Rosabel is the name of a DJ team made up of Ralphi Rosario and Abel Aguilera. The two men have gained renown, separately and together, as icons in the Circuit community for their performances. They are also famous for their dance music remixes in which they reconfigure songs with digital precision, format build-ups on the 16, 32, and 64-count pulses, add sounds and instrumental music, and enhance percussion.
Background: Ralphi Rosario
Of Puerto Rican heritage, Rosario made a name for himself as one of Chicago’s “Hot Mix 5” DJs on radio station WBMX from 1981 until 1986. The crew consisted primarily of Rosario, Kenny Jason, Scott Silz, Farley Jackmaster Funk, and Mickey Oliver. Steve Silk Hurley & Frankie Knuckles were occasional mix show guests. The Hot Mix 5 served an audience that, at its peak, was in the hundreds of thousands. The DJs favored the influx of European dance music, much of it in the genre of new wave with its precise electronic sounds, and boosted the music with a strong beat from a drum machine. They are credited (along with Knuckles and Ron Hardy) for creating house music, and were among the first in Chicago to mix songs into extended sets on the radio, a feat that helped them gain a large following that would eventually spread worldwide.
A house music icon, Rosario gained further fame within the Gay male club scene and the growing Circuit scene (weekend-long dance parties for Gay men and their allies) with his remixes and DJ sets. But he is careful not to let his notoriety in either world go to his head. “If your passion is in what you do, being fabulous is not where it’s at,” he said in an interview (Mickey Weems, May 2008): “The diva card is so tired! Sometimes, it’s necessary. But you’ve got to be careful about giving too much attitude. There’s always some shady Joan Crawford queen with a cigarette to put you in your place.”
Aguilera grew up in Brooklyn, New York and Miami, Florida in a Cuban American household. His career as a DJ began unofficially at the age of fifteen when he spun records for neighborhood parties. Eventually, he took his talent to Miami nightclubs and radio. Abel began DJing during the disco days, before dance music was structured with computer-generated precision: “It’s really hard to blend disco songs into a smooth segue,” he said (Weems interview, April 2008). “You have to karate chop them” — that is, turn off the volume of the outgoing song and turn up the volume on the incoming song without missing a beat.
In the early 1990s, Miami was a major destination for Gay men who love to dance, both in terms of its clubs (such as Level, Salvation, and Cameo Theatre) and its premier Circuit events, the White Party in November and Winter Party in March. Aguilera (going by the name “DJ Abel”) rose to the top of the tier for Miami Gay DJs, and established himself as a major Circuit and club DJ across the USA and Canada.
Rosabel and Gay Dance Music
Rosabel comes out of a tradition of Gay club music with regards to DJ culture and technological innovations in sound production. Many of the pioneers of electronic music were Gay music producers and musicians from the late 1970s. “It was Giorgio Moroder and Patrick Cowley who started it,” Aguilera said. “Later on in the ‘80s came groups like Ah-Ha and New Order.”
All the elements for danceable house music came together with freestyle (also known as Latin hip-hop), the marriage of electronica with soulful lyrics, Latin sensibilities concerning strong syncopation, piano, and perhaps a horn section. Musicians, hooks, rhythms, samples, and loops became raw material for remixers of Hispanic heritage such as the Latin Rascals (Tony Moran and Albert Cabrera), Rosario, and Aguilera.
Like Moran and Cabrera, Rosario and Aguilera joined their talents as a team and took freestyle as a musical base to build songs with regular and consistent iterations on the 8, 16, 32, and 64 pulses. This shifts the focus of the beat from the artist to the dancer (who can then more accurately align dance with pulse), which is the hallmark of Circuit music more so than the general field of house music, which allows for irregular counts on the beat that destabilize the flow of music and call attention to the remixer/DJ. Rosario, Aguilera, and Moran are major players in the Circuit, and all three are open about their same-sex orientation. Concerning Rosabel, Aguilera said, “We’re both Gay, and we both love to dance. We don’t make songs the way that Straight remixers do.” The difference from Straight DJs extends into their presentation of themselves as Rosabel. “We prefer silly so people don’t think we’re Straight,” said Rosario. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously.”
Musicians send their songs to Rosabel to reformat. “We start with the voices if the original song has lyrics. We try to be as original as we can to the artist,” said Aguilera. “We try to think about the dance floor more than ourselves.”
Rosabel Performing Rosabel
Abel and Ralphi are classic examples of sisters, Gay men who bond with each other with an intimacy that doesn’t need sex to reaffirm the bond. The following interview excerpts demonstrate how Rosario and Aguilera verbally perform themselves (Weems interview, May 2008).
ABEL: [How they met] It was somewhere around 1989, during the WMC [Winter Music Conference in Miami]. I went to meet him, and two Ralphis introduced themselves, one with a legit-looking business card, and the other with a card that looked really fake. But the fake card was the real one.
RALPHI: I gave you my card, and we didn’t speak again until later. He left me a profanity-laced message in Spanish, accusing me of selling my ass on the corner.
ABEL: I left him a dirty phone call. He was never home when I called him, so I said, “Hey, you must be out on the street selling your ass like a puta [Spanish for ‘whore’]!”
RALPHI: I kept the voice message and sampled it into a song. I called it “La Puta.” It was a big hit in Spain.
ABEL: But when we first met, things were rough for the both of us.
RALPHI: We both went through hardship then. We were doing radio shows in the Straight scene. We thought our careers were over, at the exact same time in our lives. But we didn’t tell each other our situations, not at first.
ABEL: We never mentioned it to each other until a long time afterwards. Things were rough for both of us. We almost gave up until we met and things got better.
RALPHI: I’ve been through hardship many times. But something inside kept telling me…
ABEL: You go, girl!
RALPHI: I want to thank the Academy!
How Rosabel Remixes
RALPHI: We want our music to have a feel-good message, something self-affirming.
ABEL: If a song has vocals, we start with the vocals and go from there. We work with some incredible women who give us incredible vocals.
RALPHI: In terms of flavor, I like a little bit of soul, but I really like salsa hovering over it. I’m Puerto Rican, so we’re talking about adding a lot of spices! When you put together a song, it’s not an exam, it’s not a test. You have to feel that shit in your wrist, in your chest, in your hips… but I think of us as musical surgeons.
ABEL: Yeah, adding a pair of new tits or new calves to show off our new heels! But we do not make music the same way a Straight DJs. We are both Gay men. We know our people.
RALPHI: It always starts with us [Gay people]… It’s all about education. We’re the pioneers of tribal, the children of the night.
ABEL: Some things we don’t want. There is some hip hop that crosses over, but not much. It’s not the rhythm that’s the problem with a lot of hip hop for us. It’s the message, the fantasies.
RALPHI: Gay men want a feel-good message – something that’s fun. How is gangsta rap supposed to be fun?
Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton. Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey. New York: Grove, 2000.
Reighley, Kurt B. Looking for the Perfect Beat: The Art and Culture of the DJ. New York: Pocket, 2000.