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Ralph Lawson's Leeds house music institution 2020 Vision celebrates 20 momentous years...

Leeds house music institution 2020 Vision celebrates 20 momentous years in 2014. Here, label boss Ralph Lawson remembers two decades of one of the UK's defining independent dance labels...

Ralph Lawson really didn't expect to still be putting out music 20 years later after launching 2020Vision in 1994.
“We were making music, having fun and needed an outlet, so I set up the label DIY style,” he tells DJ Mag. “I never even thought about putting out other people’s music like a true record company at first, it was just a vehicle for our own.”

As Ralph explains below, 2020 Vision grew out of after-party sessions at a farmhouse just outside Leeds in the early '90s — invariably after Back To Basics. The first release was Wulf 'N Bear — Ralph, Carl Finlow and Huggy — with Ralph teaming up with Anthony Pearson as Chuggles for the second release. Wulf N' Bear were back for VIS003 with 'Raptures of the Deep', which found favour with the Detroit techno cognoscenti. Naturally the guys were bowled over by this. “Well, that’s the nature of putting out records, they get distributed all over the world,” says Ralph, matter-of-factly. “You can be a huge DJ in your own town but once you start putting out your music, it travels on its own journey.

“It was definitely a surprise, though, when we received positive reactions for our records from places like Chicago, Detroit and New York,” the 2020 main man continues. “These were the cities that invented our music and gave birth to the producers who inspired us, and now they were getting back in touch with us.”

Ralph recalls being shocked when 2020 received a demo from Oulu in Finland, in the days before email, the internet or even widespread use of mobile phones. “I just had no idea our records would end up there,” he says.

Not only did 2020Vision vinyl ending up in far-flung places lead to the guys receiving demos from all over, but it also started them off on their travels. They were called to do 2020 showcases in Spain, Germany and France, and made new friends like Alter Ego and Ivan Smagghe along the way, and after the Millennium and the 2002/3 dance music 'crash', the label consolidated and drove towards a new future with just Ralph at the controls.

2020Vision started a particularly purple period of releases, and signed a certain Leeds producer called Paul Woolford. “We still press vinyl now, as do many other labels,” says Ralph now. “Everything is available, it’s more a choice of which format you prefer. They have been trying to kill vinyl off since the mid '80s but never succeeded because people love it. The artwork, the glint of light hitting the black grooves, the joy of unwrapping the shrink-wrap and taking the inner sleeve out. It’s a ceremony.”

Ralph also started the live band in the early noughties — the 2020Soundsystem — with drummer pal Dubble D and a couple of the Argentinians from 2020 signings Silver City. Over 10 years the live dance band had a memorable run of gigs at places like Sonar, Exit and Camp Bisco, but called time on the project last year when Fernando and Julian moved back to Argentina. “I knew the 20-year anniversary of 2020Vision was coming up and realised both the label and artists deserved my undivided attention,” Ralph explains. “A band is a full-time job, and I don’t believe in half-hearted efforts. Either do it or don’t. It was sad though, as in some ways I think we underachieved on the Soundsystem. I still think it had room for improvement and could have been bigger with the right team behind it. We did some amazing gigs, though.”

Ralph is from London originally and says he may like to return at some point. “I do have the best of both worlds, as we do our 2020Vision parties there, so I get to travel down a fair bit,” he says. “I have more space in Leeds and strong roots in the city, so I do feel at home here. We’ve come a long way together!”

They certainly have. 2020 have released 250 singles in the past 20 years, each one lovingly A&R'd and curated. They put out early material by — and thus helped to break the careers of — Maya Jane Coles, Paul Woolford, Simon Baker, Huxley, Motor City Drum Ensemble, Ivan Smagghe, DJ T, Audiojack and Âme amongst others, and have also released over 30 albums. For their 20th anniversary they could've just rehashed their vast back cat, but instead they've collated a super-fresh comp called 'Content', featuring many of the artists — well, 20, natch — they've befriended over the years such as Eats Everything, Matthew Herbert, Simian Mobile Disco, Groove Armada, Cassy, Tom Trago, Waze & Odyssey and Doc Daneeka.

“We never like to do the obvious at 2020Vision,” Ralph says. “Re-releasing is inherently retro, which I strongly wanted to avoid. It’s not about looking back, always forwards.
“An anniversary is a good time to be reflective but only to take stock and consider what was good or bad, so you can continue to improve and progress,” he continues. “It was also an opportunity for me to get artists and producers I felt should be represented on the label. I wanted to give people some real high class ‘Content’ to celebrate the label.”

Ralph and the team have certainly excelled themselves — again. A lot of people may not appreciate how much hard work goes into running an independent label in this day and age, with increasingly diminishing financial returns. But 2020 should be proud of what they've achieved — putting out some amazing underground forward-thinking electronic music without ever compromising quality.

“The label has always been a labour of love, it’s never made a load of money,” Ralph admits. “If you’ve been in the game this long, you need to truly feel it and believe in your cause. I suppose my belief has remained constant over the years, and I still enjoy the buzz of finding something really exciting to unleash upon the world.”

Ralph takes us on a personal journey through 20 years of 2020Vision...

2020Vision starts in a farmhouse in the Rhubarb Triangle in Rothwell, just outside Leeds, UK. The studio becomes known as Farmhouse Studios and Ralph Lawson, Carl Finlow and Huggy get to work. The 2020Vision name comes from a remix session when a long live dub mix ends up being exactly 20 mins 20 seconds long. The track is too long to use and never comes out, but Huggy shouts out 'No way! 2020Vision, man!' and the name sticks for the fledgling label.”

There are no email or mobile phones, so our first communication comes by fax. It is Stacey Pullen from Detroit telling us he loves our track 'Raptures of the Deep’. We are totally bowled over. We then hear both Derrick May and Derrick Carter play ‘Raptures’ at our local clubs The Orbit and Back To Basics respectively. It gives us massive inspiration and confidence.”

We originally set up the label to put out our own music but now other artists are sending us demos. We even receive a demo from Finland from a guy called Tuomas Salmela — we didn’t even know Finland could get our records! We receive demos in the same year from Canadian artists Dino & Terry and Fred Everything — maybe artists living in cold weather, like us, can relate to our sounds! Luckily The Moog Club in Barcelona invites us for our first-ever showcase, so we’re off to the sun.”

Jörn Wuttke and Roman Flügel get in touch with us to tell us they are playing a whole night with just 2020Vision records at The Wild Pitch Club in Frankfurt! They start Playhouse Records at roughly the same time and go on to form the band Alter Ego. We are invited to go and play at The Wild Pitch, which is the pre-cursor to the Robert Johnson club. We keep the relationship going and remix Blaze 'Lovelee Dae' for Playhouse, which goes on to become a big club hit, and they remix Random Factor 'Broken Mirror' for us in return.”

Vive la France! It is the year Les Bleus beat Brazil in the World Cup Final. Daft Punk are the coolest band on the planet, and Paris is burning! We are invited over by a young DJ from Radio Nova, called Ivan Smagghe, to play his party at The Queen Club on Les Champs Elysées. Once again we hit it off and stay in touch. 2020Vision signs Ivan’s first-ever record under the name Volga Select. 

“France becomes a big place for 2020Vision as the underground spreads. The label continues to support new French artists including D’Julz, David Duriez, Art of Tones and DJ Terry. This culminates in a special after-hours party at the Batofar, a moored boat with amazing sound. I am asked to mix a compilation CD for the party ‘Kwality’ alongside the young resident — Dan Ghenacia.”

Tonight I'm gonna party like it’s 1999! I make my way to Sydney Australia for the Millennium celebrations, where I support Carl Cox on Bondi Beach. The weather is not being kind though, and there are strong winds coming off the sea. The records are literally flying off the turntables. Radio 1 is going live on air at midnight and the controller is bricking it. 

“In true blue Aussie spirit the crew start to build a shelter. In one hour they complete an entire DJ cabin, just in time for Coxy to drop Armand Van Helden 'You Don’t Know Me' at the stroke of midnight. He then flies to Hawaii and plays at another Millennium celebration thanks to the time difference! 2020Vision stay on to party with the Aussies.”

We release our belated first label mix compilation,‘Visionaries’, which goes on to be listed in many top 10 compilations of the year. Carl Finlow moves to France and Huggy moves to America, so I am left to re-think. The style press are busy trying to kill off dance music, which is bad. It does signal the end of the superclubs, which is good. Fabric re-writes the rulebook and dance music moves back underground — so does 2020Vision. I start to have grand ideas about starting a band, something I’ve always wanted to do since being a kid. I look around and see hardly anyone performing electronic music well.”

Sonar Festival invite 2020Vision to close their outdoor stage called 'Sonar Pub.' We’ve never seen a pub that has a beer garden that can hold 15,000 people before, so are suitably impressed. I take to the stage with Domenic Cappello and Random Factor to play the closing set as the sun comes up. We are now on the biggest stage in Europe. We feel like we’ve won the Champions League final. To cap off a great summer, 2020Vision also has its first true hit with Soldiers of Twilight 'Believe'.”

Turns out to be a prolific year with 16 releases, including big club hits from David Duriez 'Get On Down' and Dano, Chus & Ceballos 'Deep Architecture'. We sign our first Argentinian players in the shape of Silver City, and an aspiring DJ from Leeds called Paul Woolford releases his debut album under the name Bobby Peru.”

The live project is born. Dubble D plays drums while Fernando Pulichino and Julian Sanza take on bass and keyboard duties, and I throw down the beats for 2020Soundsystem. We go from playing in a bar in Leeds to Bugged Out!, The Sub Club and Fabric in a couple of months. By summer we get our first festival bookings. We have no songs and no vocalist but we can definitely rock the spot live.”

2020Vision is going from strength-to-strength as we enter our 10th year. Vinyl is selling well still and we have a great run of singles, including my personal favourite Bobby Peru track ‘For My Bleeps’ as well as the huge DJ T track ‘Radiator’, but it’s 'The Liptrick' that really resonates as the track of the year from Simon Baker. We have finally got into gear with album releases, and both Fred Everything and Random Factor have well-received long-players out.”

The push towards a more live sound continues with Silver City and Dubble D producing albums for the label. Silver City make the biggest hit of the year thanks to a remix from Ewan Pearson on their track ‘Shiver’. We also sign the excellent Belgian duo Spirit Catcher.”

Paul Woolford walks into the office after finishing a remix session for Freeform Five and plays us the mixes. At the end of the session he has run off a dub version of just the drums and FX for DJ use. Justin Long is over in Leeds from Chicago, as we are handling his Dot Bleep label for him, and hears the track. He prises it away from Woolford and starts playing it at The Smart Bar in Chicago. People are going nuts, he tells us. We talk Paul into letting us release it, he agrees for us to put out some white labels. Within days, DJ reaction has gone through the roof and the distributors are begging for copies. 'Erotic Discourse’ goes on to be a massive hit and propels both Woolford and 2020Vision into the limelight.”

Continues to see solid output from the label with a new generation of local talent emerging, including the debut single from an 18-year-old Burnski and two local lads who go on to make big waves called Audiojack. I mix another label compilation for release in Japan only, and one of my favourite-ever 2020 tracks 'Third Knife' by The Youngsters causes chaos on the dancefloor. 2020Soundsystem are touring across the world after the release of their debut album ‘No Order’, which includes the mix 'Live From Sonar’ that winds up on the year-end 'Best Of’ lists. There are huge shows at Creamfields Argentina and Exit Serbia to crowds of 20,000 people.”

We have learnt a lot about working with live bands from the Soundsystem project and are now able to attract our first major group signing — Crazy P. The job puts us out of our comfort zone, but that is something everyone should be doing on a regular basis. The band become our biggest selling project to date, and I like to think we help them on their way as well. We also have the honour of Greg Wilson making a mix compilation for us.”

I know I am the front man of 2020Vision but I am super-lucky to have Andy Whittaker, Jane Ainley and Tristan da Cunha on our team. Tristan is head of A&R and responsible for bringing in Art of Tones who make the track ‘Praise’ for us, and he also unearths a fresh new talent from Germany called Danilo, better known as Motor City Drum Ensemble. We get a classic EP and remix from MCDE before he disappears into the sunset. 

“The biggest hit of the year comes from the 2020Soundsystem and a sublime remix from another rising German star, Johnny D, on 'Sliding Away’. It sells loads of vinyl and sits at the top of RA’s most charted singles for over a year. On the album front things go full circle when our original motivator Stacey Pullen continues our mix compilation series.”

I am invited to host a summer residency at We Love... Space and mix their compilation album of the summer with 2020Vision tracks. Ibiza has always given great inspiration to the label over the years. I was first a resident at the Underground club and have played at most of the big ones, but it is Circo Loco at DC10 that has always given the most inspiration for the label. I also mix a weekly radio show for Ibiza Sonica. It is great to finally introduce the first-ever artist from Ibiza, as Tuccillo joins the label.”

Sometimes an artist comes along that everyone loves. So as soon as I hear Maya Jane Coles, I get down to London to meet her. Of course I’m not the only one taking an interest, but she likes the label and is keen to do something for 2020Vision. Some artists go for years at a steady pace while some shoot through the stratosphere, and MJC certainly belongs to the latter. ‘Little One’ and ‘Senseless’ stand out as two of the best tracks any artist has ever given 2020.”

We decide to focus on new British talent this year, with Huxley turning out to be the kingpin. PBR Streetgang, Ossie, Photomachine, Freak Seven and Debukas all represent to good effect. Whenever I feel jaded there is always a host of new artists who inspire me and make me realise why we continue to run a record label.”

We pull the curtain on the 2020Soundsystem as the guys have now moved back to Argentina. I also decide it is time to fully focus on 2020Vision as it enters its 20th year. I start to ask artists I would really like represented on the label to contribute to the celebration album, entitled ‘Content’. The new signings continue as we sign the next exciting talent to cross our path — Citizen has entered the building.”

What 2020 means to their artists

Doc Daneeka
There's just been such an overwhelming quality coming from them. I always respected from the beginning the vision and the quality coming from the camp and, indeed, Ralph's leadership. Of course, with all the history, I was very flattered when I was asked to work with 2020 in the evolution of their sound and vision.”

Simon Baker
There have been many highlights, but my best experience is probably the 2020 boat parties in Croatia at Hideout Festival. They are always rocking — pun intended! First year is was Ralph, myself and Maya Jane Coles, then last year Ralph myself and Bicep. Both have been amazing and going off. What can be better — sun, sea and some smashing beats? All a bit hazy now, but what I do remember is nearly falling off the boat.”

Audiojack (Richard Burkinshaw)
You could say 2020Vision started it all for us. Back in the early noughties we were immersed in the Leeds nightlife and their releases from artists like Paul Woolford, Spirit Catcher, Fred Everything, Silver City, Electric Press and Tim Paris were on constant rotation in our record boxes. Alongside Back To Basics, they were instrumental in our motivation to start making music and it was a dream come true to eventually be signed to the very label that inspired us to start in the first place. Seminal, pivotal and wonderful... long live 2020Vision.”