The One and Only Ony

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."

Ony didn't have to worry about that. The Voice in Fashion was offered a better deal by EMI Records, the group accepted, and in 1988 EMI released the trio's third single, "Give Me Your Love." Despite the fact that the single enjoyed success in clubs, Ony was feeling artistically stifled and considered leaving the group. He stuck around, he says, because of his close friendships with the Hanono brothers; instead of quitting, he began working on a side project called the Beat Club. "Once again I had complete control," Ony states. "I was doing everything by myself and working for my own label, so I was able to do whatever I wanted to do."

However, his first Beat Club release -- 1988's "Security" -- became a huge hit in U.S. and European dance clubs, and soon Atlantic was again sniffing around Ony's door. Reluctantly, he signed another contract. "There was a whole new crew at Atlantic, and I thought maybe it would be different," he admits. "Even though I had said I'd never do it again, I signed. You can't deny the exposure and distribution clout that a major label can give you."

Even before "Security" caught the ears of Atlantic, it had become a favorite at the Hacienda, a nightclub in Manchester, England, owned by the members of New Order, the godfathers of electrodisco whose influence on techno rivals that of Kraftwerk. The group liked the song so much that when they hit Miami for a 1988 concert, they tried to find the song's creator. They didn't hook up until a few months later when a mutual friend put them in touch, and soon Ony was in Manchester collaborating with New Order vocalist/guitarist Bernard Sumner.

"New Order was literally one of my two or three favorite bands, so I was ecstatic to be over there and working with them," Ony says. "Not too many people get to work with the artists who've inspired them and influenced them." During his stay in Manchester, Ony remixed a track on the one-off album by Electronic, a collaboration between Sumner and former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. He also fashioned a remix of "Security" that featured a new vocal by Sumner (Valls sang on the original). The new version was released exclusively in Europe but failed to crack the British Top 40.

During this time, Ony bowed out of the Voice in Fashion just before the band was set to tour overseas. Also, the Beat Club's representative at Atlantic had quit the label and, without any in-house support, the group's contract expired. There was brief talk between Ony and New Order manager Rob Gretton about shopping the "Security" remix to a domestic label, but by then Ony had lost interest in dealing with the majors. It was time to move on.

"I decided I wasn't going to wait for another major label," Ony recalls, no hint of regret in his voice. "I had already had three major-label deals and they had not gone that well. But I really had to get my career going. Not putting out records in the U.S. is not my idea of having your career on track."

At the behest of Valls, Ony changed his label's name from HR to Electrobeat and shifted its focus from twelve-inch vinyl singles to compact discs. A distribution agreement was set up with AEC, a Northeastern conglomerate that has carved out a retail base for the label that includes all major record chains, plus national bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. The label's catalogue currently includes eight titles: six discs by Ony in his various guises, one release by the British ambient artist Holistic, and a compilation culled from Electrobeat's first five sets. Ony notes that sales have come from across the country and that airplay is strongest in the Northeast and the West Coast, from the Pacific Northwest to San Diego.

Club and radio response in South Florida, however, has been modest. "It seems to me that local DJs turn away from something that's not English or German," Ony observes. "Basically, though, it doesn't affect us that much. We try to emphasize to people that we're not a 'Miami label.' There was a time when being a Miami label gave people a very specific idea of what you were doing musically. We're really just people who live in Miami and happen to have a label.

"The important thing is that we stay away from trends," he continues. "There's nothing wrong with being a hip label and having a trendy style that sounds fine today. But what's going to happen a few months down the road? I'm not interested in releasing a bunch of disposable music. I don't want to be like other labels. And since we don't have that many people to answer to, we're not afraid of anything. We can do exactly what we want to do, and I think there are a lot of people out there who appreciate that.

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John Floyd