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In the converted garage of an old Coral Gables home just off Douglas Road, one of Miami's top DJ/producers is busy in his studio turning the knobs on his latest creation. It's an album untitled and sans label, set for a summer release, with thirteen pumped-up dance tracks of completely original music, all made without samples.
Surrounded by several pairs of turntables, a mixing board, an old Korg keyboard, and speakers, veteran Robbie Rivera waxes on about what will be his first album. It's full of his signature tribal-house sound -- dark, tough and pulsing, yet sexy and playful. But for this record Rivera has added vocals to the mix. He says it's in response to the dark, progressive, instrumental dance music that predominates in clubs, the same type he's known for. That you need something with words, the way it was in the early Nineties. That people love to sing in the clubs.
"But it didn't happen like that. It started from my crazy melodies," says the affable Rivera in an accent that's more East Coast than the Puerto Rico where he grew up. "There's a couple of tracks in there; one of them is called 'Which Way You're Going,' where I got inspired by Coldplay, the piano music in Coldplay. I wanted to use something like that but with a tougher beat and similar vocal style."
If Rivera occasionally contradicts himself, it's all consistent with his most abiding principle: reinvention. He works constantly to come up with fresh styles to stay current in the minds of clubbers in an ever-changing industry, but also for his own pleasure and the challenge of making new music. And while his style swings will never be as drastic as Madonna's, his productions have crossed the spectrum of house flavors from deep tribal darkness to filtered disco funk, full-on hard house, and groovy soul house.
"To stay in the business you have to reinvent yourself, whether it's making new music, upgrading your sound, new melodies," says Rivera, sporting the standard-issue short cropped hair of a typical DJ. "Some producers don't do that, they stay in their same sound. But I'm a very anxious person. I love making music and I love making money, so I'm all the time trying to make something new."
The brass ring for every DJ is to travel the world playing clubs, remix songs for major pop stars, have your music appear in commercials and promos, get treated like a celebrity, and of course make tons of money. By those standards, Rivera has easily made it. He regularly jets the world, and plays Europe so much in the summer that he moves with wife and dogs to Barcelona. He has remixed songs for Madonna, Ricky Martin, Pink, and Kylie Minogue. His song "Bang" was played in the promo for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. His songs have been released on nearly every major dance label: Strictly Rhythm, Subliminal, Ministry of Sound, Positiva, Tommy Boy, Miami-based Filtered, and his own Juicy Music label. And he's made a nice chunk of change in the process.
"You gotta have your sound, a unique sound. So when people buy your records they know Robbie Rivera, they know Armand Van Helden, they know exactly what you do," says Rivera on getting to the top of the DJ game. He found his own muse by mixing through the effects on his keyboard after a low point in his career around 1998, coming up with a new style known as filtered house. "I had to come up with that, and a lot of people struggle with that. I just said 'fuck it,' I'm not gonna make my own melodies anymore. I'm just gonna start sampling records like hip-hop artists do."
What Rivera did was to sample parts from his vast collection of Seventies disco records, then start messing with the EQ to bring down the resonance in a process called filtering. The song he came up with was "Nothing to Offer," released in 1998 on Erick Morillo's Subliminal label. It blew up, selling more than 13,000 copies and opening the door for Rivera to all his subsequent successes.
Rivera considers himself lucky that he's been able to make a living on his love for music since his childhood in San Juan. One of his first bedroom productions was on his older brother's cassette deck, using Falco's Eighties hit "Rock Me Amadeus" as fodder. The young Rivera wanted the word "Amadeus" to repeat itself in a looped echo effect, as in "Rock me Amadeus, Amadeus, Amadeus," and would hit pause after the word was sung. He then waited all day for the song to play again on the radio to add another "Amadeus" to his track. "For some reason it was fun for me, I don't know why," he muses.
By the time Rivera entered high school he was working weddings in the San Juan area and playing clubs and radio stations. In 1992 he moved to South Florida to study music production at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, with the idea of becoming a recording engineer. After getting his associate's degree in the now-defunct program, he moved on to Nova Southeastern University for a business degree. While there he made his first record, a Latin dance track that he thought would go over well in Puerto Rico's dance clubs.