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In the mid-Seventies, Honorato "Ony" Rodriguez was just another teenager traveling a path well trodden by countless would-be musicians before him. He had been playing trumpet since he was ten years old, and he brought that skill to the marching band at North Dade's Norland Senior High School. He also played guitar in the school's jazz band, while honing his six-string craft in neighborhood garage bands. In his freshman year at Norland, while taking a German course, the fourteen-year-old happened across an album that would boggle his still-developing concepts of exactly what musicians could do and how far beyond the mainstream their ideas could stretch.
"People would bring different things into this class that pertained to German culture," recalls the 35-year-old Cuban American, who prefers to go only by his childhood nickname of Ony. "So this one kid brings in Kraftwerk's Autobahn and said, 'This is what's happening musically over there.' He played it and it just blew me away. This was just before the album really became a hit in this country and it was the most incredible thing I had ever heard. Hearing that got me into what [German composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen was doing a bit earlier than that, and the things that John Cage had introduced to German audiences. It seemed like Kraftwerk was the culmination of the popular aspects of that."
Twenty years after first cruising down Kraftwerk's synth-laden homage to the massive German highway, Ony has turned a passion for electronic experimentation into Electrobeat, a nationally distributed Miami-based label he runs with his wife Mirey Valls. It is just one of an increasing number of labels that specialize in a variety of synthesized music that has been called techno, ambient-house, trance, and, more generally, electronic music. The multifaceted genre has spread throughout nightclubs across the globe like a strain of high-tech kudzu, its programmed drumbeats and repetitive synth riffs providing a relentless, pumping soundtrack for nonstop (and often chemically enhanced) dancing. It is a booming cottage industry dominated by independent labels and cryptically named sonic architects, some of whom -- Moby and the Orb, most notably -- have attained mainstream success.
Ony, a prolific sonic architect himself, has provided the bulk of Electrobeat's catalogue, recording under his own nickname and such pseudonyms as Toys for the Revolution, Fuzzy Logic, Urban Select, and Santa Fe. His music spans the gamut of the techno galaxy: In some guises, he works within the rigid framework of techno's rhythm-reliant formulas, with incessant beats and computerized noises and effects bouncing around the melodies (Toys for the Revolution); in others he brings a symphonic flair to the music, constructing sweeping soundscapes that are lush and, at times, almost majestic (Urban Select, Santa Fe); his more experimental work is usually released under the Fuzzy Logic moniker. Yet Ony bristles at the thought of his label's releases being lumped in with the garden-variety compilations clogging the dance sections of record stores.
"Our CDs wind up in the techno section because we have to give our distributors and retailers an idea of where to put us," Ony sighs. "It's just the nature of the business. We have to tell them we're a techno label or an electronic label or whatever the current buzzword is just so they'll know where to put the CDs. We don't get put in the new-age section, but we have very much in common with elements of new age, which I think is blending over into the contemporary classical market. But we aren't a trendy label and we definitely are not a techno label."
The "techno" tag irks him in part because, unlike many of that genre's upstart technicians, Ony is a trained musician who studied music and composition at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He's also a music-biz veteran whose professional career stretches back to the early Eighties, when synth-pop first found an audience in the U.S. He spent the late Seventies playing in UHF, a Miami trio he describes in retrospect as a "rustic version of Rush." When that group disbanded, Ony formed his own label -- HR -- to release his solo recordings. His first EP, 1983's Ony, sold respectably and drew critical comparisons to Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, a British synth-pop group whose early hits included "Enola Gay" and "Joan of Arc." A follow-up disc the next year fared less successfully, and by the mid-Eighties, Ony had hooked up with Miami musician Sal Hanono (later joined by Sal's brother David) to form the Voice in Fashion. The trio's first HR release was a dud, but its second single -- "Only in the Night" -- arrived during the glory days of Miami's "freestyle" dance sound and became a local and national hit. The single caught the attention of Atlantic Records, which signed the group in 1986 and re-released the single.
"That was our first big break," Ony says of the trio's major-label deal. "We were touring like crazy, going to clubs and doing what they call track shows, where you play to backing tracks. We played mostly in New York and on the West Coast and got to do the whole rock-star trip, moving around all the time, people going crazy over us. It was really fun for a while. I was young and it was something I needed to go through. But it got really old after about five months, and I decided that it wasn't what I really wanted to do with music. When I go into the studio, I have a very good idea of what I want to do. But when you have a record deal, you have the record company people telling you what you should do. The bottom line for them is moving the product, so they try to steer you into doing what they want. Then you get paranoid, because if you don't give them what they want, they're going to drop you."