Ralph Lawson is one of a handful of DJs who have spent more time enjoying success in the business than most but with comparatively little of the limelight. Ralph Lawson and his 20:20 Vision label have celebrated the label’s 20th birthday this year and it’s longevity comes down to the unpretentious principle of putting out high quality music without buckling under the ever increasing burden of trends. Over 20 years both DJ and label have forged a reputation for consistency, a rarity over a 20-year tenure in an industry that is both fickle and fiercely competitive. From the relatively modest but significant beginnings at Back to Basics in Leeds in ’91, Ralph has gone on to regularly grace the decks at Fabric and Watergate in Berlin. A look back at his career team ups reads as a who’s who of electronic music with Ralph having worked with many of the industry’s most highly regarded labels and artists.
20:20 Vision is not much dissimilar with releases from DJ W!ld to Spiritcatcher, from Stacey Pullen to Maya Jane Coles and from Crazy P to Motor City Drum Ensemble. The illustrious list of releases on the imprint spanning two decades speaks for itself. This is a label built on longstanding values and morals that have stood the test of time and so it is no surprise that such revered artists feel comfortable working with Ralph and 20:20. The diversity of featured artists nods to Ralph’s single-minded vision of releasing high quality music and not concerning himself with the latest fads.
This ‘radical’ philosophy of being involved with the industry and not following the sound of the time, but sticking to his own ideals shines through in the 20:20 Vision parties also; the parties focusing on good music and good times. Today’s 20:20 Vision party adds another facet to the experience with inimitable surroundings. The August bank holiday party will say a final goodbye to the disused Shoreditch Underground Station soon to be developed into residential properties. The site is unique in that it has been home to only a couple of parties previously and is a truly special location. With all of the exposed brickwork, arches, ticketing booths and platforms that one would expect from a tube station, this is a surreal location in which to enjoy the best of house and techno. The party then moves to the Factory 7 Warehouse where things are guaranteed to get a bit dark and twisted. An interesting time for Ralph Lawson and his label with so much going on this year for both. Ralph kindly pencilled in some time to meet with DT for a discussion on the label, the “Content” compilation release and tour and the Shoreditch Underground night.
I’m sure you’ve had numerous questions posed regarding 20:20 Vision’s twenty-year tenure, nonetheless it would be an oversight not to mention it. Naturally there will have been ups and downs along the way but now after twenty years the label must feel pretty stable? Do you feel it can withstand anything thrown at it now?
Well yeah, I think if anything after twenty years in the business you learn resilience and how to survive. We should all get a little certificate for surviving this long through what have been incredibly turbulent times in the music business.
That said, you never know. You’re only as good as your last gig and that’s one of my favourite quotes that I learnt as a young DJ. It’s very true; you’re only as good as your last record and you’re only as good as your last gig. It is incredibly hard to keep up with new styles and new artists always coming through and to have some longevity is a difficult balancing act. It’s a very fashion-led industry and things are always changing.
This idea of surviving as a label is interesting as it resonates with this shift towards less and less profitability in music production. Whilst it is awfully cliché to talk about doing it ‘for the love of music’ why else would people like yourself continue to plug away with a label when the real returns come from throwing parties. Have you had any moments of re-evaluating whether the work you put in is worthwhile?
Absolutely. Every week and especially since it all changed when the internet came along. I don’t think music has found it’s way yet; I think we’re still grasping at straws, wondering what the next big thing is. You’ll look back at it as a longer period of history in maybe twenty or thirty years time and they’ll see this as a massive change/flux period when the rulebooks were rewritten. Things have come along from the internet to Napster, from Beatport to iTunes… these are all new market places for people who make their own music and they all have their own rule. It’s been constantly learning a new game even though it’s the same form of making the music.
So what drives you to keep at it?
Well, as you said yourself earlier, it’s the oldest cliché in the book but it’s a cliché for a reason. By definition a cliché is used a lot because it’s true. You’ve got to have the passion, the motivation and the love. There’s a very good quote from Steve Jobs, he said “for long periods of time you will earn absolutely nothing so you sure as hell better enjoy what you do”, and it’s the same with most industries. I’m sure it goes for actors, painters, sports people… anything in the creative industry. You are getting into something you love and you will be paid for that; it’s not just a hobby and you’re not just doing it for fun so what we tend to see is that ambitious people who are good at playing the game tend to do well and some people who have far more talent but just didn’t enjoy the game fall by the wayside. It’s not fair at all but that’s life and that’s reality.
I’ve certainly heard similar things being echoed about needing to keep at it and persevere. I don’t think people appreciate just how much you need to persist with it.
It’s very much about perseverance and even when you get to the top of the hill you can look over the other side and you could easily roll back down to the bottom very quickly. It’s important therefore to maintain a degree of respect and I think that the reason I’m still around after twenty years is in part down to perseverance but also about not pissing people off! I try and play the game correctly and fairly, I treat people right, the record label has always paid artists, I put 100% into my DJ sets, people know I’m a trier and I’m consistent. I may not be a superstar DJ or the guy that’s earned the most money but I’m still here and I think those are the main reasons as to why.
It is a very political and “superstar” environment. It must be quite easy to piss people off.
Well if you’re a dick, yeah. Though they quite often don’t make it. I like to think I’m a fair person. I think I’ve smiled my way through it. I tend to see the fun but I think people can very easily lose that sense of fun and it becomes very serious. I got into house music because it was fun and I think it’s sad when you lose that approach. People look at me when I’m up on the decks and they might look a bit serious and I just smile back at them and do something goofy. I want to make people realise that we’re at a party and we’re here to have a good time.
I can remember not that long ago when 50% of DJs would play a set without smiling once. Thankfully we’re moving away from that culture. Notwithstanding the reality of the trials and tribulations involved, affording yourself a moment of nostalgia, what has been the most monumental step for 20:20 vision?
I don’t think we have ever had one monumental step, but rather we’ve just plugged away and they’ve been small steps. I mean we have had some club hits like “Erotic Discourse” and “Believe” by Soldiers of Twilight but nothing has hit the charts. We’ve been an underground house music label, which has served DJs and clubs. We’ve just put out high quality and consistent tracks again and again, more than 250 times.
So you didn’t hit a point that felt like a coming of age or an epiphany?
No I don’t think we have. If I had done I would have stopped. If you’ve had that moment when you’re at your peak and you’re defining epiphany and nothing can get any better then what’s the point in carrying on?