No label has danced around and aside currents in electronic music as deftly as R&S Records. The Belgian label, now in it's 31st year, became a late 80's techno powerhouse with releases from Derrick May and Joey Beltram before redefining itself in the 90s by unearthing Aphex Twin and pushing left-of-center acts from all over the music spectrum. After struggling through a major label partnership with Sony in the late 90s, R&S went into hibernation while owners Renaat Vondepapaliere and wife Sabine Maes (the R&S in R&S) shunned the music world to live on an equine stud farm. Common sense would dictate that this is where the story ends.
It isn't. When the couple emerged from their bucolic exile six years later to revive the R&S imprint, they did so freed of expectation and with a secret weapon named James Blake in tow. Since then, the label has continued its intrepid trajectory by developing forward thinking artists, while occasionally (and often inadvertently) popping into the mainstream conscious. This year, R&S released Lone's impeccable "Airglow Fires" alongside notable releases from Shanghai Den, Tessela, and Datassette.
It's a long story, one that walks in step with the fall of the CD selling business, the rise of electronic music culture worldwide, and a mischievous Belgian man named Renaat who just can't seem to stay out of trouble.
"I was a DJ slash frustrated drummer," Renaat begins, waving a lit cigarette through the air as he gesticulates. "I didn't have the talent to be a drummer. The reason why I started the label was to be close to musicians. We started in 1983. I was still a kid working in this record shop, making copies, ripping off tracks," as was the trend in Belgium at the time - Appropriating others' hits in the hopes of getting lucky. "When I met Derrick and Joey, I wanted to bring an international gathering to Belgium and export it back, because there was nothing real here."
Renaat goes on, "We only had white labels that came into the shops, maybe there was a phone number on it, maybe there was nothing. With Derrick I found a number. With Aphex Twin later on, the same. It was all very simple, because Joey and Derrick were young guys, Joey was 17. They were making tracks at their home without any attention and, somehow, their records made it to Belgium. All those bizarre, experimental electronic dance records came to Belgium first. I called them in New York, I told them I loved their music, and bought them a ticket to Belgium."
"The breakthrough came with Joey Beltran, "Energy Flash," that was the track that brought us international recognition," Renaat recalls. Alongside releases by Derrick May and Carl Craig, R&S grew into a formidable name in left-leaning techno. But Renaat was already on to the next horizon, looking towards some scruffy ginger kid from the South of England with a penchant for glitch in composition.
"Aphex Twin was in '91," explains Renaat. "Richard was a young kid, he made this white label…came to Belgium with a box, a full box, with cassettes inside. He was a poor guy, didn't have any equipment, so he was making all these synths himself and he only had a cassette player to record music. I remember Richard sitting down at my apartment, listening to all these cassettes, and I'm like 'Jesus fucking Christ, this dude comes from a different planet'."
Renaat continues, "We did two albums at the same time from his box of cassettes. When we released them, the real techno fans, and we were 'the Kings of Techno,' really hated us. They said it was rubbish, that we were destroying our name. But I can release music that I don't understand, that is doing something totally different. I wanted to break the label open. I could sit there and follow the market, as 99% of all the labels, but then i'm bored to death."
Shortly afterwards, R&S stumbled into making house music history: "Jaydee was a big hit by accident," says Renaat. "It didn't sync with any demand of the market or what was going on in the clubs at all." Jaydee's track "Plastic Dreams" went to #1 on the US Dance charts, and the big dogs started sniffing around. "We were at our peak and Sony came in as a joint venture," explains Renaat. But there were problems immediately. "It was a major vs. indie clash, yes, but especially a major vs. Renaat clash. They were trying to sign Derrick and Ken Ishii direct through us."
The relationship barely lasted a year and was fraught with tension. "I don't care, whether it's Buddha, Allah, God, or the Queen or England or Obama," Renaat goes on. "I will be polite, but nobody's gonna send me orders to do what I have to do. They were throwing away all of my acts and looking for the next hit. I was so pissed off, I'm not in that game. It's not my target to find the next big thing. But to me, we had proved ourselves. We were the biggest label, but run from the street, not on paper, or with a business plan. But ask me how many records are we gonna sell? I don't have a fucking clue! Still, today, I have no clue!"
After nimbly extricating the label from that deal, catalogue intact, R&S endured another troublesome partnership with PIAS and Renaat's patience began to wear thin. "The music at that time was on repeat," he says. "I've said many times that I was listening to the same track nonstop by 1999. I was bored of managers, bored of the arrogance of DJs that had become big celebs. For me, if it comes to work and only money, I stop. And that's what I did."
After almost 20 years in operation, R&S folded. Just like that. "We were working with 35 people then," Renaat explains. "I came into the office and said, 'Guys, sorry. This doesn't feel right.' And it just ended. I needed to inspire myself. I started a farm, breeding horses, me and Sabine were just cleaning shit all day. It was fantastic! It was awesome. I didn't listen to music for six years. Nothing. Complete silence."
The couple lived a happy and insular existence until 2006, when a familiar faced trudged through the mud to come knocking. "It was our ex-lawyer who had worked for us for 20 years and an old staff member from the UK," Renaat explains. "Those guys came to the farm. I was sitting there, I'm looking like a farmer with a beard, we hadn't even bought new jeans in 6 years. They were telling us to come back, constantly with the blah blah blah. We went to a restaurant, we talked, we had four bottles of wine, and after that I said 'Fuck it, let's do it."
It was then that Renaat rediscovered inspiration. It emerged from an unlikely and dreadlocked source: "During that period when they convinced me to come back in, it all came from Mala. Dubstep was mutating with techno with acts like Burial…Mala really paved the way for this whole scene - He's really the godfather of this whole scene. This is where I felt, 'maybe, maybe something is happening again. Let's swim again'.
It wasn't a dream comeback, though. "For three years, it was a mess!" laughs Renaat. "It didn't work! They wanted to do it in our best interest, but there was always a problem. Then, Sabine and I decided to take charge of it all again. This was in 2009, we took back control of everything. I decided to A&R everything. I'm 57, the only 57 year old who is still on the dance floor shaking his ass, running up to DJ's asking 'what is this?' like a kid, closing out the parties. Maybe I'm insane."
Insane or not, Renaat was about to uncover another trove of timeless compositions, James Blake. "James, in his live sets, in the beginning, really blew me away," he explains. "He was so impressive. But I liked him because he was a very nice, simple, educated guy. And now he's a star. Now I have to write a postcard, "Happy Christmas, I'll see you in maybe 2018!"
Since that point, R&S and it's housier imprint Apollo have been fearless in their programming, eschewing genre boundaries entirely in expanding the catalogue to include essential listening like Pariah, Blawan, Vondelpark, and what has to be the crown jewel of the current roster: Lone. His album "Airglow Fires" will undoubtedly be plastered all over Best of 2014 lists, and it's just another in a long history of provocative and enduring releases that have become the R&S hallmark.
Renaat Vandepapaliere and Sabine Maes have won, they've lost, they've disappeared, and they've returned. At this point, all that matters is music, and Renaat still searches it out like that nerdy kid in a Belgian record store with a bone to pick with modern taste. "Dance culture happens on the street," he says. "It's not in a tower with golden rings and bling bling bling and papers full of nonsense. That's what you see these days: Hamburger after hamburger, clone clone clone. I'll tell you what R&S stands for: Not always following the mark, trying to set something, maybe they won't always understand it at the point of the release. We can only hope people like it. If they don't like it, well, so be it. We hope it's timeless music and I'm still striving to do that."
Jemayel Khawaja wrote this - @JemayelK