Hi-Five: Ralph Lawson

The venerable 20/20 Vision boss looks back at some of his label's essential tunes.
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Ralph Lawson has a bit of history behind him—a history that parallels the past quarter century of British house. For instance: As a rising young DJ in 1991, the London-born, Leeds-based DJ dropped the very first record ever played at one of four-to-the-floor dance music's fabled shindigs, Back to Basics—and if you're curious, the track was, rather fittingly, "Open Our Eyes" by Marshall Jefferson. "I know exactly why I played it first," he's admitted in the past. "Back then, I could just about beatmatch two 4/4 beats; I couldn’t really mix basslines or strings, or intros of any sorts. And that song starts with a synth and a vocal, with a bassline coming in slightly on the offbeat. There’s no way I could have mixed that track in later in the set!"

Since then, the clubland lifer has obviously perfected his craft: He's enjoyed residencies at We Love Space,the Loft in Barcelona and, of course, Back to Basics, and hit just about every major club worth playing in the world, including such hallowed names as Watergate and Fabric (he mixed the latter's Fabric 33 compilation back in 2007). He's also a respected producer, working both solo and as a member of 2020 Soundsystem, Chuggles, Urban Farmers, Wolf n' Flow, and Wulf-N-Bear, just to name a few. That's all great, needless to say—but we'd wager that what Lawson will be most remembered for is his label, 20/20 Vision, which in its 21 years of existence has released music from Maya Jane Coles, Alton Miller, Paul Woolford, Spirit Catcher, Moodymanc, Simon Baker, Crazy P and many, many more. The label is still going strong, with recent EPs coming courtesy of PBR Streetgang, Whitesquare, Forrest and others. On August 15, Lawson and 20/20 Vision head to London for a massive day-into-night bash at Studio 338, and to mark the occasion, the veteran selected five essential 20/20 Vision tunes—not an easy task, considering the dozens upon dozens of high-grade releases the label's discography boasts. But first, a few words from the esteemed Lawson himself.

This will be one of your biggest 20/20 Vision parties yet, right?
Numbers-wise, it probably will be. It’s definitely the biggest day-night party we’ve done in London. We’ve been doing this for a while, and they just keep growing. We’ve never really been about “bigger is better”—but at the same time, if you want to get some tasty lineups together, it helps to have a big space.

And the lineup is indeed tasty, with you, Steve Bug, Axel Boman, Dungeon Meat.…
And there’s still a special guest to come. It’s gonna be hot, hot, hot.

You also have Whitesquare, who just released that great Peaks EP on 20/20. What can you tell us about him?
Well, he’s an Italian producer. And he’s very prolific—he sends me about five tunes a day. [laughs] He just really wants to get his current stuff out there. He wasn’t really on my radar; he used to produce bigger-room music. I mean, Peaks would work in a big room, but it’s music that sits comfortably on 20/20.

How do you go about finding new artists?
We basically get sent a ton of stuff, every day, more than we can possibly get through. It’s a lot of work. I do have A&R guys helping out, and they’re out there actively looking—trawling Soundcloud, going to gigs, getting tip-offs. Sometimes someone will just come to one of our gigs and hand us music…you know, I don’t know how we do it, to be honest! There’s just so much music flying around nowadays, and you need something to help your tracks stand out. But somehow, good music finds us.

The label is now 21 years old. Do you find it a challenge to remain relevant—and not only relevant, but vital?
When we got to 20 years, we did start questioning ourselves a bit. Like, am I going to keep doing this forever? Is this a good time to quit? I mean, 20 years of 20/20 does seem to fit. You start to wonder about your energy.

But obviously, you chose to keep 20/20 going.
Yes, but it became clear that a change needed to come. We celebrated the 20th anniversary by putting out the Content album, which was 20 exclusive tracks by some of the producers who we really wanted to have on the label. After that, it was time to draw a line through it. No more looking back. Now, it’s all about new-new-new, fresh-fresh-fresh. We had a total makeover—rebranding, new logo, new design and lots more. We really proactively went out there to grab diverse, fresh and exciting talent. It feels new—I actually feel like we’re a start-up now! [laughs] So even though we’re at 21 years, I feel like we’re actually at year one.

You sound reenergized.
Oh, you need energy to do this. If that runs out, you’re nowhere. I mean, it might be different if you’re in the superstar-DJ game and it’s all about money. But we’re not in the superstar-DJ game. We’re in the underground-dance-music music business. And as everyone knows, in that world, you’re only as relevant as your last record and your last gig. You can’t just demand relevance, or demand respect. You’ve really got to earn it. And that’s what we try to do, first and foremost by the music we put out.

I assume you have that same ethos about your personal relevance as well.
Definitely. As a DJ, I try to play as good as I can, every single set. If I don’t do well, I feel pretty bad. But that doesn’t happen very often, to be honest. [laughs] I still practice—and still go to gigs with the idea of smashing the shit out of it.

Do you foresee another 20 years of 20/20 Vision?
I actually thought about things like that when we hit 20 years. I was reminded of that Adonis song: “We’re too far gone, there’s no way back.” I kind of feel that way about house music in general: It was all a big party, and when the party’s over, and you’re older and you’ve got responsibilities, it’s time to make some decisions. If you want to keep doing it, you’ve got to turn it into your life. And after that point, there is no way back. It’s as simple as that.

So should I take that as a yes?
Who knows? But I mean, try and get a CV together and get a job at a bank—and see how we get on. We wouldn’t!

Ralph Lawson's Five Essential 20/20 Vision Tunes

Paul Woolford "Erotic Discourse"
There’s no denying this is one of the most influential and important tracks on 20/20 Vision, if not in electronic music itself. Stripped-down, raw, harsh, and abrasive sounds shattered over just a single kick drum: no snare, no hats, no bassline. Instantly recognizable, instantly original and copied many times—but never bettered.

Maya Jane Coles "Senseless"
The whole MJC EP on 20/20 is classic material, and I actually played "Little One" more in DJ sets—but I think ‘Senseless’ now stands the test of time as the standout track. I first met Maya in the Book Club on Leonard Street in East London. She was diminutive in stature but large in presence. Anyone meeting her could tell she was a future star. These days stars shoot so fast in dance music, and Maya is off on her own transgalactic trip—but I am so happy we helped build her rocket ship.

Wulf-N-Bear "Raptures of The Deep"
The third-ever single on the label and the one that launched us internationally, especially in the States. In those days, 1994,there was no e-mail or mobile phones, so we communicated by something called a fax machine (yeah, I know—right!). They were basically photocopiers stuck onto phones that would spit out really low-quality paper but they were high-tech at the time! Anyhow, we received a fax from Stacey Pullen in Detroit saying he loved the track—and we stuck it on the studio wall, we were that buzzing! Then Derrick May came to play in Leeds, where we lived, and he played it, and Derrick Carter came to play our club Back to Basics and he also played it. I still really like it too.

The Youngsters "Third Knife"
This was one of those tracks where there was a really cool section—but then it went a bit weird. It’s your job, if you run a label or DJ, to hear that great part and say to the artist,”Yo, just loop that part up and keep it rockin',” which is exactly what we did with the Youngsters. Cool producers will believe you and try it. The Youngsters did—and what’s more, they added spiral space FX over the top, which was even better. This became a real hit in Panorama Bar in Berlin, which really helped us all out.

Motor City Drum Ensemble - Lonely One EP
Danilo Plessow was another artist we were on super early. We had a record of his called "Breath Control" that blew us away, and so my main man at the label A&R back then, Tristan Da Cunha (now part of Dungeon Meat), got in touch with him and asked for some new stuff. Lonely One was the EP that came out of it. It’s just timeless house music. Danilo is another one who became a big star after this EP, but I think it was manly his Raw Cuts series and great DJ sets that did it. We will claim an assist again, though!