Ralph Lawson - Ibiza Voice Interview

I recently caught up with Ibiza Voice to discuss inner city electronic festival in Leeds, it's curation  and the inspiration behind the project. Read the full interview here...

"Leeds has always been known as a party city. It has bred world renowned clubs, acts and promoters, and many DJ's have cut their teeth on the local scene. But too many of them often leave for the bright lights of London or cheap rent of Berlin. Hoping to help change that is inner city electronic, a collaborative one day and night event that brings the whole city together across a number of different venues.

As well as a range of parties in clubs and on rooftops, there will be workshops and talks that encourage young people to get into making music and help bring people together as part of a wider Leeds community. It is the brainchild of Ben Thompson Ben Robinson from Bluedot Festival, and 2020 Vision label owner, original Back to Basics jock and 30-year Leeds resident alien Ralph Lawson. Here we talk to Ralph about the plans for the first inner city electronic on June 2nd, how and why it came about and more besides."

Words by: Kristan Caryl

Who is behind inner city electronic and what are their various skills?

The inner city electronic concept came from Ben Thompson. I first met Ben when he was brought in to help on a 20/20 Vision party by a friend. I’d barely met him when he introduced himself and told me a light was off and there should be set times up in the toilets. I laughed and immediately thought, “this guy’s got balls”. I like straight talking, driven people and Ben has both of those qualities. Ben was working over at Bluedot festival last summer and took his idea to Ben Robinson who runs the festival. Robinson saw the potential in the idea and decided to back the project. I was then invited to curate the artists. But it turned out to be more than a simple job of curation as the first months were spent making an alliance of venues and getting the project off the ground. 

What was the initial idea, what is the aim, why does the city need this? Is it modelled on any other similar event?

The initial idea came from Ben Thompson. I'm sure he’d be the first to say that no idea is unique and they are all forged from inspiration. Live at Leeds is a similar successful model in the city for indie music but there was nothing for electronic music. Of course we have also all been inspired by ADE and Sonar over the years, although they are different festival models than inner city. Leeds has a very compact city centre with several truly world class venues making it very easy for guests to wonder about easily and dive into different experiences as they please. We aim to give people the best possible day and night you could have in the city and we all know leeds has a long history of throwing a good party!

How does it differ from the various club nights that happens in these venues each week?

It’s really simple, there is no way any of the venues could ever put the line ups we are giving them on a stand alone show. By using a festival model we can give the venues huge line ups, even if they are relatively small capacity.  On the flip side our guests can enjoy more parties than they could ever make in one night and see more artists than they’d see. Throw in a whole host of daytime terrace and roof parties and finish off with a comprehensive talks, workshops and masterclass program and you’ve got the makings of a damn fine day out.

How long did it take to get off the ground, what were the biggest challenges? 

Unbelievably this only landed on my plate last September. Ben has been working on the concept for around a year but I had a very short window to pull the curation around.  We didn’t have a Facebook page on the Tuesday of the announcement week, we put out a video on the Wednesday and announced the line up on the Thursday. We came out of nowhere with the intention to blow peoples’ minds. We’re not messing about here...

Tell us about some of the venues you’ve enlisted and the different sort of parties they will host.

There are eleven venues and each one has been hand picked because its owners were doing something interesting for the city with the space. We are working with Belgrave Music Hall, Church, Distrikt, Headrow House, Hi-Fi, Hope House, Hyde Park Book Club, Old Red Bus Station, Sheaf Street, The Wardrobe and Wire. 

What I realised personally was that it only takes a relatively small amount of people to transform a city. Leeds was hit hard by the recession and fell flat for a good few years with hardly any new building or movement. So many of my friends and co-workers left for London, Berlin and beyond. We suffered a real creative ‘brain drain’.  Then a few brave individuals got up off their arses, often risking everything they had, to lease and design cool new spaces.  But no one has ever got them all together to showcase what a great thing they have done for the city. I am really proud when I walk round the city centre and there is a genuine feeling of goodwill and positivity. Everyone is really pushing hard and when that is all pulled together it becomes a powerful movement.

I have tried very hard in my curation to tell the story of the electronic music scene as seen through my eyes. I have been here for exactly 30 years this year and have seen the scene grow pretty much from the start. One of the first things I knew I had to achieve was to tell the story of dub sound systems and the blues clubs. This is where it all started for me and I can see a direct lineage from the dub reggae sounds from Chapeltown culminating into the sound of bleep techno in the early 90s. I’ve seen the progression from bleep to techno, early electro pioneers inspired by Detroit and a strong history of live electronic bands. But I’ve also seen the parties, the disco vibes and house patriots that are still a fairly secret history of the city with so many stories to tell...

So we’ve worked very hard to make sure the history of the city is represented in the parties. I am not saying it's totally definitive and I fully appreciate that there are genres that aren’t represented this year. There are also a few key artists I couldn’t get this year, but you have to start somewhere...

There will be talks and workshops right? Can you tell us about any of the subjects, hosts or guests?

The talks and workshops will centre around Belgrave Music Hall, Hope House, Sheaf St and The Wardrobe. Belgrave will feature a series of talks and panels aiming to inspire and help people who want to make, create or get into music, art and events. Hope House is a truly unique venue run by the MAP charity with a strong focus on helping young people find creative directions. Sheaf Street will be our technology centre with workstations and interactive performances and masterclass. The Wardrobe will tell the story of dub and feature dub masterclass. The full talk program line up is coming soon. I can’t give any exact details away at this stage...

What state is the Leeds scene right now? Is this designed to boost and bolster it, bring new talents out and create community? Or is it just about the parties?

Leeds is a party town. Everyone has known it for years and our club scene has attracted people into the city to party for a long time, and why not indeed!  Festivals are celebrations first and foremost. But yes we do have a serious agenda and we do mean business here. I’ve spent a lifetime in electronic music in this city and now is the time to elevate the scene for everyone - venues, artists, bars, restaurants and the people who make them all possible. 

Personally I would like to see more world class producers emerge from the city. We have produced a whole array of international DJs but only a handful of great electronic music artists, in my opinion. We are definitely aiming to find new talent. We are also intending to give that talent the tools it needs to survive and then to make it. I have learned my lessons running a record label through the hardest times the music industry has ever seen and I’ve lived the tell the tales. I intend to pass my knowledge on to the next generation of music lovers, or at least anyone who will listen...

We are also 100% about community. Individually we are strong but together we are far stronger. I got into all this as an angry young man who actually believed in acid house. I still happen to believe in it all...

About the line-up, how did you chose it, what informed it? What’s it designed to represent?

I had a hit list and I did my very best to get everyone on that list. I wasn't going to take no for an answer and I kept pushing hard. My first list was purely instinctive. I didn’t even think about it, names just came into my head that we should be representing. It was really important to me that the dub, techno, electro, house and disco scenes were all represented as those are the worlds that I have direct experience. I then also wanted to make sure that we focused on the future and went out to find world class cutting edge electronic music artists. Some took a lot of work. My job will always be to curate the best possible electronic music selection we can bring to the city on the day. 

What are you most excited about for the first inner city electronic?

I’m just excited about it all. Really. We are just buzzing about the whole project. There are so many people contacting us on a daily basis wanting to get involved. The first edition is just the tip of the iceberg. We all believe in what we are trying to achieve and we’re going to make it happen. We’re going to make something great...