Renaat Vandepapeliere Interview

Clash talks to the R&S/Apollo Records boss

Belgium is responsible for more than mere waffles and chocolates. With a roster that includes Aphex Twin, CJ Bolland and Derrick May amongst others, the legendary R & S Records has been making an impact on dance music since 1984.

Clash was fortunate enough to spend a little time with label founder Renaat Vandepapeliere who, along with his partner of 27 years, Sabine Maes, also created the Apollo label as an outlet for more chilled releases. Renaat reactivated Apollo in 2009 with a superb compilation album that includes classic tracks and new cuts alike. Such is his attention to detail, Renaat spent a year compiling the tracklist for the release.

But why did the label disappear in the first place? “I’ve been away because I was totally bored with the business side of music. At that moment, I though the whole dance music scene was repeating. I was listening to the same records with the same sounds, so I said ‘I’ve had enough. Bye, bye’. I could have been a very clever businessman and exploited it. I could have made much more money, but if I don’t feel something in my life – I stop.”

This may strike you as a somewhat unconventional view for a label manager, but this is simply part of an unusual history for the enthusiastic and engaging Renaat. “I’m a frustrated drummer!” he confesses. “That was my first ambition, but I didn’t have it in me to be as talented as heroes like Gene Kruper, Billy Cobham or Tony Roster Jr.”

Like most children growing up, music was always around, and Renaat often found himself listening to the radio. His father, perhaps sensing his son was paying more attention to pirate radio stations than to his studies, took the radio away, smashing it in front of him. Nevertheless, that exposure to the diverse nature of radio undoubtedly set Renaat on his path to embracing a variety of music.

“I have a soul background, I have a jazz background – I listen to various kinds of music. You can’t put me in one category. Yeah, I love dance music as a DJ, but I can go from Metallica to Kraftwerk to Vangelis to classical music. For me, music has a time and place. Sometimes I can’t listen to dance music and sometimes, I can’t listen to rock. It has to fit with the right atmosphere and the right people: you have to capture a moment.”

This desire to craft moods becomes more apparent when Renaat graduated from DJing to the development of R&S Records. “I worked in a record shop, but as a DJ I was getting very frustrated with the Belgian scene. The clubs were so commercial and American music just wasn’t accepted. The guys that were importing records here, they went straight into the studio and created a bad cover of it. I didn’t like that. I said ‘Respect the artist. License it in, and let’s have the original track’. That’s where the idea to start the label started, and it was New Beat that gave me the chance.”

The New Beat genre was borne when Ghent’s Marc Grouls and Antwerp’s ‘Fat’ Ronnie Harmsen began playing 12″ techno records at 33rpm instead of the prescribed 45rpm. New Beat’s influence spread to the UK, with the NME devoting a front cover to this emerging form that would come to influence electronic artists such as The Prodigy, KLF and Autechre.

Never one to pander solely to fans, Renaat sought to expand the label’s catalogue by releasing incresingly eclectic electronic diversions. “When you create a label, and you’re trying to do different stuff, your core fans don’t accept it. This was part of my frustration.” Releasing Aphex Twin’s seminal ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ seemed to typify this. “It was very strange during that time: people thought I was crazy. Everybody said ‘Why are you putting Aphex Twin out?’ I remember the first year we sold twenty copies. But this is the sort of record that goes from hand-to-hand, and builds on word-of-mouth.”

The ability to tap into the musical zeitgeist was something that R&S became apt at, and Renaat himself is unable to recall how many releases from the label triggered scenes within the burgeoning dance explosion. The inexplicable intuition and diversification of R&S and Apollo’s output accounts for much of this ability. “Apollo was an escape for me, it’s balance. Dance music is something serious. I can have fun, I can drive home, but then I would put on an Apollo CD.”

Of course, you don’t need to have been out on a bender to listen to an Apollo CD, but the times have changed since Renaat’s been away. Drugs are different, cheaper and more accessible and though the intention of dance music has remained the same, its method of delivery has noticeably shifted with cultural and technological changes. So how does Renaat feel to be back in the game again? “Now I feel vibrant again, I feel great again. I was preparing for a return anyway because I want to build a hi-tech club that travels the world. If you took ecstasy at that party – you’d die. It’d be too much!”

I asked Renaat why he felt the need for this travelling ‘superclub’. “When I go out, it’s not the same vibe any more. Maybe it’s me, because I’m so spoilt, but don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to live in the past, I’m not nostalgic. For me, I see the kids and I think they’re missing something. Now you get a list of very expensive DJs, big lights, and a big soundsystem, but when you walk in – you can smell the money. There was a certain passion and love put into the old parties. When those guys put something on, they were ready to be slaughtered: their hearts were in there!”

Looking to the future, Renaat continues to develop new artists, “I don’t care what it is, so long as it’s done from the heart – not a McDonald’s product! I can smell that a mile off.”
In running from that hideous, ubiquitous, corporate smell, Renaat has stumbled across Irish quartet, The Plea and has now started his own indie label. “Hopefully, I can do R&S jazz!” he laughs. His enthusiasm for music and risk-taking is deeply infectious. But what of the result?
“Let the consumer decide – let the people decide. Not me! Who am I? Who the fuck am I? Nobody! I’m just Mr Nobody. I like music, and that’s it.”

History is sure to judge this specific loss to percussion a significant cultural gain.

Words by Ash Akhtar

‘Apollo – Past, Present, Future’ is out now on Apollo Records.

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