Beatport Hype: Say What?

We speak to one of dance music’s most established and well-rounded producers, Ramon Tapia, about the evolution of his sound style and the robust club output on the artist’s Say What? imprint.

12 min
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Jul 23, 2020
Cameron Holbrook

From his career as a jeweler to an internationally distinguished DJ-producer, Holland-based artist Ramon Tapia has been shelling out dark, razor-sharp dance floor gems of his own for over 18 years. Son to a famed revolutionary Chilean musician, Tapia’s thirst for musical conquest has always come naturally. Growing up between Chile and Holland, he eventually moved to Antwerp to work in the city’s Diamond Quarter. Feeling unfulfilled with his work, he ultimately decided to turn in his jeweler’s lens and needle files for a pair of turntables and some headphones.

By the mid-2000s, Tapia’s productions gained support from some of the scene’s biggest names and soon began releasing on labels such as Strictly Rhythm, Great Stuff Recordings, Terminal M, Suara, Bedrock Records, and more. With his years of experience and eclectic sonic palette, Tapia’s tech house classics, minimal excursions, and more recent techno adaptations steady have always worked wonders on the floor.

Starting his label Say What? back in 2012 as a platform for his unremitting musical output, the imprint has released a plethora of EPs, singles, and remixes that have supported numerous burgeoning producers and helped Tapia establish himself as a significant player in clubland. In addition to scoring a hot and heavy mix from Ramon Tapia, we talk to the label-owner to discuss his early-career achievements, the imprint’s aesthetic direction, and the thrilling new sounds it has on the horizon.

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Tell us about moving to Belgium, how you first got into rave culture, and what type of music you played out during your first gigs.

I moved to Belgium in 1995. I wanted to become a jeweler/goldsmith, and there’s nowhere better to get started than the city of diamonds, Antwerp. I already had a huge electronic music bug going on when I first moved there. My sisters always came back home with tapes from clubs in Belgium, and Holland like Boccacio, IT, and Roxy. In 1995, I was really into hardcore gabber. I went to indoor parties like Nightmare in Rotterdam, Megarave, and Hellraiser. That’s where I got into the idea of mixing records myself, not that I had any intention of becoming a professional. I still get nostalgic when I think about that time. In 1996, I decided to buy a belt-drive record player, which was a disaster to play on and mixed it with a tape deck. Rewind the tape, mix, no, try again, and so on for more than six months.

After a while, I needed to find an after school job to stay afloat, so I scored a gig at the local record store, USA Imports. This really kickstarted everything. I could practice on technics (even though my boss didn’t want that haha), and I had a constant feed of new music. It helped broaden my horizon from hardcore and rave to hip hop and so on. In 1998, I got my first gig in a club called Club Hardcore, which freaked me the hell out. I didn’t know what to expect and was afraid to make mistakes, but I did it, and that was the first time I felt the energy of playing for a crowd.

Fast forward 2003, I stopped my job as a jeweler and worked full time at the record shop. The gig also allowed me to use their in-house studio as well. That’s how I slowly got better and better. There where many days that I woke up in the studio at nine in the morning and would have to go home, take a shower, and go open up the shop. But it was all worth it!

In 2005, I released my first solo produced techno release called Land Of Drum on the Music Man Sub Label Pocket, which was a massive accomplishment. I scored support from Sven Vath, Carl Cox, and many others. At the time, I still had the feeling I didn’t know what the hell I was doing!

Before the founding of Say What? Recordings and your rise to dance music stardom, what would you say was your most significant break in regards to getting your name out there?

It was in the more minimal times of 2008 when sent about 50 demos to the Great Stuff Recordings camp, which was a colossal imprint back in the day. I finally got a yes back for my track “Sweet Lullaby,” which was my breakthrough. It got crazy support from Richie Hawtin and many others.

I worked part-time still for the record shop, and I really wasn’t happy, but because of its success, I got my first bookings outside of Belgium and Holland. I had to have a talk with my mom to tell her I wanted to become a full-time DJ-producer. She wasn’t pleased about my choice but told me, “you better do it now, or else you will regret it later. But I’m not giving you a penny.”

How did you first land on the idea of starting Say What? Recordings and what were some labels you looked to and hoped to emulate or follow in their footsteps when starting the music label?

In 2011, the guys I worked with thought it was time to expand and create a label, mostly because my rate of producing records was quite high, and it seemed smarter to release them myself. I was making more groovy tech house at the time with an occasional techno track here and there. There weren’t really any labels that I looked to for inspiration since my musical taste goes all over the place. To this day, I always take bits and pieces from everywhere, and I love running the imprint that way.

Can you give us some insight into the aesthetic direction of Say What? Recordings and why you’ve decided to put out every release with that signature black, architectural look?

Ramon: My girlfriend Irina is the art director and label manager of Say What? Recordings. She does it all, and I love how she took the label’s look to a whole new level. She’s always been behind me and helped push me back into the idea of making more techno music. But for a clear answer regarding the label’s look, I’ll let her do the talking.

Irina: Initially, when I took over, we didn’t have a specific vision behind the artwork. I wanted to keep it simple, clean, and informative, without stealing attention from artists we represent. After a couple of releases, we realized that there’s an actual pattern behind our artwork: infrastructural shapes, lines, and angles from different cities worldwide that caught our attention, just like our artists with their multifaceted music brought from every part of our planet.

What are your plans for the label moving forward? Has the pandemic forced you to rethink your imprint strategy?

We started to plan label showcases for 2020, but with the whole COVID thing happening, that fell apart. In the meantime, we are just doing what we do best and keep working on music. The current shutdown has given us some more time to focus and plan some things out more carefully so we can adequately prepare for 2021. I have been thinking to possibly also start a Sample Pack Series and get the merchandising back on track. I think that will keep us busy for a while.

Who are some of the most recent artists with releases on your imprint that we should keep an eye on?

The Brazilians Marcal and Kaio Barssalos are the first that come to mind. Also, we have Amsterdam-based RSRRCT, German producer Chris Veron, Austrian artist Uncertain, The New Yorker Charles D, Belgium’s SHDDR, and France’s Greg Notill are all hot at the moment.

I’m super happy all these artists came across my radar, and I managed to pick them up. I’m also thrilled that we can function as a stepping stone for these new artists to shine and go to the next level. I think that gives me the most satisfaction. I know its tough out there, but if the music is good (or at least I think its good), I will sign it. The most important advice I can give to the producers out there is never to give up. Don’t waste all the sweat and tears you have put into your music!

Tell us a little bit about the mix you made for us.

There are some new and some older tracks in there and of course some tunes from the label. I always love to go a bit all over the place, incorporating some melodic elements, a few pounding tracks, and just see where I end up. I hope you enjoy and thanks for supporting the label!

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