Richard Russell, record man and culture-watcher, has advice for these times in which we’re living.
“It’s never a bad time to put The Simpsons on your cover.”
Not because it’s now possible, via the newly-launched-in-the-UK Disney+, to watch over 660 episodes featuring the first family of Springfield. But because the animation’s “frontman” is a figure who transcends art-forms and eras.
And also because this: the cartoon kid whose original character description read “10-year-old school-hating underachiever and proud of it” undoubtedly spoke to Russell. The Londoner was a 19-year-old drop-out and lover of dance music in all its forms – one who was so obsessed he was prepared to fly to New York to doorstep the owner of record shop Vinylmania and ask for a job.
“Bart Simpson was a hip-hop icon: the hair, he was a skater, he was counter-cultural,” states Russell. “Bart was opposed to The Man. I was in New York in 1990, when the second season of The Simpsons was on, and everyone was wearing the T‑shirt.”
Thirty years on, the teenage record shop nerd is the owner of XL Recordings, launchpad and/or home and/or partner to artists ranging from The Prodigy to Adele, Dizzee Rascal to MIA, The White Stripes to The xx to Giggs to Kamasi Washington to Vampire Weekend to Tyler, The Creator. Russell is also a producer, of the final albums by both Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack.
Whether you’re a fan of rock or rap, or jazz or grime, or indie or pop – or, more likely, some permutation thereof – one thing is indisputable: in terms of the artists he’s discovered, the careers he’s shepherded, the music he’s released, Richard Russell is The Firestarter.
And he’s an artist himself. He was half of way-back-when rave duo Kicks Like A Mule and is now the centre of gravity for Everything Is Recorded. It’s the eclectic, multi-artist collaboration project whose Mercury-nominated self-titled debut (2017) featured Giggs, Sampha and Ibeyi and was considerably more than the sum of its parts. This week, Russell’s releases the second.
Friday Forever is a “concept record exploring the universality of a Friday night out, starting at 9.46 on a Friday evening and ending at 11.59 the morning after”. Collaborators this time include diverse Russell heroes Ghostface Killah and Penny Rimbaud from punk band Crass, as well as fresher faces including Aitch, Flohio and Berwyn.
Russell is, too, a memoirist, and a great one at that. This week also sees the publication of his excellent autobiography Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave and the Rise of XL Recordings.
In minute but poetic detail the 49-year-old, from an observant Jewish household in northwest London, details his lifelong love affair with music. It’s a journey that took him through loving soul, hip-hop, rave, hardcore, breakbeat, grime [pretty much any musical genre you care to mention].
Liberation Through Hearing combines pure fandom with great artist anecdotage, and also accounts of the modern British music industry that’s on a par with classic American accounts like Frederic Dannen’s forensic Hit Men and Walter Yetnikoff’s crazed Howling At The Moon. Even if you’re not a record label spod, there’s huge entertainment to be had reading about the times when XL went from little west London indie to international heavy-hitter, notably in America, when The Prodigy’s 1997 album The Fat of the Land became a global smash. And a 10-million-selling revolution in sound.
Because for Russell it always – always – it comes back to the records, even at the most unexpected moments.
“I was recording the audio for my book, and I was wearing an orange T‑shirt with a green jumper, And the producer said to me: ‘Do you always wear [the Simpsons’ Christian neighbour] Ned Flanders’ colour-scheme?’ And he was right!
“Then he showed me a metal band – he’s a metal fan – called The Okilly Dokilly. And they were all dressed like Ned Flanders. And they play really fucking hard metal! Amazing concept!” he notes approvingly.
We’re talking via Zoom, early in the lockdown, Russell hunkered in his studio, The Copper House, in Notting Hill, west London. Around him I can see ceiling-high shelves of vinyl, and wisps of smoke from some kind of incense or aromatic wood. He wears lightly his clearly super-sharp business savvy (in 2018 the Sunday Times Rich List estimated his “fortune” at £127 million), and is engagingly passionate talking about any and every artist, whether on his label or not, whether (you sense) he rates them or not.
Still, writing the book, he tells me, wasn’t an obvious creative step.
“I threw out English with the bathwater of school, because I felt like I had to reject school altogether. But I’ve never stopped reading – it’s a massive part of my life. And one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is helping artists with lyrics. More as an editor than anything else, but I’ve always had some instincts for it. So when this [book idea] came up, the only reason not to do it was because I was scared. So,” he says with a shrug, “I had to give it a try.”
Likewise Everything Is Recorded. It’s a project that came together in the wake of a brush with mortality: in 2013, Russell was afflicted by Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological condition. In effect, his body began shutting down. After brutal months in hospital and recovery he made it, just.
Inspired, he began work on his collective musical project, both its title and the title of his autobiography inspired by The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which he had read while hovering precariously between living and dying.
Of the new album’s roster of artists, he highlights Infinite Coles, who’s the son of Ghostface Killah. The younger artist appears on both EIR albums, alongside his dad on Friday Forever.
“Infinite Coles is the throughline on both these records. It’s a voice I just connect to. But it’s not just that: the thing on these records of old samples, collaborators in this moment, glancing back – Infinite does all of that just in how he sounds. He sounds like Paradise Garage in my imagination. There is something timeless in his voice.”
All of that is part of the feedback loop that comprises Richard Russell’s creative output and vision. Always moving forward while always looking back. Or, as he puts it: “I’m not about the past, I’m about the now. But what I realised is, if you process the past, that can help now.”
Taking him at his word, I walked Richard Russell through his life and work in music via 19 tunes that were totemic to him – and which we’ve compiled into a playlist, below.
Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren and the World’s Famous Supreme Team (1982)
A proto-Richard Russell (with way better people skills)?
“When you talk about Malcolm McLaren, you have to talk about chutzpah. Audacity. This is a guy who’s not a musician. He’s a clothes shop owner, but he’s selling clothes to the punk scene. And because of that he becomes a manager, of the Sex Pistols and Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow. Not a good manager, according to the people he was managed by, a terrible manager. But an arch-conceptualist, pure ideas person, troublemaker, provocateur.
“And he’s then so excited by hip-hop that he says: ‘I’m gonna make a record like that.’
“There are some people who are meant to be at the front of the stage. There are some who are meant to be way in the back. Then you get these inbetween people – are they meant to be on the stage, off the stage, producers, in the shadows or in the spotlight?
“Malcolm McLaren said: ‘I’m an artist. This record is by Malcolm McLaren.’ Was he a musician? No. Was he a producer? No – Trevor Horn produced it. But his whole thing was the power of the idea. And Buffalo Gals was his idea. You can look at Andy Warhol and see something similar.
“He says: ‘This can of Campbell’s soup is my art.’ Malcolm says: ‘This record with the World’s Famous Supreme Team on it, with Trevor Horn producing the drum-machine, is my record. And! Look at this hat I’m wearing!’
“A lot of people were annoyed by that, definitely in the UK. You’re meant to stay in your box, stay in your lane. But he came up with a great tune that’s lasted forever. And he came up with a stylistic thing with the hat that was echoed quite recently by Pharrell.
“And there was a statement there: this is music. And you can do whatever you want. It was the ultimate artistic achievement and freedom. My book is called Liberation Through Hearing, and what McLaren did felt very liberating.”
Hold It Now, Hit It by Beastie Boys (1986)
The first single from Licensed To Ill. Snotty, basic, legendary.
“That took a lot of audacity, what they were doing as well. This track, like Buffalo Gals, has been sampled in rap records again and again and again.
“The Beastie Boys weren’t authentic either, but it didn’t matter: they made something really fresh, just out of pure enthusiasm and love, and lack of fear. They were a punk band who loved hip-hop. Same with McLaren, and [their producer] Rick Rubin.
“From punk into hip-hop: they found a formula. They cracked a code. Particularly with Hold It Now, Hit It. They loved Run-DMC and they did something that was on Run-DMC’s level. Which no one thought they’d be capable of as a punk band.
“I was 15, 16 when this came out. Mindblowing. Got the UK Def Jam pressing. Didn’t get an import [still looks crestfallen].”
Charly by The Prodigy (1991)
Sampled from a 1970s public safety information “stranger danger” film featuring an annoying cat. Nonetheless, classic.
“The thing with Liam Howlett was he was a great producer. So much of it with these rave records was about the drums. We were all frustrated hip-hop producers; we wanted to make those records that had those incredibly exciting drums that were usually sampled from funk records. What Marley Marl made, what The Bomb Squad made – we wanted to do that.
“But Liam’s drums were the best of everyone on the rave scene at the time. Because they were simultaneously really stupid and really clever. But he was also an actual musician. And he was also authentically punk in his outlook. He had it all, that rare package, every possible strength.
“So it was that very irritating for him that Charly was seen as a novelty tune. The same way it was for us with The Bouncer. But Liam didn’t let that knock him off course. And he’s made a lifetime career out of the noises he wants to make. That’s inspiring.”
The Bouncer by Kicks Like A Mule (1992)
“Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” – Russell, briefly, accidentally, is a charting pop star.
“It was made to DJ with. ‘Can I fit this into my DJ set in between Soundclash (Champion Sound) by Kick Squad and Hardcore Heaven by DJ Seduction?’ That’s all that mattered.
“That [approach] led to a lot of simplicity and a lot of minimalism. That is the through-line of that type of great club music: there’s got to be space in it. You’ve got to be able to hear that bottom end. There can’t be any clutter.
“A lot of tunes from that time never went further than the underground. Yet some, like The Bouncer, became these totally weird crossover pop hits. Then you’re on Top of the Pops!
“It was simultaneously completely DIY, sonically innovative, rough-round-the-edges – but also commercial. It was a very odd, dichotomous moment.”
Jump Around by House of Pain (1992)
Playing in a virtual Irish bar/keg party/illegal retro rave somewhere right now.
“Now that sound is obviously DJ Muggs. He’s one of the all-time greats – Soul Assassins Crew, Cypress Hill, Funkdoobiest, those are great records. And before that he was in a hip-hop group called The 7A3 who I really liked.
“His music was playful and funny, and dark and menacing, all at the same time. Which is as bit like the hardcore breakbeat thing, a similar formula. If anyone reading hasn’t listened to Cypress Hill – check out How I Could Just Kill A Man. Cypress Hill don’t get that much credit historically, but they were just incredible.
“So that’s the genius of Muggs. And Jump Around was the ultimate distillation of the formula, into this perfect club-friendly, three-and-a-half minutes. You’d put that record on and it was like a riot. Bottles would start flying. Just one of those songs that had that seismic effect.”
Firestarter by The Prodigy (1996)
Released on the day Russell turns 25. The world turns, too, as the track knocks Take That off the top of the British charts. Prodigy-mania also takes off in America.
“I was just trying to keep the vehicle on the road, white knuckles gripping on to the steering wheel. Things were moving very, very, very fast.
“In one sense, I was very focused: I really saw the potential of The Prodigy and wanted to help them realise it. We were a great team. And it was a lot of fun. We were in the middle of something that was a change in culture. Rave was that, wasn’t it? There was time pre-rave, and a time post-rave. And Keith Flint was the embodiment of it all. That’s why his passing last year hit so many people so hard – he exemplified a certain type of freedom.
“But one of the great steps forward is that people now recognise they have to balance their life a bit. As Bob Dylan says: ‘Art is unimportant next to life.’ You have to take that onboard, or you pay the price.
“But back then, we didn’t know about stuff like that. ‘We’re doing this, we’re on a mission, everyone’s mental, no one’s sleeping, no one’s eating.’
“And for me there was a big hangover on the back of that. Not saying I’d change it…”
Once Around The Block by Badly Drawn Boy (2000)
The cat-in-the-hat aka the Chorlton Springsteen aka Damon Gough: a crucial lane-change for XL.
“[Producer] Andy Votel was the glue to our world, in a way. He’s a serious crate-digger, beat-head, DJ. And they had the whole [Manchester indie label] Twisted Nerve thing, they had a scene. So it didn’t feel alien, even though it was a musical leap [for XL].
“But we had to make those leaps. You have to change the sound. It’s hard to make those transitions, but it’s essential for survival. So I’m very grateful to Damon Gough, and his manager Jazz Summers, rest in peace, who was a handful. But an incredible character.
“That was a bit of a mission. We really wanted Damon to be successful, because I thought: XL is somewhere different after this. The spirit of what we were doing in the first place is intact, but the sound is different. And I wanted us to be able to do anything. I wanted us to be like those big independent labels in the Eighties – Virgin, A&M, Island – before they sold out. When they just had all this exciting music.
“So Badly Drawn Boy was seismic for us.”
Has It Come To This? by The Streets (2001)
The one that got away: the artist who was whisked away from under XL’s nose, as painfully recounted in Liberation Through Hearing.
“Mike [Skinner] is fucking great, isn’t he? I mean, he was instrumental in Giggs coming to us. But Mike’s just got this cultural awareness. He’s just tuned in, which enabled him to make garage records in a highly unlikely way. And he did it completely naturally.”
Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes (2003)
The riff that will not die, in a song with no chorus, recorded in the crucially retro Toe Rag Studios in Hackney, east London.
“Different people connected to different things about The White Stripes. It’s like Prince, isn’t it? There are so many different aspects that could be the thing that excites you. But the minimalism was the thing that got me. It’s that Eighties hip-hop thing again.
“Jack and Meg had a specifically minimalist agenda, and these incredibly strict parameters, and all these rules they made for themselves. That can be an incredibly powerful thing, creatively. Because people can be easily paralysed by choice.
“And Jack is a polymath, and multi-talented, and has that Prince-like spread of talents: he’s a singer, he’s a virtuoso guitarist, he’s a writer, he’s a producer, he can play other instruments really well – and he can actually make a guitar. That’s a very unusual thing. And suddenly the power that popped out of that!
“And of course with the Elephant album, things got slightly less minimal. But because they had those parameters, they were able to harness a massive amount of power. The fact that Meg played in a minimal way, and providing a complete contrast to Jack in terms of personality type, meant they were catching lightning.
“But Seven Nation Army: it didn’t strike me as a massive hit when I first heard it. I’m fine with saying that.”
I Luv U by Dizzee Rascal (2003)
Grime lands, Dizzee takes the Mercury Music Prize and the sound echoes all the way to NOW, and beyond.
“I was obviously a UK hip-hop optimist. But even the most optimistic UK hip-hop fan, at certain points in the Nineties, you did have to wonder: will this ever happen?
“Meanwhile, jungle is born out of hardcore. Garage is kinda born out of jungle. And so there’s this whole other narrative going on very much linked to what we were doing in the first place [with rave]. The MCs are totally present – live, not so much on the records – in the hardcore, jungle and garage scenes.
“At this point, we’re in that just pre-grime moment, with So Solid Crew, Heartless Crew, Pay As U Go – and the MC is there. And, really, grime is a refinement of that: bit more abrasive, and more lyrical.
“And there you go. That’s it. That’s the twist in the formula that makes it so incredible. And such a relief, in a way: OK, here is hip-hop from this country, how it’s meant to sound. It’s grime, and it’s completely now and completely out of the shadow of American hip-hop.
“And that was the start of where we are now, where the audience in this country is just as happy, if not happier, to hear British rappers than American rappers.
“You couldn’t possibly have articulated all that at that moment. But the excitement we felt was about all that – about all of that being embodied by Wiley and Dizzee, both of whom were working with.
“All those white labels – from Jon E Cash’s Hoods Up, Pulse X [by Youngstar] – are amazing. But then with I Luv You, Dizzee – who’d heard Wiley being lyrical, and moving beyond the live garage tropes – really cracked the code. Because it was lyrical, and it was really saying something.
“So I was completely on a mission with them. It was like The Prodigy in that regard: people need to hear this. It needs to have the impact it deserves. It’s exciting to be able to do that. To be able to help.
“And Dizzee kicked a lot of doors in. And they stayed open. And people steamed in. I hope people are grateful to him for that.”
Harrowdown Hill by Thom Yorke (2006)
Radiohead vs the record biz: they leave EMI, Yorke releases his first solo album with XL, and the next year the band release In Rainbows, initially via their industry-rating pay-what-you-want model, then via XL.
“You look at the natural gifts of someone like Thom Yorke, this unbelievable vocalist, writer, player and producer, too. A sonics person. And one of the most powerful things about him is his taste. He is interested in interesting shit, that is far-reaching, and broad, and he’s turned on by it: jazz, electronic music, soundtracks…
“How does an artist get to evolve in a way that he’s done? It’s a lot to do with listening. Thom’s always had a way of finding inspiration from other things, [whereas] a lot of artists run out of that. But Thom has a great musical and cultural curiosity.
“And also, when you’re that good, and that smart, you have brilliant people around. [Producer] Nigel Godrich is one of them. Obviously the band is an amazing thing in and of itself, and continues to be. And Radiohead have also got the same management they’ve always had.
“So they just know what’s going on and [at the time] saw what we were doing. That was partly to do with the music we were releasing, which was broad and not just traditional indie music, And also to do with our independence. They thought that maybe we could help them, and do something specific they needed doing.
“That’s what The Eraser and then In Rainbows were – them saying: ‘OK, we’ve done the EMI thing, now let’s try something else.’ And In Rainbows is just music that transcends.
“But The Eraser, what an unbelievable record. Harrowdown Hill [about the suicide of government weapons inspector David Kelly, who told a journalist that the British government had falsely identified weapons of mass destruction in Iraq] is one of the all-time great protest songs.
“So all-round that was a total privilege to be involved with them.”
Paper Planes by M.I.A. (2007)
The genius of Maya Arulpragasam + Diplo + sample from The Clash = a global smash.
“Being around people like Maya, if you’re open to it, you can reprogram your thinking. Because she would see things just differently to anyone else I was working with, which was enormously impressive. She had a completely different take on things. A lot of it was about the internet, and she saw it.
“She saw where things were going, and she was making tunes with MP3 in mind as the format before anyone else I knew was doing it. And the format has an effect. When those records were made [pans laptop round room to reveal ceiling-high shelves of 12-inch vinyl], the people making those records were thinking about vinyl. That’s why they sound like they do, and they’re the length they are – they’re thinking about 33-and-a-third rpm.”
“And then when we were making rave tunes, we were thinking about 12-inch singles and 45 rpm. By the time of [The Prodigy’s] The Fat of the Land, Liam’s thinking about the CD, which is why it sounds like that. It might not be conscious, but it’s floating around somewhere and affects things. As an artist you have to have that sensitivity.
“So because Maya was making records for MP3, that’s how you get Paper Planes. And Diplo and her, what a great, great combination that was. I mean, it wasn’t sustainable – too combustible, like some of the best formulas are. She had great tunes before that, like Galang and Pull Up The People, but he helped give her a hit.
“Paper Planes went into the US mainstream, and in doing so enabled her to really impact on culture. And she’s been one of the most influential artists of the last couple of decades. There’s a lot of post-MIA stuff out there.”
Chasing Pavements by Adele (2008)
Nineteen-year-old Adele Adkins has lift-off.
“One of her great strengths is that Adele tunes are Adele tunes. She’s worked with a lot of very strong, great writer/producer/musicians. This doesn’t take anything away from what they’ve done, but they’re just Adele tunes, aren’t they? And I don’t think anyone’s really thinking about the sonic or writerly imprint of the people she’s working with. She can collaborate brilliantly, and they just come out like Adele tunes.
“I first saw her play live at [west London venue] Cherry Jam [in 2005] when she was 17. She was the same as she is now. That incredibly powerful spirit that you have to have… That level of artistic power. It’s about you, about who you are, your character, your spirit. That is deep in a person.
“So the things that people look at when they look at people, and the judgements they make, and the box they get put in, are irrelevant. That always was common sense to me. Your age, your gender, where you’re from – it’s obviously irrelevant.
“Those things don’t dictate who you are. It’s [about] your spirit. And with people who are great, that’s just apparent.
“That was Adele: always self-possessed. Incredibly strong. And just being her, in a way that just reverberated. You didn’t have to be really clever to see that. She was just her, here. There was a pure Adele-ness.
“How is her new material sounding? Well, you have to think about it like you think about Christmas when you were a kid: you didn’t know what you were getting. And that was good for you.
“Are we getting it this year? Well, you have to think about it like you think about Christmas…”
Crystalised by The xx (2009)
South London schoolmates bring XL a revolution in sound, another one.
“I can’t remember my first meeting with them, but the most striking memory of the very, very early phase of it is the first time I saw them live, and seeing Jamie [xx/Smith] play the MPC [Midi Production Centre sampler] live. I thought: that’s fucking great and makes total sense. He was definitely the only person doing that outside hip-hop. It was J Dilla-influenced MPC beat-making, live, instead of a drummer.
“And they as people were – are – quietly brilliant. They’re the least in-your-face bunch of musicians you’re ever gonna meet. But they got so much attention because they were so good. It was such a wonderful combination of people and energies.
“And what Caius [Pawson] was doing with the [XL imprint] label Young Turks, that was a Prodigy and XL situation: two things emerging at the same time, with an incredibly strong bond. The xx and Young Turks were helping each other get out into the world. That kind of relationship is a wonderful thing.”
On Coming From A Broken Home (Part 1) by Gil Scott-Heron (2010)
Russell steps from behind the boss’s desk to produce I’m New Here, which will become the troubled legend’s final studio album. Russell’s Malcolm McLaren moment? Possibly.
“There are loads of funny stories of working with Gil because he was legendarily witty. He was virtually a stand-up – and he would do stand-up, during his gigs, pretty much.
“He turned up at the studio once. I think he was six hours behind schedule for the start of a session. And he walks in the door and says: ‘It’s the late Gil Scott-Heron!’”
Sandwitches by Tyler, The Creator (2011)
Future Face cover star picks XL as release partners for his debut solo album, Goblin.
“I attended that first TV appearance, on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in New York – he went on there with Hodgy Beats – and I really felt like he was invading people’s living rooms: he is invading Middle America’s living room right now. It was incredible. I could just feel it in that moment.
“You talk about someone with this unbelievable sense of themselves – well, Tyler is a revolution. He’s just turned shit upside down. And that was his moment to grab. It’s one of the all-time great musical TV appearances. People hadn’t seen anything like it.
“There was a shock element to that performance, but also this tremendous depth and subtlety, which he’s revealed a bit at a time – to become, in some ways, the most influential musician now.”
Everyday Robots by Damon Albarn (2014)
After everything else, Albarn finally gets round to a solo album – and ropes in Russell as co-producer.
“A Damon Albarn story… where do you begin? OK, we’re in a Parisian boîte. This is when we’re playing with Bobby Womack, we’re doing L’Album de la Semaine on French TV. I’m talking to him in this club, it’s quite late and it’s quite quiet, and Damon suddenly just dematerialises. He’s gone. Where is he?
“I look round and he’s on the dancefloor, which is empty. I wander over to see what he’s doing. And they were playing The The, This Is The Day, which is quite an unusual song to hear in a club.
“But this is one of Damon’s favourite songs of all time. And when he hears it, he sprints to the dancefloor, and starts dancing – on an empty dancefloor. He was completely free, untethered.
“And the female DJ sees this. I watch her do a double-take – “that’s Damon Albarn”. So she abandons her post – which is not on for a DJ – and joins him on the dancefloor, and starts having the time of her life.”
Close But Not Quite by Everything Is Recorded (2017)
Built round a sample from Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 track The Making of You, the opening full track on EIR’s sensational debut.
“Curtis Mayfield is at the heart of it. But the thing that brought that sample to mind in the first place was hearing the initial demo of (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano by Sampha. I’m a mega-fan, and that song is so beautiful. The lyrics are sort of imperfect, which is what makes them beautiful.
“And I was listening to it, and those Curtis lyrics came to mind: ‘Of these words I’ve tried to recite, they are close but not quite.’
“I went back to the studio and tried sampling it, and played that over [Sampha’s] beat. And there it was.
“I’d never worked with him at that point, so I asked him to come in so I could play it to him. Which I did, and then he started playing the piano over it, which we recorded. Then he started freestyling words over it, which we recorded. He did that for 10 or 15 minutes. Then we tried to edit it, and I could tell he wasn’t that engaged with the editing.
“So I said: ‘Do you want me to do this?’ ‘Yeah.’
“So I did, and that whole song was there, in this stream-of-consciousness, impromptu performance he did there and then in the studio. I’d expected him to listen to it and take it away to work on it. But he made that record on the spot.”
12:12 AM/Patients (Fucking Up A Friday) by Everything Is Recorded (2020)
Face fave Aitch, the Liam Gallagher of British hip-hop, joins the EIR party, courtesy of Russell’s 17-year-old son.
“He was my son Sonny’s call, way before Aitch-mania, when he did the Kenny Allstar Freestyle on 1Xtra in summer 2018. He’s wearing shorts. Yeah, mad. It’s amazing.
“So I called someone who knew him and asked if he thought he’d be up for coming down from Manchester to London to record. And this was pretty much the start of what became this new Friday Forever album.
“He’s got the megawatt star power, the charisma, just pouring off him. I thought that as soon as I met him. It’s interesting you make the Liam Gallagher comparison – because a star is a star, right?
“Overall, Friday Forever is not exactly a rave record, but it’s about rave. It’s like how The Streets’ Original Pirate Material was close to being a garage record, but it’s more like it was about garage.
“Music gets used as quickfire communication now – you can make music easily, and get it out there easily. I rate that, I value that. But that does threaten the album. So, while I know that ‘concept album’ became a bit of a dirty word, I think that, if people can pull off a concept album? That’s pretty welcome at the moment.”
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PENNY RIMBAUD (on the track 11.59AM/Circles)
How did Richard Russell first reach out?
I’m on [the label] One Little Indian and Richard of XL and [OLI managing director] Derek [Birkett] know each other. Richard got in touch with Derek and Derek got in touch with me. I was interested – I’m always interested in collaborations. I didn’t know a lot about Richard when he got in touch. I thought it was just someone wanting to collaborate. I didn’t realise the significance of Richard, but I soon became very aware of that the moment I met him and started working.
The first thing that really impressed me was that, as well as knowing my background in the punk world, he also knew my poetry. My poetry is not easy to get. It is published, but it is on very small, obscure print-runs. Having lived the sort of life I have, there’s a lot of sycophants and people trying to pick up on all the wrong reasons. If someone is actually engaged with something deeper than the superficial self, I’m always really interested in some sort of collaboration.
What was the process of working with him like?
He’s a very, very fast worker, which is impressive. He’s got a great engineer who is really fast on the ball. They’re both hearing what you’re thinking, and that’s when I know when I’m with a good producer and engineer. You don’t have to be saying, “well, I want it…” because they already know how you want it.
Another thing that we shared was our spiritual practice. Those are the things that create an extraordinary creative universe, when he’s able to speak of things that other people would go: “What, are you mad? Where on earth are you coming from?”. The material world cuts people off from being able to talk about deeper resonances.
That was obvious to me almost immediately even though it was quite a while before I started to pick up on certain phraseology he used and how he sees certain things. There was this deep connection, and once you know it’s there you don’t need to talk about it, you just get on with it. Music was almost secondary, that had to happen. What was important was the beingness of it.
BERWYN (on the tracks 09:46PM/Every Friday Thereafter, 10:51PM/The Night, 01:32AM/Walk Alone and 10:02AM/Burnt Toast)
How did Richard reach out?
I went up to meet XL and we ended up making that opening song and two others. That’s how it is with Richard: so natural. It’s nice to have someone like that just lets it be.
How would you describe the first song?
Out of my comfort zone. It’s definitely not what my music sounds like. But that’s what collaboration is about.
And how would you describe your sound?
Where did you record?
At Richard’s beautiful studio. It’s in west London and it’s basically a house – it looks just like the one in Twilight. Upstairs, where the studio is, he uses an actual prison door as the studio door. It’s like a freedom prison door, because you go in to be free. You go in and there’s all these arabic sketches on the wall and he’s always burning incense. He is the Dali Lama of west London, trust me. He is the OG Dali Lama.
What is it about him that enables him to pull together, and hold together, these multi-artist albums?
It has a lot to do with the people he’s crossed paths with in his life. It has a lot to do with his life experiences and the stories that we’ve spoken about. He’s lived a lot of lives.
I did not expect to see this easy guy. He just wears baggy tee-shirts, cool trainers, but just normal ones. So easygoing.
INFINITE COLES (on the tracks 12.12AM/Patients (Fucking Up A Friday), 01.32AM/Walk Alone, 03.15AM/Caviar, 05.10AM/Dream I Never Had and 11.55AM/This World
How did Richard reach out to you?
I’ve known Richard since 2015. I did this film called GANG and the producer is one of the producers for XL. He wanted to do a soundtrack to a short film so I went to the studio with him. We were just messing around but he showed Richard some stuff and he was like: “Oh, can I meet him?” So he flew out here to New York and we met at The Mercer Hotel and it was history from there. We did our first project on the first Everything is Recorded album, and then last year he hit me up saying he wanted to do a round two of it.
What’s it like working with him?
I love working with Richard. When I first met Richard I was very closed in and didn’t really see a lot in myself. It took someone like him with his status – like, he’s a fucking icon, so when I see that he saw something in me, it sparked something. Not that I’m 100 per cent here and confident at all times. But when I think about that, I’m really grateful for him and the whole opportunity. He allowed me to express myself how I want, dress the way I fucking want to dress myself – turning up to the studio in my crop tops and shit.
A.K. Paul (on the tracks 05:10AM/Dream I Never Had and 10:02AM/Burnt Toast)
When did you first meet Richard?
Back in September [last year], at his studio. As I walked in he was recording a synth part. So our first interaction was a silent, knowing stare as he concentrated on his playing, ha ha!
How did he reach out about working on Friday Forever?
Just your standard mysterious email via the label.
What’s the process of working with Richard like?
Fast! It’s the opposite of the way I usually work. Richard is sensitive to details, but at the same time very pragmatic. He keeps it simple in the studio. He had the lyrics mostly written already, and used the second or third take of my vocals. I would usually record a scratch vocal, go home, come back next day and write the lyrics, go home, come back and record a load of takes, add like 20 tracks of doubling and harmonies… You get the idea. His way of working was refreshing for me. If you spend longer on music, a pressure builds to take every idea to its fullest possible potential.
What is it about Richard that enables him to bring together and hold these multi-artist albums?
He’s not precious about it. I think the journey he’s taken in his career via running a label probably has a lot to do with that.
Liberation Through Hearing (White Rabbit) by Richard Russell is published on Thursday. Friday Forever (XL) by Everything Is Recorded is released on Friday