DJ Rob Sample rocks ToledoWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
His full name is Robert Andrew Rossi III. Nobody calls him that.
“Actually, that’s a real good way that I gauge how long people have known me,” he said in an interview with Toledo Free Press Star. “Like, my friends that have known me before my DJ career, before 13 years ago, call me Andy. They can’t call me Rob. Now, people who have only met me after my DJ career can only call me Rob. They can’t call me Andy. Even though we become good friends, and know my real name, they just find it very difficult to call me Andy.”
To clubgoers and fans of music all over the area, though, he is known as DJ Rob Sample, one of the Glass City’s premier and most prolific spinners of vinyl. Put it this way — if you’ve been to clubs in the past decade or visited Hollywood Casino Toledo since its opening, you’ve almost certainly heard Sample in action at some point.
Standing at his equipment, spinning and blending an eclectic yet seamlessly matched selection of music, Sample’s job is to read his audience and feed into its energy, improvising and creating the most entertaining experience possible, whether he’s playing a dance club or opening for a big name at the casino. And part of that, Sample said, is always maintaining a sense of the crowd he’s playing for.
“I believe that you should be connected to the crowd like you’re their friend. You don’t want the crowd to feel apprehensive about coming up and requesting a song. I take requests, there are some DJs that don’t, and I don’t think that’s right. I find requests as an avenue to finding out what your audience wants. So if I don’t have anyone requesting songs, I immediately think I’m doing a great job,” he said.
Sample was surrounded by music growing up. “My parents were hippies. I wouldn’t say they were extreme hippies, but they grew up in that era, and they went to a lot of concerts. So music started in the womb. They would go to concerts, and I would kick while my mother was pregnant with me. And they’d say that was the only way I would go to sleep, was if they played Beatles records when I was a kid.”
Vinyl was the rule of the day for music, and for young Robert, back in that era. He began collecting 45s, classic double-sides of the latest rock to be spun on the family’s turntable. As he grew, Sample began branching out into more old-school hip-hop — the primordial layer which would build itself up into the burgeoning rap game of today. But despite being surrounded by musical influences and a love for anything with a beat, the universe seemed to be steering Sample away from actually playing an instrument.
“I tried venturing into guitar. I found that, for some reason, I was always that kid that, like, picked up things really well, especially sports. I was always really good at basketball even though I was the short kid in the class. I was excellent at soccer. So everything I tried, I was pretty decent at. [But] guitar, I just couldn’t figure it out. So I got frustrated and stopped that.”
Sample then dabbled in piano, but his teacher retired halfway through his lessons. After that, Sample put away any musical aspirations for a few years, until a movie caught his eye in the early ’90s.
“It was in early high school when the movie ‘Juice’ came out,” Sample said. “I watch the movie now and I kind of laugh, but it was great. One of the guys in there was like this amazing DJ who went to the clubs and battled other DJs with his skills. I seen that, and I started quickly asking questions — where do I get this equipment? Who’s got this?”
Club DJing was still in its infancy back then, information and guidance were hard to come by. It would take a few more years for the final pieces to fall into place for Sample.
“I started listening to electronic music, and that’s how most electronic musicians perform. They didn’t have a band, they didn’t have — well, some of them had an ungodly amount of equipment, like synthesizers and stuff, that they brought out and performed by themselves, but that was called doing ‘Live PA,’” Rob said. “Most of the people would record their music, have it pressed to vinyl, and they would play these parties. So I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”
Blending the tracks
Sample scraped together whatever money he could, borrowed some cash from his grandfather and bought his first DJ equipment. He made learning his craft a full-time job — locking himself in his room for 40 hours a week, working out the basics of the art form.
“There wasn’t hardly anyone around here that performed at the nightclub on vinyl when I started. So, you had to teach yourself, you know? I had one guy teach me the essence of the beat matching — I mean, it is really nice to have somebody there to teach you. Now, there’s so many DJs out there, you see DJs spawning off of other DJs nowadays. Which is really awesome, because if you really have a passion for music and DJing is your outlet for that, there’s so many tools for that you can go to.”
It wasn’t until the middle of 1999 that Sample began performing at local nightclubs, steadily building his reputation and skill while finding his own sound. That kind of experimentation is key to developing your own character at the turntable, he said.
“You do have to get your hands involved. You can’t read a 100-page book and go, ‘Oh, I know how to DJ,’ and develop your own style. There are DJs out there that don’t play hip-hop and Top 40 and that kind of music, or even scratch records at the club. There’s DJs who strictly play electronic music, or strictly play hip-hop. I’m not one of those guys. I’m a pretty versatile [DJ], I’ll play pretty much anything that you can give to me. I’m not a big fan of country, but I can do it.”
Hooray for Hollywood
That wide level of experience has given Sample plenty of tools to use over the past year, as he’s a staple at the Hollywood Casino Toledo. It was a gig that happened almost by accident.
“I got a phone call from one of their IT guys, right about two months before the casino’s opening. And they had booked a Playboy playmate-turned-DJ to do their opening night,” Sample recalled. “They were looking for equipment. They were asking around, and people were like, ‘Rob Sample, he does the old vinyl turntables … see if he’ll lend it to you.’
“So I said, ‘Well, obviously you guys are going to need someone to open up for her. So why don’t you just have me come out and have me play, and then she can just jump in — then, there’s no harm, no foul, you don’t have to hook up any extra equipment — she just steps in and starts playing.’”
That led to a gig playing at the casino every Friday, which eventually became every Friday and Saturday — an experience Sample said he thoroughly enjoys.
“I love the diversity of people, because I have a love for disco, I have a love for ’80s, I have a love for old-school hip-hop, the new dance music, the new hip-hop … so I can play all of that in one venue, which I find to be fun. And refreshing, too.”
It has also given him the chance to open for a wide variety of acts through the casino’s concert series, with everyone from Chevelle to Wynonna playing at Hollywood this past summer — this latest run closed with Travis Tritt on Aug. 24. Sample said ability to adapt is key to performing in such circumstances.
“I can’t just go in there with a blank slate. You’re not just going in there and performing for a bunch of people, you’re opening for a band,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is accidentally play one of his songs before he goes onstage, you know what I mean, and if there’s an opening band to him, and they’re a cover band, well, most of country music is thrown right out the door. So what do you do then?
“I go to classic rock. I start playing classic rock tunes. I start playing AC/DC. I go into John Cougar Mellencamp. I go into Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, maybe touch into the ’80s, and some Hall and Oates or something. At that point, you’re not really performing, because everybody’s just getting situated, sitting down, so for something like that, you got to go in there with an idea of what you’re going to do, but not a concrete, solid, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
Keeping up the energy
The ability to adapt no matter the situation is a big part of what has made Sample so successful — whether it be through changes in music as a whole, or changes in the mood of the crowd in front of his turntable.
“If you can’t get people on the dance floor, putting their hands up in the air and screaming uncontrollably and sporadically, by just playing your music, and your performance — then, I think you’re doing something wrong. So you have to maintain that connection with the crowd. As soon as you start distancing yourself from that crowd, well then, you’re probably not going to DJ at that venue anymore.”