on the early days of the clubbing scene. Rubber Ron speaks candidly on how far the music and clubbing industries, respectively, have come from the 1970s to the pandemic (where 1 in 5 clubs have closed in London post-pandemic) through to today, as he attributes technological advancements to the cultural changes that have impacted the scene.
For Rubber Ron, regardless of change, what is integral to his craft, and that of other DJs and producers, is the bringing together of people. It is in this way that he praises the community for adapting to the lockdown, being one of many hosting lockdown parties online in order to preserve the sacred energy beheld in the club scene. The way in which DJs adapt to the social climate is just one of many ways they have become an integral pillar of modern music culture.
As Rubber Ron reminisces on the dawn of the London subcultures that hosted his younger self, he talks us through the hallmarks of the generations of communities and audiences that he has partied with and played for. Regarding the scene in the 1970s and 1980s as one which honoured face to face interaction, Ron explores the ways in which human intervention has tampered with the vitality of his industry. In particular, he explains to Vingt Sept that he believes the mobile phone has interfered with some of the components of enjoying music IRL marking this as a distinction between the industry when he first started and now.
Ron also talks us through some of his biggest achievements including DJing for the legendary Prince, not once but twice, amongst a plethora of other huge names. Join us as Ron takes us on a journey of nostalgia as he lets us in on intimate details that plot the breadth of his career as one of London’s longest standing DJs.
You've been DJing for more than a quarter of a century. Can you tell us how your journey began?
I started DJing in 1975 and I was collecting records. I started off wanting to know about the West End experience but originally I was brought up in East London. My schooling was in Essex, and then I went to college to go into the construction industry, and eventually became a site engineer. But during that journey whilst at college, when we used to finish at 11 o'clock on Fridays, I used to get on the back of my friends bike, and we drove all the way into London and went clubbing in a place called Crackers, which was like the kind of home of funk in 1976. At that time, we all used to collect records. I kind of ended up being the DJ there and, at that time, my mate decided to create a sound system and we had a week of reggae sounds. We built boxes and everything and I kind of started from there. I went everywhere. Even from college, I got a job as a civil engineer. I used to be a draughtsman and then, as I was writing so much I used to come out, go back to work and then fall asleep on the drawing board because I'd been out all night. Eventually, I was asked to go out onto site and became an engineer. So I am an engineer and I am just devoted to music.
So when did you realise that you had something special when you were DJing?
When I realised that I had such a connection with the club – the clubbing side of dancing and the music and the fashion, it was just a natural extension to go off into being more involved in DJing. And at the time, I started DJing in the early early eighties, where we in fact created something called a wider set, which was one of the very earliest warehouse club scenes in London. This is not to say there wasn't warehousing before in the 60s and 50s - it exists in all kinds of subcultures. There's a moment where one subculture dies and a new one starts, so if you think of the 60s, we came from the mods and rockers and then the whole thing kind of died down. Then this whole new scene came out of nowhere, which was like a soul boys scene, which is like, you know, predominantly black, with a few white guys. And because it hadn't been done before it was all new and exciting. So I was just part of that. It was all stolen bits and pieces from the old kind of subcultures. We took stuff from the 40s, 50s and 60s. We took all these different art styles and created our own unique look. I was lucky enough to be around the start of that particular scene.
What do you feel are the differences back then compared to today in terms of the club scene and music?
I actually do lectures on sub clubs, the history going through the 1900s right up to 2000. It's pretty weird because I got to 2000 and I kind of stopped. If you look and see what the scene was and is, it is very different from what it is now. There was a natural rite of passage for every single person who got into a subculture scene, leading up to what I call the kind of revolution of the telephone. If you can imagine our whole system of people communicating with each other without a mobile phone. One thing that did was create really strong units of friendship because people didn't have “I'll text them back” friends, they had real friends. To make an appointment and not turn up or not want to go and at the last minute and text them was unheard of. So you chose your friends very, very, very carefully. And what would happen there was just very strong pockets of friends that would be aligned to one scene so when you went somewhere, you’d get to know these other people and you might have seen them around for months or even years. I didn't know much about most, probably just got their first names but there was that camaraderie because they were in the same music and same fashion. That rite of passage has been eroded now because before you had to go to the right record shops, the right clothes shops, the right hairdresser. Now all of that's gone, because everything's on the phone.
And do you think that today, we're going down a bit of a rabbit hole with that where we're kind of missing that kind of connection?
We have something very different because everyone is so obsessed with the phone. It's better than our best friend right now. So during very, very strange times, the level of communication between people dissipates. People's attention span has been dissipated. Everything has had a really quick turnover. Music quickly turned over. Even friendships are quickly turning over these days. It's very difficult. It's very hard to explain how different it was. In terms of clubbing, the 80s – up to the 90s even – a DJ was the focal point but not the focal point. A lot of people, if you looked at a picture of any of those clubs in those days, people danced with each other face to face and weren't even looking at the DJ. It was important, but not that important.
There have been changes in production and how it's pretty steep now which maybe impacts the value of music. Is there anything that you find interesting about the transition between how we used to make music before and how we make music now, separately to the club scene. Is there anything that you find interesting about the way we did things before versus the way we do things now?
I could definitely speak on that one because one of the weird things during that time period was, when I was an engineer, I gave it all up for music to an extent that I blagged a massive major record deal with Virgin Records. I basically pretended there was a band that didn't actually exist. And I went to a record company and by the end of it, we ended up basically one of the label guys saying that he knew of a band in East London called Black Britain. And that they were a left wing, Marxist band that followed the Black Panther movement in America. And they were coming up with this really crazy new cool music. The next time he saw us he said ‘you're not gonna believe it, you were really charismatic’. Anyway, within two weeks, every record company in London wanted to know who the hell was Black Britain. So I turned around to my brother and I said, “You know what, I think we might as well go away and learn our play off that experience and we'd get a record deal.” So that's what we did. We went away for three months. And funnily enough, we wrote our music and got half a million pounds, a record deal at the time. Wow. And then we ended up recording in the United States and working with loads of really great musicians. So I understand watching the technologies that they’ve completely altered. Technology's made it more accessible and easier for young musicians to come on board and produce music, which is great in a sense. You know, I'm still DJing and I'm still loving what's going on out there, there's so much music. It's wonderful in that respect too, it really is cool.
And obviously you've probably had a lot of pinch me moments, you know, hosted and played for lots of parties and events around the world, like for Prince, JLo, The Rolling Stones… What is your biggest pinch me moment?
Ah, wow. Yes it was a couple of times for Prince. One of the times, I was just there. My friend and I were like, ”am I really playing for Prince?... I really am playing for Prince!”. And after that I had the opportunity to play for him again. That was a really cool, biggest pinch me moment. Yeah, I think also when I was running my own clubs we would get about three and a half thousand people turn up too.
How did you manage to run your own clubs and get three and a half thousand people?!
I was in a period of being in the band, and obviously doing all the clubs and events so I ended up being a resident DJ at quite a famous club. I was a resident DJ for many years and then a regular DJ at The Box (London) for many years as well. I can count the various clubs and places based on my own experience of starting off my own club, which was quite an underground, unusual club called Submission, it was a mad fetish club that started off with just seventy five people.
What's the best moment that you've had since the pandemic? Because obviously, during COVID, clubs were closed, we weren't allowed to travel and everybody doesn't want to talk about how depressing that period of time was. But when things kind of got back to some form of normality. What was the moment that you were like, wow, I'm really happy that I'm doing the job that I'm doing?
I think it was the feeling of being back behind the decks and having a room full of people after lockdown was absolutely mad. I was DJing at a birthday party in Ibiza, and it was like, wow! It's that moment when you capture that group of people that wouldn’t necessarily even be into your music, or necessarily be in the same place and you've got them all really going and having a great time. That's it, I think well I've done my job. Yes, that's an amazing moment.
Did you also like what many of the DJs were doing, like DJ Spoony, how they were doing the lockdown parties online?
I was doing it every week from my house. I was doing music online on Facebook, which is still up actually and I loved it. I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. I turned my room into a club and it looked so realistic that everyone thought I was actually in the club with a lot of people. So yeah, I used all my skills in terms of putting the visuals into it and playing great, great music. I really enjoyed that.
And what advice would you give your younger self if you could go back in time?
Someone else asked me this question the other day. It’s a good question. Belief. I think that when you think of something, believe you can actually do it! And you know what, investigate every single way possible to do it. That's what I didn't do. I just thought ‘that's not for me’ or ‘I wouldn't know how to do that’. There's always a way, it's just understanding that you just need to get out there. You've got to be out there to be in there. That's one thing I will say to anyone. You can think about something but you've got to be out there. ‘There’ means being out there on the street. Finding people, inquiring, looking at something, falling around ditches, then it works and it’s amazing how it manifests.
And outside of music what other interests do you have?
I love producing things including events. I had a company at the time and entertainment and production companies so I provided entertainment to performers. So creating large-scale productions and putting on events is something I really, really enjoy. I still enjoy doing that.
Words by Jheanelle Feanny & Gwyneth Green
For more information on Rubber Ron visit HERE