So much so that Renaat Vandepapeliere founded the Belgian R&S dance label back in 1984, the name deriving from the initials of his own name and that of his partner, Sabine Maes. Vandepapeliere had worked as a DJ, playing soul, jazz fusion and funk as well as electronic, but had become frustrated with the way that American imports were treated when they reached Belgium. "Working in a music shop and seeing what happened when imports came in, there was a very bad habit in Belgium, when an import became very big in the clubs, someone would go to the studio and make an imitation of it, a copy, which was cheaper but also rubbish. I always had a difficulty with that. So that's why we started—so that we could license the original stuff."
Initially going under the name Milos Music Belgium, the couple released a single vinyl 12-inch by forgotten Belgian duo Big Tony. As the '80s wore on, however, Belgium was attracting international attention for homegrown movements such as New Beat (big, electro-brutalist floorstompers fronted by the likes of The Lords Of Acid and Jade 4U), as well as the more visually arresting likes of Front 242, whose sample-heavy "electronic body music" flirted dangerously with terrorist chic and geopolitics on tracks like "Funk Ghadaffi."
Aphex Twin - Analogue Bubblebath
Along with "Didgeridoo," here was where Richard James, AKA Aphex Twin, announced himself to the world, taking the post-acid scene to a darker, more fertile place with this sombrely anthemic classic.
Second Phase - Mentasm
The temporary AKA of Joey Beltram, Second Phase and "Mentasm" was a pivotal '90s release, a perverse, pitch-black variant on acid with a rogue strain of Black Sabbath-style heaviness whizzing round its circuitry.
Human Resource - Dominator
"I wanna kiss myself!" snarls the rapper with meta-narcissistic robo-insistency on this sternly hedonistic Eurodisco milestone, the mutant "Mentasmic" riff erasing like windscreen wipers on full power throughout.
Jam & Spoon - Stella
First released in 1992, "Stella" opened up a skylight for those who found the R&S oeuvre stifling at times. It's a mellow-cholic masterpiece, all galloping keyboards and a respirating synth pulse which anticipates everything from LTJ Bukem to the lush, minimal techno of Kompakt.
Radio Slave - Eyes Wide Open/Incognito
R&S come right up to speed with this storming release from the much-respected Matt Edwards, AKA Radio Slave, two minimal, bass and percussion-led dancefloor-to-air odysseys which easily evoke R&S's best traditions: Pleasure and discipline.
Despite the fact that Renaat himself was never personally that interested in the likes of Front 242, the group helped establish Belgium as an unlikely fulcrum of new electronic music. In 1981, Marvin Gaye had taken a lengthy sabbatical in Ostend, prior to recording his album Midnight Love. By the late '80s, it seemed less far-fetched for Derrick May to be flown over by Renaat from Detroit to Belgium instead. But this was prior to the era of DJ culture, the rise of which personally dismayed the label owner.
"For artists like Derrick, their dream back then was making records. When the DJ became the star, to me that's when things went all wrong. When they were earning thousands of pounds, playing just the music that the public wanted in short sets—I thought it was better when they made records which came from the heart."
While Vandepapeliere certainly harboured some utopian ideas about dance music, in those initial, post-rave years, the music was becoming darker, and heavier, with a sense of heaving claustrophobia characterising clubs like Boccaccio. By 1991, this was reflected in the In Order to Dance series inaugurated by R&S, which collected together the various singles they issued. These included early works by Moby, Model 500, but also Joey Beltram, whose "Energy Flash" and "Mentasm" (released under the name Second Phase) helped define a grimly hedonistic shift in dance, in which the music became hurts-so-good, hard work full of punishing dirges typified by murky bass and neon throbbing.
"The year after we released 'Mentasm,' two years after, every record that came out sounded like 'Mentasm,'" recalls Vandepapeliere. "It was a compliment, in a way, for Joey, for the label, but it was also annoying. That was the mentality of commercial labels, though—copying, not creating."
He also introduced the world to The Aphex Twin, whose "Didgeridoo," based around a single note on the traditional antipodean instrument showed that it was possible to dispense with a tune altogether and have a huge hit. "He came up with something original there, for sure," says Vandepapeliere. "I always say, no one ever came close to Richard (James), no one. Many tried, no one came close. He is unique."
With cuts by CJ Bolland, Human Resource and Golden Girls' "Kinetic," gloriously remixed by Orbital, DJ Hell and Jaydee, R&S appeared to set the tone of the 1991 dance scene, the music matching the intensity and high temperatures physically experienced on the European dancefloors at the time. "The main club was Omen in Frankfurt, which I went to every week, then spread to Holland. Talk about claustrophobia. Christ! It was very intense and very real in a way I don't see today." Elsewhere, dance music was being reduced to a very very macho, 'ardkore. And yet, despite having been regarded as a champion of that sort of music, Vandepapeliere never really cared for it. "If you listen back to the records we made back then, it wasn't just noise for the sake of noise. Those were always funky records," he protests.
"I never was into the idea that 'electronic music = no emotion.' Personally, I need some soul, or funk, or a little melody mixed in. Some emotion. Otherwise it does nothing for me. My philosophy has been, always put out records that women would dance to. Make records for women. If the women dance, so will the men."
Vandepapeliere was also aware of, among other things, the new ambient wave and to that end he signed the likes of Future Sound Of London and Jam & Spoon, as well as inaugurating the Apollo label for chill-out releases. "This was a side I wanted to give to R&S, to open up the idea of what we were about, that we were open to anything." Other subsidiary labels included Diatomyc (acid) and Global Cuts (house) which reflected the diverse strands of '90s dance music.
One of R&S's crowning moments came in 1994 when Vandepapeliere inugurated Radio Republica, a pirate radio station hosted by techno pioneers such as Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. "I went to National Radio and told them, I had all these guys, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, they were always around, 24 hours, all round my house. I said to the radio director, why not have them come in, late at night, maybe, and broadcast? But he said no, nobody's interested. And so I rented my own satellite and said 'Let's go.' Now, today, they have a regular station full of all the leftfield DJs who were considered outlaws back then."
Come the late '90s, though, despite key releases by the likes of Dave Angel and Ken Ishii which kept the Detroit-via-Belgium flag fluttering, things weren't going so well for R&S and Vandepapeliere himself was becoming disaffected with a music industry with whom he was now forced to go into joint business: "I went into commercial ventures with major labels. But they were obsessed with financial plans and projections and always the question, 'Where is the next hit?' This was never what we were about." The growth of DJ culture further soured Vandepapeliere's relationship with the dance music world. "The whole scene gets monopolised by certain sounds and DJs who are already popular and that leaves very little room for new talent to get in. That's OK, but there need to be platforms for new talent."
Eventually, Vandepapeliere took a lengthy sabbatical, during which time he opened a stud farm for breeding horses for jumping events and dressage. However, in 2006, nostrils freshened by a prolonged exposure to nature, he decided the time was right to relaunch R&S: "First, having been away from the scene, no longer in the middle of it, I had the objective perspective of an outsider. Second, my lawyer agreed to take over the business side of things—he said, 'Relax, take care of your horses, I'll see to that.' Also, I have a new A&R guy called Dan Foat, he came in, I said to him, 'Don't sleep, go out every night, see what you find.' And he's been great."
At 29, Foat is only old enough to have experienced R&S's first great wave of activity via mixtapes made by his older brother. However, he senses that with a recession looming, the energies of the very early '90s, another era of economic downturn, are coming back to roost once more. "Dance music comes in cycles," he says. "Other youth cultures come and go, but this one is still here. And it's times like these when shit usually happens—acid, punk, whatever. It's people putting two fingers up to the world."
Foat is looking to take R&S out of its underground comfort zone, matching producers with vocalists, not concentrating solely on techno and looking to sign bands like Manchester's Delphic Project—"four guys doing dance music but in the bigger scheme of things." Vandepapeliere confirms that future R&S releases, however diverse, won't be farmed out to subsidiaries, but will remain under the R&S banner to affirm the new eclecticism of the label. "One release might be a dance record, the next a surprise," he says.
Among the first fruits of the new R&S is the superb Radio Slave single "Eyes Wide Open/Incognito," which reminds us that dance music, enabled by 21st technology to discover new intervals in microbeats, is still very much an evolving medium. Vandepapeliere, meanwhile, is still dreaming new electric dreams of his own.
"During my sabbatical, I met this engineer who has this concept of a 'high end party.' We're talking interactive technology, holograms, an audiovisual mix, a new way of experiencing live music for a generation more steeped in technology. It'll cost a fortune and it's not set up yet, but that is my dream. I am serious. It'll be really, really far out. I tell you, if you were to take ecstasy while experiencing this, you would die. It would be too much."