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Adele, Keith Flint, Gil Scott-Heron and me: Richard Russell, the XL records Midas | Music


From the outside, Richard Russell’s studio looks like any other house in Notting Hill. But inside, there’s a plethora of vintage synthesisers and something that looks like a work of science fiction: a large black pyramid covered in multicoloured switches. It’s a synthesiser too, explains Russell, or sort of. “The illustrator Pete Fowler drew it for a video the Horrors were doing,” he says. “I thought: ‘I have to get somebody to make that.’”

Getting someone to build a giant synthesiser based on a cartoon is the kind of thing you can do if you’re the man behind one of the most successful independent record labels in the world. XL Recordings has proven such a creative force over the past three decades that Russell, now 49, has written an autobiography, Liberation Through Hearing, that details how it happened.





‘From the first time I met her, she had a unique kind of self-possession’ ... Richard Russell on Adele.



‘From the first time I met her, she had a unique kind of self-possession’ … Richard Russell on Adele. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

Until recently, XL had on its roster the biggest artist of the 21st century, Adele, although her success, Russell insists, is down to the label leaving her alone to do what she wanted: “Does anyone achieve that kind of thing because of anybody else? You can give them support, but if someone’s going to achieve stuff on that level, it’s their destiny. From the first time I met her, she had a unique kind of self-possession, like she knew where she was going with it.”

On the walls, there are photos of artists Russell has worked with who have died: Gil Scott-Heron glowers; the Prodigy’s Keith Flint offers a sweet, shy smile, a million miles from his Firestarter public image. That’s what he was like, says Russell. “Incredibly funny, full of life. I was aware he had a troubled side.”

Flint’s childhood was unhappy: he had depression and was addicted to painkillers. “But I don’t think anyone doesn’t have that side. It’s more a question of: ‘What are you doing about it?’ But Keith was doing 10k runs, he had horses.” He sighs. “When someone kills themselves, can’t help but feel – what if he’d waited 20 minutes? Or something else had happened?”





Keith Flint of the Prodigy at Brixton Academy, south London, in 1996.



‘What if he’d waited 20 minutes?’ Keith Flint of the Prodigy at Brixton Academy, south London, in 1996. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Getty Images

After Flint’s death, Russell saw a documentary about the soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, who was left feeling suicidal after being paralysed in a car crash. His therapist staged a mock funeral, allowing Pendergrass to hear his friends and family’s eulogies. Realising how much he meant to them, Pendergrass decided to live. “I thought: ‘Fucking hell, I could imagine that working.’ If Keith could have witnessed what people said after his death, how they expressed themselves at his funeral, I think that would have had a huge impact on him.”

Sometimes Russell sounds a lot less like a record industry mogul than an archetypical middle-age music geek, enthusing about old school hip-hop, still able to remember the names and locations of raves he went to 30 years ago. “Look,” he says happily, showing me the sleeve of the second album he’s made under the name Everything Is Recorded, “Penny Rimbaud from Crass and Ghostface Killah, two heroes of mine in every sense of the word, on the same album.

Better still, he says, it samples an old track mixed by disco legend Larry Levan, Man Friday’s Love Honey, Love Heartache, that was released by Vinylmania, a label based in a New York record store where Russell worked as a teenager, abandoning his middle-class Jewish upbringing in 1980s Edgware, London.

Moving to New York seems a very confident move. “Certainly slightly reckless,” he nods. “I didn’t know anyone there. I stayed in a flophouse uptown – the shared bathroom stank. But I went there because I loved hip-hop. I thought, ‘I have to be part of that.’”

Back in Britain, he was swept along by the hardcore rave scene: effectively acid house’s snottier, spottier, breakbeat-driven kid brother. “It had a touch of the pub about it. It sounded suburban, like it came from Essex, which a lot of hardcore labels like Suburban Base did. It was very entrepreneurial, everyone was a DJ, producer, doing a label.”

Russell went from DJing and working for XL, then a nascent hardcore label, to making music with XL’s co-founder Nick Halkes. They had no musical skill and two ideas: a beat from a Marley Marl hip-hop track that Russell thought would work speeded up, and a cassette recording of a friend pretending to be a bouncer, knocking people back who claimed to be on the guest list.

The Bouncer, released under the name Kicks Like a Mule, went to No 7 and Russell ended up on Top of the Pops, but his career was short-lived: the track got lumped in with a glut of novelty rave hits that sampled the themes from kids’ TV shows, or Blockbusters contestants saying “I’ll have an E please, Bob” – and that was pretty much that.

Watch the video for Kicks Like a Mule: The Bouncer, featuring Richard Russell.

But ironically, the band that inadvertently kickstarted the novelty rave trend by sampling an old public information film would turn out to be the most important discovery of Russell’s life. He says he knew from the start that the Prodigy were going to be huge. Something about them made him think of the Specials: the multi-racial line up, the way they connected with kids – and then there was the band’s co-founder and leader Liam Howlett.

“He was just a better producer than anyone else. His drums were better, bigger, harder. The dancers weren’t just add-ons, they manifested the music. Keith was untethered, so if you saw him onstage at a rave, you were seeing yourself, but a completely free version of it, no self-consciousness. He could completely give himself to the audience.”

Initially reviled by the press, the Prodigy became the biggest dance act of the 1990s. The Fat of the Land, released in 1997, went to No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, an unprecedented feat. By then, Russell was running XL, but he says its success almost did for him and the label alike: “It’s the usual story, late 20s male, very driven, you get the thing you really want and then what have you got? I lost a bit of the plot. I was over-gassed by the success. I was a bit of a dick in that period.”





Sign of success ... XL act the White Stripes.



Sign of success … XL act the White Stripes. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/Reuters

He thinks he had a breakdown, leaving the label in the hands of old friend Nick Worthington, who signed the Streets and Basement Jaxx “while I was sort of picking myself back off the kitchen floor”. But when he returned, Russell displayed precisely the kind of intuitive big thinking that led him to realise the Prodigy would be huge. He signed Dizzee Rascal after hearing his single I Luv U, then told him to hurry up making his debut album because he wanted to enter it for the Mercury prize. Russell thought it might win, an impressive leap of faith given the futuristic racket the rapper was concocting.

“I’ve never been good at guessing what’s really going to sell,” says Russell, “but what I can sometimes see is a stop on the map. I wanted people to recognise how great Dizzee was. I wanted him to create an opening, which he did, and look at how many people have piled in.”

He also parlayed XL’s increasing success – they signed the White Stripes, MIA and Radiohead, after the latter departed EMI – into pet projects of his own. He decided to track down Gil Scott-Heron, undeterred by the fact that their first meeting took place in Rikers Island prison in New York, where the singer-songwriter was serving a sentence for cocaine possession.

“It’s hard to talk about without sounding outrageously woo-woo,” says Russell. “But when I laid eyes on him, the first thing he said was, ‘There you are.’ He had this incredible empathy for people, this unbelievable emotional intuition, intelligence on a completely different level. Whoever he was talking to, if there was any bullshit, he would be straight on to them.

“People had told me horror stories, but I just thought, ‘If he doesn’t want to do it, he won’t do it – and if he does, it’ll be something special.’ And I made myself quite vulnerable by saying: ‘We’re doing this together.’ He once said: ‘All the dreams you show up in are not your own’ – he knew it was my dream, not his, he would have been equally happy not doing it, but he did.”





Gil Scott-Heron.



‘He knew it was my dream, not his’ … Russell on Gil Scott-Heron. Photograph: GAB Archive/Redferns

The resulting album, I’m New Here, was critically acclaimed and would be Scott-Heron’s last. Russell went on to pull off a similar feat with Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe. “Never in my 50 years have I had the president of a record company come in and play with me,” Womack told me shortly before his death. “Normally, you got to fight them for every goddam song.” Russell then produced Damon Albarn’s solo album Everyday Robots and embarked on his own Everything Is Recorded project.

Some time ago, he says, he implemented a rule that XL can only release five albums a year. “It’s total resistance to the idea that business has to be discussed in world growth, all that shit. XL puts out a small number of records every year and hopefully they’re good – and even better than that, maybe they push things forward and they can bend the edges of the culture a bit. If they can do that, it’s great. That’s what it’s there to do.”

And then the music geek reappears and he starts enthusing about a Tottenham grime MC called CASisDEAD, who always performs in a mask, so no one knows his identity. Oh and there’s a book he’s just seen, about 70s Italian prog rock.

Liberation Through Hearing: Rap, Rave and the Rise of XL Recordings by Richard Russell is published on 2 April by White Rabbit (£20).

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