In Conversation: Richard Russell
Music has always been the guiding light in Richard Russell’s life. It’s what took a teenage hip-hop obsessive from North London to the Bronx, and it’s what took him to the door of XL Recordings at the dawn of the 90s, a virtually unknown musician with a few scraps of rave music dubbed on to the tape.
“I took them a demo!” he laughs. “I was trying to get signed there.” In a way, he signed a life contract – brought on as an A&R, Richard Russell grew to become the label’s boss, guiding them to unprecedented position of financial success and cultural importance. Guiding The Prodigy to chart infamy, he’s worked with everyone from Radiohead to Sampha, Jack White to Adele, even releasing his own Mercury nominated material as Everything Is Recorded.
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On the phone to Clash, he’s discussing his new book Liberation Through Hearing. From the title down it’s an inspired tome, offering rare insight into iconic works, while setting out Russel’s own personal ethos – it’s about the music.
“It wasn't anything I ever thought I would do,” he says when musing on his motivations to pen a memoir. “I used to like writing when I was younger. I think my mum always hoped it was what I was gonna do... I think it's actually seen as more respectable – well, definitely by my mum!”
“I never wanted to be focussed on the past,” he insists. “I wanted to be in the present, and open to what's happening right now. But what I realised is, it's a way of processing all the things that I’ve never processed; even if it’s just going back and listening to these different records and considering all the stuff that's gone on. I was then able to say: OK, that's done… now that's what's next?”
We start at the beginning. A teenage DJ who immersed himself in hip-hop culture, he found his way to Island Records, then in its 80s imperial phase. “I'd done two summers there in the warehouse when I was 16 and 17, which was incredible. It was an amazing period there. I'd see Gregory Isaacs wandering around the building! I mean, it was amazing.”
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The burgeoning major label’s star glitz stood in contrast to the DIY hustle that fuelled XL Recordings. He recalls: “XL was in a basement and there was three people and there was a photocopy machine in the basement and it wasn't ventilated. I felt very at home there from day one... and I sort of never left. Although they weren't that interested in my demo!”
One of the prevailing themes of Richard Russell’s career is seizing opportunity when it comes. Work hard, get yourself into the right position, and when it happens… just make sure it happens. “You can't really sit around and wait for someone to give you an opportunity,” he says. “I was DJing clubs, I was putting club nights on, I was DJing on pirate radio, I was selling mixtapes on market stalls, I was working in a record shop. So I was excited to be there. I was excited to be in that environment. Record labels can be really exciting.”
A key aspect of his outlook is experiencing music from the point of view as an artist. One half of Kicks Like A Mule, the pair ram-raided the charts with their home-made rave banger ‘The Bouncer’, and he first came into contact with XL Recordings as a musician.
“I've always seen things as an artist,” he says. “I always kind of shudder when I get described as the boss of a record label – it always feels like someone can’t be talking about me, because but I've never felt like the boss of any musician. It doesn't work like that. For me, the making of records is by far the most important thing.”
The roll call of key records that have emerged from XL Recordings in the past two decades is nigh-on endless. We start with a formative experience in Russell’s life, his union with The Prodigy, helping the group to take underground rave culture into the charts. “Me and Liam (Howlett), we're the same age,” he reflects. “We have sort of similar backgrounds, suburban backgrounds. We were both hip-hop obsessives.”
“The Prodigy had this tremendous focus as a group,” he continues. “They were an incredible bunch of people and they were so tight as a unit. We were all very tight. We were all very much trying to do something - trying not to compromise, but we were pretty ambitious and that's a lot of fun. One of the things that you don't necessarily see, is that some artists are funnier than others... and they were very, very funny. It was always a lot of fun to be around them.”
“Keith is so iconic and such an unbelievable spirit. At the time, as with any of these things, you were just doing it. Do you know what I mean? You're just living it. You're doing what you're doing, you're staying up late, you're trying to lead, trying to steer a bit and keep things on the rails, and that's what it was. In retrospect I can see that was a special moment, but then there's always special moments going on. That's the thing. I'm not into nostalgia, which hopefully comes across in the book. It's about spirit and that spirit is permanent, and it’s always moving through things.”
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One of the most surprising aspects of XL’s growth is its relentless diversity. Hell, just look at Richard’s own work as Everything Is Recorded. New album ‘Friday Forever’ matches Paradise Garage samples to contributions from legendary anarcho punk Penny Rimbaud. “The artists who push things forward are always exceptions, and that's what interests me,” he explains. “It's those exceptions. It's being part of those things that can nudge the edges of culture. Maybe knock a few doors open, and then interesting people can go in through those doors. That's what I'm into. That's what excites me. That's what motivates me.”
“It's people who have the strength of character that they're not going to want to do what everyone else is doing. It's a character thing and it goes beyond music,” he says. “Genre is meaningless. It's about the spirit of the people. It's about that spirit, and the people who want to push things forward... that's the exciting thing.”
“Genres are a convenient way for the music industry to arrange things, but that often means is that things get kept in their box,” he says. “What we do so well in this country is this kind of multicultural, mixing up of styles and ideas that then create other things. This melding of things... where you end up with rave, and you end up with jungle. Our whole soundsystem culture basically started with reggae on soundsystems, but then people started playing house music on soundsystems, and hip-hop on soundsystems.”
Even at its furthest, XL really hasn’t strayed too far from the ethos of rave – it’s eclecticism, it’s shoving a hip-hop break over a house record. “I think everybody like listening to different types of music. I don't think it's that unusual, but I've always wanted to reflect that.”
“Island started as an independent focussing on reggae, but then before you know it, as well as the reggae records they're releasing a Run-DMC record, they doing a Grace Jones record, they're doing a Tom Waits record. That was what I saw. That's why I thought, this is great! It was their taste and integrity and quality. That's more important that the name of the genres.”
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No conversation about XL Recordings can escape the shadow of Adele – a national treasure, she released three unbelievably successful albums with the label, allowing the Tottenham singer to realise her dreams in the process.
“It’s kind of a miracle I suppose!” he exclaims. “I feel very fortunate to have bumped into her, really. You never know what's going to happen on any particular day. Now I kind of think, well, it probably suited her destiny to reach this immense audience somehow. She has a unique combination of characteristics in terms of her personality. I definitely felt with her that her spirit was exactly the same spirit that I always look for in any musician I work with, but her personal taste was in tune with the taste of the people and that was instinctive, on her part. She would never have considered that. She would incredibly naturally make work that was unbelievably resonant and accessible to a huge amount of people. Maybe, in some ways, that's like a Holy Grail about the music world. It's not something you can contrive.”
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A particular favourite of this writer from the XL catalogue is ‘I’m New Here’, Gil Scott-Heron’s swansong masterwork produced by Richard Russell himself. “It was incredibly exciting,” he says of those seismic sessions. “It was slightly dream-like, and kind of otherworldly, and a bit surreal... 'cause I was a mega fan. I'm still a mega fan. He's my favourite artist of all time, really.”
“I put myself under a lot of pressure because I felt it was so important to deliver something that could stand alongside his other work. I thought if I didn't do that, I'd be letting him down,” Richard recalls. “But he made it fun. I think he took quite a light-hearted approach to it in a lot of ways. He said to, all the dreams you show up in aren't your own. Then he said: it's your dream to make a record with me. He brought so much weight and depth to everything – every word, every utterance – there is this immense, spiritual weight and truth. I feel like many people who encountered him in that stage had these experiences with him where there was just something very, very deep going on. It was the experience of a lifetime to be able to do that.”
Making music is a continual theme of Richard Russell’s life. XL operate three studios, placing art and it’s creation at the absolute fore of their daily routine. His own Everything Is Recorded project recently blossomed back into life, in the form of adventurous, multi-collaborative album ‘Friday Forever’ - itself a lyrical salute to the weekend underground.
“The record is completely about the now, it's mostly a platform for brand new artists, rising people. The book looks back and the record looks forward. I wish I'd come up with that as a plan. It sounds really clever. Honestly. These things just kind of happened how they happened, but maybe there's some symmetry.”
“You know, it's a question of that spirit isn't it? I started off making rave music, and I made music that was very influenced by hip-hop. When I'm doing stuff now, I’m able to collaborate with different people, but the base of these things feels quite similar to that process of beat-making and samples and a certain DIY quality with certain textures and roughness… and that's my aesthetic, really.”
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Liberation Through Hearing is out now - buy it HERE. Everything Is Recorded's new album 'Friday Forever' is out now on XL Recordings.
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