It's kind of hard to get through the shield Nuyorican pop superstar Robi Dräco Rosa uses to protect himself from questions about his shifting public persona over the past two decades.
"Who knows? Who cares?" spits Rosa. Using "perception" as a key word, he methodically disses all kinds of speculations about his true self, over and over again. "Between perception and my reality there are seven seas of chaos, and only a few people sail those oceans," he quips.
It's not easy to sail those "oceans" without forming some ill-fated "perceptions" about his multiple personalities. When he joined the Puerto Rican boy band Menudo and recorded Reaching Out, the 1984 album that brought Menudo-mania to the States, he was Robby. When he wasn't allowed to write his own songs, in 1987 he was the first Menudo member to quit the band. He relocated to New York; formed his own altrock band, Maggie's Dream; called himself Rob Rosa; and released an album, Maggie's Dream, in 1990. When he wrote tunes for Puerto Rican balladeer Ednita Nazario in 1999, he used yet another alias, Dolores del Infante.
But now he responds to the name Robi Dräco Rosa. He's currently at home preparing for a six-city minitour of the U.S. that is scheduled to hit Miami on June 19. Fronting a six-piece band, Rosa plans to present several live numbers from Mad Love, his fifth solo album (after his solo debut, 1994's Frio; Vagabundo, the 1996 release Spin magazine called one of the best ten rock en español albums of all time; 1998's Songbirds and Roosters; and a 2001 compilation, Libertad del Alma).
Mad Love may be the most mainstream of Rosa's releases, thanks to a well-crafted pop/jazz sound reminiscent of Sting's Bring on the Night-era recordings, although he says Miles Davis's Bitches Brew inspired it. After Menudo's synth-pop, Rosa channeled grunge, and his music was often compared with that of Alice in Chains. True, his Nineties altrock phase included commercially driven productions, but never as many as on his most recent effort. "Yeah, maybe it's more agreeable to the masses than others, but it depends on who you talk to," says Rosa. "Every album that we listen to has a song or two that are more agreeable than others."
However, Rosa is also credited as the man behind Ricky Martin, and is indirectly responsible for the so-called Latin Pop phenomenon as the main songwriter and producer behind Martin hits such as "Maria" (from 1995's A Medio Vivir), "La Copa de la Vida" (from 1998's Vuelve), and "She Bangs" (from 2000's Sound Loaded). For some of those assignments, he ghostwrote under the name Ian Blake out of admiration for Ian Astbury, lead singer of the Cult, and poet William Blake.
But even questions about creating such massive hits go against his flow. "To make music is a privilege. That is something I learned later on in life," says Rosa, who produced Martin's smash "Livin' la Vida Loca." "When I go out I don't only think about myself. I think that I'm Puerto Rican, that I'm Latino, and that I represent propellers, not anchors. My mission is so beyond music, my friend."
Rosa adds that he is no longer writing numbers for pop singers such as Martin or Julio Iglesias (for whom he penned three songs on Iglesias's Noche de Cuatro Lunas in 2000). His focus is "to support the eccentric, the progressive thinkers" through Phantom Vox. Established in 1998 www.phantomvox.com, it includes a management company, a publishing division, and a recording studio. "That's why I don't do productions anymore," he says. "Why would I be with only one artist when I have the chance of supporting a million of them?
"At the end of the day, I'm just one man. What can I say? Either you like the music or you don't," he declares. "I haven't changed my music for anyone. I haven't been for sale, I wasn't for sale ten years ago and I'm still not for sale. I don't work for labels, record companies, or the radio. I make music for the same reason we have to drink water. I'm of no use to my family, to my friends, to anyone without music. That's Dräco, papi, that's who you are talking to today, other than that ... you wanna be funny, and try to bring humor to the fact that I'm an eclectic soul, you're damn right, I do a lot of things."
Do you play any of the songs you did for Ricky in your shows?
"You never have been into one of my shows, obviously. No, I don't play them."
Why is that?
"You want me to?"
Consider that a token of Rosa's generosity. When he performs in Miami, you won't have to listen to "Livin' la Vida Loca."
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