Family Portraits: Robbie Tronco

Ever since he could remember, music has been in Robbie Tronco’s life.

Raised by a single mother who loved Motown, Tronco has been spinning records since he was 13. Known for his innovative styles (one report: “I will never forget Robbie playing two copies of ‘Double Dutch Bus’ at the same time — one of them backward!”), Tronco has been a music icon in the Philadelphia gay club scene, playing at such legendary clubs as the Black Banana, Catacombs and The Kennel Club here in Philadelphia and the Paradise Garage in New York City. As a producer, he’s created hits such as “Walk4Me,” “Mary’s Opera” and his 1997 smash “Fright Train.” With outrageous outfits and a sense of humor to match, Tronco is one of gay Philadelphia’s favorite DJs. Not bad for a straight guy.

PGN: So you are a native guy, born and bred in South Philly. What were you like as a kid? RT: I don’t know. I started DJing when I was so young, I don’t know much else! I started out when I was 13.

PGN: How did that come about? RT: I went to a teen dance. It was a Friday night and I’d never seen or heard anything like it. I liked it so much, I went back the next night but the DJ never showed up. I was standing there and the owner of the place asked me if I knew how to do it. I said, “Do what?” and he said, “Play records.” So I said, “Sure, I can do that.” I didn’t know what I was doing, but there were a bunch of old 45s and LPs, so I started playing stuff and got all the girls up and doing line dances and having a good time, and I haven’t stopped since.

PGN: What were the groups you liked to listen to? RT: Oh, so many. The Trammps, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and MFSB — you know, the group that did TSOP [The Sound of Philadelphia].

PGN: Tell me about your family. RT: My mother raised us by herself. I have two siblings, an older sister and a brother, Richie, who was gay.

PGN: So you’re not gay … RT: No, but I grew up in the gay clubs. I loved the music there. The music was so innovative. I used to go to Catacombs, which was like our Paradise Garage. Actually, I worked at the Garage and I thought Catacombs was better. I loved Barry but David Todd and Donald Stone from Catacombs inspired me.

PGN: So with faves like Harold Melvin, is R&B your favorite type of music? RT: Well, rhythm and blues intertwines into the soul of all dance music if you really listen to it. You can do any kind of mixes and incorporate it. But I like everything. I love show tunes. I remember going to Equus and hearing songs like Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning” made into a dance version. It was so much fun. I was blown away by guys like Patrick Cowley, who did Sylvester’s “Do You Wanna Funk” and his own song, “Megatron Man” (he did all that electronica stuff), and the guy he was inspired by, Giorgio Moroder, who did the early Donna Summer disco hits like “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby.” They were big influences on me. Basically that’s what house music is today: Giorgio Moroder meets Philadelphia.

PGN: Other than show tunes, what would people be surprised to know that you listen to? RT: I love all good music — if it’s good, I’ll listen to it. Country, classical, rock ’n’ roll, I have a little of everything in my collection.

PGN: Do you think being open-minded has made you a better father, husband, etc.? RT: I guess; I’ve just always loved people in general. I don’t care what nationality you are or what your sexual preference is or how much money you have, it’s never mattered to me.

PGN: So as a DJ, do you have your groupies? RT: [Laughs.] I think all DJs do, but I prefer to call them my friends.

PGN: Does it bother you that people think you’re gay? RT: It’s mostly straight people who are always saying, “Oh, he’s got to be gay.” [Laughs.] My gay friends are much more open-minded about my heterosexuality.

PGN: What was your favorite class in school? RT: Art and music. I’m a drummer: I play percussion. My father was a drummer too.

PGN: Have you performed on any music tracks? RT: Oh yeah, I’ve done a lot of music and, over the years, I must have produced about 3,000 songs. I’ve done the tracks on quite a few of them. There was a point when I was spinning at Shampoo on Fridays and would go through almost a whole night spinning mostly all my music. No one would know it was mine and I wanted to see how people responded. I’d do percussion tracks and mix them into new songs, the crowd would go crazy over them and that was some of my main inspiration for producing. A lot of the music I produced with my company, Tronco Traxx, was music that came from the house-ball community where voguing got started.

PGN: Any hobbies? RT: I love spending time with my kids and my girlfriend Chelsea. My mother is very important to me too. I have three daughters and one on the way.

PGN: What are their names? RT: Miranda, Maura and Ella and a question mark! As long as he or she is healthy, I don’t care what we have. But it might be nice to get another male in the house: Even my dog is female.

PGN: Ella, after Ella Fitzgerald? RT: Yes, and Miranda is from Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian singer who wore the crazy outfits with the fruit on her head.

PGN: What was your craziest outfit? RT: Back when I was a kid, during the “Saturday Night Fever craze,” I walked into a teen dance wearing hot-pink Sasson jeans with glow-in-the dark shoes. I was doing it back then — I had my mascara and eyeliner on. Oh, I had fun. Every day I went to work was like Halloween for me.

PGN: So are you “gayer” looking than your gay brother? RT: Oh yeah, definitely! He’d say, “Robbbbbb, what the ?” and I’d say, “Riccccch!” He was always telling me to turn it down a notch. But I love it when people get dressed up.

PGN: How long have you and Chelsea been together? RT: We’ve been together every day for a year-and-a-half. I really love her. I’m in love and the kids love her too. It’s been a crazy year too. I lost my brother Richie. So she went through my ups and downs with me and she’s stuck it out. I had to move back to Philly to help my mother out. Richie was living with her and they ran a pet-grooming business.

PGN: How did he die? RT: He had a heart attack, so it was really sudden. He was only 44. It was so sad; I lost my best friend. But for my mother, it was even more intense. Losing a child takes a toll on a parent. She’s had a slow struggle to get back to normal. It’ll be a year this month.

PGN: What’s her shop? RT: It’s called Four Paws Dog Grooming. It’s a struggle for her to run it on her own. She’s a little thing, only 4-foot-9, trying to wrestle big dogs, but she’s a tough one so she’s going to make it. She’s a survivor.

PGN: What’s the most annoying thing people do when you’re DJing? RT: Trying to talk to you while you’re mixing, trying to match beats. It’s as if you’re at a typewriter trying to work and someone’s screaming questions at you. I try to be as nice as I can, but …

PGN: How many records do you own? RT: I have over 165,000 albums. I can’t get enough music. I think that people don’t even realize how much power music has to form connections both with other people and with emotions. You can hear a song and it brings you right back to a moment when you first heard it: It’s intense. That’s kind of why I like the dance music of the past: They were happy songs about celebrating life and fun.These days, you walk into a gay club and they’re playing the same angry or exploitive-of-women music that you hear at straight clubs, and it takes away what was unique about the gay scene.

PGN: What’s next? RT: I’m working on bringing back that excitement and music from the gay nightlife of the late ’70s and early ’80s. I’m not sure where we’re going to do it yet, but me and Steve Anderson, who does Cher impersonations, Ginger Snaps and Charlie Potje from Charlie Salon are trying to recreate that time when we feel the gay club community was at its most exciting. We’ll incorporate dance, disco, house, along with live performances, divas and fun. Stay tuned!

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