Interview: Rhenalt

Rhenalt DJs at TBA Brooklyn, a new house music venue in Williamsburg.

When I met DJ, producer, and label boss Rhenalt Rimple for a drink at a cafe in Union Square last week, it wasn’t far from where, as a teenager with a fake ID, he went to his first club, Palladium, in 1992. That first venture to the disco was in the waning golden age of New York’s club culture, when kids would pack massive venues like Sound Factory and Tunnel, dancing into the dawn to the new sounds of house and techno.

After pursuing careers in acting and dance, Rhenalt was inspired to take up DJing and production himself in the mid-2000s. He toured in Eastern Europe and collaborated with the legendary figures Todd Terry and DJ Pierre before recently launching his own label Rebel Eye. In the last couple years, the label has curated shows at TBA Brooklyn, Space Ibiza, and the defunct Verboten, as well as in Miami.

Their latest release, “Nameless,” by Californian producer Joe Bond, harkens back to that early ’90s aesthetic of otherworldly industrial textures and insatiable mechanical rhythm. It lives in a faded, but never vanished, world of pulsing bodies unified by a beat, sweating in a barrage of flashing lights and kick drum.

I asked him about the early days of the New York house scene, its recent revival, and how technology has and hasn’t changed the craft of DJing.

When did first start going out to clubs and getting involved in house music?

It goes back to 1992. Actually, right around here was the first club I ever went to, called Palladium. It was a very exciting club, really big, like a super club. There was a track called “What is Love” by Dee-Lite. I remember them playing that track, with all the lights, and people dressed up in a certain way.

Back then, if you were into house music you dressed a certain way. You’d wear the platform shoes. We called them ‘stomps’ back in the days. We had a certain style. You’d walk around and if you saw someone dressed with that style, you’d know they were a house music lover. Part of your tribe. You could spot them automatically: Doc Martens, flight jacket, hardware hats. Hats like from the video for the song “Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson. The hats they’re wearing, with metal plates and metal visors, that was big back in like ’92. So we had those, and ripped jeans.

What turned you on to that scene?

A producer by the name of Todd Terry. Back in 1987, when I was very young, I would go to my grandmother’s house, and my father would put on FM 107.5. They used to play club music at night. A lot of Todd Terry’s tracks would be on during those sets, and I got very excited about them. I dreamed of the day I would be old enough to go to the disco. When I finally got my first chance to actually go to the disco, it all started.

Where we you going to dance back in the early ‘90s?

Palladium, like I said, which was a very nice club. Mars, in the Meatpacking District, was very exciting, it had like three or four floors. The Red Zone was on 54th St., in Midtown. There was Tunnel. We used to go to Sound Factory when we got rejected from Palladium. I was 16 but I had a fake ID that said I was 18. So some of the bouncers would spot it, and we’d go to Sound Factory because they didn’t care.

I used to go to a lot of house parties around in the neighborhood too. Friends would throw little parties in their apartments, playing this kind of music. It was very fresh back then. Actually back then it was only Latino and black, it was very underground. It wasn’t the big exciting culture we have now.

Everything was raw back then. There were no VIP areas, no big fancy promoters. It was all about dancing, and music, and DJs. It became more about drugs, money, VIPs, and that kinda ruined the scene.

Sound Factory, in the Flatiron District, was a major hub for New York’s underground dance scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

How did you see the New York dance music scene evolve from there?

Everything was raw back then. There were no VIP areas, no big fancy promoters. There was less money in the scene. It was all about dancing, and music, and DJs. A lot of choreographers are my friends, and I have a background in dance. Back then it was all about dancing and that was my thing. There was less drug activity. Not saying it wasn’t around, but it became more about drugs, money, VIPs, and that kinda ruined the scene. Promoters got greedy, club owners got greedy. The music changed too. “Jack” is the soul of house. It’s not as present in the scene anymore, and we have to bring it back. That’s what I’m trying to do with the label: bring the old school frequency back in. Bring jack back [laughs].

What was the launching point for you to really get involved in DJing? 

Around 2006 I was just starting out in the whole DJ scene, and I met a Bulgarian girl here in New York City. She was going back to Bulgaria for a while, and she asked me if I wanted to come. I bought a one way ticket there, I didn’t know when I was coming back. I hooked up with the biggest promoter in Bulgaria, who goes by the name DJ Balthezar. I told him I was coming to Bulgaria with a friend, he checked out my website and he laid out a whole tour. I was still a beginner, so I was shaking in my boots [laughs]. 

I did gigs on the Black Sea, in Sofia, in the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and so many towns. It was the most insane ride of my life. After that I started taking DJing seriously, because I got a whiff of the big crowds, the excitement of being on stage, the fans, signing autographs, being in magazines, fans recognizing me on the street. When I did decide to go back to the U.S., a month later, I started to really cultivate the whole music thing.

I’ve never felt that energy again. They were on fire. People were dancing with their shirts off, just going nuts, until nine in the morning, with the sun rising over the Black Sea.

How was the scene different in Eastern Europe at the time compared to New York?

It was very different. You have to remember they were just coming out of communism. You could still see it and feel it, it was very heavy. When I played to that type of crowd they appreciated it so much, the energy was like no other. I’ve never felt that energy again. They were very excited to have someone from New York City representing dance music. They were on fire. People were dancing with their shirts off, just going nuts, until nine in the morning, with the sun rising over the Black Sea. 

What tracks were you playing at that point?

There was a big track “Funkatron” by Robbie Rivera. That was my shit. Another one was the D. Rameriz remix of “Yeah Yeah” by Bodyrox. Those were the two tracks that were heavy-duty for me—the secret weapons. You need those bombs that drop in there and make the crowd lose it.

After that you released your first EP, on the label run by DJ Pierre, one of the founders of acid house in Chicago. 

I was just starting out DJing and I met DJ Pierre, and I met Cornelius Harris from Underground Resistance, actually on Myspace [laughs]. Cornelius took me under his wing and got me to start producing. I met Pierre right after, and produced my first EP. I was one of his first artists on his label.

Next month we have a new release coming out called The Fruit Fly EP, by Manny Cuevas from Florida, who used to do A&R for DJ Pierre. His EP sounds very retro, very old school acid house. It’s like Chicago jacking, ’80s analogue. I’m excited.

People talk about a resurgence of this type of underground dance music in New York in recent years. 

Yeah, everything’s moved to Brooklyn, and the hipster scene has kind of taken it over, which is a beautiful thing, because it’s back underground, and it’s more stripped down. There’s clubs like TBA, where I played last Wednesday, where it’s all about the music. The crowd is very young, and my music appeals to the young crowd, which I like because I try to push the music forward. It’s not about VIPs. It’s all about wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and rocking out. It’s free admission. There’s very talented DJs, the bar is set very high. MixMag does a monthly party there, just like Boiler Room. People are buying vinyl again. And there’s random warehouse parties where you need a secret password. So it’s back to the underground, but with a hipster twist. 

You always have to have creativity. Software isn’t going to teach you crowd control. You could have the best software coming from Mars or wherever and it will not give you crowd control. It won’t teach you style.

You talk about how there was a very identifiable style to ‘90s dance culture, and after a period where the scene lost focus, now more people are getting involved and enjoying this music again but it’s a less defined scene.

It’s more accessible now. Now anyone can be a DJ. You just buy software and start DJing. You’ve got Paris Hilton with a residency, that’s insane. She’s getting paid more than the top DJs, and it’s all because of that goddamn software—actually I won’t say ‘goddamn software,’ the software is good, but I think it’s being misused when anyone can just say they’re a DJ. But you always have to have creativity.

Software isn’t going to teach you crowd control. You could have the best software coming from Mars or wherever and it will not give you crowd control. It won’t teach you style. You still have to know what to play, how to play it. You have to know the psychology of the crowd. You have to test stuff on them and watch them to be an effective DJ. You have to watch faces and watch reactions. And you need those secret bombs to open them up. You need to really get into the way the crowd thinks and feels, and manipulate them.

With my label, I’m trying to bring back that feel from the ‘90s, when all this music was simply called house. DJs played differently, they had crowd control. A lot of DJs now seem to follow a certain style or trend. DJs back then all had their own unique style, or they would mix it up in a clever way. To me DJs back then were at a higher caliber. Software didn’t exist, so you had to work hard to mix. So I’m trying to bring that flavor back.

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