Renowned DJ Roberto Reflects on Toronto's Wild Past Before Saying Farewell to the Future

"It's the shit that happens outside the purview of Toronto's 'culture ambassadors' that make this city"

Photo courtesy of the artist

BY Daryl KeatingPublished Mar 22, 2024

Roberto (a.k.a. Robert Steenkamer) has been a solid fixture in Toronto's electronic music community for over a quarter century. Whether it's being behind the decks at Bambi's, livening up a close-knit pool party, or offering his engineering skills to a host of local producers, Roberto has always been there.

Some people just toil away in the background, and you assume they always will. So, when Roberto announced earlier this month that he will be performing one last DJ set before throwing in the towel, it was a shock. Toronto is about to lose one of its most talented, long-standing DJs, and we'd be remiss if we didn't catch up with him for a chat about the city's evolution over time and his reasons for bidding adieu.

Roberto has done a lot in Toronto; he's seen even more. Having moved from Port Hope in 1997, he entered the electronic music scene at a time of unprecedented prosperity. Toronto was a different world back then, with enough industrial space to house a runaway rave scene and plenty of hungry DJs to fill it.

"Around Queen West, Adelaide and Peter Street, you could go there four nights a week and find some party to stay at until 5 a.m.," Steenkamer tells Exclaim! "Old manufacturing blocks, where you get away with that sort of thing, still existed. There was space to colour outside the lines. You could throw these parties, and honestly, the city functioned just fine."

While Toronto still has enough grit to put on the odd warehouse rave, it pales in comparison to its former self. The sheer audacity of promoters in bygone years seems almost unimaginable compared to today's landscape.

"Toronto has a history of full-on raves taking place in very public places," says Steenkamer. "There was one in the CN Tower, the planetarium, a couple in the Science Centre; someone threw one in an aircraft hangar at some point. Down at the docks, which were just empty warehouses, I went to some absolutely bonkers raves. We're talking like 4,000 people, with insane international lineups. A lot of times, you'd just hop on a school bus and be brought to a secret location."

For any current club-goers, this likely sounds unreal. Options for underground dance music nowadays are largely limited to a couple of venues on Geary Avenue, a warehouse in the Stockyards, and a few other cheeky spots around the city. What's missing (and it is strange to be missing in a city as big as Toronto) are mid-size venues. If you want to see a mainstream electronic act, sure there's the Velvet Underground or Coda, but anyone hoping to bring in 400–500 people for a DJ on the more alternative side, is mostly out of luck — especially if they're looking to match the vibe of the performer. "The lack of mid-sized venues isn't just a problem for DJs, it affects touring bands too," says Steenkamer.

Unfortunately, that's not likely to change anytime soon, as the city seems hellbent on building condo after condo. "Homeowners and developers wield the most power in this city," says Steenkamer. "As long as the proliferation of high-density buildings continue to grow, music and music venues will continue to suffer. There's so much talent here. It has so much potential, and it's still a cool city to live in. And that's not because of some multi-coloured letters at Nathan Phillips Square. That's not what makes it cool. It's the shit that happens outside the purview of Toronto's 'culture ambassadors' that make this city."

You don't need a degree in finance or city planning to see the end result here: making your city unaffordable for artists, musicians, and creatives leads to a grey concrete wasteland. Some notable Toronto acts have already left for more economical pastures. It's enough to make anyone want to quit.

That's not the crux for Roberto though. His reasons for saying goodbye are altogether different. We've already spent a good deal of time speaking about the past, but if we could just glance back there again for a brief moment, Steenkamer's exit might make more sense.

Those formative years were competitive. The glut of DJs around at the time meant that you had to be at the top of your game to be granted a slot in the booth. During our interview, Steenkamer mentions never leaving the house without a mixtape, lest you bump into a promoter who might give you an opportunity to play. It was about sourcing records, making connections, and honing your craft till you could mix like butter. It was a grind.

That mindset has never left Roberto, who still puts everything into performing. "I've spent thousands of hours mixing two records together," says Steenkamer. "I can do it blindfolded. That's not the hard part. I spend a hell of a lot of time picking through music, playing it, making sure I've got a great set to perform. It's a lot for me, and I just got to the point where I just wasn't giving my all. My cup wasn't full and I could never seem to to refill it. If I just keep phoning it in and taking gigs just because I can, that seems wrong."

It comes down to the age-old question: is it better to burn out than to fade away? In Roberto's case, at least it's a controlled burn-out. In a thoroughly respectable move, he's had to foresight to recognize that he can't do it justice forever, and merely going through the motions is not an option.

"I've had a number of friends tell me that I don't need to do this, that I don't need to draw a line here," says Steenkamer. "I think I do need to draw a line, though. This has been a huge part of my life, possibly the biggest part of my life, and I'd like to go out on a high note while I still can."

Of course, this isn't the end of Steenkamer's relationship with sound. Quitting the DJ life isn't enough to remove the part of his brain that deeply cares for music. You'd need a team of surgeons for that. His efforts going forward will remain in the studio rather than the club.

"I have mountain of unfinished music in the studio," he reveals. "I'm doing a lot more engineering for clients, which brings me a ton of joy and satisfaction. These are things I can do from home, on a schedule. That works for me. It's healthier for me, and that's where I'm choosing to put my energy."

Steenkamer has recently mixed and mastered the upcoming Moon King album on Arbutus Records, and he has more in the pipeline. For anyone wishing to say farewell to one of Toronto's mainstays, his last performance will be at Bambi's on March 23. "I'm definitely going to be crying by the end of the night," Steenkamer admits.

So, bring a decent pair of sneakers, and a box of tissues for the man.

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