Ronnie Herel’s DJ work takes him to some of the world’s most exotic locations, but there’s only ever been one place he wants to come home to and that’s East London. Similarly, he may rub shoulders with some of the music industry’s biggest names, but it’s the emerging, local talent that really gets him fired up
WORDS BY CATHERINE HUDSON
I interview Ronnie Herel, London-based DJ and ambassador of urban music, on what must be one of the hottest days of the year so far. He’s just arrived at his ‘office’ at Mi-Soul Music, the London-wide DAB and online radio station, to prepare for his drive-time and evening shows.
“I’ve done a bit of work at home this morning, but I’m stuck under this old roof, now,” he says.
No rest for the wicked, then? “Exactly that!” he immediately replies. “I must have been a right wicked git in my previous life, I tell ya.”
And just like that, I’m sold. Whatever Ronnie is selling, I’m buying. This man talks about music and discovering new, local talent with such passion, that I would defy anyone not to be galvanised by him.
Ronnie, the trained carpenter and joiner, who now, after years of experience in the music business, champions teenagers plugging away at the latest grime sounds with as much enthusiasm as he regales me with stories of interviewing legends such as Lionel Richie and Mary J Blige.
It’s been more than three decades since an excitable teenage Ronnie first discovered being a DJ could be a viable job. “I started working in the Charleston pub in Stratford (since closed) when I was 14 when a mate of mine got me a job collecting glasses,” he recalls. “It was one of the first of its kind in the area, a pub-cum-wine-bar, with a DJ booth, too. I watched the guys on the decks on weekend nights, and thought ‘they’ve got great music, they’ve got girls hanging around’, which, as a teenage boy, was all part of the attraction, and I loved it.”
Young Ronnie had all the makings of a ducker and diver. Not least by heading to school, then leaving straight out the back door to work stacking shelves, emptying skips – anything to earn a bit of cash. “The money I made meant I could buy some records to start playing a few sessions.” He soon moved from the pub to a much worse-paid job in a Leytonstone record shop but, even then, Ronnie could see the benefit of learning his trade.
East London has always been Ronnie’s stomping ground. Born in Forest Gate, growing up in Chingford and Stratford, and always a staunch supporter of West Ham, he’s a self-declared ‘proper’ East End boy, through and through. “If I got a massive windfall, I’d probably get a second house abroad, but my proper home will always be in the East of London,” he enthuses.
But what of the huge transformations the area has undergone? “I think the East End has changed for the better, thanks to the influx of money and development before, during and after the London 2012 Olympics. It’s far more cultured and accessible now, and it’s a better environment for people to live in. It’s a lot more… ‘picturesque’, shall we say, than back in the day!”
He’s a strong believer that the culture of East London is ‘most definitely’ still inspiring the urban music scene, despite the area’s many changes. “The grime scene is huge in the UK right now, and it kind of all started back in 2002. It’s got a life of it’s own, derived mainly from acts emerging out of East London,” he asserts. “It’s going from strength to strength and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Ronnie splits his time between Mi-Soul (he joined the station after a ten-year stint at Radio1Xtra), regular nights in London town and playing sets abroad. “I recently spent seven days straight working in Croatia. By the time you come back, you are absolutely knackered. The schedule does get gruelling, but at the same time it’s an amazing feeling to see a couple of thousand people get off just listening to what you’re playing. I’m thankful really, because I’ve been doing it a long time.”
Ronnie played more than a few sets at the Margate Soul Festival in Kent this summer, alongside more than 50 other DJs, such as Kathy Sledge and British Collective, since Mi-Soul now hosts the growing event. “Yeah, they proper rinsed me out!”, he laughs.
It was the tenth anniversary of the festival, with Mi-Soul coming onboard last year after it spotted it’s amazing potential. Ronnie was brought in to spearhead the DJing side of things. “During a set on the outdoors Revenge of the Soulboy stage, my mate played a track called Oh Happy Day. I looked up, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was a perfect track for a perfect setting.”
I tell him that I had tuned into some of his shows via MixCloud and ended up losing hours after loving every tune. He seems genuinely thrilled.
“The music we play at Mi-Soul all comes from the heart. Whether it’s soul, R&B, reggae, or whatever, it’s delivered with passion. We have the longest retention rate of UK radio station listeners, so hopefully we’re doing something right!”
Ronnie is always on the lookout for new producers, as well as artists, such as Hungarian DJ and musician Opolopo. “For my BIG R&B weekly show, I seek out lesser-known people who I think listeners need to know about, people like Eric Roberson, Jordan Rackei and Raleigh Ritchie.
“There can be so many egos on national radio. DJs who are bothered about who gets to play a record first or who gets an exclusive, but if we like a new record, we buy it, play it and support it, to spread the message for other people to buy it, too.
Ultimately, that’s what DJs should be doing, so we’re trying to change the mentality back to that way of promoting artists.”
Check out Ronnie’s Twitter page and you’ll see he does indeed work tirelessly to discover and support emerging talent. And while he’s excited to tell you about the time he met Stevie Wonder (who revealed how Marvin Gaye had given him tips on playing the drums), it’s the music and not the name dropping that matters to Ronnie.
Indeed, in the very next breadth he is extolling the talents of a young unsigned artist, who ‘you just have to listen to’. A man with heart as well as a lot of soul!
Ronnie Herel’s Little Black Book
SECRET EAST LONDON
The Red Lion pub on the corner of Harvey Road and the High Road is great for quality food, live music and relaxing. That’s where I go to hide away when I’m not working. Bit of Wi-Fi, bit of Al Green playing in the background – perfect.
I’m a huge pie-and mash eater – my belly is testament to that. Got to do a bit of work in the gym to get rid of that. There’s the lovely Eel & Pie House on the High Road in Leytonstone. Delicious!
The Bedroom Bar in Shoreditch is a brilliant night out. I play a set there, Universal Soul, once a month on the last Saturday of each month. I’d highly recommend it.