James Ruskin sits down with Attack editor Greg Scarth to discuss two decades of Blueprint Records and why he thinks there’s still “so much more to come” for techno.
Reaching the milestone of two decades in dance music should always be applauded. In the case of Blueprint Records, two decades of consistently high quality output deserve more than just applause: they deserve celebration and recognition of the label’s role in the history of techno.
James Ruskin founded Blueprint in 1996 with his close friend and collaborator Richard Polson. Following Polson’s death in 2006, the label went on a hiatus as Ruskin briefly lost the motivation to release records. Since relaunching in 2009, the label has continued to maintain its high standards thanks to releases including Ruskin’s own output, contributions from long-time collaborators Oliver Ho and Karl O’Connor, and Surgeon’s return to the label with this year’s excellent Search Deep Inside Yourself EP.
The label’s 20th birthday celebrations include the release of the Structures And Solutions compilation album and a series of events, including this weekend’s The Hydra: Blueprint 20 in London with Jeff Mills, Ben Klock and Dvs1 joining Ruskin on the line-up.
We sat down with James to discuss his experience of the industry over the last 20 years, touching on changes in production techniques, the legacy of Blueprint and why he still believes so strongly in the power of techno.
Attack: Given that it’s the 20th anniversary of Blueprint, how about we begin by contrasting your production techniques and technology from 20 years ago with those of today?
James Ruskin: Well it’s immeasurably different to be honest with you. The primitive equipment we were using and even the cost of starting the label was just miles away from where we are today. I’m not talking so much from the synthesiser point of view because a lot of that early tech seems to be resurfacing in many different ways, but I started off using an Atari ST with Cubase, which was obviously purely MIDI, so there was no audio at all. Then Macs came along with Cubase and Logic with audio. Compared to where we are now with processing power, it’s just a million miles away. I think the starkest differences are the processing power and the actual ways we record – we used to record to DAT tapes or onto quarter-inch tape. Those days are long gone, and with DATs I’ve gotta say I’m happy about it because they were a pain in the arse most of the time!
Back when things were being sequenced by the Atari, it was much more about preparing things to perform in one take, recording to tape or DAT, and then if that wasn’t good enough it was right back to the beginning, recording it all over again from scratch. Nowadays, it’s much more about being able to multitrack, edit, go in and tweak stuff, then process the recordings. How much difference does that make in terms of the end result?
It’s huge. Back then, with the sort of facilities we had, there was multi-tracking for people who could go into big studios, but we were recording DATs in stereo and it was a case of getting all of the equipment working and doing live takes. Everything was mixed live on the desk and that’s how we always did it. There weren’t arrangements or anything like that, the arrangement was you essentially playing the mixing desk as an instrument. That would involve a lot of equalising and cutting or changing levels using the faders, so we would sometimes do 10 or 15 takes of a track until we caught the one we felt was right.
we would sometimes do 10 or 15 takes of a track until we caught the one we felt was right.
Nowadays another big thing is recall. Back then when you turned the equipment off your track was gone, because there was no way of storing it, and you couldn’t move onto the next track until you’d finished that one – unless you wanted to write down every setting on the desk, which wasn’t something you really wanted to get involved with due to time constraints. Everything was very organic, it just flowed very quickly. Something was done and you moved onto the next thing. Now you’ve got endless recall and can store absolutely anything, meaning you can keep going back to ideas, which I enjoy a lot, but the problem that creates is knowing when something’s finished. When do you turn around and say something’s done? I’d say it’s now many processes after where we used to say it was done, and that’s purely due to the nature of the technology we’ve got now.
Working on one track at a time forces you to be more critical about the process and to ask yourself: “Is this track going to work out? Shall we abandon it and move on? Shall we work harder on this one?”
There was always a cut-off point where if something wasn’t starting to come together fairly quickly you knew you were forcing or belabouring it, and it was a case of moving on. You could spend a few days on something, when in your head you knew it wasn’t going anywhere. The difference now is you can remove the elements that aren’t working and reconstruct it. If I’m in the studio for 12 to 14 hours, personally I rarely make the greatest of decisions after that period of time.
Are there any tracks you look back at now and wish you could go back and fix a part or change it about?
There’s often been times when I’ve thought about what I would have done differently, but then I kind of like the naivety of that early material. I like the fact that it was made on what would be considered laughable equipment now, even though the investment was still quite heavy at the time. One of the first major bits of kit we bought a couple years before we started the label was an Akai S950 sampler, which had something like 60 seconds of sampling time…
It sounds preposterous now, but I can remember paying £650 for this thing for 60 seconds of sampling time, and I think it was the first 12-bit sampler as well. It was a very naive machine compared to what we’re used to now and that’s kind of what I like about those early recordings: they’re of that moment. I think any artist could turn around and say they can do it better now, but do I want to? There are things I would have done differently but they’re a snapshot of that time.
We didn’t have the kind of wall of bass we have now... some tracks wouldn’t translate in the way that's required for today's systems. We don’t know how lucky we are compared to how things were 20 to 25 years ago
Off the top of your head, are there any specific examples of what you might have done differently?
No, I’d have to sit and listen to it and think, but I don’t tend to analyse my music. A lot of that music I was making to play out of a weekend, and sound systems were very different then as well. The deficiencies in the sound systems, we didn’t actually realise they were there because it’s what we were used to. We didn’t have the kind of wall of bass we have now, so those tracks felt comfortable in that environment, but there’d be ones that wouldn’t translate in the way that’s required for today’s systems. We don’t know how lucky we are compared to how things were 20 to 25 years ago with sound systems. Not just that, but the way that mixer technology has developed.
Yeah. They’re infinitely better sounding now.
It goes without saying that most house and techno is sound system music in the sense that it’s designed for clubs, but I’ve never really thought about the fact that sound systems have developed so much over such a relatively short space of time.
Massively, and it’s something that’s happened so quickly. It’s not something I’d even thought about until recently, because I’ve been looking back at what’s happened since I started DJing, and that’s made me start thinking about how it was then, how clubs were and in particular how the sound systems were back then, and what was required from them. Some of the bass we can get into tracks these days just wouldn’t have worked on the sound systems back then – they just couldn’t have handled it. They required a very, very different mixing technique. That’s definite.
It’s one of my bugbears when it comes to production. There’s still so much talk of the old-fashioned rock and pop approach of listening on different setups – on headphones, in your car, all that kind of stuff – but I think for dance music the rules are different: the number one priority should be how it’s going to sound in a club, and everything else should come way behind that.
I couldn’t agree more, particularly if the track is purely for that purpose. Let’s be honest: there are techno records you don’t listen to at home anyway, so their translation in those environments is irrelevant, and if I’m making something that’s purely for a club, I want it to work on a system. Separation and having the elements sitting together properly will make a track show up on a home stereo or in your car, which is great, but the actual frequencies that you need to get it across in a club are of no consequence when you’re at home. I think it’s what you’re trying to put across and trying to achieve with that particular piece of music dictates how you mix it. What is it you want from this and what do you want people to take from it?
Let's be honest: there are techno records you don’t listen to at home anyway, so their translation in those environments is irrelevant, and if I’m making something that’s purely for a club, I want it to work on a system.
The word ‘functional’ is thrown around quite a lot in techno, often with a quite negative connotation attached to it. I guess large parts of your output, and large parts of Blueprint’s output in general, could be seen as functional music in a positive sense: it’s music for a specific environment.
Yes, I couldn’t argue with that. There’s a large part of it that’s been created to be used in a certain environment to achieve an objective. Does that make something functional, or does that mean it’s fit for purpose? I don’t know.
Exactly. It’s strange that in other areas of our lives we don’t use the word ‘functional’ in a bad sense. Nobody seems to complain about things being functional in other contexts.
That’s true. Again it depends on what people want from the music and what people are expecting from it. For me there are so many different sides to techno, I just consider it electronic music. There are far too many tags and pigeonholes placed on electronic music that I don’t think are relevant or necessary, because for me techno can translate in many different ways. I think if people aren’t really into it they have a kind of warped view of what techno is.
I think that’s fair to say. So the obvious question then is how would you describe what you do to somebody who doesn’t know a thing about the music you make?
I can’t. There’s so much electronic music that I consider to be techno, whether it’s regarded as such or not. I mean, we could go back to when the term was coined with Cybotron. Since records like that, which people would class as electro, but the word techno was attached even back then. The bedrock for all of these genres, with all the sub-genres coming and going, is house and techno – they’re the constants. With electronic music, there are far too many tags attached in order to create new scenes and genres that are really unnecessary.
It’s difficult because they are unnecessary but you can understand why it happens, why people use them as marketing tools.
Absolutely, I’m not saying this as if I have a problem with it, just for me sometimes I can’t see why something is classed as x, when for me it’s all about the same thing and the common cause and I don’t place these kinds of restraints on it. If you look back to when you went to clubs [in the 80s], you didn’t go to a house club or a techno club, you went to a club that played dance music, and you heard all of it that night – you heard early electro, house and techno. There wasn’t this huge divide that we have now, but then there wasn’t the huge number of records we have now.
Do you think the quantity of records coming out now is justified? Given that we’ve got all of these new ways to make music, is that reflected in the types of music people are making?
This is a tricky one. The technology gives everybody the opportunity to express themselves. The issue we have is there are no filters anymore. Even going back to buying equipment, there was once a filter because it was prohibitively expensive, there was a level of investment required that doesn’t exist anymore because anybody with a PC can get given cracked software by their mate and make records with it, but then the problem is the idea that you can distribute something within 10 minutes of finishing it. You can make it in the afternoon and immediately put it up online, so again there’s not the filter we had because of the level of investment required. We had physical distribution companies that would filter things to a degree.
you have to be much more self-aware of what you’re doing and you have to put those filters on yourself. If you’ve made a track in the afternoon, sit with it for a few days, sit with it for a week, a month or whatever – it doesn’t have to go online that minute.
The difficult part of that debate is that it often sounds like people are calling for that kind of gatekeeper to come back, but in reality the onus has shifted from distributors and labels to artists themselves.
I certainly don’t want the gatekeepers to come back – I’m not suggesting that. What I’m suggesting is that when the process was slowed to a degree because of logistics, it gave people time to digest what they’d done. I’ve made many tracks that make me think I just wanna get them out there, but it might be after a 12-hour session in the studio, and after I’ve listened to it again, I’ve realised it’s not where it should be. I think you need to slow down to achieve what you want.
You’ve been making music for a fairly long time now. How easy have you found it to sustain your personal interest in it over the years?
The only time it wavered with me was when Richard Polson passed away. I lost complete connection with all of it to be honest, but that wasn’t me falling out of love with the music – I think it was more my connection with what had happened and the fact that we’d begun this together. That’s the only time I really questioned where I was. I love the music as much as I did when I started and to be honest I enjoy producing now more than ever before. Whether that’s because I can achieve my goals better now I don’t know. I think that could have a bearing on it, but I certainly feel more at home and enjoy being in the studio.
When Richard passed away, did you stop making music entirely for a while or just slow down? I know the label took a hiatus and you didn’t have a release for a while at that point, but did you continue to make music?
I did the album for Tresor [The Dash] as my way of getting it out of my system a little bit, but apart from that things really ground to a halt – I just wasn’t in the right place. I think sometimes people can feed off emotions to get their point across and apart that album and leading up to it I just didn’t have that. I felt that I had to make that record, but that was as far as it went. The equipment wasn’t being turned on, nothing was happening, and it wasn’t until I started to get in the studio with other people – with Regis, Karl O’Connor, and also with Mark Broom. Myself and Karl worked on some music and said: “Let’s get Blueprint started again, let’s get on this. We’re happy with this, let’s get the ball rolling again.” I felt that was the time to. It would have been such a shame if I had allowed what is also Richard’s legacy to fall by the wayside, so I needed to get to that point where I was enjoying what I was doing again. Since that point, I’ve enjoyed running the label more than ever.
We’re still here after a hell of long time, man. And it’s not going anywhere. How many genres of music have stood the test of time like this?
You mentioned Richard’s legacy there, and – without wanting to make this seem like it’s a history book – maybe the 20th anniversary of Blueprint is a good time to think about legacies. How do you feel about that at the moment, and how do you feel your position in the history of this music stands right now?
That’s something that’s really difficult for me to answer, because I don’t study my place in things too much. I don’t really think about where I slot in, I just have my head down and do my thing, but I’m incredibly grateful I’m able to continue doing this and the fact that people still want to listen.
It’s quite funny actually, I played in this club at the weekend and was talking to the driver on the way there, and he asked me when I first played Munich. I said: “It was at the Ultraschall club in 1996 – do you remember the Ultraschall?” And he said: “Oh no, I was one year old!” It’s these times when I think to myself, oh shit, I’ve been doing this a long time!
But I don’t tend to analyse the legacy side of things. I’m very grateful that people continue to listen and that I’m given the opportunity to work with the new generation, like I have been recently. I’m in some way involved in passing the baton so they can take it to the next generation. We’re still here after a hell of long time, man. And it’s not going anywhere. How many genres of music have stood the test of time like this? It’s still relevant and able to convert the new kids that want to go out and hear it. It’s incredible what’s been achieved, and there’s still a lot more that’s going to happen with the sonics, the technology and the abuse of sound. There’s so much more to come.
The Hydra: Blueprint 20 with James Ruskin, Jeff Mills, Ben Klock, Dvs1 and more takes place at Studio Spaces E1 on Sunday August 28th. Tickets available here.