Cover Story: Ben Rau

For September’s Cover Story, Berlin-based house music maven Ben Rau relives his dance floor beginnings and details the “blood, sweat, and tears” that he poured into his new 8-track album on Knee Deep In Sound.

21 min
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Sept 12, 2022
Ben Jolley

After two years of not being able to DJ out because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ben Rau is enjoying the fact that things are starting to get back to some sense of normality. “I’m certainly happy to be working again,” the German/Ghanaian DJ and producer says optimistically. But, although clubs have been open for quite some time now, navigating the post-pandemic touring landscape has its own difficulties. “Things aren’t still 100 percent. There have been many cancellations of events because of low ticket sales,” he adds, citing the rising cost of living as having had a damaging impact. “Everything’s gone up in price — from flights to living costs — and people are holding on to their money more,” he says. Despite this, Rau’s recent shows in Ibiza were “super busy,” as were his Australia and New Zealand sets “but they don’t really have the same inflation thing that Europe is going through at the moment, so it’s kind of a mixed bag.”

Still, just being able to leave the house is a vast improvement on the situation he (and the rest of the world) had been in since 2020; as someone who is used to playing shows in multiple countries each weekend, Rau understandably struggled with the adjustment to lockdown life. “For most people, it was a challenging time, but especially for musicians because there are two parts to this job: one is the solitary work in the studio… long periods where you’re grafting by yourself, and then the reward is touring and getting to perform the music you’ve made in front of people and seeing their reactions. And that’s really what sustains you,” Rau says, talking to Beatportal from his studio in his home city of Berlin. “If one of those parts gets taken away,” he adds, “it’s hard to sustain the other.”

This lifelong love for music, in its myriad forms, stretches back to Rau’s childhood. His earliest memory of “really being into a tune” was when his dad would play Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft” before taking him to kindergarten at the age of four; the “really funky and cool” Oscar-winning soundtrack to the 1970s blaxploitation movie was regularly played at home on vinyl, too. His second formative musical experience came from hearing German composer Christian Bruhn’s “very advanced space-funk” soundtrack to Rau’s favourite children’s cartoon, the Japanese anime Captain Future, in which the protagonist spaceship captain would fly through galaxies solving crimes and mysteries. “I went to town with it, it’s proper funky and got really crazy synths in it,” Rau says, his eyes lighting up at the thought.

Check out Ben Rau’s ‘8-track’ chart on Beatport.
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His brother later introduced him to hip-hop and this newfound cultural discovery resulted in Rau’s first concert being a Public Enemy gig. Then, in the early 90s, as his brother brought tapes home from clubs he’d been to, Rau delved into the wide spectrum of electronic music. A few years on, when Rau started going clubbing himself, he was exposed to house, disco and techno for the first time. “Like most people who really get into electronic music, they start off with a broad taste and get into the commercial side of things; for me, that was the German brand of hard trance, when Sven Väth was at the forefront of it, and his label Eye Q Records,” he says of his taste in the late-90s, also citing Energy 52’s track ‘Cafe Del Mar’ as a favourite back then.

Then, when Rau moved to England, in the early 2000s, to study computer animation and digital special effects at Bournemouth University with the aim of getting into gaming, his musical taste was shaped by the British house scene. This was largely down to the fortnightly club night there called Maison, which welcomed many artists from the early UK tech-house scene, including Darren Emerson and Lottie, as well as Groove Armada. Seeing these artists helped him to, halfway through his uni course, discover the world of DJing. Naturally, his career ambitions rapidly changed. “I quickly made the decision that it was going to be music, and I pursued that goal ever since,” he says.

Alongside learning to DJ, going to the Maison nights provided a reference point for the kind of British tech-house that Rau would go on to make and play out when he later moved to London. Relocating to the capital meant that he could embed himself in the scene there and kickstart his DJ career, landing a debut residency with Enzo Siragusa’s FUSE party. After becoming known on the circuit, Rau forged his own path and launched the record labels INKAL and META in the mid-2010s; six consecutive number ones on the vinyl charts helped to establish him as an international artist.

“It’s an unparalleled run that I’ve never been able to replicate,” he laughs, adding that “although they’re obscure, underground, minimal house tracks, somehow they took off on YouTube”. Rau was then asked by a friend — Peter Adarkwah, co-founder of the independent label BBE Music — to remix the legendary Roy Ayers‘ track “Holiday.” Of course, Rau was more than happy to.

It paid off because his would-be label-boss Daley Padley — better known as Hot Since 82 — ended up playing it in his Cercle mix while DJing in Croatia; Padley reached out to Rau afterward and signed him to Knee Deep In Sound. “He’s supported me ever since”, says Rau, who later released a collaborative EP on the imprint, The Player, with the producer Jansons, in 2020. “Daley really believes in my music, and he’s one of the nicest guys in the industry — very down-to-earth and mega-supportive; an all-around good guy.”

Although Knee Deep In Sound has mostly been known for its tech-house releases, Rau thinks the fact that he and several other artists have been signed is a signifier that the label is heading in a new direction. “I think, signing me and a couple of other artists — producers like Robbie Doherty and MADVILLA, who are making their name now and really establishing themselves as the next generation of house — is really starting to turn the label around to go into, what I would say, is a much cooler direction. Daley is really on the pulse of the times,” Rau adds; “he’s taking the label in that direction.”

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Now, Rau is back on Knee Deep In Sound with his installment to the ‘8-track’ series — the third to date, following in the footsteps of label founder Hot Since 82 and KDIS favourite Cristoph. Having spent the summer of 2021 in his “fully-equipped” studio in Berlin, the project — which was recorded during lockdown — sees Rau delve into virtually everything dance-related: from French filter house to breakbeats to deep and melodic house, he distills a lifetime on the dancefloor and behind the booth into eight upbeat, groove-laden tracks. But he certainly didn’t expect the record would have such a joyous disposition when he started making it.

Understandably feeling as though his sense of direction had been lost due to the surreal period of isolation, Rau started to assess his own purpose as an artist. “I was thinking ‘nothing I make is going to be heard on dancefloors any time soon,” adding that it was a “very challenging” time from a mental health perspective – especially in terms of staying productive. Consequently, Rau found himself asking soul-searching questions like ‘what am I working for?’ and ‘why am I making music?’.”

But, rather than letting these emotions overpower him, he channelled the strange environment of the pandemic into doing what he does best: making banging tunes. “Although I did finish an album, it was through blood, sweat and tears that I got there in the end,” he says of the “difficult” process. To retain his motivation, Rau says he had to adopt a “warrior attitude towards working in the studio”; luckily, it’s something that he has developed over the years. “It means that the rule is I show up — no matter what. I go every day and try to make something happen,” he says, “because even on days where you don’t feel like making something happen, sometimes those turn out to be the best days,” he adds.

“Quite often, I hear people say that there’s no point trying to make something happen if you’re not feeling like it, or if you’re not feeling creative, but that’s not how it works,” he says. “There are certain days that are not going to be creatively amazing, but there’s always something you can do to fill your time,” he adds, recalling meeting the Chilean artist Uwe Schmidt at Berghain (“he’s recorded over 300 albums and one is called HD, under his alias Atom TM — it blew my mind in terms of sound design. He’s not very known but he’s one of the most advanced producers out there”). Intrigued by such a high level of productivity, Rau asked how he does it. Schmidt’s answer stuck with him: ‘I go to the studio every day, but if things don’t work creatively, then I’ll search for samples all day.’

“Basically, you just do something that’s going to help further down the line,” Rau summarises; “if you show up every day and give it your all, then, if you’re lucky, some magic will happen.” Working with this ethos paid off for Rau. “I don’t really believe in waiting for creativity or the muse to kiss me and then being like, ‘I have this inspiration, so I’ll go to the studio’. It works the other way round: you show up first, and then inspiration comes.”

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When it came to crafting the album, Rau wanted to “try to stretch myself as a producer and artist, trying to make music styles that I’ve never made before, and surprise people”, he says, having incorporated many different genres into the record — including breakbeats. “People have never heard stuff like that from me, so they wouldn’t necessarily expect that kind of sound,” he says of the wiggy “A New Beginning” (which sounds like it could be a Two Shell cut). “But it was very intentional,” he adds; “I didn’t want to make the typical house producer’s album where it’s ten tracks of just beats and then only one musical track. I wanted to really evoke emotions,” he adds.

To this end, Rau wanted all of the songs to be musical and have melodies in them — “to pull on the heartstrings” (fittingly, the acid-tinged techno stomper “Body Move” comes with a powerhouse diva refrain). In order to do this, he worked with other songwriters for the first time, including Salena Mastroianni (on the twinkling piano-house groove “Can’t Give Up“) and Chaney (on tech-house pumper “Burning,” which calls to mind early Disclosure). Because of lockdown restrictions, most of the collaborative work with the album’s guest vocalists was done remotely via email after Rau sent over his finished instrumental tracks.

Overall, Rau’s 8-track is an ambitious and versatile record that’s equally suited to home streaming, pre-drinks, beach parties, club dancefloors, and afters sessions. And that’s exactly what Rau set out to achieve: “for it to work outside of the club context”, he says, citing Daft Punk’s debut album, 1997’s Homework, as a key inspiration. “That, for me, is the blueprint of what a house album can be, in that it can transcend from being something that just works on a club dancefloor, to also in working in a stadium and for listening to at home.”

One of the ways this concept has been fully developed is on the “super funky” peak-time disco wake-up of “Calling Out Your Name (I Can’t Sleep),” which Rau says “doesn’t really have the structure of a club tune, because it changes halfway through and turns into something completely different.” He explains that, in this case, “it was about doing unexpected things to keep people interested in listening”.

The album’s artwork, meanwhile, reflects the mindset that Rau was in while he was making the record during the first summer of the pandemic “when we had a bit of a break and people were hoping that would be it and things would go back to normal”. With its subtly-summery beach-set flashes of colour, the photo carries a feeling of care-free nostalgia sonically, which is also conveyed via the hazy opening track “Forever Summer,” which features Boards Of Canada-style field recordings such as the sound of children swimming.

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Looking back, Rau thinks “it’s quite strange” that the album is so upbeat “because you would have thought that, at the time I was making it, it would be more reflective — but I really went the opposite way. I think it happened that way because that’s where I wanted to head mentally, so that’s what I did creatively as well.” In this sense, it’s a record that’s designed to bring people together — a much-needed beaming light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

It also encapsulates the overarching “positive, welcoming” culture of electronic music in general, “whereas in other youth cultures it can be quite hostile or tribal (like in sports, or certain genres of music),” Rau says. “But that crew mentality doesn’t really exist in the rave.” He thinks it’s due to the ever-increasing appeal of electronic music around the world: “I’ve been a raver for a long time, and I’ve been in this game for a long time, so I’ve seen electronic music go through many iterations, and I’ve seen genres come and go, but electronic music just keeps growing worldwide. It’s the one youth culture that’s persevered,” he says.

Another factor that’s undoubtedly been influential is that global megastars like Beyoncé and Drake are now making house music, while newcomers LF System and Eliza Rose have, respectively, topped the UK singles chart with their disco and house sampling tracks “Afraid To Feel” and “Baddest Of Them All.” It seems, then, that the appetite has never been bigger, and that the genre is having a real moment. “If people are like ‘hey, this kind of music really can reach a super wide audience’, that’s crazy. Everybody just comes together,” he says of dance music, citing the cliche of meeting a stranger in the smoking area and having a deep conversation with them. “That kind of encapsulates what’s magical about electronic music as well — anybody can come to a rave and feel happy.”

This sentiment stretches to another project that Rau and Jansons had been working on — with the late Jamal Edwards. “He had a huge database of contacts from over the years and he was going to be the executive producer that brought the vocal talent to the table,” Rau says. “So now, without Jamal — an essential part of this collaboration — I’m not sure where that will go, but right now, I’m focused on the album with more commercial sensibilities because I went into this record with big ambitions”.

While what comes next will likely be “strictly underground club bangers, because you kind of have to prove those underground credentials again”, Rau says, he’s happy that — with 8-track — he’s managed to balance the “tension between the underground while also doing stuff that can cross over into the commercial space.” For Rau, that’s the sweet spot: I’m not interested in just vinyl-only and reaching a small digger-type audience and only pleasing them, but I’m also not interested in playing commercial events on big festival stages.” Ideally, I want to be able to do both,” he says, openly setting out his position, “and I think that’s the most exciting space in music: at the cross-section of underground and accessibility.”

Ben Rau’s new album 8-track drops on September 16th via Knee Deep In Sound. Buy it on Beatport.

Ben Jolley is a freelance journalist living in the UK. Find him on Twitter.