DJ Ronfa: a life dedicated to 33rpm
That’s it for today. Cyrille Imbach logs out and leaves his office at the University of Fribourg. Crossing the Rue de Rome – he's on his way to the «Fribourg, Université» bus stop – the 36-year-old puts on a cap over his slightly greying hair. Then, the rangy part-time computer scientist puts his AirPods in.
Cyrille disappears. The DJ takes his place. Not just any DJ, but DJ Ronfa, the best in the country.
By day, he slaves away on the uni server. By night, hundreds cheer him on. He gets the masses jumping. Allows them to forget everyone and everything around them. That's his job. From sunset to sunrise. Ronfa is tall, clean shaven apart from a black moustache and thin-rimmed black glasses sit on his prominent nose.
At some point, Ronfa will stop taking Cyrille's place. The wild crowds will have to cope without him. Cyrille knows this. Stopping is a thought that the computer scientist always comes back to when the DJ threatens to sweep him aside.
Ronfa, the failed rapper
Now it's DJ Ronfa talking, not Cyrille. He's standing in his small, sparsely furnished 1.5-room apartment. «His bunker», according to Ronfa. The walls are dotted with records by his role models. Cut Killer. A-Track. DJ Snake. That's it. There's also a sofa and a TV. And there's an empty iced tea packet on a small table.
But Ronfa's pride and joy is his Rane mixer. It's right next to the bed, along with a MacBook. This is where the artist hones his craft. This is where Ronfa lives. He just sleeps or earns money somewhere else.
«Once, a woman was lying in my bed. Naked. She was asleep and I scratched until the early hours with nothing but boxer shorts on. At some point, I looked over at her and thought to myself: what on earth am I doing?» He laughed. «But that's the life of a DJ.»
Ronfa started out in music at the age of 14. He and his friends formed a hip hop band in 1997. Ronfa wanted to rap, but the plan was a total failure. After some slips, stutters and memory lapses in front of an audience, Cyrille admitted:
«I'm a pretty bad rapper.»
But «17 connexion» (as the hip hop group was called) came up with a solution: they put him behind the turntables. He couldn't do as much damage there.
«I should have known really,» says Ronfa, although he wasn't called Ronfa then. As a young boy, he heard a song on the radio with scratching. It fascinated him so much that he practiced on his mum's turntable and destroyed four records.
He sees his passion as a sport. Training during the week, playing at the weekend. At parties, to be precise. «But there were no parties back then», the DJ soon corrected himself. DJ Ronfa is a perfectionist. So is Cyrille. He wanted to be an expert in his craft before he went to parties. But there was no internet in the late 1990s and there were certainly no YouTube videos to learn from the professionals. Ronfa had to teach himself everything.
He dedicated thousands of hours and his entire youth to it.
And then: Sean Paul
Ronfa was 20 years old when he played his first records, mostly at student parties.
«A lot of young DJs earn their money warming up,» explains Ronfa in his French Swiss accent. He compares this to warm-up acts at gigs: it's their job to rev up the crowd ready for the star of the show.
The DJ got into the box, got his records out and fired up the turntables. He started slowly. «A bit chilled, you know.» His plan was to increase the tempo bit by bit. For one or two hours. But the club where he was playing was filling up. Filling up fast. Much quicker than usual. All of a sudden, the club manager was in his box: «Hey you, step it up. We want to give the guests something.»
Ronfa gave it everything, scratching and mixing feverishly. He took a quick look at the crowd. There were hundreds of them. Great. But they weren't getting swept up in it. Not great. Ronfa was getting nervous.
Then he came across Sean Paul's «Get Busy» in his playlist. To this day, he doesn't know how it got there. Ronfa can't stand Sean Paul. «Rubbish singer, rubbish sound». But he was desperate. The first guests were already wondering where the beer was. «I knew two things: people love Sean Paul and my career was about to go down the drain.»
He risked it. Queued the song. Prepared the transition from the current track to «Get Busy». Moved the crossfader. And Sean Paul started up. DJ Ronfa had just thrown all of his principles out of the window.
The crowd went wild.
In 2019, Ronfa takes off his Red Bull cap, runs his hand through his black and grey-flecked hair and puts it back on. You can still see the relief on his face. «What can I say? It took five seconds for me to change everything that I had ever thought about Sean Paul.»
Betraying his stylistic ideology had paid off. And Ronfa learned one of the most important lessons of his career.
«You know, a good DJ throws a party for their audience first and foremost, not themselves. The energy that the DJ gets back in those moments is indescribable. It changes everything you think you know. It was clear to me then that I wanted to be a DJ for the rest of my life.»
From parties to the office
Ronfa, who mainly plays urban music, reggaeton, dancehall, Afro, a bit of hip hop and R&B, pulls at his Red Bull jumper. He does this a lot.
«My problem was that my DJ gigs were hardly earning me any money.»
The turntables, the records, the speakers – they all cost a small fortune, which Ronfa didn't have. «The records in particular hit my wallet hard», he remembers. Nevertheless, he took on every party job he could get to be able to afford them. This including pop song parties. «I often had to sell my soul to keep my dream alive. Doubts crept in. It was an awful feeling.»
Being a DJ was easier in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, record companies used to send DJs their artists' vinyl for free. In return, they played the records and reported back on which tracks went down well and would work well as single releases. Fieldwork, as it were.
Throughout the 1990s and beyond, Ronfa was never sent anything.
In the late 1990s, he hardly had any money to buy clothes or jewellery. He lived with his parents, friends or in small, cheap apartments. While others were out partying, he was practising at home or working in clubs. What bothered him the most in his years as a relatively unknown DJ zigzagging around Switzerland wasn't the lack of support; it was the lack of recognition. Recognition that he needed to keep going.
In 2019, Ronfa takes his cap off again, showing his greying hair. «When I told people that I was a DJ, they would say things like “What, still? Don't you want to grow up, look for a real job and be responsible?"»
He lowers his gaze.
«It hurts. I invest time. A lot of time. I still sacrifice everything and more to make my work the best it can be. It's serious. And I do it to live my dream.»
In the afternoons, Ronfa works as a computer scientist at the University of Fribourg. During his working hours, he's Cyrille Imbach. «It gives me a stable monthly income. I need the money so that I don't have to DJ at terrible pop hits parties.»
He breaks into a relieved smile and rolls up the sleeves on his jumper.
Cyrille usually gets home at around 6pm. Then he becomes DJ Ronfa. He listens to a few tracks. Preparation for the next party. His current playlist contains around 40,000 tracks. He knows them all by heart. The gig starts at 11pm and usually ends at around 4am. He can rest until noon, then it's back to the uni.
Somewhere in between, he takes a few hours to create content for his social media channels, interact with fans or talk to events managers interested in booking him. He has to travel to the other side of the country for some gigs, so he hardly drinks any alcohol. Besides, he has to be able to concentrate, especially during gigs.
Like he did back in the early days, Ronfa gets the energy to keep up the tempo from the crowd. He feels that there's something missing on days he can't play. «When the crowd lets go and the party's at its peak, it's as good as sex for me.»
«Can I say that?»
Two words: carry on
The DJ from Fribourg was over 30 years old when he first took part in «Red Bull Music 3Style». It's where Switzerland's best DJs go up against each other, showing what they can do in 15-minute sets. The winner would be crowned Swiss Champion and represent the country at the World Finals in Taipei.
Ronfa stepped up. For many in the know, he was the favourite. But he didn't win.
«Maybe I wanted it too much. I forgot to have fun. And that's the most important part of these kinds of competitions.»
For the first time, Ronfa realised that it was finally his time as a DJ. He isn't the youngest on the DJ circuit anymore: some of the world's best DJs are under 18. Take DJ Brandan Duke for example. He's only 12, but he's currently the best DJ in the world according to Ronfa.
A year later, after his second unsuccessful attempt at the 3Style competition, Ronfa was devastated. «Some people even advised me to give up entirely.»
He didn't even think about it. He still had something that many failed DJs lacked: hope. It's not just a random feeling. It's more a philosophy for life. A mantra. Two words:
Ronfa wasn't ready to give up doing what he loves, however unusual or wacky it might be. Even if it took years to achieve his goals – if at all. He pulled himself together. He started up his MacBook. He laid his hands on his turntables and mixed.
He carried on.
DJ Ronfa, Swiss Champion
September 2018. The Red Bull 3Style Finals took place at the Basler Club Viertel. Ronfa was there – for the third and perhaps final time. His equipment in the dusky blue light was his DJ controller, consisting of two jogwheels – both rotating platters. Ronfa put his hand on one of them.
It was baking hot in the club. It made his hand sweaty and scratching even more difficult – turning the jogwheels which fast-forward and rewind the track. He wasn't discouraged. The thousand-strong crowd was hot too, and they wanted to see what Ronfa could do. He didn't intend to disappoint them.
Two tracks played across the two turntables. He used the crossfader to determine whether the crowd heard both together or one at a time. Ronfa played around with the knobs – buttons between the jogwheels that control treble, midrange and bass. Dozens of other coloured buttons create even more effects. Ronfa used them all.
He had fun. He was in his element.
He also had his headphones on with the second track playing. For a moment, only he could hear it. Ronfa prepared the transition from one track to the next.
The pitch affects the beats per second. Both tracks have to have to the same tempo. Then he turned the jogwheels and synchronised the beats to prevent them playing over each other. At the same time, he was still playing around with the knobs for the first track. Scratching. Waving to the crowd. Dancing. The sound fell away. Multitasking. Then he held the crossfader between his thumb and index finger. Waiting. All of a sudden, he slid the crossfader lever from left to right. Now track two was playing.
It was «Get Busy» by Sean Paul.
The timing was perfect. The transition was a success. Over 20 years after he first played Sean Paul at a student party in Fribourg, the crowd was going crazy again.
Ronfa was crowned Swiss Champion.
Ronfa is on top – and he isn't thinking of stopping anytime soon
Ronfa needed 20 years of hard work, hours of training and multiple attempts at the Red Bull Music 3Style to become the Swiss Champion.
The recognition, encouragement and messages from fans who have watched the videos on his private Instagram account and told him that they want to be DJs just because of him – these are the rewards for everything that Ronfa has invested in achieving his dream.
I've dedicated most of my life to improving as a DJ, so I always find it completely bewildering to be getting so much attention all of a sudden.
Ronfa reaffirms yet again that he has only ever focused on giving people a good time: «They should forget their everyday worries, fears and doubts, whether it's for ten seconds, minutes or the whole night.»
Then something rare happens.
Suddenly, it's not Ronfa talking anymore; it's Cyrille. Cyrille Imbach. The man who, after his 3Style victory, didn't call his girlfriend, wife or children; he called his mum. «DJ Ronfa is my child», he says, «I've dedicated most of my life and every decision that I've made to DJ Ronfa».
Pause. Not long. But long enough.
«I do worry that I won't realise when I need to let DJ Ronfa go.»
The Fribourg man sighs. Then he starts to smile.
«But it's not time yet.»
Now it's Ronfa again. He stands at his pride and joy, presses a few keys on his laptop, puts his headphones on and starts to scratch. He's practising for his next gig.