Label Love #50: R&S Records
For the 50th edition of Label Love we knew we needed to put together something special. We needed a label that had been big in the day, but – more importantly – was still killing it now. Once someone suggested R&S we knew it was the one. The label went from introducing the world to Joey Beltram and Aphex Twin in the 90s, to doing the same thing all over again with James Blake and Tessela as the 2000s rolled into the 2010s. This is a label that has delivered. Even during their brief early 00s hiatus, there's never been a time when that famous rearing horse hasn't been lodged in our record bags. We sat down with Renaat Vandepapeliere, who founded the label with Sabine Maes, and tried to cover 30+ years of dance floor excellence. Renaat smoked his way througth, had an occasional wry chuckle, and, most of all, displayed an enthusiasm for rave that has remained entirely undiminished after years in the game.
I want to go all the way back. So R&S was started in 1984, can you tell me about what you were doing when you first started the label?
In 1983 to be exact, but before that I was working in a record shop.
Which shop was that?
Music Man, which was basically one of the three most important import dance shops in Belgium. They also then went on to become a distributor of dance music.
So when you say that they were an importer of records, obviously there must have been home grown product as well?
That started later. As a kid I wanted to be a drummer but as is the story of my life, I wasn’t focused enough. I’ve always wanted to do a million things at the same time. I was a DJ so I was buying my records there before I started working there, which was a blessing because during the week you could go through all those records and it would be anything from Pop to Jazz. You could listen to a lot of music and discover a lot of music. I would say that around Pre-New Beat that was a fashion where an American import would become big, all the import guys were friends and would then make a Belgian cover of it, so that they could sell it cheaper.
So a local group would cover it?
Yeah. I thought that was rubbish. This is where the idea came from, as I wanted to license the original artist and release them officially, as it was.
Okay, so I didn’t know about this thing of local bands covering imports. Can you think of any famous tracks that had French or Belgian covers?
The one that was really big and sold maybe two million records was Why Can’t We Live Together and other things like that. There are more stories like that, but that was the biggest one. The cover went really big and then some other guys started ripping off beats from some Chicago tracks.
In retrospect, do you think that those covers brought anything to the table?
For me, no. For those guys it brought money.
So when you started off would you say that you were pretty purist, in the sense that you only wanted to play US imports of Chicago House?
Even before that, as I’m an old guy now don’t forget. During the whole Disco thing as well I was always like that, even as a young DJ. When Disco was full on and Jazz Fusion was still there. I didn’t want to play the usual hits.
Were there any clubs where you could play your sounds?
Yes. It was mainly smaller clubs really. It’s the kind of place that you would call a pub in England that then in the evening turns into a little club of sorts.
The first release on R&S is the Big Tony track, Can’t Get Enough Of Her Love.
Oh that bullshit. Yeah. So I was following their system and it was actually a good way in. I was invited by a guy with a studio in Germany and I’d never seen a studio in my life. So these guys did a cover of it and that was my way in.
So essentially you were playing the same game as everyone else to begin with. You did the covers, as early on you did a version of Benny Wants To Ride as well. When do you feel that R&S started to resemble what you felt it should resemble?
That’s no doubt with Joey Beltram.
There were a few tracks before the Joey Beltram one, like the Space Opera tracks and things like that.
Yeah, but that’s a period later when I was crazy enough to buy my own equipment and help with tunes. So I was producing tunes, playing keyboard when I didn’t even know what a keyboard was. I was trying to do my own thing. We had a couple of hits though and one of those was a track that I still love called Get A Load Of This. I like that track. Then another one that I did, Scarlet Circus, that Aphex really liked and at the time I wanted to erase. It was just a dub plate to begin with, but we pressed on with making copies and then that was the end of that track.
What’s the timeframe of the Belgian New Beat scene? You’ll hear people in Detroit talking about Belgian New Beat being influential on them.
Of course, but I’d say that it start around ’85. I could probably find you an exact date if you want.
When I think of New Beat, I think of it being slower but it’s also got this harshness too it with the synths in it. Were you a fan of the stuff that was being made?
No, I thought it was boring. Admittedly, I found the scene mind blowing, as I had never seen anything like that get worldwide. You’d get two or three thousand kids queuing up at 8am to get into a club. These parties would run for 24 hours, and then there would be an after party. There’s actually a really good Belgian film about it. For me it was very new to see people coming to that club. I remember guys coming from England and USA, because there was nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
Do you think Belgium has had any point since where it has had this same emergence of an iconic scene?
It put Belgium on the map. Simple as that. Germany and Belgium both have this big electronic heritage, if I can say that. But in Belgium, electronic music and eclectic music in the late 70’s was played out. They had balls to do it.
Why do you think that Belgium particularly took to it with such skill?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we are central? We’re in the middle of Holland, France, Germany. We were close to everything. We are an import country. It’s easy for us to travel. You guys have to take a boat or a plane, we take a car and within an hour we can be in Amsterdam or Paris or somewhere in Germany. Even back then, the kids travelled and I think it’s because of that.
So for you, Energy Flash is the moment that R&S becomes…
Was that the first record produced outside of Belgium that you’d released?
That was the first one, definitely. Later when I heard It Is What It Is by Derrick May, I was blown away because I like Jazz and I like Funk, I like Soul and it had all those elements. It wasn’t like the flat New Beat electronica. I skipped many scenes, like Punk, which was a very huge scene, especially in Belgium. It was called Cold Wave here though, that was very big. I never really felt that music, it had no sex or my kind of vibe. It wasn’t soulful enough and it was too cold. So with Joey and Derrick, their stuff had a swing.
So how did the Beltram track come about? Did you just hear it on import?
No no, I discovered a track that he’d released himself when he was called Direct and his phone number was on there. So I called him and brought him over. The rest is history.
Okay. The tune itself went on to become a hugely foundational track. In the UK, all the raves, all the Junglists and anyone that I speak too will say that Energy Flash is the track and it still gets played out even now. Did it have the instant impact?
It was direct. It was boom. I knew straight away as the first notes were made at my apartment in Ghent.
What did you make it on?
At the time we had an Allen & Heath, a mixing desk, a couple of analogue synths. Then Joey went back to America and put the rhythms on there with something. I don’t know what it was though. But it was done very quickly and it was to the point.
Was it odd for you that your release was then getting licensed back by Transmat? That must have been quite a good moment for you.
There aren’t going to be any comments on that. But the track has already been released for a while, so it was quite old, and they wanted to re-release it in America. I said yes because he was a friend and that’s basically it.
Okay. It’s interesting to see that all this time Europe had been looking to America and now America was looking to Europe and at the releases that you’d been putting out.
It was more of a friend thing and me doing Derek a favour. We were exporting so much to America that we didn’t need an official release by anybody.
So from Energy Flash blowing up so quickly, did you then started getting flooded with demos from producers?
The thing is, we were already creating a name outside of Belgium because we had a couple of hits, like Get A Load Of This and some House tracks, some tracks that I made and also tracks that CJ made. I think that was the point where we had begun to establish ourselves. It sounds a bit pretentious to say that though…
No, it sounds realistic. When a label has a big hit it establishes itself as something that’s probably going to be worth looking out for.
From that point it was easier to call people for us to license tracks, or to get an artist over to produce some work that were young and vibrant.
Do you think there are any tracks from this period that don’t get the appreciation that they deserve?
That’s hard to say. I’d have to look at the catalogue. Okay, maybe Andromeda by Mundo Muzique. I think that’s a masterpiece.
Okay, that’s interesting. What’s the story with that?
It’s a friend of Joey and he made a track and then sent it to me. That’s basically it. I was blown away by it. I think Mundo must have been part of this track called Revelation as well. Do you know it?
Yeah, I think so.
I seem to think Mundo was a part of it, maybe. It came from America and it was great.
Mundo was in Second Phase right?
Yes, but that came later. As a statement, Second Phase was even bigger than Energy Flash.
I think so, because when Second Phase came out, or the next five years you only heard tracks with that sound, like clones. When I talk to Leo from The Prodigy it’s Energy Flash and Second Phase that really influenced The Prodigy.
The level of sampling of those old tracks, especially in England, was surreal. What was your take on that at the time, because there was lots of rip offs coming out?
In the beginning I was pissed off and not, because another track that was a rip off became even bigger than Energy Flash, and that was a serious hit, and that was Dominator of course. The moment that I heard it out in a club, I was so pissed off. But then I decided to just put it out hahaha. I’d never want to put out two records that sounded the same. But that sound lasted for three or four years. That’s when Techno got hot.
In some ways I think it’s less people ripping it off and more like, say when The Kinks did You Really Got Me, they started a whole genre of Heavy Rock. Maybe it was just the start of a new genre that was heavier dance music and people were using the tools of the genre, which were these set of sounds that had been popularised by R&S.
Yeah, sure. Everybody gets inspired, but there are so many clones that it becomes so un-inspirational. They hear a record and then just want to copy it.
That’s ever the way.
That’s how I see it and that’s my personal view on it. But if I release a record once, that’s the sound. Bye. From then on I’m staying away from it.
Another personal favourite of mine from this early period is Vamp. It’s an obvious choice but…
That’s a funny track that one. That was around the time Kevin Saunderson passed by and was inspired by him. That was a big track you know.
Oh yeah, I still play it out now and people still respond in the same way.
There you go!
I can’t imagine that you considered at the time that thirty years on, 18 year olds would still be dancing to those tracks.
No. Nobody can. We can hope, but you release something and you just have to let it loose. It’s up to the people out there, it’s not up to me anymore.
In England at this time, Rave was considered an outlaw thing. It was legislated against by the government and it was seen as a social problem. Was there a similar backlash in Belgium? Was it seen as disreputable?
No, not on that level. The Rave scene didn’t start in Belgium; it started in England and was part of the whole anti Thatcher movement. That’s where it started. But later on, bad press from the raves even came across to our news channels. The only consequence that we had was that our government became stronger on the clubs because of the rise of drug use. A lot of clubs got closed, but that was the only real effect. In Belgium we don’t have a closing hour. You can open on Friday and close a week later if you want.
That must have helped the scene in many ways.
Oh yes, that happened when the whole New Beat thing came about and even pre-Rave. Kids were already going non-stop from Friday to Wednesday.
That’s serious. Moving on a couple of years, you’ve got Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works. Did he get in touch with R&S saying that he wanted you to release his stuff?
No, it’s the same story as with Joey. I found this white label of Analogue Bubblebath and then contacted him.
That was a pretty good call wasn’t it?
Yes. At that moment nobody could understand me and nobody could understand that I wanted to listen to this as they thought it was shit and crap. For me, it wasn’t shit or crap, it was a new statement again.
Obviously history has proven you emphatically right on that one. With his music, was it a case of you saying to people that they need to listen to this because it was the future?
Yeah. That’s the story of my life and that’s what I’ve been doing since when Joey came along. Nobody could understand that when it came about. But we’ve done that so many times, and we’re still doing it. I do it because it keeps R&S interesting, to myself, and it challenges me.
The sounds moved as we went into the 90’s and turned into what I would consider to live in more of a House-y realm; things like Plastic Dreams or Stella.
Stella was the first Trance record on the planet. If you look back in time before that, there was nothing. That was a rare record. I remember when we released Plastic Dreams, there were not that many House track as such. Over here in Europe, that was the period after Mentasm, Germany and Belgium went hard into what they called Hardcore. I still remember the first day, as Plastic Dreams had been put on a compilation. I heard it and I signed it and then I went to Germany with that track. I remember going to this rave and it was really heavy and hard. It got to 5 o’clock in the morning and I asked them to play the record, and the guy was listening to it through his headphones and said he couldn’t do it because he was too soft. So I told him to do it anyway, and it was heavenly. That’s what I try to do with records, I release them and see where it takes me and go on a voyage with the record.
Your release schedule in the early 90s was insane. It feels like there was a record coming out almost every week.
Was that a conscious decision, or was that just because you were finding so much music.
Both, and also because there was the demand. There was really the demand for electronic music at that time. The demand was so big and the suppliers were far less than there are now. Now, our music is extremely accessible and ten million tracks are made each second, but not at that time. So we were a little factory.
So how many records were you selling at this time then?
I don’t know man. A lot I think. It was enough to expand and grow R&S and allow us to take some bigger risks.
Were there any big risks that you took that didn’t pay off?
Yeah, I’ve done so many and still do today. Because then we were starting with Atkins and Kenny and we paid big advances to a lot of artists and then never regrouped. Anyway, no regrets. We’ve done it. It was the same thing with Locust, who I really love, which is definitely an overlooked album. It’s as good as Aphex Twin in my opinion. If you listen to it today, it’s classical electronica music. It was so ahead of it’s time and it was just overshadowed by Richard. We were investing in records and I was paying more into the promotion and expanding into England, so we were going through the growing pains, if you like.
There were numerous sub-labels coming up then as well right?
Yes, and I still do it. It’s giving young people a chance to do what they want, for R&S and so that they can work in their own environment.
The interesting thing is that there is only a handful of the old school labels which, and I would include you alongside Warp and XL Records in this, who started with very focussed electronic routes, but in recent years have still managed to remain relevant to modern electronica. There are some old school labels that went dormant and then just came back to reissue all their old stuff. But you’ve just continued to move forwards, and I think James Blake is probably the best example. Is this drive still coming from you and do you still maintain that same curiosity?
Yeah. It’s just being ready to take advantage of these things that keeps the label alive, otherwise you just end up repeating yourself. What’s the point in just releasing another Tech House record? I didn’t find James Blake, it was Dan who was working for us at the time. It was interesting and I’m really proud of it too. It’s those kinds of artists and releases that keeps your blood pumping and gets you excited.
At the moment it seems that R&S is a very revitalised label and is back at the point of being a label that people are really going to check. It seems like an excited label. Was there a point where you felt the label was back on top of it again? This implies that there was a point where you dropped off a bit, do you think that’s something that happened?
Don’t forget, we stopped for ten years.
You were doing reissues during that period weren’t you?
No. We were doing nothing. I wasn’t even listening to music.
What lead to you stopping then?
Because I was bored with the music of the time. It just felt like it was on repeat. In ‘96/’97, all of the tracks just sounded the same. For me it was just boring and I was a bit burnt out. I wasn’t really motivated any more so it was best to quit and just take a step back and take a sabbatical.
What did you do during that time?
I bred horses.
Fair enough. That’s not what I was expecting!
I lived on a farm at that’s all we did. No music, no parties, nothing.
What lead you to jump back in then?
Well there were two things, because I didn’t really want to come back. We had constant mails telling us that we should start again and then our old lawyer who worked for us in England came back and said to us to start up again and put R&S back on the rails. I said no for a long time, but then by the end of the evening I said yes, so long as you keep me away from the management and business. I just want to work with the music and artwork. That’s where it started. In the beginning I wasn’t involved very much and I had A&R’s doing the label, but they didn’t work out. There was one particular program on Belgium radio that were post-dubstep, if you know what I mean? The early days of Mala when Dub and Techno kind of merged together. Around the time of Burial. I found that whole thing really really interesting and that’s what pulled me back in.
Was there a particular release that you can pinpoint where you feel you were back in the game again?
There were many, but mainly around that time I can remember Burial. It was very interesting. Even Mala, he was inspired by those guys.Synkro was another one. In his early days he was making such beautiful music, in fact he still does. So it was those three; Burial, Mala and Synkro. I just had to be a part of that, as it really was getting interesting again.
So what now? That was five or six years ago, so what do you foresee for R&S now?
Wow, that’s a hard one. I don’t know. Trying to survive? It’s not easy. We’re not XL and we’re not Warp. We don’t have the big hits like Boards of Canada or Adele on the label that becomes a big Prodigy and sells millions. They basically became big majors through that, whilst we’re still this family, cult label, I would say. I would like to keep it that way. The beauty of being smaller. The bigger you go the more compromises you have to make and I don’t want to make those compromises.
Your business model must have had to change massively since the early days, because vinyl doesn’t sell anymore.
I still don’t have a business model!
I have no idea.
Okay, your way of doing business and your way of making money must have had to adapt?
I’m not making money. I’m losing money each day, that’s no joke.
Shit. So what are you going to do about that?
Well it’s not that we’re without cash, we’re completely backed up financially. But we invest so much into promotion and we try to do our best worldwide for our artists and really try to support them full on as if we were still living in the 70s and there is no crisis! So yeah, the business model changes in that perspective and you sign an artist publishing and you will sign a 360 deal, so that you can recoup a little bit. Because at the end of the day, this is what I always thought… Artists will say no, but I will say yes, a label is nothing without an artist but it’s mainly the label that invests and takes the first risk. They’re on the first line of losing money and they are the ones that make an artist big. I’m not just talking about myself here, I’m talking about all the labels in the world. So I think it’s only fair that when all that support is given to an artist, that a return is made through their live gigs. It’s all about being on the road. There are underground DJs out there now that are making loads of money and will make more money that way than being on the label.
Living on the road comes with it’s own problems I think though.
Yeah, of course. It’s not easy and sometimes I ask myself to have respect for those guys that are going and playing 5 gigs a week, from country to country. I couldn’t do it, I would die! As with everything, the internet has its advantages and we have to live with it and try to find our own way. Music will always be consumed; it’s just that the way it is consumed will be different. The business model will change in the long run, but for me we are in a complete transition period. That’s how I see it. I’m not a negative person and foremost I love a good night in a club where you can just listen to really good dance music and really good DJs. I’m 58 and I’m still addicted to it as if I was 18. That’s why I started playing, because I really love it. I love listening to Richard or Nicolas Jarr, the guys that are writing a new page. I adore it. I try to look at guys that have their own say and their own will, and if they’re very good then, Jesus! It still blows me away and it gives me such an adrenaline rush. I can’t begin to describe the feeling it gives me.
If I was to ask you to pick some favourites from the R&S catalogue, obviously that’s going to be hard work, what are the ones that first come to mind?
Hah, wow. Well of course Energy Flash and Andromeda. Then you’ve got Aphex Twin, no doubt. There isn’t even a discussion there. Biosphere and Future Past too. I still love that track. Oh and another one that I still adore by Caspar Pound of Rising High… I forget what it’s called though. That’s one of the advantages of getting old, you forget things!
That’s the advantage of Google. You don’t have to worry about it any more!
Of course, Model 500 – The Passage as well. That’s just to name a few, otherwise I could just go on. Those I would say are the main ones.
Do you ever find yourself making music again?
No urge too?
I’ve started DJing more because it brings me back to the dancefloor. This year I want to bring R&S closer to the dancefloor and also do our eclectic stuff like Alex Smoke or whatever. I want more of the Energy Flashes of today. Really straightforward, tear the roof off music. So I’m going to try to find those. I did write something last week, so maybe I’ll go into the studio and try to play about with a couple of friends.
So watch this space.
Yeah, we’ll see what happens when an old dude goes into the studio. Haha!
You won’t be the only one! There are a few people out there who have been doing it for a long time.
But they have talent. I don’t have any talent! There’s a difference. Ah, I remember the Caspar Pound track now. It’s called Monkey Wah.
Renaat, thanks for your time
You can find everything from the mighty R&S over on their website