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Escape Velocity

Dancefloor Escapism & Physical Abandon: Ronika Interviewed
Al Needham , August 5th, 2014 06:31

Ronika's debut album Selectadisc is one of tQ's favourite albums of 2014 so far. Ahead of tonight's London gig, Al Needham speaks to her about coming up through the Nottingham music scene, channeling a fascination with electronic music, and the positives and pitfalls of running her own label

I first met Ronika at Nottingham's Rock City in November of 2011, for a cover shoot of a local magazine I was editing. The publisher wanted to devote an entire issue to the Notts music scene at a time when it seemed like – finally – the city had one worth shouting about. There was the air of a coming-out party to the shoot; every band, artist, promoter and DJ in the city was invited. Almost all of them showed up.

Naturally, the first person to properly break out of Notts - Jake Bugg – was absent, having already been whisked away by Mercury. But it still remains a fascinating image of a group of people who either were on the verge of bigger things, or at least had a right to feel they were. Right up the front and centre is Liam Bailey, who'd just been on Chase & Status' 'Blind Faith', had signed with Polydor and was seen as the Next Big Thing. To his left, Dog Is Dead, the first band ever to be signed by Daybrook House Promotions, who owned the building and half the other music venues in the city. Somewhere near the back, looking absolutely pissed off and carping about the whole thing, Sleaford Mods (who immediately wrote the track 'Showboat', which ripped into the Billy Big-Bollocks attitude of certain people there).

But the most recognisable figure in the whole image is a shock of blonde hair, a pair of blue sunglasses and a flash of Adidas trackie top near the front. It doesn't matter that Ronika Sampson was obscured by someone else standing right in front of her; anyone who knew the slightest thing about the Notts music scene would have spotted her a mile off, because long before then, Ronika was marked out as a bit special. The round-the-way girl who walked it like she talked it, stitching together electro-disco glamour with a wicked sense of humour. The woman who they called 'the Madonna of the Midlands', who would pose in full disco dolly rig-out in a dingy launderette, with a washing basket overflowing with vinyl. A singer who saw an advertising board for the local paper which read "WHAT RONIKA HAS FOR HER TEA", and took a photo of herself sitting on the pavement next to it, eating asparagus spears off a plate.

(Of course, what most of us didn't know at the time was that there was no-one guiding her along, that she was doing everything – as in everything - herself, that she'd already knocked back deals from majors, and that she'd had been – and still is – battling a serious illness.)

Now based in London, and in the wake of debut LP Selectadisc, named after the greatest record shop Nottingham ever had (and lost) and which featured in the Quietus' Albums Of The Year So Far 2014, we finally get to talk. As is mandatory when two Nottinghamians join together, the opening conversation is peppered with 'duck' and 'you get meh' as we fill each other in on mutual acquaintances and locations. Then we get down to business…

To accompany the article, Ronika has offered us an exclusive premiere of the CJ Mirra remix of album track 'Shell Shocked' - listen via the embed below

So what was the first thing you ever bought from Selectadisc?

Ronika Sampson: Oh, God. That's like the 'first record you ever bought' question – you can't really remember, so you keep changing it. I used to buy all my CDs from there, but I got into buying vinyl a fair bit later. The first was Logical Progression by LTJ Bukem.

Mine was a Munsters T-shirt where they're done up like a Beat group, and my mate bought a badge set of all five Doctor Whos.

RS: Selectadisc was pretty much the heart and soul of whatever was happening in Nottingham, wasn't it? Its epicentre. When I started working on the album, I was thinking a lot about music scenes, and how great styles of music gravitate from a certain area, like Chicago and Manchester, and what made it happen - a club, a shop, a studio – and for me Selectadisc was that place. It'll always have a little spot in my heart.

For many years, Nottingham seemed to be a place where music was something you listened to, rather than make. How did you get involved with the local scene? Was there much of one at the time?

RS: I started going to clubs at a stupidly early age; I managed to blag an NUS card when I was 12 or 13, which got me into places. I gravitated from clubs in town, to house parties in inner-city areas like Forest Fields where there would be house or techno sound systems.

A lot of squat parties, then.

RS: Exactly. The rave thing had been and gone; everyone seemed to have had enough of dancing in fields by the time I got involved. There were a lot of alternative types with sound systems, and a lot of like-minded people getting to know each other. By the time I was 15, I was fully into hip-hop and dance music – so there'd be trips down to the places like Brixton and East London for clubs and all-nighters. And that was my misspent youth, in a nutshell.

It's only recently that Nottingham has made itself known as a city with a genuine music scene, rather than a place where the odd band pops up once every five years or so. Do you think things would have happened for you sooner if you had come from, say, Manchester or Sheffield?

RS: Probably. But there's an advantage to not being discovered straight away. You get to polish up your act. You have time to get your stage show right. I think it's important to put the time in and pay your dues before you play out, and you can do that in a place like Nottingham. And you're right; there used to be a huge murky abyss between being known in Notts and being picked up by the music industry, but there's more of an infrastructure in Nottingham now, though. There are people there who are willing to champion and support the local talent.

When you're based in a relatively small city like Notts, there's always a danger that you end up playing to the same people over and over - who are more often than not in bands themselves. Was it hard to attract a following at first?

RS: I was lucky, because I was one of the few people in town who was making electronic music, so I stood out. But yeah, the early gigs were essentially me playing to friends, just like everyone else does. Also, because I didn't really fit in with other local bands, I started quite high up the ladder – supporting out-of-towners at the Bodega Social, things like that. But then again, it took me years to take what I was making onto a stage. I was a bedroom producer for years until I had something that I felt was good enough to put out there.

There are so many bands and artists in Nottingham, but you see a lot of them getting to a certain level, sitting around waiting for The Deal, and eventually stagnating…

RS: … and that's exactly what I was doing before I set up RecordShop. You've got to be completely proactive nowadays.

Back in the day you worked at a venue called Junktion 7, as a sound engineer for practically every metal band in Nottinghamshire. What did you learn from that?

RS: That I didn't want to be a live sound engineer. I enjoyed working there – it was always interesting to be the only person in there not wearing black eyeliner - but a part of me was always thinking, I want to be playing my music out too, and not just be behind the desk. But I met my band there; they came to one of my DJ sets downstairs as there was a bar where I DJed electro and soul music, they kept making the right requests, and we linked up afterwards. After a couple of years there I started going a bit deaf, so I ended up working in a library - I needed some quiet time.

My last job in Notts involved working with young people who had been kicked out of school, were in foster care or had learning difficulties and teaching them music production, which was really interesting, making a lot of grime and hip-hop. Some of them couldn't be bothered and just wanted me to make something they could spit bars over, but others really got into it. I was kind of knocked out by the energy they were putting out, and the fact that they didn't know the rules so were very experimental with their output. I learned a lot from working with them.

Around about this time you received a bursary from the BBC Performing Arts Fund, and you were on the Red Bull Music Academy course. How important was that, as a new artist?

RS: The bursary was massively important to me, because it allowed me to put out my music independently. That's how I got my label started. And the Red Bull Music Academy was almost like a confirmation that I was on the right track. It's not easy to get through the selection process. And I got to meet loads of people from all over the world who were in the same boat as me – musical nerds who loved what they were doing. When they asked on the application form who I would most like to learn from, I said Nile Rogers and Erykah Badu – and both of them were there giving lectures. I got to learn from RZA, Bootsy Collins, Peaches. It was mad. It was like the best band camp in the world.

Is there a danger, with patronage on that scale, that corporate sponsorship can only lead to a safe, homogenised elite of new artists who know how to play the game?

RS: Well, that's how the major record labels used to run things, pretty much. The funding of new artists doesn't necessarily come from the labels any more. But the RBMA is more about giving exposure to and developing new underground talent in electronic music, so it's a bit different. And any shortcut to get linked in and collaborate with people around the world... well, you'd be mad to turn that down.

How did you get into production?

RS: I started getting interested as soon as I started listening to electronic music and hip-hop as a teenager - tunes where the production was just as important as the performers, if not more so. I'd listen to things on Warp like Squarepusher or Black Dog and wonder; how are they making that? How do you even do that with a drum machine? So, out of curiosity, I started to go to a studio in Notts to get learning. I'd already decided that it was important for me to be involved in all aspects of music making, that the beats and recordings were just as important as the songs themselves for me.

Was there a Eureka moment, where you realised you could actually do this?

RS: I'm still waiting for that! It's been a massive long journey for me and I'm still learning. With technology you're always learning because it's always changing. Making interesting music is always going to feel like a challenge. I don't think it should feel easy.

Did being female hinder your progress?

RS: When I was growing up, there really wasn't that many female producers I could be inspired by, and I didn't know why it was so male-dominated. There was a massive imbalance in my role models, and I felt that needed to change. And it has over the last few years. There's loads more of us now, which is great. But it was important to me to make sure that there was a solo female name on some of the production credits.

A lot of people in your shoes might have been happy to pass the hard work onto someone else.

RS: And I sometimes wish I'd done that, taken the easier route. There were definitely some big opportunities to work with important industry people, who wanted to take the production off my hands, that I've passed up along the way. But I didn't want to do that.

It seems like you've played a long game.

RS: I've been offered deals, but the people involved didn't understand – or didn't want to understand – that I was a producer as well. I know some people close to me felt I was crazy for passing up some of the opportunities, but I thought, y'know, if you don't make sacrifices, nothing's going to change for women in this industry. And I'm better off for it.

RecordShop, then. Why your own label?

RS: Because I got sick of putting a few tracks online and waiting to be picked up. I realised I needed to be more proactive and just get my music out there. I didn't want my music to just die on a hard drive and never get heard.

Is there more to artist-owned DIY labels these days than 'This is my website, here's my tracks, and there's the Paypal link'?

RS: There's more to that in my case. There's all the PPL stuff, sorting the mastering, the release schedule, the artwork, the vinyl manufacturing, distribution, remixes, making the videos, the promotion. A lot of work involved.

Was that more to do with necessity, or plain old control-freakery?

RS: Out of necessity, at first. I wanted people to hear my music. But I soon came to realise that it was a good thing, because I had creative control over the sound and the look. There was nobody interfering with the music or anything. At the time, people I knew who had got signed were having some really bad decisions made on their behalf, which made me want to be even more in control of myself. And yeah, I would have been exposed to a wider audience if I had tied myself to a major – and I might do that at some point, if I was working with the right people. But I know that the hard work was all worth it.

Can you see yourself reaching a point where you feel that all this work is going to detract from actually making music?

RS: Yeah! Especially when it comes to packing and sending out vinyl. For the past three months, I haven't made any new music at all because of all the work putting the album out. But it's still nice to be DIY, and I'll be back in the studio again soon.

There's a strong Notts input on Selectadisc, particularly in the shape of Joe Buhdha and Citizen. What was it like to finally work with other producers?

RS: It was quite difficult at first; I'm very introverted when it comes to making music and I'm more used to being a bedroom hermit. I've been holing myself up and getting on with it for years, and I've got high quality control and can find it hard to compromise. The idea of going through that process of creation with someone else or in front of other people was scary at first. I had to get rid of a lot of self doubt.

Was it more a fear of them not liking what you've given them, or fear that you wouldn't like what they gave you back?

RS: A bit of both, actually. You've got to be comfortable enough to be honest with each other. I'm a lot more relaxed about it now. Joe was the first person I collaborated with, which was cool; we come from the same place, we're both crate-digging nerds, and we both wanted to make melodic, groove-based dance music, which is how the disco thing came about. I've known him since he was promoting and DJing in Notts, when he was bringing over Wu-Tang members and KRS-One and putting them on in Nottingham. When we actually hooked up, he said he remembered me from going to those nights, as me and my friend were the only girls in the place. Citizen's a house producer now, based in London, and doing really well. I was a fan of his for a while. When I started, there were so few people in the city with similar tastes that we all got to know about each other very quickly.

What's it feel like when you send them something, and you get it back?

RS: If you're working remotely - sending files back and forth, which bizarrely is how I did the collaborations on the album, despite the proximity - it's pretty terrifying, really. When I do send something back, I feel it's practically done, and then I start fretting that it's going to be completely pulled apart. But I prefer not to write and record with other people present; I like to have my own space to develop ideas before I throw them back.

It's great to hear Charles Washington guesting on 'Clock'. He's a bit of a local legend.

RS: He's the most fascinating guy. Every time I speak to him, I learn something more about him. He grew up in the Deep South of America and experienced all the racial segregation there, he grew up to be a political activist in the 60s, he hung out with people like Duke Ellington… and then he moved to Notts, and then he retired, and then he decided to become a jazz singer. His whole life has been an inspiration to me. He's one of my dearest friends. I wanted him on Selectadisc because he's never really recorded anything before. I could have picked out a more established vocalist, but no - I wanted him.

You've been very open about your health issues on Selectadisc. Is that an ongoing thing?

RS: It is, yes. I was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease four years ago which turned my world upside down, so my life these past few years has been about managing some difficult and painful symptoms. Last year I ended up in hospital three times - and for two of those I was critically ill, and the recovery was long and slow. You feel like you're on a derailed train; there's nothing you can do but ride it out.

For a lot of artists today, touring can be the only real source of income. Is it hard for you to commit to tours and engagements?

RS: It used to be, definitely - but me and the doctors have been trying to work out what medication is going to work for me. It's taken a lot of juggling, but at the moment I'm on new medication and doing well, so fingers crossed. I do gigs even when I am sick – I just pop a load of Tramadol and hope for the best.

Has it affected your work?

RS: It's affected everything. Musically I'm drawn to making feelgood music that takes you away from yourself, because the hard times have been pretty full-on. I'm drawn to dancefloor escapism and physical abandonment. Some of the lyrics reflect my struggle with the illness - like in 'Clock', it goes; "Lightning always hits the heart, to make it start", because when a major crisis happens in your life, I feel it happens to make you wake up and realise what's really important.

You always worn your early 80s electro influences on your sleeve. What's the appeal of that era?

RS: I discovered a lot of 80s music through listening to hip-hop. As well as searching out the tracks that people were sampling and listening to the originals, I also got really interested in early electro hip-hop, going right back to the start - I love all those early artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Melle Mel.

The early 80s refuses to go away. Just when you think you've got the measure of it, something else from that time re-emerges.

RS: I'm more into the obscure, funkier sound of that era; the last remnants of disco, leading up to Mantronix and Gwen Guthrie, all the way to Shannon and D-Train, leading up to the first house tunes. I have a sweet tooth for those sounds.

Is that era always going to be the touchstone for modern-day dance artists from here on in?

RS: For me, what was special about that time, was that there was a soulful element that was carried over from the 70s, and then teamed up with technology. When soul music and disco met drum machines and synthesisers. And when it's done right, it's a beautiful combination and something that's timeless.

You're one of the first generation of 80s-inspired artists who weren't even born then, and can approach the music with fresh ears and no memories to tie it in with.

RS: Well, sort of; I actually was born in the 80s, but I don't remember the music I'm referencing obviously 'cause I was too young. I had two older brothers, though, who got me into a lot of music. One was into The Cure, Depeche Mode and OMD, while the other was more dance music like Metro Area, A Guy Called Gerald, Chicago house - so those sounds were firmly imprinted on me. And people like Michael and Janet Jackson and Madonna were still huge by the time I got into music as a child.

Curtis Mantronik always used to say that the first thing he did when he got his hands on any new equipment was to chuck away the instructions. Do you do that?

RS: 'Course I do. Who reads manuals anyway these days? Bin it, and go straight onto YouTube for the tutorial videos. God bless those YouTube soldiers.

Do you get the 'You're just pressing a button, aren't you?' argument that the pioneers of electronic music had to put with?

RS: I think that whole guitar music purist attitude has fallen by the wayside now. You still get a little bit of snobbery about sampling, which I don't understand – to me, it's a properly legitimate way of making music. When I sampled 'Together' by Odyssey for 'Automatic' a couple of years ago, I had a few people saying I'd just nicked someone else's music. And I'd say, er, have you failed to notice the past twenty years of music? As long as you're not being massively obvious with your choice of sample and you put a twist on it and add something fresh, there's nothing wrong with a good sample.

What's the next step, then? Are you still going to pursue the DIY route?

RS: As it stands at the moment, yes. I'm currently finishing up the loose ends on Selectadisc – mainly licensing deals in other countries - and I want to put out other music on RecordShop. But it's not just me anymore – my management and PR all work on RecordShop, so I've got a proper team now.

And at what point did you get sick of the 'Madonna of the Midlands' tag?

RS: That came from an excellent nu-disco/electro blog called Electronic Rumours, which the media picked up on and ran with it. Yes, there are Madonna references in my music – I'm a huge fan of her early music, because it's absolutely perfect pop music – but she's never been someone who I would dare compare myself to, and it's not a tag I'd want to live up to. Especially the sexual connotations that are implied when her name comes up. That's not me.

Ronika's album Selectadisc is out now via RecordShop

Ronika plays a free show at London's Social tonight, Tuesday 5th August. For more information, click here