Ralf Gum - From South Africa With Love
Esteemed house imprint GOGO Music is celebrating it’s 15th birthday with a sublime compilation of 25 stunning releases called ‘GO!!! 15 Years Of Enchanting House Music’. This package is a real journey though the label’s back catalogue and features tracks and remixes from the likes of Black Coffee, Louie Vega, Robert Owens, Sean McCabe, Monique Bingham, Omar, Manoo, Louis Benedetti and of course label boss, Ralf Gum.
A name that has been a constant for everything that is good about real house music, from a personal point of view, I think that there’s something reassuring knowing that Ralf is out there, doing his thing. Everything he releases, both as a label boss and an artist, come with a real stamp of quality that very few people on the house scene can compete with, and this compilation is a testament to that level of musical intergrity.
I had the pleasure of having an in-depth conversation with the label boss about his time at the helm of GOGO Music, the many changes the imprint has faced over the years and what inspires him to keep releasing and creating so many timeless classics. Having recently relocated from Germany to South Africa, had his music now found it’s spiritual home?
I got up close and personal with the GOGO Music boss as he celebrates 15 years of releases in this intimate and exclusive Traxsource interview with Ralf Gum – From South Africa With Love.
15 years of GOGO Music is a huge achievement. What were your goals when you initially started the label?
I had a rather naive approach and just wanted to release good music. Music that I considered as worthy and thought the world should hear. I felt that it makes most sense to do so on a platform where there’s control over certain business aspects, instead of just signing my songs to other labels and not being able to release talent I believed in. This approach has never changed.
Did you ever imagine you’d make it to a decade and a half of house music releases?
Actually, I hadn’t planned that far ahead. Even though there’s always been a vision, the planning in the early years was rather short term. I just went from one project to another and kept on doing so, but of course always with the aim to make a living. It’s a great achievement if you’re able to do what you love.
What challenges have you faced over the past 15 years?
GOGO started prior to the digital age, so the industry has changed completely since then. It meant countless challenges. Being able to react and adapt to those steady changes is probably one of the most important skills in the music business today. After starting as a vinyl only label, we have been amongst the first imprints which have been selling on Traxsource when you started out in 2004. Staying connected and staying up with latest trends is essential.
Do you have any particular highlights, special releases or moments?
Many. It is the positive experiences and success stories that keep one going. The first ones that come to mind are having the best selling track of the year in 2008 on Traxsource together with Monique Bingham ‘Kissing Strangers’, or the following year with Black Coffee’s ‘Turn Me On’. Another highlight was my album ‘Never Leaves You’ reaching Gold in South Africa through a licensing deal we did with House Afrika / Sony Music. But each release is literally a highlight. GOGO doesn’t put out that much, so each release on the label is something close to our hearts.
How did you go about choosing the tracks for this amazing compilation?
We wanted to keep it fresh without neglecting some classics which the label is known for, so we concentrated mainly on the releases of the last 5 years. We also wanted to avoid sounding like a repetition of our digital 10th anniversary Collection. We preferred to include versions which didn’t feel overused on other CDs or digital compilations. We’re in the comfortable position to look on a back catalogue with quite some depth and therefore had enough choices, then we filled up the potential track-lists with a few older releases. The flow of the DJ mixes also changed some decisions.
How was your sound initially received in your home country of Germany, which is obviously seen as the spiritual home of techno?
In Germany, my sound usually used to be too ‘musical’ for the majority of clubbers, so I wasn’t destined to become one of the really popular DJs. Nevertheless, there was always a small supportive scene which enabled me to stay true. Except for my residencies, which I steadily had since the mid 90s in my hometown, I often was booked more internationally than in my own country.
Did the German audiences initially understand the sound that GOGO Music were purveying?
Unfortunately not, as it was too soulful in comparison to what was mainly played in German clubs at the time. However, we always had a group of followers who really got it; this served as motivation. In retrospect, the German scene of the 90s and before I started the label, was actually better for what I play than the one after the millennium change. People were easier to excite with a fresh House sound, which was mainly coming from the States back then. We had a real soulful community, with artists like Boris Dlugosch or Mousse T coming to gigs in my hometown or I would visit their city. From the late 90s and in the following years, something I’d call a ‘European’ sound took over in the House scene and a lot of it sounded more commercialised to my ears. It made things in clubs less musical and wasn’t what GOGO Music would have released. Therefore, GOGO’s sound was mainly played in other territories since the beginning. It’s good to see there’s a revival of a deeper and groovier sound happening in Germany lately.
You recently moved to South Africa where you have a huge following. How did that come about?
I was taken away when I visited the country for the first time. The beauty of it and the depth of the House music scene made me fall in love with South Africa. Friendships grew on subsequent tours until my wife and I decided to give it a try.
Did you always see Africa as your spiritual home?
Before coming here, I liked African music. And the love for African grooves influenced my work of course, but that’s it. It grew to be a spiritual home over time and only after the relocation.
How has the dance music scene changed in South Africa over the years?
There are steadily changes going on, just as in every other country. Musical trends come and go; those people who are after the latest ‘in-thing’ will follow. When I first visited in 2008, the scene felt rather unique. It was before Afro house started getting bigger global attention and before artists like Black Coffee or Culoe De Song were rising to their deserved global fame. The music played by a lot of DJs was mostly a combination of local and international sounds, just as it is now. However there was not that much exchange in terms of artist bookings with other countries going on yet. Over the last few years this increased and more international DJs are visiting the country and collaborating with South African artists.
Where is your favourite place to play in the world?
Since I got booked in South Africa, I have played various times to huge crowds. I would not have imagined that my sound as a DJ would suit for festivals with a 20K or 30K attendance. Playing at Southport Weekender, last year’s 51st State Festival and Vocal Booth Weekender or that one gig in Tokyo 8 years ago. There are many highlights, however I still love the vibe of an intimate room with a great soundsystem. We just found such a room in Johannesburg at Kitcheners where we started on 14th April a new GOGO Music residency. Every third Thursday of the month it is back to the basics, with long sets, as only 2 DJs will play for the whole night.
Who has played the best DJ set you have ever heard?
Great DJs have the ability to turn a night into a magical experience and I have heard various people who managed to do so. Probably a person is easier to impress at an early age, simply as you haven’t heard that many great DJ sets yet. Definitely influential for me have been my first visits in New York around 1991. Hearing DJs like Camacho, Louie Vega or Larry Levan playing that cool, soulful, new sound while partying as a young person in the Big Apple was impressive, probably changed my life and made me the House head I still am today.
You work with the real cream of the crop in regards to soulful singers. Are their any vocalists that you would love to work with?
Okay, let’s put some out there. Chacka Khan, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu would be three ladies of a much longer list.
If you could only choose ONE person to remix your work, who would it be?
This is a tough one. We’re really proud and honoured that there were already many on GOGO, someone would probably mention here. Two we did not have yet and who come to my mind instantly are Jimpster or Charles Webster. I dig their detailed and intelligent productions. But if I can really name only one person, I’d give it to Raw Artistic Soul. Phil delivered something outstanding with every remix he did for the label.
Do you have any advice for up and coming DJs and producers?
Next to the 2 P’s; Passion and Patience. You can only stand out as long as you stay YOU.
House music is now bigger than ever. How do you see the scene evolving both across the world and in South Africa?
Of course it is good to see the current state of house music. There’s a real revival of a positive sound happening all over the world. Good festivals like for example 51st State in London arise successfully and so hopefully more people will be reached by the sound over time. However, the current business models of our industry mainly cater for the few top DJs. Only those who are steadily repeated on the line-ups of the big festivals in the Northern Hemisphere are making an income which will enable them to retire at some point. Reality for a lot of other artists in the Deep and Soulful House scene is that not enough revenue is created even while House music booms, as it is not easy to make money with the actual music anymore. With regards to South Africa, it probably has more house lovers than any other country on the planet.
Are there any up and coming African DJs or producers that we should be looking out for at the moment?
Yes, of course. In a country which breathes House music, there are steadily new talents emerging. I could start counting down some names now and then be in trouble as I forgot others. In our times it really isn’t difficult to dig anymore and everyone should find his own pearls. There’s great sounds produced here. Our very own Sir LSG is currently working on his debut album to be released in 2017 and judging from what’s recorded so far, it will confirm that he is one worth looking out for.
Where do you see yourself in 15 years, both as an artist and for the label?
Once I find time, usually ideas pop up and make me think that I should do this or that. You’ll probably find me somewhere behind the decks or in a studio working on a song. Some say that it is more convenient to do more production work and less DJing at an old age, but we shall see.
What are your plans for the future of GOGO Music?
Even though the industry changed a lot over the last 15 years, the ethos behind GOGO never did. We’re on the lookout for good music; the timeless songs. We will just keep on doing our thing, at least as long as we’re able to.