Getting To Know… Ralf GUM
German producer Ralf GUM is a big favourite on the South African Music scene, championed for his unique deep and soulful sounds and his brilliant GOGO Music label. As he releases his fourth full length artist album ‘Progressions’, we get to know a little more about the artist and his music…
What came first for you, DJing or making music?
DJing, with first baby-steps as a bedroom DJ around the age of 14 and producing started about 6 years later.
Were you trained as a musician?
No, I was not and still am not, however the 20 years plus experience in the studio has trained my ears well and taught me a fair amount of music theory, too.
What was your first breakthrough track and what has been your biggest release to date?
I never really had that breakthrough track and my focus never was on having it. My career is a rather slow but steady upwards path, with various successful tracks along the way, the biggest of them probably being “Take Me To My Love” which was an official chart #1 in South Africa for some weeks in 2012.
Growing up in Germany, who were your musical influences and did they have an impact on your sound today?
My early influences mainly have been the obscurer records I could find in the local record store as a teenager, a mixture of early electronics, disco, world and funk music. As well German radio influenced of course, however the programming never really hit my taste except for a few specialist shows. At the age of 18 when I was able to get into clubs, it was mainly the early Frankfurt techno scene which had an impact. Luckily satellite radio made it possible in the early 90ies to consume music from other countries and finally my travels, especially to New York, hooked me on the House Music sound. In retrospect all of those influences still affect my work.
You’ve been running your own Gogo Music label since 2001, tell us a little more about the label’s musical remit and who can we find on there?
GOGO Music is a soulful House Music label, born and run out of love for music. The sound we release is mostly an organic one and we’ve had releases with the likes of Black Coffee, Rocco, Hugh Masekela, Monique Bingham, Caron Wheeler as well as Sir LSG or MAQman.
Your 4th artist album ‘Progressions’ has just been released, what’s the inspiration behind the project?
Firstly I love albums as they enable artists to show different facets of their work. Progressions is an album of redefinition for me. A redefinition of working routines and sound as much as the formulary we often find within sub-genres. It is definitely soulful, but strongly aimed at the advanced dance-floor. As most of it was produced in Pretoria, it is therefore as well my homage to the capital city, after its predecessor “In My City” was my tribute to Johannesburg.
You’ve made some great collaborations on the album, please tell us a little about who is involved?
The album contains 10 songs with 10 amazing vocalists. You’ll hear regular collaborators such as Monique Bingham, Portia Monique, Kafele as much as people I haven’t been working with before, as Lady Alma, Paul Randolph, Tony Momrelle and Joseph Junior. South African superstars Mafikizolo complete the list alongside Ayanda Jiya and Bongi Mvuyana. I as well had the pleasure of recordings strings with Susan Mouton and Evert van Niekerk both from the Johannesburg Philharmonics and a number of other great musicians.
How difficult was it to work with such a vast amount of musicians and vocalists, what are the pro’s and cons with so many heads involved?
It definitely isn’t easy to manage such a big and diverse group of artists and that’s part of why my albums take so long to complete. Everyone involved has his usual day to day business and so sometimes patience is necessary to get everything together. However as there’s such great input from everyone involved, it was definitely worth the effort. I am really pleased that I am able to work with such great talent.
It also features your brilliant new single ‘Uyakhala’ with South African stars Mafikizolo, how did the project come about and what is the meaning of the song?
Mafikizolo approached me in 2016 and told me about their 20 anniversary album which they had in the making. They wanted to return to their roots by adding a house track and asked if I would be keen to produce it. Of course I was and the song became a soulful duet with Monique Bingham called “uMama”. The studio-work was a lot of fun and flawless and so we decided to record another song, this time for my new project. “Uyakhala” fits perfectly into their discography which often deals with pertinent socio political topics. The lyrics are based on the strong African belief that it takes a village to raise a child or a person is a person through other people, a call for more altruism basically.
How does Progressions differ from your previous album releases and what new challenges and triumphs arrived in putting it together?
On Progressions there’s even more focus on good and interesting lyrical content. Sonically I challenged myself and pretty much built the whole album on completely new drum sounds and recordings. Initially I chose a very minimal approach to each track, which only is still apparent in some of the tracks, but as time passed my natural desire for more elements, music and detail kicked in. We started to add more and more elements to most of the songs. Progressions is as well an album of change for me, as I had to move studio 4 times during the production process. The biggest triumph is that I finally have an amazing sounding studio room right at home.
So you’re originally from Germany, but living in South Africa for many years now and have become an ambassador for the house music scene down there.. Talk us through a little about your involvement and how the scene has progressed since you first arrived there?
I have been lucky that I was introduced to the country not only through my music, but as well by the right people at the right time. I am forever grateful for that and that I was accepted here. A door opener has been the SAMC (Southern African Music Conference), to which I was invited to teach about different topics, from label management to production. It is a youth empowerment and skills transfer project, just as we lately did one ourselves, as GOGO Music presented a music industry workshop in Soweto which we did cooperation with the German Embassy. Being called an ambassador for SA House makes me proud, while promoting the one of a kind music scene South Africa has to offer, is close to my heart and part of giving back. Within the decade I am attached to the SA music industry now, there have been various changes happening. Just as in every country, trends come and go, physical formats are replaced by digital formats, etc. A great thing to see is that the level of music production really reached top standard by now. There’s a lot of good music coming out across all genres.
Looking back on your career, it’s been quite a journey, did you ever think you’ve end up living in South Africa and achieving a gold selling album with ’Never Leaves You?’ How important is it to stick to your guns as a producer and not follow the crowd and current trends?
I always searched for a space where my music is understood and where I am able to continue without compromising it. 25 years ago, when just starting a DJ career, I obviously would not have thought to ever relocate to the bottom of Africa.
You’ve got a few DJ tours coming up soon, where can we catch you spinning over the next couple of months?
The album tour starts on 28th of February at our monthly GOGO Music Johannesburg residency. From there I’ll tour until Easter in South Africa with about 25 gigs across the country. Thereafter you can catch me in Europe and North America from the 26th of April into May with confirmed gigs in London, Paris, Stuttgart and more to be announced soon.
What’s on your rider and what one thing can’t you live without on whilst on the road?
Honestly I am that easy guy who comes with no special requests, just give me a good sound and crowd, plus a nice hotel to crash afterwards. But just as so many of us I am unable to be without my phone. The smart phone industry and social media made us junkies. I am working on me…
What top 5 records are currently rocking your spot?
Ralf GUM feat. Mafikzolo – Uyakhala (Ralf GUM Main Mix) – GOGO Music
Kelly G. – Feels Good (Yeah!) (Little Louie Party Mix) – T’s Crates
MAQman & Joseph Junior – The Waiting Is Over – CD-R
Sculptured Music – Sad To Think (Original Mix) – Sculptured Music
Ralf GUM feat. Monique Bingham – Claudette – GOGO Music
What else are you working on at the moment that you can tell us about?
Long time ago, I realized that I am not great at multitasking. I like to spend long stretches of time in studio and if I know that’s not possible, I rather make it a full office day. After finishing an album I always need a little break from production, so there’s not much I am working on right now, but it will change soon as there are several projects waiting to be started, as well with some vocalists I haven’t worked with before.
‘Progressions’ is out now on GOGO Music.