Following instincts with Renaat Vandepapeliere and R&S

Renaat Vandepapeliere cuts quite a sophisticated figure. A demure background featuring a white wall with a couple of ornamental shelves frames a thick grey sculpted mop of hair; round tortoiseshell spectacles and a simple crisp white T-shirt. His face and frame suggests a much younger man than his sixty years should imply, and something about Renaat’s demeanor and surroundings insinuates a comfortable life, not free of worry exactly, but at least not perturbed by it. It’s an image without much context, a blank canvas devoid of any meaning or purpose with no real indication of the orator’s life beyond this point, except for the Ferrari memorabilia adorning the ornamental shelves behind him, the prancing horse alluding to Renaat’s most significant contribution to the world, the record label R&S.

In conversation Renaat is pragmatic, and the Belgian constructs poignant sentences out of simple language in perfect English, doing away with the superfluous and allegorical for an unbridled honesty. There’s an instinctive belief in everything Renaat says, and even when he’s being critical there’s no sense of vindictiveness or posturing with the DJ and label owner merely talking from experience, practical knowledge, and the wise disposition of living the thing.

Renaat Vandepapeliere is of course the “R” in R&S, a label which has over the course of three decades established a reputation for forward thinking electronica “in order to dance” (as their motto implies), and was responsible for some of the most iconic Techno, Ambient and Electronica releases over their expansive career. Featuring an incredible list of artists, including Joey Beltram, Aphex Twin, Mental Overdrive, CJ Boland, Biosphere, Model 500 and more recently Blawan, Paula Temple and Talaboman, R&S is a label whose reputation precedes it. Today its prancing horse emblem on a backdrop of grey and blue, bring up associations with Techno in the nineties and beyond, but for Renaat and Sabine Maes, the “S” in R&S and Renaat’s partner both in business and in life, the concept behind the label has never quite been that concrete.

“Still to this day there is no idea behind the label” opines Renaat, “it’s always travelling”. It started life in Ghent in 1984 as a direct response to the “awful” covers of American imports saturating the Belgian record stores. Renaat, working in one of these stores at the the time “didn’t feel so great about” playing a hand in this market and said of the situation at the time: “Respect the artist. License it in, and let’s have the original track”, he explains in a 2009 interview with Clash Magazine. That sentiment planted the seed for R&S, while the new sound of New Beat offered Renaat and Sabine the unique chance to act on their impulses. At the time he started the label his “youth was pretty much over”, but the eclecticism and progressive musical tastes of an adolescent youth raised on everything from Classical Music to Jazz and Led Zeppelin would hone Renaat’s ears for a new electronic sound and he began “looking for music with that same quality to build a label around”. As New Beat laid the foundation a new sound out of Detroit would emerge and the progressive label couldn’t escape its magnetism, “The first track that really grabbed my attention is ‘It Is What It Is’, by Derrick May”, remembers Renaat, a track that would pull the label into a direction that would become its most recognisable commodity, Techno.

“When that came it was not that obvious” says Renaat of Techno’s origins. “It was a shock, it was quite fresh and I felt this is what I had to do, look for cutting edge electronica.” Joey Beltram’s Energy Flash in 1990 would lead the charge for R&S and this new cutting edge electronic sound known as Techno in Europe, and propel the label to notoriety during a decade where an experimental aptitude and new, ‘affordable’ technologies created a formidable hotbed of creativity. “It was small, it was new, it was not on the radio” says Renaat of Techno’s appeal at the time, and R&S was perfectly poised to create some of the most memorable musical experiences of that era. Aphex Twin and his Selected Ambient works; CJ Bolland’s Ravesignal series; Jaydee’s Plastic Dream; Mental Overdrive’s 12000AD and The Love EP,  Biosphere’s Patashnik and Microgravity on the ambient Apollo imprint; Model 500’s Deep Space; and the list just goes on for 53 pages on Discogs. Sifting through R&S’ back catalogue is like staring into the sun of electronic music history, and with a legacy like that you’d expect an over inflated ego to match its gaseous glow, but none such thing exists with Renaat. He’s a humble figure, and when I mention a recent interview with Mental Overdrive and the importance Per Martinsen placed on Renaat’s sage guidance through the start of the Norwegian producer’s career, the label owner is quick to dismiss this. “Everybody did what he wanted”, insists Renaat, but they did that around the community Renaat and Sabine inadvertently had created when they built the R&S studio, a first for its kind. “I was the first to build a studio”, remarks Renaat, “ We went to bank, put ourselves in serious debt and we were just having fun.”

Renaat is not a nostalgic person, and for him it has always been “about today and tomorrow” when it comes to R&S. In his very direct and matter-of-fact way he adds; “I don’t piss on it, because there is no future without a past”, but I get the sense a revisionist kind of story-telling history of R&S holds absolutely no appeal for Renaat who’s he’s very much invested in a musical present and future. “It was always about the love for the music” says Renaat and that love has always tied into to need to “keep it interesting for myself, challenge myself” and “follow instincts”. Those instincts might have produced some of the most memorable Techno moments of the 1990’s, but it was also instinct that led to R&S into what at the time seemed a permanent hiatus, in 2000. Citing a disillusion with the industry and a banal repetition creeping into electronic dance music, Renaat closed down R&S and a left a very great void in electronic music for nine years before returning to the business in 2009.

Renaat’s ear remained close to the ground throughout however, and after an extended hiatus R&S would return in 2009, picking things up where it left off, looking for the future of electronic music. It was dubstep and the music of “Burial and Mala” as “a unique mutation in electronic music” that Renaat was eager “to be a part of” again and brought R&S out of retirement. This new music, represented something “fresh and new” tying in with the R&S legacy, and at the same time it offered R&S the freedom to explore music beyond the categories of Techno it had been pigeonholed with. “Variety was always the dream” and although R&S had “tried this in the nineties” with groups like Boom Boom Satellite, and their unique brand of “punk Jazz electronica”, the label was never quite “in a position then to have that freedom”.

Acts like Vondel Park, Lone, Tessela, Paula Temple, Blawan, Egyptian Hip Hop and more recently Talaboman, called in a new era for the label, where R&S could spread those wings that might have been clipped by public opinion and the people that considered them a Techno label, and little more. R&S’ second life would not be as stringently defined by prevalent attitudes as before and an eclectic approach followed where Renaat could easily his “pick highlights, travelling through music”, bolstered by a pragmatic flair where he felt “old enough” to do what he wanted. “I just said I’m going back and I’m doing it”, explains Renaat in a resolute tone, “I really don’t care if we sell or don’t sell.” At a time when “financially it doesn’t make sense to run a label” and “it’s stupid to run a business”, Renaat is not concerned about the logistical practicality of the label, preferring today a complete uncompromising personal approach to running the label. “I’m a music fan, it’s my food, it’s my air it’s my passion” he exclaims. “I cannot do without it. This is what I do, I couldn’t do anything else.”

Leaving the daily business of the label up to a London office where Renaat and Sabine can be free of the daily constraints of running a firm, Renaat has the luxury of space to think freely with not “too many influences” coming from the office. He is still the last word, and his A&R duties are always at “2000%”. Much of this portion happens at a practical level for Renaat, who is “spending a lot of time in clubs listening”, something that has always been there, but more so today as he’s taken up the DJ baton again after a long absence from the booth. Renaat had “stopped playing when R&S started because for me it was principle that the artist comes first”. But “now that R&S is established the old man can go out again” he says with a taut smile. In that context, much like the label, he likes to “push the limits, play as eclectic as I can” without being “pretentious” about it. He realises “people are the most important thing there and they need to have a good time”, but at the same time there’s no sense of compromising for Renaat. His records are “totally unorganized” and he prefers extended sets where he is able to say a lot more with the music than a two hour set could ever afford. “It’s you putting yourself out there naked”, he explains “not afraid of making mistakes.In two hour sets there’s nothing I can do. I can just say hello, give me two vodkas and then goodbye.”

Through his sets Renaat intends to have a “conversation with the crowd”, a conversation that stretches back to R&S and informs the label again. He wants R&S to remain approachable, especially for a “younger generation” where he can “get a lot of information back from them”, which all invariably filters back into the label. They might have a few questions for the elder statesman of electronic music, but Renaat always has more questions. “I’m much more interested in them, than telling my story”, says Renaat. Obsessively looking for that next thing to “try and catch” Renaat is always unhappy if he misses it. “I’m really hungry for the next generation, and this is what R&S was always about”, reiterates Renaat. It would’ve been “fairly easy to just do a Techno label” for Renaat and just sell records with the old guard he helped established, but this holds absolutely no value to the elder statesman of music. “There’s so much good music out there today in the subcultures of electronic music that musically I prefer it now. It’s much more dynamic today with so many different forms of music informing the landscape, much like a Renaat Vandepapeliere set, and Renaat clearly prefers it that way allowing him and the label to “to be as ‘creative’ as possible” and in the way it is structured today with its offices in London and Renaat in Belgium, he can be completely focussed on the music.

Where will this take R&S in the future? “I don’t want to think about it”, says Renaat. “What happens in the next 30 seconds will happen.” In new unfamiliar territory where “records don’t sell and there’s streaming” R&S has to adapt too and “the business platform needs to be rewritten.” But Renaat or R&S is “not here to please the market, there are 5 billion labels trying to please the market”, and everything R&S ties back into the love of the music and the search for the cutting edge in music, whether it be Jazz, Indie, Techno or Ambient today. From the “hybrid techno-punk” of Paula Temple to Joey Beltram’s classic Energy Flash, taking a detour through the post-dubstep records of Airhead and Lone with a wide curve around the indie-ambient records of people like Cloud Boat, R&S has always been an accurate rudder from which to watch the changing winds in electronic music. Their legacy is cemented, but Renaat just  “hopes to survive” and that the label allows to keep doing what he wants for the love of the music. If there ever does come a time that R&S will indeed have to go into permanent hiatus, Renaat and Sabine will continue to live their romantic musical dream and they’ll “buy a guitar” and perhaps you’ll find them “playing under a bridge in Paris” somewhere, but the music will always be there.