A bit of rave revivalism here, a sly nod to the jacking sounds of Chicago there, R-Zone is the ’90s-obsessed, clandestine sub-label to DJ TLR‘s Creme Organization. The sense of nostalgia is palpable, but everything they release sounds remarkably fresh – safe to say that injecting new life into well-worn tropes is easier said than done. With its anonymous approach, established names are afforded breathing space, releasing music without the burden of hype or expectation. Freed from those shackles, R-Zone artists consistently display a sense of fun and vibrancy often lacking in modern electronic music.
After a year spent in hibernation, R-Zone has returned for one of its most riotous efforts to date. Today we have the exclusive on A1 cut, ‘Greatest Enemy’, a track where gleaming pads emanate a ghostly ambience over rattling breakbeat patterns and a booming kick drum presides over all. We also caught up with head honcho DJ TLR for a Q&A on the mysterious imprint, shedding light on everything from influences and aspirations to antiquated gaming systems and why he’ll always favour escapism over sentimentality.
What can first-timers expect upon entering the R-Zone?
A world of music.
What inspired you to start the label in the first place?
I had an itch that Creme couldn’t scratch. A few years ago I started listening again to the stuff that I was into in the 90’s. For a long time I was kinda sick of it but then it came back with a vengeance. I guess it goes in cycles. I just really got into the artwork and mystique of those early records. It has a kind of naivety that I think is missing now with the scene being more “mature” and all. It was more crude and less self referential. Don’t get me wrong there is great stuff now and always and production skills are through the roof but I have a soft spot for the original quirks and idea(l)s of this particular time.
How come you decided to make R-Zone a (semi-)anonymous project?
Because of Discogs. So many labels look more or less the same.. Same artists different catalog numbers. Also Creme has copycats. It’s boring. In the beginning we used a lot of fake names, this is just a bit more radical. Copy that motherfucker!
It’s named after the old games console, right? Did you own an R-Zone growing up?
No I found out later. Well I came up with the name and I googled it, as you do, and that console turned up. But it seemed pretty obscure and forgotten so I thought what the hell. Besides, a failed virtual reality machine fits in with the vibe of early CGI, Babylon 5, Lawnmower Man, Neuromancer, RanXerox, hell even Max Headroom.. 486 50mhz computer graphics that took weeks to render. Building your neighbors house in a Doom WAD editor. But I grew up on Atari 800XL and before that my friend had Pong on the TV. We thought that was magic and it was. In more ways we could imagine then. Anyway in this case I was mainly inspired by Jo’s ‘R-Type’, one of the most out there early jungle tunes, with samples from an old Amiga game. A strange duck in the byte that one, the production is really crappy with cardboard kicks, but it’s extremely charming and it’s got a really dope bass line. It was made by one of the dancers of SL2, one of those seminal rave acts in the early 1990s. You can see her in the video of ‘Way In My Brain’, it’s pretty funny. Other tunes that are directly responsible are Metalheads’ ‘Sinister’ and Rufige Cru’s ‘Dark Rider’. Those intros dude. So cheap but so cool.
R-Zone was a vinyl-only label for its first year. Why did you eventually decide to go digital as well?
I’m only doing Bandcamp for this one. It just took me a while to set up as I didn’t want it in the normal mainstream channels of Beatport, iTunes etc. But music needs to be free, I don’t see the point in confining it to one medium and then letting anyone outside the club depend on homemade rips. It’s just meant to come out of speakers by any means necessary. I don’t feel connected with the vinyl only scene. I was vinyl only for over a decade and have no desire to go back to that. Most people I know (especially women) only listen on phones or laptops or whatever, but not turntables. We used to make clubs with arbitrary rules and just two members in kindergarten. That was fun till we were about 10. Why cut out 98% of the population? Face it, vinyl records are just some crazy luxury item that are the first off the list in favour of say, gas bills or car insurance.
Like DJs performing being screens, the anonymity of artists definitely allows the music to take centre-stage, away from an hype or expectation. Is this something you had in mind in deciding what approach to take?
Yeah something like that. I want the music to be judged by itself, not by the artist name that’s on it. I mean we all do it. I see a familiar artist name and I have a picture in my mind, from his or her earlier work, affiliations, perhaps personal encounters, gossip etc. It’s almost impossible for me to listen to something then without using that whole backstory as a reference. That’s just baggage in the end. It’s cool if you don’t have anything to go by except the image on the label and the music itself. Fuck a video even. That’s what I liked about a lot of older records. That sense of mystery. It’s frustrating but it also fires the imagination. It never used to be such an issue. I never knew who was playing back in the days. The whole concept of billing internationals and selling them with targeted campaigns, let alone “curating” “events”, was more alien. In the underground anyway. That kinda impartiality has disappeared. The Indiana Jones factor is gone. Good for me though, I’d be sitting at home if it hadn’t.
Do you think being free from the burden of expectation has benefited the label?
I don’t know really, it has for me cause it gives me more space to mess around in. Anyway this concept is hardly new of course, it was also around in The Hague in the ’90s and in also in Detroit. I’ve had some good reactions and I notice it makes people curious. I get a lot of questions, Who did number 6? Who did number 7 and stuff. But I’m not saying anything.
There are clues to be found on who produced each record, but would you prefer it if people were happy to leave those identities a mystery?
Not surprisingly in the beginning it was a bit harder to convince some people to forego their brandnames and submit to the collective, like a medieval artist in service of the church. It’s not something that fits in with the hyper individualistic gospel we are force fed. So I put people’s real names in the fine print instead as a compromise. And now that it’s a thing I’ve stopped doing that also. Then again some artists were really into it from the get go. It really doesn’t need to be top secret though. It works regardless when you pick up one of the records and especially when you put a few together. It just means it’s in the background and you have to go looking for it, in some cases in vain.
When it comes to sourcing music, do you approach artists with a specific brief or is it more a case of being offered tracks that make sense on the label?
Both. Some people I hunt down because I like their stuff, some things just flutter past through wherever, the internet, word of mouth and friends. In the beginning I was more specific and asked some of the artists if they could make some weird Ravey shit. That sound wasn’t really there yet. Now it is. So it’s time to quit and move on probably.
Have any labels inspired your curation or approach with R-Zone?
Yeah lots. A whole boatload of UK Hardcore minus the pianolised chipmunks; Moving Shadow, Reinforced, Tango & Ratty, 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, early Doc Scott etc etc. Basically the transition period between Hardcore and Jungle. That’s an amazing little bubble of maybe one, two years there, 1993/1994. There are these pockets in music that are just bursting with energy… ’85-’87 Chicago, late ’80s Detroit, ’82-’83 Italo Disco, ’87-’89 Hip Hop, then ’93-’95 again… ’81-’84 Hardcore Punk, ’76-’77 Punk… ’78-’80 post punk, synth-wave whatever I could go on and on.. Anyway one of the labels that inspired me most this time was the early releases of Skanna, there’s something about that label that’s very intriguing, crude home made magic marker artwork, no info and the quality of the music… Phew, that came out in a vacuum.. Shit like Night Stalker, Until The Night Is Morning… Nothing sounded like that. It’s like the guy was making some kinda proto drum & bass before jungle was even around.. WTF? Obviously it was largely ignored at the time.
Have all the artists to release on R-Zone been established, and if so, is the door open to unknown producers if the music’s good enough?
Yeah sure, there’s already some debuts on there by artists that have now moved on and have normal releases on more established labels. Offhand I can think of 3. That’s really cool about it, that it can be side by side with the ‘names’ without people knowing and more importantly without judging it beforehand. What’s also amusing is that sometimes they sell better than the established ones.
Godspill does all the artwork for Creme Organization. Who’s responsible for design when it comes to R-Zone?
The R-Zone professional design team.
Is it fair to assume that you’re looking to capture an essence of the Hague squat scene of the ‘90s with the label?
No, fuck those days. I’m not trying to bring back anything. For me the ’90s were as restless and confusing as any other time and in many ways I’m better off now. Remember, 95% of the time life was just life, not some mythical techno dance but 70’s retro kids with flared pants listening to Grunge, parents on your ass and no money. I don’t get teary eyed when I think back, for me most of the good shit happened 2000 and beyond. Besides I’ve never been a club rat. This aesthetic has been for reference, not for resurrection. The music is different also. I just like to create an imaginary world. That’s something escapist that I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, chasing the dragon, Atlantis forever in the corner of your eyes. I believe we all have some intuitive understanding of infinity, zero and the universe. Our atoms have a memory of the original oneness, thats something I like about Pantheism. Even though we write Bibles and Qurans and Torahs about it none of us can put it into words. But we can put it into music and drift through it, surfing on sine waves. That’s the R-Zone. Once you try to understand it disappears. It’s a cruel joke, but that’s probably so we don’t get stuck there and get eaten by lions.
Is there anyone you’re yet to ask, but would like to sign to the label?
No not really, not for R-Zone specifically anyway. I just “signed” Rhythmic Theory for a 4-tracker on Creme. That’s my main achievement this year, but I hope it’s not the last.
And finally, can we expect many more faceless additions to the R-Zone series in 2017?
Possibly, maybe, yes.
R-Zone 17 is out now – buy the vinyl here.