RONNIE ROBOT interview

The following is a phone interview with Ron Friedman, aka Ronnie Robot, founder of On Record, on 
8/2/2023 about Citi Express - Living for the City (AFS055):

[How did the On Record label come about, after your career in Rabbitt?]

The Rabbitt story was a great time, but I just got a little… I had a bit of a substance problem at that time, so I wanted to dry out and really just get rid of all the crap in my body. So I went on a nice little dry-out over six months. And also, a little bit later after that, my first son was born. And I got a little bit put off the idea of going and playing rock music, and carrying on. I did have a few offers overseas to play with some pretty – I mean, Trevor [Rabin] sorted me out with quite a nice offer, but it was a big, big, druggie rock group and I just got overwhelmed by having this kid, and I thought, ‘no way, Jose’.

So I decided to put the guitar down, and get involved in the production side of music.. and ja, it was a much calmer life, much better. I really had some good years, for many years, producing music for the mass market … I did that 20-odd years, and then I stumbled across the concept of ‘Majors for Minors’ … after music started going into a certain genre, which I just couldn’t relate to, I eventually — I could still relate to the Citi Express-type, but once it started going full-on rap and all that, I just thought no ways, not me … I’m not knocking it, I’m just saying it just didn’t work for me. I just couldn’t relate to it, I couldn’t feel it. 

I decided I’d had my time as a producer, and then I went into something completely different. I was now in my second marriage, of which is now 33 years. I had more kids, I had a set of twins. And I just got thinking, and I started reading up on the Mozart effect, so I started getting all into classical music, and all that – a big turnaround … and then I launched Majors For Minors. The concept was I took all the famous nursery rhymes and I orchestrated them classically, and I did them in certain frequencies to distress the cortex of babies and young children. That’s what that was about. And I ended up making a series of 13 (albums), that did incredibly well. In fact, I sold over a million copies of Majors for Minors, in the good old days of actual CD (sales). So that was quite a good thing.

Then that also left and I kind of got out of the game. Now that all my kids are grown up, I’m back on playing the guitar again, and being a bass player … Big circle!

[How were things changing in the music industry in the early 90s? How did you move from bubblegum to the new house sound?]

I always tried to keep my finger on the pulse of where thing were going in music. I had that feeling. I don’t say I’m the only one – a lot of other producers did have this feeling that music was going into that genre, which Citi Express was in ... I also started feeling it more myself, and enjoying it more.. And all the other stuff that I did previously, it was just getting so swamped. I just was looking for a different direction. And I think that it why I just hired the right people – younger people that understood it. And they did some pretty good jobs in that.

But there again, I can’t recall Citi Express at that time being such a big hit … I tried these kind of things, and I was probably taking a bit of pot luck at well, just saying ‘look, let’s just go for it, and try and see’.

There was a guy named Quentin Foster, he was hanging around when I had my own record company at the time, and I met him a few times and we discussed certain things and I liked him. He was young, and he was a quiet type of guy. I could see he sort of had a good ear for certain stuff. He approached me and said look, he’d like to do something like this. I recall having just created a concept – I liked the name Citi Express, I liked the track ‘Living for the City’ redone. I just I chose a few more of the tracks, I think he bought a few more to the table. One of them I think we co-written (by him) and published by On Record and Tone Def or another publisher, I can’t remember…

But ja, I liked him and I thought he had great potential. And in fact I think he did a very good job. I mean he’d come to me with the tracks and I’d say to him, ‘maybe do that’, ‘take that out’ … I can’t even remember if I popped into the studios at the time to help.. I think I was more of an executive producer than a producer.

He was young, I just had a good feel about the guy. He just appealed to me as a person. He was easy to get on with, and he wasn’t a mad bread-head ... He just liked the craft of music, I could see he was genuine and I just felt … I don’t think anybody was giving him too many opportunities at the time. Maybe Patrick van Blerk was also helping him a bit. So that appealed, and I just gave him the budget and I said go for it.

The last time I saw him was sort of 3 years after the release, at best, so I sort of lost touch with him … I think I even closed On Record at the time, in favour of Big Blue music ... Tone Def was his studio’s name, he had a studio called Tone Def.

[Was there a target market in mind for Citi Express?]

It was totally crossover. In fact, I actually thought (it appealed) more the black market than the white market at that time, which a chance of it crossing into the white market.

[What were sales like?]

I think it might’ve sold – I’m taking a flyer here but I’d say in the region of 5 to 7,000 units … It’s not too bad, but it certainly wasn’t like a gold record or anything like that. 

It was all session people, they got paid a session fee. The name Citi Express I just held as a session group. Probably if it had broken the 10 - 12,000 barrier, I would’ve done a second album and worked it as a project. But I didn’t do that, so there was only one volume.

When I listen to it now, I actually think if I wasn’t so swamped with all the other crap going on at the time, I think I would’ve probably paid more attention to it, nurtured it a little bit more. I think had I done that, even at the time, it could’ve got a lot bigger. Because I don’t think I remember giving it the real promotional buzz that I’d normally do when I released an album in those days, like the Mafikas and all that, where I’d go where I went countrywide to the radio stations and all that.  I think I ran out of energy.

I was involved in the offices of a company called Roots Records at the time. And unbeknown to me, they were really doing badly. And the next time, the Sheriff (of the court) walked into my office and started putting labels on the desks, everything was being attached. I thought, 'what the hell’s going on here? Who are you, what do you want?' So there was that whole thing going on, so there was a big of chaos, to say the least.

And the other chaos I had was when I moved, I had so much stuff all in a storeroom. And when I moved to a place in Bryanston there was like paraffin or something in that room that was leaking, and it caught alight. I lost a lot. Look, it wasn’t a serious fire, cause we managed to sort it out after about 10 minutes, but I lost so much – it was unbelievable what I lost… It freaked me out. It was a terrible time, it really was. I couldn’t believe it. Not that I thought that the stuff was gonna be worth anything anymore. But it’s just something I kept … but it is what it is, what can I do?

[Was Citi Express promoted in clubs?]

I’d say Quentin probably got it out to a few nightclubs in those days. I think he would’ve sampled quit a few clubs, so it probably did get in the hands of some clubs in those days ...

The club scene back then – at that point I’d just got married to my second wife and I stopped doing too may of the club things myself ... but I mean going back into the early 80s, I did a lot of the clubbing thing myself. I saw a lot of segregation. I used to go to a place in Soweto called the Pelican nightclub, owned by a guy by the name of Lucky Michaels, and there was a fair amount of whities going in there, and beautiful music, great groups were playing there. It was quite amazing, going there, where about a third of the patronage was whities. But that was more of a sit-down sort of thing, and live music, than an actual club ... I kind of missed the real DJ era (after bands), I think I’d already moved on to babies and classical music! 

[How were the track selected?]

I remember very distinctly, it was probably the least desirable track on the album, I can’t remember. But I just said to him, do ‘Living for the City’, the Stevie Wonder track, because I just knew that that always did pretty well in the black market, and I knew there’d been quite a few versions of it, but I just said ‘just do something a little bit different with that, in this kind of style’. And the name of the project would be Citi Express. But I think Quentin did most of the choice of the tracks. He was talented, I could see it. That’s why I was very comfortable using him, and letting him have that opportunity. He was in his 20s, a young guy.

‘Open Invitation’ was our own composition. 

© 2023 Afrosynth

No comments:

Post a Comment