Synonymous with cutting-edge electronic music, Belgian label R&S Records has made a huge impact on the scene over the last 40 years. From offering a European home to US greats like Derrick May and Joey Beltram (whose classic ‘Energy Flash’ on the label remains one of techno’s biggest-ever tunes), to working with the untouchable Aphex Twin and launching artists like James Blake and Lone and Blawan, the label’s famous prancing horse logo is a respected stamp of authority.
After four decades of pulsating highs – and dramatic lows – today’s R&S Records is evolving, exploring hip-hop and lo-fi soul, while still serving up an endlessly high-quality stream of innovative techno. As the label prepares to mark its 40th anniversary with the release of ‘In Order To Dance 4.0’, a brand-new installment in its legendary compilation series, Lesley Wright digs a bit deeper with founder Renaat Vandepapeliere to discover where the label has come from and where it’s headed next…
Congratulations on the 40th anniversary of R&S Records, Renaat. Where did your passion for music begin and what sparked your desire to start the label?
The first notes that really triggered me was the jazz and classical music coming from my father’s room when he was working late at night. As a young child, I would sit on the stairs and listen to artists like Quincy Jones before I even knew it was Quincy Jones. And I was always listening to the radio, to the point where my father took it away from me and told me I had to spend more time studying. I bought another transistor radio instead.
I grew up with jazz, classical music, and then as a young adult soul, psychedelia, the beginnings of hip-hop. I always wanted to be a drummer, but I started working in Music Man record shop, in Ghent, around about the end period of disco. The owner of the shop was a guy called Hessel Tieter. He had a very good ear, and he took a lot of risks. He never received the credit he deserved for pushing the whole new beat sound, which was basically the start of this whole electronic and techno scene. He had a big import and export company, and he took a lot of risks in buying those records and exporting them and really pushing them. He’s never mentioned but he played a really important role in supporting the whole scene.
Did he inspire you?
I learned the business a little bit because I worked in his record shop but did he inspire me? No. The guys that inspired me were Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Pink Floyd, great producers like Giorgio Moroder. I had so much time in that record shop to listen to all the music in there, which was fantastic for me as a young DJ. I bought the hits, of course, 12-inches, but more so I was always buying albums so I could play something else, tracks that my other DJ friends didn’t have. So, you know, I was much more inspired by great artists and great labels. And all this great music, it seeped into my body. I wanted to start a label, and if I fail, I fail but I had to try. I wanted R&S to be like the next Island Records or Motown or Def Jam. That was the dream and we’re still working on it.
What’s the biggest selling record on the label?
Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works 85 – 92’ album, without any doubt. When I first heard it, it was such a weird record; we’re talking ’93 or ’92, I think. We’d already had some success with some techno releases and when we released Aphex Twin, everybody thought I was mad. They were like, ‘What is this?’ But those kinds of reactions only make me go all in. When people say something can’t or shouldn’t be done, it’s a guarantee that I’ll go in that direction. I’m in the game.
What made you believe in the album so much?
Why do we like something? Why don’t we like something? It’s all very subjective and it’s different for everybody. But you know, again, I come from the old school before Aphex Twin, and had been listening to Manuel Göttsching, Vangelis – all those electronics pioneers. So, for me, the album wasn’t shocking. To be very honest, for me, it was very natural, beautiful music. And if you go to ‘Digeridoo’ from the album – I mean, what a track!
Richard [James, aka Aphex Twin] was 17. The music was great and it’s still great. For such a young guy to be making such mature music – it was ridiculous! All the greatest talents in the world started very young. It’s my love – and I think R&S has proved that – to support young people and new names and give them a platform.
And also, I liked the challenge. I like the challenge even when I doubt myself. You know, ‘Is this right or not?’ Then it must come out because asking yourself this question on its own is interesting. And then you put it out there and it’s up to the market to decide; it’s out of your hands.
‘Selected Ambient Works’ is not only a seminal album, but also widely regarded as one of the greatest electronic albums ever released. Why, in your opinion, has it stood the test of time?
Because it has melodies that everybody can remember. I can compare it to the old pioneers in Germany. It’s not the same music but it has the same sort of creative freedom, and you can hear that. It’s a blueprint. It’s an emotional album that you can listen to. It grabbed me completely the first time I listened to it. It can be appreciated by the old and the young. It’s a beautiful album, period.
What was it like to be at the helm of R&S Records during the ’90s when electronic music was exploding worldwide?
Honestly, I never thought of R&S or myself as anything special. Even today I really don’t know what happened if I look back. Because I’m travelling; I’m non-stop. I was trying to build something but to be at the helm or at the top, I’ve never seen it like that, and I still don’t see it like that. I don’t want to see it like that because, in my own book, I haven’t arrived yet. I still have so much to learn and I still have such a long way to go. If there’s one thing that pleases me, it’s that I can listen back to R&S records that are 30 years old and they still sound fresh, but I’m a traveller and I prefer to look forward.
The label had a hiatus between 2001 and 2006. What prompted you to press pause and, likewise, what inspired you to fire the label back up again?
I stopped because I was bored. I couldn’t listen to dance music anymore. There were so many festivals with similar line-ups, DJs were commanding rockstar fees and turning up with bodyguards, as if they were U2. That’s not my world; I had to get out. The scene became oversaturated and today it’s even more absurd. But I do understand it’s a market – the machine takes over. Big money takes over, the majors get involved and everything changes. It’s normal but I had to get out.
For several years I didn’t even listen to music; I went cold turkey. I went off to work with horses and it was just me and the animals – no noise. On the drive home one night, my wife Sabine turned on the radio in the car and I heard dubstep for the first time. It was the very, very beginning of dubstep; it was so fresh and interesting. When you’re involved in music or you’re an addict, the virus is there; you go back. I started to investigate this new sound and then, of course, James Blake came along and we know his story [Renaat signed James Blake to R&S].
So, yeah, through dubstep, music became interesting again and I was super into it. It was beautiful music. It was like hearing LTJ Bukem’s drum & bass for the first time; do you remember that? I was back in this fire again, this feeling that something new was cooking. When the house is on fire and something new is happening, even if it’s only with a handful of people, I’m there.
R&S has signed music from a multitude of artists across numerous genres and yet there’s still a widely held misconception that it’s a “techno label”. How does that make you feel?
People should see I’m trying to fight my way out of that box. I mean, sure, in the beginning we had the Beltrams and the like, but we also had tracks you could consider house. Even then, we were a bit different. If I listen back, there are a lot of jazz feelings in R&S records. There are elements of jazz in most of my favourite R&S records. I’m not going to be creatively stifled or let anyone put me in a particular box because then I won’t be able to breathe, and I’ll die.
R&S Records is also a product of its environment; it sounds the way it does because we’re based here in Belgium. Sabine wanted to move to New York when we were younger and there would have been a lot more musical action if we’d moved there or London. We could have discovered bigger acts. In Belgium we have extremely good food, great art and great writers, but on a music level…
So why didn’t you move?
I’ve asked myself that question every day for the last 40 years. I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to be part of that big machine. If I’d moved to New York or London to be part of a certain scene, then R&S wouldn’t be the same. R&S is what it is because we’re here.
Well, you’ve got to stay true to yourself, haven’t you?
People say that a lot – “You have to say true” – but nobody does. They’re all using the same lines, like parrots. I love having long debates about what it is to stay true to the underground. Most people are ultimately swayed by the mainstream and the money, but it’s not my world and I just can’t. I tried once; I came very close once at the beginning of this whole EDM thing. There was an A&R from Spinnin’ who was signing all these big hits, monster hits, and he wanted to work for me. In the end I said, “No, we’re not going to do it”, because the first record he signed for R&S… it would go against every vein in my entire body to be part of that flock. I just can’t. I come from a generation of real artists.
Do you feel that a lot of kids coming through today are expecting instantaneous success?
Absolutely. Today especially everybody wants to be overnight millionaire DJ, selling three records and getting 50 grand per second to play. I mean, hold up with this stupid shit. I’m saying this to a lot to young kids… watch documentaries, watch the life story of bands like The Rolling Stones… see the effort and the work they’ve put in, the ups and downs of their careers.
What about ageism? It seems like many of the DJs who were vital to the development of the scene, guys who’ve put in the legwork from the ’80s and ’90s, don’t get the respect they deserve these days…
Of course not. Most of those guys, they did what they did and made the best records because there was no scene yet – or it was in its infancy. Today, kids will make something in their room and they have no clue what’s gone before. Entertainment is one big hamburger factory these days – it’s all next, next, next!”
So, when you’re listening to demos, what’s the secret sauce that an artist needs to bring to the table to catch your attention?
An identity. I receive about 50 emails daily from artists saying, “I want to be on R&S. What should I make for you?” That’s totally the wrong question. I’m interested in artists who believe in themselves. Do they have something to say, or don’t they have something to say? It’s very simple. Most of these guys are like, “I can make house. I can make techno. I can make anything.” It’s better that I see you as an individual artist. I need to know that the music they are making is heartfelt. I need to talk to a person and know that we can have a healthy artistic conversation. This is what I like.”
What kind of relationship do you strive to have with the artists you sign to R&S?
An artistic love affair. An A&R is not always the best friend of an artist, you know. He is there to have an objective opinion and should be able to point out where things are lacking in a track. The A&R’s role isn’t to change the artist but to help the artist’s tracks reach their full potential and you need to be on the same sort of artistic level in order to make that happen otherwise it’s not going to work. It’s an artistic love affair, absolutely.
Like the best love affairs, can that get quite tumultuous at times?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. That’s part of being human and it’s part of a love affair – being concerned – otherwise you don’t care. So yeah, sometimes we have heated discussions and sometimes we put phones down and we don’t talk for a week. Then we go back and it’s like, “I love you, really.”
Not necessarily based on sales or success, tell us one of your most memorable moments across the history of R&S?
Definitely when Richard [Aphex Twin] came to my home with a box of cassettes. I was completely intimidated by a 17-year-old kid. He has such a strong aura and charisma around him, it’s unbelievable. I cannot even describe what it was like. It was like Jesus coming into your house. He’s a beautiful guy. Yeah, I was intimidated by this 17-year-old kid, which I actually liked because I knew I was seeing an individual artist, someone extremely special. I imagine I would have felt the same if I’d had the opportunity to meet Prince in real life.
If that was a high point, a low point must have been when Raj Chaudhuri, a freelance A&R scout for the label, accused you of racial discrimination and unfair dismissal in 2021 – a case that was ultimately dismissed by a UK tribunal. Can you describe that time and experience?
It really affected my life and continues to do so. The mental pain and anguish this has put me through… it spins in my head every waking hour. It’s really affected my life in a serious way. I’m a fighter and I continue to work but I’m in the deepest depression of my life right now. First of all, this thing will never go away. These unfounded allegations will hang over me like a dark cloud until I’m in my grave because perception becomes reality and people don’t think for themselves. I’ve been insulted by a number of journalists in the music press and I don’t think journalists should do that; they should be objective. Still, after three years and nearly £300,000 in legal fees later, I still cannot break the wall.
Let’s take a step back for a second. When Mr Chaudhuri went to the press with his allegations and the story was picked up by numerous media platforms, how did it feel to see these allegations reported so quickly worldwide?
I became click bait. It’s like someone putting a gun to your head and pulling the trigger. This is how I feel. We live in an age of cancel culture, which is dangerous and polarizing; it’s dividing people more and more without any dialogue.
On my lawyer’s advice, I’m still not allowed to show the letter Raj Chaudhuri sent to me before going to the press, but if I could make it public people would think differently. The press reported that the tribunal was dismissed on a technicality but very few outlets actually reported the tribunal’s deeper findings – and that’s unfair. It’s on record that the tribunal took “an extremely dim view” of Raj Chaudhuri’s conduct and agreed with me that “it amounted in essence to a threat of blackmail”. The tribunal findings noted that “Chaudhuri himself subsequently accepted that his conduct on 30th September 2020 was aggressive and wrong” and that “despite having pursued wide press publication for his allegations, Chaudhuri withdrew significant aspects of his claim without explanation, retraction or apology”. It’s all there in black and white for people to see. The Attorney General called out Raj Chaudhuri’s actions as “calculating and underhand” [You can read the tribunal’s full findings here]. It feels like Raj Chaudhuri has destroyed my life. But I have to fight back and it’s in the hands of the Belgian crime prosecutor right now.
How did all this impact your health?
There is a scar on my soul and in my mind that will never heal. I can’t even put into words the stress of it all. Physically, it put me in hospital. One day I completely collapsed. I crashed like a sack of potatoes. And it was getting worse and worse. Luckily, Sabine came home and I was rushed to the hospital. I spent two days in intensive care. If she hadn’t come home, I probably wouldn’t be here because my blood pressure was nearly completely gone. All caused by stress. I have the doctor’s report.
Mentally, I am a broken man. I don’t leave the house. I don’t trust anybody anymore. I am escaping in music and art and that really saves me, but I’m scared of people. I was an outgoing person and now this is my life; it’s very depressing. I’m also angry. The allegations were completely unjustified. You just have to look at the history of R&S… we started with black artists.
Where did you find support?
From the label’s fans, thank God. And from black people in America.
Let’s get back to the music and talk about the forthcoming ‘In Order To Dance 4.0’ compilation. Give us an overview of the album and how you chose the tracks for it…
I dived into a mountain of demos during Corona and that was a really fun thing to do. And before Coronavirus I was playing out and I was always testing demos when I DJed. It’s our 40th anniversary year and it would be easy to put out a ‘Best of R&S’ compilation featuring the label’s most commercial tracks but I wanted to do something else, like an album of demos from mostly unfamiliar names. Apart from [Dino] Lenny’s track, I’ve actually been sitting on some of the album tracks for a few years. Each track on the album captured me directly from the first moment I heard it. It’s another sign that R&S is all about the music. I don’t look at Facebook or artist profiles. I’m not interested in how many followers someone has. I don’t care who the music is made by or where they come from. As long as the music grabs me, you’re welcome on R&S.
With this album I also wanted to combine more art. Which other labels are commissioning videos for every track on a compilation, and mostly for artists nobody knows? No-one. Sabine is always looking into architects and painters and that led us to 3D animations. We discovered guys who were unknown but who were doing interesting things and now they are all involved in the videos for the album tracks. This is like my hobby, you know, to encourage young people to be extremely creative. It’s like saying to an architect who’s building your house, “I need three bedrooms and a bathroom but as for the rest, you decide.” And that’s the fun part.
Dino Lenny - Did This (R&S Records)
Dino Lenny’s track ‘Did This’ has been described by some DJs as the best track of the year so far…
Lenny nearly didn’t make it. He’s been sending me demos for years and I’ve always said, “No, it’s too formulaic. I don’t want to hear average.” I pushed him so hard and I’m sure I got on his nerves. Then this came. And while it has a familiar house groove, when that piano comes in, it becomes really musical and jazzy, totally unpredictable and not so easy – and that is when I said, “Yes!” Now I think he’s super happy because he feels liberated; he’s found somewhere he can let loose.
Hyphen - Winter Sky (R&S Records)
For me, I also like Hyphen’s ‘Winter Sky’ from the album. I think it’s so beautiful. Even the artist, he didn’t want to be on the album because he was not sure. I was like, “Oh, please, man, I beg you – it’s so beautiful.” That track is timeless. If you hear it one hundred years from now it’s still gonna sound beautiful.
Vromm - Red Tuna (R&S Records)
And Vromm’s ‘Red Tuna’ – what a track! This is what I call contemporary electronic dance music. I’m 66, I’ve been a DJ all my life, I know what dance music is. I know the wheel cannot be reinvented but this brings something extra – it adds salt and pepper. I’ve never heard anyone put out a track like this one from Vromm, or the track from Pascal Nuzzo. It’s a unique album.
As someone with such a long and storied career in the scene, what does your fantasy club look and sound like?
It would sound very eclectic. The art of DJing is playing the right track at the right time. I see a DJ as the drummer of the night, the guy who will hold the band together. It has to be sexy; it can be rough, it can be hard, but I want to see romance again. And no phones, please, no phones. Dark, not even lights. Fantastic sound. The DJ’s in the corner and nobody knows who he is; it’s not important. The music is important. I want to see that sort of flower power magic, from the ’60s, you know, people dancing and looking at each other, not looking at a DJ. People engaging again, dancing and really feeling the moment, feeling free – that’s what my fantasy club looks like.
Do you think you have a pioneering approach to how you run R&S?
I don’t consider myself a pioneer in anything. What I am is a true music lover. Everything is subjective: what’s good, what’s bad. Let’s take Andy Warhol as an example. He didn’t try to please, he was just Andy Warhol, and there is no copy. And this is still what I’m trying to do, trying to find my own language in what we do with the label.
Apart from ‘In Order To Dance 4.0’, what other projects in the R&S pipeline are you most excited about?
I’m excited about lots of new music. I’m looking to bring more and more of a freaky jazz feel into dance music. We’re going to do more hip-hop. I’ve always liked hip-hop but I’ve never always understood it. Hip-hop is such a big culture and a long existing strong culture. I’m doing this to learn and also to connect with a completely different culture to mine. So, I’m going out of my comfort zone, which I do like and which I find extremely interesting. And I like the tracks, period.
Probably one of my biggest projects that I’m very proud of is the forthcoming lo-fi soul album from Mikahl Anthony. God knows, we’ve been working on it for eight years! The backstory here is that I had a link from a DJ to a record created by a Chicago collective. It was only online for a week and thank God, I downloaded it. I heard one voice on this record and Jesus Christ, man, it sounded like a combination of Frank Ocean and Marvin Gaye. It was Mikahl Anthony and it took me five years to find him. I was mailing everybody, “Find me this guy.” It was an obsession and I’m still obsessed.
Three years after finding him, we’re just waiting on the last video. Mikahl is a filmmaker, a storyteller, a poet, and his album, for me, when I heard it, it’s like when I heard Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ for the first time; it had the same impact and it has nothing to do with electronic, it’s beautiful soul. I want to explore more; I just want to explore.
Where does this endless curiosity come from?
I think because I grew up in a big family of nine kids. Middle class, you know, my life was the church and six streets. But my father did one thing very well. My father was a Christian and at the time there was sort of Christian collective band, called Upward People, made up of 60 people from all over the world. They came every year and families in each city they went to were asked to host three or four band members. And my father did this for five years. So, every year for those five years we’d have people from Nigeria, from China, or from wherever, in the house for a week. They were musicians and this opened my eyes, you know. I was always asking them, “Can I be a drummer on your next trip?” My father had no money to travel and do whatever, but he brought the world to our house, so the diversity was there. This is how I learned to interact with different cultures, different languages and probably that’s when I started to dream.
When I was playing my self-made drum kit, made out of boxes of washing powder, I think I wanted to break out. That world was too was too small for me. I wanted to break out and music was the fastest way to do that. Music is a fantasy. I heard a talk programme on the radio recently where professors were debating what was the biggest artform and they came to music because it’s not tangible; it’s a wave that hits you. It’s a waveform with a rhythm that has to sync with your rhythm.
One last question to finish off. What brings you the most joy in life, Renaat?
Discovery and the voyage leading to discovery. We never get to the final destination. So, yeah, this voyage with no end destination.
‘In Order To Dance 4.0’ is released 14 April on R&S Records. Pre-save here. The latest single from the album, Pascal Nuzzo’s ‘Hold On’, drops on 24 March.