R&S Records Founder, Renaat Vandepapeliere: Bandcamp digger and careful selector

It’s a Thursday morning, not too early, not too late. Renaat Vandepapeliere is sitting outside his home, someone is playing music in the distance. He seems to be relaxed, almost calm, although today is already packed with appointments. An 11-o-clock interview for Voltage Festival is one of them. Tomorrow, Renaat has to catch a plane. The US is calling. He’s playing in New York on Friday, at Elsewhere - a Brooklyn venue that this year has hosted acts like Awesome Tapes from Africa, Bonobo and Etapp Kyle. Next gig on Saturday, Detroit this time, Marble Bar. In the city that was groundbreaking not only for techno music but also for Renaat himself. “Derrick May’s ‘Daymares; It Is What It Is’ was the first record that really blew my mind”, Renaat says.

Let’s go back in time. People might argue that Renaat’s label, R&S Records, is one of the most iconic imprints in electronic music history. It all started in 1983. “I was working in a record store back then”, remembers Renaat. He was living in Ghent, Belgium at that time. “Speaking about independent record labels, there wasn’t much going on”, he says: “So I said to myself: I’m going to do my own thing.”

The rest is history. R&S Records released some of the most significant records in the 90s. CJ Bolland, Voodoo Child, Aphex Twin, Jam & Spoon, Model500 (Juan Atkins) - the list of artists that made it to early R&S seems to be endless. The label broke through, set records. But in ‘97 Renaat Vandepapeliere suddenly decided to shut it down. “I was bored”, he explains: “The scene had changed. It wasn’t intimate anymore, there were big parties in commercial venues, superstar DJs became a thing and the music seemed to be on repeat. I needed a break.”

And what a break it was that Renaat took. He let the label go completely, moved to a farm and committed his years to horse breeding. Almost a decade went by, R&S Records sank into the depth of electronic music nostalgia. But in 2006, Renaat’s attention was caught by a new movement. “There was something totally fresh and new. The early pre-dubstep.” He still hadn’t planned to come back to the music scene - but eventually, one of his ex-lawyers from past R&S times came to visit his farm: “He wanted me to come back. Of course, I said no. But then we drank two bottles of wine and suddenly I said ‘Ok, let’s do it’”. The label was re-opened in 2008 but Renaat decided to take a different role this time. He still decides on what music is going to be released, but R&S is managed from London now.

Fast forward. Another decade. It’s the year 2019, we’re back outside with Renaat on that Thursday morning. After Renaat comes back from the US, he’s going to play at Voltage Festival. At 62 years, Renaat has reinvented himself. A few years ago, he decided to get back at the decks. “I had quit DJing almost 35 years ago when I founded R&S”, he says: “But I have always been a selector. As a label head and as an individual. And in recent years I’ve missed those eclectic sets and musical knowledge. That is what I am trying to do now.”

Renaat doesn’t want to be put into a drawer. His sets consist of everything. It can be jazz, house, techno, electro - and usually, they are very long. “I like to play 10 hours or more”, he says: “But without preparation. I have about 80.000 tunes and I keep buying more. I just play what I feel at that moment.” He sees himself as a selector and usually spends about 10 hours a day on Bandcamp. “For me, this is the only thing that really excites me. Finding good music. That’s it. And today, I can do it anywhere in the world.”

80.000 tracks, all of them in one pocket, all on one hard drive. This is a remarkable difference to the times when Renaat started out - a time when there were no alternatives to playing vinyl. It’s a development that Renaat has not only accepted - he embraces it. “For me the digital world goes much further than vinyl. You can create whatever you want to create. I sometimes have four decks running at the same time.”

Renaat doesn’t reject technology, he uses it. In his late 50s he started using Native Instruments Traktor software for his gigs. The hate against Laptop DJs? A topic that Renaat can only laugh about. “I love it. I mean: It is the 21st century, music is made digitally. Why would we not use new technologies? At the end of the day it is about what comes out of the speaker. And also: I’m usually very hard to shazam.”

Knowing what tracks work well together comes with experience, Renaat says. After almost 35 years in the business, he’s certainly heard and seen a lot. “It’s mostly young artists who bring a fresh perspective. You don’t need to be old to be good. Just think about the beginning of Aphex Twin, or Nicolas Jaar, Nils Frahm. Age doesn’t really make a difference. As you get older you only assemble more knowledge. I, for example, know what rock and folk is. I listen to classical music. I’m past that stage where I only focus on techno. There is amazing hip-hop. And why shouldn’t I play it?”

It’s this genre bending mind-set that Renaat tries to pass on. On recent R&S Records, he gives young and unknown artists a chance. “Sometimes they ask me: What should I produce for R&S?”, Renaat tells: “And I answer: Let us stop the conversation right here. You do what you feel. Don’t think about the market. Fuck the market. I want to hear your identity.”

62 years old and one of the most forward-thinking souls in the business. Inviting Renaat to play on the Stygian’s River stage - and by the way right before the youngest artist on the line-up, SIWEI - was an obvious must. But it’s a mutual love from both sides. “Voltage Festival is special”, Renaat who usually doesn’t like to play festivals says: “You can feel that there is a heart beating in there. You see it in the line-up and in the people. They do what they love.” And there is nothing really that we could add to this.

- Interview & article by Lukas Hansen