Ralph Lawson is quite simply a house music legend who has fought adversary after adversary to get to the top. The first record he ever bought was by Gary Glitter, he grew up in London supporting Arsenal and his first break into the music world was via a mix tape he handed over to a guy serving burgers in a van. Today though he is one of the men behind one of the most famous clubs and labels in the world. You want to know about music? Ralph Lawson is your man.
Dan Prince checks in with a dancefloor don.
Ralph good to see you again. So can you tell the DMC readers out there how this fabulous journey of yours began? Was music the only thing you wanted to be involved in when you were growing up?
“No not at all. If you remember Dan, back then none of us thought this whole dance music thing was going to last. I can recall thinking that we’d be lucky if it lasted a year or two.”
That’s true, at Mixmag towers, the then Editor Dave Seaman looked at his DJing as purely a bit of a hobby at the weekend…
“We all did. It was only people like your DMC World Champions such as Cash Money who could have thought of the long term of it all. We were just all having a laugh, none of us thought it was going to enable us to have jobs from it. It’s all different these days. I still think to myself that I am only as good as the last record I played and the last gig I DJ’d at. Today the kids coming through look at it through different eyes, they see it as a glamorous career similar to like what the Premiership footballers have and are attracted by the same sort of fabulous stories. It is so competitive out there.”
So a London boy who escaped to the north where just like the capital, it was buzzing in the early halcyon days of acid house. Had you any encounters in London clubbing before gracing the dancefloors of Leeds and Manchester?
“I made friends with a black guy with funky dreads called Dennis in the sixth form at school. He was a lot cooler than me, lived in Vauxhall in south London and he said to this one day, “listen I’ll show you what I’m into.” He took me to two venues that had an impact. Firstly we went to Soul II Soul at the Fridge in Brixton which was cool. But the one that really made an impression on me was Dance Wicked, which was run by The Madhatters – Trevor and co. under The Arches in Vauxhall. The main room was hip hop and we wouldn’t even dance because you really had to bust moves. It was amazing. Big records at the time were Mantronix’s ‘King Of The Beats’, Big Daddy Kane’s ‘Wrath Of Kane’ and ‘The 900 Number’ by Mark The 45 King. While we were going to Dance Wicked, acid house was also happening so they introduced a house music room at the back and I really related to those records, stuff like Kariya’s ‘Let Me Love You For Tonight’, Doug Lazy, Twin Hype. I started to collect records seriously. I’d go to Black Market in Soho and Zoom in Camden near where I lived. Friends were bringing back DJ Red Alert mixtapes from Kiss FM in New York. I had a couple of those and we’d try and work out what the tunes were. I also met a very important person to me at Black Market in Zaki Dee. He was the coolest motherfucker in London. I used to go and see him DJ. He was playing house records but mixed up with hip hop and that was a big influence on me. He was even part of the reason I liked the name Zaki, which is what we called my second son. Another really important outlet for me was Zoom in Camden, where DJ Harvey worked. I was desperately searching for Hamilton Bohannon’s ‘Let’s Start The Dance’ and he hooked me up with a copy. I started to go to Tonka parties (he also eventually became a resident at Back To Basics.) He also gave me the best single line of advice I ever had as a DJ: “You don’t want to be flavour of the month”. He also suggested I should go to Dingwalls for High On Hope. High On Hope was right on my doorstep. They played this track that kept going ‘It’s Alright’ and it turned out to be Sterling Void. It really stayed in my head. I wasn’t on drugs, so it was the tracks that stood out that would capture me, things like Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Ride On The Rhythm’ or Phase II’s ‘Reachin’.”
What was your first break into the club industry?
“Just being around the scene was my first break really Dan. Just going out, meeting people seeing what was going on, going to places like The Warehouse and The Twilight Zone in Leeds. There was this guy called Nick who ran a burger van outside of Leeds Uni and every time I walked past they were pumping out great house music. We got chatting and it turned out that this was just a sideline for him as he was running a night called Joy at The Warehouse. I gave him a mix tape I’d done and he gave me some warm up slots for DJ Marshall. This was a Tuesday night remember,but they were getting 1000 people in! I remember one of the nights I warmed up for DJ EASE from Nightmares on Wax, they were absolutely huge at the time as ‘Aftermath’ had just gone Top 40…that was a big gig for me.”
So did that give you a buzz to start your own club night?
“Exactly. I started a night called Clear at a club called Digbys just playing house music. We had some great guests playing for us, I remember Carl Cox came up and I paid him £80, John Kelly was big back then and he came over from Liverpool to play, Greg Fenton from Manchester DJ’d as well.”
How did the whole Back To Basics connection happen?
“I met Ali Cooke in a record shop one day in 1991, I knew he was a DJ and so I asked him to come to the club and play. He brought a friend of his called Dave Beer who told me they were starting a new night and needed another resident. And that was that!”
That was that indeed. I seem to remember you made a bit of history in clubland on the opening night?
“Yes. Saturday November 23rd 1991 at 9pm. I placed the first ever record on the decks at Basics. Steve Proctor was the guest that night and as it was Ali’s night, he was finishing off so I was on first. It was Marshall Jefferson presents Truth – ‘Open Your Eyes’.”
And what was the first night like?
“We only had about 80 in, but they were really great people and we knew we’d had a result because they were the right crowd. The next week it doubled as did the next week and before we knew it we had 2000 people outside trying to get in. Madness.”
So I assume the Marshall tune was the big track of 1991 – what about the next 19 years?
“Okay, here we go…
1992 – My Bloody Valentine – Glider (Andrew Weatherall remix) “This was a moment in time for music. Quite possibly the best remix ever made? Ali Cooke loved this record and it was an end of night Basics classic.
1993 – Chez Damier & Ralph Lawson – A Dedication to Jos “On 12 March 1993 Ali was killed alongside my partner Jos Higgin on their way to join me at a gig in Glasgow. I had made this record with Chez Damier a few weeks previously, Chez released it – as the title suggests – as a dedication to Jos.”
1994 – Galaxy to Galaxy – Hi Tech Jazz “Absolute brilliance from Mad Mike and his infamous Underground Resistance crew from Detroit. I couldn’t count how many times I have closed a set with this gem.”
1995 – Funky Green Dogs – Reach For Me “Murk productions from Miami created a bass-heavy brand of house music in the early 90s. Nearly every one of them is gold dust and this is perhaps the best of all.”
1996 – Deep Dish – Chocolate City Love Songs “On the other side of the States (Washington DC) Sharam and Dubfire were honing their production skills inspired by Danny Tenaglia’s DJ sessions. Sax features heavily in my favourite work from the duo. It’s the only time I ever ask for Deep Dish as I’m a thin crust man myself.”
1997 – Daft Punk – Musique “The French invasion actually started the year before in 1996 but by ‘97 it was really gaining momentum before peaking in ‘98 with France winning the World Cup and Daft Punk conquering the world in their own way.”
1998 – Mondo Grosso – Souffles H “Masters at Work are undoubtedly one of the greatest dance producers of all time, and I’m not talking on a niche level. They share their pedestal alongside disco and R’n’B legends not just house producers. This one was a Basics classic but then again so were so many others.”
1999 – DJ Sneak – You Can’t Hide From Your Bud “Derrick Carter and DJ Sneak the larger than life characters from Chicago. They brought the Boompty to the UK and sold out our club every time they played.”
2000 – Francois K – Time And Space “This record was not actually released in 2000 but as it was Millennium year, the title seemed to make sense placing it here. An epic workout of 10 minutes or more that would lock the dancefloor down. It reminds me of DJ Kenny Hawkes, who recently passed away.”
2001 – Josh One – Contemplation (King Britt remix) “I was so close to signing this record but too slow. One of the big ones that got away! Still superb anyway.”
2002 – Chicken Lips – He Not In “And suddenly a new sound attracted everyone’s attention…Andy Meecham and Dean Meredith emerged from their previous Bizarre Inc incarnation as Chicken Lips and promptly introduced the world to an updated version of Electro Funk inspired by their early days of listening to DJ Greg Wilson in Manchester.”
2003 – Trentemøller – Le Champagne “There are good and bad producers but there are few geniuses. Trentemøller is certainly the latter. He announced his coming with this incredible house record on Naked Music before he moved into the world of techno, indie and electronica.”
2004 – Metro Area – Miura “More Electro Funk second generation style, this time from the outer environs of NYC as name suggests.”
2005 – Lifelike – Discopolis “Ibiza at it’s best. Dreamy arpeggios meander over disco drums and a killer B-line.”
2006 – Paul Woolford – Erotic Discourse “Perhaps the first bona fide underground hit record produced by a Basics resident. This is such a strange record. There is no snare, no hi-hat and no percussion. Just a massive kick drum and a special keyboard sounds.”
2007 – Art of Tones – Praise “OK, so it sounded a little like Ame – Rej but it was a big Basics track and a highlight of my mix for Fabric that year.”
2008 – Sebo K – Diva “The Berlin wunderkid started making music inspired more by Detroit acts Chez Damier and Ron Trent and this was a cut that changed how many DJs played. The end of the minimal road ?”
2009 – 2020Soundsystem – Sliding Away (Johnny D remix) “OK, so it’s my band but this smashed every Terrace in the sun, that summer of 2009. Ian Brown-inspired vocals and sublime drops made it perfect for the happy people.”
2010 – Burnski & Rob James – Malibu “Another Basics resident makes a hit alongside fellow Leeds producer Rob James. DC10 rocks out to it every week that summer.”
2011 – Maya Jane Coles – What They Say “At last a female edition to the list and what a entrance it is ! MJC is destined for great things as we all know by now. The future starts here.
Amazing Ralph. So what can you tell us about the future of the club, you’ve left Stinkies and are at The Loft right now..
“Yes only for a few weeks though, it’s gone completely full circle for me as we are back at The Wearehouse from the end of January where I started to go clubbing. The venue has had a complete refit and a massive sound system put in. Everyone is really looking forward to it.”
I hear you DJ’d at your son’s birthday party at the weekend, what was that like?
“Ha ha. God you do your research Dan. Yes we had a party in the evening but before it was my eldest’s son’s birthday. He came up to me and asked if I had any dubstep. I thought shit, how do I mix this? It was very bizarre, all these kids keeping me on my toes until I could play to their parents after 11 o clock!”
So you have a massive event this Saturday, the 20:20 Vision Christmas Party at The Village in London celebrating all things 20. You have Andrew Weatherall on, one of my top 3 DJs of all time spinning. Was he a headliner you particularly wanted on at your event?
“He was. He was always one of my favourite guests at Basics from day one. In the early days he was that kind of iconic figures that summed up the club. His remixes of My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream weren’t just remixes, they were part of a youth movement. Absolutely timeless. He had a bit of a mystery about him and at the end of day, represented what Back To Basics was all about.”
Your gaff at Hopefield Farm – if ever there was a reality TV show missed, that was it. This was the real story of acid house back in the early 90s where you kidnapped the music hierarchy after DJing at Basics and took ‘em back to record tunes in your studio, feed them narcotics and carry on until the middle of the week. Who did you really freak out there?
“The best person who we twisted up was Ben Turner who at the time was a fresh faced Editor at Muzik Magazine. He just couldn’t handle what we were all up to, a really crazy night. Dave Beer absolutely mullered him. One minute he was there, the next he had slipped out of the back door and off. The farm was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields and our nearest neighbours were miles away. He was terrified. He ended up running down a pitch black lane until he finally came to a house and started banging on the front door. After a while a bloke came down the stairs and threw the door open with a huge knife and asked him what the fuck was going on. Priceless.”
Surely that place must have looked like a weirdos Playboy Mansion or something?
“Ha ha. It was in the middle of a very quiet mining community where everybody knew everybody. Word got round dead quick. These old taxi drivers would be picking people up at all times of the day to take them back to Leeds and some of the stories they must have had. This one time I remember Jon Pleased Wimmin being picked up by a cab, he was in full drag and had spent the entire night stair-surfing off his face and could hardly walk. What the village thought of that god only knows.”
I can remember being there and was amazed you never had the police round…
“Yeah we never had no bother. The only time they got involved was towards the end. We had a knock on the door at silly o’ clock and two pissed up geezers had somehow heard the music blaring out as they walked past our house on the bridle path and wanted to come into the party. I told them it was just a few mates round and there was no party but they weren’t having any of it. Next thing I knew Weatherall came rushing out the house and I vaguely remember him having a fight on the front lawn with them and I think he bottled one of them. Maybe – don’t quote me on that one though. Anyway I called the police because it was getting a bit mad and a helicopter arrived overhead looking for them. The police found one of their credit cards and tracked them down eventually so I heard. A few years later after I’d moved out, I returned to do a photo shoot for a music mag and the farmer came over to say hello and told me how lucky I was, as the day after I’d moved out a big van of lads with trench coats and baseball bats turned up looking for me.”
When asked once what advice you could give to aspiring live artists out there for some advice, you answered…“Give up! No seriously do. You will have loads more stress and earn loads less money DJing. I have no idea why I started down this route, and now it is too late for me! Save yourselves!” – still stick with that advice?
“Oh my god it must have been after a big weekend. It was definitely tongue in cheek or maybe I was just trying to fend off the competition! What people out there have to realise is that there are only a few DJs like Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta who get all of the Lear Jets and million pound cheques. And I don’t particularly agree with that ethos, I have always felt that music should be the motivation. I really believe that.”
So what do you think of these guys?
“They have their place, taking dance music to rock concert level can’t be a bad thing. And they do it well. I come from a completely different place though. The underground scene will always be here, dark, dirty warehouses full of people into their sounds, sweaty clubbers off the radar, cool festivals where great music is pushed on. Electronic music is at it’s most exciting in these places.”
Over the years you have been one of the stalwarts on the party scene, recently however you claim you have been calming down admitting that it takes too long to recover. So can we kiss goodbye to your Ibiza nickname of ‘Stag Do’? Explain to the DMCWORLD readers where the name came…
“Well it’s obviously from Ibiza. I think Mark Broadbent from ‘We Love…’christened me actually. I’ve got kids now and a business, so most of the time I have to keep my head down grafting. However, come the summer months when I get to play in the sunshine, I am quite free and happy to go and have it. Just like blokes when they go on a stag do, leave work and everything behind and lose it for a few days…”
Have you ever been starstruck meeting a DJ hero?
“With a DJ no, it’s quite easy getting on with DJs because I always have something to talk about ie. music. The only time I have ever got a bit lost for words and made a bit of a prat of myself was in the back of a transit van at a festival crouched next to Bernie Worrell from Talking Heads, one of my all time heroes. We were being driven to our respective stages and I did the whole schoolboy classic line asking him for a photo. He was so obnoxious and was like, ‘what the fuck do you want a picture with me for?’ After that I thought it best not to meet any of my heroes!”
Greatest dance album ever made?
“Quite an easy one that. I don’t even have to go through all of my vinyl, Massive Attack ‘Blue Lines’.”
What was your Summer 2011 anthem?
“The Tales Of Us Remix of Thugfucker’s ‘Disco Gnome’ was a nice Summer groove.”
You travelled to New York quite early in your career to check out the likes of Danny Tenaglia and Junior Vasquez. What did you learn from those guys?
“They were the two biggest DJs out there at the time around 1992 and I had never experienced anything like that before. I think that’s where we first met wasn’t it?.”
It was, it was at The Sound Factory, a few of us Brits clinging together for reassurance!
“Well that trip blew me away. Back in the UK we were used to doing two hour sets and then zooming off to another gig across the country. These guys though had the whole night to themselves, it started at midnight and went on until lunchtime the next day with no guest DJs at all. And how they worked new records was incredible. Junior was the king. He had a new record that he knew he was going to break that night and would play around with the accapella, maybe play a bit of the dub version teasing the crowd before someway towards the end of the night, drop the whole vocal version. And then play it again. Unbelievable DJing.”
That’s when Dave clicked with the whole lighting aspect of a night in a club too right?
“Yes! This was pre FUNKTION-ONE had made it’s way into the UK. This was when people like Richard Long had designed the system for the Paradise Garage but also when the lighting engineers were so on it too. Combining the lighting with tracks was like a whole new side show. Dave recognised that, came back and got on it whilst I realised longer sets was the way forward as a DJ. Really exciting times for us all.”
One of your greatest skills as a DJ is, like Junior back in the day, you know how to break a new record – something many of today’s DJs cannot do in their 90 minute set. You broke some big records at the club…
“I did. We were pushing the whole of the UK Tech House scene from day one, combining it with Detroit sounds and that’s where the whole 20:20 Vision outlook came about. It was also going down in London, but we were definitely the pioneers up north.”
What have you got planned for us musically in 2012?
“Working hard on the label, I’m very excited about next year about how house, dubstep and techno are all combining. We are working with a lot of young, new people with new ideas. We have just signed 10 new artists so it’s looking very good for the year ahead.”