Great to get a chance to catch up Ralf, thanks for giving me some time. I’d like to begin with your early days… what got you into music?
Many thanks for the opportunity. It sounds cliché, but music found me. As I am not having a musical family background, I can’t tell how it really happened. It was fairly hip in my generation to DJ. The German electronic club culture end of the 80’s mainly driven by Techno with people like Sven Väth felt young, fresh, energetic and rebellious. It had a magic attraction on many kids around me and myself. I was born and raised close to Würzburg which is about 1 hour by car from Frankfurt away. So once we were 18 it was easy to drive to Frankfurt and spend a night at the Omen or The Dorian Grey. But as well in Würzburg there was a growing scene for electronic sounds driven by local DJs around that time. Various guys in my school started DJ-ing at some point in their teens on a bedroom level, so did I. But there was something drawing me into it and spending more effort and more believe in music, than anyone around me. For most it just was a cool fashion thing to do. “Why not being the DJ, if we all go to the club anyway” kind of mentality. For me there was a deeper connect and so I continued spending more time on it than anyone around me.
What were your early musical influences?
DJ’s, people, labels…? I started collecting records in my early teens. At that time the selection in our local record stores was quite limited. Early electronics, Kraftwerk and the likes, got my interest, but I was pretty much just looking around, buying and exploring everything that sounded interesting from Rock to World Music. Anything I could not hear on German mainstream radio. Disco, Soul, Funk, later Jazz. Black Music in general however was soon mostly my thing, as it had “groove”. Mail orders and satellite radio which was available at some point widened the possibilities and it was mainly specialist radio shows from the UK where I heard new sounds that influenced. Towards the end of the 80ies Chicago (Acid) House Samplers made their way into German stores and have been heavily influential. Around the same time and now old enough to be able to get into clubs, Techno, slightly later Drum & Bass, of course Hip Hop made me become sure that I am into dance music. But since the end of the 80ies, I mainly started to look for House Music, while I still played a mixture of Techno, Drum & Bass, Hip Hop and House in clubs. I’ve never been a dancer and hardly been on the dancefloor. You found me sitting in a corner and listening. From the early to mid 90ies I visited New York a few times. That’s where I actually heard House Music all night long in full effect for the first time. Soundfactory, Soundfactory Bar, Jacky 60 and many more places. DJ Camacho, Louie Vega and many more of the NY DJs. Luckily I made some connection in the scene and was taken around to many places, as well less known ones. Plus the sound became a bit more popular from mid of the 90ies in Germany too, which made it possible to continue and help to spread the House Vibe together with others in my home country.
Do you remember your first DJ gig?
Yes, both. Number one when I was 14 at school, for something we called “Platten Party”. Once a year they put a sound-system inside the school and those who had records and could DJ a bit were chosen thru an unknown system to get a slot. Number two was in 1990, the first official booking where you could find my name on the flyer. Würzburg had with the “Airport” a club which became an institution in the German electronic scene since mid of the 80’s. With techno coming up, they opened a second small room, mainly for this sound, but in between different genres like Drum & Bass or House got their chance, too. The following years I had various residencies in other venues in town, before I became the resident DJ in the main room of the Airport 8 years later. I played there for a decade pretty much every Friday. From the early nineties they had dedicated Fridays to House Music and I was usually warming up and taking over again from the weekly guest DJs. Guest were all of German Top House DJs around that time and in between some internationals. We hosted the likes of Frankie Feliciano or Martin Solveig internationally, and Mousse T, Boris Dlugosch locally. It was the best school to go thru as a DJ and I think I mastered the much talked about art of warming up. I still like playing early and late sets nowadays.
Was your musical style different back then to how it is today?
In the beginning my style probably had a clearer classic US House Sound influence, but it started its own journey from there and keeps on developing and progressing.
What’s your usual preparation for a set? Picks tracks, sleep, meal and a drink?
For my sets I am still steadily searching for new music. With few exceptions, I dedicate time at least once a week to find music online and listen to promos. In my sets I mainly play current stuff, which I really like paired together with few older tracks or some own songs. After identifying which new tracks stand out of the lot, I copy them on my DJ-ing USB stick and listen through them when I find time. I never plan my sets and have a lot of music on the sticks. Rest becomes more and more essential. I try to avoid a too hectic booking schedule and rather play well on a few lesser gigs. I try to eat healthy, which is easy when at home, but sometimes challenging when on the road, especially as I don’t eat everything. I cut down on alcohol almost completely. From time to time I still don’t mind having a beer or two when I play.
What advice would you give to up and coming DJ’s?
Which DJ’s do you love to hear play or have the most fun playing alongside?
Ron Trent, Spinna, Phil Asher for example are a pleasure to listen to. I had an unplanned and amazing all night long back to back set with Atjazz last year at Djoon. It’s always fun to play with one or both South African House legends and friends DJ Christos or Vinny Da Vinci. Back to backs with Sir LSG work well, as we share a similar taste and know very well how the other one structures his set and plays in general. Nowadays I don’t hang much in clubs to listen to other people. And I believe podcasts are not the same. You need to experience a DJ within the vibe of a night.
Any up and coming DJ’s you’ve seen and think we should check out?
Too many to mention them all. Sir LSG who’s part of the GOGO family of course or Sculptured Music, who might be known already as he is a producer too, are two from in the younger generation representing soulful House in South Africa. And there’s many who are mainly or only DJ-ing. Pretty much every city in South Africa has one or more DJs who can send you on a journey. Picat Da Italien, Thabo Phalatse around Joburg, Musicman or June Jazzin in Durban, Leighton Moody, Cassim Latif in Capetown. I could go on and on. I believe that, due the big popularity House Music has in South Africa, the country has produced some of the best DJs in the world, which makes it a highly competitive market. As we all know, competition raises quality over time.
Best piece of advice anyone has given you on the journey so far?
Stay yourself no matter the circumstance.
All time favourite track to play in a set?
Impossible to answer and never stayed the same track over all the years. I usually have some current favourite classics, which I then like to play a few times if the vibe is right for them. And then I forget about them and they might come back years later.
In 2012 you emigrated to South Africa - what drove the decision to move?
I first toured in SA in 2008 on invitation of DJ Christos, who is one of the founding fathers of the House Music movement in the country. There was instantly a connection, a vibe, something I was not able to describe, but which attracted me when I landed in the country. Thankfully I was able to follow up with more tours and as well was invited to teach at music conferences. The love for the country grew and my wife liked the idea of moving too. Artistically it was highly interesting to be in this emerging space where something was created which now gave House Music a new breath of life and a new touch. With the knowledge collected in the international scene over many years, I was able to contribute positively to the development of the countries music industry, which already had everything that was needed to break globally yet still was mainly unrecognized. This paired with great whether, beautiful nature and great people were perspectives I did not see in Germany. So we gave it a try and never looked back. I am really thankful that we’ve been granted to stay in South Africa.
South African deep house has something more spiritual (it seems from afar) - does that inspire your sound?
Everything surrounding you will influence you, at least in some way. And so my music probably is. However I always kept my signature soulful sound and just tried to grow it with the new influences surrounding me.
Where is the best place to DJ in SA?
It keeps on changing. There are hotspots all over the country and you’ll find a venue with a proper House Night in every small town and township.
What makes South Africa such a hotbed for deep house?
House Music is for many South Africans the sound of freedom which is associated with the end of Apartheid. It was then brought by the Club DJs into mainstream radio and blew up as one of the main genres. And while the SA music scene has its trends, just as every other country, it never disappeared out of clubs and the mainstream market. This makes South Africa the country with highest percentage of the population consuming House Music. And at the same time created one of the most sophisticated listenership and scenes a long the way. This naturally grows a lot of talent in the genre.
South Africa has some of the finest talents, who often go unheard of in big markets like the US - do you have a view on how SA producers can gain better awareness internationally?
Several aspects, such as social media, individual and joint efforts of people in the South African scene and the fact that more international DJs visit the country nowadays, who then take the music and experiences back home with them, already levelled the playfield a bit. You find now South African superstar artists like Black Coffee or Black Motion who are touring globally on a steady basis and a number of others having international bookings, too. So the awareness about South African producers rose a lot already during the last years. If the scene keeps pushing boundaries, as well outside of the country, more talent will follow and be known.
You first released back in 1998, do you see yourself as a DJ or producer first?
Actually the first release which I was part of has been in 1993 as GUM on the US label New Generation Records. GUM was a trio together with to two friends from my hometown. Uwe, who sadly passed away at an early age, end of the 90’s, and Axel with whom I formed the GUM Team as DJs, too. We had few more releases on other labels and even founded an own label, which saw 1 release, before Axel decided to leave the music industry after studies. When I started out and during the early years of my career, I was more of a DJ who tried to produce. Everything is self taught and it takes time to grow, but the balance continuously shifted towards producing over the years. Luckily no one stops me from doing both, as I love both. And yes, I do think that producing influences my DJ-ing in many ways. A musical trained ear will approach mixing differently. It as well changed my choices of tracks I play out. Poor mixing, poor musicianship or out of tune vocals in a record turn me off and such tracks don’t make it into my DJ sets. My DJ sets are often quite different compared to the style I produce. While I see productions like paintings which can be perfected with different colours and over a long time, my sets are unplanned, often with a rawer and deeper sound. People who only know my music, but never heard me DJ-ing are often surprised. Not that I mind…
How would you describe your musical production style?
I guess it will be boxed soulful house in most cases, but a South African radio presenter lately said that she would rather call it “Global Soul and Dance”. It is a description I dig, because even my sound is clearly House Music, it incorporates many influences of traditional styles and various genres from all over.
How does your production process work - do you set time aside or wait for inspiration?
Inspiration pretty much happens through sound at any time for me. Sometimes there’s an idea sparked through something else, but usually as soon as I sit down in the studio inspiration kicks in. And in case it does not on a specific day, that’s okay, too. There’s always something else to work on, for example editing which does not really need inspiration, but time. I do not set aside specific times of a day either, but still like working at night, as the quietness around me helps to focus.
What’s your production set up?
My set setup was rather small for many years now. I often moved between different rooms as well as different towns and countries. And with every move I somehow left parts of the equipment behind, if they weren’t key to continue my work. Finally since 2 years I settled in a house in which I hopefully stay at for a long time and build a room with great acoustics and enough space. Since then the equipment collection started growing again slowly. I collect any type of percussion instrument, (analogue) synths, FX and other instruments, which I record with a choice of Mics mostly through a Great River Preamp into my soundcard and DAW. From there I tweak and mix in the DAW and monitor on ADAM SA3-A monitors with an ADAM Sub 18 which I love. As reference monitors I use the Yamaha NS10. I don’t necessarily think that all outboard gear sounds better than Plug-Ins nor that I would be able to record my percussions in higher quality than you’d find samples in libraries, but I like turning knobs instead of a mouse and as well get quicker to the desired results when recording, instead of looking for suitable drum or percussion samples. And it adds further to the organic sound, which I always aspired anyway. I’ve always used live recordings in my music, but the ability to record almost everything in my own room is a new level and lately became the way forward to go for me.
What do you feel is the best track you’ve released to date?
You know that’s like asking what’s your favourite child? I try my best possible at any given time and usually I’m unable to let go before I love the track. There were some more and some less successful releases during the years, but I think I can fully stand behind everything which was released in the 2000s, while I still was on the search to find my sound-identity in the 90’s.
What attracts you to a remix over all the offers you must get?
I reduced remixing a lot over the last years. The amount of time I put into a release often does not justify the remix fees you still can get in our industry. I mostly record everything you hear, except few drum samples. The tweaking and editing of the recordings takes a lot of time. Therefore I either must really be in love with the original, or there has to be a decent budget. Otherwise I prefer to invest the time into a song in which I have some ownership.
Do you approach a remix differently to your own productions?
Pretty much all own productions start with the playback. Sometimes it’s a chord progression or bass-line in my mind which can be the starting point, but mostly it’s the beat, to be more precise, it is the kick drum. The kick is the foundation and determines everything else. Once I found the base-drum I like, I would usually start building around it. Once the playback is at a progressed stage it can go to vocalist and the finishing touches come after the vocal recording. A remix of course starts with the vocal and the vocal determines everything else, but except the starting point the actual production process is the same.
What inspired you starting GOGO Music, was it to allow you creative freedom?
Absolutely. At some point I felt that the productions had my “hand-writing” and that I was creating “my own sound”. And as much as outside advice can be very helpful, I did not want to compromise on my sound anymore, just because an A&R of a label thinks something should be changed. So the own platform gave me the freedom to further explore this sound which is an ongoing process. Another reason was to create this platform for other talents, who have a similar vision and produce a sound fitting the label.
How do you decide whether to release a track on your own label or on another?
Regarding my own tracks I decided to release mainly on GOGO. Next to the creative freedom, I like having control over other aspects, from mastering to marketing, too. I know that this approach might limit my reach, but the advantages seem to overweigh. Regarding music from other people, we usually don’t look for once off releases, but for long-time relationships with artists, who’s sound and personality we feel.
What’s the vision for the label?
The vision from day one was to present dance music that touches the soul, is groovy, well produced and well written. This never changed and will keep on being the drive of the label. I always saw GOGO as a small “boutique label” which only needs a small tight team to be run. We will continue to release few hand-picked records and want to stand out in this flooded market through quality rather than quantity.
What do you enjoy most about running the label?
Honestly nothing much when it comes to the office work involved, except for the fact that I am able to detect and nurture new talent. The main reason really is to have control over all aspects of a release and make sure the music has quality. I prefer to spend my time in studio, but simply don’t want to lose this control of the business side.
Which releases should we check out to get a real sense of the label?
With GOGO Music we try to put out fine releases only. We really need to be convinced and sonically the track needs to be able to stand the test of time, too. Therefore we hope that you can jump into the label catalogue at any point and you’d right away get an idea of what GOGO stands for.
What other labels do you admire most?
There are various coming to my mind, Vega Records or Making Moves who keep on putting out quality soulful stuff, while the same can be said for Atjazz Record Company or Freerange regarding a deeper sound. There are various labels from back in the days which I still admire, such as Smack Records or Prescription Underground. I feel that many early 90’s labels where run out of passion, with a vision and to push boundaries, which is something that seems rarer in our industry these days.
What’s your average week like balancing all these different things?
My family with 2 beautiful kids get a share of my time and except for this it is pretty much work all the time. I am cool with that, as I still have the same passion for music as when starting out. On weekends I am usually gigging and on Monday I am either back in studio or in office. The balance between office work and studio always shifts a bit, simply depending on what is urgently to do.
What’s on the cards for the next while - gigs to watch out for?
I am steadily gigging and currently doing a little tour for my 30th anniversary on decks. Further I dedicated 2020 to release various single collaborations before I probably start to work on my 5th studio album next year again. YouTube channel
Where can people follow you?