Lover of cheap vinyl, producer of exquisitely odd records, mind-bending conversationalist—Matteo Ruzzon is an electronic music personality like no other. Will Lynch went to Queens to catch him in his natural habitat.
"Nothin'," he said, meaning "no records," this being one of his favorite spots to dig. He briefly inspected a pile of DVDs then doubled back toward the door. "Honestly that's probably better, though. Otherwise we'd be here all day."
Ruzzon stepped back into the heat, turned right and headed up Van Dam Street, adjusting his bulky messenger bag as he walked. "That place is on and off but it can be killer," he said. "It's worth going a few times without getting anything. I mean, it's not like you can get Basic Channel records. But then again, it's not like that's what I'm looking for. Disco, hip-hop, house, proto-house, that's all the shit that I like."
Turning onto Queens Boulevard, the subway overpass looming beyond his shoulder, Ruzzon set off for the day's next destination: a plaque commemorating the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. With his gangly frame and jumpy energy, Ruzzon cut a figure not unlike a more famous New York personality—Seinfeld's Kramer, albeit in an oversized yellow shirt and backwards Palace cap. Loping down the sidewalk, he spoke in a nonstop, zig-zagging soliloquy, always leaping to a new topic before the last was finished. Between Goodwill and the Beiderbecke plaque, he touched on, among other things, his social life ("I have zero friends—zero!"), his distaste for New York's dating scene ("I find that extremely complicated, and completely, uh, confusing"), and, most thoroughly, the story of how he ended up in New York.
"I was hanging out, going to clubs in Rimini, that's a kinda coastal resort town near where I'm from in Italy," he said. "Legendary clubs, man, incredible afterhours. Anyway this guy from Long Island, he invited me out, all like, 'You ever wanna come to New York…,' you know. So that's how it happened. When he took me to the city we took the Midtown Tunnel. Before you get down in the tunnel, there's that creek that separates Brooklyn from Queens. So there's a bridge there, the highway, I think it's called the Long Island Expressway, that leads to the entrance of the tunnel. There's this elevated causeway, and you get this amazing, spectacular view of Midtown Manhattan."
Suddenly Ruzzon turned left and charged across the street. "It was kinda a little bit twilight maybe," he said. "Early evening, sunset, dusk, coming from Queens Boulevard, and it just looked like... a real Emerald City, you know? It had a strong pull. And that was pretty much it. June '94. I mean, now I like New York a lot less, but, well, I'm past 40 now and I been here since I was 18, so it's my life, for better or worse." He was silent for a second. "Alright we're almost there! Talking shit it goes real quick."
Ruzzon turned down an unassuming street that sloped away from Queens Boulevard. A few paces and there it was, a modest slab of black marble commemorating Leon "Bix" Beiderbecke, "the original young man with a horn."
"Pretty small plaque but yeah, he's one of the music greats," Ruzzon said. "Thing about Bix Beiderbecke, his music is sad, which always confused me 'cause I figured, he's a middle class white dude, he can't have it as hard as somebody like Louis Armstrong, but Louis' music is all jumpy and upbeat. But me personally, I like music that's sad. That's, to me, the je ne quoi, je ne pas... how do you say it? Fuckin' je ne sais quoi in music. It can be slightly sad, it can be beautifully sad, dudn't have to be, like, mourning sad, but there can be something that has a mixture of sadness and happiness too, you know? That's why I like Bix Beiderbecke."
Ruzzon took in the plaque for another moment then set off toward Woodside, an Irish neighborhood further down the road, where he planned to get beer on the way home. En route, he let loose a stream of facts about the neighborhood—"The Coppolas lived around here... James Caan, too, one of the greatest actors, the Jewish guy in The Godfather, son of a German Jewish butcher..." He chose a pub, seemingly at random, lumbered in and slid onto a stool. Holding his chin in an exaggerated gesture of contemplation, he took a chance on an Irish beer he'd never heard of. The bartender teased him for mispronouncing the name. "What can I say," Ruzzon said, "I'm a straight-off-the-boat guinea!"
As the beer went down, Ruzzon expounded on a variety of artists he admires, from The Analogue Cops to Bo Diddley, whose biography he'd recently read. "You know the song 'Bo Diddley' by Bo Diddley?" he asked. "Big tune. Raw as fuck." By far his favorite of the moment was the 20th century composer Morton Feldman, on whom he'd had a "huge reading session" the day before, beginning with a "really beautiful" article in The New Yorker.
"It's called, uh... shit!" He shut his eyes as he rummaged his memory for the name. "It's named after a fuckin' William Faulkner piece... American Sublime!"
Feldman, Ruzzon explained, was under-appreciated in his time, but is now receiving more widespread adulation. He identified with him for being an underdog, he said, though they shared more than just that in common—The New Yorker called Feldman "a champion monologuist" and "one of the greatest talkers in the recent history of New York City."
"He did a track called 'Rothko Chapel,'" Ruzzon said. "Which is the one that hit me the most. It was a requiem for Rothko, the painter, who committed suicide a few months earlier. When I heard that, it was like, there's shit in there that I was trying to make on my computer for years, and it's from 1971. It's austere, but it's pretty, and it's sad. It's kinda what I was trying to do with some of the ambient shit I've done, like on the the Sähkö record."
Ruzzon described his own creative process as tortured and longwinded, rooted in a "love/hate" relationship with Ableton, which he uses exclusively, and which he thinks makes it harder to finish music. "I'm working on stuff forever," he said. "I'll stay on one thing for weeks at a time. Sometimes people wanna work with me in the studio, people I really like have asked me about it—Tin Man, Ital. But if I go to your studio, I'm gonna have to, like, slumber there for weeks, if not months. It's useless for me to go into the studio for even ten hours."
He tilted back the last of his beer and signaled the bartender for another one. "You know Sensational, the rapper on some of my records?" he said. "I've known him for 20 years or something. He makes fun of me, he says most of my shit's not finished even when it's out. He's the diametrical opposite of me. For him, the first note, the first sound he hits is the right one, he doesn't rethink nothing, that's kind of his signature approach. But he's a hip-hop guy. Some hip-hop producers will make many beats every day, and out of 20 beats you have two cool ones. That's a completely different approach though. My way, it's like you have to re-go over it like 20 million times. For me it's all about trial and error, looking for the texture. Sometimes the texture is really the main thing in a track."
Ruzzon's sound—a strange blend of house, hip-hop and ambient that sounds more streetwise than avant-garde—is the result of an unusual journey, both musically and personally. Having grown up in the Veneto region of Italy, as a teenager Ruzzon went on a student exchange to Pitzer College in Claremont, California—"it was like Animal House but with an international flavor"—where he discovered dub and reggae, which formed the foundation for his taste. "I sense that bass being the one frequency range you can feel physically is how a lot of people got hooked on music," he said. "For me it made so much sense, I mean all the music I've ever loved has heavy bottom."
Later that year he started clubbing in the Northeast of Italy, especially at the discos in Riccione. "That area is one of the crucial epicenters of the underground," he said. "Rimini, the so-called Adriatic Coast, Northern Adriatic. Anybody would play there—Tony Humphries, François Kevorkian, even Daft Punk in their early days, playing these discos up in the hills there. One place I frequented was called Club 99, it was wild as fuck, man. Wild as fuck. Would start at six and go till noon. Not many people knew about it, you had this international but very in-the-know crowd, a lot of people that worked in the regular clubs which closed at four, plus other DJs, promoters, DJs' friends. I was a nobody kid who would just drop a bunch of pills and dance for like ten hours straight. Nobody knew me. And you heard the best fucking mixture of deep shit."
In the summer of '94, Ruzzon moved to New York on a whim and rented an apartment in Murray Hill, just a stone's throw from Club USA, a multi-floor venue run by the infamous nightlife impresario Peter Gatien. A few months later he moved to a former gallery space in Alphabet City, where he shared a room with a kid from New Zealand—his first DJ friend. Living and clubbing in New York in the '90s, Ruzzon was exposed to a vast range of different sounds—"salsa, Cuban music, merengue, dancehall, soul and funk, rock, punk, new wave, disco, whatever..." His roommate was into jungle and drum & bass, which dovetailed with another sound Ruzzon became addicted to, trip-hop, and later, a sound sometimes known as "illbient," but which he called "dub hop," exemplified by artists like DJ Spooky and the Mo Wax compilation Headz, and a label called Wordsound, where Ruzzon worked part-time through the end of the '90s. This was where he met Sensational, then an artist on Wordsound. The sound of the label is still a key ingredient in his records today. "That kinda slow stuff, it felt like, in sync with the speed of the city," he said. "It made sense."
Ruzzon dug out cash for his beer, left it on the bar and bounded out onto the street. He crossed to the median of Queens Boulevard, climbed the staircase to the elevated platform and slipped into an extremely crowded train car. Wedged amidst the torsos of the other passengers, he explained how, years after having more or less lost interest in house and techno, Moodymann's Silentintroduction pulled him back in.
"I remember clearly that record having a major effect on me," he said through the crook of a neighbor's elbow. "There was a sense of space, it was stripped back but lush and sample-based." By then he'd started DJing, too. In 2002, he honed his skills in a six-month residency at The Union Square Lounge. Around that same time, someone gave him a sampler for his birthday.
"A boss XB-something, 505 maybe, Groovebox. It took me about six months to start, then I finally got some stuff on Myspace after about two or three years of, basically, workin' all day every day on this thing."
A few years later, Ruzzon's Myspace slipped onto the radar of Rabih Beaini, then known as Morphosis. In 2007, Beaini released Ruzzon's first 12-inch, a collaboration with Sensational called Basiado Beatdown on Lanquid Music, a sub-label of Morphine Records. A year later, Morphine release his first LP, Memoria. Both were to house what illbient was to hip-hop: a dark and blunted alternative, twisted and different without being artsy.
The rest flowed naturally from those first records. Over the next few years, Meakusma, Workshop, Sähkö and Wania all got in touch to ask if Ruzzon would do records for them. Last year, he launched his own label, M.A.D.T.E.O. RECORDS, whose one 12-inch so far, Voracious Culturilizer Disco Mix, is his most overt attempt yet at a dance floor bomb (offset, on the B-side, by a droning ambient cut).
"I was buying records way before I could even leave my house by myself," he said as he walked through Jackson Heights. "I was getting my mom to buy me records. As far as learning, for example about music, I never learned actual music theory. Never played an instrument. I just don't have that thirst at all. Shit, I don't know. I hang out with my neighbor, Dave, he's this dude in his 60s. Dave's like, 'I'm sure it's not gonna fucking hurt you to learn music theory.' And he's probably right, it's not gonna hurt me. But maybe it would, know what I'm saying? Cus maybe I'd just be wasting my fuckin' time."
Ruzzon decided to pop by Dave's place on his way home. Dave lives in the same co-op as Ruzzon, a stately brownstone in Jackson Heights where Ruzzon managed to buy an apartment in the late '90s, when they were more affordable. Dave's place was on the ground floor and evidently unlocked—in a particularly Kramer-esque move, Ruzzon burst into the apartment without knocking. "Hey, DAVE!"
A couple of big dogs ran over to greet Ruzzon. "Hello, Matteo," Dave called from the living room. Ruzzon disappeared into the kitchen and mixed himself a drink—vodka, tomato juice and Sprite—then took a seat in the living room, where Dave was hanging out with Danny Troob, an old friend and former writer of show tunes.
Despite differences in age and appearance, the nature of the friendship became obvious as the three men passed around a bong and traded facts on a vast range of topics—celebrity drug addiction, Jewish humor and the novels of Philip Roth, the importance of balanced blood sugar. "Dave takes care of me," Ruzzon said. "For instance, with some of my, uh... odd dietary habits."
And what might those be? "Well," Ruzzon began, "let's just say I got a bit of a sweet tooth." He looked around for a second. "I've been eating pounds of honey every month. Actually, shit, no, pounds of honey every week."
He considered this for a moment. "Man, that's startin' to get weird, don't you think? When you say 'pounds of honey every week' instead of 'every month,' that's weird."
How does he eat it exactly? "What, honey?" Ruzzon looked incredulous. "With a spoon! Honey, it's not somethin' you need to mask with anything else. It's not like eating a spoonful of white refined sugar. That would be weird."
"I've done it, though," Troob said. "When all else fails."
"I go on chocolate binges, too. Or things like nuts. You know those street vendors with an umbrella that says 'nuts for nuts?' That's me—I'm nuts for nuts. I'll eat peanuts like there's no tomorrow. If I can afford it, I'll eat much more expensive nuts. Macadamia. Last time I was in Berlin I was fuckin' blown away. I went to some regular shop, and there were packages for €2 of macadamia nuts! Dude I'm telling you, it was fuckin' insane. For me eating macadamia nuts is like eating precious metal. In Italy? Forget about it, you can't even find macadamia nuts in Italy, you gotta go to some artisanal food shop in Milan or some shit."
After an hour or so Ruzzon bid his friends farewell and scrambled up the elevator to his floor of the building, speaking briefly to the janitor in Spanish, all the while dispensing info about the co-op ("...it was a Polish guy who owned this building, in the '40s it was a Jewish post-war underground railroad..."). As he fished out his keys, music could be heard from inside his apartment. He opened the door to a spacious living room filled with books, records and art, other brownstones looming across the courtyard. Trembling synth tones drifted from the speakers.
"Dream Machine," he said. "You ever listen to Intergalactic FM? That's my favorite show on there." He sat down to roll a joint and got talking about DJing. In the last ten years or so, he said, his approach had "radically changed," thanks mostly to his obsession with bargain bin records, as documented in his 1$treet Wax mix series. Playing with old records sharpens your beat-matching skills, he said, and, casually dropping a quote from the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, shows how "all history is contemporary history."
"For a long time I mostly DJ'd at this Thai restaurant in Manhattan," Ruzzon said. "Then I discovered on 25th street, one block away was a vacant lot that was a parking garage, but on Saturday and Sunday it's a flea market, between 6th and 5th or Broadway and 5th, near Madison Square Park. Known as the old Tenderloin District, famous for flea markets, however now they're mostly in indoor parking lots, but the one on 15th street remains. Was going there 2005, 6, until a couple of years ago. I was getting all these cheap records, mostly disco, jazz, hip-hop, Latin, not much house or techno, well, some house of course, proto- or post-. I was literally showin' up at the restaurant with a bag full of cheap records I'd just bought and never heard. I only wanted to play these new records, rather than what I brought from home. So that became an anxious routine I went through every week—go to the flea market, then to the restaurant. The years before I was spendin $20 on a double-pack of rare disco. But all of a sudden I was getting the originals, for like 50 cents. So, that was a no-brainer, I was like, 'Well, this is my spot, I don't care about Discogs anymore.'"
Loved and respected as he is by some, Ruzzon's sound does not make him an easy booking. "20-year-olds in Bushwick aren't gonna spend their Saturday night, you know, partying to Madteo's live set," he said. "I'm probably not gonna play records on the fuckin' rooftop of the Ace Hotel, right?"
This points to an uneasy tension in Ruzzon's existence. On the one hand, he's an artist dedicated to his craft. On the other, he's deeply conflicted about club culture and uneasy with his own place in it. He isn't sure the world needs more standard club records, or that he belongs in a scene so sonically conservative. That his own sound should be considered experimental shows, to him, how woefully safe dance music is.
"This world we live in, we fancy ourselves as very progressive and experimental," he said. "Words like 'outsider' get thrown out and used frequently for people like me or others, but in reality we're very tame, everything with this fucking dance music is tame. We're basically zombies, everybody trying to outdo each other is just doing the same shit, and this fucking club music, it's a bunch of puppets and ass-kissers, making cool hot records just so maybe you get invited to play at DC-10 again. It's ridiculous, it's not serious!"
He was haunted by a line in a book he was reading, Electronic And Experimental Music by Thom Holmes, which touched on the Italian futurist composer Francesco Balilla Pratella, who "hoped to crush the domination of dance rhythms." That line, he said, made him gasp—"That was in fuckin' 1911!!"
Still, he's inspired to make records, and finds himself in a community, however small and far-flung, of likeminded artists—Aaron "FIT" Siegel, Dynamo Dreesen of Acido Records, DJ Sotofett and DJ Fett Burger. And he knows he has an audience, one he identifies with.
"When I was 23, 24, I thought I knew way more than the average 24-year-old, musically. Now I'm almost 42, and I wanna be connecting with those 24-year-olds, the ones that are beyond their ages. I was an old soul when I was their age. Parts of me have been 40 since I was 20. There's plenty of kids like that out there, too, and I guess that's who I'm making records for. Anyway, I could go on about things like that but let's keep it moving."