Robert Owens. Now, here is a man that is d) all of the above.
Singer, songwriter, producer, DJ. He’s had a deft hand in steering house music our way. Twenty-some years later and he’s still at it.
Briefly? He’s recently collaborated with the likes of Boys Noize, Audiofly, Mosca, and Jet Project. He’s DJing with Soul Clap for their Yo Yo 90s Jam party on Saturday. He’s also the resident DJ at Dalston Superstore’s Society sessions.
All of the above is common knowledge to connoisseurs and purveyors of house music. Lesser known, perhaps, is Robert Owens, the wallflower?
“I’m an introverted kid.”
That man that climbs the walls, one hand clinging to the mike, a leg sway here or there, as he sets his smooth voice loose against a sweaty and swaying crowd – introverted?
Apparently, yes. Here is a man that prefers his own company. He strolls from East London to West. He’s at the gym, mindful of his health. He’s shopping “but not always buying.” He’s enjoying tea.
“I have nothing around me to cultivate negativity,” Owens explains. If isolated, there is nothing to pollute his mind. He describes himself as a peaceful man and he wants to stay in that state of mind.
But collaborations, DJing for a crowd, interviews, and the lot: success spanning over 20 years seems unlikely in solitary life. In a process that must have taken over two decades to refine, Owens manages to maintain his peace, and his partying, thus satisfying all involved in his music.
His methods are as follows: Interested folk get in touch with him (note: he is often hounded for new work, and admits he may not remember the names, acts or track titles sent to him), a rapport is built, and then he’ll provide the vocals if said project “sticks out and is fascinating.” Owens says the process can take up to three years or, hey, even ten minutes.
Sometimes he’s had to prove himself – people don’t seem to expect him to act (as introverted? Meditative, maybe?) as he does. “One they get over that, we start creating comfortably.”
If it’s off to a rocky start, he decides to “remove them from their negative state of mind.” The man won’t allow negativity because there is enough of it elsewhere in the world.
His positivity is infectious – here, at a relaxed afternoon pace or later tonight, when he finds a small torch at the DJ booth and sassily flashes it in your face.
One can’t help but feel motivated, inspired, or at the very least, a smile creeping onto the cheeks.
But, hark! There’s more.
Owens, with a soft but firm voice, states: “unification.”
This time, he means everyone invested musically – from the artists to the fans: “we’re one, trying to create moments of euphoria.”
Owens recalls his earlier days, before house music had started to take shape. He spent his adolescence in poorer areas of LA and Chicago, where gang-related shootings were prevalent. He dismissed the surrounding adversity and sought a basement in the projects or maybe an empty apartment complex, and there, in those abandoned, cleared out spaces, he brought together these rivals. People that wouldn’t normally like each other were dancing together against just one light and one turntable.
And like that, peace.
“It had nothing to do with drugs – drugs isolated and broke people down,” Owens says. “Music is more powerful than drugs.”
The young Owens was still in high school. He proposes he may have been the appointed DJ because he had access to music that the average teen may not have had.
“I used to sneak into disco clubs before I was old enough to go,” he grins. Chicago’s Den One was one of the very clubs where he found inspiration.
There, he was mesmerised by the now legendary Ron Hardy. “He was playing disco. I was inspired by it.” This was the catalyst.
Fast-forward to the 90s, after Owens had formed Fingers Inc with Larry Heard and Ron Wilson, after recording ‘Tears’ with the Def Mix posse, and after ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’ made no.1 all over. Owens returned to Chicago and rented out Den One, where he invited Ron Hardy back.
It’s a case for one of Owens’ most memorable moments. “Ron Hardy told me how proud he was of me.” There is a wistful and proud smile.
He returns to the idea of unity. Just like Hardy was his family then, he can’t ignore the growing members from a younger generation. He considers his monthly DJ residency with Society.
“Society is like family. And their friends are extended family…Studio 54 had the same principle: the core family unit and everyone else was a friend of family.
“(We’re) all united on one accord.” Music. It’s truly his gift.
“Musically, I’m a fountain. How I love the art of giving,” he says. “I just pray it never dries up.”
Again, this juxtaposition. Here is a man who is comfortable with giving 100% of himself in order for you, now a friend or extended family member, to reach the same peaceful frame of mind he has attained. He wants to unite with you in positivity stemming from his music.
Yet, he says he is happiest alone.
Robert Owens plays the Dalston Superstore This Thrusday (28th June) More info here.