From landmark releases by Aphex Twin and Juan Atkins to giving the likes of Dave Clarke a fighting chance at creative freedom to creating a modernist home for James Blake and Blawan, Ghent, Belgium’s R&S Records has remained one of the more integral and outspoken survivors of global dance music. Renaat Vandepapeliere and Sabine Maes turned their undying passion into an unfathomable success story for status quo-challenging electronic music, balancing cutting-edge talent alongside a host of industry hotshots to forge one of the more unconventional—yet wholeheartedly satisfying—agendas to sail the highs and lows of Europe’s club culture.
While a considerable hiatus in 2001 may have signaled a potential end to one of the most heralded industry shepherds, R&S’s survival through the vast shifts and bends of global music culture has seen the now-London-based label propel forward to 2013—their 30th anniversary. Beatport News sat down with founding father Renaat Vandepapeliere to talk preserving the passion, the age of Detroit techno, and why electronic music is just as fun as it was in 1983.
Tell us about your original hunger to establish your own label.
When I worked in a record store here in Belgium there was this fashion within the national industry that when a good record was released they would make a fast cover of it just to extend their own revenue. It was frustrating, so it got me thinking that it would be good to license the original artists and give them the credit they deserved. I had always loved music, and so when a friend of mine offered up some empty studio space in Germany I figured it was finally my chance to do this.
R&S Records saw in a very special transition from the New Beat scene to the now infamous Detroit techno movement. To what extent did these phases influence you personally?
When we started the label in 1983 the word “techno” didn’t even exist. Musically, the whole New Beat scene was interesting, but to me it was the birth of a very diverse music scene. The music itself didn’t connect with me personally, but that didn’t stop me feeling very invigorated throughout. I have always tried to support as many genres of music as possible, but by the time we made the transition from New Beat to Detroit-style techno, the latter just matched my ideals far better. There was a very soulful and emotional click during the transition.
Is it fair to say you have stuck to your guns throughout where the ethos of the labels is concerned?
The concept has remained the same: be an inventive and positive force outside of the realms of commercial dance music. When you listen to the records from our initial run, they weren’t in sync with that moment in time—they jumped out at people. I looked at them with this fantasy ideal because this was a home run for the after-hours crowd. Ours was a dream of fueling that frenzy that started after the mainstream DJs had played their sets.
After 30 years, your discography boasts some pretty sizable artists. Have their been any personal highlights or triumphs in your mind?
To have housed the likes of Derrick [May] and Aphex Twin were of course huge honors, not to mention guys like Locust. I feel we owe Jaydee for donning one of the first big house hits for us, but all the above really changed the equation for us. The newer guys like James Blake and Burial really smashed up the trail and gave us some very special moments. To my mind, these guys did what Booka Shade and Skrillex have done for the modern industry—they turned heads. As a label, you live to capture these moments in time and music.
Given the strong prevalence of R&S, what made Apollo such a vital asset to your portfolio of imprints?
R&S was defined as a techno label. As a result, there just wasn’t room to be eclectic—the fans simply wouldn’t accept it. I could see this just before we took our eight-year hiatus, when we released Boom Boom Satellites. I was so proud of that track, but it was just a little too far outside of our comfort zone and the fans truly dictate what your label stands for and sounds like. Apollo was about bringing a yin-yang balance that matched my own wide and eclectic interests—you could be experimental without over-thinking the process. In that sense it remains our garden where we can plant seeds and see where they grew.
Word is that your eight-year hiatus came from a significant loss of faith in the industry. Is this true, and if so, what made you believe again?
That is completely true: I was sick of every element of the business. There was a lack of respect between the artists, major labels, and the general industry, and in reflection I just totally burnt out—possibly because me and Sabine never took a holiday. So I bought a farm, started breeding horses, and just forgot about the industry entirely. What bought me back? As everyone secretly knows, music is like a virus—when you love something that much, it just has to return, you just need to rekindle what made it so special to you. Sabine was pretty relived because throughout this period Sabine would look at me with such confusion. I think she understood I had burnt out and just needed to cut myself out for a few years. When I agreed to return, I think everyone appreciated the love was finally blossoming again.
Do you think that running a label has become easier or harder over the years?
Running a label now is so much harder. Downloads hasn’t been a negative thing, so much as a total transition from what we began on. It is up to us as an industry to adapt with the market. My ethos is that music will always be consumed; it is only the method of consumption that changes. Sales may still be vital, but that simply requires constantly developing business platforms. The times are definitely harder, but as far as the loss of vinyl is concerned, I love being able to travel with my entire collection, and from a label perspective there is no chance of overstock anymore, but we still press vinyl for our fans when they want them—so nothing has changed too dramatically.
Your mission seems to have been one driven by sheer passion and enthusiasm for music. Casting aside the memory of your hiatus, is that excitement for new music still there?
Hell yeah, man! I feel reborn! I am 56 now and I feel the same way about music as the day I started, which is fucking insane! I am like a kid in a candy store; there are so many great new artists out there and while I miss the underground clubs and pirate radio stations, the shift is simply a new culture and part of the progression. Sabine and I still go to as many festivals as we can and we enjoy the energy of 6000 kids losing their minds; it is fantastic and something I always wanted to see. However, my preference is still the smaller, more underground clubs where DJs can experiment more—the clubs where subcultures are born. Smaller clubs have much more liberty; I think there is less urgency to deliver than at festivals.
Given the positive footsteps and sheer longevity the label has already had, what further aspirations do you hold for both labels?
I want to turn 120 years old and still feel as passionately about music as I do today. It has remained the air to my lungs and the adrenaline to my life, and having survived 30 years, I want to remain a platform for new starters to find their way into the public domain with amazing music.
With your 30th anniversary now well underway, what can we expect from R&S and Apollo over the coming year?
The emphasis is now on driving up constant new talents. R&S is developing towards some long-term artists and embracing the slamming party tracks far more than we have over recent years. All in all, both labels should remain completely open-minded and as unpredictable as possible.
Photo: Vandepapeliere (left), with Derrick May (center) and unidentified friend