From Germany, Ralf GUM is one of the top Soulful House producers in the world. Last year he released his first album, Uniting Music – a tour de force of soulful House which spawned a torrent of hits, including “Kissing Strangers” with Monique Bingham and “What I Like (About You)” with Inaya Day. Ralf’s label, GOGO Music, is likewise a beacon of soulful House in Europe, with a consistency of releases representing the creme de la creme of today’s top producers, from Raw Artistic Soul to South Africa’s Blackcoffee to Andy Compton and Ralf’s collaborations with Monique, Inaya, Diamondancer, Wunmi and other vocalists. His remixes have been released on labels from Defected to Peppermint Jam, and his DJ skills (honed by nearly 20 years of spinning records) have taken him around the world.
We interviewed Ralf in April 2009 – just after GOGO Music’s latest release (“Above the Sky” by Andy Compton, featuring Chicago’s Kafele) – hit the shops.
This might sound like a typically dumb American question, but so many folks think of techno, minimal, Tresor Records and the harder stuff when it comes to Germany. I’m curious about the first electronic music you were exposed to, and how you developed such a soulful sound?
Haha – the typical first question in an interview with me, but one with a good cause, as Germany is actually dominated by a harder sound. These days it is the electro and minimal music that is big, while the typical techno disappeared a bit.
I got into House when I heard tracks like Farley Jackmaster Funk’s “Love Can’t Turn Around”, which I found on the famous Chicago Acid House samplers in the late ’80s. I liked Acid at that time, but realized that the more soulful tracks in the genre were really my taste. It seems I simply have soul in my blood, as I was digging Disco, Funk and Soul since I was a teenager. From the early ’90s I was constantly searching for House vinyl, which was a challenge in the very beginning. Not too many record shops in Germany offered a good selection in those days.
Do you remember the first record you bought specifically for playing on a turntable?
Not really. I purchased vinyl for a while before I had my first DJ gig and then of course played a lot of the records I already had. Maybe it was “I Know You, I Live You” by Rufus & Chaka Khan. I had the album, but was searching for the 12-inch to play during my first gig – and I still play it today.
What is it about Deep House that speaks to you as a listener?
It is hard to explain. You just have to experience it and you will hardly get away from it again. At least it was like that for me. I was into House Music already, but an initial experience was my first New York visit in 1991. Of course I went to clubs like Soundfactory, Jackie 60 and others and since then was hooked completely. As a producer I love the freedom that this genre offers me, as you can combine so many musical influences, such as Gospel, Jazz, Soul, Afro, Latin, Disco, which I all like.
You started playing out in 1990. Can you tell me something about the scene in Germany in those days and your early days DJing?
The soulful House scene is very small in Germany. There has never been a big difference when I look back. The House sound had a little hype in the late ’90s, when the Disco/House sound took over. That style made it to some of the bigger clubs, but after about two years it disappeared from the commercial floors again.
It’s funny, but a lot of clubs advertise with House Music these days, but what you get is mostly a mix of electro, euro dance and minimal. The same applies for the music press and other media here. The mags write about what’s considered to be hip and this is mainly techy stuff. The bigger radio stations only play commercial pop music. In the last 19 years I played in countless venues and as well a few raves, but often had to experience that soulful music is only understood by a minority in Germany. Nevertheless there are a few places where good music is played and where you’ll find an open minded crowd. Happily I had (and have) residencies or gigs at some of them, but unfortunately these venues are the exception.
You started DJing in 1990, producing in 1993, and GOGO was founded in 2001. Was this your first record imprint, and why the long time coming?
GOGO Music is my first label. The name has no deeper meaning. When I was searching for a label name it was a coincidence that I saw a funny car from the ’70s called “Gogo Mobile”. I thought GOGO Music sounds good and is memorable.
Before I started the label I released music on various others. I launched the label because of frustrating experiences with them. I often had the impression that the artist and his music isn’t the most important matter. Only fast money counted and something like artist development was a foreign word to them. My aim was to establish a label that first of all stands for quality music and which cares about its artists. The output of GOGO Music concentrates on timeless songs instead of putting out a huge quantity of records following the latest ephemeral trend.
Gotta ask about “Kissing Strangers,” which wasn’t just your biggest song to date but on everyone’s list for one of the best of 2008. Did that one sound like a hit from the studio? Could you hear the “magic” then or did you think a different track from Uniting Music would be the signature track from the album?
When I received the vocals from Monique I was in love with the song immediately. The playback was already one of my favorite tracks from the album, but it was the combination with her vocal that made it really special. Of course I couldn’t predict that this would be the signature track for the listener. It’s just as you can not plan a hit – you have to have a bit of luck as well.
Uniting Music is technically flawless and there’s not a single weak track in there. Can you tell me about the album, how you conceived it and the concept behind it?
In the beginning I only knew that I wanted to do something special as it was my first album. Finally the idea came up to do the whole composition without any breaks between the songs. It had to be one musical journey for the whole length of the CD.
At first I composed the music, which took quite a while. After the harmonic structures had been done, I started to search for the right singers. I contacted those I wanted to feature and luckily every vocalist liked what I sent. After the vocals had been recorded, I started to tweak each track in its own direction to make sure it matched with the vocal perfectly.
While doing this I always kept my eye on the track before and after, so that the songs still fit together as one. I decided to make the album that way because I think the home-listener isn’t interested in listening to an endless beat intro or outro in each song. I also wanted to do something different than the usual collection of “club tools”. The whole concept of the album is reflected in the title Uniting Music. I wanted to bring together my favorite vocalists in one musical work.
I’ve been really excited by the sounds I’ve been hearing from House producers from Africa lately. Can you tell me about your trip there in 2008?
The trip to South Africa was one of the highlights of my career since I began DJing. It seems to be one of the few countries where House Music is really, really big nowadays. I have seldom seen such an enthusiasm, especially regarding Deep House. This is the merit of a community of skilled DJs supporting each other, but also the major support from radio and TV. House Music is played not only on small stations, but on the big national ones, too. And I’m not only talking about a few hits, but a good selection of real deep stuff.
There is definitely a lot of great talent in South Africa, which is not known worldwide yet. The tracks or artists that received international recognition already are only the tip of the iceberg. Luckily I made the connection to some producers while I was there and I will continue to release music from South Africa for sure.
A lot of people are crazy about Blackcoffee’s “Turn Me On”. It’s maybe the first bona fide House Music hit from South Africa, and maybe the track that’s going to blow the thing wide open. Please tell me how you came to release this track on GOGO!
“Turn Me On” has been out on Kronologik before, just as “Uyangichomela” by “Shana” has been out on Katsaitis Music. The tracks have primarily been big in their home country, even though a few DJs knew and played the tracks elsewhere, too. To be honest I hadn’t heard them before I was in South Africa. I fell in love with the songs and re-released them, as I thought they definitely deserve more attention. I am happy to see how well they do and that I was able to open some new doors for the artists.
I notice there’s a professionally produced video for “Turn Me On” as well. Was that an initiative of GOGO or something Blackcoffee or the original label in South Africa did on their own?
The video was done by Kronologik in 2008. As I mentioned, the South African media supports House Music even on nationwide TV stations. Hence it can make sense to do a professional video for a great track. Due to lower prices, they have the advantage that a video is affordable, at least compared to the USA or Europe. I hardly can imagine how such a clip can recoup the investment here. I tried to get the “Turn Me On” video on some music TV channels in Europe without success. As long as the media is not willing to support the genre, it makes no sense to do videos for singles.
I want to ask you the same question three times. As a DJ, how do you feel about the evolution of the music industry in the last few years and the rise of the MP3 as the main media for buying, selling and playing music? How about as an artist? And as a label owner?
I have no objections to mp3s in general. There are positive and negative things about the digital era. A plus is that music is easy to purchase for everybody within seconds and worldwide through download shops. It’s become easier and more economic to promote releases and artists with the help of the internet. As a DJ I enjoy travelling with a CD case instead of breaking my back because of the heavy vinyl. A laptop can be a nice thing, too, as it enables the DJs to carry his whole music library with him. As long as there are high quality mp3 or even better wav files on the hard-drive there’s nothing to say against it. Personally I still like to dig in a record case or CD case, instead of scrolling through endless menus.
On the other side, a lot of consumers have lost the understanding for the value of music and just swap mp3s. Even though this is nothing really new, I want to mention it here. As most tracks are somewhere gettable for free, a lot of people don’t see the necessity to pay for them anymore, without thinking about the aftermath.
The whole blogging and rapidshare thing is a big problem. I think labels should unite to find a solution how to stop this, together with internet providers. File sharing also makes it tougher to create hype for a track. In the ’90s, some tracks were around for ages on a few test pressings. Only some tastemakers had them and lots of other DJs were impatiently waiting for the release. If you send out a few digital promos today, it will make the rounds very quickly. You can’t avoid that and so you have to release quickly after the first promo mailing – or even before.
At least in the United States, we’re seeing the decline of the album as each individual track is “unbundled” and sold as a single, both on sites like Traxsource and of course iTunes. The end user might not even know what the album art looks like. What was your motivation for releasing a full album, and did you feel it met your expectations?
Above all, an album was something I had wanted to do for a long time. When I started GOGO Music, it was impossible to concentrate on a complete album, because of a lack of time and money. I was also searching for the right idea for how to avoid the problem you mentioned. I wanted to prevent people from only purchasing one or the other track of the album. The whole album should be seen and listened to as one work of art and not as an accumulation of songs by one producer.
When the idea for an album without breaks came to my mind, I knew that this could be the solution. For this reason I did not make the album available as single tracks at first. I was hoping that this would not only force people to listen to the entire album, but also that it would help the CD sales. More than half a year after the CD was released, I finally made the individual tracks available in download shops.
Thanks to singles taken from the album, it did okay from a financial aspect. Personally I have been very content about the feedback I received on it. It was definitely worth the hard work, even though I have to admit that I expected a bit more CD sales. But that’s probably a problem in general these days.
The album was not mixed in a DJ sense after I had produced the tracks, but composed like that from the beginning. Afterwards I split up the tracks to release them as singles or in the download shops, which only sell individual tracks. I knew that it could be a risk, as the DJs would not be able to play every track. But, basically, I do not think about the financial aspects when I want to do something.
At the moment I can’t say if I will do another artist album this way, as the fact that each song leads into the next one made the production truly time consuming. Nevertheless I will continue to release mixed CDs for sure.
The digital format also means you can endless cut and recut music and make more project. We saw that with Uniting Music and the various remix projects, the Uniting Summer EP, etc. Would that be possible if you were still trafficking only in vinyl?
Maybe it would not have been possible. The investment for a digital release is by far lower than the one for a physical. This allows you to risk a release which you might not do, if you have to recoup a vinyl pressing. However the main reason to put out the EPs was that the tracks hadn’t been available in a DJ-friendly single track format before.
Of course today’s technology offers possibilities which haven’t been there before and help a lot. You can do productions with a computer and a bit of software for few thousand dollars. Equipment to do some re-edits is even cheaper. But it really depends on what kind of music you want to produce and what kind of result you expect. If you use live recordings in your tracks and try to achieve a high-class sound, you still need a good sounding recording room, good microphones, pre-amps, compressors and so on, which is still expensive. And a lot of the vintage instruments haven’t gotten much cheaper either, but still sound better than their rather affordable plug-in clones.
Speaking of which, we’re seeing just a flood of new releases – sometimes more than a few hundred a day across various sites, which no single person could ever listen to. Most of it is not that good, and I suspect it’s only being released because a label is making less money per release than they did before. Do you think this is sustainable? Is the product going to be degraded to the point of having a value of $0?
It is a baneful thing about the digital era that it has decreased the costs for a production and its release dramatically. Technology these days enables people to do a track within a few hours and to create a label requires almost no investment anymore. This lends to the problem that even DJs who have no musical background at all produce their own tracks, often without taking the time to work with a musician who substitutes their incapacity. Of course they do it with the hope to push their name and lots of them don’t seem to care about quality too much. Because of that we see an oversupply of labels and music.
As you say, a lot of it is middle- or low-class. Thus the market is flooded with music and it got tougher for fresh and original music to be recognized in this oversupply. The only way to survive is to put out constantly good music and to create a faithful fanbase for the label or artist. Nevertheless I don’t think that music will be degraded to a zero value level – especially not well produced music. Even now when there are countless releases every day, you mainly find the same labels on the top of the download charts, simply because they put out good stuff.
I notice that you’ve done some significant remixes in the last year (Defected, etc.) but definitely more quality than quantity. I know some producers churn them out like machines, and perhaps without much thought about lending their name to what might be a poor quality original. Is this a conscious effort to be more selective, or are you busy focusing on GOGO instead?
It’s a mix of both. Of course the label, producing and remixing for it plus my DJ schedule keeps me quite busy already. Nevertheless remixing is something I really like. The fact that I don’t have a big team around me just allows a limited number of remixes, especially as nothing leaves my studio that does not satisfy me. In addition I would not remix everything. The original has to have something that catches me. Even if doing a lot of remixes allows someone to make a quick buck, I believe that my philosophy to deliver quality makes more sense in a long term.
I expect something as successful as Uniting Music will be difficult to follow up on. What are your plans for new productions and/or projects effecting your personal career in the short term?
It is always difficult to repeat something of course, but I am not worried about it. I just keep on doing my thing. In early May I will have a release with Inaya Day on Deep Sugar Music entitled “Reap”. I’m working on a bunch of new songs for my label, including a follow up with Monique Bingham, one with Diamondancer and a new single with Inaya Day, too.
In addition I am currently remixing two upcoming releases for GOGO Music – one by Roberto De Carlo called “Never Forget” and one by the upcoming talent “Fast Vision Soul” from Italy.
Besides those, I am working on a remix for Jennifer Perryman. I am DJing every weekend somewhere and I am really looking forward to my second South Africa tour end of June. I’ll also be participating in the South Africa Music Conference at the beginning of July, where I was invited to conduct a workshop.
You just released Andy Compton’s (of The Rurals) and Kafele’s “Above the Sky”. Is that the same Kafele from Chicago? Including this, what releases do you have coming up on GOGO?
Yes, it is Kafele from Chicago. Andy met him when he was there, but the song was recorded a bit later. I think it was definitely good fortune that they met, which you can tell when listening to the result of their collaboration.
In addition to the tracks I mentioned a moment ago, I’ll be releasing a song by Bucie, the vocalist on Blackcoffee’s “Turn Me On”, entitled “UR Kiss” soon.