It's not every day that an artist waltzes into a collaboration with Fatboy Slim, but Jerome Robins is bold. Robins is a Toronto-based DJ, producer, and part owner of Jungle Funk Recordings. Over the last 20 years, he has been an integral part to both local Canadian and international house music scenes. Robins proudly admits to his boldness. And as it turns out, it's something he and Slim share.
"The bad attitudes always come from the people trying to make it," says Robins. "The people who have made it don't need to prove anything. So when a guy like Fatboy Slim, a guy of his caliber, is willing to collaborate with me—while I'm making this track in the den of my condo studio in Toronto—it's unbelievable." In May, their combined efforts on a original cover of "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson, with vocals by The Wire's Idris Elba, resulted in a new addition to Robins' trophy case of achievements.
Robins says that it's time and tenacity that unlock these opportunities. For someone who only started honing in on original productions in 2004, earning the title of #6 Top Selling House Artist on Beatport by 2014 is evidence of that ethic. "When you're so bad, it's a deterrent; you don't want to work on it. I want to be here and I'm here and there are years between that," he says. "We're talking ten years and I'm still not where I want to be."
On the cusp of his ten-year journey, Robins was identifying exclusively as a DJ. While attending university in England, Robins participated in a school-run DJ competition; this set his love for music on overdrive. "I thought it was going to be like what you see in movies… all proper, Cambridge, Oxford type of thing. It wasn't that at all. People were partying non-stop and going to Ministry of Sound weekly," he says. "I started going clubbing… a lot."
"Everyone I met in London had a set of turntables. I would meet girls at bars, go back to their place, and they would have decks set up," he laughs. "Everyone you met was in touch with house music. It blew me away." But for a new DJ, the prevalence of dance music in the UK made its industry a tough wall to cross. DJ lineups were swanky and flaunted, "A-lister after A-lister after A-lister," he says. "Everything in London is 50 times more expensive and 50 times more difficult when it's dance music related."
Feeling the financial pinch, Robins moved back to Toronto in 1999. At first, he and his business partners threw around the idea of opening a nightclub, but after one look at the costs, they decided instead on a record store. Robins had spent the better part of his time in London neck deep in the rickety bins of the UK's legendary record stores, collecting and absorbing his house music sensibilities. Thus, running a record store was a no-brainer. In 2000, Release Records opened in the thick of downtown Toronto.
"I used the concepts that I had seen in England—to a certain extent, ripped them off—and catered to our own market using their philosophies," he says. "Within a year, we knocked out one of Toronto's biggest, longest running stores ever." For years, Release Records and Play De Record, both on Yonge street, were the only reliable record stores in Toronto.
Robins' concept at Release was simple: to provide every customer with equal access to exclusive records. Before the global annexation by mp3s, vinyl records were pressed limitedly and distributed selectively. The difference, unsurprisingly, was that the UK just did it better. "In Toronto, the record stores were full of Toronto locals acting like big shots, treating customers like crap…the ego was everywhere," he says. "Whereas in London, you were treated with respect. Just like Pete Tong would get records and promos, I would too, even though I was a nobody."
Under these borrowed philosophies, Release dominated record sales across North America. The store became an obligatory shopping trip for visiting international DJs, including artists like Steve Lawler, Paul Oakenfold, and Tiesto.
In 2006, Release fell to the mercy of online music sales and closed. Today, it still exists as a netlabel.
Robins' next step was a headfirst dive into original production. Using the connections he made at the store with labels, Robins was amassing a catalogue of tracks, remixes, and shows. "Once you start hearing from people that play and tour regularly, it's a validator… it gives you that push." A wave of releases under labels like Ultra, Toolroom, and Defected folded into collaborations with top-notch colleagues such as Honey Dijon, Boy George, Flipside, and DJ PP.
Perhaps his most ubiquitous collaboration is with Michael Babb, or Deko-ze. Babb, a fellow Toronto-based DJ, was one of Robins' former employees at the record shop. Through joint shows and productions, the two together have amassed over 30 years of experience in the industry. In 2012, they decided to combine their unique musical dexterities and create a brand of their own: Jungle Funk Recordings.
"People knew me more as a producer. I would walk into a club and there would be crickets for me, but people would freak out over Mike (Deko-ze)," he says. "But Mike had few originals tracks out and I had hundreds. It made sense to help each other—he help me locally and I help him internationally."
Robins says that Jungle Funk aims to target Canadian markets and specifically, a gay market. "We noticed that most clubs leaned on a darker side of techno, attracted mainly guys, a lot of drugs, and was very straight. Mike and I knew we didn't want our parties to be that way," he says. Notably, Deko-ze is a key gay Toronto DJ. "We wanted to be more fun, uplifting, unsegregated…just from the music and the environment this created, we ended up attracting all kinds of people."
Jungle Funk Recordings has hosted label showcases at the legendary The Guvernment, Comfort Zone, Li'ly Lounge, Club 77 in Hamilton, and CODA. The label has held a spot in the Top 10 and 16 spots in the Top 100 tracks of the Beatport charts.
On August 14, Robins and Babb will celebrate Jungle Funk's three year anniversary with a label night at CODA in Toronto. "We're so lucky to live in a city where there's so many venues, DJs, so many styles. You can go out for a drink, hear something being played and think, 'Wow, I didn't think about implementing that into a track, I'm going to try that when I get home,'" he says. "It's shrunk in some ways, but it's grown much more, especially in terms of the world-class talent Toronto has to offer now. There's a lot of it."
Jerome Robins, himself, being one of them.
Catch Jerome Robins and Deko-ze at CODA on August 14, tickets can be found here.