By Institute for Sound and Music
Skyline by Nicolas ScheuerInstitute for Sound and Music
A problematic area of Frankfurt, between the international airport, the headquarters of the US military broadcasting network AFN, and the station district, was where techno and house history was written from the late 1980s onwards. The effect was so lasting that the impact can still be felt today, even though the epicenter of the local music scene, and the associated kudos, have since moved to Offenbach.
Sven Väth press pictureInstitute for Sound and Music
When Sven Väth began his DJ career at Frankfurt's airport disco Dorian Gray in 1982, at the age of 18, no one would have imagined that this crazy boy would not just be there for a party season but would become a world-famous personality on the scene. Väth shaped the sound of Frankfurt like no one else—here on the Main, he's sometimes fondly referred to as Papa Sven. His sets, lasting up to 18 hours, are legendary and they smoothed the way from the club music of the 1970s and 1980s (disco, soul, and funk) to house and techno.
While other big names from Hesse in the early days have either died (Mark Spoon), retired (Frank Lorber, DJ Dag), or moved on to museum projects (Alex Azary), Väth is still jetting around the world and putting in over 100 performances every season. The secret of his eternal life as a DJ? Early on, he discovered a love for Indian Ayurvedic fasting and for three months a year he consumes no cigarettes, alcohol, or meat. And a no less important factor in this techno missionary's unfading enthusiasm is the city of Frankfurt itself. The city on the Main has always given him the sense of security that he needs to be able to work positively and productively—and provided him with the necessary structures and freedoms. Here in Mainhattan—as the city is sometimes called, on account of the big US military presence and the importance of the banking industry—he has been able to accomplish many projects "the quick way," which could hardly have got off the ground elsewhere.
For example, the local music scene enabled him to realize his own popstar dreams early on (with the Off project and their hit Electrica Salsa) and, later, to set up labels like Eye Q, Harthouse, and Cocoon. He also set up hr3 Clubnight on Hesse radio so that he could broadcast his visionary ideas about electronic music into every living room. Almost on the side, he also achieved his big dream of having his own superclub, Cocoon (with its associated award-winning restaurant)—a dream which unfortunately ended in insolvency in 2012.
Roman Flügel, Ata and Jörn WuttkeInstitute for Sound and Music
But Väth's spirit was not broken. When you talk to him today about being a DJ, he speaks not only about the obvious things like fun and ecstasy but also about duty, a philosophy of life, and a spiritual experience. So it's no surprise that everyone on the Frankfurt scene who followed him uses words like "mentor" and "role model" when they refer to Väth.
Athanassios Christos Macias aka Ata entered the world of nightclubs a little later than Väth.
"At Cooky’s in the early 1980s, Ralf-Rainer Rygulla (writer and later the owner of U60311—author's note) was playing Depeche Mode, and I found that really interesting. Then one Sunday Talla 2XLC DJ'd at a club called No Name—also more of an electronic and wave sound. I thought, I can do that, too," says Ata, describing his eureka moment. And so he began, initially by DJing and then opening Delirium, one of the leading record stores on the German techno scene—"to make it easier to get hold of the records." But Frankfurt remained a difficult place.
Not only because so many people were now moving to Berlin but also because the disco scene was very professional. There were exclusive contracts for DJs in clubs, and other features that were hostile to the techno culture. On the other hand, there was also the Frankfurt posse: a group of people who tended to think as a community. "Once Omen opened, we would follow Sven around—or travel with him on the bus to a gig. We all used to party together," recalls Ata.
Roman Flügel und Jörn Wuttke by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music
In Jörn Elling Wuttke, he had a like-minded partner at his side—with projects like Sensorama, Acid Jesus, and, above all, Alter Ego (and the massive hit Rocker), they entered the techno history books as producers. However, in the past 10 years, Roman Flügel, mainly under his real name, has built on his earlier solo work (as Eight Miles High and Soylent Green), most recently with Fun Fort appearing on the Japanese label, Mule, and Garden Party with Running Back.
"But because I was only 16, I had to smuggle myself in with two older friends—and polish my shoes first at Frankfurt airport so they would let me in, because it was all a bit smarter. Then luckily at Omen things were quite different. Sven opened Omen in Frankfurt's city center, with the knowledge he had acquired at Dorian Gray. It became clear relatively quickly that house music and techno would play an important role." Inspired by records imported from Chicago and Detroit and the club nights that were mushrooming everywhere even then, Flügel soon found he wanted to do more than just dance along, he wanted to produce music and be a DJ himself.
For Flügel, too, who until 2012—together with Heiko Schäfer (aka Heiko M/S/O) who unfortunately died in 2017, Ata, and Jörn Elling Wuttke—ran the Klang Elektronik, Playhouse, and Ongaku labels that were hugely important for Frankfurt and far beyond, Väth offered a kind of gateway into a new world. "I heard Sven Väth for the first time at the Dorian Gray," explains Flügel.
Roman Flügel by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music
What Dorian Gray and Omen were for Väth, the Robert Johnson club in Offenbach is for Flügel. At this club run by his old label colleague Ata, the spirit of the early days of techno lives on. Any DJ worth his salt tries to appear regularly at the Robert Johnson (known fondly as RoJo by insiders) and will willingly forego part of their fee to do so.
Roman Flügel (0010-06) by Thomas VenkerInstitute for Sound and Music
After 21 years, the club's reputation has spread right around the world, and resident DJs are even booked from Japan and South America. Its popularity is partly due to its special ambience which can be warm and welcoming, relaxed and extraordinarily euphoric all at the same time. Invaluable in the often stressful life of a DJ.
Robert Johnson Offenbach by TromlaInstitute for Sound and Music
"The Robert Johnson came about spontaneously or by pure chance. We weren't trying to do anything professional here," explains Ata. "The idea was more: let's do something simple, we just wanted to dance and listen to great music. The main thing for us was not selling beer but reinvesting the money straight back into equipment. And it was also about creating a room where you would feel comfortable. With clean toilets and a good wooden floor."
The formula for success sounds simple, good, and achievable—yet the Robert Johnson, like so many other clubs around the world, is currently staring into the abyss. The club has to remain closed because of Covid-19. It is hoped that an ongoing fundraising campaign, for which well-known artists like Anne Imhof, who herself has worked as a bouncer at the club, and Tobias Rehberger have provided artworks, will raise the money that is needed to survive the compulsory closure, which threatens to be a long one.
The club has earned itself high esteem on the local art scene around the Städel school of art and the University of Art and Design in Offenbach with its series of discussions on Robert Johnson Theory—and by offering an ambience which celebrates the clubbing experience as more than just a pseudo-hedonistic gesture and is always open to non-conformist, experimental, and disruptive elements.
Ata Macias: "No one's writing their dissertation here, but you can come in and see that it's a White Cube. That's something a bit different and so it's interesting for the art scene, as well. Club culture without the risk of eye cancer, in other words."