For the past 20 years, Ralph Lawson has played a pivotal role in the underground dance music scene. He currently holds residencies at Back To Basics (Leeds), We Love Space (Ibiza) and The Loft (Barcelona). As well as regular appearances at Watergate (Berlin) and Fabric (London) he is also a founder member of the highly acclaimed 20/20 Soundsystem as well as running 20/20 Vision Recordings. We catch up with Ralph ahead of Saturday night’s 20/20 Vision showcase at the newly-opened Headrow House.
With 20/20 Vision right now you have been focusing heavily on the local talent as well as the international artists, plus you have had a change in management and branding. Tell us about your ideas behind your refurb?
Last year (2014) we celebrated 20 years in the game with an album and tour called ‘Content’. We released a 20 track album featuring heavyweight artists that we wanted represented on the label like Herbert, Maya Jane Coles, Simian Mobile Disco, Cassy and many others. But after that was done I drew a line in the sand, and we moved on to looking forwards into the future with fresh new music from new talent. I also felt we needed to make a statement of intent so commissioned a totally new look for the label from Leeds based designers, We Are Golden. I love the job they’ve done.
Going back 20 years to when you started 2020 Vision, you were DJing at Back to Basics – is that how you got started out in music?
I was involved in music from my school days playing drums in bands. I got into back to basics from doing my own club in Leeds called ‘Clear’, which was on a Wednesday night. We had the likes of Carl Cox up, I think we paid him £80 back then! And we also had the Manchester DJ’s like Justin Robertson and Greg Fenton from Most Excellent. Dave Beer came down to Clear with Alistair Cooke just before they set up their new club called back to basics. They asked if I wanted to come and play and I accepted. As it was Ali’s club I went on first, which in a way kind of turned out historically important as it meant I played the first record.
The scene was mainly in Manchester, there was a dance music scene in Leeds in the mid 80s at The Warehouse Club, before house there was Ian Dewhurst playing disco, funk and early New York proto house. But in the late 80’s it wasn’t a big house scene.
Manchester already had big numbers, the Hacienda used to hold 2000 people so we’d drive across to Manchester a lot of the time. We’d be like, “Why do we keep having to come over here let’s have something in Leeds.” That kind of coincided with Manchester getting a bit rough when the gangs started coming into The Hacienda and created a bad atmosphere and some fights, it kind of imploded a bit over there, which was perfect timing for us to start basics. We didn’t do it on purpose but when we started in late ’91 The Hacienda was already on the wane and then it kind of flipped and people from Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and all over the north were driving into Leeds for a night out instead.
So then how did this situation develop into you starting up, 2020 Vision was it organic from your status as a DJ and people giving you demos or was it more about your friends and people you were working with?
2020 Vision wasn’t set up to put out other people’s records in the first place at all. There weren’t any demos, there wasn’t a thought of, “Let’s be a record label and sign artists and put their records out,” it was strictly a DIY approach to putting our own stuff out.
I was living in a farm house outside Leeds where we had a studio. We were doing the after party for back to basics which closed at 2am in those days, so we’d go back to the farm to play tunes and hang out and then on Mondays we took that energy and inspiration and started putting it into the studio to make our own tracks.
2020 has a strong identity in terms of the artwork, does that come directly from you?
Yeah, I’ve always been into design from quite early on. I got massively into New York street art around the same time I was getting into music in the early eighties, before house. Hip hop and early electro came hand-in-hand with graffiti and street art, they were totally linked. Famous artists like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Futura2000 and a lot of those guys who came from the era of bombing trains were influenced by what was going on in the clubs as well. So, when I first started going out to clubs… I remember going to a night in Camden at Dingwall’s, called High On Hope and Keith Haring had actually be over to paint the inside of the club and it was all UV, so there were all these mad Keith Haring dancers illuminated in ultra violet light. It made as much of an impression on my teenage mind as the music did. It’s always been a really important part of youth culture and music and it’s been pushed to the background in recent years. I just really appreciate aesthetics and always have done.
Do you collect a bit yourself as well then?
I do actually yeah! I’ve got quite a few bits and bobs. Not so much lately, but I like photography – I’ve got some nice prints; abstracts, street art taken in interesting ways.. just stuff to brighten up the house a bit.
How does it feel to be 20 years deep with the label?
OLD! I dunno how the f*** it happens. It makes you feel quite old, but I got my head round it and I don’t actually feel that old, I’m full of energy, full of enthusiasm and really into new music. Into uncovering and finding new music, which is the most important thing a label can do – supporting new artists, new music and we’re quite UK-based. We’ve always tried to support our local scene and, on a wider scale, the UK itself, first and foremost. We also have artists from all over the world on the label, but there is a focus on supporting new artists from the UK.
Can you give any tips on who else you have your eye on, on a production tip? Who we should look out for?
Maurice Uzzan aka Whitesquare from Italy.
We wondered, since you’re a father of three, how do you manage to juggle your family and personal life with your career?
It’s the love of a good woman. You can’t underestimate what having a great woman can do for you. I mean we both work on the family. I’ve always been a DJ since we’ve been together and she’s always known that, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be hard at times. She’s really covered my back many times with the childcare, I’m very lucky to have a strong, long-lasting relationship – that’s been the key really. It’s that and being more organised, it’s a balancing act and I’ve never been able to do it 100% perfectly but I’m getting. It’s like I wake up in the morning and start spinning a few plates straight away and, as the day goes on, I start spinning more and more and I have see how many I can keep spinning throughout the day. That’s what it’s like!
Finally, are you back in the studio yourself and if so can we expect anything soon?
Yes, I have recently started a new project called Lost in Time. The 5th release is out now Lost in The Storm, been getting a lot of love over summer from a number of DJs including Seth Troxler