Ralph Lawson has curated the back to basics rare classics project for his Basic Vision label, a collaboration between his label 20/20 Vision and back to basics, the club where he played the first record. The album has taken over 2 years to compile and includes 14 tracks from artists Cajmere, Cassio Ware, Mood II Swing, Eddie Fowlkes, Neal Howard, Black Science Orchestra and Armando, featured across four 12² vinyl EP releases. DMCWORLD checks in with the main man. Velvet smoking jacket, cords n’ all…
Words by Dan Prince
Ralph, a huge welcome back to DMCWORLD. Where on Planet Earth are you at the moment?
I’m currently in Leeds and according to reports, about to get snowed in again!
An incredibly exciting time for you with the announcement of the marvelous ‘back to basics rare classics’ project. A brand new full-length album selected and compiled by yourself alongside Tristan da Cunha. All in support of rare house and techno classics! Boom! Please take us back to the beginning. When was the idea was first conceived, what prompted it all?
Basically, the project started way back as an idea to celebrate the 25th anniversary of back to basics in 2016. But in true back to basics style the project took far longer to get together than predicted. The licensing was a real minefield. It just took ages trying to track down who actually owned the original tracks, physically finding them and then getting them approved. In some cases, the labels no longer had the masters so we had to track back to the original source. Some tracks I really wanted to include turned out to be rare precisely because no one knew what had happened to the masters. This happened with the Mood II Swing Border Insanity dub of ‘Flame’ by Crustation. This was always an ever present track played at the club but had never been featured on other compilations; it seemed to be a ‘lost jam’. The record company told me that they had no master on file but I kept pushing as I knew it must exist somewhere and eventually found that it did exist on a DAT tape in a New York archive. DAT (Digital Audio Tape) is an out of use old format. They kindly trusted me with the only remaining copy of the mix on the only DAT tape in existence and I went out and bought a DAT. I was pretty scared playing it for the first time knowing I could destroy the last remaining copy of such a great dub mix if my DAT player chewed up the tape. Anyway we re-mastered it and it is now available for everyone on vinyl again pressed loud and clean from the original DAT. Uncovering a lost gem for DJs and music lovers to be able to play a mint copy is very satisfying.
Where the fuck do you start with a project like this? You are the guy who played the first ever record at Basics and has always stayed true to your musical roots, there are thousands of beautiful tracks out there. So how did you set about it?
I created a big list of potential tracks for this compilation, maybe a couple of hundred records. I’ve always tried to keep a track of the records played at basics documented on my basic vision blog. It tells the story of the club through records and mixes. On the most important tracks, I refused to take ‘no’ for an answer. I think that’s the secret. It was really important that I managed to achieve a true reflection of the life and times of the back to basics dance-floors.
The third vinyl EP Basic Vision 003 is swinging our way on March 26th. Please talk us through the record…
The third vinyl release was co-compiled with my fellow resident Tristan da Cunha. Although basics hosted many international DJs the residents have always been the backbone, holding the fort. Ali Cooke, Huggy, James Holroyd, Tristan da Cunha and Paul Woolford all held long residencies at the club. Resident DJs are generally overworked and underpaid but for me these guys have been the most important musical force behind the club. All are amazing DJs. For me the stand out track is from the sadly departed Armando ‘Don’t Take it’ (Johnny Fiasco remix). This track summed up basics during the Mint club years when DJs Derrick Carter, Sneak and Mark Farina worked their jackin’ Chicago sounds so well. The EP continues to pay tribute to Chicago with the highly sought after OG Freak mix of Cassio Ware – ‘I Wanna See You Dance’. This is the original Black House version and not the remixes or re-edits available elsewhere. Mark Grant and Cajmere only made one record together as The Chicago Connection and it was a true basics bomb, the Cajmere remix is included on Basic Vision 003,then rounded off nicely with Da Rebels – ‘House Nation Under a Groove’.
What can you tell us about the rest of the album?
Another key track is Lil Louis & The World – ‘The Story Continues’. This was just a huge record for me at the Pleasure Rooms venue. Leeds was one of the first cities in the UK to be granted late licenses for clubs so I got used to playing long sets from the mid 90s. The residents would be the ‘bookend DJs’ – going on first and last with the guests playing the middle. I loved both sets but the closing set nearly always had to feature ‘The Story Continues’. The regulars would stomp their feet during the intro and chant through the peaks, it became one of the biggest tracks in the club’s history. I first heard DJ Harvey play M-I-Cara – Casa Beat at an illegal warehouse party in Vauxhall. We had to wait for the security guard patrolling the premises to complete his rounds before finding our way into the space, then locking the gates behind us. I’ve no idea how they got the keys! Harvey dropped Casa Beat near the end of the party and it was a moment that I will always remember. I get goose bumps every time I hear it still to this day, like a flashback.
What drove you to license these records ?
I’m always fascinated by the history of house music and the producers who made masterpieces and then disappeared. I call them the ‘unsung heroes of house’. The one that I would really like to catch up with in person is Neal Howard. “The Gathering’ is included on the compilation and house music doesn’t get much better than that.
Who did the artwork ?
Separate to the music, the artwork was really important. It needed to be representative of back to basics’ story and the original artwork was a collage created by dave beer from original artwork by the godfather of punk Jamie Reid. His ‘Queen’s Head’ flyer became the emblem of the club. So in the same way I had to track down the artists who made the music, I then had to track down the artist that designed punk! It took me a while to find him as he keeps a low profile now but I eventually found Jamie’s agent – John Marchant, who looks after his archive. That trail then led to the Paul Stolper gallery who owned the piece I wanted to use. I ended up going to art exhibitions in London just to meet the right people! They came up with the idea to divide the image into four quadrants – one per release – so when you collect all four you get whole image. The original artwork was produced on silk screens with hand stamped images over the top. This had the same feel as cool artwork on an underground record.
There must have been a lot of music that didn’t make the final cut. I take it there will be more volumes?
Well, this collection definitely works as a series in my head. It works as vinyl separates but also if you listened all the way through from start to finish in my order you would feel you’d had a good night out at back to basics. It’s like a proper album with all the elements for a classic house set. If you’ve been to a night at Basics this is the souvenir of what it’s all about. So for me it’s a complete set of tracks but there are hundreds more we could revisit.
The one track on the album you wish you had created?
I think the 20/20 Vision productions I made alongside Carl Finlow were most like the 51 Days – Paper Moon track. We worked with Chez Damier and Ron Trent on Prescription Underground and it sounds like a Prescription record but with better production. It’s a really long superbly produced record that was in my box for years as the perfect warm up record.
2018 looks like another solid year for dance music. This new album aside, what are of other highlights for you?
I am working hard on finding new music for 20/20 Vision as always but I’m currently spending most of my time working on a new multi-venue festival for leeds called inner city electronic on June 2nd. I was presented with this new direction just after getting back from Houghton festival last summer where I was really blown away by what Craig Richards and Gottwood created. It was a big inspiration for me on so many levels. So it was the perfect time for this new project to drop on my plate. We want to make something really great for the city, the scene and the people and we’re making it a reality. I’ve been involved in the Leeds electronic music scene for exactly 30 years this year and I’ve watched the scene develop pretty much from day one. The city has also boomed incredibly over that time. I do feel I am perfectly placed to tell the story as well as present an eclectic array of exciting artists. Our goal is to inspire people as well as offer them opportunities to be creative. Alongside events in eleven of the coolest city centre venues we are running talks, workshops and master classes. The city is absolutely bouncing again now and it’s all so compact so easy to get around. We’re going to give people the best day they could possibly have in the city.
What does being a curator mean?
I had a kind of epiphany and realised that I’ve actually been a curator all my life. All Djs are curators. Curating a festival is just an extension of being a DJ. Instead of curating a selection of my favourite records I’m curating a selection of my favourite artists to play their favourite records. I’ve also always been about music first and foremost and finding ways to tell the story musically was the inspiration behind my time at Basics and what’s ahead with inner city electronic. This interview has actually made me realise that all the past work I have put into back to basics and the city is finally coming to a climax. But to answer your question, being a curator means I’ll soon be sporting a Salvador Dali moustache, wearing a velvet smoking jacket, cords and pair of brogues…
'inner city electronic' is a new multi-venue
event happening in Leeds on Saturday 2nd June including Floating Points,
KiNK Live, Dopplereffekt Live, Peggy Gou, Midland, Joy Orbison, Mad
Professor Live, Andrew Weatherall, Nicolas Lutz, Paul Woolford, Mad
Professor, Iration Steppers and many more TBC.